SAN FRANCISCO — You could tell the Warriors were searching frantically for something on Tuesday at Chase Center, though the individual members of this team went about it in very different ways.
Klay Thompson was desperately searching for a way to blast himself out of an early-season funk, which probably helped prod him into a quick-trigger tussle with the very sticky Jaden McDaniels and double-ejection just two minutes into this wild game against the Timberwolves.
Draymond Green was searching, as usual, for the highest form of motivational frenzy — and possibly any chance to put an elbow-lock on Rudy Gobert’s throat, which Draymond achieved right after Gobert ran to separate Klay from McDaniels — in the middle of this Warriors’ losing streak.
Everybody else was searching for a way to win without Stephen Curry, who missed this game due to a minor knee issue. And then Klay and Draymond (assessed a Flagrant 2 foul and automatic ejection) were suddenly gone, too, against a towering and red-hot Minnesota team that had handled the Warriors pretty easily just two days earlier. The entire Warriors franchise was searching for solutions, for options, for explanations, for answers, for reasons to keep believing.
Two minutes into this, it felt all wrong. It seemed like the pent-up, self-defeating flagellations of a dynasty in decline.
And then the game continued and, by accident and fate as the arena roared in happy surprise, the Warriors found some things. Maybe some very important things. They lost the game, 104-101, to even their record at 6-6. But the scrambling, theoretically mismatched lineups Steve Kerr put out there, led by 38-year-old Chris Paul and 20-year-old rookie Brandin Podziemski, looked super-charged and cohesive, smart and swaggering, fully part of the Warriors’ ethos and a little different, too.
Warriors’ observations: What went down in loss to the Timberwolves
“In order to win in the NBA, obviously you have to have talent, but you have to have energy,” an ebullient Kerr said afterward. “You have to bring something to the table life-wise, joy-wise, energy-wise, competitiveness-wise. And that’s what I watched tonight from the whole group.
“Clearly, Brandin has that. That’s pretty obvious. And our fans have watched this team win four championships. They weren’t won by a bunch of pouters and wallflowers. They were won by gamers, competitors, guys who brought energy and joy and passion to everything. And that’s what it takes. So that’s what I’m looking for.”
The Warriors have been looking for it because they lost their mojo over the last week, wiping out the good feelings of their 6-2 start. The Warriors have been looking for it because none of the headliners other than Curry have played well, and all of them are hearing the whispers about old age and the end of this run.
This was just one game. It was not even a victory. And maybe Podziemski’s 23-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist performance in 39 minutes won’t be close to duplicated anytime soon. But quite frankly, it was a better, steelier, more daring game than any Warrior not named Curry has had this season. That means something. And it probably is exactly what the Warriors need. More Podziemski, more toughness, more swagger, less of what the Warriors have been doing recently.
“Great guy, great fighter, you know what I mean?” Dario Šarić said of Podziemski, who is still sporting a big bruise over his right eye thanks to an elbow in his G-League appearance several days ago. “When you have a fighter like that, you want to go into battle and (play) basketball with those kinds of men.”
Podziemski cut through the Wolves’ defense and even challenged Gobert several times. He was creative and a little lucky, including his flailing bank-shot heave to beat the third-quarter buzzer. He teamed with Paul for several very impressive stints, battled on the boards and stood his ground on defense. There’s no doubt: On a team that has struggled to make plays on offense and has hit energy lulls that you might expect from such a veteran squad, Podziemski is a 1.5-x speed revelation.
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“He’s going to play; he’s going to play every night,” Kerr said. “He’s earned that. He was incredible tonight, he’s been great in practice. There’s something unique about him, you know, at that size to rebound the way he does. He had 7 tonight. He’s always in the right spot. He’s fearless. And he connects the game. He plays the way we want to play. The ball moves when he’s out there. He’s attacking at the right times. He’s cutting at the right times. Defensively, he’s really good. He’s a damn good player. So he’s going to play.”
Kerr clearly was leaning this way even before the game, when he smiled and called Podziemski “cocky” because “he knows he’s good.” Oh, by the way, Kerr said he loved this.
I asked Paul: Do you think this rookie is cocky in a good way?
“Absolutely,” Paul said. “You don’t want him to come in scared, you know what I mean? You guys see him playing on the court, but he’s just a joy to be around every day. He’s a sponge. He wants to learn. Then he gets out there and he plays, he plays hard. Whatever the team needs, he’s going to do. You want to see people like that win.”
An example of the Podziemski bantering style: When asked about taking a team-high 18 shots in this game (after taking a total of 17 in the previous 11 games), he referenced Curry — but not by his name. By his nickname/number (which is how the vets on the team address Curry).
“I talked to 30 about it, and he said every shot I took tonight was a good shot,” Podziemski said. “So just kinda what the game calls for.”
And what was it like to be the guy having to make so many plays at the end of the shot clock and in the midst of so many tall Timberwolves?
“Kinda just felt like college, really,” Podziemski said. “That was all last year (at Santa Clara) for me. And I feel comfortable creating for myself or creating for my teammates in late-clock situations.”
Podziemski could get second-unit minutes over Moses Moody as Klay’s backup. He could even take some of Klay’s minutes later in games if Klay doesn’t get going. And Podziemski could get more minutes as a co-backup point guard with Paul, two guys who can play together or play separately alongside Curry and Klay.
“I think he’s just a basketball player, so we can play him anywhere,” Kerr said. “The beauty of it is the game connects when he’s out there. I’m excited to play him with Steph and with Klay. He’s going to get those guys a lot of shots just with the way he plays and the way the ball moves.”
Said Podziemski: “I look at myself as like a spare tire. Whenever something is wrong with the tires, I just go in there and fix it. And whatever Coach asks me, that’s what I have to do. I’m not going to say I have a particular role.”
Does he think he’s cocky? “You can kind of view it as that, but I think it’s what helped me get here, and I think it’s going to help me stay in the league,” Podziemski said. “I’m not just soft out there or nothing like that.”
There’s another possible long-term roster tweak: Kerr could spot Šarić more regularly in the starting lineup after he got the start on Tuesday to try to pull Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns away from the rim with his 3-point shooting and playmaking. Šarić was only 6 for 15 overall and 3 for 11 from 3-point range, but he ended up with 21 important points; and just the threat of his shooting opened things up for Paul and Podziemski.
The Warriors are 12 games into this season. Some things have gone right, mostly involving Curry, CP3 and Gary Payton II. Some things have been bad long enough to trigger alternative plans. The Warriors’ mainstay starting lineup (Curry, Klay, Draymond, Andrew Wiggins and Kevon Looney) was the best five-man group in the league last season but has been a major problem this season because Klay and Wiggins need to shoot well for that group to succeed and that just isn’t happening.
Even if Kerr keeps it together, that lineup probably will play a lot less in the future, maybe with CP3 and Podziemski getting more time with Curry and Draymond. And it might not even continue as the starting lineup.
“We love the lineup that we’ve started the last couple years, and we want to give that lineup every opportunity to get going,” Kerr said. “We know when Wigs and Klay are shooting the ball well, that lineup makes perfect sense. We have two full seasons of that to show for it. And to prove that. But if we’re struggling to score, then Dario does change the chess board with his pick-and-pop and his ability to stretch the floor.
“So everything’s a possibility at this point. I like this team a lot, the character, the guts, the grit, but there’s a lot of moving parts right now. Nothing is set in stone, and we’re going to have to sort through it here in the early part of the season.”
It felt like Tuesday was a major sorting moment for the Warriors, though. It could’ve been a throwaway game. A mess. An explosion of futile emotion. But instead, it was a night full of very interesting discoveries.
(Photo: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)