How Kevon Looney nullified Draymond Greens absence cemented Warriors Game

How Kevon Looney nullified Draymond Green’s absence, cemented Warriors’ Game 3 win – The Athletic

SAN FRANCISCO — There’s not much more loss of air on a basketball court than 24 seconds of near-perfect defense being wiped out by an offensive rebound. It can sting even deeper when it comes at a point in the game where momentum is at stake.

That’s where the Sacramento Kings found themselves to open Thursday night’s third quarter. The Golden State Warriors countered hard in Game 3 even without the suspended Draymond Green and the ailing Gary Payton II. They led by 12 at halftime, but the Kings were in there. If they defended hard from half-time and rediscovered their ice-cold jumpers together, they were within striking distance of a sovereign 3-0 lead.

They left the locker room with one of their best defensive possessions of the series and ran across half the court to finish off the Warriors’ favorite moves. The ball found its way into the hands of Klay Thompson on the right wing with seven seconds on the shot clock.

This is where the following clip begins. Thompson attempts an isolation drive to his left on rookie Keegan Murray, who slides with Thompson, forcing an 8-foot fadeaway. Kevin Huerter, from behind, reads it and throws the sweater away. The loose ball seeps to Jordan Poole with two seconds on the shot clock. He’s forced to throw Andrew Wiggins a hot potato. Wiggins must catch and heave with 0.4 seconds on the shot clock. This is the end of perfect defensive possession.

But ownership isn’t over yet. If Wiggins hits the rim, the ball is live. When the ball is live, Kevon tracks Looney. Looney led the NBA in total offensive rebounds (274) and second chance points (351) from those boards despite an offensive lineman’s vertical jump this season. It is an elite weapon in one of the sport’s most important categories.

“He’s smart and he’s strong,” said Kings coach Mike Brown. “He’s relentless. So we had to do a rebound and send a second corpse at him. We can’t allow him to face Domantas (Sabonis) or Alex (Len). Because, especially tonight, he did a good job of winning this fight. So we have to send a second body.”

Here is the back of this clip. Wiggins is able to slam it off the backboard and tick the rim on the descent. That allows Looney to rack up extra possession with perfect placement to contain the rebound. He fights Sabonis with his left arm and outflanks De’Aaron Fox to tip him over with his right arm, chasing him down before Kevin Huerter can get there.

He then calmly resets possession, kicking it up to Steph Curry, executing an action that gets him the ball on a dive, then pulling help and scooping a pass to Andrew Wiggins for a layup. Looney had a total of 20 rebounds in Game 3. Nine were on the offensive glass. It led straight to 13 second chance points. These were two of the most impactful, setting a tone and draining an opponent to open the second half.

The Warriors beat the Kings 114-97 in Game 3 to tighten that first-round playoff series. Steph Curry had 36 points and Wiggins had a solid 20. Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga provided some juice off the bench. An exhausted rotation received contributions from nearly everyone in a bid to temporarily salvage the season. But it’s once again Looney who did the bulk of the interior work to wring the warriors out of a tight spot.

He does this routine. This organization drafted James Wiseman second to replace him in November 2020 and even started Wiseman in his first career game over Looney. But the Wiseman project sputtered spectacularly; he never gained traction. It was one of the bigger draft misses for the Warriors this decade. But much of that impact was offset by Looney’s consistency, who has appeared in all 82 games in two straight regular seasons and upped his game in the playoff stages.

Looney led the NBA in offensive rebounds in the playoffs last season. In the two moments when her title chances felt the slimmest, Looney had monster nights. The first came against Memphis. The Grizzlies had grown up without Ja Morant, punishing the Warriors with a Game 5 blowout. On the plane ride back, Mike Brown (coaching Kerr, who was on COVID-19 protocol) asked Draymond Green and Steph Curry to join who they wanted to start Game 6 with. They chose Looney to fight Steven Adams. Looney had 22 rebounds that night, a legendary feat.

A month later, the Warriors were down 2-1 in Boston and Green had one of his worst career performances. In the fourth quarter, Kerr Green drew, feeling comfortable only because Looney had played so well. Looney held down the inner fortress, Curry erupted and the Warriors clinched a Game 4 win and eventual title.

In the past 24 hours, the Warriors have once again found themselves in a desperate situation. Green’s stomp against Sabonis got him suspended for a must-win game 3, and Payton was sick. Wiseman was absent after being traded to Payton on deadline day. There weren’t many places Kerr could turn to.

“We don’t have a deep front line,” Curry said. “So he’s almost invaluable to what we’re doing with the way our team is set up.”

In the first two games of the series, Kerr alternated guarding Sabonis with Green and Looney. But without Green, he had to almost entirely pair Looney’s minutes with Sabonis’, and Looney had to stay out of foul trouble to isolate or contain Sabonis as a hub for the dribble handoff. Looney stayed out of trouble and disrupted Sabonis on a relatively quiet night with six turnovers.

“That’s Loon,” Kerr said. “That’s him. We’ve seen it in the playoffs for years. It is always included in the game plan. He never makes mistakes. He jumps back like crazy. He makes the right decision. The game is a lot easier when Loon is out there for our boys.”

Looney was an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Warriors didn’t spend big bucks to keep him. The negotiations dragged on for a few days. A handful of teams showed interest. But backup centers began going off the board to potential landing spots. Marvin Bagley signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal in Detroit. Isaiah Hartenstein joined the Knicks for two years and $16 million. Mitchell Robinson left for four years, $60 million.

The market dried up and Looney returned to the Warriors for three years and $22.5 million. He’s making $7 million this season, is the 13th-highest-paid player in that streak, maintains his status as one of the league’s biggest bargains, and has always survived in a playoff environment for the last half decade — even as a defensive back against James Harden and Luka Dončić – where many centers are played from the ground.

The fourth of Looney’s nine offensive rebounds came on the final possession of the second quarter. This is another of those backbreaker moments where momentum is at stake to close the half. Curry misses a 3 stepback up. But Looney reads the angle of the rebound, punches Sabonis in the spot, grabs him and kicks him back to Curry for a reload three.

Years ago, Ron Adams gave Looney some valuable advice. He entered the league like most players and was thirsty to score the moment he caught an offensive rebound. But a controversial looney layup in traffic isn’t as valuable as a reload kickout to an open Curry or Thompson. That was the message from Adams, as Looney recalls: “We have Steph Curry and Klay on our team. Give it to them.”

“And it worked for me,” Looney said.

In Game 3, Looney became the first player in history to have nine assists and nine offensive rebounds in under 35 minutes in a playoff game. He played 31 minutes. The Warriors were plus-21 with him on the floor.

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(Top Photo of Stephen Curry, Malik Monk and Kevon Looney: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)