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The Warriors’ Shaky Depth Was Better Than No Depth at All in Game 6

Steve Kerr is continuing his tightrope walk with unconventional lineups in the postseason. The precious minutes he’s given his stars to breathe could be the difference on Monday.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Six Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For one possession near the end of the third quarter in the Warriors’ 115-86 Game 6 win over the Rockets, the court at Oracle Arena looked like it was hosting a YMCA game for a rec league of players 6-foot-7 or taller.

Rookie Jordan Bell held the ball near the post, his back to the basket, his pivot foot clinging to the hardwood for dear life. His eyes darted in desperation, looking for someone to pass to. Finally, he handed the ball off to Kevon Looney, who awkwardly drove right into his defender and put himself in the same situation as Bell. Nick Young sprinted into the right corner. Looney passed it. Young chucked it. The ball was closer to hitting the shot clock than it was the rim. But a whistle blew. Young headed to the line and hit two of three free throws. A disastrous possession somehow yielded a positive outcome.

Bell, Looney, and Young in that instance were playing alongside Shaun Livingston and Kevin Durant to close out a third quarter in which the Warriors turned a 10-point deficit into an eight-point lead. The barrage had come, as it almost always does with Golden State, in the first four minutes of the third quarter, and Houston’s 10-point halftime lead had vanished; the Warriors flipped the Rockets’ switch off in the process of flipping theirs on. But instead of closing out the quarter with the hot duo of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to put the first nail in the Rockets’ coffin, Steve Kerr threw Durant out there with three non-shooters and a sometimes-shooter in Young.

It wasn’t anything different than what Kerr had been doing for most of the series, but the lineup’s construction was even more glaring given the stakes of the game. Kerr was boldly trotting (trolling?) out this lineup in the middle of an elimination game during the Western Conference finals while Mike D’Antoni played seven guys (not counting garbage time), even with star Chris Paul on the sidelines. Adjusting lineups this deep into the playoffs is a tightrope walk for any coach. Kerr, in a do-or-die situation, decided to add chain saw juggling to the mix.

Saturday was yet another game where he had to find players to eat up minutes reserved for an injured Andre Iguodala. The Warriors coach gave Bell a whopping 21 minutes (the most he’s played this series), Young and Livingston got 16 and 15 minutes respectively, and even David West was in five whole minutes. Looney, who has taken Iguodala’s place in the starting lineup, was a glaring liability in the first half. When Houston got out to a 16-point lead in the first quarter, it appeared like the Warriors would have to go small the rest of the way; the Rockets were hitting too many shots and leaving Looney or Bell—sometimes both—out on an island on defense. But Kerr stuck to his guns and kept playing them both, typically alongside Durant.

This is the luxury of being the Warriors and having talent to spare. Kerr wasn’t exactly betting on his fringe players to be the difference in the game; they were betting on Durant’s presence being enough to force the Rockets to stick with their best players. It worked.

Game 6 looked to be the Rockets’ regression to the mean. After inconsistent showings in the first five games of the series, Houston made up for lost time, hit 50 percent of its shots, and 50 percent of its 3s in the first half. But they lost their legs in the second half, nailing only four 3s after draining 11 in the first two quarters. Harden didn’t have the same draw around the basket (he had nine free throws in the first half, none in the second), and without Paul to turn to, they faded. Golden State outscored Houston 64-25 in the second half, and Houston only scored nine points in the entire fourth quarter. Nine!

Wins and losses come down to making shots. Curry and Thompson reverted back into Splash Brothers mode in the second half (they combined for 11 3s and 37 points), which helped paint Kerr’s risky decisions as forward-thinking instead of boneheaded. If the shots hadn’t fallen and the Warriors would have lost, we’d likely be here pointing fingers at Kerr for playing Bell, Looney, and Young. But the shots did go in, and Curry and Thompson and Durant weren’t the ones that looked tired in the second half; that was Harden, Gordon, and the rest of the overplayed Rockets.

As aesthetically displeasing as this strategy may have looked for a team used to showing us basketball beauty, Kerr doubled down on his shaky depth for better or for worse, and will likely continue to do so in Game 7. In the end, what mattered was that they stayed alive, not how.