SAN FRANCISCO — Prior to Game 5, the quarantined Steve Kerr informed his coaching staff not to chase down a win if it wasn’t there. They sensed a strong counterpunch coming from the Grizzlies in Memphis and had a hunch they wouldn’t match it. So when the lead ballooned early in the third quarter, Mike Brown pulled the plug, bringing Steph Curry and Draymond Green back to the bench.
That’s when and where the early discussions regarding a pivotal Game 6 decision first took place. Who should the Warriors have in their roving fifth starter spot? They couldn’t keep going with Jonathan Kuminga, the rookie. It hadn’t worked. Otto Porter Jr., if 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 back and in the hours before Game 6.
“It was Draymond’s call,” Brown said. “Draymond and Steph’s. It’s our job to give our players confidence, and they looked us all in the eye and said: ‘That’s where we are going to get our confidence.’”
The Warriors’ staff had purposefully separated Green and Looney in this series. They were of the belief that those two non-shooters together would allow Memphis to clog the lane and kill the Warriors’ spacing. In Game 5, those fears materialized. Brown tried Green and Looney together, the Grizzlies had Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams sag off both and the Grizzlies stampeded that lineup in the second quarter.
“I know the worry was the offensive end and just how they were guarding us,” Green said. “But we were getting dominated from the start. When you look at the (previous) eight quarters prior to this game, we got dominated for seven of them. … So we just knew we needed to come out and establish an inside presence to start the game off and not worry so much about our scoring. We’ll figure out how to score the basketball.”
The Warriors eliminated the Grizzlies on Friday night in Chase Center. Final: 110-96. They won the game and clinched the series on the glass and the defensive end. Looney — and the bold choice to plant him back in the starting lineup — is a major reason they aren’t flying back to Memphis for a Game 7.
The Warriors had struggled to start each of the past three games, having tried Kuminga as a starter, only to watch that unit get outscored by a cumulative 21 points. In Game 6, they went up 16-8 before subbing 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) brought it up,” Looney said. “He’s like: ‘You got 11 rebounds already?’”
The Grizzlies were the best offensive rebounding team in the NBA this season and bashed the Warriors in that category in Game 5. It hadn’t been a problem earlier in the series, but once Ja Morant went out, Steven Adams reappeared and Memphis leaned into a bruising style, it became a whole lot more difficult (and important) for the Warriors to keep the Grizzlies off the glass.
But with the season on the line, Looney produced one of the best rebounding performances this decade in the NBA. He had 11 in the first quarter and a career-high 22 in the game. Eleven of those came on the offensive end, 11 on the defensive end. He protected his own paint and terrorized the Grizzlies’ goal.
“What’s more impressive than the 22 boards is I think I ran him 17 straight minutes,” Brown said. “I kept looking at him because after the first five (minutes) he looked like he was dying and then the next two he looked like he was worse. I don’t know if he could get any worse, and every minute after that I was saying, ‘Loon, hold on! Loon, hold on!’ And he did.”
Looney finished at a career-high 35 minutes. He played the final 17 after only serving as a lightly used backup center prior to Friday night.
“Absolutely incredible,” Green said. “We always talk about Loon being the ultimate true professional. This series went away from him. Last series, too. Yet he stayed ready.”
This was Looney’s 19th rebound. It’s a putback with 4:29 left to stretch the lead from seven to nine.
This was Looney’s 20th rebound. It’s an in-traffic towering fight with Dillon Brooks, which he wins, batting it to himself and then tossing it over to Klay Thompson before he falls to the ground in exhaustion.
This is Looney’s 21st rebound. It comes later that possession. He has picked himself up from the floor and returned to the paint. Curry misses what feels like the dagger, but Looney rises to get the Warriors another extra possession, spots an open Klay Thompson and slings it over to Klay for his eighth made 3, a dagger.
This is Looney’s 22nd rebound. It isn’t spectacular, but it’s symbolic of his night and his role on this Warriors team. He guards Brandon Clarke well, forces a tough shot and cleans up the miss, handing it safely back to Green to bleed the clock.
The Warriors bet on the backbone that guided them through the regular season, believing that Looney gave them the best chance to produce stops in the half court against a Memphis team without Ja Morant and finish those stops off with a rebound. They only scored 110 points. But 110 points is more than enough if you shut off the other team’s water. Looney allowed for that.
His 22 rebounds were part of a historic performance on the glass. The Warriors had 70 rebounds. That’s the most of any NBA team 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 last game we have to almost adjust as if we are starting an entirely different series,” Green said. “Because that was a totally different team we played against the last, what, three games? It’s a totally different team. So, I mean, Kevon, he’s been one of those guys that has been a mainstay in everything that we do and no matter what — at any point in his career, when his number has been called, he’s been ready. We knew we couldn’t do it without him, which is why we were lobbying for him to get back into the starting lineup, and he came through.”
(Photo of Kevon Looney reaching for the ball between the Grizzlies’ Tyus Jones and