Barber: Can Warriors' backups flourish again in next round?

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NBA Western Conference finals

Warriors vs. Nuggets or Trail Blazers

Game 1: Tuesday, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 2: Thursday, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 3: May 18, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 4: May 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 5: May 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

Game 6: May 24, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

Game 7: May 26, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

* if necessary

“We talk about strength in numbers,” Steve Kerr said after the Warriors had vanquished the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of a Western Conference semifinal. “But the coach wasn’t doing much of that in the first five games.”

Indeed, Kerr had pared his rotations to the bare minimum. Versatile young big man Kevon Looney got serious playing time off the bench in Games 1-5 of the Rockets series, and old pro Shaun Livingston had averaged his by-now-customary 12.8 minutes. Rebounder Alfonzo McKinnie averaged 8.2. But forward Jonas Jerebko had played just 18 minutes total in five games, and center Andrew Bogut only eight. Power forward Jordan Bell and shooting guard Quinn Cook received only a matter of seconds.

And who could blame Kerr? Strength in Numbers was never the pillar of success the Warriors pretended it was, not even in the early days of this dynasty. True, guys like Livingston and, especially, Andre Iguodala were crucial to that first championship in 2015. But it was always the stars who drove the bus, and that was only magnified when Kevin Durant arrived.

Lately, the Warriors’ depth has begun to dry up. Iguodala and Livingston have aged. Recent draft picks Bell and Jacob Evans haven’t developed into reliable contributors. Guys like McKinnie, Jerebko, Bogut and Cook all have their strengths, and their flaws. And it was the latter that became more apparent against the Rockets.

As Kerr put it Friday: “Houston puts so much pressure on you in isolation that, frankly, we just decided to stick with our best defenders over the first five games.”

The time charts were telling. Iguodala had moved into the starting lineup, and Looney was still a necessary piece. But the rest of the bench players were stapled to their courtside chairs.

And when they did make it onto the court, it wasn’t going well for the reserves. In Games 1-5, Livingston, McKinnie, Jerebko, Bogut, Bell and Cook combined to produce a plus/minus of minus-43 points. The only one among them in the black was Cook, who subbed in four seconds before halftime of Game 4 in Houston, just in time to watch Iguodala hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. For the postseason, those six players were at minus-100.

With Durant out with a strained calf and the Warriors facing a determined opponent (and a hostile crowd) in Houston, the situation appeared dire in Game 6. Durant had averaged 42.4 minutes a game against the Rockets. How would those minutes be redistributed?

Cook described a “next-man-up mentality.” But how does that work when the last man up was Durant, who can do things on a basketball court no one else in the world can, and the next man has lost the coach’s confidence?

Anyway, it’s not all that easy to tear off your warmup suit and spring into action when you’ve been gathering dust for a week or two.

“You know, you hear the cliche of coaches around the league in professional sports, always saying, ‘Hey, stay ready.’ Twelfth, 13th man, ‘stay ready,’” Bogut observed. “And sometimes you roll your eyes, because you’re like, ‘Yeah, right, I’m not gonna get in.’ But this is a prime example. You just never know what can happen in playoff basketball, finals basketball. And the great teams have different guys step up in different moments.”

NBA Western Conference finals

Warriors vs. Nuggets or Trail Blazers

Game 1: Tuesday, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 2: Thursday, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 3: May 18, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 4: May 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)

Game 5: May 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

Game 6: May 24, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

Game 7: May 26, 6 p.m. (ESPN)*

* if necessary

As now chronicled in the annals, it worked out just fine for the Warriors’ subs in Game 6. Somehow.

In particular, Cook and Bell were pleasant surprises.

Bell has been a burr in Kerr’s saddle all season. The second-year player is an incredible athletic talent, but he tends to zone out and do boneheaded things on and off the court. The Warriors are losing patience with him. Bell logged 10 solid minutes against the Rockets on Friday, though. On one sequence late in the second quarter, he blocked a shot by James Harden at one end, then jammed off a lob from Draymond Green at the other, helping put the Warriors up 50-42.

Cook is a capable and confident scorer, but he has been a liability on defense. The Rockets seemed like a rough matchup for him. He fought to a draw, though, even against the crafty Chris Paul.

“I know what CP’s about to do, I been watching him my whole life,” Cook, who played 15 minutes, said afterward. “He like a big brother to me. I let him get to his right hand twice. But I just wanted to hold my own down there. Obviously I can score the ball, but I wanted to get Klay (Thompson) and Draymond the ball where they wanted it, and just space the floor.”

So there you have it. Strength in Numbers personified and revitalized during a rugged game in Houston. The question now: Can it continue to breathe in the next round?

I don’t believe the Warriors see either Portland or Denver — the teams that play Sunday night to solve the other side of the West bracket — as being as great a threat as the Rockets. The Warriors think they’ll get Durant back sometime during the West finals, and the New York Times reported Saturday morning that ailing center DeMarcus Cousins could make it back, too. Still, the Warriors are going to need some help from their non-starters.

The Nuggets have been playing a solid nine-man rotation in the playoffs. Backup guard Will Barton is a handful, and center Mason Plumlee could give Golden State problems underneath the basket. The Trail Blazers are even deeper. They have a 7-foot pest in Zach Collins, a clutch veteran in Rodney Hood, a big-time rebounder in Evan Turner and a true shooter in Seth Curry, Stephen’s brother.

It would be naive to assume the next round will present a repeat performance of Friday night’s game, with Livingston turning back the clock, and Bell and Cook making people wonder why Kerr hadn’t been playing them. But I wonder if the Houston finale unlocked a little something for the Warriors reserves — or at least renewed their teammates’ confidence.

This might not be the old Strength in Numbers crew (random shout-out to Leandro Barbosa), but it’s possible these guys can eat some minutes and keep games from getting out of hand until Steph Curry finds a consistent shooting touch, or until Durant is back in the starting lineup.

Really, that’s all Kerr needs from his bench these days.

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