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Warriors’ diverse trio of big men have a become center of attention

OAKLAND – By halftime of Game 2 Wednesday night, the Warriors’  trio of role-playing centers had combined to make 10 of 11 shots against the undersized Portland Trail Blazers, an almost ridiculous 90.9 percent conversion rate.

JaVale McGee was 6 for 6, Zaza Pachulia was 3 for 3, and shame on him for missing one, but David West was 2 for 3. And the rest of the team? Just 13 of 37, barely 35 percent. Yet the Warriors led by nine at the break largely because of the astounding efficiency of their diverse big men.

This isn’t the way the Warriors were supposed to begin their roll through the NBA playoffs, but it’s a development that will only serve to make the Warriors that much more daunting as they move forward in the postseason. As a group, McGee, Pachulia and West have made themselves bona fide centers of attention, not just big men taking up space in the paint.

Obviously, all three do dramatically different things. As coach Steve Kerr put it this week, “Zaza’s a screener and a banger, JaVale’s a leaper, runner and a lob guy, David’s a savvy, skilled veteran. They just give us dramatically different looks, and as an opponent, you have to know what you’re getting with each guy.”

Portland, playing without 7-footer Jusuf Nurkic so far, hasn’t gotten it. Warriors centers combined for 33 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four assists in Game 2, and that’s an uncommonly productive three-headed beast on the block. It was a huge improvement from the Game 1 aggregate, which was certainly decent enough: 16 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and four assists.

Kerr and the Warriors never could have imagined it would evolve into this kind of productive center rotation at season’s outset. The pieces were there, but there were so many questions about how they would produce individually, let alone whether they would fit together and play off one another.

“It took a couple of months,” Kerr said. “I didn’t play JaVale at all for the first 10 games or so. But his importance became obvious with that burst he gave us. Then David got comfortable with that second unit and it all started making sense.”

The Warriors coach understands from his playing days the value of having multiple serviceable centers who fit into defined roles. He played on Chicago Bulls teams that rotated a slew of big men such as Bill Cartwright, Luc Longley, Will Perdue, Stacey King and Bill Wennington over the course of a decade. None were stars, but they combined to earn 15 world championship rings playing alongside Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman. Perdue added another – playing with Kerr – with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.

Kerr said those Bulls bigs definitely were important to Chicago’s success, but that they’re very tough to compare with his current group.

“Those guys were all big monsters,” he said. “This is different. Our guys now are really dynamically different from one another. The centers with the Bulls were actually all pretty similar players. But we needed them all. Back then, you had to guard Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing and Rik Smits and Shaquille O’Neal. So we needed their fouls.”

The current threesome performs such varied functions that McGee just laughed when asked if they ever compare notes.

“What do we have to talk about?” he said. “Everybody has their own thing that they’re great at.  It’s hard to match up with us because we’re three completely different players, yet in the end we’re like one center. It’s amazing, because we can all make it happen.”

Stephen Curry said there is one common link between all three men – they are active in the post, albeit in different ways. And when they operate as they did in Game 2, it creates severe issues for the opposing defense.

“We want to try to promote ball movement,” Curry said. “So when they get the ball in their hands and are able to play-make in the paint or finish, it helps us out a huge amount.”

McGee said it’s also significant that each guy knows roughly when and how much they’ll play. It’s become almost like clockwork – Pachulia gets the first 6-7 minutes of each half, McGee follows with a stint of around 5-6 minutes and West gets the start of the second and fourth quarters. The minutes might get extended or reduced depending on who’s playing most effectively, but more often than not, the minutes have become consistently systematic, regardless of opponent or matchup.

“I feel like I’ve been pretty efficient all year, and with Steve, I know exactly how many minutes I’m going to get and when I’m going in, so I’m prepared,” McGee said. “There are no random minutes for me out there, so it’s easy for me to say I’m going to use these five minutes to exhaust myself to a point of no return because I know I’m coming out.”

McGee is really the key to it all working so well because of his length and savvy around the basket at both ends of the floor, plus an energy that not only gets the team going but the crowd as well. It makes sense that he fits in between Pachulia and West, more workhorse types.

“JaVale’s bringing a different dimension that nobody else on the team can add, which is his presence above the rim,” said West. “It’s really become a huge weapon for us.”

They all have because of their specific strengths, and who would have believed the Warriors could get this kind of center alchemy for a collective $5.85 million in salary, just slightly more than they’re paying Shaun Livingston? There may not be a better investment in the NBA this year, and it’s becoming a bigger bargain with each new game.

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