Facing a talented young New Orleans Pelicans squad on the road, it stood to reason that the Warriors would try to win this game with outstanding offensive performances from its stars, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee.
But Thompson and Lee scored at close to their regular pace, and Curry's 16 points were below his season average. Instead, the Warriors prevailed on the strength of a fountain-of-youth night from Jermaine O'Neal and the solid, heady play of their bench.
The Warriors' reserves not only halted a dispiriting three-game losing streak but also served notice to the rest of the league that they still have to depth to stay competitive.
Intelligent, No-Frills Bench Play Turns the Tide
On November 19, head coach Mark Jackson laid into the Warriors bench following a pathetic performance in a victory against the Utah Jazz. Yet again, the reserves had squandered too much of a lead earned by the starting five, and Jackson let his bench know that it was unacceptable, according to Monte Poole of CSNBayArea.com:
I'm not into embarrassing any one of my guys, but if you continue to put forth embarrassing effort, you leave me no choice. Somebody's always watching. And you never know when you earn a job because of the performance you put forth with two minutes or three minutes or five minutes to go in the game. Disappointed in those guys. They own it, and we move forward.
And that was before the team lost two starters. Bogut was suspended for the game for his part in an on-court altercation during Saturday's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. As for Iguodala, nobody is quite sure when he'll come back from the knee injury he suffered Friday night.
Those aren't just two easily replaceable scrubs: Bogut and Iguodala are undoubtedly the two best defenders on the Warriors' roster.
Golden State still had plenty of firepower; what they needed from the bench was defense and mistake-free play.
And the Warriors got it, particularly from reserve Draymond Green, who menaced the Pelicans with three blocks and three steals. Golden State's bench didn't score much—the Pelican's reserves held a 33-13 edge in points—but they defended and took care of the ball. The four Warriors reserves combined for zero turnovers, while the New Orleans bench coughed up the ball nine times.
For a better look at the importance of bench play in the game, take a look at this chart of each player's plus/minus rating for the game. As you can see, the Pelicans would have won this game if not for Golden State's clear superiority on the bench.
|Golden State||+/-||New Orleans|
|Harrison Barnes||-7||Al-Farouq Aminu||+9|
|David Lee||-4||Anthony Davis||+6|
|Jermaine O'Neal||-4||Jason Smith||+5|
|Steph Curry||-2||Eric Gordon||+11|
|Klay Thompson||-2||Jrue Holiday||+7|
|Draymond Green||+12||Ryan Anderson||-8|
|Marreese Speights||+1||Lou Amundson||-5|
|Nemanja Nedovic||+8||Brain Roberts||-8|
|Kent Bazemore||+3||Tyreke Evans||-10|
Jermaine O'Neal: Still Alive and Kicking
Jermaine O'Neal is usually part of that bench, but Tuesday night he was forced into the starting lineup due to Bogut's suspension. He responded with 18 points (on 9-of-12 shooting) and eight rebounds, much to the delight of basketball observers like Rey Moralde of the No-Look Pass:
Whoa. Jermaine O'Neal had 18 points and 8 boards in a 2013 game? Fantastic.— Rey-Rey (@TheNoLookPass) November 27, 2013
Believe it or not, this was not the first 18-point, eight-rebound game O'Neal has put in this decade. He actually had two such games last season as a Phoenix Sun, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Before those two games in Phoenix, though, you'd have to go all the way back to the 2009-10 season, when O'Neal played for Miami.
After playing only 51 games in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons combined, O'Neal has resurrected his career as a reserve big, providing defense and savvy off the bench.
He demonstrated some of that veteran savvy in the first quarter, in an overlooked moment that helped swing the game for Golden State.
At 6:57 in the first, O'Neal is establishing perfect position while fighting with star Pelican's forward Anthony Davis for a rebound. With no chance of getting the board from O'Neal, the young Davis foolishly pushes O'Neal in the back, earning a quick second foul and a trip to the bench.
New Orleans was leading the game 11-9 at the moment Davis left the game. By the time he came back in—at 10:38 in the second quarter—the Warriors had exploited his absence to take a 30-21 lead.
These are the kinds of little things that make O'Neal so important to the Warriors. Their frontcourt lacks defense, particularly when Bogut is off the floor. O'Neal missed the previous four games with an injury, and the Warriors struggled in his absence, losing three out of those four games.
In this heartfelt postgame interview with CSN Bay Area, O'Neal said he wasn't sure how he would hold up after a four-game layoff, but he was ready, and he expected the Warriors to compete, despite the losses:
I keep telling these guys, trials and tribulations are what build the character of a true championship team. It may not look good all the time, but we keep fighting, doesn't matter who's on the court in a Warriors, we always feel like we have enough.
A Tough Road Ahead But a Glimmer of Hope
For a late-November game against a 6-7 Pelicans team, Tuesday's win in New Orleans was a crucial win for the Warriors. Had they lost, their record would have fallen to 8-7, and they would have been facing the very real possibility of dropping below .500 with two upcoming road games at Dallas and Oklahoma City. Even after this win, the Warriors will play six of their next seven games on the road.
This is the harsh reality of life in the Western Conference, where the competition is brutal nearly every single night.
If Golden State wants to compete for home-court advantage in the playoffs, they'll have to not only survive this stretch without Iguodala but also win games at a healthy clip. To do that, they'll need to get healthy. And they'll need to stay healthy—no easy task, considering the injury histories of both Bogut and O'Neal.
But Tuesday night's victory demonstrated the formula for success. The Warriors' bench doesn't need to outscore their opponents; the starters are more than capable of doing that. The reserves simply have to play smart, disciplined basketball on both ends of the court. If they can play the way they did against New Orleans, Golden State will stay in the hunt in the Western Conference.