Jonathan Kuminga shines as Warriors’ bench goes quiet in Game 4

DENVER — Sometimes a spark off the bench comes in the form of a two-time NBA MVP. Sometimes it comes from a 19-year-old rookie.

The Warriors were desperate for a jolt of energy early on in Sunday’s Game 4 against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena. Klay Thompson caught fire from the get-go with eight quick points but also picked up two fouls. Steph Curry was rushed into the game due to Thompson’s two fouls and missed his first five shots. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ reserves provided little to nothing, opting for pokes instead of punches.

A change needed to be had. Steve Kerr already had given his usual veterans a try. It was time to turn to a player who was born the same year Kerr began his final season as an NBA player. Jonathan Kuminga was unleashed for the first time in the series.

Yes, the electrifying forward played a handful of garbage-time minutes in the Warriors’ first two blowout wins before sitting all of Golden State’s five-point victory in Game 3. But this time it was for real. The stakes were raised and the Warriors needed Kuminga. He entered at the 11:11 mark in the second quarter for Nemanja Bjelica and didn’t leave the court the rest of the frame.

“JK did a great job,” Kerr said. “We called on him because we were kind of stuck in the mud. He came out there and did a really good job for us.”

Kuminga understandably looked like a pup navigating through the jungle in his first few minutes. The lights are brighter, the crowd is louder. From your toes to your nose, the intensity climbs and the pressure can make one pop if not prepared for the moment. Coaches and teammates alike have been stressing to Kuminga to stay ready for his chance. He listened and looked far from scared.

His first shot attempt was a missed 3-pointer. But he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. The Nuggets dared him to shoot and he invited the challenge. On the Warriors’ next offensive possession, he forced his way to the free throw line but missed both attempts. Right process, wrong result.

Just over two minutes later, Kuminga was on the board with a dunk that brought both the Warriors fans and his teammates off their feet with his latest traveling highlight-reel slam that he could have thrown down on a 14-foot hoop as he flew past Nikola Jokic. Kuminga had arrived, and he let the Nuggets know it.

He wasn’t done, though. The Warriors pushed Kuminga to run down the floor early this season to take advantage of his eye-opening athleticism. The rookie heard them out, improved in that area and did just that less than one minute later as Curry caught the Nuggets napping.

Following two points from Nikola Jokic, Curry called for the inbounds pass and Kuminga already was racing past Denver players trotting back on defense. Another dunk, two more points for Kuminga, and a proud high-five between Curry and Draymond Green.

After missing that 3-pointer and two free throws to start off, Kuminga didn’t miss another shot attempt and made all three of his shots from the charity stripe. He wasn’t always in the right position but hustled on both ends and fought to hold his own on defense. To top it off, he made some pretty impressive history.

At 19 years and 200-days old, Kuminga became the youngest player to score at least nine points in one half of an NBA playoff game. He did it all while playing under one total quarter.

“Shout out to Jonathan tonight,” Thompson said. “For a rookie to not play for the first three games, come in and make the impact he did — it speaks volumes to who he is as a player.”

Klay was far from the only teammate impressed by Kuminga. They’ve seen him work and know first-hand how high his potential is.

Green said he thought Kuminga “looked incredible.” He was impressed by the rookie’s energy and proud that he took advantage of his opportunity after preparing for the moment. His 11-plus minutes were more than he played combined in the first three games, and the most he had played in the last two weeks. The question now is, was this a moment or just the beginning of something bigger for Kuminga?

Possibly, but minutes won’t be handed out on a platter after one grand introduction.

“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Green said when asked what Kuminga needs to do to play a bigger role. “Ultimately, he’s a rookie. As a rookie, you have to gain the trust of a coach in the regular season, and then you have to gain the trust again in the playoffs. He has to gain more trust and that comes with time.”

“You’re not just given trust. That’s something that you earn, and for him, he earned some trust today. Now you keep building on that. When your number’s called again, you build on that again. This is a championship-contending team. You don’t just get minutes because you played well. You take advantage of your minutes you do play and then when your number’s called again, you’re ready.

“Maybe his number’s called again next game. But all you can do is work your minutes, and he worked his minutes tonight. That’s all you can ask for.”

RELATED: Warriors take accountability for foul issues in Game 4 loss

His number in fact wasn’t called again in Golden State’s 126-121 Game 4 loss. As the Warriors tried to erase an 11-point halftime shortage, they tightened their rotations and turned to more veteran players. But it’s clear Kuminga had the biggest impact off the bench aside from some guy named Steph — or Wardell if we’re being sticklers.

Warriors bench players outside of Curry scored 10 points. Kuminga was responsible for nine of those. On the other hand, the Nuggets’ bench scored 35 points, and every reserve who saw the floor had a positive plus-minus.

The rest of the Warriors’ bench, again excluding Curry, shot 0-for-5 from the field. Otto Porter Jr. was a non-factor and a team-low minus-16. Bjelica handled Jokic in the Warriors’ first two wins, but has been bullied since. Even though he made three 3-pointers in Game 3, the Nuggets didn’t bother guarding Gary Payton II. He missed his only shot attempt, a wide-open corner trey, and played only seven minutes.

Andre Iguodala always will be indispensable, but he looked his age Sunday and the Nuggets didn’t fear him as a scoring threat. He missed all three of his shots, turned the ball over twice and was called for five fouls. It doesn’t even feel right to type this, but his minutes weren’t productive from the start and didn’t get much better.

Iguodala is the oldest player in the playoffs, Kuminga is the youngest. Not just among the Warriors. This accounts for the entire league. For a multitude of reasons, both Iguodala’s mental and physical abilities can play a major role in winning a championship. So can the spark that Kuminga provides.

It’s hard to say for how long Kerr can trust Kuminga in stretches during the playoffs. From the mouth of Draymond, that comes with time. He also said maybe Kuminga’s number will be called as early as this coming Wednesday in Game 5. Only so many players can flip a game in the powerful way that Kuminga can.

Freeing your most athletic player, that happens to be your most raw-skilled player, can be a scary reality in the playoffs. That’s not to say it’s not a hell of a lot of fun, and the energy he brings can be felt at home and on the road. There’s a power in that.

Now, Kerr and the rest of his staff have to trust Kuminga can turn highlights into Warriors playoffs wins, and he just has to keep earning that trust in return.

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