OAKLAND – Andrew Bogut was disappointed, unsettled, humiliated. The boos still sting. Though the fans’ displeasure was directed at Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob that chilly evening three years ago at Oracle Arena, the 7-foot Aussie center was the obvious source of the discontent.
He wasn’t Monta Ellis. His bad luck.
In March 2012, the Warriors sent the popular guard to the Milwaukee Bucks for Bogut, hoping the big man could improve a chronically feeble defense on an otherwise skilled, evolving roster. That happened, eventually, after freak injuries, internal discord and one very controversial coaching change.
Yet other than the team executives who pursued the trade, Bogut might be the only one who saw this coming: The Warriors aren’t merely the league’s best defensive team, they are among the favorites to win what would be their first NBA championship since 1975.
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“I was scratching my head that night,” Bogut recalled as his team prepared for Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday at Oracle Arena. “Not taking anything away from Monta, who was a fan favorite, but I thought I could bring something to this team. And the silver lining is that Klay Thompson got an opportunity, Steph Curry has the ball in his hands, and other guys’ roles changed. I knew it was going to work eventually.”
En route to their franchise-best, 67-win season under first-year coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors are an appealing blend of athleticism and artistry.
Theirs is a sort of a beauty/beast story. Curry and Thompson are the graceful, explosive scorers, Draymond Green is the efficient, do-it-all power forward. Harrison Barnes defends and accepts the offensive leftovers. The bearded Bogut, 30, sits in the back like a drummer, dominating sessions with short, loud bursts, but far more comfortable backing up his chaps with complementary sounds.
“My main goal is to make sure I’m there defensively,” he said.
Against the Grizzlies and their front line of 7-1 Marc Gasol and 6-9 bruiser Zach Randolph, Bogut is being nudged to the forefront. If he dominates defensively, the Grizz are doomed.
“Bogues is one of the best defensive players in the league and very active for a big man,” Kerr said. “We’ll give him some time on both Randolph and Gasol. We know we have to mix and match. But we need him (Bogut) to be good against both those guys.”
The Grizzlies’ bigs present different challenges. Gasol generates offense from the high post, on pick-and-rolls, high-arching jumpers, passes to cutters and a sweeping hook. Randolph, known as ZBo, is a bruising, traditional power forward who seldom ventures beyond 15 to 17 feet.
With Memphis point guard Mike Conley doubtful because of a facial injury, Bogut could be the early difference maker. If he stays out of foul trouble and protects the rim, the Grizzlies will face massive offensive challenges.
“Ever since the owners made that trade for him,” Curry said, “everybody realizes this is why he’s here.”
Perhaps not everybody. Bogut suspects a few naysayers remain. His frequent injuries and a particularly ill-timed absence from the 2014 postseason didn’t endear him to his critics. But when he plays – and he played 67 games during the regular season – his value as a defender, rim protector and passer/screener is unmistakable.
Kerr also suggested his center is a far more capable shooter than he has demonstrated in recent seasons, notwithstanding injuries that have stripped him of his athleticism and mobility.
“It’s all up here,” a grinning Kerr said, pointing to his head.
As he eases his long-limbed, 260-pound frame into a chair in a corner of the practice facility, Bogut, who is of Croatian descent, embraces a comparison with Vlade Divac, the center he emulated during his boyhood, though with one major difference: Bogut is a superior shot blocker and defender. He also isn’t a flopper, isn’t nearly as subtle with the elbows, nor is he reluctant to jump into a political fray. When Mark Jackson was let go at the end of last season, many Warriors were upset, but Bogut offered a dissenting opinion.
“We ran a lot of isolation plays the last few years,” Bogut said. “Now we have better ball movement, and we’re not throwing the ball all over the place, going for the home run play. It’s so much more fun to play this way, when everyone gets to touch the ball. And we still have Steph to get us that shot at the end if we need it.”
All true. But the Warriors need a healthy Bogut at the end, too, and he realizes this. Win a ring, and the boos that night will be forgotten and he will be beloved. That’s the plan, anyway.
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