Golden State Warriors

Festus Ezeli goes from DNP-CD in Game 1 to unlikely Game 2 hero for Warriors

Festus Ezeli Draymond Green

We’ve heard about Andre Iguodala’s sacrifice more times than we can count. We’ve seen dozens of 30-assist games from this team. The camaraderie is well known, the selflessness … contagious. But in the most desperate moments of these playoffs for the Warriors thus far, when it didn’t look like anyone could slow down Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and the Blazers kept pushing the lead to back to double-digits, Steve Kerr called on someone who didn’t even play in Game 1.

The result? A new answer to a new problem, and a 2-0 series lead for the Warriors after their come-from-behind 110-99 victory in front of the loudest crowd of the season.

Was Festus Ezeli hurt?

That question came to mind during Game 4 in Houston, when James Michael McAdoo was playing and Ezeli was duct-taped to his sideline chair. Kerr cited “matchups” as the reason why, in Game 1 of this series, 11 players saw at least seven minutes of floor time and not one of them was Ezeli. Andrew Bogut looked like a different player on Tuesday night, partially because the Blazers attacked him differently with their pick-and-roll game. Anderson Varejao came in and was totally ineffective. Still no Ezeli.

Finally, when the Warriors were down 76-66 with 4:09 left in the third quarter, the call was made. Ezeli in for Bogut. Ezeli played the next 13 minutes, and when he came out of the contest, the Warriors were up 98-95.

“He changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense and his presence around the rim. The energy he gave us,” Kerr said of Ezeli, who scored 8 points and grabbed 6 rebounds.

“This is a guy who has been out most of the last part of the season and didn’t play much in the Houston series. So, phenomenal effort from Fezzy to really change the game.”

Just to hammer home all of the great character points that make the Warriors more than just a good basketball team, but one of the greatest teams in this or perhaps any era, Draymond Green and Ezeli spoke together after the game.

Green gave us a press conference for the ages.

The sweat that dripped from every square inch of his head — Warriors PR gave him a towel while Ezeli answered a question — was visual proof of his ferocious play over 41 minutes. But just about every word he uttered was about others on this team, from his thoughtful description of Ezeli’s performance to a shoutout at the end of the press conference for backup-backup point guard Ian Clark.

“A weird way of subbing”

“(Ezeli is) a true professional. He trusts the process. That’s the key to this team, we all trust the process. There’s times where, I don’t know, Coach Kerr will sometimes have a weird way of subbing. (Ezeli will) go a game and not play. I thought he was probably going to come in with four minutes to go in the first quarter. Coach Kerr will do that sometimes,” Green said.

“But one thing about Coach Kerr and the coaching staff, they have a great feel for how the game is going. He came in today and made a huge impact. Earlier today after shootaround I walked through the weight room and he’s in there doing cardio. ‘Be ready tonight big fella. We’re going to need you tonight.’ He showed up. That says a lot to his character, a lot to the player he is, and a lot about the teammate that he is.”

No one can argue with the process, and one can’t even argue with the substitution patterns. Kerr decision to wait 32 minutes before utilizing the most athletic center on his roster didn’t lead to a loss. Golden State never lost total control of this game, thanks in large part to Andre Iguodala’s steady hand in a first half where Green, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston combined to go 7-for-27. After Lillard stopped making dagger threes, including one to end the third quarter, the Warriors roared to a 34-12 finish in the fourth.

At the center of that defensive effort, literally and figuratively, was the tandem in the photo above. After Game 1, which was followed by several compliments for Green and Bogut for their defensive communication, I asked Green how that changed, if at all, with Ezeli in. His answer filled in the details about what it takes to play defense at the highest level, for any layperson who might be curious about what it’s like to excel at such a specific skill in front of thousands of screaming fans.

https://youtu.be/drtHb-OUjzI

“It doesn’t change (when Ezeli is in). When he’s in the ball screen, I’m the last line of defense. And I’m just behind him telling him, ‘Hey, stay up, stay up. I got your back,'” Green said.

“Coach Izzo used to always tell me, if you’re that last line of defense, you have to be loud, you have to talk. I think our bigs do a great job of that. Especially against a team like this … Did you see him in that pick-and-roll? He was incredible. I can’t have him up there defending the pick-and-roll worried about what Mason Plumlee’s doing behind him. So you’ve got to be there talking to him because he can’t see it.”

What he’s describing couldn’t have been easy on a night like tonight, when the tickets were a little cheaper than a normal playoff game (no Steph Curry changes the atmosphere in multiple ways) and the fans were boisterous throughout the entire contest — particularly on defense. But Green’s voice is plenty loud. So is Bogut’s, as I noticed when I entered the Warriors’ locker room tonight and heard an Aussie screaming from the showers.

“EZELI! EZELI!!!!”

How many starting centers throughout the NBA scream like maniacs for their backup like this?

“Festus was unbelievable for us tonight. He came in and picked me up because I was kind of having a sloppy game,” Bogut said.

“I couldn’t be happier or more proud of my former rookie than I am tonight.”

Dub Steps

— More from Green on Festus:

“Some people are going to look and say, oh, he caught a couple lobs and had a put-back. Nah, it’s not that. Did you see him on the ball screen with Damian Lillard when Damian Lillard completely took over the game?

“Did you see him in the ball screen with C.J. McCollum? Did you see him stop the ball screen with C.J. McCollum, get back and block Mason Plumlee’s shot? That’s the stuff I look at. Did you see him coming up with the huge rebounds when we needed rebounds? So he was great tonight and one of the biggest reasons we were able to pull this game out.”

— I was legitimately worried that this game might last a lot longer, simply because Green made the basket stanchion sway quite a bit when he went completely horizontal on that dunk.

— Green’s fourth quarter: 6 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, +22 in 12 minutes.

— Thompson’s fourth quarter: 10 points, 3-of-4 on threes (after going 3-of-11 over the first three quarters).

— How did the Blazers take an early lead and keep it for three-plus quarters?

  • They were on fire in the first quarter, making 14-of-21. Portland has some shooters, but Golden State’s defensive effort was several levels below what we saw at the start of Game 1.
  • Terry Stotts also made the adjustment we all kind of knew was needed when he put a different defender on Thompson than McCollum. Thompson got some open looks that he clanked early on, but a lot of that could’ve been from losing the rhythm he got into so easily at the start of Game 1, thanks in part to the work put in by Moe Harkless on Tuesday night.
  • The Warriors didn’t get to the line in the first quarter.
  • The officials seemed to be on the lookout for illegal screens and push-offs.
  • Lillard played like Lillard in the first three quarters, and McCollum was hot for a stretch as well.

— Back to my original point in the opening paragraph, Ezeli was asked if he thought about what his Game 2 performance could mean for him this summer, when he becomes a restricted free agent.

https://youtu.be/p1n6a2A1UQQ

“No. Try to stay in the moment,” Ezeli said.

“Great answer. Great answer,” whispered Green while grinning.

“Our main goal coming into the season, ever since the summer — I still remember in the summer we were all texting in a group chat talking about how we can’t wait to get back and get back to practice. That’s a very special feeling to have on a basketball team.

“We’re all like a band of brothers. So all that other stuff, the individual selfish stuff, there is really no room for that on this team. We have one goal, and we’ve had it since we got back to training camp. It’s fun. It’s been a fun year so far, so we’re trying to finish it out right.”

— After Ezeli said that, Green’s final (public) outburst ended the night perfectly.

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