Warriors advance to the Western Conference finals by dodging the famous small ball and deciding to go big

SAN FRANCISCO — Mike Brown cast a concerned look at Kevon Looney, one of his soldiers over the past six seasons who has done everything he was asked to do with little to no fanfare on a Golden State Warriors franchise full of highlights and glory. Looney, who rarely plays in pieces longer than six or seven minutes, was heading for his 17th straight minute on the floor, heading for a career-high 35 for the game.

“I kept looking at him because after the first five [minutes] it looked like he was dying. Then the next two, he looked like he was worse,” said Brown, the Warriors’ acting head coach. “And every minute after that, I just said, ‘Wage, hold on. Loon, wait a minute.’ †

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

Just before the final buzzer, Brown walked past the line of fellow assistant coaches on the sidelines. He hugged Kenny Atkinson. He hugged Bruce Fraser. He hugged Chris DeMarco.

As head coach with Steve Kerr out due to health and safety protocols, Brown – recently named as the next Sacramento Kings head coach – had been caught on NBA Twitterati crosshairs just 48 hours earlier, when the Warriors received a humiliating Game 5 thrashing by at the hands of the Grizzlies as we rarely see them in the NBA playoffs.

By the end of Game 6, however, the Warriors had triumphed over the nasty, young, fearless, ruthless Grizzlies, and a major adjustment from Brown, the coaching staff, and even the players was a major reason why.

Most of the talk during and immediately after the Warriors’ first-round win over the Denver Nuggets was the re-imagining of the famous Warriors small-ball setup. Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins and Draymond Green seemed unbeatable in their short spells together, leading many to suggest unity should start for the rest of the playoffs, or at least a larger chunk of the minutes would receive.

Against the Grizzlies, however, the lineup failed. Over and over. When star Grizzlies guard Ja Morant got injured in Game 3 and Memphis started man-mountain Steven Adams in Games 4 and 5, the Warriors’ attack looked as futile as it did all season. The small-ball setup that would overwhelm the defense and boost Golden State’s championship hopes had amassed a meager 94.5 points per 100 possession in 25 minutes during the series.

“When Ja went down, we only really realized after… [Game 5]”We have to adapt almost as if we were starting a completely different series,” said Green. “Because that was a completely different team, we played against the last three games.”

So the Warriors had to make a decision for Game 6. Are we going small and hoping to take advantage of Adams’ lack of foot speed, or are we trying to adjust their size and go big? Minutes before the tip, the starting grids were announced and Looney was chosen to match Adams.

Turns out it was a collective decision that grew out of a conversation that began toward the end of that horrific blowout in Memphis on Wednesday. Brown discussed it with Curry and Green, who both agreed that Looney was the man they wanted by their side. Not only does he bring size and physicality, but he’s also one of the key players left over from the Warriors’ Finals runs. Kerr, who could be the biggest Looney fan in the world outside of his family, has finally agreed to the decision.

“If you look at the last eight quarters leading up to this game, we were dominated by seven of them,” said Green of choosing to start Looney in Game 6. “We just knew we had to come out and establish an inside presence to start the game and don’t worry so much about our score. … They made it clear they were going to beat us up, and they did it well Putting Loon back in the starting lineup changed that.”

For the third game in a row, the Warriors’ offense struggled for most of the night. Thompson had several heydays en route to a team-high 30 points, but Curry and Poole were unable to toss the ball into the ocean for most of the first three quarters. In addition to the shooting, the Warriors fell into their infamous habit of throwing the ball to the opposing team or out of bounds, leading to 16 turnovers in the first three quarters.

So how did they stay alive, especially when Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks — Public Enemy No. 1 at Chase Center — played arguably the best game of his life? The Warriors got big.

Looney was a threat from the jump, racking up 11 rebounds in the first quarter alone and finishing with an insane 22 boards on the night, half of them on the attacking glass. He also helped knock out Adams, who had just one offensive rebound for the game. The Warriors defeated the Grizzlies on points in the paint, an area where Memphis dominates all season.

It wasn’t just Looney who got the message either. Green had 15 rebounds. Wiggins had 11. Thompson had eight. Curry pulled seven down. All told, the Warriors amassed a monumental 70 rebounds, including 25 on the offensive glass. For a game that was poor offensively for most of the evening, the Warriors’ courage and determination on the defensive and on the boards propelled them to the conference final.

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

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

We could argue all day about whether what the Warriors have shown so far in the playoffs deems them worthy of a real title fight, but they showed something essential to the championship formula in a close-out game on Friday night: adaptability. The more cards a coach has to play – be it Kerr or Brown – the more likely they are to have an answer to the problems they face. And needless to say, the Phoenix Suns or the Dallas Mavericks are going to be huge problems.

However, the schedule comes later. Thompson and Curry said they would watch Game 7 between the Suns and Mavericks on Sunday, both as fans of the NBA and to get a feel for their next opponent. In the meantime, they celebrate a berth for the Western Conference final that was once a ritual with a newfound sense of appreciation.

“It’s unbelievable, knowing what we’ve been through in the last two years — six of the last eight we have a chance to play for the final,” Curry said Friday night. “It’s quite a cool vibe when you find out as a group, because we haven’t done it together with this group yet. Absolutely special, never take it for granted. Understand, this is what it’s all about.”

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