Steph Curry played three minutes and 13 seconds in the fourth quarter Wednesday night in Phoenix. Klay Thompson’s fourth-quarter minutes mirrored Curry’s, too. Andrew Wiggins played one minute and 57 seconds, Kevon Looney didn’t play at all and Chris Paul was ejected in the first half. The Warriors already were without an injured Gary Payton II and a suspended Draymond Green.
They trailed by as many as 23 points, lost by eight and cut the deficit even closer to that in the final seconds, falling 123-115 to the Phoenix Suns in a game where Kevin Durant had to play over 34 minutes and Devin Booker more than 31.
If it wasn’t for how his players responded, it looked like Steve Kerr had just about seen enough at the 4:16 mark in the third quarter. The Warriors were down by 20 points, 86-66. Kerr called in Gui Santos and Cory Joseph, sending Curry and Wiggins to the bench. Santos and Joseph joined Brandin Podziemski, Moses Moody and Dario Saric, giving the Warriors a group of two rookies, a 21-year-old who has proved he has to be part of the rotation, a 32-year-old averaging 7.8 minutes per game and Saric, who probably serves better as a four than a five.
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The group sliced the Suns’ lead in half and left the court as a plus-8, outscoring Phoenix 16-8 in six minutes and 58 seconds, before Curry and Thompson replaced Joseph and Podziemski with 9:18 remaining in the game.
“I think our second unit, guys that don’t get a lot of minutes, you’re just playing out there with nothing to lose at that point,” Podziemski said to reporters after the loss. “Already down how much we were already down, you just fight and compete and I think that’s what we kind of lacked to start the game.”
In that seven-minute span, Moody and Saric each scored six points, Santos scored two and so did Podziemski.
Only Suns All-Star shooting guard Devin Booker, plus-23, had a better plus/minus than Podziemski’s plus-20. Booker had a 25-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound near triple-double in 31 minutes. Podziemski scored 10 points in 23 minutes off the bench, to go with four rebounds, three steals, two assists and no turnovers.
Golden State Warriors
Joseph’s 16 minutes were much more than anybody expected. His plus-12 was twice as much as his previous season high. Saric also was a plus-12 and led the bench scoring 17 points, his eight game in double figures this season. Moody’s nine rebounds were four more than his previous season high, and they set a new career high.
Santos, 21, had played four minutes in his NBA career before Wednesday night. The former second-round draft pick played eight-plus minutes and was a plus-3.
The Warriors’ bench outscored the Suns 53-35 when their backs already were against the wall going into the game, and even more so when Paul was ejected at the end of the first half.
But Kerr did go back to Curry and Thompson. The Warriors were in a 12-point hole when they came back into the game, and an 18-point hole when they went to the bench for the final time. There still were six minutes left in the game.
There were a handful of times Kerr could have called for Curry or Thompson or Wiggins or Looney. He didn’t. The Warriors closed with Joseph, Podziemski, Jonathan Kuminga, Saric and rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis for the final six minutes. They shortened the Suns’ lead to nine points with two-plus minutes left, six points with one minute to go and three points all the way down to 12 seconds.
The same players remained on the court, earning the right to do so, and outscoring the Suns 24-14.
“There was consideration,” Kerr said of possibly bringing Curry or others back late in the game. “But it’s one of those games where the bench goes out and plays great, much better than the starters played, and they get you back in it. And you reward them and you stick with it.
“We definitely thought about it, but those are weird moments as a coach where it doesn’t feel right to go away from the group that is playing great. That was the decision to stay with them because they were making the run. That’s usually how we do it.”
None of this is about a moral victory or a silver lining on a night where the Warriors fell to 7-9 on the season. It’s about the right things being rewarded, regardless of status, age or symbol, and that’s something a winning team can respect and believe in.