SAN FRANCISCO — There isn’t much more deflation on a basketball court than 24 seconds of near-perfect defense erased by an offensive rebound. It can sting even deeper if it comes at a point in the game when the momentum is up for grabs.
That’s where the Sacramento Kings met to open Thursday night’s third quarter. The Golden State Warriors, even without the suspended Draymond Green and the ailing Gary Payton II, thwarted hard in Game 3. They were leading by 12 at halftime, but the Kings were in the game. If they defended hard outside of halftime and collectively rediscovered their icy jumpers, they were within striking distance of a 3-0 lead.
They came out of the locker room with one of their best defensive possessions of the series, rushing all over the half court to stop the Warriors favorite plays. 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 clip below begins. Thompson attempts an isolation drive to his left on rookie Keegan Murray, who slides with Thompson and forces an eight-foot fade. Kevin Huerter, from behind, reads it and sweeps the sweater. The loose ball trickles towards Jordan Poole with two seconds on the shot clock. He is forced to throw a hot potato at Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins must catch and lift with 0.4 seconds on the shot clock. It’s the end of a perfect defensive possession.
But the possession is not over. If Wiggins hits the rim, the ball is live. If the ball is live, Kevon Looney is chasing it. Looney, despite the vertical leap of an offensive lineman, led the NBA in total offensive rebounds (274) and second-chance points (351) on those boards this season. He is an elite weapon in one of the sport’s most important categories.
“He’s smart and he’s strong,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “He is relentless. So we bounced back as a gang, sending him a second body. We can’t allow him to go one-on-one against Domantas (Sabonis) or Alex (Len). Because he, especially tonight, did a good job of winning this battle. So we have to send a second body.
Here is the back of this clip. Wiggins is able to slam him off the backboard and tick off the rim on his way down. This allows Looney to recover additional possession with perfect placement to corral the ricochet. He muscled into Sabonis with his left arm and passed De’Aaron Fox to topple him with his right arm, chasing him before Kevin Huerter could get there.
Then he calmly resets possession, gives it to Steph Curry, performs an action that allows him to get the ball on a dive, then draws the assist and shovels a pass to Andrew Wiggins for a lay-up. Looney had 20 total rebounds in Game 3. Nine were on the offensive glass. This directly led to 13 second chance points. These are two of the most impactful, setting the tone and deflating an opponent to open the second half.
The Warriors beat the Kings 114-97 in Game 3 to tighten this first-round playoff streak. Steph Curry had 36 points and Wiggins had 20. Moses Moody and Jonathan Kuminga provided juice off the bench. A depleted rotation received contributions from nearly everyone to temporarily save the season. But it was Looney, once again, who did the heavy lifting on the inside to get the Warriors out of a tight spot.
He does this routine. This organization drafted James Wiseman second to replace him in November 2020, even starting Wiseman with Looney in his first career game. But the Wiseman project exploded dramatically; it never gained traction. It was one of the biggest draft misses of that decade for the Warriors. But much of that impact was negated by the consistency of Looney, who played in all 82 games for two straight regular seasons and elevated his game in the playoffs.
Looney led the NBA in offensive rebounds in the playoffs last season. During the two times when their title chances felt most tenuous, Looney had monster nights. The first came against Memphis. The Grizzlies had gone big without Ja Morant and punished the Warriors in a Game 5 blowout. who they wanted to start Game 6. They picked Looney to fight Steven Adams. Looney had 22 rebounds that night, a legendary performance.
A month later, the Warriors were down 2-1 in Boston and Green had one of his career-worst performances. In the fourth quarter, Kerr pulled Green, only feeling comfortable doing so because Looney had played so well. Looney held down the inner fort, Curry broke, and the Warriors earned a Game 4 victory and ultimately a title.
In the past 24 hours, the Warriors have once again found themselves in dire straits. Green’s kick on Sabonis suspended him for a must-win Game 3, and Payton was sick. Wiseman was not there after being traded at the deadline for Payton. There weren’t a ton of places Kerr could turn to.
“We don’t have a deep front line,” Curry said. “So he’s almost invaluable to what we do with the way our team is built.”
In the first two games of the series, Kerr had replaced Green and Looney to guard Sabonis. But without Green, he had to associate Looney’s minutes almost entirely with those of Sabonis, requiring Looney to stay out of trouble for any chance of containing Sabonis in isolation or as a dribble transfer center. Looney stayed out of reprehensible trouble and troubled Sabonis on a relatively quiet night that included six turnovers.
“It’s Loon,” Kerr said. “That’s who he is. We’ve seen him in the playoffs for years now. He’s always locked into the game plan. He never makes mistakes. He bounces back like crazy. He takes the right decision. The game is much easier when Loon is there for our guys.
Looney was an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Warriors didn’t spend a lot of money retaining him. Negotiations dragged on for a few days. A handful of teams have expressed interest. But save centers started to move off the board to possible landing spots. Marvin Bagley has signed a three-year, $37.5 million contract in Detroit. Isaiah Hartenstein went to 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, the 13th highest-paid player in this series, maintaining his status as one of the league’s biggest bargains, still surviving in a playoff environment over the past half-decade. – even as a switch defender against James Harden and Luka Dončić – where many crosses are played on the floor.
The fourth of Looney’s nine offensive rebounds came on the final possession of the second quarter. It’s another one of those backbreaker moments where the momentum is in play to close out the half. Curry misses a step back 3 up. But Looney reads the angle of the rebound, beats Sabonis on the spot, catches him and throws him back to Curry for a reload three.
Years ago, Ron Adams gave Looney some valuable advice. He entered the league like most players, thirsty to score the moment he grabbed an offensive rebound. But a contested layup from Looney in traffic isn’t nearly as valuable as a reload kick to an open Curry or Thompson. That was Adams’ message, as Looney recalls: “We have Steph Curry and Klay on our team. Pass 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 a plus-21 with him on the floor.
Kawakami: Inside the Warriors moves and mindset that led to a Game 3 win
Thompson: Curry and the gang put it all together when they needed it most
(Stephen Curry, Malik Monk and Kevon Looney top photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)