BOSTON — For this to reach the pinnacle of Steph Curry’s pantheon accomplishments, a 43-point feat to wrest home field advantage from the Celtics would require the Warriors to win. To win, Curry needed a certain amount of help. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, his two most famous co-stars, didn’t deliver enough of it. So if the series is in limbo, who would?
Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr evaluated each level of loss in the Warriors’ Game 3 and decided on a few rotation adjustments that might sound counterintuitive, among other adjustments. Kerr replaced Looney with Otto Porter Jr. in the starting lineup, hoping to spread the field further with Green to open the game, but he also planned to use Looney more often despite the initial bench press.
“I didn’t play him enough in Game 3,” Kerr admitted. “That was my fault.”
Looney was given 17 minutes in Game 3 and not even a second in the fourth quarter. He played 28 minutes in Game 4, including 7 minutes and 24 seconds of a fourth quarter that reignited the Warriors’ title chances after the 107-97 win.
Part of that fourth quarter was spent with Green playing poorly for the first three quarters, on the bench and Looney on the floor as a lone big. After that, much of the excitement revolved around the green part of this equation, considering the team dynamics and the personalities involved.
“It’s more the belief in Loon and what he can do than anything like the situation with Draymond,” Curry said.
The starting lineup change didn’t do much for the Warriors. They went down 12-6 and had just two team rebounds in the first five minutes when Robert Williams III continued to pin them to the glass. Then Looney stepped in and had four rebounds in the first two minutes, establishing an inner presence that the Warriors seem to lack every time he’s not playing.
There haven’t been many moments in this series where size advantage has tipped the Warriors’ direction. That Looney stint qualified in the middle of the first quarter. Here’s the second of his two early offensive rebounds. The Celtics had gone small and had substituted Derrick White for Williams. White found himself on top of Looney as Curry fielded a 28-foot machine. missed curry. Looney just overpowered White and snagged the rebound, and the resulting kickout resulted in a Wiggins 3, one of two 3s by Wiggins in the first quarter.
Looney’s 157 total rebounds are the third most in the playoffs, and his 56 offensive rebounds are six more than anyone else, though he’s less powerful on certain nights. Boston’s Al Horford leads all playoff rebounders with 191. But he played 743 minutes. Looney’s 157 rebounds came in 410 minutes. He devours them at the best rate in the league.
Its effect on the glass isn’t just about size. It’s also about his rush and the way he reads Winkel. Check out this second quarter sequence. Looney wasn’t even credited with an offensive rebound that game. It went to Gary Payton II, but Looney made the play.
Watch as he anticipates in slow motion where the rebound from Wiggins’ miss will land and goes to the right block a split second before Jayson Tatum. Tatum is in a better position for the rebound, but Looney’s extra effort sends a frantic Tatum down. In a scramble, he tips it to Payton from the outside, who gets an undisputed layup.
That’s two second chance points. The Warriors had 19. The Celtics had only 12. In Game 3, Boston had 21 second chance points and the Warriors had 11. This script change is directly related to the increase in Looney’s minutes.
“Loon is just fundamental to everything we do,” Kerr said. “He’s our best screener, our best rebounder. One of our smartest players. He is always in the right place. He made the biggest bucket of the game in my opinion after Horford made the 3 from the corner (late in the fourth quarter), Draymond made the pass out of the pocket to Loon and finished with the left hand (to bring the Warriors back). five upwards)”
Curry was sidelined seven of the 48 minutes in Game 4. Those short non-Curry pockets were nearly fatal for the Warriors in that series. That’s largely due to Poole’s inability to resolve Boston’s defense. With White and Marcus Smart, the Celtics have better point-of-attack defensemen than anyone the Warriors have faced, and Williams, now with 12 blocks in the streak, roams the back end as a feared rim guard. The Celtics messed up Poole together.
But Poole went into Game 4 with a more aggressive and patient approach. He chased his shot more regularly but didn’t panicily throw away 3s or rush to the rim, challenging Williams every time he thought he saw daylight. Instead, he slipped into his sweater when the situation called for it.
It called for it early in the second quarter when Curry came on the bench. Poole nailed two Big 3s, and because the Warriors played so well defensively, they boosted that to a 2-plus in the Curry Rest segment.
Poole’s job came under an even bigger microscope when Kerr decided to rest Curry again to open the fourth quarter and defend a one-point lead. Any shot he hit during that stretch would instantly qualify as the greatest point of his career.
The Celtics were down two in the early moments of the fourth quarter. Another stop in Boston and a goal and Kerr would probably have been forced to push Curry back. But then Poole weaved around a tall green screen, read how far Williams had slumped in fall coverage and patiently rose for a free-throw midrange to level the score and give Curry an extended breather.
“Wow,” Thompson said. “The attitude he played with as a 22-year-old throughout the playoffs is amazing.”
The Warriors lost those few Curry minutes to start the fourth by three points, meaning they were a cumulative minus-1 in Game 4 without a Curry. This is more than acceptable to them. He dived at 9:13 left and the Warriors two back.
This is the end of the first possession after Curry’s return. Jaylen Brown misses a corner 3 but the ball bounces back to him and Green, on the closeout, flies wide. In Game 3, that’s the kind of rebound the Celtics would get back.
But in this scenario, Wiggins reads the carom vigilantly, executing a deft left-hand jab and lateral dribble to secure the loose ball and trigger a quick break the other way. He patiently keeps moving and finds Poole on the right wing. Poole pumps and flies past Brown for a layup before Williams can get back into position to protect the rim. This is Wiggins and Poole’s combination for a massive swing moment in the fourth quarter.
Wiggins didn’t have a rebound in the first quarter of Game 4. He finished the night with a career-high 16 rebounds. He had five rebounds in the second quarter, five in the third, and six in the fourth.
Throughout his career, Wiggins averaged just 4.4 rebounds per game. He hasn’t averaged more than a 5.2 in any of his eight regular seasons. It was part of the constant criticism of his game, this inability to translate his size, length and athleticism into a force on the fringes of the game.
But that narrative has shifted in these playoffs as the Warriors downsized and trust Wiggins as a small-ball power forward. He’s rewarded her with 7.3 rebounds per game. What has changed?
“I want to win,” said Wiggins. “I know rebounding is a big part of that. I just want to win.”
Wiggins was immense in his 43 minutes. Kerr can’t lift him off the ground. Guarding either Tatum or Brown for most of the game, he needs to pack in enough offense and has become the Warriors’ second-best rebounder.
Wiggins has 50 offensive rebounds in this playoff, the second most in the league. The 49th and 50th came in the fourth quarter of Game 4. This one below is the biggest of them all, probably the biggest offensive rebound of his career.
The Warriors are four points behind as the clock ticks less than five minutes. Your chances of winning the title vary. Poole drives past White on the left wing but fails to put him over another strong Williams contender. But look at the opposite block. That’s Wiggins, who puts NBA Defensive Player of the Year Smart out of position and snatches a pogo stick rebound for a putback before Williams can swip away another shot.
Curry was a constant in those NBA Finals. He was great in all four games. But the Warriors have two losses because he didn’t get enough help. You won’t win Game 4 if he doesn’t get those 43 transcendent points. But they also don’t win if Looney doesn’t rebound, Poole doesn’t score and Wiggins doesn’t give 44 workhorse minutes.
“Everyone went up,” Curry said.
(Photo by Andrew Wiggins and Derrick White: David Butler II / USA Today)