Kawakami: It’s time for the Warriors to ride with Jordan Poole and the small super-lineup (or lose trying)

Kawakami: It’s time for the Warriors to ride with Jordan Poole and the small super-lineup (or lose trying)

There’s a reason everybody got quite interested when the Warriors put Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins together early in this postseason and started destroying every defender in sight.

These are the Warriors’ best five players — three pure shooters, one lively slasher and Draymond to guide and screen for all of them. If the Warriors can put them out there and keep them out there, what defense can slow them down for long?

But there’s also a reason the small lineup has become a non-issue deep into this physical second-round series against the Grizzlies. That fivesome can get overpowered by bigger lineups; it is challenged defensively, and if the jump shots aren’t falling, this can lead to a free fall. This is what has happened lately, so much so that the Warriors’ coaching staff completely stayed away from this small super-lineup during the Game 5 embarrassment against Memphis on Wednesday.

That completes the small unit from the epic failure in Game 5 other tells us the coaching staff isn’t liking it much against Memphis anymore — which is hard to argue. Once Memphis went to Steven Adams as the starting center and lost Ja Morant to injury, the Grizzlies became a thornier and sturdier defensive presence, and occasionally dominant on the boards.

The Warriors need to be far, far tougher than they were on Wednesday if they’re going to close out this series Friday at Chase Center or next Monday in Memphis for a perilous Game 7. Going as small as possible for Game 6 seems slightly illogical , I agree.

However … Curry, Poole, Klay, Wiggins and Draymond are still their best five players. And with Otto Porter Jr. now questionable for Friday with foot soreness, Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala out indefinitely, and Jonathan Kuminga struggling in his recent starts, these are by far the warriors’ best five players.

I understand how the Warriors have kind of gotten caught in-between on this: Steve Kerr and acting coach Mike Brown (while Kerr remains out after testing positive for COVID-19) understandably like playing Curry, Klay and Poole together for sheer offensive thermodynamics, but they have to be careful doing it. They’ve been using Porter as a bigger forward next to Draymond or using Kevon Looney instead of Draymond, just to add size.

The numbers explain why Kerr and Brown have been limiting the small lineup’s minutes late: It has a paltry 94.5 offensive rating in this series. Coupled with its 98.1 defensive rating in this series, that’s a minus-3.6 net rating. Switch Porter for either Wiggins or Poole, and the lineups have done much better.

While we’re on the subject, the recent starting lineup of Curry, Klay, Wiggins, Draymond and Kuminga has been terrible every time it has been deployed in this series, and I doubt the Warriors will be using it again any time soon. The group has a stunning minus-59.7 net rating in 18 minutes so far this series.

The natural response probably would be to put Porter in for Kuminga to start the game and try to avoid another 11-6 or 21-11 Memphis opening salvo. But how much more responsibility, wear and tear can the warriors continue to put on Porter, if he can even play Friday? If the Warriors play him 20-25 minutes a game through the postseason, will they have him much longer this postseason?

No, I think something a little more drastic is the best call here. The Warriors hit the wall in Game 5, and it is likely going to take more than the same ol’, same ol’ to get them running at full speed again.

And I believe that everything is pointing to the Warriors going as far in these playoffs as Curry, Draymond, Klay, Wiggins and Poole will take them. Maybe it won’t be much further. Maybe the turnover issues and defensive problems will be too much.

But I don’t think the warriors can do it by leaning heavily on anybody else, quite frankly. Maybe Moses Moody will get into the rotation Friday after looking solid in garbage time recently. Maybe Kuminga can give them some productive minutes. Maybe Porter will be good to go. Maybe Looney can battle Adams to a standstill. I just think those are sideshows to the main Warriors event this season, which has boiled down to Curry, Klay, Poole, Draymond and Wiggins. Their best five players at the crucial juncture.

Also, the small lineup might be able to achieve two essential things:

Get Draymond going offensively: With Adams at center for Memphis now, Draymond is not being defended when he’s out there, which screws up the pick-and-roll action and has forced him into tricky passes against five defenders covering four teammates.

The Warriors have come up against this in previous series — against Houston in the 2018 Western Conference finals and against Oklahoma City in the same round in 2016 come to mind. The solution has been to move Draymond around instead of leaving him at the top, staring at a full defense waiting for him to pass. Getting Draymond moving up and down the lane, tied to the Warriors’ best four scorers, might be a path to some easy baskets for him, which could be the whole key.

In past championship runs, Draymond has solved these kinds of defenses by hitting a few shots, getting fired up and putting ogether a full offensive game. Maybe that’s possible again. What he can’t do is turn down wide-open 10-foot shots.

“Draymond has to continue being aggressive,” Brown said on a Zoom call after the team flew back from Memphis on Thursday. “If Steven Adams is off of him, he’s gotta let it fly. He’s knocked down big shots for us before. And then, he’s gotta keep playing his dribble-handoff game.”

Get pooled some space to operate: The Morant injury has changed the series in many ways. Obviously, Memphis doesn’t have its most explosive player, one of the best offensive players in the league. Without Morant, the Grizzlies aren’t a better team, but they’re definitely a better defense.

For example: With Morant in and Dillon Brooks suspended for Game 3, the Warriors scored 142 points. With Morant out and Brooks in (and Adams in the starting lineup) the last two games, the Warriors have been held to 101 and 95 points, respectively — and have committed 38 combined turnovers in those two games.

There’s a direct correlation to one specific player: Poole has eight of those turnovers and has made only 5 of 18 shots in those two games. Instead of the Warriors seeking out a Morant matchup, they’re looking at a seamless five-man Grizzlies defensive unit, and the openings just aren’t there. The only way for the Warriors to loosen that up is to put all of their best offensive players on the floor at once and try to get the Grizzlies’ heads spinning a little.

If the warriors don’t have Poole going, it has been a struggle. Think of it this way:

Each team has a blowout (the Warriors won Game 3 by 30, the Grizzlies won Game 5 by 39).

Each team has a fortunate victory (Warriors in Game 4, Memphis in Game 2).

The difference so far is the Warriors’ grinding Game 1 victory despite Draymond’s first-half ejection.

And the best player in that game: Poole, who had 31 points, eight rebounds and nine assists and was a plus-10 in 38 wonderful minutes.

Now the Warriors have Game 6 at home and very much want to avoid a Game 7 trip to Memphis. They’re not the superpower they were a few years ago. Their foundational players aren’t as young and resilient as they used to be. They need to mix and match a little more.

Mostly, they need their best players performing their best, and the quickest way to do that is to play them all together as much as possible — and then accept whatever happens from there.

(Photo of Steph Curry: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

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