In their playoff opener against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Golden State Warriors got a lift from an unexpected source: JaVale McGee. The backup center, considered by many to be a longshot to make the team in training camp, played 10 productive minutes in the Warriors' 121-109 victory on Sunday.
McGee didn't play perfectly but he managed to change the game. Golden State doesn't have another athletic big man like him, and when he runs the floor, sets good screens and rolls hard to the basket, his teammates are always looking for him. They know that if they throw him a lob pass, he's going to finish it most of the time.
There are costs: sometimes the Warriors get too excited and turn the ball over trying to find him. That happened once in Game 1. His long arms help him block shots that most players at his position can't reach, but sometimes he's too aggressive on help defense. On a couple of occassions, he gave Blazers guard Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum too much space when defending the pick-and-roll.
Overall, though, he was obviously a net-positive. He gave the Warriors energy, like he did consistently in the regular season, and he triggered an 8-0 run in the third quarter with a couple of defensive plays..
"The force that he plays with, the speed that he runs the floor, the blocked shots -- he had a couple of them, I think ---- it's just he brings a different element to the game," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. "We've kind of played center by committee all year long. We get something different from Zaza [Pachulia] and JaVale and David [West]. They're each unique in their own games, and we need all three of them. JaVale did what he's done all year for us: he gave us a huge boost."
Consider what happened in the third quarter: Defending Lillard on a pick-and-roll, McGee shaded him to his left, crowded him and ended the possession with an emphatic rejection. Since McGee kept the ball in play, Andre Iguodala had an opportunity to save it from going out of bounds, starting a fast break. Klay Thompson missed a 3-pointer, but McGee sprinted down the other end to get the rebound, setting up Stephen Curry for an easy 3-pointer. Swish.
"The thing about it is I have to know my role, and my role isn't to get post-up touches and stuff like that," McGee told reporters. "My role is to rebound, block shots and run the floor. And just that sequence shows you what it was."
On the very next play, Curry wound up in a mismatch defending Moe Harkless, but McGee helped and blocked the shot. Iguodala recovered the ball, gave it to Curry and Kevin Durant wound up with a 3-point play:
You can feel how plays like that make the Oracle Arena crowd lose its collective mind. Also, look at the lineup Portland is playing there -- it's worth noting that Kerr was comfortable leaving McGee on the court when the Blazers had Al-Farouq Aminu playing center. Earlier this season, the Warriors were reluctant to have him out there against stretch bigs because he struggled to play on the perimeter. This time, the decision to keep him in paid off.
To be clear: McGee didn't win Golden State this game. Draymond Green had as great an all-around playoff performance as you'll see, . Durant and Curry combined for 61 points on 49 shots. McGee didn't play a single minute in the fourth quarter, when the Warriors separated themselves by shutting Portland down. There were doubts, however, about whether he'd even be in the rotation during the postseason. Given those doubts, and given that McGee might be out of the league if Golden State didn't take a chance on him, contributing meaningfully in a playoff game should be seen as a landmark moment in his career.