Why the Warriors need Kevon Looney more than ever — even after moving him to the bench

SAN FRANCISCO — The Warriors switched up their starting lineup Friday night for the first time since Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. But swapping Kevon Looney for Otto Porter Jr. in Game 4 of the NBA Finals did not predicate a lesser role for Looney in their victory.

Quite the opposite. This is the perfect matchup for Looney.

Looney’s 26 minutes in Game 4 were the most he’s played yet in these Finals, and that number should stay high going forward. Golden State needs Looney playing as much as possible, especially when Boston’s shot-blocker extraordinaire Robert Williams is on the floor. Playing him just 16 minutes in their Game 3 loss was costly.

“He’s irreplaceable for us,” said Kerr after their Game 3 loss. “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.”

The Warriors tend to lose when they’re out-rebounded, as they were by 16 in Game 3. In Looney’s 155 Finals minutes, the Warriors are collecting 58 percent of their rebounding opportunities and hold a 98.4 defensive rating with him on the court. In 212 minutes with him off the court, the Warriors are rebounding just 47 percent and hold a 117 defensive rating.

But keeping Looney on the court is easier said than done. Looney creates a rotation conundrum with Draymond Green’s minutes. The Warriors’ strongest defensive lineups feature both Looney and Green, but playing the pair together leaves the Warriors without much scoring punch on the offensive end.

Kerr manufactured a solution in the fourth quarter of Game 4, deciding to keep Looney in for most of crunch time while alternating Jordan Poole and Green for offensive and defensive possessions.

Holding Green on the bench for portions of crunch time of a Finals game would have been unheard of in the Warriors’ previous playoff runs, but the offense-defense substitution nudged them to victory in Boston. Those 10 extra Looney minutes gave the Warriors a rebounding edge in Game 4 they severely lacked in Game 3.

Though Looney is a key part of the series, he may be more valuable as a closer than as a starter.

Porter is a scoring threat beyond the arc, so sliding him into the starting lineup over Looney opens up the opportunity for a hot scoring start. The coaching staff sees that he’s been part of the Warriors’ most impactful offensive lineups, shooting 40% from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game to keep Boston’s defense honest.

Lineup changes in the Finals could indicate trouble — shouldn’t the Warriors have this figured out by now? — but the tweaks and experimentations are a product of injuries. Gary Payton II went from playing zero minutes in Game 1 after recovering from his elbow fracture to playing 15 minutes on average over the next three. Andre Iguodala played 12 minutes returning from a neck injury in Game 1 but hasn’t seen a competitive minute since.

“Part of this series for us, and part of the whole playoffs, frankly, has been trying to figure out rotations,” Kerr said. “We didn’t have our whole team together until Game 1 of the Denver series, and then Gary got hurt. Andre got hurt. So it feels like almost every series, we have had to search a little bit for combinations and for substitution patterns.”

The Warriors just need that search to yield two more wins.

Contributed by local news sources

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