SAN FRANCISCO — The sequence that Steve Kerr identified as the play of the game Friday night came with about 2:30 left in the Warriors’ eventual 108-99 victory over the Pelicans. They were up two. Jordan Poole danced into a stepback on the right wing. He missed.
But don’t see Poole on the right wing. Instead, turn your gaze to the left wing. Donte DiVincenzo is drifting around out there. Brandon Ingram is his defender, stationed down the left block in ideal return position. But when the shot goes up, Ingram watches the ball and DiVincenzo begins his sneak attack, darting in behind Ingram for a crucial rebound and a bounce pass to a cutting Jonathan Kuminga, who crushes a dunk to put the Warriors up four.
This has been a segmented Warriors season with so many pivot points and divergent chapters. Their nadir may actually have come early, back in November, when they stumbled to a 3-7 start, throttling Kerr into urgent action to retool the rotation before the situation got too dire.
Then DiVincenzo rehabbed a strained hamstring, and Kuminga found himself on the outside of a crowded frontcourt rotation, unable to squeak past Moses Moody, James Wiseman or JaMychal Green. Neither was a significant part of the ugly early picture.
But situations can change drastically during the 82-match marathon. The Warriors just completed a 5-0 home run to put them a season-high four games over .500, sitting as the fifth seed at 34-30. All five wins were without Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins, forcing Kerr to get creative with a short-handed rotation. DiVincenzo and Kuminga have strengthened during the stretch that has, at least temporarily, saved the Warriors’ season.
Kuminga played 32 minutes off the bench against the Pelicans. He handled some of the Ingram assignments in Wiggins’ absence. He rebounded with power, cut with anticipation and finished with power, putting up a game-high 19 points, seven rebounds, four steals and a block. He was a plus-13 and shutout over Kevon Looney. This came one game after Kuminga had 19 points, seven rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block in 29 bench minutes against the Clippers, matching Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
“He’s taking some steps offensively,” Kerr said. “I liked him going to the rim and cutting and finding his way there. … The more he can attack and use his athleticism offensively, the better. And I think he does. So defensively, he is by far our best option at Ingram.”
Here’s an example of Kuminga’s developing feel as a cutter. He has Herb Jones, a long and active defender on him. But Jones turns his back and Kuminga dives for the bucket at the right moment, finishing well with his left hand.
This was not one of DiVincenzo’s most productive games. He only took three shots and made one. But it was a massive 3 from the top of the key with 3:09 left to put the Warriors up 98-94. He’s hit some clutch shots this season, including a wing 3 at the regulation buzzer to send an eventual victory over the Hawks into overtime.
Durability was a question mark for DiVincenzo entering the season. He missed the first half of last regular season after recovering from a serious ankle injury. He tweaked his hamstring in the third game of the season. It was fair to wonder how much they would be able to get from a player they used part of the mid-level exception to secure.
Here are DiVincenzo’s averages per game in December, January and February: 28.5, 30.2, 28.3. He’s become a massive part of a backcourt rotation that was thought to be crowded but has instead become smaller, pushing Klay Thompson into the frontcourt and using DiVincenzo as a secondary playmaker, dead-eye shooter (42 percent from 3 on the season) and more -ball pests. He has turned into one of the summer’s biggest bargains and probably played himself out of the Warriors’ price range, but that’s a conversation for another day.
During this Curry absence, DiVincenzo has filled a low-usage starting court role well alongside Poole and Thompson, organizing action when needed but also spacing the floor and getting away most of the time.
During this unbeaten home run, Thompson has gained more control of the offense and the results have been there. He had four assists in each of the last two games and delivered an efficient 27 points on 10-of-17 shooting to shut down the Pelicans on Friday night, completing an explosive five-game stretch that moved the Warriors up the standings and provided further evidence that he’s basically back to his best self on the offensive end.
This win moves the Warriors to 27-7 at home this season. But they are 7-23 on the road and about to begin a challenging three-game stretch away from the Chase Center. It begins with one of the infamous afternoon games in Los Angeles on Sunday against the Lakers before trips to Oklahoma City and Memphis next week. When they return home, there are a couple of challenging tests against the Bucks and Suns.
The Warriors expect Curry back Sunday. It is an additional supply of life. But this stretch has been about an increased defensive focus. They gave up 101, 104, 105, 91 and 99 points during this home game. Can that defense travel?
“For whatever reason, that hasn’t been the case,” Kerr said. “Our defense on the road has been bad all year, and it’s been really good at home. But I think the last four or five games have been the best and most consistent defense we’ve played and hopefully that translates.
(Photo of Jonathan Kuminga after he scored against the Pelicans in the second half Friday night: Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press)