After being waived from the Utah Jazz earlier in the summer, Jonas Jerebko landed with the Golden State Warriors on a minimum contract. Through a combination of other roster moves and an injury to Draymond Green, he has now found himself with a larger role than anticipated and has even closed games for them, as he did on Thursday night against the Toronto Raptors. Golden State ended up on the wrong side of a 131-128 overtime decision and Kevin Durant’s 51 points will take home the plaudits for the champions, but Jerebko’s play off the bench helped keep the Warriors hanging around and it was his defense that was the second-most impressive part of Golden State’s crunch-time play (after, of course, the cacophony of Durant plays that had the Internet dropping its collective jaw).
Jerebko finished the game with 20 points on 13 shots to go along with nine rebounds, but the box score stats don’t quite measure his importance to what the Warriors were able to do in the fourth quarter and overtime to push this very good Raptors team to the brink. Toronto, as one would expect, singled out Jerebko as the worst defender in the Warriors’ closing lineup and went after him relentlessly in pick-and-roll. Trying to force Golden State to switch Durant off of Kawhi Leonard in favor of Jerebko was a vast majority of the Raptors’ playbook in the final ten minutes of the game, but Steve Kerr and the Warriors were prepared, sending Jerebko out to hedge without fully switching.
Jerebko was matched up with Pascal Siakam on these possessions, which meant he had a bit more time to hedge and recover than if his mark was a particularly strong catch-and-shoot three-point shooter. Siakam is a wonderfully skilled and athletic big man, but quickly popping out of a ball screen to hit a three-pointer is slightly out of his range of skills at the moment, especially at the end of a very close game against the league’s best team.
Jerebko’s activity showed up throughout the fourth quarter and overtime, as he was tasked with the most defensive movement of any Warriors player. Consistently hedging and recovering possession after possession is difficult on even the best defensive players, but his conditioning and focus were on point throughout the closing minutes.
Toronto did get their wish once, after Siakam came back to set a second ball screen and forced Jerebko to switch onto Kyle Lowry, but he was up for that challenge as well, herding Lowry toward the baseline and drawing an awful shot at the end of the clock.
It will be a surprise if Jerebko has to do this the next time these two teams play in Toronto, as that could only be in a potential NBA Finals matchup, but he performed admirably against a Raptors team with a lot of offensive weapons. He can also help with their three-point shooting deficiencies on the other end of the floor and if he’s able to hold up defensively in high-leverage matchups, the Warriors may just have found a player on whom they can rely at the end of games. For a team as top-heavy as Golden State, finding a useful rotation player on a minimum contract is vital to their success in both the regular season and postseason. While it’s too early to say that Jerebko will absolutely be that player for them come playoff time, performances like Thursday night certainly help his case in a major way.