Nemanja Bjelica, Warriors bench make solid first impression in win vs. Lakers

Bjelica, Dubs bench make solid first impression in win vs. LA originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

Klay Thompson and James Wiseman were not available due to injury, Jordan Poole was too anxious and Andrew Wiggins was plodding. 

Worse for the Warriors, facing a Los Angeles Lakers team stacked with future Hall of Famers, Stephen Curry did not have his gold cape.

If the Warriors were to avoid trudging toward a road loss on opening night in Los Angeles, somebody had to fill to role of superhero.

They looked to the bench and found three somebodies. One that we’ve seen many times before, one that we’ve gotten to know the past two years and another that introduced himself in the most delightful way possible.

Nemanja Bjelica, making his Warriors debut, was the biggest difference of all in a 121-114 victory Thursday night at Staples Center.

While his primary statistics – 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 26 minutes – were driving Golden State’s victory, his all-around play was opening eyes among teammates he’s still getting to know.

“With his shooting ability, guys are really running him off the (3-point) line,” Draymond Green said. “For him to have the ability to put the ball on the floor like that and kick out, that’s huge. He made a lot of plays for us tonight, for himself and for other guys. 

“He was a huge reason we pulled this game out. Bleeping plus-20? That’s incredible.”

Bjelica’s plus-20 easily was the best on either team. Next among his teammates were Damion Lee, with plus-9 and Andre Iguodala at plus-8. With Beli as the centerpiece, flanked by Lee (15) and Iguodala (12), Golden State’s bench outscored LA’s bench 55-29.

Iguodala, beginning his second stint as a Warrior after two seasons away, provided the typical positive presence but also drained a pair of 3-pointers. Lee forced the action well enough get to the free throw line six times without a miss.

It was Bjelica, though, that came out of nowhere. The 6-foot-10 Serbian is the first Warrior to ring up a double-double off the bench in 40 years, the last being Sam Williams delivered 16 points and 12 rebounds on Oct. 30, 1981 at Denver.

There were times when Bjelica showcased shades of a smaller version of Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, the league’s reigning MVP.

“We knew he could shoot the ball and we knew he could space the floor,” said Poole, who recovered from a four-point first half to score 16 in the second. “But seeing the way he puts it on the floor and can make the extra pass and find the open player, especially as a (forward-center), it makes us a lot more dangerous. You’ve got to respect his 3-point shot but being able to see him make plays of the dribble is huge.”

Entering the fourth quarter trailing 85-83, coach Steve Kerr went with the second unit, with Poole joined by Otto Porter, Bjelica, Iguodala and Lee. They went on a 17-7 run in a little more than four minutes to put the Warriors up 100-92. All five players had a least one bucket.

LA tried to come back, getting as close as two before Curry and Bjelica scored eight of the next 10 points to create a cushion that wasn’t threatened. The Lakers, the oldest team in the NBA, were outfought, outfoxed and outlasted in their own building.

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Curry managed his first regular-season triple-double since 2016 – 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists – despite playing “like trash” (his phrase, not mine). The basis for the harsh self-critique was his 5-of-21 shooting from the field.

It was one game, the first of 82 and yet it spoke volumes about the potential of what looks to be a deep Warriors team – as well as the fallibility of a Lakers team most project to win the Western Conference.