BOSTON — For this to enter the top level of Steph Curry’s pantheon performances, a 43-point masterpiece to rip home-court advantage away from the Celtics, the Warriors needed to win. To win, Curry needed some level of help. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, his two most famous co-stars, didn’t provide enough of it. So, with the series hanging in the balance, who would?
Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr assessed every level of the Warriors’ Game 3 loss and opted for, among other adjustments, a pair of rotation tweaks that might sound counterintuitive. Kerr replaced Looney with Otto Porter Jr. in the starting lineup, hoping to spread the floor wider with Green out there to open the game, but he also planned to use Looney more often, despite the initial benching.
“I didn’t play him enough in Game 3,” Kerr conceded. “That was my mistake.”
Looney received 17 minutes in Game 3 and not even a second in the fourth quarter. He played 28 minutes in Game 4, including 7 minutes, 24 seconds of a fourth quarter that resuscitated the Warriors’ title chances after the 107-97 victory.
A portion of that fourth quarter was spent with Green, who played poorly in the first three quarters, on the bench and Looney on the floor as the lone big. Afterward, much of the buzz surrounded the Green part of that equation, considering the team dynamics and the personalities at play.
“It’s more so the trust in Loon and what he’s able to do than any kind of 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 only two team rebounds in the first five minutes, as Robert Williams III continued to mash them on the glass. Then Looney entered and had four rebounds in his first two minutes, establishing an interior presence that the Warriors seem to lack every time he isn’t playing.
There haven’t been too many moments in this series when the size advantage has tilted the Warriors’ direction. That Looney stint in the middle of the first quarter qualifies. Here is the second of his two early offensive rebounds. The Celtics had gone small, subbing Derrick White for Williams. White found himself on Looney as Curry lined up a 28-footer. Curry missed. Looney just overpowered White and grabbed the rebound, and the resulting kick-out led to a Wiggins 3, one of two first-quarter 3s from Wiggins.
Looney’s 157 total rebounds are the third most in the playoffs, and his 56 offensive rebounds are six more than anybody else despite his lighter usage on certain nights. Boston’s Al Horford leads all playoff rebounders with 191. But he’s played 743 minutes. Looney’s 157 rebounds have come in 410 minutes. He’s gobbling them at a league-best rate.
His impact on the glass isn’t only about size. It’s also about his hustle and the way he reads angles. Check out this second-quarter sequence. Looney wasn’t even credited with an offensive rebound on this play. It went to Gary Payton II, but Looney made the play.
Watch him, in slow motion, anticipate where the ricochet of the Wiggins miss is going to land and head 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 to the floor. In a scramble, he tips it from out of bounds to Payton, who gets an uncontested layup.
That’s two second-chance points. The Warriors had 19. The Celtics only had 12. In Game 3, Boston had 21 second-chance points, and the Warriors had 11. That script flip is directly related to the rise in Looney’s minutes.
“Loon is just crucial to everything we do,” Kerr said. “He’s our best screener, our best rebounder. One of our smartest players. He’s always in the right spot. He made I thought the biggest bucket in the game after Horford made the 3 from the corner (late in the fourth quarter), Draymond made the pass out of the pocket to Loon, and he finished with that left hand (to put the Warriors back up five).”
Curry rested for seven of the 48 minutes in Game 4. Those brief non-Curry pockets have been nearly fatal for the Warriors in this series. That’s mostly because of Poole’s inability to solve Boston’s defense. With White and Marcus Smart, the Celtics have better point-of-attack defenders than anyone the Warriors have faced, plus Williams, who now has 12 blocks in the series, roams as a feared rim protector on the back end. The Celtics collectively have had Poole scrambled.
But Poole entered Game 4 with both a more aggressive and patient approach. He hunted his shot more regularly but didn’t chuck up 3s in a panic or rush to the rim and challenge Williams every time he thought he saw daylight. He instead glided into his jumper when the situation called for it.
It called for it early in the second quarter when Curry hit the bench. Poole nailed two big 3s and, because the Warriors were playing so well defensively, that boosted them to a plus-2 in the segment Curry rested.
Poole’s job was under an even bigger microscope when Kerr decided to rest Curry again to open the fourth quarter, protecting a one-point lead. Any shot he hit during that stretch would immediately qualify as the biggest points of his career.
The Celtics went back up two in the early moments of the fourth quarter. One more Boston stop and score, and Kerr would probably have been forced to rush Curry back. But that’s when Poole weaved around a high Green screen, read how far Williams had sagged in drop coverage and patiently rose for a free-throw-line midrange jumper to tie the score and buy Curry a longer breather.
“Wow,” Thompson said. “The poise he’s been playing with as a 22-year-old throughout these whole playoffs is amazing.”
The Warriors lost those few Curry minutes to start the fourth by three points, meaning they were a cumulative minus-1 without Curry in Game 4. That’s more than acceptable for them. He subbed back in with 9:13 left and the Warriors down two.
This is the tail end of the first possession after Curry’s return. Jaylen Brown misses a corner 3, but the ball is bouncing back toward him, and Green, on the closeout, has flown past. In Game 3, this is the type of rebound that the Celtics would get back.
But in this scenario, Wiggins alertly reads the carom and executes a slick left-hand stab and side dribble to secure the loose ball and spark a fast break in the other direction. He stays patient on the move and finds Poole on the right wing. Poole pump-fakes and flies past Brown for a layup before Williams can get back in position to protect the rim. This is Wiggins and Poole combining for a massive fourth-quarter swing moment.
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 quarter.
For his entire career, Wiggins has averaged only 4.4 rebounds per game. He’s never averaged more than 5.2 in any of his eight regular seasons. It’s been part of the constant criticism about his game, that inability to translate his size, length and athleticism into a force on the game’s margins.
But that narrative has shifted in these playoffs as the Warriors have downsized, trusting Wiggins as a small-ball power forward. He has rewarded them with 7.3 rebounds per game. What has changed?
“I want to win,” Wiggins said. “I know rebounding is a big part of that. I just want to win.”
Wiggins was immense in his 43 minutes. Kerr can’t take him off the floor. He guards either Tatum or Brown for most of the game, must chip in enough offensively and has become the Warriors’ second-best rebounder.
Wiggins has 50 offensive rebounds in these playoffs, the second most in the league. The 49th and 50th came in the fourth quarter of Game 4. This one below is the biggest among them, probably the largest offensive rebound of his career.
The Warriors are down four points as the clock ticks under five minutes. Their title odds are teetering. Poole drives past White on the left wing but fails to float it in over another strong Williams contest. But look at the opposite block. That’s Wiggins leveraging Smart, the NBA Defensive Player of the Year, out of position and grabbing a pogo-stick rebound for a putback before Williams can wipe away another shot.
Curry has been a constant in these NBA Finals. He’s been great in all four games. But the Warriors have two losses because he hasn’t received enough help. They don’t win Game 4 if he doesn’t come up with 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.
“Everybody stepped up,” Curry said.
(Photo of Andrew Wiggins and Derrick White: David Butler II / USA Today)