Steve Kerr has made a lot of high-pressure, high-stakes decisions during his NBA career. Like that afternoon in 1995 when he had had enough of Michael Jordan during a Chicago Bulls practice
The Golden State Warriors coach got another one seven minutes from the end of a crucial NBA Finals game on Friday when he decided to pull Draymond Green out of the game. The Warriors trailed by five points by the Boston Celtics and were in danger. It was as simple as Green wasn’t playing well and the player he picked, Kevon Looney, was playing well.
The Warriors went 11-3 over the next five minutes without Green and took the lead for good. Kerr then decided to play Green solely on defense in the final minutes, even calling a time out once to get him out of the game. In this more limited role, Green made several important plays and had one of his best periods of the series. The Warriors won 107-97 and tied the series at 2-2 in these 2022 NBA Finals.
At first glance, these endgames look like Stephen Curry’s greatness against the Celtics’ youthful exuberance, perhaps manifested in 3-point shots and modern pick-and-roll coverage. But as the series transforms the title might hinge on an old-school storyline: big players.
It will all depend on how Kerr handles what could become a sticky situation with Green on one side. And the health of Celtics defensive ace Robert Williams III, who appeared to aggravate a knee injury late in Game 4 of the NBA Finals in what could be a series turning point.
Both Kerr and Celtics coach Ime Udoka likely know these realities, and their willingness to postpone them was telling after the game. “I haven’t seen anything with Rob and I haven’t heard anything,” said said Udoka.
NBA Finals X-Factor: Robert Williams III
It seemed like a duck, given that Williams appeared lame with four minutes left and waved to the bench to ask out of the game. Moments later he was called off and never returned. The Warriors edged the Celtics by seven points in those final three minutes.
Williams is by far the best defender in this series. When he was on the field in Game 4, the Celtics outscored the Warriors by six points. When he wasn’t on the court, they were beaten by 16 points. Perhaps Udoka was aware that he was unavailable late in the game.
Williams has had 12 blocks and five interceptions in that series. He had 12 rebounds Friday, a career high in the playoffs. When he’s been on the court, the Celtics have a +20 four-game advantage. In Games 3 and 4, he looked better than he had in weeks. He covered huge ground, caught shots, and generally put the Warriors back.
Recovering from knee surgery at the end of the season and a bone bruise in his left knee, Williams’ life has been about playing and treating his knee for weeks. He receives daily several deep massages of the calf and the front of the knee. Tons of ice packs, electrical muscle stimulation treatment and a process called blood flow restriction, which involves putting a ring around the knee that tightens to promote healing.
It worked: After missing seven of the Celtics’ first fourteen playoff games, he played eight in a row. It’s also unclear how he’ll feel on Monday in San Francisco for Game 5, which could turn out to be very important.
“There are ups and downs”, Williams said of his knee before Game 4 of the NBA Finals. “ The adrenaline energy kind of carries me.”
Draymond Green needs to level up in attack
Then there’s the storyline brewing with Green, who has been so limited on offense in these Finals that Williams often keeps him around because it allows freelancing elsewhere. But around his benching, he was really effective in the fourth quarter, posting five of his nine rebounds and three of his eight assists in limited minutes. Kerr gave the impression that it was the plan all along to cut Green’s minutes; the power forward played a minimum of 33 minutes.
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. It could even be called “rescue of the season”. Looney had played a total of six 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 said of the pick. “I didn’t play Looney enough in Game 3. “I didn’t play Looney enough in Game 3. It was my mistake.”
Looney has a whopping +36 in the series after being +21 in Game 4. He was the team’s best rebounder and defender while limiting errors. He had a lot of shots around the ring, shooting 13 of 18, getting throw-ins and clearances when the attention was elsewhere. The contrast is striking with Green’s 6 of 26.
“I’m certainly never happy to come out of the game seven minutes from the end of the fourth quarter in a game that has to be won,” Green said. “But, at the end of the day, if that’s what the coach decides, then you go with it. You know, I had to keep my head in the game.”
If the same situation plays out in Game 5, Game 6, or even Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Kerr may have to start over. Looney was the Warriors’ best center. Although Green and Looney often play together, to ensure Golden State has its best offense in crucial moments, Kerr can only use one.
Although they have struggled over the years, Kerr has always supported Green, although his temper and lack of offensive efficiency in recent years has made things more difficult. This attitude is being tested right now and can only intensify. For both teams with these big men, it’s an important part of these finals. “I never want our players to be happy if I take them out”Kerr said. “Draymond is incredibly competitive. Whatever it takes for Game 5, that’s what we’ll do.”