Warriors' Steve Kerr checks Spurs' Gregg Popovich with clever Game 1 lineup change
Kerr didn't waste any time pulling a couple of tricks out of his bag, and it worked to perfection
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Game 1 between the two teams that have won the past five Western Conference titles hadn't even started when we got our first coaching curveball: Andre Iguodala, Warriors starting point guard.
The news came out about 15 minutes before Spurs, which was only about 15 minutes after Kerr decided to clue in Iguodala.against the
"Like, 30 minutes before the game," Iguodala said calmly after being asked when he found out he was going to start. "I've been saying this since Steve got here -- we're on the same page from a basketball standpoint. ... I know what to be ready for and I know what to prepare for, so, you know, just being ready for whatever when the day came."
Kerr said he decided to go with Iguodala over Quinn Cook, who started 16 of the Warriors' final 17 regular-season games in Stephen Curry's absence, in order to put his best defensive lineup on the court. Indeed, some of the talk leading up to the first-round series was about how -- not if -- Gregg Popovich and the Spurs would take advantage of the inexperienced Cook on both ends of the floor.
By starting Iguodala, Kerr showcased a veteran group that exuded incredible energy on both ends to begin the game.
"The first quarter, we looked like deer in the headlights, very disappointing," Popovich said after the game. "I thought we were very prepared physically and mentally, but I was mistaken. As I said, we looked like deer in the headlights."
Adding to the "deer in the headlights" visual was the fact that Warriors center JaVale McGee was the most impactful player on the court for stretches of the first quarter -- not something you expect to say after any playoff game, let alone one between San Antonio and Golden State.
McGee put up nine points, three rebounds, a steal and a block in the first quarter alone, finishing with 15 points in his 16 minutes -- the most he's played in the team's last nine games.
Kerr has a revolving door at the starting center position, rarely revealing who he intends to go with on any given night, but clearly McGee was the right call on Saturday. He was a force on offense, and, more importantly, played stellar one-on-one defense against All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs' go-to offensive threat. Aldridge finished the game with 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, a far cry from the 23 points on 51 percent shooting he averaged during the regular season.
"[McGee is] incredibly tall and quick off his feet," Kerr said after the game. "Go play a pick-up game; it's hard to play against guys that are really tall, it just is. They challenge the shots better, and LaMarcus is, I think, the best low post scorer now that we have in the game, and he's a tremendous shooter. We just want to be able to challenge those shots, knowing that he's going to make a lot of them, but I think JaVale was able to challenge some of them and make it difficult."
Inserting Iguodala and McGee into the starting lineup was the first of what will surely be many chess moves between old friends Kerr and Popovich as the series goes on. Usually coaches make adjustments based on Game 1 -- Kerr made an adjustment before Game 1, and it paid off for the Warriors with a convincing win.
"We took away some things that teams have been exploiting against us the last, you know, two weeks," Iguodala said after the game. "I think it was good for us to go through the little rough patches because we saw some things that worked and didn't work that teams would take advantage of. So, we kind of knocked that out with the lineup change."
You also can't ignore the mental impact that the new lineup had on the players. Throughout the regular season, Kerr experimented with different ways to keep his group engaged and combat the complacency that naturally follows three straight runs to the NBA Finals. He's started pretty much every player on the roster at some point, and infamously in a February win against the Phoenix Suns. He brings in guest speakers from time to time, just so the players can hear a motivational voice other than his own.
Kerr picks and chooses his moments to inject life into his team, and before Game 1 -- following a 10-10 finish to an injury-plagued regular season -- was the perfect time to pull the trigger. Just don't expect it to be the last move that's made.
Popovich will adjust to what the Warriors did in Game 1, and might even make a few lineup changes of his own for Monday's Game 2 -- Rudy Gay was much more effective than Kyle Anderson on Saturday, which may have earned Gay a Game 2 start. Kerr said after the game that he will stick with McGee at center for Game 2, but if we've learned anything from this Warriors season, it's that things can change very quickly. Nobody knows that better than McGee, who fell entirely out of the rotation at times this season.
"You have to know, especially with this team, your time will come and you never know," McGee said after the game. "Next series, I might not play at all and I'm not going to sit there and pout. I'm going to be the same way I am. That's the way it is on this team, especially with the center position. You have to be ready when your time is called."
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