OAKLAND, Calif. — Their leader came back because he followed the players. Steve Kerr created the environment, then the players took ownership. It was the players who pushed for a 73-win season last year, regardless of whether Kerr or Luke Walton was on the sideline. It has been the players who have rampaged through the 2017 playoffs, regardless of whether it was Kerr or Mike Brown on the sideline. The players have been so devastatingly effective that if Kerr didn’t hasten the return from his health-related sequestration, then there wouldn’t be any games left to coach by next week.
There’s a hunger about these Golden State Warriors right now. They’re not just better than the Cleveland Cavaliers, they’re playing harder, for longer stretches. It’s consuming them, even getting them out of character (in a good way). It’s why Stephen Curry had more rebounds in Game 2 than Tristan Thompson has in the series so far, why Kevin Durant is blocking shots at a higher rate than JaVale McGee. And it’s why Kerr wanted back in.
The lingering issues from the back surgery he had in 2015 that kept him out for the first half of last season returned with a vengeance two games into these playoffs. Brown took over, the winning continued, while Kerr’s condition steadily improved. He still doesn’t sound great. He’s not at his best. But it’s the NBA Finals, the highest level of his hoop.
“That’s why I got into coaching,” Kerr said. “My TV gig was pretty good, but I love the competition. This is such an epic matchup. These guys are so damn good. It was frustrating not to be there for Game 1. It’s frustrating not to be with the team the last 5-6 weeks on the sidelines. It’s just great to be back.”
So Kerr rejoined the party. It sure felt like a celebration in the fourth quarters of these first two games at Oracle Arena. Game 2 was a perfect, low-stress re-entry for Kerr. The outcome was in doubt longer than in Game 1 … then the Warriors locked down the Cavs to 24 points in the third quarter and never led by fewer than 11 points in the fourth.
The formula has been simple. The best player on the court usually wins these matchups, and for two games the best player has been Durant. It’s not as if LeBron James has been a no-show (although it says something about his greatness that he can put up a triple-double of 29 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds and it doesn’t feel like it belongs in his top 15 playoff games).
But Durant is posting similar offensive numbers (33 points, 13 boards, six assists in Game 2) and is making a greater impact on the defensive end.
Durant seems determined to get this right, that if you’re going to call him softy for joining the high-powered team that knocked him out of the playoffs, at least you’ll be calling him a softy with a championship ring.
“I’m just trying to play hard,” Durant insisted on his way to the postgame interview room. “I swear, that’s all I’m trying to do.”
It’s certainly what he is doing, even if it’s not all he is trying to do.
Add Curry’s determination — drawing an unusually high (for him) 14 free throws in Game 2 and grabbing 10 rebounds to get him to his first postseason triple-double — and the Warriors are winning the star showdowns.
Draymond Green said Durant and Curry are “more locked in than I’ve ever seen either one of them in my life.”
Green said the only time he’d seen Durant come close was when Durant was with the Oklahoma City Thunder and “he put 52 up on my head.”
“54,” Durant corrected him.
“My fault,” Green said. “Shortchanged him. Other than that, when you got somebody doing you like that, it’s just like a burning fire in their eye and you know you don’t stand a chance. But that’s like the look that I see in him throughout this Finals. And both of them, to me, it seemed like it’s personal for both of them. And you are talking two of the greatest players that we got in this world locked in the way they are, that’s why we’re up 2-0.”
And now comes the most significant Game 3 in NBA Finals history. It’s the first one to stand in the way of a team going 16-0 in the postseason. The Warriors have avoided much discussion of their quest for playoff perfection. It’s a different approach from when they boldly proclaimed their desire to set both the best undefeated opening to a season and the highest win total last year. But keep in mind that there is the same mentality in place that enabled those accomplishments in the first place, something Curry mentioned when they closed in on the old record of 15-0 to open the season.
“It would be a huge accomplishment, because obviously doing something that hasn’t been done in the history of the league is special,” Curry said back in 2015.
He wants to do things none of the other greats have done. Even if the legends take shots at him, he’ll have achieved something they haven’t. It’s not about taunting them, it’s about building on them, exceeding their greatness. That’s how the game progresses.
We’ve never seen anything like what the Warriors have going on, adding the best available player to the best team. And now they have brought back the most successful third-year coach the league has ever seen, to the delight of the Warriors fans when he was introduced before the game.
“It was a great moment for him and for the crowd, and for everybody showing their appreciation for all he’s been through,” Curry said. “And to see him back on the bench was huge. And for him, the whole priority was his health, and I think he’s in a good place right now.”
So everyone else moved one seat down, including Brown. Let’s not overlook his contribution to this. Even if he did nothing more than grab the reins of a galloping horse, at least he didn’t lead it astray with a wayward tug. It’s hard to pinpoint key strategy shifts when a team is winning by 17 points a game; just be assured every move Brown made worked.
In Kerr’s return, a chess matchup broke out four minutes into the third quarter, when Green picked up his fourth foul and Kerr replaced him with Andre Iguodala. Cleveland’s Tyronn Lue countered by going for offense over rebounding, sending in Channing Frye for Thompson. That prompted Kerr to sub guard Shaun Livingston for center Zaza Pachulia. So the lineups were Curry, Durant, Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston against LeBron, Iman Shumpert, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and Frye. About two minutes later, Lue went even smaller, going with Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson for Frye and Love. That lineup pulled the Cavs to within four.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, in retrospect, that this was a four-point game midway through the third quarter. It’s also hard to believe Curry helped push the Warriors back out to a comfortable lead with denial defense in the post. You read that properly. He knocked away a pass that LeBron tried to throw over him to Jefferson, starting a breakaway for Durant that resulted in a foul and free throw.
Then Durant got into the action, defending Irving well on a switch. That led to a missed shot that Curry grabbed, pushing the ball up the court, looking off the defenders and whipping a pass to Livingston for a dunk. The reactions to the play showed the difference between Curry and Durant’s styles: Curry ran around making goofy goggles to celebrate his court vision, while Durant angrily pounded his own chest.
Different approaches, the same obsession with winning. It has spread to the team, apparent with every box out or rush to deny a 3-pointer — and obvious with a coach who finally rejoined them, before they made it too late.
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