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February 7, 2023

BOSTON — For this to enter the pinnacle of performance in the Steph Curry pantheon, a 43-point masterpiece to snatch home-court advantage from the Celtics, the Warriors had to win. To win, Curry needed some level of help. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, her two most famous co-stars, couldn’t provide enough. So, with the series in play, who would?

Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney.

Steve Kerr assessed every level of the Warriors’ Game 3 loss and opted, among other tweaks, for a pair of rotational tweaks that might seem counterintuitive. Kerr replaced Looney with Otto Porter Jr. in the starting lineup, hoping to widen the field with Green there to open up play, but he also planned to use Looney more often, despite the initial bench.

“I didn’t play him enough in Game 3,” Kerr conceded. “It 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 7:24 of a fourth quarter that resurrected the Warriors’ title shot.

Part 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 only big. Subsequently, much of the buzz has surrounded the green part of this equation, given the team dynamics and personalities involved.

“It’s more about confidence in Loon and what he’s capable of than any similar situation with Draymond,” Steph Curry said.

The change in starting roster didn’t do much for the Warriors. They were down 12-6 and had just two team rebounds in the first five minutes as Robert Williams III continued to crush them on the glass. Then Looney came in and had four rebounds in his first two minutes, establishing an inside presence that the Warriors seem to miss whenever he’s not playing.

There haven’t been too many moments in this series where the height advantage has tilted the Warriors’ direction. This passage from Looney in the middle of the first quarter qualifies. Here is the second of his first two offensive rebounds. The Celtics had gone small, replacing Derrick White in place of Williams. White found himself on Looney as Curry fielded a 28-footer. Curry missed. Looney just overpowered White and grabbed the rebound, and the resulting kick led to a Wiggins 3, one of two 3s in Wiggins’ 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, despite his lighter use on some nights. Boston’s Al Horford leads all playoff rebounds with 191. But he played 743 minutes. Looney’s 157 rebounds came in 410 minutes. He gobbles them up at the best pace in the league.

Its impact on glass is not just a matter of size. It’s also about his restlessness and the way he reads angles. Check out this second trimester footage. Looney wasn’t even credited with an offensive rebound on that play. He went to Gary Payton II. But Looney made the play.

Watch him, in slow motion, anticipate where the ricochet from Wiggins’ misfire will land and head for 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 ground. In a scramble, he flips it out of bounds to Payton, who gets an uncontested layup.

That’s two second chance points. The Warriors had 19. The Celtics had just 12. In Game 3, Boston had 21 second-chance points and the Warriors had 11. This storyline reversal is directly tied to Looney’s increased minutes.

“Loon is just crucial to everything we do,” Kerr said. “He is our best screener, our best rebounder. One of our smartest players. He is always in the right place. He made me the biggest bucket of the game after (Al) Horford made the 3 from the corner (at the end of the fourth quarter), Draymond made the pocket pass to Loon, and he finished with that hand left (to put the Warriors back five).

Curry rested for seven of the 48 minutes in Game 4. Those brief non-Curry pockets were nearly fatal for the Warriors in this series. It’s mainly because of Poole’s inability to solve Boston’s defense. With Derrick White and Marcus Smart, the Celtics have better defenders at the point of attack than any the Warriors have faced, plus Williams, who now has 12 blocks in the series, roams like a dreaded rim protector at fullback. . The Celtics collectively scrambled Poole.

But Poole entered Game 4 with an approach that was both more aggressive and more patient. He chased his shot more steadily but didn’t throw 3s in a panic or rush to the rim and challenge Williams whenever he thought he saw the light of day. He instead slipped into his sweater when the situation called for it.

He called 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, it propelled them to a plus-2 in the segment Curry rested.

Poole’s work 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 streak would immediately be considered the biggest point of his career.

The Celtics came up two in the opening moments of the fourth quarter. One more save and score in Boston and Kerr probably would have been forced to rush Curry. But that’s when Poole weaved around a high green screen, read how far Williams had flexed in falls coverage, and patiently got up for a mid-range jumper at free throw to even the score and buy Curry a longer break.

“Wow,” Klay Thompson said. “The poise he’s played at 22 throughout these playoffs is incredible.”

The Warriors lost those few minutes from Curry to start the fourth by three runs, which meant they were a minus-1 on aggregate without Curry in Game 4. That’s more than acceptable for them. He replaced with 9:13 to go and the Warriors lost two.

It’s 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 fence, flies over. In Game 3, that’s the type of rebound the Celtics would pick up.

But in this scenario, Wiggins read the carom alert and executed a left stab and side dribble to secure the loose ball and trigger a quick break the other way. He remains patient on the move and finds Poole on the right wing. Poole’s pump fakes and flies over Brown for a lay-up before Williams can get back into position to protect the rim. It’s Wiggins and Poole who combine for a huge swing moment in the fourth quarter.

Wiggins was reboundless 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.

Wiggins, for his entire career, averaged just 4.4 rebounds per game. He never averaged more than 5.2 in any of his eight regular seasons. It’s 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 changed in this playoffs as the Warriors downsized, relying on Wiggins as a small-ball hitter. He rewarded them with 7.3 rebounds per game. What changed?

“I want to win,” Wiggins said. “I know rebounding is a big part of that. I just want to win.”

Wiggins was huge in 44 minutes. Kerr can’t pull it out of the ground. He guards Tatum or Brown for most of the game, has to participate 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 of them, probably the biggest offensive rebound of his career.

The Warriors are down four points as time slips under five minutes. Their title chances were shaky. Poole passes White on the left wing but fails to float him on another strong contest from Williams. But look at the block opposite. It’s Wiggins taking advantage of Defensive Player of the Year Smart out of position and grabbing a pogo-stick rebound for a comeback before Williams can wipe out another shot.

Curry has been a constant in these finals. He was excellent in all four games. But the Warriors have two losses because he didn’t get enough help. They don’t win Game 4 if he doesn’t come up with that transcendent 43 points. But they also don’t win if Looney doesn’t rebound, Poole doesn’t score and Wiggins doesn’t give up a workhorse 44 minutes.

“Everyone rallied together,” Curry said.

(Photo of Andrew Wiggins shooting Derrick White: David Butler II/USA Today)

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