Barber: Steve Kerr's move at center will help define his Warriors legacy

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NBA FINALS

Game 1: Toronto 118, Warriors 109

Sunday: Warriors at Toronto, 5 p.m.

Wednesday: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

Friday: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

x-Monday, June 10: Warriors at Toronto, 6 p.m.

x-Thursday, June 13: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

x-Sunday, June 16: Warriors at Toronto, 5 p.m.

x-if necessary

TORONTO — People like to say that an NBA playoff series doesn’t begin until the home team loses.

I don’t know. It sure feels like the NBA Finals are off and running. The home team won Game 1, but that qualifies as news when the road team is the Golden State Warriors, the recurring league champions and, this year, possessors of five recent All-Stars.

And so we come to the best part of the season, the best part of this dynastic run — the best thing in basketball, really. We come to the moment when the Warriors are challenged by a playoff opponent.

You can count on one hand the times the Warriors have felt truly threatened in the postseason. It happened against the Grizzlies (I know, that seems fictitious) and the Cavaliers in 2015, Cleveland again in 2016 and the Rockets in both 2018 and 2019. And now the Raptors. I guess we have moved to a second hand.

I don’t root for the Warriors to lose, just as I don’t root for them to win, but I love to see them pushed. It makes the games more compelling, and that’s not all. A real test — and believe me, this is a real test — forces this celebrated team to respond and adapt, to demonstrate the depth of its resolve, in a way that hasn’t happened frequently enough since Steve Kerr took the coaching job.

Not to minimize the thousands of in-game adjustments that define any basketball contest, but let’s be honest. The Warriors can usually stick to a dog-eared script and produce a win. Series like this one force them into creative rewrites.

In all but one previous instance, the 2016 NBA Finals, Kerr and his staff have found a way to right the ship. Can they do it in 2019? Here’s a more specific question, one of many that Sunday’s Game 2 will help to answer: Can Kerr find a way to make the center position work to his advantage against Toronto?

It wasn’t an advantage in Game 1. The Raptors rotated two centers, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, as they normally do. The Warriors played three: Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and DeMarcus Cousins. And over the course of the game, the Toronto post players held the edge over Golden State’s in points (25-14), rebounds (10-6) and blocked shots (2-0). The Warriors guys held a slim lead in assists (4-2).

The Raptors forwards, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, are an absolute handful. If the Warriors are getting beat at the center position, too, it puts massive pressure on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to make up the difference.

So how will Kerr and his assistants adjust? They do have some options. Maybe too many. The Warriors’ strength at center is also their weakness: There is no clear pecking order here.

“I think it’s an advantage, because you can kind of throw some different things at them,” said forward Draymond Green, who might be spending time at the 5 position himself against a different, smaller opponent. “So one minute’s it’s a center out there flying around the court with speed, and another minute it’s a center out there who’s bigger and uses their size more. I think that is an advantage for us.”

NBA FINALS

Game 1: Toronto 118, Warriors 109

Sunday: Warriors at Toronto, 5 p.m.

Wednesday: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

Friday: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

x-Monday, June 10: Warriors at Toronto, 6 p.m.

x-Thursday, June 13: Toronto at Warriors, 6 p.m.

x-Sunday, June 16: Warriors at Toronto, 5 p.m.

x-if necessary

Or it can be advantage, if Kerr figures out the proper recipe.

Some observers are convinced Cousins will see more action in Game 2. He was inactive for more than six weeks after straining his quadriceps in the second game of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Clippers. He played 8 minutes in his return Thursday, and it makes sense that Kerr would slowly ramp up Cousins’ minutes.

“Obviously, I’m rusty coming fresh off of an injury, but I got a taste of the speed, which is good for me,” Cousins said Saturday.

But is more Cousins the right move? He looked pretty solid once he settled into his place on the low block in Game 1. But he was moving up and down the court in slow motion, making him a liability against these hard-charging Raptors. A Cousins takeover could dramatically change this series. It’s also a risky move.

How about Andrew Bogut? Like Cousins, he’s a big, beefy guy who can block shots but isn’t known for his agility. Unlike Cousins, Bogut has no outside shot. And unlike Cousins, he didn’t play a minute in Game 1. Bogut’s playing time has, in fact, been pretty unpredictable since the playoffs began.

“The Clippers series, they were going small a lot with (Ivica) Zubac out of the lineup, I thought, ‘I’m not gonna play at all in that series,’” he said. “And then DeMarcus throws his quad out and I end up averaging 20-plus minutes. And then we play Houston, which is the complete opposite. They go small ball and there wasn’t a whole lot of minutes there.”

The Raptors aren’t exactly going small. Gasol is 7-foot-1, 255 pounds. But he can shoot from outside, making it a rough matchup for the immobile Bogut. Still, with Curry and Thompson fairly quiet from 3-point range, perhaps it would make sense to employ a center with Bogut’s screening and passing skills.

The constant, as Kerr mentioned Saturday, is Looney. The coach recently referred to his fourth-year center/forward as one of the Warriors’ “foundational” players. Looney did not start Game 1, but he played 28 minutes, which is right in line with his building action during this postseason. He wasn’t at his best Thursday, by any means, but the Warriors will need 25 to 30 minutes from Looney in Game 2.

And then there’s Jordan Bell, who started the final game of the Western Conference finals against Houston and the first game against the Raptors after making just three starts during the regular season. Bell is exactly what the Warriors need in this series. He’s fast enough to keep up with Ibaka and Siakam in the open court, but has at least a chance of bodying up against Gasol down low.

“I thought Jordan did a good job,” Kerr said. “One of the reasons we started him was because of his speed, knowing we were coming in with a 10-day break playing on the road against a fast team. I liked his athleticism. He did some really nice things.”

Yet Bell played only 11 minutes. And if Cousins gets more involved, or if Bogut makes an appearance, it will likely further cut into Bell’s time. He just hasn’t earned Kerr’s full trust. He makes mental errors and occasionally looks lost in the half-court offense. Still, I think Bell should get more run. Live or die with the young athlete and rely on his veteran teammates to get him properly lined up.

But hey, I don’t get a vote. Really, just one person does. Kerr is a benevolent leader who invites input from players and assistants alike. But he will make the final call on who is playing center at any given time against Toronto. It’s a decision — a series of decisions, really — that will add or subtract a gold bar to or from his coaching legacy.

“What we’re always trying to do is mix and match and find matchups and fill in those gaps with the right combinations that can help us win,” Kerr said.

And this time, the stakes are enormous. It’s going to be fun to watch the paint on Sunday.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

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