The Warriors advance to the Western Conference finals avoiding the famous small ball and deciding to go big

The Warriors advance to the Western Conference finals avoiding the famous small ball and deciding to go big

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Brown looked with concern at Kevon Looney, one of his soldiers for the past six seasons who has done everything he’s been asked with little or no fanfare in a Golden State Warriors franchise filled with highlights and glory. Looney, who rarely plays for stretches longer than six or seven minutes, was headed for his 17th straight minute on the floor, en route to a career-high 35 in the game.

“I kept looking at it because after the first five [minutes] it looked like he was dying. Then the next two, it seemed like he was worse,” Warriors interim head coach Mike Brown said. “Then every minute after that, he was just like, ‘Loon, wait. Loon, wait. “

Looney not only survived, but thrived, in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s Game 6 win over the Memphis Grizzlies 110-96, and epitomized the theme of the game as he sent the Warriors to the Finals. the Western Conference for the first time since 2019. .

Just before the final buzzer, Mike Brown walked the line of assistant coaches along the sideline. He hugged Kenny Atkinson. He hugged Bruce Fraser. He hugged Chris DeMarco.

Serving as head coach with Steve Kerr out due to health and safety protocols, Brown, recently named as the Sacramento Kings’ next head coach, had been in the crosshairs of the NBA’s Twitterati just 48 hours earlier, when the The Warriors took a galling Game 5 beating at the hands of the Grizzlies that we rarely see in the NBA playoffs.

However, by the end of Game 6, the Warriors had prevailed over the annoying, young, fearless and unrelenting Grizzlies, and a key adjustment by Brown, the coaching staff and even the players was a big reason.

Most of the talk during and immediately after the Warriors’ first-round win over the Denver Nuggets was about the novel version of the Warriors’ famous small-ball lineup. Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green seemed unbeatable in their brief stints together, leading many to suggest the unit should start for the rest of the playoffs, or at least get more minutes. .

Against the Grizzlies, however, the lineup fizzled. And again. When Grizzlies star shooting guard Ja Morant was injured in Game 3 and Memphis started mountain-man Steven Adams in Games 4 and 5, the Warriors’ offense looked as useless as it has all season. The small-ball lineup that was supposed to overwhelm defenses and boost Golden State’s championship hopes had managed just 94.5 points per 100 possessions in 25 minutes during the series.

“When Ja fell, we really realized after [Game 5]we almost have to adjust like we’re starting a completely different series,” Green said. “Because it was a totally different team that we played the last three games against.”

So the Warriors had a decision to make for Game 6. Do we go small and hope to take advantage of Adams’ lack of speed, or try to match his size and make him big? A few minutes before kickoff, the starting lineups were announced and Looney was chosen to pair with Adams.

Turns out it was a collective decision that grew out of a conversation that began toward the end of that horrific explosion in Memphis on Wednesday. Brown discussed it with Curry and Green, who agreed that Looney was the guy they wanted by his side. He not only brings size and physicality, but he’s also one of the main players remaining from the Warriors Finals. Kerr, who may be the biggest Looney fan in the world outside of his family, ultimately signed off on the decision.

“When you look at the last eight quarters leading up to this game, they dominated us in seven of them,” Green said of choosing to start Looney in Game 6. “We just knew we needed to go out there and establish an inside presence to start the game and not worrying so much about our score… They made it clear they were going to beat us up, and they were doing a good job. Inserting Loon back into the starting lineup changed that.”

For the third straight game, the Warriors’ offense struggled for most of the night. Thompson had several flourishes en route to a team-high 30 points, but Curry and Poole couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean for most of the first three quarters. In addition to shooting difficulties, the Warriors fell into their notorious habit of throwing the ball to the other team or out of bounds, leading to 16 turnovers in the first three quarters.

So how did they stay alive, particularly when Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks, Public Enemy No. 1 at the Chase Center, was having possibly the best game of his life? The Warriors became great.

Looney was a threat from the jump, collecting 11 rebounds in the first quarter alone and finishing with an absurd 22 boards on the night, half of which came on the offensive glass. He also helped shut down Adams, who had just one offensive rebound for the game. The Warriors beat the Grizzlies on points in the paint, an area where Memphis has dominated all season.

It wasn’t just Looney who got the message, either. Green had 15 rebounds. Wiggins had 11. Thompson had eight. Curry got seven. In all, the Warriors collected a monumental 70 rebounds, including 25 on the offensive board. For a game that was ugly on offense for most of the night, the Warriors’ grit and determination on defense and on the boards carried them to the conference finals.

“When we win the rebound game and the possession game, we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Brown said. “That’s remarkable against a team of that size and athleticism.”

Brown was right. Eventually, the offense came in the form of 11 fourth-quarter points from Curry and 10 more from Wiggins. Thompson’s eighth 3-pointer with just under three minutes left sealed the game and the series.

We can argue all day about whether what the Warriors have shown so far in the playoffs deems them worthy of true title contention, but they showed something essential to the championship formula in a closing game Friday night: adaptability. . The more cards a coach has to play, be it Kerr or Brown, the more likely he is to have an answer for any problem he encounters. And it goes without saying that the Phoenix Suns or the Dallas Mavericks will present big problems.

However, the planning will come later. Thompson and Curry said they would watch Sunday’s Game 7 between the Suns and Mavericks, as NBA fans and to get an idea of ​​their next opponent. In the meantime, they will celebrate a berth in the Western Conference finals that was once a ritual with a renewed sense of appreciation.

“It’s amazing to know what we’ve been through these last two years: six of the last eight we have a chance to play for the Finals,” Curry said Friday night. “It’s a really good vibe when you find out as a group, because we haven’t done it with this group together. Definitely special, never take it for granted. Understand, that’s what it’s all about.”

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