OAKLAND, Calif. — As injuries go for a team entering the NBA Finals for the third straight season, the loss of coach Steve Kerr is far less hurtful than the loss of a key player. But despite the Warriors’ unprecedented 12-0 playoff record, the fact that assistant Mike Brown must serve as Kerr’s proxy is a handicap, if only from a logistics standpoint.
Kerr last coached the Warriors during Game 2 of their first-round series against Portland, but he recovered sufficiently from a spinal fluid leak related to back surgery to at least sit in the locker room during their four-game sweep of the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. In the past week, Kerr ran some practices and considered returning to the bench for Game 1 of the Finals against Cleveland on Thursday night at Oracle Arena. Ultimately, Kerr stayed in the locker room and let Brown run the show.
As late as the pregame news conference, Brown still didn’t have a definitive word from Kerr when he was asked if he would handle sideline duties. “I have not talked to Steve yet, but I think so,” Brown said. “I imagine I’m going to coach until Steve tells me he’s ready. I know he wanted to try to coach Game 1 tonight, but I literally haven’t spoken to him yet because he was with [NBA commissioner] Adam Silver.”
Kerr was not available to speak to the media before Game 1, but two days earlier, he explained his thought process to the San Jose Mercury-News. “We’re doing fine without me,” Kerr told columnist Tim Kawakami. “I think the team will be fine no matter what we do.
“I’m there. I’ve been messaging and watching film and breaking down everything. And I’ll do that before and after the game whether I’m coaching or not. But it’s just a weird, weird situation.”
It’s very strange, but given his health problems, not unprecedented for Kerr. When the Warriors won a record 73 games in the 2015-16 season, Kerr missed 43 games and assistant Luke Walton compiled a 39-4 record. Brown, who coached the Cavaliers for six seasons and the Lakers for a little more than two seasons, has fared equally well. But Kerr said he’s glad the situation happened late in the season after Brown grasped the Warriors’ style more fully.
“In the beginning of the year, he didn’t understand our team,” Kerr told the Mercury-News. “It was such a different vibe for him. ‘Why aren’t we calling more plays?’ About halfway through the year, he came to me and just said, Man, I get it.’ It’s this balance between fun and work and discipline and craziness and order and chaos.
“Mike’s done a great job of navigating an awkward situation, where I’m still the head coach but he’s got to do what he thinks is right. I’m trying to do the right thing, just supporting him behind the scenes.”
The day before Game 1, Brown explained that he and Kerr are in constant communication. Since Kerr began attending games again, he has met with coaches and players to strategize before games, at halftime and after games.
“I think we have a great rapport with one another, and at the end of the day, this is his team,” Brown said. “I’m just doing my job.”
As for the moment when he grasped the Warriors’ free-flowing approach, Brown said, “This is a veteran team that Steve has given a lot of ownership to. He gives them a lot of freedom, and they do a terrific job of handling it . . . We have great leadership out of our players on the floor.”
Brown admitted to feeling butterflies before facing his former team but said, “It’s good. It should be a fun series, and I’m looking forward to it.”