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The Warriors needed Kevon Looney more than they knew

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During each of the first three games of the NBA Finals, Kevon Looney saw fewer and fewer minutes. Then, as Game 4 was about to start, the Golden State big man was replaced in the starting lineup. It looked like Warriors coach Steve Kerr had moved on from Looney.

But once the game started, the seventh-year center from UCLA showed what a difference he can make on the court.

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Looney entered Friday’s game at 7:23 for Otto Porter Jr., who had started in his place. In the next four minutes, Looney grabbed five rebounds. He finished the game with 11 boards and 6 points in his 28 minutes, with a plus-minus of +21. His performance in Game 4 took his final plus-minus to +36, the highest of any player in the series, and helped seal the Warriors’ victory.

Throughout the 2022 playoffs, Looney has been an invaluable element of Golden State’s most reliable lineup, continuing that trend against a charged Boston Celtics front line in the Finals. Looney’s unit with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins holds the Celtics to just 39.0 percent shooting in 36 minutes combined, according to NBA Advanced Stats.

Looney upgrades key Warriors lineup

Statistics during the 2022 NBA playoffs for Golden State lineups, including Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins, with and without Kevon Looney

Minutes Bounce Rate Defensive Rating net rating
looney on the court 155 58.3% 98.4 +19.1
looney off the pitch 212 47.6 117.1 +0.9
Difference -57 +10.7 -18.7 +18.2

Through Game 4.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

But only eight of those minutes came in Golden State’s Game 3 loss at Boston, during which the Warriors doubled in points scored from the paint (52-26). Golden State had just 31 rebounds, the team’s second-lowest in a single game in 125 playoff games under Kerr, and was outscored by 16.

“They had us struggling in our rotations, a lot of long rebounds,” Looney said after Game 3. “We couldn’t keep bodies on bodies, and they just beat us on every ball 50/50, credit to them. . We’ve got guys running all over the place, fighting and putting so much pressure on the rim that our rotations messed up a little bit, so [we] I just have to do a better job protecting the ball as well.”

Without Looney on the court during the Finals, Celtics center Robert Williams III has moved a little more freely. Although Williams has played more minutes with Looney in the game than without him, Williams has more than double the points and nearly double the rebounds when Looney sits down.

Boston has scored just 15 total points on Williams’ 30 touches when Looney guarded him during the Finals, according to Second Spectrum, and 28 of those touches resulted in a pass or fumble. As a team, the Celtics have a 37.9 effective field goal percentage with Looney as the closest defender (the lowest of any defender in this series), much of which is a byproduct of Looney’s versatility as a defender. rim and perimeter defender.

His comfort playing drop coverage helps limit Williams’ spins to the rim, like here late in the final frame of Game 4. Looney anticipated the lock-and-spin before stacking Williams at the 3-point line, where Williams threw a cutoff pass to Jayson Tatum, who missed an awkward layup attempt.

Even on offense, Looney’s size helps Golden State combat Boston’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. Looney has assisted the series with 46 points via screen in the Finals, 27 more than the combined totals of Williams and Al Horford. Between his picks and dribbling, he has been vital in the Warriors’ pursuit of points against the best defense in the league.

While the Splash Brothers’ court layout and Green’s ability to fill other gaps remain crucial to the Warriors’ offense, Thompson (45.5 percent shooting from the field, second-worst among rotation players team) and Green (18 fouls committed, 17 points scored) have struggled to help Curry carry the load. In Game 4, Curry joined Kevin Durant (2018) as the only Warriors in the past 50 years to record a 40-point, 10-rebound playoff game, but very few of those points came easy.

Looney has helped with that. Late in the second quarter, Looney released Curry for a timely one-time opportunity through a screen as Steph broke free from a pursuing Derrick White.

The third quarter remains Golden State’s time to shine, and Looney’s size played a key role in the Warriors outscoring the Celtics 58-43 in the second half on Friday, during which they held a double-digit lead in marker.

Here’s Looney freeing Curry through another pick before rolling over the edge for a bucket. His footwork from the paint allowed him to fool Williams and bring Golden State within 3 points midway through the third quarter.

Later in Game 4, Looney gave Green a safety valve around the basket while Curry worked a double team. During the Warriors’ 28 minutes with Looney on the court in Game 4, they outscored the Celtics by 12 from the paint, while being outscored by 6 in that area during their 20 minutes on the bench.

Without adjusting to play better against the size of Boston, Golden State may well be facing the daunting task of overcoming a 3-1 Finals deficit. How well Looney can help the team simply control possessions and move freely for clean looks could decide what is now a best-of-three series.

“Loon has grown by leaps and bounds this year,” Kerr said after Game 4. “He’s been really good for us over the years. But this year in particular, he’s jumped to a point where he’s just…irreplaceable to us.”

“He has played in all the games and he is a guy we have. I didn’t play him enough in Game 3. That was my mistake so it was important to get him out and he had a huge impact on the game.”

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