Sit it at your own risk


BOSTON — Watching video of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr had a nagging thought as he watched his players miss boxes -outs and having trouble scoring inside: I should have played more Kevon Looney.

But after assessing everything that was wrong with that blowout, Kerr still replaced Looney with Otto Porter Jr. in the starting lineup for Game 4 on Friday night. Porter’s 3-point shot, Kerr thought, could help the Warriors space the floor.

It didn’t take him long to realize that he might have made another mistake. After watching Golden State work on the glass en route to a 14-7 first hole, Kerr called on Looney, who steadied the Warriors low and grabbed four rebounds in his first two minutes.

This served as an important reminder: Bench Looney at your own risk. Throughout the playoffs, Kerr was tempted to replicate past successes and rely on small-ball lineups, only for the Warriors’ best stretches to come with Looney on the floor.

Although Kerr has long recognized the value of Looney, he is so bogged down by the nuances of the various matchups that he can overthink things at times. If Looney has proven anything in this playoffs, it’s that he deserves to be a fixture in the rotation — the type of player who logs more than 25 minutes a night, no matter the situation.

His physical tools won’t be impressive, but he’s rarely out of position defensively or slow to crush offensive glass. The Warriors have outscored opponents by 5.3 more points per 100 possessions this postseason with Looney on the ground than with him out. On a 36-minute base, he leads the league with 13.8 rebounds (4.9 offensive).

One of the best pump-fixers in the NBA, Looney has even been a key offensive option at times this postseason, averaging 6.3 points on 67.9% shooting. And its importance has only increased in these finals.

Since Boston is bigger, stronger and more athletic, the Warriors need someone to anchor them low and counter Celtics center Robert Williams III — an elite inside defenseman with 12 blocks in four games. In just 91 total minutes, Looney grabbed 34 rebounds (14 offensive), had five shots and posted a series-best plus-minus of plus-36.

As Looney thrived in Game 4 on Friday, Kerr benched forward Draymond Green for nearly four minutes midway through the fourth quarter in favor of Looney. The move quickly became a national talking point due to Green’s history with the organization and outspoken personality, but guard Stephen Curry later admitted the move says more about how the Warriors view Looney than on Green’s tough night.

As Looney patrolled the paint during this critical time, Golden State turned a four-point deficit into a three-point lead. Kerr called Looney’s layup with 1:04 left the “biggest bucket in the game.”

“Loon is just crucial to everything we do,” Kerr said of Looney, who finished Game 4 with 11 rebounds and a plus-minus plus-21 in 28 minutes. “He is our best screener, our best rebounder. One of our smartest players. He is always in the right place.

“…Loon has been really good to us over the years, but this year in particular he’s leaped to a point where he’s just irreplaceable to us.”

Green added: “Loon is just making those extra plays. He had great finishes around the rim and great rebound, great physical presence on the inside for us.

It became apparent during these playoffs. After starting the Warriors’ first four playoff games, he came off the bench the next six as the staff fiddled with smaller lineups. Then, following Golden State’s 39-point loss to the Grizzlies in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, interim head coach Mike Brown reinserted Looney in the first unit.

With 22 rebounds in that pivotal Game 6 win over Memphis, Looney made quite a statement: Even as the league moves toward a positionless brand of basketball, he provides the Warriors with the size, the hustle and the intelligence they so badly need inside.

Since he averaged a double-double in the Western Finals against Dallas, he may have been Golden State’s only answer for Williams at the bottom of those Finals. Although not as quick as Williams, Looney’s understanding of timing, spacing and angles allows him to fire against Williams.

When Williams is on the bench, the Celtics have no one who can match Looney’s size and grit. As Boston grew small midway through the first quarter on Friday, the 6-foot-9 Looney battled with 6-4 Derrick White to position himself on the low block as Curry spotted a 3-pointer from the top of the bow.

As the ball slammed around the back of the rim, Looney simply used his 7-4 wingspan to reach White’s header, fire on the offensive rebound and kick Curry, who found Andrew Wiggins for an open 3 point. This fast streak epitomized Looney’s valor. As well as having the size advantage over the Whites, Looney knew where to be and what pass to make.

Such a game will not make any highlight of the “SportsCenter”, but it can be the difference between a victory and a defeat. Kerr knows as much. But sometimes this playoff, even he was lulled into thinking Looney belonged on the bench.

On paper at least, a floor spacer like Porter or an athletic specimen like Jonathan Kuminga may seem like the better option than the no-frills Looney. Friday helped Kerr see the error in his ways. Come Game 5 at Chase Center on Monday, Looney could find himself in the starting lineup.

“I actually feel better now than when we started the playoffs,” Looney said. “…All the work I’ve done is paying off.”

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


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