Warriors small ball shows strengths and weaknesses in loss to Celtics

Small Warriors lineup shows strengths, weaknesses in defeat originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayare

The final result Thursday night in the Warriors’ return to TD Garden for the first time since the NBA Finals was a much different outcome. The beginning of the match was the same.

At least for Warriors center Kevon Looney.

Steve Kerr surprised many when the Warriors’ starting lineup was announced without Looney, who played in his 156th consecutive regular season game. The results were mixed in The Warriors lost to Boston 121-118 in overtime Celtics, with a lot of upside and clear hopes. It appears that Kerr will continue with his smaller starting five down the stretch, once all of the players listed are available.

“Yeah, I think I’ll keep it going,” Kerr told reporters after the loss in Boston. – We’ll see how it goes.

So how did it fare against the Celtics, who improved to an NBA-best 34-12 record this season?

Jordan Poole, starting in place of Looney, ignited the Warriors offense from the start. He scored nine points in the first quarter and finished the night with 24 while going 10-for-25 from the field and 2-for-8 from behind the 3-point line. If he is to be established in the starting line-up instead of being a scoring spark off the bench, Poole needs to defend.

He did it in Boston, grabbing six rebounds and three steals. Poole was engaged on both ends of the floor, though he was part of a major defensive breakdown when Jaylen Brown hit a 3-pointer to tie the game with 18 seconds left in regulation.

“It’s a tough matchup against this team,” Kerr said. “They have so many big wings, so to get that smaller group going, Jordan has to hold up and he did. I thought his defense was excellent.”

After inking a four-year contract extension worth up to $140 million, Poole has now started 23 games this season and come off the bench in 22. As a starter, Poole is now averaging 26.7 points compared to 15.5 off the bench. He scored 20 or more points 27 times this season.

Only six of those were the Warriors’ sixth man.

“I think it gives us a little more explosiveness to be able to space the floor and get out and run in transition,” Poole told reporters in the Warriors locker room. “I feel like we’re pretty dangerous at that. If we can guard and rebound while we’re small, I think that’s going to give us another layer. I think everybody knows that unit together is pretty dangerous.”

Steph Curry led the Warriors with 29 points, but was also 9-for-25 from the field and 6-for-18 from three. In the fourth quarter, Curry went 1-for-7 from the field and missed all five of his 3-pointers. Klay Thompson got going early, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the first quarter. He had as many points (four) as fouls in the second half and didn’t make a single shot in the four minutes of overtime that lasted before the foul.

Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green made up the Warriors’ frontcourt against the Celtics. Boston was out Al Horford and Robert Williams, who are both 6-foot-9. Wiggins was held to five points in the first half, but caught fire in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 20 points. He also had four blocks and was the main reason Celtics star Jayson Tatum shot 33.3 percent from the field and 30.8 percent on 3-pointers.

Green piled up the stats in front of boisterous Boston fans. This was to be expected in his return to the arena where he heard words that should never be spoken. The Warriors’ do-it-all point center was one assist shy of a triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.

The Warriors’ starting five of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green was minus-1 in overall plus-minus when sharing the court. Together, they spent 21 minutes on the floor and were better with a score of 59-58.

The Celtics’ first five were minus-7 in 16 minutes combined.

“I just wanted to open up the floor, give us a little different look,” Kerr said of his decision to make the change. “Maybe we get a spark. We’re over the halfway mark and we’re .500. Let’s try something different. And it was the first time in a long time that all those guys were healthy.

“That’s a lineup that we know can be explosive. Especially against Boston, you have to open the floor. They have a big front line, big wings. It seemed like we could get a little boost from that.”

Then there’s Looney, the odd man out.

Looney didn’t start any of the Warriors’ final three games against the Celtics last season in the Finals. The Warriors won all three games, Looney averaged 7.8 rebounds off the bench and also averaged a plus-11. On Thursday night, Looney proved once again that he is the ultimate professional.

Coming off the bench for the first time this season, Looney grabbed 12 rebounds and made his only shot. His plus-3 was second only to Curry. Kerr used an eight-man rotation, and Looney, as always, was rock steady in the second role.

Loon was great off the bench, Kerr said.

“It’s an honor for Loon to be a consistent professional and understand that he’s so important to what we do,” Curry said in the locker room. “There’s been times where we’ve changed things up and he’s gone to the bench and still been productive, even the playoffs last year when we made that move and he came back in the Memphis series and really helped.

– He is always ready.

RELATED: Kerr explains the Dubs’ defensive breakdown on Brown’s 3-pointer

Opting for speed and shooting, the Warriors had a 15-point lead on 3-pointers. Half of their shots were also from long range, and they shot 34.6 percent on three-pointers. The Celtics finished with 16 more rebounds than the Warriors, 22 more field goals and eight more second-chance points. Warriors starters recorded 29 rebounds. Celtics starters had 54.

Friday is the second night of back-to-back games for the Warriors, and they go up against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has two very good big men in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Thompson will probably sit as well. Does that mean Kerr turns to Donte DiVincenzo for the starting lineup and stays small, or is Looney reinserted?

When Looney and Green start, the Warriors are often behind the curve in spacing and scoring on the floor. Poole gives them a shot on offense, and he impressed defensively against a team that looks like a real NBA title contender. Looney showed how effective he can be on the bench, slowing down the pace, fighting for everything and making the Warriors’ second unit a replacement for the opposition.

The downsizing didn’t end with the Warriors’ win Thursday. Kerr is right though. The 22-23 Warriors need a spark, and the change could give the rest of the league a big scare when things go right, giving them four players who can score at least 20 points on any given night sharing the floor with Draymond’s basketball expertise.

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