SAN FRANCISCO — The Warriors deployed their ninth lineup of the season Friday night, but if they are as serious about tanking the season as some outside speculation suggests, they are going to have to try a 10th or 11th or 12th.
Tankers, you see, don’t deliberately or consistently send out their best lineups.
Draymond Green and Eric Paschall were the starting forwards for the first time this season, and even in a 105-100 loss to the rampaging Celtics, performed well enough – as did the team around them – to provide reason to believe the Warriors will find a few more wins if Steve Kerr makes a habit of this.
“We just wanted to take a different look,” Kerr said. “We had lost five games in a row, and we wanted to just to see Eric and Draymond play together. We like the physicality that it brought to our defense, so we had a more physical front line with both Eric and Draymond and Willie [Cauley-Stein].
“We gave up a little something in spacing, but we pick up something defensively.”
In addition to starting the Green-Paschall duo at forward, Glenn Robinson III — who started the first 11 games at small forward — was moved to the backcourt alongside point guard D’Angelo Russell, with Cauley-Stein at center.
That group stunned the Celtics by racing out to leads of 10 (18-8) six minutes into the game and 15 (25-10) a little more than two minutes later. The groundwork was laid for perhaps the Warriors’ best first quarter of the season, which ended with a 32-23 lead.
The numbers, across the board, were more than respectable: 50 percent shooting from the field, 33.3 percent from deep; 16-14 rebounding edge; eight assists, one turnover; holding Boston to 30.4 percent shooting, 25 percent from beyond the arc.
“Our defense was better,” Green said. “I think that was our best defensive effort of the season. We let go of the rope a little bit in the second quarter, which is how they got back into the game. But it all starts on the defensive end, and we were better tonight.”
The Celtics fought back because, well, they are the best team in the Eastern Conference and entered Chase Center with a nine-game win streak. Despite falling behind by as much as seven in the third quarter, the Warriors didn’t so much as fold late as they were outplayed by a more talented team, with more accomplished veterans.
“I told you guys that the young players are going go play their butts off,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “The other thing is that you can tell the way that Draymond Green is leading, he’s so engaged in all these young guys. He’s leading all the way through and competing and kind of leading the charge.
“There’s a lot of character, competitive character (among the Warriors), which has been proved over a long period of time, and it’s being instilled into all of the new and younger guys.”
Green spent considerable time running the offense and finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals. Paschall submitted 16 points and eight rebounds. Their early tenacity, particularly in the paint, was contagious. Centers Marquese Chriss, Omari Spellman and Cauley-Stein combined for 22 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks.
“It just brought a sense of urgency and toughness from the jump, and that’s what the whole plan was, to just come out super aggressive,” Cauley-Stein said of the new lineup. “Draymond and Eric are two of our most aggressive players, so it worked.”
The second quarter was awful, the Warriors losing it by 10 mostly because they had as many turnovers (six) as assists. Russell — who left in the third quarter with a sprained right thumb — was particularly bad with the ball, turning it over four times in seven second-quarter minutes.
Though the Warriors lost, it was to the team that over the past three weeks is playing better than any in the NBA. In a season of lessons, the one to take from this game is that there is every reason to believe they can be considerably better than they have been.
In the process of losing, the Warriors found a lineup that, if it stays healthy and intact long enough, has enough to counter allegations of tanking. Lineup No. 9 is their best, surely good enough to win games they otherwise would lose.