OAKLAND–Steve Kerr missed the action, missed the competition, missed the risk and the reward and missed just being there with his players in the middle of struggling and sweating for a championship.
He missed it so much that, in the most stunning move of the playoffs, he fought his way back to the sidelines for the Warriors’ victory in Game 2 of the Finals on Sunday, after he was out for the Warriors’ previous 11 contests.
It was announced about 100 minutes before tip-off, and then Kerr showed up for the pregame media session, surprise!
But Kerr came back because this is who he is, this is a team he loves dearly, and he wasn’t going to lose out on any more of the journey.
He missed it so much that it seemed to hit him all at once, when he walked out from the locker room right before the game, and was greeted by a long and emotional Oracle Arena roar.
Kerr usually tries to downplay anything focused on him, but this time, he froze in place, waved to the crowd, and smiled as broadly as he probably has in months.
He was back. He was still in pain due to a flare-up of the symptoms from a spinal-fluid leak two years ago, but it was back to tolerable levels, and this was everything he wanted.
“It was just great to be on the sidelines again,” Kerr said after the Warriors’ 132-113 blow out of the Cavaliers to take a 2-0 series lead. “That’s what makes it so much fun, to feel the energy of the Finals.
“And so it’s really nice to be back.”
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Just in that moment, and a few scenes after the game, you really saw how much Kerr wanted and needed to be back, coaching this team, and vying for this championship, in front of these fans.
“Who doesn’t like to be received like that?” said assistant coach Bruce Fraser, one of Kerr’s best friends. “I think he was just happy to be back out there. Combination of a warm reception, being home, his family here, and being back out there.”
The Warriors didn’t play brilliantly at first in the return of their coach, and there was of course risk in this, too.
The Warriors went 11-0 under acting coach Mike Brown and were three victories from a championship.
What if Kerr came all the way back from this terrible ailment… and the Warriors lost?
Warriors general manager Bob Myers said he absolutely knew that he and Kerr might be criticized for re-inserting Kerr right when it could’ve been a distraction to the team.
“You’re right, but you trust people,” Myers said after the game. “I don’t think it’s just sports, at some point you have to trust people.
“You bet on people. And I’ll bet on him all day long.”
After several tense moments, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry kept scoring, the Warriors kept forcing LeBron James to do everything for the Cavaliers, and eventually the Warriors’ superior talent wore down James, and this became a rout.
Now the Warriors are an unprecedented 14-0 in the playoffs, two games away from avenging their loss to Cleveland in last year’s Finals–probably Kerr’s most bitter moment as a competitor–and Kerr is back.
The Warriors trusted Kerr to know when the time was right, and a few days ago he began to indicate that he might be closing in on a return.
Kerr, who has been back coaching practice for more than a week, had a good day Friday, then another good one Saturday, and Sunday morning he called Myers to say he felt good enough to try.
They had one more conversation right before the pregame coach’s news conference, and moments before Kerr walked to the podium, the Warriors announced that he would coach Game 2.
“As a human being he wanted to be out there,” Myers said. “But what you balance, and what he was struggling with, is the best thing for the team.
“And that’s the part where, you know what, (the players) want you out there, too. You’re the one that’s built this thing, go coach. It was more about him deserving that chance, and whatever comes with it comes with it.”
Before the game, Kerr said he felt about the same as he did all this season, before he was hit with worsening head and neck aches in the middle of the first-round series against Portland–he exited the sideline after Game 2.
During the game, Kerr went without a tie, but looked wholly comfortable and maybe even steadier than at the end of the regular season.
“I thought looked better, actually, than he normally does,” Fraser said. “He wasn’t as fidgety.
“I thought he was up more than he might normally be. I just felt like… nothing was holding him back. He looked better than he has been.
“Look, he’s better than he was, but what does that mean? Until he’s really healthy, that’s the goal. Having him back’s great, but having his health back would be the big picture.”
Kerr also missed the adrenaline, missed the by-play with his players and maybe most of all he missed the pure competitive juice of going move for move in the NBA Finals with a team as dangerous as Cleveland.
And this was a highly strategic game–the Cavaliers adjusted to their Game 1 foibles by going small through much of this game, so the Warriors had to match, and that was complicated by Draymond Green’s foul trouble throughout the game.
But this is the stuff that Kerr loves, making the plans, reacting to new events, and using this incredible, flexible Warriors roster to create new plans on the fly.
“Yeah, it’s always fun when you’ve got to make a lot of decisions out there,” Kerr said. “Obviously we’re blessed with a very versatile roster, so we have options, just like they do, and but they really changed a lot
from Game 1, and we had to respond to that.
“And in the midst of that, Draymond was in foul trouble, and so that made it trickier. But, again, our guys responded really well.”
Well, not right away. Kerr’s No. 1 theme for his entire Warriors tenure–and especially heading into this series–was to cut down the sloppy turnovers that haunted the team in last year’s Finals.
They committed a season-low four turnovers in Game 1 under Brown. What happened on Sunday? They committed eight turnovers in the first quarter alone, and 13 total in the first half.
“Yeah, it was, ‘Welcome back, Coach,’” Kerr joked. “I mean, that’s been the focus the last two days is can we repeat the formula. The answer was no. We did not repeat it.
“Tonight was a game based on talent. We had a lot of guys who played exceptionally well individually, and we played with great energy.
“But heading to Cleveland, we’re going to have to be a lot smarter. We play that same game in Cleveland, there’s no way we win.”
So it must’ve been quite the dramatic moment when Kerr spoke to the team before the game for the first time as coach since April?
Not so much.
“No, they already knew,” Fraser said. “I think in his way, it’s not about him, it’s about them.
“So in typical Kerr fashion he doesn’t say anything. They just know and go along.”
Typical Kerr, typical Warriors, except it wasn’t typical of anything that has happened before in sports–a coach coming back in the middle of the championship round, because he had to, and because everybody else wanted it, too.