Jonathan Kuminga’s growing importance to the Warriors on full display against 76ers

SAN FRANCISCO — With this Golden State Warriors team, a three-possession lead with under three minutes left doesn’t inspire the normal amount of confidence. They’ve blown a handful of games in creative ways. So when the Philadelphia 76ers trimmed a 14-point lead to seven in 81 fourth-quarter seconds, the situation felt dicy and the arena anxious.

That’s when 76ers coach Nick Nurse tried to pounce. Nurse is best known in Warriors’ parlance for the box-and-one he threw at Steph Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals, inspiring a trend of exaggerated, overloaded defensive schemes used to bottle up Curry over the next several years.

Nurse, this time around, called for the early double-team. You can see him on the sideline at the top of the screen in the clip below. With 17 on the shot clock and Curry just crossing halfcourt, Nurse tells KJ Martin to sprint up toward Curry.

But it’s a strategic mistake by Nurse. Martin is on Jonathan Kuminga, who has exploded in recent weeks because of a decisive downhill determination to continually get to the rim. Martin doesn’t even get within eight feet of Curry before he floats it right over Martin’s head to a wide-open Kuminga.

Tobias Harris tries to rotate over, but Kuminga with a head of steam is too tough to stop. He cruises in for a layup that essentially seals the Warriors’ 119-107 win. Here is the sequence:

This is particularly satisfying for Curry, who has craved more spacing, rim pressure and general offensive help at so many of the team’s more stagnant offensive moments in the last five years. The fact that it came against Nurse is a bonus.

But go back a few weeks in the time machine. The Warriors blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to the Denver Nuggets early this month, a game most remembered for Nikola Jokic’s buzzer-beater and Kuminga’s benching. He only played 19 minutes and didn’t touch the floor for the final 18.

That included the last Warriors’ offensive possession. The game was tied at 127. The Nuggets hit Curry with a double-team. Chris Paul sat alone at the top of the key. Andrew Wiggins was in the corner. Curry passed up Paul, panicked, and tried to whip a pass to the far corner. It was picked off by Jamal Murray.

These are the situations a decisive Kuminga can help most — sprinting into space and using the paint as his runway. But decisive hasn’t always been his default mode. Draymond Green has spent his time since returning to the Warriors imploring Kuminga to attack off the catch, telling him repeatedly that there’s “nobody in the world that can stop you.” Curry has felt the difference.

“Maybe last year or a couple months ago, it might’ve been a pump fake and an analysis of the situation,” Curry said of the layup after that Nurse double-team. “By that time, the defense can kind of get reset. Whatever the play is or the look is, is the right one. Just be aggressive.”

In 12 January games, Kuminga is averaging 20.6 points on 59 percent shooting. In December, he averaged 14.2 points on 56 percent shooting. So this is an extended breakout. But it has leaped to the next stage in the last two weeks. Kuminga has now scored 20 or more points in seven straight games — living at the rim. During that stretch, he is tied for six in the NBA with 108 paint points. Here is the leaderboard.

1. Alperen Sengun: 130
2. Nikola Jokic: 122
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 118
4. Jalen Brunson: 114
5. Jaren Jackson Jr.: 112
6. Jonathan Kuminga: 108
6. Zion Williamson: 108

Nine of Kuminga’s 11 makes against the Sixers were in the restricted area. That matches the nine restricted area makes he had recently against the Atlanta Hawks during that 11-of-11 shooting night. Kuminga is 70-of-113 shooting during this seven-game surge (62 percent) because his shot diet has been so healthy — 83 of those 113 attempts are in the paint, eight have come from midrange and 22 have been from 3.

“I don’t think there is anyone who can stop him from getting to his spot,” Green said. “At times I have to remind him that, ‘You took the 3 and that is fine, I don’t mind you taking the 3. But can somebody stop you from getting anywhere that you want to go?’”

“(He has) clarity on how he can impact the game,” Curry said. “Defensive intensity, pressure, taking what the defense gives him on the offensive end. Whether it’s attacking driving lanes, finishing at the rim, getting transition buckets for us, and knocking down open shots. There’s just an element of aggressiveness. You don’t want him out there second-guessing anything.

Curry then looked down at the stat sheet.

“And he’s out for 39 minutes,” Curry said. “That obviously helps.”

Kuminga has played 30, 29, 29, 30, 43 and 39 minutes in the last six games. Before this stretch, Kuminga had never played 30-plus minutes in consecutive games. The trust from coach Steve Kerr has finally arrived.

“I’m not going to go out there and do things I’m not supposed to do and expect to get 30 minutes,” Kuminga said.

Green’s return is also at the heart of this surge. His playmaking and defensive versatility at the center spot have opened up the floor and allowed Kerr to play Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins together. Wiggins has scored 20 points in consecutive games and double figures in five straight. Green is a plus-79 in his last four games. The Green-Kuminga-Wiggins trio is a plus-50 in 85 minutes since Green returned.

Kerr said before the game he is committing to the starting lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins, Kuminga and Green. Thompson missed the game with an illness, but the Green-Kuminga-Wiggins aspect is the real commitment from Kerr, moving away from Kevon Looney.

“Draymond really changed things with his return because he connects those guys at both ends of the floor just with his communication defensively and then the way he helps get us organized offensively,” Kerr said. “Great to see Wiggs and JK both playing so well and playing well together. It’s fun, you can see the team, we’re shifting a little bit with the look, how we’re playing, and who we’re playing.”

(Photo of Jonathan Kuminga scoring over Joel Embiid: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

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