Inside the Warriors' key decisions to finish off Memphis

Inside the Warriors’ key decisions to finish off Memphis

The call went from the Warriors’ locker room in Memphis to Steve Kerr’s living room in San Francisco on Wednesday night. There was a lot to discuss, mostly involving the Warriors’ embarrassing 39-point loss to the Grizzlies in Game 5 that had just concluded, sounding alarm bells throughout the NBA universe.

Were the Warriors about to expire?

Acting coach Mike Brown had already taken Kerr’s pregame prediction/advice and declined to “chase” the dwindling chance of a comeback. He pulled Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson midway through the third quarter, down 41 at the time, to save their energy for another day. Then, probably with the roars of the FedExForum crowd still ringing in his ears, Brown dialed up Kerr, who was back in the Bay Area after testing positive for COVID-19 before Game 4.

There was a huge decision to make for the pivotal Game 6 back at Chase Center: Should the Warriors begin the game going small with Jordan Poole in the starting lineup or go big with Kevon Looney?

“Mike called me right after Game 5,” Kerr said Sunday, back with the team after clearing protocols this weekend. “He said, ‘My gut is to start Loon.’ And I said: ‘Why don’t you watch the tape and I’ll watch the tape and let’s sleep on it and think about it? Let’s not rush to any judgment.’ But there was definitely a lot of consideration toward going smaller.”

Brown’s opinion mattered a great deal because he was the acting coach for Game 5 and also was about to lead the Warriors into Game 6, which the team believed was close to a do-or-die moment. Nobody wanted to go back to Memphis for Game 7. Kerr’s opinion mattered even more. They talked about going with a small lineup. It was on the table.

But also, perfectly true to the Warriors’ ethos in this era, two other figures pretty much had the final call.

“Mike called me after the flight. He said he talked to Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green), and they were both really adamant that Loon should be out there to combat the size and strength of (Steven) Adams,” Kerr said. “I think Mike said this, but it’s really our job to give our players confidence and ownership of what’s happening. So at that point, it was a no-brainer.

“That’s a group that’s started together for the last two years, last year and a half — most of the time, anyway. And it helps our rebounding, it puts Draymond on Jaren Jackson right away, so hopefully not let him get going. So it’s a really easy decision to make when Steph and Draymond were so adamantly for it. Mike relayed that to me, and it was like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s go.’”

As the Warriors get set for their sixth trip to the Western Conference finals in the past eight seasons, with Game 1 set for Wednesday in Phoenix (if the Suns win Game 7 Sunday night) or at Chase (if Dallas beats Phoenix), the way the Warriors handled the moments between games 5 and 6 tells us a lot about how they’ve been built, how they survived the Grizzlies series and how Kerr and Brown worked together through Kerr’s three-game absence at such an intense moment.

It wasn’t that the Warriors didn’t miss Kerr’s voice and presence for games 4, 5 and 6. Of course they did. Kerr coming back for the Western Conference finals puts everything back in place that was a little dislodged while he was out. (As Kerr mentioned Sunday, he wasn’t the only one out — director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini and head performance coach Carl Bergstrom tested positive before Kerr did; they’re also back after clearing protocols.)

But the Warriors survived the aftermath of Game 5 and then closed the series with a 110-96 victory because they’re built to deal with things like this and their leaders figured out what to do with the lineup at just the right time. And the solution was moving Looney, who served as Green’s backup at center for the first five games of the series, averaging 15.2 minutes, into the starting lineup (and keeping Poole as the sixth man) and playing him the final 17 minutes.

The result: Looney played 35 minutes, out-battled Adams and had 22 rebounds, which beat his total (21) in the entire five-game Denver series.

“This was a pretty unique situation,” Kerr said. “We’ve moved pieces around in the starting lineup over the years, but usually it’s been, you know, which center are we going to start? Are we going to start JaVale McGee or Zaza (Pachulia) or David West? And the sort of core group was already decided upon. This was a much bigger decision because of the nature of the series and what had changed with Steven Adams out there.”

It was a huge decision. It was an easy decision.

“(The Grizzlies) made it clear they were going to beat us up, and they were doing a good job of it,” Green said Friday night. “And inserting Loon back into the lineup changed that.”

At this point in the Warriors’ run, Curry and Green have more than earned the right to captain the ship. They helped turn things around after they got shellacked by Oklahoma City in games 3 and 4 of the 2016 Western Conference finals. They rallied the team when it was down 3-2 to Houston in the same round two years later.

This time, they didn’t speak so loudly only because Kerr was out and Brown was in. They spoke loudly because that’s who they are and what they mean.

“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,’” Brown said after Game 6. “And they have done it before. Draymond has carried this organization for years with his hard hat.

“Obviously, Steph and Klay with their shooting, but what Draymond does, it’s unbelievable. And Steve is going to roll with Draymond no matter what he says and what the outcome is.”

Kerr had split up Green and Looney for the latter part of the regular season and through the Denver series into the Grizzlies series because having two non-shooters on the floor together can bog down the Warriors’ offense. It seemed even more counterintuitive to play them together for long stretches against the Grizzlies, who were already swarming Curry, Thompson and Poole at the 3-point line and daring the Warriors to try to score inside against Adams and Jackson.

But in Game 6, playing huge minutes together, Green and Looney owned the boards (the Warriors outrebounded Memphis 70-44) and set screens for the Warriors’ shooters. They even tag-teamed for several interior passes, leading to buckets by each of them.

Will the Warriors continue to play them together in the next round and, should they advance, the ultimate round? It’s unclear. No remaining team is as big as Memphis, so maybe Green and Looney won’t be spending much more time together. But who knew it’d work like this against Memphis? It’s another option. You advance through tough playoff series by having a lot of options – and picking the right ones exactly when you need them.

“I think Draymond has a comfort level with Loon, even though on paper you look at the lack of spacing when the two of them are together,” Kerr said. “They do have a synergy that allows them to work well together.”

Through all this, the underlying theme of the Warriors’ postseason is that they have to do different things than they did in previous playoff runs because their foundational guys are older and more prone to injury. The Warriors are not quite as deep as they used to be. They also don’t have Kevin Durant anymore.

The current edition still has the championship pedigree of Curry, Thompson, Green and Looney. Andrew Wiggins is in his prime and playing like he’s perfectly suited for the playoffs. Poole has had great moments (games 1-3 against Denver, games 1-3 against Memphis) in his first postseason run and some not-so-great ones (the ends of both series). Otto Porter Jr. has been terrific throughout the playoffs and could be back for Game 1 after missing Game 6 with foot soreness. And the rest … is mix-and-match for Kerr and his staff depending on the moment.

“I think those teams were on a different level talent-wise, age-wise,” Kerr said of the 2015-2019 run of five straight NBA Finals trips and three championships. “We were clearly the favorites, I think, in pretty much every series we played in that era. And this is a different era. Our core is older, more banged up. We’ve got younger guys that maybe haven’t been through the fire yet.

“So I was thrilled (in) Game 6 to see this current iteration of the Warriors kind of go through the crucible, you know? Because you have to go through it as a team. You have to feel it. You get deep in the playoffs and it’s what it’s all about. To see Wigs play such a great game. To see Loon play as well as he did, dominate the glass. To see guys like (Nemanja Bjelica and Damion Lee) come in and make really good contributions — JP. The guys who maybe haven’t been through it as much or if at all, it was just wonderful to see them both individually and collectively as a group get through what was a huge test for us.”


Kerr said he never felt too bad during his time away, just was coughing and had congestion. He didn’t feel right driving into the arena for Game 4 last Monday and got tested once he arrived. A few hours before game time, he found out he was positive, told Brown he was in charge and went home.

“Not easy to sit at home and watch, but the symptoms weren’t bad at all,” Kerr said. “It was just kind of my turn. Seems like the last couple years practically everybody on our coaching staff and our team has had it at some point. It’s just my turn. But, luckily, wasn’t too bad.”

The Warriors leaned on Brown’s previous experience filling in for Kerr during the 2017 playoffs and also his three stints as a head coach. After going 2-1 replacing Kerr this postseason, Brown is 13-1 in that role, which isn’t a terrible way to move on to his new job coaching the Kings after the season ends.

“For Mike, in particular, what a difficult spot to be put into,” Kerr said. “Especially given that he had just been hired by Sacramento. He’s obviously had a lot going on. And he’s got enough on his plate anyway as our defensive coordinator, trying to slow down Memphis and focus on that.

“For me to show up two hours before the game and test positive and leave put a lot of pressure on Mike and the rest of the staff. So they were great. Mike’s done this before, not only replacing me a few years ago but obviously sitting in that seat for eight or 10 years as a head coach himself. He did a phenomenal job.”

Kerr said he and Brown talked and texted several times a day while Kerr was out, but he left Brown alone for a few hours before tipoff.

“The main thing I told him is he had to follow his gut,” Kerr said. “He couldn’t sit there and think what would I do. He needed to follow his own instinct, and the staff had to collaborate and do whatever they felt necessary because they were the ones in the fight while I’m on the couch at home.

“We had all those discussions. I had a Zoom with the players before shootaround of Game 6. So I was able to stay in touch with guys, both on the staff and on the team. But it was definitely very strange sitting at home and not being able to be part of it.”

And what was it like for Kerr’s wife, Margot, to (try to) watch Game 6 with her (presumably quite anxious and vocal) husband at their house? As relayed by the Associated Press’ Janie McCauley:

“She sat there for about two minutes,” Kerr said Sunday, “and then announced she was going to go downstairs to watch ‘The Kardashians’ instead.”

(Photo of Mike Brown: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)


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