Five observations: Warriors get big win over Lakers as Steve Kerr tightens rotation

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LOS ANGELES — Here are five observations from the Golden State Warriors’ seismic 128-121 road win against the Lakers in Los Angeles on Saturday night.

1. How it happened and what it meant

Jonathan Kuminga opened the game with four jumpers. The Lakers, more than any other opponent, sag off Kuminga egregiously and have always dared him to shoot. It’s part of what kept Kuminga out of coach Steve Kerr’s rotation in the second round last May (JaMychal Green played over him).

Kuminga, a more established and confident scorer in his third season, punished that strategy early. He made two 3s and two mid-rangers, combining with an aggressive Andrew Wiggins (17 shot attempts) to score the Warriors’ first 17 points, boosting them while a rusty Steph Curry kept quiet. Curry didn’t score a first-quarter point.

Klay Thompson entered midway through the quarter and got hot. He scored 18 points in his first eight minutes, keeping the Warriors within reach when it looked like the physical Lakers were prepared to run away with it, in part, because of a revved-up Anthony Davis.

But late in the first quarter, Trayce Jackson-Davis accidentally poked Davis in the eye while defending him. It turned out to be the most consequential moment of the night. Davis left for the locker room between quarters. He didn’t return. The Lakers were a plus-6 in his 12 minutes and minus-13 after he left. The Warriors outscored the Lakers 62-54 in paint points and the Lakers only shot 18 free throws — direct impacts of the Davis departure.

Against a less fearsome interior, Curry got going in the second quarter and finished with 31 points despite the empty start. He only made three of his 10 3s but made nine shots inside the arc, weaving and back-cutting to the rim without fear of getting his shot blocked.

The Warriors had 38 assists. Draymond Green had 13 of them, connecting on two lobs to Kuminga to close the second quarter and a few more second-half lobs to both Kuminga and Wiggins to maintain separation from the Lakers. Kuminga finished with 23 points. Thompson had 26.

The Warriors didn’t defend that well. They couldn’t contain LeBron James, who powered his way to 40 points. But they won because their offense generated great looks most of the game and their supplementary scorers hit jumpers against a Lakers defense absent its protector.

There were repetitive shot clock malfunctions down the stretch that delayed the finish and sabotaged a Lakers possession. James also had a huge corner 3 wiped away after a timeout review deemed him out of bounds. Kerr and Curry said postgame it’s a rule that neither prefers, despite being the beneficiaries.

But besides dragging the game to a halt and ruining the TV product, it very likely didn’t change the ultimate result, a Warriors’ road win that flips the frontrunner for the No. 9 seed in the West. With the win, the Warriors are one ahead of the Lakers in the loss column. The two play again in early April in Los Angeles with the tiebreaker likely on the line.

The Warriors still have a difficult path to escape the nine vs. 10 side of the Play-In bracket, but they received some help the last few days. The Mavericks lost in Oklahoma City and the Kings lost at home to the Knicks. They are 2.5 games behind Dallas and three games behind Sacramento but don’t hold the tiebreaker against either.

2. Tightened rotation

Moses Moody joined Kevon Looney and Dario Saric out of the current rotation. Kerr only played nine guys against the Lakers and the ninth, Gary Payton II, only received six total minutes, screwing up a couple of defensive coverages in his first stint which limited his court time. So it was basically an eight-man rotation.

“It was more game-related,” Kerr said. “It is hard to get 10 guys out there. We’re not afraid of doing it. I don’t really want to stay at eight. I think it was based on matchups.”

Matchups and the urgency of the moment. Green and Curry, both entering with recent health issues, both played 34 minutes, their most since before the All-Star break. So this was Kerr giving hints on the way he is leaning for higher-stakes games and several other people in the organization said postgame to expect a slightly tightened rotation during the stretch run.

Assuming health, that means a starting lineup of Curry, Brandin Podziemski, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green and a three-man higher usage bench of Thompson, Chris Paul and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Payton will be peppered into the mix. Moody remains an option but is again being edged out. Looney is sitting on the outside unless foul trouble or injury dictate his inclusion.

“It is tough,” Curry said. “Loon, Moses, Dario, probably in that order — especially Loon and Moses — there’s probably going to be times where they’re going to be needed. They’ll be ready. That’s the challenge they face. But this time of year, building an identity of how we want to play, that (tightened rotation is) huge.”

3. Klay as sixth man

Thompson has played in 63 games this season. In his 53 starts, he’s only averaging 16.6 points on 41 percent shooting and 37 percent from 3. But in his 10 games off the bench, despite four fewer minutes per game (from 30.2 down to 26.6), Thompson is averaging 20.3 points on 48 percent shooting and 45 percent from 3.

It’s too small of a sample to declare anything too definitive. But that difference in efficiency and production is too large to ignore. Thompson has been a far better scorer and, more generally, player for the Warriors as a bench scorer who comes in firing. His 18 points in his first eight minutes against the Lakers were massive. His 26 bench points were more than the entire Lakers bench combined (25 points).

“We’re both leaning into it,” Kerr said of Thompson. “I can really feel his power off the bench. We’re going to him right away. We’re calling plays for him. It’s a different vibe with him coming off the bench. I just love that Klay has taken to the role so well.”

Green said Thompson came over to him at one point and said of his bench role: “Dray, this is nice! This is great!”

“It shows his maturity,” Green said. “He’s been starting since halfway through his rookie season. To have the resume he has, build up an organization, then you’re asked to take on a bench role. There’s not many people who know how that feels but there’s a bunch of people who want to judge it. Early on, he was too worried about how people were judging it. Now he don’t care.”

4. Draymond update

Green missed the previous game in Dallas because of lower-back soreness and then made a slightly alarming statement on his podcast, saying it had been bothering him for a couple of weeks and he wanted to get out in front of the injury before it snowballed into something worse, like the injury that forced him to miss half the season in 2022.

“Not playing in Dallas, as much as that sucked, it was the right thing to do,” Green said. “Leading up to that, I was getting it up to a point I could play, then the next day … I’d be overcompensating, trying to get back feeling good. Then we’d have a game. So it was good for me to get extra rest and allowed me to turn the corner. Today I had no pain.”

It’s clear that Rick Celebrini and Kerr plan to monitor Green over the season’s final month, a push-and-pull made more difficult by the Warriors’ place in the standings. They need him on a nightly basis and, in close games, will need big minutes. But they are also gaining an increased trust in Jackson-Davis, the promoted backup rookie center, who performed well again on Saturday night.

“Trayce is a lot like me,” Green said. “He’s 23 years old in his rookie year. He’s played in big games. For Trayce, you’ve played in big games where you’ve had to be the man, shoulder the load — scoring, rebounding, carrying the team. I have no doubt he’s ready for the stage. He’s not your average rookie. I have the utmost confidence in Trayce and it’s nice he can lower my minutes.”

5. The homestand

The Warriors have three home games this week against the Knicks on Monday, the Grizzlies on Wednesday and the Pacers on Friday. They are 17-17 at Chase Center this season.

After that, they head out on the road for a long trip that begins in Minnesota, Miami and Orlando against three playoff teams. These next six games will dictate whether an unlikely climb to eight or seven is possible or life in the nine vs. 10 range is a formality.

(Photo of Draymond Green battling Austin Reaves for a loose ball: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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