HOUSTON — On Tuesday morning, I watched a compilation of James Harden highlights from Game 1 of the Western Conference championship series, which is to say I watched a compilation of Kevon Looney lowlights.
It was almost like seeing multiple takes of the same scene in a basketball movie. Harden, the Rockets’ prolific scorer, would dribble, dribble just beyond the arc. Looney, the Warriors’ young big man, would stand in Harden’s path in a wide stance, arms outstretched. Finally, Harden would take a step back and launch a 3-point shot or, alternately, blow by the young big man for a layup.
You could almost hear the director. Cut! Let’s take it again from the top. Aaannnddd … scene! And there were Harden and Looney, playing their parts again.
Needless to say, the shots in the reel all went in. Harden wound up with 41 points, the most anyone has scored against the Warriors in 11 games this postseason.
In the aftermath of a big NBA game, consensus usually forms around various issues. Starting so-and-so was a good (or bad) idea. What’s-his-name had a great (or terrible) game. But I noticed something interesting while skimming analyses of Game 1. There was no consensus on Kevon Looney. Some people thought he had played really well. Others were convinced Harden had torched him.
It probably depends on how you came to your conclusion. Watching those highlights, or looking at the stat sheet, Looney appeared to be a 6-foot-9 victim. Listening to his coach, Steve Kerr, and teammates, you’d swear Looney had played like a budding All-Star.
I’d vote for something in the middle. Looney generally did about as much as anyone could when guarding Harden one-on-one, but it frequently wasn’t good enough.
Certainly, there was value to Looney’s role. Someone has to guard Harden, and the Rockets help to determine who that will be by picking off guys with screens. Monday, they mostly chose Looney and Stephen Curry.
Curry, an indispensable tool for the Warriors, had a quiet game (18 points, 1 of 5 on 3-pointers) and wound up with five fouls. That’s not a great recipe for Kerr’s team. The Warriors needed a sacrificial lamb to stick with Harden, use up a ton of energy on the defensive end and guard without fouling, because Harden is so reliable at the free-throw line. Looney was the lamb.
And he was hoisted onto the grill a little earlier than expected, because Andre Iguodala picked up his second foul on a silly reach-in vs. Harden just 3:50 into the game. Draymond Green acquired his third just after the midway point of the second quarter. Looney wound up logging 24 minutes and 46 seconds, his most ever in the postseason; only five times during the regular season did he play more.
In that context, Looney did a passable job.
“Yeah, I knew I was doing all right,” he said Tuesday, pressed against a wall on the cramped practice court at the Toyota Center. “Wasn’t no easy ones for him, probably like two or three. But he’s a shot maker. That’s what he does. The shots that you want him to take, he wants to take, too. So, just gotta live with it sometimes.”
Considering how he had arrived at this moment, it was sort of remarkable to see Looney as one of the day’s featured speakers.