Warriors' small-ball lineup shows strengths, weaknesses in loss to Celtics

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Warriors' small lineup shows strengths, weaknesses in loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

The final score Thursday night in the Warriors' return to TD Garden for the first time since the NBA Finals was a much-different outcome. The start of the game, though, was the same.

At least for Warriors center Kevon Looney.

Steve Kerr surprised many when the Warriors' starting lineup was announced without Looney, who played in his 156th consecutive regular-season game. The results were mixed in the Warriors' 121-118 overtime loss to the Boston Celtics, with plenty of highs and some clear hopes. It sounds like Kerr will stick with his smaller starting five going forward, when all said players are available.

"Yeah, I think I'll keep doing it," Kerr said after the loss to reporters in Boston. "We'll see how it goes."

So, how did it go against the Celtics, who improved to an NBA-best 34-12 this season?

Jordan Poole, starting in place of Looney, ignited the Warriors' offense from the start. He scored nine points in the first quarter and finished the night with 24 while going 10-for-25 from the field and 2-for-8 behind the 3-point line. If he's going to be placed in the starting lineup instead of being a scoring spark off the bench, Poole has to hold his own defensively.

He did so in Boston, grabbing six rebounds and swiping three steals. Poole was engaged on both sides of the floor, albeit he was part of a major defensive breakdown when Jaylen Brown hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 18 seconds remaining in regulation.

"It's a tough matchup against this team," Kerr said. "They've got so many big wings, so for us to start that smaller group Jordan has to hold up and he did. I thought his defense was excellent."

Coming off his four-year contract extension worth up to $140 million, Poole now has started 23 games this season and has come off the bench in 22. As a starter, Poole now is averaging 26.7 points compared to 15.5 off the bench. He has scored 20 or more points 27 times this season.

Only six of those have been as the Warriors' Sixth Man.

"I think it gives us a bit more explosiveness being able to space the floor and get out and run in transition," Poole said to reporters in the Warriors' locker room. "I feel like we're pretty dangerous in that. If we can guard and we can rebound while we're small I think it'll give us a new layer. I think everybody knows that unit is pretty dangerous together."

Steph Curry topped Warriors scorers with 29 points, but he also was 9-for-25 from the field and 6-for-18 on 3-point attempts. In the fourth quarter, Curry went 1-for-7 from the field and missed all five of his 3-pointers. Klay Thompson got it going early, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the first quarter. He had as many points (four) as fouls in the second half and didn't attempt a single shot in the four minutes of overtime he lasted before fouling out.

Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green made up the Warriors' frontcourt against the Celtics. Boston trotted out Al Horford and Robert Williams, who both stand 6-foot-9. Wiggins was held to five points in the first half but caught a spark of fire in the third quarter, scoring 10 of his 20 points. He also had four blocks and was a major reason why Celtics star Jayson Tatum shot 33.3 percent from the field and 30.8 percent on 3-pointers.

Green stuffed the stat sheet in front of the rowdy Boston fans. That was to be expected in his return to an arena where he heard words that should never be uttered. The Warriors' do-it-all point-center was on assist shy of a triple-double with 11 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.

The Warriors' starting five of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green was a minus-1 overall in plus-minus when sharing the court. They spent 21 minutes on the floor together and were outscored 59-58.

The Celtics' starting five was a minus-7 in 16 minutes together.

"Just wanted to open up the floor, give us a little different look," Kerr said of his decision to make a change. "Maybe get a spark. We're past the halfway point and we're .500. Let's try something different. And it was the first time in a while we've had all those guys healthy, too.

"It's a lineup we know can be explosive. Against Boston in particular, you got to open up the floor. They've got a big front line, big wings. Just felt like we could possibly get a little boost from it."

Then there's Looney, the odd man out.

Looney didn't start any of the Warriors' final three games against the Celtics last season in the Finals. The Warriors won all three games, Looney averaged 7.8 rebounds off the bench and also averaged a plus-11. On Thursday night, Looney proved once again he's the ultimate pro's pro.

Coming off the bench for the first time this season, Looney grabbed 12 rebounds and made his only shot attempt. His plus-3 was second to Curry. Kerr used an eight-man rotation, and Looney, like always, was steady as a rock in a different role.

"Loon was great off the bench," Kerr said.

"It's a credit to Loon being a constant professional and understanding he's so important to what we do," Curry said in the locker room. "There's been times where we've switched it up and he's gone to the bench and still been productive, even as late as the playoffs last year where we made that move and he came back in the Memphis series and really helped up.

"He's always ready."

RELATED: Kerr explains Dubs' defensive breakdown on Brown 3-pointer

Opting for speed and shooting, the Warriors had a 15-point advantage on 3-pointers. Half their shots also came from long distance and they shot 34.6 percent on 3-pointers. The Celtics finished with 16 more rebounds than the Warriors, 22 more points in the paint and eight more second-chance points. Warriors starters snatched 29 rebounds. Celtics starters had 54.

Friday marks the second night of a back-to-back for the Warriors, and they're going against a Cleveland Cavaliers team that features two very good big men in Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. Thompson likely will be sitting, too. Does that mean Kerr turns to Donte DiVincenzo for the starting lineup and stays small, or is Looney inserted back in?

When Looney and Green both start, the Warriors often are behind the curve in spacing and the amount of scorers on the floor. Poole gives them a jolt offensively, and he impressed defensively against a team that looks to be a true NBA title contender. Looney showed how effective he can be in reserve, slowing down the pace, fighting for everything and making the Warriors' second unit a changeup for the opposition.

Going small didn't end in a Warriors win Thursday. Kerr's right, though. The 22-23 Warriors need a spark, and the change could bring a major scare to the rest of the league when all goes right, giving them four players who can score at least 20 points on any night sharing the floor with Draymond's toolbox of basketball expertise.