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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.

Tournament games scheduled for Redwood Empire schools

(seedings in parentheses)


Wednesday’s games

First round

Division 1

(4) Roseland University Prep vs. (13) Del Norte, at Analy High School, 8 p.m.

(10) Fort Bragg at (7) Gateway, 8 p.m.

(12) Lower Lake vs. (5) Arcata at McKinleyville High School, 5 p.m.

(14) Cloverdale vs. (3) Stuart Hall at Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 6 p.m.

(15) Willits at (2) Urban at Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 8 p.m.

(16) Kelseyville at (1) Fortuna, 7 p.m.

Division 2

(3) Calistoga vs. (14) Cal Crosspoint at Rincon Valley Christian, 2 p.m.

(8) Technology vs. (9) Credo at Rancho Cotate, 6 p.m.

(10) St. Vincent at (7) The Bay School, 3:30 p.m.

(11) Mendocino vs. (6) Drew at Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 4 p.m.

(15) Upper Lake vs. (2) Making Waves at MLK Park, Richmond, 3:30 p.m.


Division 3

(1) Anderson Valley, bye

(2) Rincon Valley Christian, bye

(3) Roseland Collegiate Prep at (6) South Fork, 7 p.m.

(4) Tomales vs. (5) Stony Point, 7 p.m.


Wednesday’s games

First round

Division 1

(4) Middletown, bye

(5) Technology vs. (12) Willits at Rancho Cotate, 8 p.m.

(6) St. Helena vs. (11) Kelseyville, 7 p.m.

(7) Roseland University Prep vs. (10) Fort Bragg at Analy High School, 6 p.m.

(8) Clear Lake vs. (9) McKinleyville, 7 p.m.


Division 3

(1) St. Vincent vs. (8) Upper Lake, 3:30 p.m.

(4) Rincon Valley Christian vs. (5) Calistoga at Rincon Valley Christian, 4 p.m.

(7) Mendocino at (2) St. Bernard’s, 3:30 p.m.

I remember watching him during the playoffs last year. Not in games; he was inactive for the entire postseason with a recurring injury to his right hip. But he’d practice with the team on off days, and he’d be shooting when reporters shuffled onto the court. I’ll be honest. Looney didn’t really look like an NBA player. The injury had hampered his conditioning, and he had gone a little soft.

That, along with his incredibly broad shoulders and a face that looks older than his birth certificate, gave Looney an odd appearance. Seeing him on the court, it was easy to wonder: Is this guy really on the Golden State roster?

But Looney came into the 2017-18 season in vastly improved shape. He is lean again, and able to move surprisingly well for a 220-pounder. Now you can see why the Warriors like him. His combination of size, agility and intelligence make him ideal for their demanding defensive system.

Looney said Tuesday that he didn’t even expect to play center in the NBA after the Warriors drafted him out of UCLA in 2015. But as Kerr noted after Game 1: “That’s what this league has become. You’ve got to have big guys that can switch and defend. When you play Houston, that’s kind of the name of the game. They’re going to put everybody in pick-and-roll and play iso and play one-on-one. You’ve got to have a lot of guys who can guard. Thankfully we do, and Looney is one of them.”

More to the point, the Warriors seek defenders who can switch from one player to another without becoming a huge liability. Looney acknowledges he has improved a lot in that regard since training camp, crediting assistant coaches Chris DeMarco and Ron Adams as his steadiest tutors.

So how did Looney do in Game 1? Nate Duncan, who hosts the Dunc’d On basketball podcast, reported that Looney gave up 17 points on 11 isolation possessions vs. guards Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. That’s a poor ratio.

On the other hand, could anyone have stopped Harden that night? Just inside of the 6-minute mark of the first quarter, The Beard got matched against Looney and dribbled at the right bend of the arc — left, right, left, right. Harden jabbed one foot over the line, stepped back and swished a 27-footer. Looney hadn’t gotten lost by any means, but he gave up points.

With a little more than a minute to go before halftime, Harden ran a replay tape — right bend, forward step, backward step. He paused a second before drilling another 27-footer. This time, Looney’s hand was right in Harden’s face.

“It’s tough,” Looney said. “He’s a great scorer. You try not to foul, and try not to give him no easy ones. Like end of the first half, I gave him a layup and a dunk. Can’t have that. But, I mean, you’ve got to pick your poison with him. He’s hitting a stepback, you try to press up and he’s gonna go around you.”

Even those two scoring drives by Harden at the end of the half weren’t as egregious as Looney suggested. Yes, the Houston guard ran by him. But Kevin Durant was guarding his man at the edge of the key on both plays; Durant twice failed to slide over and contest Harden’s shot. Asking Looney to stand out at the perimeter and stay in front of Harden is one thing. Asking him to run with the shorter man, with no help, is a very different request.

And remember this key point: Looney had no fouls in Game 1, against Harden or anyone else.

But if Kerr sounded pleased with his young big man, and backed it up by giving him minutes, there is no guarantee the pattern will be repeated. After one game, the Rockets are already desperate. Their coach, Mike D’Antoni, certainly will make some strategic adjustments. Kerr will counter them. Maybe Looney will remain heavily involved. Maybe he won’t.

“You never know,” he said. “Depends on the game. Steve can switch the lineups. He does a pretty good job with that. And when he switches it up, it usually works. But everyone on our bench is ready to play. I’m always gonna be ready to play. If it doesn’t happen, gonna cheer from the sidelines.”

That’s another skill required of all Warriors centers.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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