The Warriors found a way to beat the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers Monday and, in doing so, may have discovered something more important for them this season.
In Golden State’s 115-113 win over the Lakers at Staples Center, forward Kelly Oubre Jr. thrived in a new role. Used as the primary defender on LeBron James, as a catch-and-shoot threat on offense and part of a revamped bench unit, Oubre finished with 23 points on 9-for-18 shooting (2-for-8 from 3-point range) and the Warriors (7-6) came back to beat the Lakers in a nationally-televised showcase on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Kelly played arguably his best game on both ends of the floor,” said Stephen Curry. “And this is a step in the right direction.”
Having opened the season with a historic shooting slump, Oubre entered the game shooting 50-for-143 from the field and 13-for-66 from 3-point range. Sensing Oubre needed a boost, Steve Kerr on Sunday hinted at potential rotation changes.
So when the second quarter began Monday night, Oubre took Andrew Wiggins’ place as part of a new-look reserve unit with Curry and Draymond Green on the bench.
The Lakers (11-4) had opened up an early 19-point lead, but Oubre’s second 3-pointer of the second quarter cut the deficit to five. Playing most of his minutes without Curry, who he has struggled to play with at times this season, Oubre scored 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 18 first-half minutes.
“I just decided to make the change, thinking about it over the last couple of days, just to flip-flop Andrew and Kelly in the rotation to give Kelly a chance to play with a different group,” Kerr said. “In the early part of the season, he’s gotten kind of lost in that he’s just standing in the corner and not a whole lot is happening for him. I thought playing with the second unit would maybe activate him, get him more aggressive, get him more involved. I thought he did a great job.”
This could be a pivotal moment for the Warriors’ and Oubre’s season. Oubre, who the Warriors acquired this offseason to replace Klay Thompson’s (Achilles) spot in the starting lineup, had so far not been able to recreate Thompson’s scoring production or defensive impact.
But on Monday, Oubre was tasked with defending James and did so in his own way: by hounding him full-court and using his long limbs to contest shots and hold James to 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting, five rebounds and five assists.
Alongside reserves Eric Paschall, Damion Lee, Brad Wanamaker and Jordan Poole, Oubre had more space to cut to the rim. Without having to defer to Curry, Green or Wiggins, he had the license to attack.
Also encouraging was that the new rotation pattern did not negatively impact Wiggins, who had himself thrived as part of that second unit this season. Playing most of his minutes with Curry, Wiggins finished with 18 points on a tidy 7-for-11 shooting. However, he did have a hard time corralling Lakers point guard Dennis Schroder, whose team-high 25 points helped Los Angeles go on a 10-0 run en route to seizing a 34-15 lead with 1:14 left in the first quarter.
But the Warriors managed to hang around, and Curry’s left-handed layup cut the Lakers’ lead to 108-104 with 3:32 remaining.
At that point, Oubre re-entered the game, Curry’s next free throws trimmed the deficit to two and Oubre — defending full court — caused Schroder to turn the ball over on the ensuing inbound.
Oubre punctuated the turnover the way he has all season: With an excited “first-down”-style celebration, blond-highlighted hair bouncing in the face of the opposing bench. This intensity has been unwavering all season despite Oubre’s struggles, and it is what teammates and coaches continued to praise when Oubre’s shot was not falling.
But Oubre’s next shot — a layup through traffic — did go in and tied the game. Green then drove to the basket on back-to-back possessions to cap a 15-2 run and extend the Warriors’ first lead of the game, 112-108, with 1:39 to go.
“Tonight was really the first night he looked aggressively to attack the rim instead of trying to swing the ball on,” Kerr said of Green, who finished with seven points on 3-of-6 shooting, eight rebounds and nine assists. “Those were two of the biggest buckets of the game.”
Then Anthony Davis, James and Schroder scored and Curry, who had a game-high 26 points on 8-for-22 shooting and seven assists, missed a layup, setting up a chance for the Lakers to win.
On the final possession, Oubre’s deflection of Schroder’s dribble tangled the Lakers’ offense and forced a timeout with 1.7 seconds remaining. After the inbound, James’ jumper rimmed out. The comeback was complete, the signature win earned and, possibly, Oubre’s season put back on track.
“He’s finding his way on this team,” Green said. “Huge game for us tonight. We need him to continue to build on that.”
Dan Carter was a reporter for nomad Labs, before becoming the lead editor. Dan has over forty bylines and has reported on countless stories concerning all things related to tech and science. Dan studied at CSUF.