BOSTON — Steve Kerr has made many high-pressure, high-stakes decisions during his NBA career. Like that afternoon in 1995 when he got fed up with Michael Jordan in a Chicago Bulls practice and made the decision to throw a forearm and ended up getting a black eye.
The Golden State Warriors coach had another big throw in an important Game 4 of the NBA Finals with seven minutes left on Friday when he decided to pull Draymond Green out of the game. The Warriors were five points behind the Boston Celtics and in danger. It was so simple Green wasn’t playing well and the player he went to, Kevon Looney, was.
The Warriors put on an 11-3 run over the next five minutes after Green was eliminated and finally took the lead. Kerr then opted to play Green only on defense as much as possible in the final minutes, even taking a time-out once to take him out of the game. In the more limited role, Green made several impressive plays and had one of his best stretches of the series as the Warriors wrapped up the 107-97 win to level the series 2-2.
At first glance, these Finals look like Stephen Curry greatness against the Celtics’ youthful exuberance that will perhaps manifest itself in volume 3-point shooting and modern pick-and-roll coverage. But since this is going to be a three-game series, the title could depend on an old-school scenario: the big men.
It will depend on how Kerr handles what could be a tricky situation with Green on the one hand. And the health of Celtics defender Robert Williams III, who appeared to have aggravated a knee injury late in Game 4 in what has the potential to be a turning point in the series.
Both Kerr and Celtics coach Ime Udoka are likely aware of these realities, and their willingness to punt them until later told the post-game story.
“I didn’t see or hear anything from Rob,” said Udoka.
This felt like a duck considering Williams came out lame with four minutes remaining and signaled the bench to go out of the game. A few moments later he was pulled and never returned. The Warriors outplayed the Celtics by seven points in those final three-plus minutes.
Williams has by far the best defensive stats in this series. When he was down in Game 4, the Celtics outscored the Warriors by six points. When he was out they were surpassed by 16. Udoka may have been aware that he wasn’t available on the track.
Williams has 12 blocks and five steals in the streak. He had a playoff career-high 12 rebounds on Friday. If he was on the floor, the Celtics are +20 in the four games. In Games 3 and 4, he looked the sprightly he had in weeks. He covered huge areas, hitting shots and generally making the warriors crouch.
Williams was recovering from knee surgery and a bruised left knee bone late in the season. For weeks, William’s life has revolved around playing and treating his knee. He gets multiple deep tissue massages in his calf and the front of his knees daily. Tons of ice packs, electrical muscle stimulation treatment, and a process called blood flow restriction, which involves placing a ring around the knee that compresses to promote healing.
It works: After missing seven of the Celtics’ first 14 playoff games, he has played eight straight. But it’s now about how severe the aggravation might be, and it’s also unclear how he’ll feel Monday in San Francisco for Game 5 (9 p.m. ET on ABC), which could end up being a massive variable.
“It’s up and down,” Williams said about his knee ahead of Game 4. “Adrenaline energy kind of carries me.”
Then there’s the brewing scenario with Green being so limited on offense in those finals that Williams will often guard him because it can freelance elsewhere. But around his bench press, he was really effective in the fourth quarter, hitting five of his nine rebounds and three of his eight assists in limited minutes.
Kerr made it sound like the plan all along was to cut Green’s minutes; The power forward played a series low of 33. And Kerr partially took Looney off the starting lineup so he could establish a rotation that allowed Looney to play more in the fourth quarter.
Kerr had yet to make the call in the moment, and it was one of the best moves he’s made on the show. It might even rise to “season saving” levels. 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 crucial fourth quarter of Game 4.
“Like most coaches, you just stick with a group that’s going well,” Kerr said when discussing the election. “I didn’t play [Looney] enough in game 3. That was my mistake. It was important to get him out of there and he had a huge impact on the game.”
Looney is a whopping +36 on the streak after hitting +21 in Game 4. He was the team’s best rebounder and rim defender and limited errors. He’s gotten a bunch of baskets around the rim and is shooting 13 of 18 while getting putbacks and dump-offs when the attention is elsewhere. It stands in stark contrast to Green’s 6-of-26 shooting.
“I’m definitely never thrilled when I’m out in the fourth quarter with seven minutes left in a must-win game,” Green said. “But at the end of the day, if the coach decides that, then roll with it. You know, I had to keep my head in the game.”
If the same situation comes up in games 5 or 6 or maybe even 7, Kerr might have to do it again. Looney was the Warriors’ best big man. Though Green and Looney often play together, Kerr can only play one for Golden State to have its best offense in crunch time.
Though they’ve fought their battles over the years, Kerr has stood by Green even as his temper and crushing offense have made it more difficult in recent years. This is being tested in a big way right now and it’s only going to get more intense.
For both sides with these big men, it’s all a big part of this final.
“I never want our players to be happy if I knock them out,” Kerr said. “Draymond is incredibly competitive. Whatever is required in Game 5, we will do it.”