The Warriors are the big NBA playoff experiment, looking for winning combinations


Going into the series the Warriors capped Wednesday night with a gutsy 102-98 victory over the Nuggets, Denver head coach Michael Malone was asked what he thought of the Warriors, with key players coming back from injuries, learning to play together on the fly. .

“Learning on the fly, my ass,” Malone snorted. “These guys have a lot of experience together, so sell that iceberg to someone else.”

With all due respect to Malone buttockthe Warriors are learn on the fly how to play together.

Debated: In recent NBA history, no team that has a legitimate chance of winning the title before the playoffs has been as shapeless as the Warriors, even after five games and a series win.

Many teams made adjustments ahead of the playoffs, usually dictated by injuries and matchups. The Warriors, in terms of who will be best for whom, are in the developmental stage of training camp.

The Warriors are an ongoing lab experiment.

For example, coach Steve Kerr opened Wednesday’s game with his 3-guard lineup. It made sense, it’s a potentially dynamite scoring unit, but it’s still very unproven, still a crazy experiment.

Jonathan Kuminga (00) and Andrew Wiggins (22) box Jeff Green (32) on a free throw in the first half as the Golden State Warriors took on the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the NBA Playoffs first round at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif., Wednesday, April 27, 2022.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

When the 3-G unit sputtered at the start on Wednesday, you could almost hear the ghost of Monta Ellis say you can’t win with a backcourt full of shooters.

And down the stretch, as the Warriors tried to overcome the Nuggets’ eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter, who are you going with in this tough time? Kerr went with the Core Three, of course – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But he completed that unit with Otto Porter Jr. and Gary Payton II. Two weeks ago, there was no guarantee these two would come off the bench in the playoffs. The Warriors briefly cut Payton early in the season and released Porter from scrap.

Payton played all but the last 21 seconds of the fourth quarter and changed everything. Who ever saw this coming?

The Warriors will continue to reinvent themselves as they progress through the playoffs. Did the 3-guard formation earn another start? Whenever this formation resurfaces, would Payton be a better fit, replacing Jordan Poole?

After all, Payton brings a super annoying defensive presence that the 3-G lineup could use, and he moves without the ball, so opponents need to guard him, inside and out. He knocks down the 3 with confidence.

It’s a team of question marks. Poole and Payton are newcomers to the playoffs and any level of NBA stardom, and it’s impossible to predict their effectiveness in the next round.

Jordan Poole (3) drives to the basket in the first half as the Golden State Warriors take on the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the NBA Playoffs first round at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 .

Jordan Poole (3) drives to the basket in the first half as the Golden State Warriors take on the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of the NBA Playoffs first round at Chase Center in San Francisco, Calif. on Wednesday, April 27, 2022 .

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

The reading on Poole changes over time. He earned tons of credit for his performance late in the season and in the first three playoff games, then struggled a bit in the last two.

Maybe Poole will re-sync with Thompson and Curry and they’ll create some great music together like they did in short.

But maybe Poole is more comfortable when Curry isn’t in the game. Their roles have become so similar, perhaps redundant. Poole sometimes Wednesday seemed to defer to Curry. Perhaps Poole’s best value to the team right now would be providing firepower and star power off the bench.

Of course, the Warriors are all learning to play together on the fly. Even the basic guys. When was the last NBA team that headed to the playoffs with three Hall of Fame quality teammates who hadn’t been on the floor together all season?

That’s not to say anyone feels sorry for the Warriors. Around the league, injuries are taking their toll on nearly every team. The Nuggets played that entire two-star streak and lost Austin Rivers in Wednesday’s game.

Most teams try to outlive their squad losses. The Warriors try to survive their earningsto figure out how best to use all those suddenly healthy guys.

The Warriors are so healthy it’s almost unfair. Curry is clearly ready to tear up after missing the last eight games of the regular season. Thompson’s shot is still fading — he was 1 for 6 from the 3-point line — but overall he seems to be back in good shape.

Only Andre Iguodala is ill, and his absence likely paved the way for Kerr to lean on Payton for defense and bench disruption.

Ideally, a team has a set rotation. The better the team, the less the rotation fluctuates during the playoffs.

The Warriors have their core three, but how much they play together and how the other guys are woven into the tapestry is going to change from game to game or, like Wednesday, from quarter to quarter.

Kerr and his assistants have their work cut out for them, and players face a game-in-game challenge of learning to play together.

“I think it’s going to be tough for them to get beat in this playoffs,” Gary Payton Sr. said after the game.

It could be a leap of faith. But for sure, the Warriors are learning on the fly making them the most interesting team in the playoffs and a challenge for opponents.

Scott Ostler is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @scottostler


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