Analysis | Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ fifth Beatle, stole the show in Game 2

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SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors start three future Hall of Famers, a former No. 1 overall pick and — long pause — an unheralded, undersized center with modest career averages of 4.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.

Whether judged by compensation or acclaim, Kevon Looney has long been an afterthought: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins are all-stars earning annual salaries between $24 million and $45 million each, while Looney, who is on the books for $5.2 million, was a career backup until this season, his seventh in the NBA. Technically, the 26-year-old UCLA product, who was the last player selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, isn’t even a permanent starter. In recent playoff games against the Denver Nuggets and Memphis Grizzlies, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr shifted to smaller opening units that sent Looney back to the bench.

But Golden State’s fifth Beatle stole the show Friday, keying a 126-117 Game 2 victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Looney notched a career-high 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, helping the Warriors erase a 19-point deficit by punishing the Mavericks’ small front line during a second-half comeback. While Curry finished off Dallas by scoring 10 of his team-high 32 points in the final period, it was Looney’s energetic effort to cover up for Green, who picked up his fifth foul midway through the third quarter, that put the Warriors on track for their 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

“Loon was just brilliant again,” Kerr said. “He’s incredibly underrated by everybody. He switches onto guards, he rebounds, he sets screens, and in a series like this, it’s so spread out, he’s able to score some buckets in the paint as well. Loon is everybody’s favorite guy. He’s so respected in the locker room. He’s an incredible pro. He does his job every day, whether we play him for 10 minutes or 32.”

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This wasn’t Looney’s first taste of playoff success or his first big moment during this current title push. After undergoing hip surgeries in 2015 and 2016 that limited him to just 58 combined games in his first two seasons, Looney returned to play rotation minutes for the Warriors’ 2018 championship team. Looney’s early-career health issues were serious enough that Golden State declined the fourth-year option on his rookie contract, but his willingness to do the dirty work as a rebounder and defensive specialist eventually earned him a new deal.

Looney transformed from injury risk to ironman this season, becoming Golden State’s only player to appear in all 82 games. During a series-clinching Game 6 victory against the Grizzlies, who boasted a big and physical frontcourt, Looney grabbed 22 rebounds, the most by a Warriors player in the postseason since 1987.

“He’s just been through a lot,” Curry said. “He’s adapted to things that have been thrown at him. This year, him being available was the biggest thing he wanted to accomplish. We see the work that he’s put in to make that a reality. Now in the playoffs, he’s just taking that next step. He brings a lot of joy to what we do. I’ll call him the muse in the locker room. He has a great demeanor. He’s the bridge between the vets and the young guys.”

The 6-foot-9 big man was at his best in Game 2 against the Mavericks, who have sacrificed size in favor of shooting and spacing. Dallas’s strategy, which was reinforced by its midseason trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Washington Wizards, has worked well to this point. Luka Doncic enjoys plenty of room to attack in the Mavericks’ “five-out” lineups — which feature five players around the three-point arc and none in the paint — and opposing defenses have struggled to keep up with so many perimeter weapons.

Dallas raced to an early lead in Game 2, snapping out of its Game 1 offensive slump to build a 19-point advantage and shoot 15 for 27 on three-pointers in the first half. By night’s end, Doncic had a game-high 42 points, five rebounds and eight assists for the seventh 40-point game of his young postseason career. Jalen Brunson added 31 points and five three-pointers, Reggie Bullock had 21 points and six three-pointers, and Dallas seemed poised to even the series.

The shooting prowess of Curry and Thompson has been the Warriors’ defining characteristic for years, but Kerr has long tried to strike a balance by alternating between big and small lineups. As Dallas sought to put away Game 2 from outside, Golden State turned inward, where Looney was able to outfox and outmuscle Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell. Remarkably, Looney snagged five offensive rebounds, one more than the Mavericks.

“You’ve got to put a body on him,” Mavericks Coach Jason Kidd lamented. “You’ve got to box him out. He’s one of the guys that no one writes about or talks about, but we understand the impact he has on the game by giving those guys second or third opportunities. For him to have five offensive rebounds, that puts us in harm’s way.”

Sensing Dallas’s vulnerability inside, Golden State’s guards drove with greater regularity as the second half unfolded. Those forays, in turn, set up Looney for open looks in the basket area. Much of Looney’s value derives from his self-awareness and discipline: He shot 10 for 14 from the field, never straying outside his comfort zone, with all of his attempts coming from within six feet. When the dust settled, Golden State had outscored Dallas in the paint 62-30.

“[The guards] have been doing a lot of drop-off passes to allow me to finish,” Looney said. “With all the shooters we have, the paint is pretty wide open. I’m able to roll to the rim and finish.”

When Looney checked in following Green’s fifth foul midway through the third, Golden State trailed by 11 points. By the time Green checked back in midway through the fourth, the Warriors were up by eight points and Looney had been serenaded with “M-V-P” chants while he shot a free throw. This rare moment in the spotlight was “nerve-racking,” Looney admitted, because he had attempted only eight free throws in the entire postseason entering Friday.

During one sequence early in the fourth quarter, Looney dunked the ball, made a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound and found Jordan Poole with a pass to set up a three-pointer. The Mavericks were forced to take a timeout to stop the bleeding, and Kerr bolted onto the court to express his appreciation to Looney.

“This is always something that I dreamed about and envisioned,” Looney said. “I always say: ‘Keep working. Your time is going to come.’ You have to take full advantage of it, and tonight was my night to make a big difference and step up. It’s been a theme for our team throughout my whole time being here: Guys step up when called upon.”

NBA playoff series are often decided by unexpected heroes such as Looney, and Dallas returns home for Game 3 desperately needing to find one of its own. The Mavericks are 5-1 at home in the playoffs, and they responded well to their blowout loss in Game 1 before crumbling down the stretch. With Dallas having few big bodies capable of countering Looney inside, its guards will seek greater stylistic diversity as they try to outgun Golden State.

“We relied too much on the three,” Doncic said. “We weren’t attacking the paint that much. We’ve got to attack the paint more like they did. They have two of the best shooters in the world, and they still attack the paint.”

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