Big men prove to be X-factors in the NBA Finals

Celtics

The Celtics and Warriors have each received contributions from their bigs in the games they’ve won so far.

Kevon Looney and Robert Williams have been stand outs in the last two games of the NBA Finals. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The star perimeter players have stepped up for their respective teams in each of the Celtics’ and Warriors’ first two wins through the first four games of the NBA Finals. Both teams have also seen key contributions from their big men in each of their wins, too.

That’s why it was a head-scratching decision when Warriors coach Stever Kerr decided to roll with a small starting lineup for Game 4, replacing center Kevon Looney with forward Otto Porter Jr.

Kerr’s decision hurt the Warriors in the opening minutes of Game 4. Celtics starting center Robert Williams was able to take advantage of the mismatch. He scored three points, grabbed three rebounds, and recorded a block in the first four-plus minutes of the game, which gave the Celtics a 12-6 lead at that point.

With Williams at the free-throw line after grabbing an offensive rebound, Kerr rectified his pregame decision, calling on Looney to enter the game.

Looney made an immediate impact on the boards, grabbing five rebounds in the quarter. One of his two offensive rebounds led to an Andrew Wiggins 3-pointer. Later in the quarter, Looney assisted Wiggins on another 3-pointer as his contributions gave Golden State the lead before Boston hit a 3-pointer of its own in the final second of the quarter.

With 7:32 remaining in the fourth and the Warriors trailing 90-86, Kerr made another bold move involving Looney. The Warriors’ coach entered Looney back into the game, having him replace former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star Draymond Green.

Unlike his first decision, Kerr’s second decision worked. Looney gave the Warriors an interior presence defensively that caused the Celtics to not score within the 3-point arc for the remainder of Game 4. That defense from Looney — which included blocking a layup — was the catalyst for the Warriors’ 11-3 run over the nearly four minutes that Green was on the bench, which gave Golden State a 97-94 lead with 3:41 left.

Kerr continued to tinker with his lineup, putting Green in for defensive purposes, but he left Looney on the floor for pretty much the rest of the game as Green and Jordan Poole swapped places in the lineup.

Looney gave the Warriors a multi-possession lead for good when he got open underneath the basket following a Green rebound, putting Golden State up 102-97 with 1:04 left.

The Warriors’ center ended up having his best game of the series in Game 4, scoring six points on 3-of-4 shooting with 11 rebounds (four offensive that led to five second-chance points), two assists, a block, a steal, and a game-high plus/minus of +21 in 28 minutes.

Looney also had a standout performance in the Warriors’ 107-88 win in Game 2. He made all six of his shots to score 12 points to go along with seven rebounds, three steals, and a block. He also had a team-high plus/minus of +24 in that game, making life difficult for the Celtics at the rim on several occasions.

Friday’s Game 4 was the most Looney’s played so far in this series, coming after his 16-minute game in Game 3. Kerr shared some regret in not playing Looney more minutes earlier.

“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, Draymond made the pass out of the pocket to Loon, he finished with that left hand.

“So Loon has just grown leaps and bounds this year. He’s been really good for us over the years, but this year in particular, he’s taken a leap to a point where he’s just irreplaceable for us. And 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. It was important to get him out there, and he had a huge impact on the game.”

As Looney’s “grown leaps and bounds this year,” the Celtics’ starting center has also seen a noticeable jump. However, Robert Williams has been compromised for much of the playoffs after he tore the meniscus in his left knee in late March.

But Williams is starting to look like that high-flying center that averaged nearly a double-double and was second in the league in blocks during the regular season over the last two games. In Game 3, Williams scored eight points and had 10 rebounds. He was also all over the place defensively, blocking four shots and getting three steals; recording a game-high plus/minus of +21 in 26 minutes to help the Celtics earn a 116-100 win.

Williams followed that up with a seven-point, 12-rebound performance in Game 4, adding four assists, two blocks, and a steal. He also had a team-best plus/minus of +6, playing in a playoff career-high 31 minutes.

Unfortunately for the Celtics, Williams appeared to be dealing with some pain again, which caused him to sit out the final 3:41 of Game 4.

Celtics coach Ime Udoka didn’t have any injury updates to share on Williams following Game 4. But Udoka knows he has to be cognizant of Williams’s injury situation, forcing him to deploy his starting center in different ways.

“I wouldn’t say [we] manage minutes,” Udoka said prior to Game 4. “I think we’re more conscious of that. But what we’ve tried to do is monitor stretches anyway. So we flipped it a little bit last game to get him out early and bring him back in. But that was due to the rotations and lineups we like more than anything.

“At the same time keeping him off those longer stretches may be beneficial. It depends how he looks and how he is moving. It was much better in Game 3 than he was in Game 2. We’re always kind of watching how he’s moving, base it off of that.

“Last game he had a pep in his step, a good pop, finished with a heavy amount of minutes.”

The extra day of rest between Games 4 and 5 should surely benefit Williams, who said the pain in his knee changes from day to day.

Outside of the injury, it appears Williams is also having trouble against Looney so far this series. In 62.9 partial possessions this series, Williams hasn’t even gotten a shot off when Looney’s guarded him, according to NBA.com.

The extra day of rest should also benefit Celtics big man Al Horford. The 36-year-old’s played a substantial amount of minutes so far during the playoffs, averaging 35.4 minutes per game this postseason, and has logged six 40-plus minute games.

But ever since he scored a team-high 26 points in the Celtics’ Game 1 win, Horford hasn’t played more than 30 minutes in the last three games. In Friday’s Game 4, Horford didn’t stand out. He scored eight points on 2-of-6 shooting with six rebounds and four assists over 28 minutes.

Horford was on the court for a good stretch off the Celtics’ cold streak to end Game 4, with his 3-pointer being the only basket they made in the final five minutes of the game.

“Yeah, I felt like we took possessions for granted,” Horford said following Game 4. “I don’t feel like we executed as well as we did the previous game. We really can’t do that.

“Definitely need to be better there down the stretch, just a little more locked in as a group.”

Horford’s seen some success when Looney’s guarded him. In 59.6 partial possessions, Horford’s scored 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting (3-of-6 from deep) with four assists when Looney’s been the primary defender on him, according to NBA.com.

While Celtics fans are (rightfully) begging Jayson Tatum to get out of his shooting slump, it also appears Boston will have to win the big man battle against Looney in order to win the title.

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