Kawakami: Jordan Poole is leading the Warriors’ next generation

Jordan Poole is turning into a soaring 16-game player right before the warriors‘eyes. In front of the mavericks‘Eyes, too, though they are probably less enthusiastic about the development.

The “16-game player” appellation, of course, is this franchise’s own shorthand for one and only one kind of guy: somebody who can tangibly help the Warriors earn four victories in each of the four rounds of the postseason. Someone who can meet the moment. Somebody they can rely on when the ground is shaking.

Win 16 playoff games, and you have a parade afterward, which the warriors have accomplished three times with old standbys Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Clay Thompson other Andre Iguodala, who are all the ideal 16-game players and who all have been quite eager to add more of them. So they can add more trophies.

Kevin Looney has earned associated credit for his part in two of those titles. In the Warriors’ 126-117 victory Friday at Chase Center to go up 2-0 in the Western Conference finals, he was immense again, scoring a career-high 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. But the Warriors have considered Looney a 16-game player for a while now, probably from the moment they threw him out there against Houston in the 2018 Western Conference finals and he held up just fine switching onto James Harden down the stretch of an epic seven-game series. Andrew Wiggins is a crucial part of all of this, too, and is proving it every playoff game. Otto Porter Jr. has been extremely solid this postseason.

What about Poole? It’s happening right now. The warriors need it to happen right now; this postseason, in many ways, is about the dawn of a new generation of warriors playoff winners. And it sure was happening Friday, when Poole scored 12 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and carried the Warriors offense in the crucial minutes while Curry was resting. It was happening when Poole was on the court with Curry and it was even happening a little on defense, too — Poole was a game-best plus-26 on the night in 29 minutes.

It’s happening for all of the league to witness.

“The coaches are giving me the keys, and my teammates trust me to put them in easy situations, to score and to make plays,” Poole said afterward of his stints with Curry out. “Just go out there and just be aggressive.”

Steve Kerr had to improvise a little with that group to start the fourth. Damion Lee has been in this unit recently, but he was scattered during a bad first-half shift, so Kerr turned to rookie Moses Moody, who hadn’t played a meaningful minute in the postseason so far. What happened: The Warriors immediately took their first lead of the game on a Porter 3-pointer to start the quarter and kept going from there. By the time Curry got back into the game with 6:24 left, subbing in for Poole, the Warriors had a 102-95 lead.

Then, after that nice rest, Curry closed the game as only Curry can. The warriors didn’t have to press him into extra minutes. They could just run their second unit out there and count on Poole. Even when the warriors had Kevin Durant, they couldn’t quite do it like this in the playoffs because it worked better when they maximized both Curry and Durant by playing them together. Which left the Warriors predictably vulnerable to start the second and fourth quarters, when Curry rested.

But not so much these days. Poole hasn’t been perfect in the postseason; he had a few shaky games in the Denver and Memphis series, when defenses started getting more physical with him. He might have some shaker games in this series. His defense continues to be a question mark. The point, though, is Poole has forced defenses to make those kinds of adjustments, and he has lifted his game exactly when it matters most.

“I’ve got great confidence in Jordan,” Kerr said. “We’ve seen him do this with allowing Steph to rest, and still give us that offensive punch that we need, that shot creation.

“Jordan has really filled a role that has been tough for us to fill over the years. The Steph minutes, when he sits, traditionally have been really, really difficult for us. So Jordan has given us a different dynamic, and really important one.”

On Friday night, against a far better version of the Mavericks than showed up for Game 1, the Warriors looked befuddled early, got riddled by Mavericks’ 3-pointers and got behind by 14 at halftime. The Warriors could’ve easily lost this game to tie the series. Then they would’ve traveled to Dallas for games 3 and 4 with a chance for things to get out of hand.

But Looney held down the interior. The Warriors turned up the defense in the third quarter, which they won, 25-13. The Mavericks stopped hitting every 3 they put up. And Poole kept bolting through the key for flying layups and finding his teammates for open shots.

There were even moments when Dallas seemed to lose its 100 percent focus on Curry and Thompson because the defenders were a tiny bit worried about what Poole might do to them.

“Absolutely, and he’s more than capable as a ballhandler and playmaker to take advantage of that,” Curry said. “There are times when me or Klay are off the ball and we know they are not really going to leave us or help … and he’s amazing at taking advantage of that and getting to the paint, crafty finishes.

“There’s couple times in transition, I remember the end of the second quarter, he was coming down the left side. Everybody is focused on him and his speed, getting to the basket, and he found me on the right wing and I knocked it down.”

In the bigger picture, the 22-year-old Poole is the standard-bearer for the warriors’ budding next generation, which includes James Wiseman (21), Jonathan Kuminga (19) and Moody (19). And Poole’s performance in his first postseason is a neon signal to management, the coaching staff, the veterans and to the youngsters themselves. Maybe the warriors can extend this run for more than a few additional years. Maybe when Curry, Klay and Draymond need much more help than they need right now, the next group will be ready.

“Moses is extremely mature, and what makes him special is he’s ready for any moment,” Poole said. “For him to come in and step up and play big minutes in the Western Conference finals and help us pull out a win is huge.

“That just goes back to the credit from the vets, giving him the confidence and instilling the confidence in him and the coaching staff instilling confidence in him and players. We are all just a collective unit. Shout out to Moses. Huge minutes and he helped us win the game, and I’m glad he was able to experience that, especially as a rookie, and I have no doubt that he’ll be able to build off of that.”

The Warriors have 27-year-old Wiggins and 26-year-old Looney as the middle-aged guys. They have the classic dynasty players, all in their 30s. They have the 22 and unders. And they have a ton of money to fund the record-breaking payroll costs to keep them all.

They just want to see these guys scrap out playoff victories, and now they’re just two wins away from the NBA Finals.

“We have a really good mixture of young guys and guys who have been in the league a couple years and vets who have been through it,” Poole said. “Just a really special situation, and I think we know that and we are not taking that for granted. We’ve just got to find ways to keep winning games.”

The Warriors have won 10 playoff games so far. Six more, and they get another trophy. The pressure will only get higher. That’s old hat for Curry, Draymond, Klay and Looney, but it’s brand-new territory for Poole and the rest of the next-generation Warriors, who are fitting right in so far.

(Photo: Thearon W Henderson / Getty Images)

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