This is my Friday column on the Warriors. WARNING: This is a basketball column. 49ers’ fans — feel free to skip this.
OAKLAND – Jermaine O’Neal sprained his knee in Game 6 against the Clippers. He may not play in Game 7. If he does play, he probably won’t play much. He had been filling in for the Warriors’ injured starting center, Andrew Bogut. If O’Neal can’t play Saturday night, the Warriors will be without their top two centers in the biggest game of their season.
But O’Neal’s injury may not be as devastating to the Warriors as it seems.
The injury could be devastating to O’Neal. He is 35 years old, at the end of his playing career. A terrific, 18-season-long playing career. If he can’t play in Game 7 and the Warriors lose, he may never play in another NBA game and that would be a shame.
But when he has been on the court, the Clippers have run the Warriors off the court – outscored them by a whopping 47 points during this series. And O’Neal has played just 81 minutes. Injured knee or no injured knee, it is time for him to take a seat on the bench. He is killing the Warriors.
Head coach Mark Jackson has no choice but to play David Lee and Draymond Green together more often. Those two are the best big men Jackson has left on his roster. And they’re an effective duo. When Lee and Green have been on the court at the same time during this series, the Warriors have outscored the Clippers by 25.
“Me and D-Lee play well together,” Green said before shoot-around Friday morning. “We’re both high-basketball-IQ guys. Both of us can pass and make plays when Steph (Curry) is double-teamed. I think we just work well together. If Lee is going to pop, I know I need to dive, and likewise. We have figured each other out well and we roll together. Sometimes the Clippers really struggle with our small lineup.”
When they’re on the court together, Green typically plays power forward and Lee typically plays center. Both guys are small for those positions. That’s why it is a small lineup.
A small lineup has its advantages.
“Offensively, we’re a better team and we present different challenges when you’re trying to defend that lineup,” Jackson said Friday afternoon. “With Draymond at the four, now you have a power forward who stretches your defense to the 3-point line. And David obviously has an advantage at the “5” with the ability to handle and make plays.”
A small lineup tends to struggle defensively. Does the Warriors’ small lineup struggle defensively?
“No, I won’t say that,” said Jackson. “I think last night David did a great job of battling DeAndre, keeping him off the boards. He did a great job with his game plan discipline and played physical and with force. It made a big difference.”
Lee plays hard, but Green has been the Warriors’ most effective defender during this series. He has made Blake Griffin’s life miserable in the post, has forced Griffin to take and miss difficult shots.
Right now, the Warriors’ small lineup is their best offensive lineup and their best defensive lineup. Meaning the Warriors should use it as much as possible in Game 7.
But the Warriors don’t have any reliable big men backing up Lee and Green. Lee fouled out of Game 6 after playing just 26 minutes, and Green had five fouls in each of the past two games. If Lee or Green picks up a few early fouls in Game 7, Jackson won’t be able to use the small lineup that has been so effective in this series.
How do Green and Lee balance being aggressive and not fouling out?
“I will not have my guys worried about fouling,” Jackson said. “You get yourself in trouble when you worry about how many fouls you have. At the end of the day they have six, and I will make sure that they get to utilize them and be smart with them. But we’re not that good where we can look up and say, ‘I’m not going to foul this time.’ No. Give me what you’ve got, and I will figure the rest out.”
To Green, there is nothing to balance. Balance does not factor into the equation.
“You have to play aggressive,” he said. “There are no more games left if you don’t give all you have in this game. If it comes down to it, you’ve got to use all six fouls.”
It better not come down to it for Green or Lee. Together, they give the Warriors a good shot to win this series.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.