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The Warriors Needed Kevon Looney More Than They Knew

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

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

Looney entered Friday’s game at the 7:23 mark 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 game-high plus-minus of +21. His performance in Game 4 brought his Finals plus-minus to +36 — the highest of any player in the series — and helped seal the win for the Warriors.

Throughout the 2022 playoffs, Looney has been an invaluable element of Golden State’s most-trusted lineup, continuing that trend against a loaded Boston Celtics frontline in the Finals. The unit of Looney with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins is holding the Celtics to just 39.0 percent shooting over 36 minutes together, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Looney makes the key Warriors lineup better

Stats 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 Rebound percentage Defensive rating Net rating
Looney on court 155 58.3% 98.4 +19.1
Looney off court 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 in Boston, during which the Warriors were doubled up in points scored from the paint (52 to 26). Golden State totaled only 31 rebounds — the team’s second-lowest single-game figure in 125 playoff games under Kerr — and was outrebounded by 16.

“They had us scrambling in our rotations — a lot of long rebounds,” Looney said after Game 3. “We weren’t able to keep bodies on bodies, and they just beat us to all the 50/50 balls — credit to them. We got guys running all around, scrambling and putting so much pressure on the rim that our rotations kind of messed up, so [we] just gotta do a better job guarding the ball as well.”

Without Looney on the court during the Finals, Celtics center Robert Williams III has roamed a bit more freely. Though Williams has played more minutes with Looney in the game than without him, Williams has over twice as many points and almost twice as many rebounds when Looney sits. 

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

His comfort with playing in drop coverage helps limit Williams’s rolls to the rim, such as here late in the final frame of Game 4. Looney anticipated the pick and roll before crowding Williams at the 3-point line, where Williams rushed a pass to a cutting 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 on series-high 46 points via screen in the Finals — 27 more than Williams’s and Al Horford’s combined totals. Between his picks and dribble handoffs,1 he has been vital in the Warriors’ pursuit for points against the league’s top defense.

While the Splash Brothers’ floor spacing and Green’s knack for filling other gaps remain crucial to the Warriors’ offense, Thompson (45.5 effective field-goal percentage, second-worst among the team’s rotation players) 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 last 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 freed up Curry for a timely and-one opportunity via a screen as Steph wiggled free of a chasing 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 Friday’s second half, during which they held a double-digit advantage on the glass

Here is Looney freeing up Curry via another pick before rolling to the rim for a bucket. His footwork from the paint allowed him to pump-fake 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 as Curry worked out of a double-team. Over the Warriors’ 28 minutes with Looney on the court in Game 4, they outscored the Celtics by 12 in points from the paint, while they were outscored by 6 in that area during his 20 minutes on the bench.

Without the adjustment to playing better against Boston’s size, Golden State could very well be facing the arduous task of overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the Finals. How well Looney can aid the team in simply controlling possessions and wiggling free for clean looks could decide what is now a best-of-three series.

“Loon has just grown 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 taken a leap to a point where he’s just … irreplaceable for us.”

“He’s played in every game, and he’s a guy we count on. I didn’t play him enough in Game 3. That was my mistake, so it was important to get him out there, and he had a huge impact on the game.”

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. He leads all players in the Finals with 21 points accounted for on dribble handoffs, per Second Spectrum.

James Jackson is a Florida A&M graduate from South Florida. He has covered the NBA since 2014 with stops at ESPN and other platforms. He firmly believes a good baseline fadeaway can solve just about any problem.

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