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Thomрson: The Wаrriors’ uрside іs сlear, but theіr deрth іs gettіng іn the wаy


Jonathan Kuminga pulled his black sweater with bleached accents down his torso until it rested atop his black pants. Then, on top of it, he gradually put on the black and cream houndstooth trench coat.

“I’ma keep it real with you,” the Golden State Warriors forward said, adjusting the sleeves on his coat until it draped perfectly. His demeanor and tone matched his attire. Smooth. Certain.

“Me with the ball,” he continued, “nobody’s guarding me.”

Ambitious? Sure. But this Christmas afternoon in Denver, it felt true. The Nuggets couldn’t guard him, especially with the way they were defending Stephen Curry.

Through three quarters, Kuminga had 13 points on 4-for-8 shooting. He was 5-for-8 from the free-throw line and had the Nuggets scrambling.

“But sometimes,” Kuminga said, “I’ve gotta take that away to make sure my OGs get the ball. That’s where it’s confusing. Sometimes, I come out the game not knowing what I did. And that messes with my head. It’s like, ‘What they want me to do?’ I can pass and I can do different s—.”

The Warriors’ win streak would be six games if not for Curry’s Christmas curse. Or if Klay Thompson didn’t go 1-for-6 shooting for three points in the second half. Or if Nikola Jokić didn’t get 14 second-half free throws.

Or if, as crazy as it sounds, they weren’t so deep.

“Strength in Numbers” has been the Warriors’ thing. Their second unit saved the starters again, keeping them in the game when their starting group struggled. But the Warriors went down, 120-114, on Monday in part because they’re too deep.

So deep, Kuminga feels on the verge of a breakout but keeps bumping his head on the glass ceiling. He was on the short end of the Warriors’ depth on Monday, playing just 3:35 in the fourth quarter.

This is an issue for the Warriors because the best version of who they are is directly connected to the best version of Kuminga. They are most dynamic, most modern, and most competitive with the best teams in the West when Kuminga is on the floor and playing his game. He is the style contrast the Warriors desperately need. He’s their counter against a league keen to what the Warriors do. He’s their answer to a league stocked with players who are athletic, long and explosive while also able to shoot and make plays off the dribble.

Sometimes, the Warriors’ basketball IQ and shooting aren’t enough. Sometimes, as has been proven by the injection of Kuminga, Brandin Podziemski and Trayce Jackson-Davis into the rotation, the Warriors simply need to fight speed with speed, hops with hops, energy with energy.

At one point Monday, early in the fourth quarter, with Jokić resting, the Warriors took six 3-pointers in six trips. They missed all of them. Their only score during the stretch of two minutes, 15 seconds was a stolen inbounds pass and layup by Podziemski. During that stretch, Denver missed five of its six shots and turned the ball over twice, opening the door for the Warriors to take control of the game.

Andrew Wiggins, since the championship run of 2021-22, has been that proverbial counterpunch for the Warriors. It seems one is no longer enough. Though Monday was one of Wiggins’ better games, the Warriors still found themselves jacking up 3s in the fourth quarter, thwarted by the pressure of an overplaying defense.

This is where Kuminga comes in. The open paint as a result of a defense’s desperation to take away Curry is an invitation for an aggressive, attacking player. Overextended defenses are vulnerable to rim pressure. But the Warriors don’t have a wealth of players who can take advantage.

That isn’t Thompson’s game. Point guard Chris Paul can get in there, but he’s too small to consistently attack the rim. Podziemski can, too, and he’s got the size to finish. He’s got a good Eurostep and a floater in progress.

But the best answers are Wiggins and Kuminga.

“He gives us a huge boost,” Curry said of Kuminga. “We talk about it a lot. He applies pressure to the rim. Knocks down open shots. Defensively, he’s understanding where he’s supposed to be, how to guard on and off the ball. He just plays at a different pace that’s fun to watch. He gives us a lot. … We’re starting to find chemistry of where to get him the ball, how he can attack and him being able to use his athleticism and his ability to play one-on-one when necessary. But also can play that Warriors basketball, read-and-react stuff. He’s gotten a lot better at that, too, so he gives us a lot.”

So the question before the Warriors is how to maximize Wiggins and Kuminga. Coach Steve Kerr said he doesn’t want to play them together. But in a league so full of wings, he might have to rethink that because they might need both.

The Warriors face the same quandary at center. They need the best of Kevon Looney, who has proven himself as a championship-level big man. But Dario Šarić is the shooting big man they’ve long needed. And also, Jackson-Davis is the athletic big man who can punish the overplaying defense by putting pressure on the rim (while protecting it on the other end). Also, Draymond Green has been their closing center for a decade, netting four championships.

Kerr, however, is managing a numbers crunch that, through 30 games, still isn’t clear. Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Paul are inked in for 28 to 32 minutes per game. That doesn’t leave much time for other perimeter options. Now, Podziemski seems to be locked in that window, too.

Remember, Green is currently serving a suspension and Gary Payton II is working his way back from injury. Some tough decisions must be made when they return, and general manager Mike Dunleavy Jr. should be weighing who’s more valuable in the Warriors’ rotation and who’s more valuable on the market.

If Wiggins and Thompson aren’t playing well, or aren’t playing, the door opens for Kuminga and Moses Moody. But Monday, Moody was told he was out of the rotation, and Kuminga had his minutes squeezed by Wiggins, who had it rolling, scoring 12 of his team-high 22 in the fourth quarter.

We’ve seen what happens when Wiggins is a force. The Warriors won a championship when he peaked.

But the Warriors still need Kuminga. Not only because Wiggins hasn’t been able to bring that level of play consistently, but because the Warriors need another playmaker. They need another game-changer. Thinking about this thing from a playoff perspective, the Warriors need players who can impose their will on both ends. Against good teams. In big-time games.

“Yeah, I am a difference-maker,” Kuminga said. “I know I am. But it’s not up to me to do certain things. How can I say it? It’s not up to me to control my minutes. I feel like I’ve done that. But the last voice ain’t mine. And it’s not easy because I know how to score the basketball. I know how to pass. I know how to do different things on the floor. But it’s about putting all that together. With the people we have on the floor, it’s just tough to put it all together. I’m trying to figure out how to manage that.”

It is clear the Warriors have a formidable team somewhere in there. Their ceiling is higher than their 15-15 record. They had the defending champions uncomfortable on Monday, coaxing the Nuggets into a suboptimal performance. They’d done as good a job as a team can do on Jokić. He was only 4 of 12 from the field. The Warriors turned 14 Nuggets turnovers into 23 points, winning the points-off-turnovers battle as Denver scored just 12 off the Warriors’ 13 turnovers. They even had Jamal Murray in foul trouble and vulnerable on the defensive end.

But when it was time to win, when the game settled into the back-and-forth test of will and execution, that’s when Denver shined. When good teams put their best foot forward, the Warriors still aren’t sure what their best foot is. On Christmas, Golden State looked its most out of sync, its most impotent, in the fourth quarter. Part of the reason has to be due to not having a set closing rotation and the uncertainty of who’s going to be on the floor.

Curry tends to cover that up. He entered Monday sixth in the NBA total fourth-quarter points this season while ranking 32nd in minutes. No one has scored more points in the clutch this season than Curry.

But this Christmas was yet another where the Grinch jacked Curry for his game. For the ninth time in 10 Christmas Day games, Curry failed to score 20 points. He finished with 18 points on 7-for-21 shooting, missing 10 of his 13 3s. In 2021, his last Christmas game, he scored 33 points in a win at Phoenix. At the time it seemed to break the curse. But Monday was more like the others.

In one of the great NBA oddities, Curry averages just 15.8 points on 31.7 percent shooting on Christmas Day. He’s made more 3-pointers than any player in league history, and his 42.7 percent clip is ridiculous considering the volume. But on Christmas? He’s 18-for-78, a thizz-face-inducing 23.1 percent.

The Nuggets aided Curry in his tradition by trapping him and keeping an All-Defense-worthy defender in Kentavius Caldwell-Pope glued to Curry. When it wasn’t KCP, the Nuggets put one of their athletic wings on Curry and kept the help ready. Whenever the Warriors tried to run pick-and-roll, the Nuggets mostly trapped him and lived with the 4-on-3 it created.

That opened the paint for the Warriors. The space benefited Kuminga and Wiggins. Their athleticism, their ability to get where they want in isolation, their determination to get to the rim, it was problematic for Denver.

But who comes off the court for Kuminga? And how does that not create the same problem Kuminga is experiencing, not being able to spread his wings?

Kuminga is sixth on the roster in total fourth-quarter minutes this season but second behind Curry in total fourth-quarter points. Part of that is because he is shooting 63.6 percent from the field in the fourth quarter and gets to the free-throw line more than anyone but Curry.

But the Warriors have so many options. That’s why Kerr tried before to narrow the rotation to nine players. But two of the nine, Green and Payton, were lost for extended periods. Other members of the nine weren’t playing well enough to be guaranteed minutes, and the door was opened for the youngsters.

At 8:22, Curry came back in for the final stretch, so the Nuggets brought Jokić back, too. At the 7:25 mark, Denver brought Caldwell-Pope back in. At 5:04, Aaron Gordon returned. The Nuggets were set, ready to close the game with their guys: Jokić, Murray, Caldwell-Pope, Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. Everybody knows their role. On offense, they know what they want to do.

The Warriors, on the other hand, played nine players down the stretch. Looney and Kuminga came in at the 7:25 mark. At 3:50, Thompson came back in. At 2:02, Paul and Jackson-Davis came in. At 1:13, Šarić came in for Jackson-Davis. Every substitution alters the strengths and weaknesses on the court. Every player brings different options to the table. The Warriors have played more clutch games than any team in the league. Yet they find themselves searching still, trying to press the right buttons, still alternating between styles and skills. They’re 12-12 in clutch games. Volume isn’t producing consistency.