Warriors outlast Suns in small-ball battle

If there’s an obvious weakness on this Warriors team, many would point to center. That apparently, though, does not include the Phoenix Suns.

The Warriors topped their divisional foes 133-120 Sunday night at Oracle, thanks in part to the Suns’ strategy of forcing the Warriors’ centers off the floor.

This story has been updated with quotes and post-game material from the Warriors’ locker room at Oracle Arena.

Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee played just a combined 21 minutes as the Suns tried to beat the Warriors at their own game and go very small.

With the Suns’ usual starting center Tyson Chandler missing his third game for personal reasons, P.J. Tucker — who measures out at 6-foot-6 — was Phoenix’s de facto center for almost the entire game.

Phoenix forced the Warriors into the death lineup, the same lineup that most teams try to gameplan against. And it actually paid off as the Suns built a nine-point first-half lead.

Steve Kerr said that the Warriors didn’t look good from the opening tip:

“We set a bad tone right from the beginning defensively. You let a team get going, especially one as talented as these guys are, they got all this fast, athletic talent, and it’s tough to corral them.”

But after their strategy had worked, the Suns went back to traditional center Alex Len. Len went 4-for-5 in 18 minutes for 9 points and 6 rebounds but carried a minus-5 plus/minus for the game.

It looked like the Warriors were about to cruise to another victory at Oracle until Len and Marquese Chriss both picked up their fifth fouls with 5:41 left in the third quarter. The foul trouble sparked the Suns to go back to the strategy that worked so well for them in the first half, and they climbed back into the game.

Draymond Green said that the team was just lacking energy on defense and allowed the Suns to stay in it:

“I’m really big on energy. If you don’t bring energy, it’s hard to be focused and locked in, all that stuff goes hand-in-hand. And I think tonight guys weren’t locked in and that’s all of us.”

Phoenix even had a six-point lead with six minutes to go before the hot shooting of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant finally put the Suns away.

The trio finished with 89 combined points with 12 three-pointers. Curry and Thompson both reached the 30 point mark but Durant missed a wide open three at the end of the game to join them.

The last time the Warriors had three 30-point scorers in one game? That would be during the Run TMC era, quite the coincidence since the Warriors were wearing their Crossover jerseys Sunday night, which honor that specific team.

Appropriately it wasn’t the Warriors’ true death lineup that put the nail in the Phoenix’s coffin but instead a hybrid one, featuring Shaun Livingston in place of Andre Iguodala. That five-man unit closed the game on a 25-8 run.

Kerr said Livingston was playing too well to take him off the court:

“I took Andre out midway through the fourth, planning on bringing him back in. But Shaun was playing so well and that group had it going so we just kept him out there. Shaun was terrific, the scoring leaders will get all the press tonight but Shaun’s fourth quarter and overall game was fantastic.”

This is a lineup we might see more often going forward, as Iguodala has looked nothing like himself these first weeks of the season.

Thompson and Green got all the press for their shooting struggles this season, but Iguodala has been having just as rough a year.

He entered the game shooting just 15.8 percent on threes, and without a make since November 4. He hit one tonight but without his spacing, especially in the death lineup, it severely limits that group’s potential.

According to basketball-reference.com, the death lineup of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green is outscoring opponents by just 24.7 points. Which ranks that lineup eighth-best statistically for the Warriors.

Obviously time on the court skews that stat, as their top six lineups have each played less than eight minutes on the court together.

But for a once hallowed lineup that struck fear into opponents’ hearts, this year’s iteration of the death lineup has looked surprising mortal.

Up Next

The Warriors now depart Oakland and embark on a four-game Eastern Conference road trip, with their first game Wednesday night in Toronto.

Notes

The Warriors entered tonight’s game leading the NBA in third quarter scoring, averaging 29.6 points in the third quarter. They scored 37 tonight. … With the win the Warriors have now won nine straight against the Phoenix Suns, the longest streak against the Suns in franchise history. … Warriors have gone 96 straight games without losing back-to-back games, the longest streak in NBA history.


Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.