San Francisco – The Hornets blew away the Warriors’ 18-point second half lead. It was tied at 101 with just over three minutes left. Charlotte owned property. The ball headed to PJ Washington in the corner.
Washington is a masterful giant. He launches 3s and hits them at a decent clip, but doesn’t have a very explosive first step. He looks for space and on this occasion he tries to get away from defender Jonathan Cumminga a few times.
But Kuminga didn’t give him room to breathe. He’s quicker and more aggressive than Washington on the sidelines, embracing his role as one of the Warriors’ personal defenders. As Washington sent a few soft jabs at him, Kumga grew closer and more aggressive. Washington exposed the ball. Kuminga tore up.
That steal was one of the most popular postgame topics after the Warriors closed out a necessary 110-105 victory. Quotes in defense of Kuminga from two of the loudest and most influential voices in the room will raise eyebrows.
“He looked like Andre Iguodala in that game,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s Andre’s type of game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andre was recommending it during the season and last year.
“That was a will,” Draymond Green said. “I want the ball more than you,” he said. It was ‘our backs are against the wall. We lost the lead. Let me make a game myself.’ So he took the ball. He goes and gets a dunk. He goes and snaps back in traffic. He made every play down. I think it all started with PJ Washington catching the ball. Someone caught him.”
Kuminga played the entire fourth quarter. If Andrew Wiggins was available, he wouldn’t have. But Wiggins’ extended absence has cracked the door wide open for Kumga, who has taken a firm hold of the rotation position over the past two weeks thanks to his offensive defense.
“We went with him on defense,” Kerr said. “He’s playing really well defensively and LaMelo was protecting (the ball).”
“At the moment – the fourth quarter,” Kuminga admitted, “I usually can’t be in the game.”
Kumga found a gap in the final minutes for two huge cuts. He was 6-for-6 shooting. He also had a layup by Gordon Hayward with just under 90 seconds left to give the Warriors a five-point lead. You can look Offensive clips are here.. After the Hornets called a timeout, Green began pulling Cumminga in celebration.
But Green cited the biggest return in particular. The Warriors are a small team that desperately needs an injection of controlled athleticism. Kuminga is in the top percentage of NBA athletes and is starting to make an impact in positive ways — like the aforementioned defensive rebound, shown below, when he slid over Mason Plumlee for a valuable possession with three minutes left.
Ball won 7 of 25 shots. Six of those fouls came in the dreaded fourth quarter. They sealed the final loss of Charlotte. That came after Klay Thompson missed a free throw, putting the Warriors up five. Ball tried to push it in the front court with 10 seconds left for a quick goal. But he spent most of the night – and this month – hunting down ball handlers, getting arrested by Kumga at full court.
Here’s an example of that.
It’s a significant development for a Warriors team that lost one of the NBA’s best offensive guards this summer. Gary Payton II, who led the NBA in steals per 36 minutes, left empty-handed when he left for Portland. Donte DiVincenzo and Moses Moody have their strengths, but they can’t be a hawk like Peyton.
While Kuminga is off-season, his physicality is off the charts and after sinking out of the rotation at the start of the season, he seems to be embracing his defensively-focused bench role.
“It’s locked now,” Green said. “I think it’s amazing to see. You never think he has the potential, but to see him mature and buy into the role. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s my role, that’s what I have to do. I do that better than anybody else.’ We’ve seen his impact the last few weeks. He’s been ripping every point guard he’s been in. … As a contender, you lose your spot in the rotation, what do you do to get it back? Some like that. Most like that. Then some go and take it back. And that’s what he did.”
Green’s words should not be easy. He doesn’t often offer these kinds of platitudes when talking about defense. Those were meaningful statements as the second-year wing believes he has the potential to be an elite defenseman.
“It was a beautiful thing to see,” Green said. “It’s his (improved) awareness on the ball side. He’s in the right spot more often than he is now. I think his progress in that area has been amazing. To be honest, it’s needed a lot for us. Because we haven’t guarded him very well. Penetration off the dribble. All year long on offense. We weren’t good enough. He changes it for us.
Kuminga is disruptive on the ball and dangerous when locked in individual work. But for him to really emerge and continue to close out key games for the Warriors, he still needs to improve in the team’s concept, right? This question was presented to the Green.
“I don’t play defense in the team’s concept,” Green said. “I know a lot of people think I do, but I don’t know. When you’re good enough, the team’s concepts settle around you. That’s what it’s starting to show. We don’t always want him to get as high as he does. But if you’re running offense and it’s working for us and making the opponent’s offense worse, who’s going to stop? If you’re good. And when you’re talented, the team’s concepts align around you.
That’s Green, one of the greatest defenders of a generation, calling himself a defensive talk about Kuminga.
“(Other) guys are learning,” Green continued. “Even now, you hear (the coaches) say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this on the screen.’ I’m going in (this is different).’ That’s adapting to him. What he’s doing is enough to adapt as opposed to saying, ‘No JK, I really want you to be in this red (cover).’ No. He’s very talented. That’s what he said. Something we agree on. Understanding group concepts is very important. He is learning. It is helping. He is doing what needs to be done on that side. But when you change the skill set on that side of the ball and say, ‘Hey, we want you to do this,’ you’re going to be silly.
This appears to be significant progress.
(Photo of Warrior’s Jonathan Kuminga scoring on Hornets’ Gordon Hayward: Theron W. Henderson/Getty Images)