SAN FRANCISCO – Kevon Looney reached over Steve Adams to snag the long rebound off Stephen Curry’s missed 3-point attempt. He tossed the ball a few feet to his right to Klay Thompson. In one fluid motion, Thompson caught and shot the ball, good for a 28-foot 3-pointer.
That was the shot that brought the Warriors to their 110-96 Game 6 win over the Grizzlies, sending them back to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2019.
“It’s special,” Thompson said. “I mean, everything we’ve been through the last few years, it’s really an incredible opportunity.”
Thompson has a special relationship with Game 6s in the playoffs. He has scored at least 25 points in six of the past seven Game 6s he has played in.
In the Warriors’ close-out game against the Grizzlies, Thompson scored 30 points on 11-of-22 shooting, including eight 3s. He also grabbed eight rebounds.
Did this triumphant Game 6 performance feel like the others?
“It felt better,” Thompson said. “Especially the perspective I’ve gained from the injuries I’ve had, to be able to compete at the highest level and be one of the final four teams, it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.”
This one was a punctuation on Thompson’s comeback season – one that saw him, just several months ago, hunched over on the bench with a towel draped over his head as he longed to get back out on the floor.
“From the first shot he hit, it was like this – it’s what he’s been looking forward to since he got hurt back in the 2019 Finals,” Stephen Curry said. “It’s a different joy. It’s a different energy. When you see him getting off, especially in front of our home crowd, it’s just fun to watch.”
According to Draymond Green, there’s a correlation between Thompson’s two-year absence and the Warriors’ two-year hiatus from the conference finals.
To most people, Thompson’s shooting is what the Warriors missed the most. But, they also lost an irreplaceable competitive edge that Thompson brings.
“I tell y’all all the time, [Thompson is] one of the toughest guys and most competitive guys I’ve ever played with – no, probably the toughest and most competitive player I’ve ever played with, “Green said.” And it showed up tonight. You knew right away he was coming out fire. “
Thompson wasn’t the only player whose performance Friday was a mark on a revitalized season. Looney and Andrew Wiggins were the X factors for the Warriors.
Like Thompson, Looney has an injury-riddled past. But unlike Thompson – whose ACL and Achilles tears came consecutively and resulted in a two-year hiatus – Looney’s were spread out through the course of his early career. But this season saw Looney become an iron man – just one of five players to play in all 82 regular-season games.
After coming off the bench for the first four games of the series, Looney was inserted back into the starting lineup. The Warriors needed to come out of the gates with more size to combat Memphis’ frontcourt of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Adams.
In his 35 minutes – which included him playing the entire fourth quarter – Looney was a force, grabbing a career-high 22 rebounds, half of which were on the offensive glass. As a team, Golden State grabbed 70 rebounds, 44 of which were offensive.
“Kevon should go by Kevon Olajuwon,” Thompson said. “Because he was really just a freak out there. The guy has like elastic arms. He can just stretch.”
Putting Looney back into the starting lineup was a decision ultimately made by Green and Curry. The discussion first started toward the end of Game 5, when Green said the Warriors were being “physically dominated” in the paint.
“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,” Green said. “They made it clear they were going to beat us up, and they were doing a good job of it. And inserting Loon back into the lineup changed that.”
This year saw Wiggins put together his best season since he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. It saw him make the All-Star game for the first time – and as a starter no less.
With Curry and Jordan Poole struggling, Wiggins brought the level of aggression that takes the Warriors to the next level. He finished the night with 18 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks and one steal. And his defense was game-changing, holding the Grizzlies to just 2-of-15 shooting for five points as the primary defender.
“Andrew was special,” Thompson said. “He made some huge threes for us, huge buckets, double-double, great defense. He has been such a great player for us. He makes an impact on both sides of the ball every night. We would not be where we are at without Andrew. “
The game can’t be categorized as pretty, though. The Warriors struggled immensely with turnovers – as they have all series – committing 19 for 18 Memphis points. That, along with 25 points from Desmond Bane and 30 from Dillon Brooks, is what kept the Grizzlies in it.
But, just as the Warriors did in Games 1 and 4, they relied on their championship DNA to hit shots when it mattered. The Grizzlies led 89-87 with 6:30 to go in the game. Then the Warriors outscored the Grizzlies 23-7 the rest of the way.
“It’s unbelievable knowing what we’ve been through these last few years, and six out of the last eight, we have an opportunity to play for the Finals,” Curry said. “Never take it for granted and understand this is what it’s all about, and then for us to have another opportunity to get four more wins and play for a trophy, that’s special.”