Will the Warriors’ Jordan Poole be an asset or a liability in the NBA Finals? Game 2 is the key

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The Golden State Warriors must navigate a tricky situation: They need Jordan Poole on the floor to win an NBA title, but they won’t beat the Celtics in the Finals if he’s a liability.

Fixing that problem is one of head coach Steve Kerr’s biggest priorities for Game 2 Sunday night at the Chase Center. Although even if Kerr gives some of Poole’s minutes to Stephen Curry as many expect, Poole has to figure out how to contribute when he’s on the pitch – a daunting task for a 22-year-old so new at this stage.

His rapid rise from G Leaguer to cornerstone of the franchise has made it easy to forget that he still has a lot to learn. In the Warriors’ 120-108 loss to the Celtics in Game 1 on Thursday, Poole’s shortcomings were on full display. Facing the most physical defense in the league, he dribbled far too much, often overlooking his open teammates to head for a packed key.

Poole’s last line of stats — nine points on 2-for-7 shooting (1-for-5 from 3-point range), two assists, two rebounds and four turnovers — only hints at the depth of his struggles. For long stretches he oscillated between matador defense and indecisive attack. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the Celtics beat the Warriors by 19 points in Poole’s 25 minutes on the floor.

Kerr realizes that Poole’s opener miss cannot become a trend. If the Warriors gleaned anything from Thursday’s fourth-quarter slump, it’s that they need to be at their best to beat a Celtics group some have dubbed a “doom team.” That means Poole needs to be at least close to the player who has perhaps been this season’s biggest revelation: a go-to option off the bench who capitalizes on the spacing provided by Curry and excels as a secondary ball handler.

“It’s his first game in the Finals, and there’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of nerves and all that,” Curry said. “But he’ll settle in and we’ll all play Game 2 better.”

In the first three games of the first round against Denver, Poole scored a total of 86 points on 66.7% shooting (59.1% from 3 points) as his dizzying dribbling and deep jumping drew comparisons with Curry. Then, in the Western Conference semis and finals, Poole hit the 20-point mark four more times to leave no doubt he can be the difference maker for a title contender.

Along the way, Poole also offered reminders of his steep learning curve. It’s no coincidence that his production dropped later in the first and second rounds once the Nuggets and Grizzlies, respectively, increased the physical. Poole is a skilled point guard who can turn routine streaks into SportsCenter-worthy highlights, but he’s yet to prove he can thrive against an aggressive defense.

When covered by a taller, more tenacious defender, Poole tends to make questionable decisions and rack up turnovers. Thursday, he picked up bad habits against Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Instead of taking open shots or finding open teammates, Poole often laced dribbles between his legs, ducked his head and slammed his way into the key.

But unlike the Warriors’ last opponent, Dallas, the Celtics have two formidable inside defensemen in Robert Williams III and Al Horford. Several times on Thursday, Poole drove through traffic in the paint, only to see Williams or Horford near the rim and question himself.

Such a streak early in the fourth quarter resulted in costly turnover for Poole. Although Poole can study the video and try to correct this error in Game 2, a player cannot change much in a few days. These tendencies are deeply rooted. Since the Celtics could be a bad game for Poole, Kerr will likely limit his playing time in crucial moments.

In Game 1, the Warriors were outscored by 16 points on top of five minutes from Poole in the fourth quarter. It’s possible Poole will sit out the entire final quarter on Sunday as Curry attempts to lead Golden State to victory. With the Warriors in danger of flying to Boston in a 2-0 series hole, Kerr can’t afford to mess around.

Curry’s 38 minutes in Game 1 are expected to climb north of 40 in Game 2. Meanwhile, Poole is expected to play around 20 minutes on Sunday after recording 25 on Thursday.

Even if his playing time drops, he should remain an essential part of the rotation. The Warriors need Poole to be more decisive with the ball in his hands and reduce turnovers. On defense, he needs to be more solid in his footwork when Tatum or Brown pick-and-roll attack him.

All the praise Poole received during the regular season and the first three rounds doesn’t matter now. If he continues to work in these Finals, it will be difficult for the Warriors – or anyone, for that matter – to justify giving him a huge contract.

Poole’s torrid start to the playoffs has salary cap pundits thinking he’ll command an extension offer from Golden State this summer around four years, $100 million. But to earn that kind of money, a player has to perform when it matters most.

Kerr thinks Poole is up to the challenge. In 15 months, he went from a G League assignment to significant minutes in the finals. Poole can surely recover from a terrible outing.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Kerr said. “He will bounce back and play better.

Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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