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Kurtenbach: The sandbagging Warriors have load managed their way to the verge of a fifth straight NBA Finals

PORTLAND, Ore. — It was frustrating, infuriating, and annoying, and it went on for seven months.
But it’s absolutely paying big dividends right now.
The Warriors organization has been proactive about — to steal a term from Lebron James — “load management” over the last few years. They took it to a new level this past regular season: resting players, being extra cautious with injuries, and generally limiting minutes.
It all meant that the Warriors didn’t exactly play up to their potential from October to April.
But now, as the team sits on the verge of a trip to the NBA Finals for the fifth-straight season — an unprecedented mark in the NBA’s modern era — the Warriors’ legs look fresh.
All that sandbagging and slow-playing has paid off.
Just look at Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday.
(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 
The Warriors found another gear for the third and fourth quarters of the all-important game at Moda Center in Portland. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Klay Thompson — who have effectively played six seasons worth of ball (if not more) in the span of the last five campaigns — all played more than 75 percent of the available second-half minutes of Game 3. They were pushed.
And yet they turned a 13-point deficit into an 11-point win behind a relentless pace, suffocating defense, and an unmatchable level of talent that also happens to be totally connected.
That’s not merely a byproduct of this team’s prodigious will to win. No, that’s a testament to excellent planning, too.
Lose Game 3, and the Warriors would have been part of a series. Win Game 3 and the series is effectively over.
But because the Dubs have taken the long view on the whole season — much to the chagrin of fans and media (myself included) — their legs were under them for the most critical minutes of the series’ most critical game, just as they were there for the all-important Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals against a tougher opponent, the Rockets.
(Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 
“[Warriors coach] Steve [Kerr] and our entire organization has been on board, making sure our guys get as much rest as you possibly can through a rigorous season,” Green said after Game 3. “It’s a rigorous schedule, and especially right now with Kevin out. Those rest days back during the year, they make a difference for us.
“So that’s been good and sometimes it may cost you a game or two during the regular season but it’s more important to be healthy at this time of the year. I understand that. We’re trying to play into late, mid-June every year. It’s good to be healthy so I think it’s making a difference for us.”
The Warriors will win this series, baring something resembling a true catastrophe. That was near-certain after their Game 2 win (the Blazers weren’t going to beat this Warriors team in four out of five games), but it’s a lock now, as no team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA Playoffs.
Saturday night was Portland’s chance to make this series interesting. They had a clear shot at the NBA’s kings.
They missed.
And that’s not just because the Warriors’ upped their game — it’s also because the Blazers couldn’t find that little extra something that’s necessary to win in the postseason.
They simply didn’t have the legs to get the job done.
(Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) 
Damian Lillard has been a no-show in this series, making only 15 shots in three games. CJ McCollum is shooting 37 percent from the field in three games.
Without its backcourt performing up to their own high standards, the Blazers stand no chance, but frankly, outside of the Warriors’ great defense (which only seems to show up in the second half, as of late), it’s evident that the Blazers’ stars are completely gassed.
Of course, that shouldn’t be surprising. Unlike the Warriors, Portland played hard all regular season, fighting for seeding up until game 81. In the playoffs, they leaned on Lillard and McCollum to beat the Thunder and then the Nuggets. The latter series went to seven games and ended roughly 36 hours before Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Given that these West Finals have featured games every-other-day, they’re probably still feeling it.
Lillard has played nearly 3,500 minutes this season. That, more than the leaked report that he has separated ribs, likely suffered in Game 2 of this series, explains his play and, in particular, his woeful performance down the stretch of Game 3.
(A word to the wise, Dame: you have you reps leak the injury after you lose the series in Game 4, not before — this is another reason LeBron is the GOAT.,)
After playing all 12 minutes of the third quarter, Lillard checked into Game 3 with 9:30 remaining in the fourth. At the time, the Warriors were up two and were relying on Quinn Cook for offense. (What a time to be alive!)

Over the next six minutes — the game was out of hand with roughly three minutes to play — the Warriors expanded that humble lead to 12 points and Lillard had gone 1-for-6, missing two layups and three 3-pointers in cringe-worthy fashion.
He’s an unquestionably great player, but he didn’t have enough gas in the tank to finish the job.
And McCollum wasn’t much help. He might have missed 12 regular-season games, meaning he’s only played 2,966 minutes this season, but he went 1-for-3 from both the field and the free-throw line.
His air-balled 3-pointer with 6:10 remaining was a clear sign that the Blazers didn’t have what it would take to win Game 3.

The Warriors had what it took, though. Because of course they did.
After Saturday’s game, Curry is at 2,879 minutes played this season; Green’s at 2,624. The inscrutable and seemingly indestructible Thompson has played 3,236, but comparing anyone to Klay is to pretend that we understand something about him.
The Warriors not only managed their stars’ loads in the regular season, but after a tough, taxing second-round series, Kerr has also played the bench dangerous stretches of minutes. He did it in Game 3, as to make sure that his best players would have enough energy for the final stretch in a game where the Dubs — and in particular, Green — wanted to push the pace to near breakneck levels.
Perhaps that’s a byproduct of Kevin Durant’s injury — which had to be connected to his heavy minutes load in the first two rounds of the postseason. Perhaps it was the Warriors not fearing the Blazers.
It’s probably a bit of both, but, again, it worked.
“I just think that our bench is giving us great minutes, and that’s been really key for us,” Kerr said. “You know, even on the road in a game when we were down 18 points, none of our starters played 40 minutes in a playoff game.”
Green relayed a moment he had with Curry, sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter (the two play almost exclusively together these days), that highlights how valuable those bench minutes — as sabotaging as they might have seemed in the moment — were.
“Steph came to me and asked me how I was feeling. He said, ‘When will you be ready to go back in?’” Green said. I said, ‘Give me a couple minutes. I’ll be ready to go.’ And I saw him go back to talk to Steve and I was expecting to probably go back in at like the 10-minute mark and then our bench picked it up. They took the lead from what was it, one point or two points, to eight.
“You know, that was a huge moment in the game, because I’m not going to lie, after that third quarter, I was a little gassed and those extra couple minutes of sitting there, it really paid dividends to close out that fourth quarter for us. The bench was huge tonight.”
Should the Warriors take care of business on Monday, they will have — count ‘em — nine days off the court between Game 4 and Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which tips off May 30 in the city of the Eastern Conference champion.
Would it be preferable to play that Game 1 in Oracle Arena? Of course.
But are the Warriors fretting not having home-court advantage come the Finals?
No sir.
Just look at how well not having a great regular season record has served them this postseason.

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