SAN FRANCISCO — Ahead of Game 5, quarantined Steve Kerr told his coaching staff not to go looking for a win if they weren’t there. They felt a strong backlash coming from the Grizzlies in Memphis and had a hunch they wouldn’t match it. So when the lead exploded early in the third quarter, Mike Brown pulled a few starters, bringing Steph Curry and Draymond Green back to the bench.
It was then and there that the first discussions regarding a crucial decision for Game 6 took place. Who should the Warriors have in their fifth roaming starting spot? They couldn’t continue with Jonathan Kuminga, the rookie. It hadn’t worked. Otto Porter Jr., if he’s healthy? Nemanja Bjelica for spacing? Jordan Poole and the small ball unit?
No. Green and Curry wanted Kevon Looney. They raised the idea on the bench in Memphis and solidified it on the plane home and in the hours leading up to Game 6.
“It was Draymond’s call,” Brown said. “At Draymond and Steph. It’s our job to give our players confidence, and they all looked us in the eye and said, ‘That’s where we’re going to get our confidence.’
Warriors staff deliberately separated Green and Looney in this series. They were confident that these two non-shooters together would allow Memphis to clog the way and kill spacing for the Warriors. In game 5, those fears materialized. Brown tried Green and Looney together, the Grizzlies sagged Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams and the Grizzlies crushed that formation in the second quarter.
“I know the worry was the offensive end and how they were protecting us,” Green said. “But we were dominated from the start. When you look at the (previous) eight quarters before this game, we were outplayed for seven of them. … So we just knew we had to go out and establish a presence inside to start the game and not worry too much about our score. We will figure out how to score the basketball.
The Warriors eliminated the Grizzlies Friday night at Chase Center. Final: 110-96. They won the game and won the series on glass and defensive end. Looney — and the bold move to put him back in the starting lineup — is a big reason they’re not returning to Memphis for Game 7.
The Warriors had struggled to start each of the last three games, after trying Kuminga as a starter, only to see that unit outscored by a total of 21 points. In game 6 they went up 16-8 before replacing Looney out of the game. At the end of the first quarter, they led by four. Looney already had 11 rebounds.
“I didn’t know until (Andrew Wiggins) talked about it,” Looney said. “He’s like, ‘Do you have 11 rebounds already?'”
The Grizzlies were the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA this season and beat the Warriors in that category in Game 5. That hadn’t been a problem earlier in the series, but once Ja Morant came out, Steven Adams reappeared and Memphis leaned into a killer style, it became much more difficult (and important) for the Warriors to keep the Grizzlies out of the glass.
But with the season on the line, Looney produced one of the best rebounding performances of this decade in the NBA. He had 11 in the first quarter and a career-high 22 in the game. Eleven of them came from the offensive side, 11 from the defensive side. He protected his own paint and terrorized the Grizzlies’ goal.
“What’s more impressive than the 22 boards is that I think I ran it 17 minutes straight,” Brown said. “I kept watching him because after the first five (minutes) he looked like he was dying, then the next two he looked like he was worse. I don’t know if he could getting worse, and every minute after that, I was like, ‘Loon, wait! Loon, wait! And he did.”
Looney finished at 35 minutes, a career high. He played the last 17 after only serving as a lightly used backup center heading into Friday night.
“Absolutely amazing,” Green said. “We always talk about Loon being the true ultimate professional. This series left him. Last series too. Yet he remained ready.
It was Looney’s 19th rebound. It’s a pullback with 4:29 to go to extend the lead from seven to nine.
It was Looney’s 20th rebound. It’s a towering fight in traffic with Dillon Brooks, which he wins, fighting himself and then throwing him to Klay Thompson before he falls to the ground from exhaustion.
This is Looney’s 21st rebound. It comes after this possession. He got up off the floor and went back to painting. Curry misses what looks like the dagger, but Looney gets up to get another extra Warriors possession, spots an open Klay Thompson and throws it to Klay for his eighth make 3, a dagger.
It’s Looney’s 22nd rebound. It’s not spectacular, but it’s symbolic of his night and his role on this Warriors team. He guards Brandon Clarke well, forces a hard shot and cleans up the misfire, handing him safely to Green to bleed the clock.
The Warriors relied on the backbone that guided them through the regular season, believing Looney gave them the best chance to produce saves in the half court against a Memphis team without Morant and finish those saves. with a bounce. They only scored 110 points. But 110 points is more than enough if you cut the other team’s water. Looney allowed this.
His 22 rebounds were part of a historic performance on the glass. The Warriors had 70 rebounds. It’s the best team in the NBA this season and the first time a team has gobbled up 70 rebounds in a playoff game since 1983.
“When Ja went down we realized after the last game we almost had to adjust like we were starting an entirely different series,” Green said. “Because it was a totally different team that we played the, what, three games against? It’s a totally different team. So, I mean, Kevon, he was one of those guys who was a mainstay in everything we do and no matter what – at any point in his career, when his number was called, he was ready. We knew we couldn’t do it without him, that’s why we were pushing for him to come back to the starting lineup, and he got away with it.
(Photo of Kevon Looney reaching the ball between Tyus Jones of the Grizzlies and