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Put him at your own risk

BOSTON — While watching video of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr had a nagging thought as he watched his players botch box-outs and struggling to score indoors: I should have played Kevon Looney more.

But after Kerr evaluated everything that had gone wrong in that blowout, he still replaced Looney in the starting lineup for Game 4 on Friday night with Otto Porter Jr. Porter’s 3-point shooting, Kerr thought, could help the Warriors out to clear the ground.

It didn’t take long for him to realize that he might have made another mistake. After watching Golden State work the glass en route to an early 12-6 hole, Kerr summoned Looney, who stabilized the Warriors at low and grabbed four rebounds in his first two minutes.

This served as an important reminder: name Looney at your own risk. Throughout the playoffs, Kerr was tempted to repeat past successes and lean on small-ball lineups just for the Warriors to have the best stretches with Looney on the floor.

While Kerr has long recognized the value of Looney, he’s so bogged down in the nuances of various matchups that he may reconsider. If Looney has proven anything in these playoffs, it’s that he deserves 25+ minutes a night no matter the situation.

His physical tools won’t inspire, but Looney is rarely out of position defensively or slow to shatter the offensive glass. The Warriors have outplayed their opponents in this playoff by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with Looney on the ground than without him. He leads the league with 13.8 rebounds (4.9 offense) per 36 minutes.

Looney was even a key offensive option at times this postseason, averaging 6.3 points on 67.9% shooting. And its importance has only become more pronounced in these finals.

Given that Boston is bigger, stronger and more athletic, the Warriors needed someone to anchor them deeply and counter Celtics center Robert Williams III — an elite 12-block centerback in four games. In just 91 total minutes, Looney has 34 rebounds (14 offense), saved five shots, and posted a series-best plus-minus of plus-36.

With Looney scoring in Game 4 on Friday, Kerr benched forward Draymond Green for nearly four minutes midway through the fourth quarter in Looney’s favour. This decision quickly became a national talking point because of Green’s history with the organization and her outspoken personality. But guard Stephen Curry later conceded the move said more about how the Warriors view Looney than Green’s tough night.

While Looney patrolled the color during this critical period, Golden State turned a four-point deficit into a three-point lead. Kerr called Looney’s layup at 1:04 left the “biggest bucket in the game.”

“Loon is just fundamental to everything we do,” Kerr said of Looney, who finished Game 4 with 11 rebounds and a plus-minus plus-21 in 28 minutes. “He’s our best screener, our best rebounder. One of our smartest players. He is always in the right place.

“…Loon has been really good for us over the years, but this year in particular he’s made a leap to a point where he’s just irreplaceable for us.”

Green added, “Loon just makes these extra plays. He had some great finishes on the edge and great rebounds, great inner physical presence for us.

After starting the Warriors’ first four postseason games, Looney came off the bench in the next six as staff tinkered with smaller lineups. Then, after Golden State’s 39-point loss to the Grizzlies in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, then-acting head coach Mike Brown put Looney back in the first session.

With 22 rebounds in that Game 6 win over Memphis, Looney made quite a statement: Even as the league tends toward a positionless basketball brand, he provides the Warriors with much-needed size, rush and intelligence on the inside.

Ever since he averaged a double-double in the West Finals against Dallas, he was perhaps Golden State’s only answer to Williams in those finals. Although not as quick on his feet as Williams, Looney has an understanding of timing, distances and angles that allows him to shoot against Williams.

With Williams on the bench, the Celtics have no one to match Looney’s height and grit. As Boston went small midway through the first quarter on Friday, the 6-foot-9 Looney struggled with the 6-4 Derrick White for positioning on the low block when Curry spotted a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

As the ball rattled off the back of the rim, Looney simply used his 7-4 span to reach over White’s head, tearing down the offensive rebound and kicking to Curry, who found Andrew Wiggins for an open 3-pointer. That quick sequence embodied Looney’s worth. Not only did Looney have the size advantage over White, but he knew where to be and what pass to make.

Such a game will not be a “SportsCenter” highlight, but it can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Kerr knows that. But at times this postseason, even he’s been lulled into believing that Looney belongs on the bench.

At least on paper, a floorspacer like Porter or a sporty specimen like Jonathan Kuminga seems like a better option than the no-frills Looney. Friday helped Kerr see the flaw in his behavior. Looney may find himself back on the starting lineup in Game 5 at the Chase Center on Monday.

“I actually feel better now than I did when the playoffs started,” Looney said. “…All the work I’ve put in is paying off.”

Connor Letourneau is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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