October 3, 2022

BOSTON — Steve Kerr has made many high-pressure, high-stakes decisions during his NBA career. Like that afternoon in 1995 when he got sick of Michael Jordan at a Chicago Bulls practice and made the choice to throw a forearm away and ended up with a black eye.

The Golden State Warriors coach had another big one with seven minutes left on Friday in a vital Game 4 of the NBA Finals when he decided to remove Draymond Green from the game. The Warriors are down five points to the Boston Celtics and are in danger. It was as simple as Green wasn’t playing well and the player he went to, Kevon Looney, was.

The Warriors went on an 11-3 run over the next five minutes with Green out and they took the lead for good. Then Kerr decided to only play Green in defense as much as possible in the final minutes, even once calling a timeout to take him out of the game. In the more limited role, Green made several hard-hitting plays and had one of his best stretches of the series as the Warriors closed out a 107-97 win to tie the series at 2-2.

At first glance, these Finals look like Stephen Curry’s greatness against the Celtics’ youthful exuberance that will perhaps manifest itself in 3-point shooting volume and modern pick-and-roll coverage. But since it turns into a three-game series, the title could rest on an old-school storyline: big men.

It will depend on how Kerr handles what could end up being a sticky situation with Green on one side. And the health of Celtics defensive ace Robert Williams III, who appeared to have aggravated a knee injury late in Game 4 in what could be a series turning point.

Both Kerr and Celtics coach Ime Udoka likely know these realities and their willingness to push them off until later they tell the story after the game.

“I haven’t seen anything with Rob and I haven’t heard anything,” Udoka said.

It looked like a duck given that Williams came on lame with four minutes left and waved to the bench to ask out of the game. Moments later he was fired and never returned. The Warriors outscored the Celtics by seven points in the final three minutes.

Williams has by far the best defensive measures in this series. When he was on the court in Game 4, the Celtics edged the Warriors by six points. When he was out, they were outscored by 16 points. Udoka might have known he was unavailable in the home stretch.

Williams has 12 blocks and five interceptions in the series. He had a playoff career-high 12 rebounds on Friday. When he’s been on the floor, the Celtics are at +20 in all four games. In games 3 and 4, he looked as sharp as he has for weeks. He covered immense ground, landed blows, and generally made warriors tremble.

Recovering from season-ending knee surgery and a bone bruise in his left knee, Williams’ life was spent playing and treating the knee for weeks. He receives several deep tissue massages daily in the calf and the front of the knee. Packets of ice per ton, electrical muscle stimulation treatment and a process called blood flow restriction, which involves putting a ring around the knee that compresses to promote healing.

It worked: After missing seven of the Celtics’ first 14 playoff games, he played eight in a row. But now it’s a question of just how bad the aggravation could be, and it’s also unclear how he’ll feel in San Francisco for Game 5 on Monday (9 p.m. ET on ABC) in what could end up be a huge variable.

“It’s up and down,” Williams said of his knee before Game 4. “The adrenaline energy kind of carries me.”

Then there’s the shuffling storyline with Green, who has been so limited on offense in these finals that Williams will often keep him on because it allows freelancing elsewhere. But around his bench, he was really effective in the fourth quarter, posting five of his nine rebounds and three of his eight assists in a matter of minutes.

Kerr made it seem like it was the plan all along to cut Green’s minutes; the power forward played a series-low 33. And Kerr removed Looney from the starting lineup in part so he could establish a rotation that would allow Looney to play more in the fourth quarter.

Kerr still had to make the call at the time, and it was one of the best moves he made on the show. It could even reach the level of “season-economy”. Looney had played six total minutes in the fourth quarter in the first three games of the series; he played nearly eight minutes in the vital fourth quarter of Game 4.

“Like most coaches, if you have a group that is doing well, you stick with them,” Kerr hesitated when discussing the choice. “I have not played [Looney] enough in Game 3. It was my mistake. It was important to get him out, and he had a huge impact on the game.”

Looney is a whopping +36 in the series after hitting +21 in Game 4. He was the team’s best rebounder and rim defender while limiting errors. He has a bunch of baskets around the rim, shooting 13 of 18 as he gets returns and dumps when the attention goes elsewhere. This is in stark contrast to Green’s 6-of-26 shooting.

“I’m certainly never happy to come out of the game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter in a game to win,” Green said. “But, at the end of the day, if that’s what the coach decides, then you roll with it. You know, I had to keep the lead in the game.”

If the same situation occurs in games 5 or 6 or maybe even 7, Kerr may have to start over. Looney has been the Warriors’ best big man. Although Green and Looney often play together, to ensure Golden State has its best offense in tough times, Kerr can only play one.

Although they’ve had their battles over the years, Kerr has backed Green even though his temper and withering attack in recent years have made things more difficult. This is being tested in a major way right now and it will only intensify.

For both teams with these big men, that’s a big part of this final.

“I never want our players to be happy if I knock them out,” Kerr said. “Draymond is incredibly competitive. Whatever it takes in Game 5, that’s what we’ll do.”