SAN FRANCISCO — Stephen Curry and Draymond Green sat most of the second half of Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals on the bench watching their team get obliterated by the Memphis Grizzlies. But rather than sulk over the demoralizing 39-point defeat, one of the franchise’s worst playoff losses in history, the two Warriors stars were already pivoting their attention to the next game.
Curry and Green knew there needed to be a change in the starting lineup to help jumpstart the Warriors, who had been struggling to find their rhythm early in the three games since Gary Payton II went down with an elbow injury. Rookie Jonathan Kuminga wasn’t cutting it, and there was no way the Warriors were boarding a plane back to Memphis for Game 7.
The conversation continued on the team’s flight back to San Francisco, but the answer became obvious.
The Warriors needed size to combat revitalized Grizzlies center Steven Adams and more rebounding. Big man Kevon Looney fit the bill.
“Kevon, he’s been one of those guys that has been a mainstay in everything that we do and no matter what — any point in his career when his number has been called, he’s been ready,” Green said. “We knew we couldn’t do it without him, which is why we were lobbying for him to get back into the starting lineup.”
The decision to start Looney in Game 6 was based more on a gut feeling Curry and Green had rather than advanced analytics. And boy, did he deliver in a major way.
Not only did Looney help the Warriors start better than in previous games, but he was the best rebounder on the floor. And in a series where rebounding was an area of focus, he made all the difference for the Warriors in their 110-96 win that earned them their first Western Conference semifinals in three years.
Looney grabbed as many rebounds in the first quarter as the entire Grizzlies team combined. His 11 rebounds in the opening 12 minutes were the most for any quarter for him in his career. He also matched a Warriors playoff record set by Larry Smith in 1987.
Looney said he hadn’t realized he grabbed 11 rebounds in about nine minutes until Andrew Wiggins told him.
“I was even paying attention,” Looney said. “I wanted to go after everybody, especially in the beginning of the game, I wanted to set the tone that it was going to be physical.”
By the final buzzer, Looney snagged a career-high 22 rebounds — a feat he said he hadn’t accomplished since college.
“Holy moly,” acting head coach Mike Brown said of Looney’s performance off the glass. “When was the last time somebody had 22 boards? It’s fantastic.”
Led by Looney, the Warriors pulled down an astounding 70 rebounds, the most in any playoff game since May 4, 1983, when the Spurs recorded 75 against Denver.
But Brown was even more impressed by the other career high Looney reached Friday night. The 26-year-old logged 35 minutes for the first time in his career and played the entire fourth quarter.
“I ran them 17 straight minutes and I kept looking at him because after the first five, he looked like he was dying, and then the next two he looked like he was worse,” Brown said. “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.”
Curry called Looney “unreal” and Klay Thompson, who looked like classic “Game 6 Klay” on Friday, went as far as to say Looney was “possibly our MVP tonight.”
“Wow,” he continued. “I’m so proud of him.”
Looney has battled injuries throughout the course of his seven-year NBA career. But after several years of struggles, Looney was finally healthy last summer. That’s why he set a goal at the beginning of this season to play in all 82 games, which he accomplished and now wears as a badge of honor.
“All the hard work and determination and the prayers… all the hell I put my body through to get here is paying off,” Looney said. “That’s the best feeling in the world, when you work hard and you request something and you pray about it and it actually comes true and makes you feel good about yourself.
“To have moments like these is big, [and I] want to make more moments and make more memories.”
That’ll continue during the Western Conference Finals, which begins Wednesday.
But for now, Looney will enjoy much-deserved rest.