OAKLAND — Pointing out a weak area on a 25-1 team seems like the definition of “hating.” But the Warriors have been lacquered with so much praise, it’s OK to point out the piece of lint on their shoulder.
The Warriors bench has been kind of a mess.
Wednesday’s victory over Phoenix, in which the reserves gave back nearly half of a 40-point lead during a garbage time fourth quarter, was the latest example of the Warriors’ underperforming bench.
Friday, Milwaukee comes to town as the only team to have beaten the Warriors. And they did that in part because of the Warriors’ bench. The reserves turned a one-point game at the end of the third quarter into a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit, and the Warriors’ stars didn’t have the fuel to negate the difference, snapping the streak.
It’s not time to be concerned. Though it is tempting to comb opposing rosters for the Warriors’ missing piece, the recent slump doesn’t warrant panic.
With that said, the reserves’ new trend of giving away big leads and getting outplayed is worth watching. Even if the Warriors don’t seem to be batting a lash at the thought their bench is vulnerable.
“Obviously it’s a work in progress and we are trying to find more of a rhythm for that second unit,” Warriors interim coach Luke Walton said. “We expect them to play better more consistently. But we are not concerned at all. We know what kind of players and what kind of character we have on our bench. ... We’re confident we’ll be fine.”
No doubt, the bench has come up big in spots, such as in Brooklyn on the seven-game road trip when it put away the Nets, allowing Walton to keep the starters rested. But it has been more common for Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or the Warriors’ small-ball lineup, to right the ship after the reserves gave the opponent life.
More specifically, when Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green are out of the game, the Warriors have been on less-secure footing than we remember from last year.
There are good reasons for the bench’s early season struggles, which is why it’s not time to panic.
The injury to Harrison Barnes has taken away the small lineup as reliable ship-righting tool.
The emergence of Festus Ezeli has had a negative effect on the other back-up big men. Marreese Speights is now the back-up power forward instead of the back-up center, which he played mostly last year. But his minutes have been lessened as the back-up power forward and he is less effective in that role. He doesn’t have a mobility advantage and doesn’t get as many open looks as when he was defended by a center weary of leaving the rim.
Ezeli’s improved play caused the same problem for free agent pickup Jason Thompson, who would probably be better served as the center in a faster lineup but has to get crumbs at power forward.
Another reason for the bench’s recent struggles: the infiltration of promising young guard Ian Clark. He is good enough to warrant minutes, but when and with whom has to be figured out.
“It’s just the details, the mixing and matching,” back-up guard Shaun Livingston said. “Rush is playing more. Clark is playing more. Those are good players but sometimes you plug pieces in, you’ve got to figure out how they fit with other pieces.”
An improved Ezeli, bigger role for Rush and even James Michael McAdoo, new role for Speights, additions of Clark and Thompson -- the Warriors bench is different if not new. Walton and the coaching staff is still tinkering with lineups and rotations.
It is a reasonable expectation that the Warriors will figure it all out after while. They did it last year, with Speights and David Lee and Justin Holiday. The players are sure things will click again.
With Andre Iguodala as a sixth man, and established veterans such as Livingston and Leandro Barbosa, plus an ever-improving Ezeli, the Warriors have depth that sets them apart from the league. The Warriors being unfazed at this point is appropriate.
But the development of the second unit is worth watching because the Warriors are going to need a clicking bench to keep San Antonio at bay. The Warriors will need production and stability behind the starters if they are to make a title run.
A critical part of their success last season was not burning out Curry, Thompson, Green and Iguodala.
The recent struggles of the bench hasn’t cost them many games yet. But it could cost them something greater in the long run if they don’t return to form.
“It’s about peaking at the right time,” Livingston said. “All that matters is we have it together come April.”
“Hopefully before April,” Walton said. “But we feel when needed, when our backs are against the wall, our bench has been great for us. So we have no reason to doubt what they can do.” ReadMarcus Thompson II’s blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson . Contact him at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.