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Superior bench depth to give Warriors an advantage in NBA Finals

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four
Jordan Bell went from averaging fewer than three minutes during Golden State’s first 11 playoff games— five of which he never even played in — to 13 during its last five games.
(Steve Dykes / Getty Images)

Without even playing, the Golden State Warriors won again Tuesday.

As they began a nine-day break ahead of a fifth consecutive appearance in the NBA finals, their remaining challengers guaranteed more work for themselves.

The Toronto Raptors’ 120-102 victory Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks tied the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece and ensured the earliest either team could close out the series would be Game 6 on Saturday.

A Warriors team already holding numerous advantages, given its championship pedigree and loaded roster, now has one more: They will enter the finals with at least five more days of rest than their Eastern counterparts. That’s significant for a team seeking the return of injured stars Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and DeMarcus Cousins.

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Golden State had two days between the end of the regular season and the postseason’s first round, one day before the second round and three days before the conference finals. Coach Steve Kerr’s team is 2-0 this season when playing on three or more days of rest.

“We are happy to move on,” Kerr said, “and happy to get a little rest before we play again.”

Yet that is not the only reason they will enter the NBA finals fresh.

The postseason injuries suffered by Cousins, Durant and Iguodala have necessitated that the Warriors expand their rotation at a high-stakes time, when common coaching wisdom suggests it is better to shrink it. Yet digging deeper into its bench has hardly hurt Golden State, which leads to more bad news for whichever team emerges from the fistfight in the East.

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With Durant and Iguodala expected to be healthy enough to play in the NBA finals — and the possibility that Cousins could join them — Golden State could be reintegrating some of its best players into a lineup that is now its deepest of the season.

“It was a good series for the bench,” Kerr said Monday, after Golden State’s sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. “They did a fantastic job, and we, I think, mixed and matched, and tried to find combinations that worked, and a lot of guys really played well over the course of the series.”

Golden State made “Strength in Numbers” its slogan three years ago, yet as the roster collected former MVPs and future Hall of Famers, that depth became less of a concern en route to the last two NBA championships. Key reserves Iguodala, center Kevon Looney and guard Shaun Livingston returned this season, but the bench was older and considered a liability. Warriors reserves played the eighth-fewest minutes and scored the third-fewest points per game during the regular season.

As injuries piled up this postseason, Kerr had to lean more heavily on the bench, and Golden State has been rewarded for not only increasing the minutes key reserves already receive, but also turning bit players into major contributors.

Golden State’s bench has averaged 14.7 points and 24.6 minutes a game while outscoring opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, but in the five games since Durant strained his right calf muscle, it has averaged 18.3 points in 32.6 minutes against Houston and Portland on the road.

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“Our bench really showed out this series,” said guard Klay Thompson after beating Portland in Game 4, the third consecutive game won after trailing by at least 17 points. “They showed that they are professionals and they can impact the game in many ways.”

Second-year center Jordan Bell went from averaging fewer than three minutes during Golden State’s first 11 playoff games—five of which he never even played in—to 13 during its last five games. He scored 11 points in Game 2 against Portland after scoring more than that just twice during 68 regular-season games. When he started in Game 4, it was the seventh different starting lineup used by Kerr this postseason.

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Golden State outscored Portland by a total of 16 points during second-year forward Alfonzo McKinnie’s 69 minutes in the series. In Game 4, Blazers players guarded by McKinnie made two of their seven field goals.

Given star guard Stephen Curry’s troubles staying on the court because of foul trouble, Quinn Cook’s minutes have become an important stopgap measure. Even guard Jacob Evans and Damian Jones, who like Bell have been afterthoughts in the rotation for weeks at a time, had non-garbage time cameos during the Western Conference finals.

“We’ve had guys step up all along this entire time,” starting forward Draymond Green said. “And we’re going to look forward to those guys continuing to step up, no matter what happens with the injuries that we have.”

andrew.greif@latimes.com

Twitter: @andrewgreif


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