From the day he took over as coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2014, Steve Kerr tried to give his players the freedom to be themselves and to play to their strengths. He empowered them, the assistant Ron Adams said, by cultivating a sense of self-reliance that has become even more apparent in recent weeks.
“I think that mind-set pays big dividends,” Adams said. “I could say a lot of great things about the staff and how everyone gets along, but it’s not the critical point. The critical point is that we have a group of guys who are very respectful of each other, very respectful of us as coaches and very respectful of Steve as a leader. So they make it go, and they’ve taken ownership in his absence.”
It is, of course, one of the more unfortunate subplots to the N.B.A. playoffs. On April 21, in the middle of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Kerr stepped away from his day-to-day duties to seek additional treatment for pain stemming from what he has described as botched back surgery two years ago.
Still, Kerr has occupied himself as much as possible. He watches game film. He makes phone calls to members of his staff. On Saturday, he showed up at practice, a psychological lift for the team.
Then, on Sunday, with the Warriors struggling against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Kerr made his presence felt in a more substantial way — even as he stayed away from the bench. In the home locker room at halftime, Kerr implored his players to generate tempo by focusing on defensive stops. He wore a team sweatshirt. He exuded calm.
“We’ve got to find that balance between pace and discipline,” Kerr said in a clip that was broadcast by ABC. He added, “Settle in, and we’ll be all right.”
As the Warriors surged to a 113-111 victory at Oracle Arena, it became clear just how much Kerr’s fingerprints are all over this team. He could watch the rest of the postseason play out from the practice court and the locker room, and he would still have an outsize influence.
“This is a team that understands its mission,” Adams said before Sunday’s game.
Against the Spurs, the Warriors trailed by as many as 25 points. Their comeback was aided in large part by the departure of San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, who re-injured his left ankle in the third quarter and missed most of the second half. Without him, the Spurs lost their traction, and the Warriors motored past them.
Mike Brown, the Warriors’ associate head coach, filled in for Kerr on the bench. “I give our guys a ton of credit,” Brown said. “They stayed composed.”
On at least two previous occasions this season, the Warriors’ continuity — which usually manifests itself in the form of winning lots of games — could have been disrupted. In late February, Kevin Durant, one of the team’s leading scorers, injured his left knee and missed 19 games. During the final three weeks of his absence, the Warriors assembled a 13-game winning streak.
More recently, after the Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers in Game 2 of their first-round series, Kerr went on an indefinite hiatus to address his chronic medical problems, which include migraines.
Brown has now guided the Warriors to seven straight postseason wins, including a four-game sweep of the Utah Jazz in the conference semifinals. But Sunday was another test altogether. The victory was not secure until Stephen Curry drained a one-handed runner with 9.5 seconds left.
Brown has been the ideal surrogate for Kerr.
“He’s really done a great job, I think, of carrying on in the spirit that Steve has established here, and respecting the culture and all those kinds of things,” Adams said. “But this is what he was brought here to do — if there was a health problem with Steve. So it’s worked out well from that standpoint.”
At the same time, Adams said, some distance has given Kerr a unique view — a helpful and valuable one. It has enabled him to see the big picture.
“He’s up in the helicopter, looking down on stuff,” Adams said. “It’s really kind of a nice perspective for everyone.”