PORTLAND — Just weeks after an offseason house fire burned him up a bit, Mike Brown crutched into a downtown Cleveland hotel — in between Games 3 and 4 of last year’s Finals — to meet with Steve Kerr about the upcoming opening on his staff, left vacant by the departing Luke Walton.
Kerr’s staff already included Ron Adams, a long-time, highly respected assistant and Jarron Collins, an up-and-coming assistant. But Brown had something the others didn’t: NBA head coaching experience. It’s part of the reason he was hired and it’s proving a crucial attribute at the season’s most important point.
For the second straight year, Kerr’s health issues — resulting from back surgery gone wrong two summers back — has knocked him off the sideline. This time, it has happened at the start of the playoffs. Kerr’s symptoms worsened over the past five days and, in a meeting with reporters, Kerr announced that he won’t coach in Sunday’s Game 4 and, until he figures out what’s wrong and corrects it, he won’t coach in any playoff games.
Enter Mike Brown, who wasn’t hired directly for this scenario but — because the franchise knew it was a possibility — presented a strong case for the lead assistant position when he crutched his way into that Cleveland hotel bar.
“Being a coach that’s been in this seat before, coached in the playoffs, I felt that I could help them in that category,” Brown said. “I think they felt the same way.”
Monday’s Game 4 will be Brown’s 85th as an NBA head coach in the playoffs. From 2005-10, he coached a young LeBron James and his Cavaliers to five straight postseasons. They reached the Finals once and the East Finals another time. The era ended in disappointment, as did his short tenure as coach of the Lakers — Brown couldn’t get either over the title hump — but the experience brings seasoning.
And that’s what Warriors players said they noticed during Saturday’s Game 3, when a calm Brown led them through a thrilling comeback win in Portland. David West said Brown “kept us organized.” Klay Thompson said “you could tell” that “he’s been there before” and “we appreciated his composure.” Draymond Green called him the game’s “MVP,” identifying three separate on-the-fly substitutions Green said won the Warriors the game.
“To make decisions like that, in a hostile environment, about to lose Game 3,” Green said. “That’s pretty big time.”
Kerr will remain part of the pregame staff meetings, he said. But Brown has handled the substitution patterns all season. Before each game, he’d meet with Kerr, discuss the rotation strategies and then fill out his personalized, color-coded planning sheet — a strategy he learned under Rick Carlisle in Indiana a decade back — that charts when he should make which substitution.
“I was on the couch in my room (watching Game 3) and saying we should put so and so in right now and that guy was going to the table,” Kerr said. “Mike and I are thinking along the same lines.”
Until the competition stiffens, questions about Brown’s X’s and O’s capability likely won’t be answered. But Kerr’s health status put the Warriors in a tough spot and, beyond strategy, Brown checks the necessary boxes of a fill-in coaching candidate.
The Warriors are a pretty self-sufficient team. They’re full of focused, title-driven veterans like Steph Curry, Draymond Green, David West and others. “We have a high-level group,” West said. “We don’t deviate from what’s been our focus all year.”
Ego management is nothing new to Brown. He’s coached some of the NBA’s biggest personalities, including Kobe, LeBron, Shaq and, while an assistant with the Pacers, a young, wild Ron Artest.
Brown chased Artest into the stands during the infamous Malace at the Palace to calm the situation down. Artest nearly fought Brown in a practice once, but these days a calmer Metta World Peace says Brown’s style of coaching was important for him: “Anybody who gets Mike Brown is lucky to have him,” he said.
Part of Brown’s job this season has been to serve as Draymond Green’s workout partner after practice. He’s taken over for Luke Walton, who Green loved, and Brown has quickly connected with Green. He profusely praised Brown after Game 3.
“One of the many things I learned from Steve about this group is you don’t need a lot of rah, rah,” Brown said. “The biggest thing is you just tell them the truth. A lot of times they already know what’s going on. There’s really no need to raise my voice. I told them what I saw (during Game 3) and three-fourths of the time, they saw it already.”
Brown is also used to another head coaching requirement: Constant media interaction. NBA coaches meet with reporters as much as three times per day during the playoffs, not even counting the between quarter on-court interviews. It can overwhelm some, but Brown knows the drill and he’s a comfortable talker.
After Game 3, he cracked a joke about Bob Myers saying he was going to replace him with Ron Adams at halftime because the team wasn’t playing enough defense. After Brown’s meeting with reporters at the team’s hotel on Sunday, he exited the room and ran into Klay Thompson in the hallway.
“I saw your press conference last night,” Thompson told Brown. “That was a good one. Didn’t know you had that in you.”
At this point, the team seems comfortable with Brown and Brown, thrust into the spotlight, is taking an ego-less approach to his forced promotion.
“The butterflies were there because I hadn’t been in that seat for awhile,” Brown said. “But the culture here, the foundation that Steve has laid, Bob is a freaking great guy and the players are smart, the coaches that are around me — it all just kind of puts you at ease.”