OAKLAND (AP) — Go small or go home.
That might as well be the new mantra for the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs. With center Andrew Bogut out for the foreseeable future with a fractured right rib, the Warriors are searching for a way to replace their best interior defender in a rotation that already lacks big men.
Warriors coach Mark Jackson has flirted with smaller lineups late this season, and playing “small ball” in the playoffs could be his only option when backup center Jermaine O’Neal is not on the floor.
“You can see it. It’s a lineup we’re going to have to use at some point, and I’m fine with using it,” Jackson said. “The thing that we’re going to have to make sure we do is battle defensively when we go with that lineup in the paint area.”
The Warriors (50-31) play at Denver in their regular-season finale Wednesday night. They are locked into the sixth seed in the Western Conference and will most likely begin the postseason at the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday or Sunday.
Defending DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin of the Clippers, of course, could pose a major problem without Bogut in the paint.
Bogut averaged just 7.3 points, 10 rebounds and 1.81 blocks in 67 games this season, but he is among the league leaders in several defensive ratings and played a major role in Golden State’s run to the second round of last year’s playoffs. Complicating matters more, the Warriors have just one healthy big man behind Bogut.
Last year’s backup center, Festus Ezeli, has been out all season recovering from right knee surgery and is not ready to play. Jackson also indicated that seldom-used reserve centers Hilton Armstrong and Ognjen Kuzmic are likely not options to suddenly start logging heavy minutes at the most important time of the year.
But spreading the floor with smaller lineups has produced some of Golden State’s highest-scoring games, including a 130-120 victory over Minnesota on Monday night. The lineup allows more spacing for streaky shooting guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and more room for penetration by forwards such as David Lee, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes.
Jackson said his lineups will depend on matchups, but his most likely option is one he has had mixed success with this season: sliding Lee and Marreese Speights to center and moving up Green and Barnes to power forward.
It’s a combination players certainly endorse.
“We like to push the ball and get up and down with that lineup, and it works to our advantage,” said Green, who scored a career-high 20 points and tied a career-best with 12 rebounds against the Timberwolves on Monday night. “Me and David play well with each other. Both of us can pass the ball really well, knock shots down and it stretches the defense out.”
Playing short-handed is something the Warriors have done successfully, at times, the past two years.
Bogut, Iguodala, Lee and O’Neal all sat out prolonged stretches with various injuries this season. Bogut also missed 50 games recovering from left ankle surgery last year, and Lee tore his right hip flexor in the first round of the playoffs against Denver — missing four games and playing a limited role when he returned.
The Warriors, who also were the No. 6 seed last year, upset the Nuggets before losing to the eventual Western Conference champion San Antonio Spurs in six games. The Clippers could pose a much tougher challenge this time, especially with point guard Chris Paul healthy again and Doc Rivers as coach.
The Warriors and Clippers split the four-game season series, with each team winning twice on its home floor. The animosity between the suddenly resurgent franchises — including a Christmas Day game marred by multiple ejections and technical fouls — also should give Golden State a boost of motivation without Bogut.
“We hope a miracle happens with Andrew,” Curry said. “We’ll see what happens, but as a team we’re focused on what the challenge ahead of us is and we’ve got to move forward.”