Mike Brown is interim coach of the Golden State Warriors, the most talented and entertaining team in the NBA. They run, they pass, they rebound, they defend, they score.
As for motivation? Just a hunch here, but they probably lead the league in that category, too. When you win the championship in 2015 and lose the following year – in the seventh game, in the closing minutes, in your home building – the summer becomes an endless, blistering offseason even in the Bay Area.
Brown, of course, played no part in the Warriors’ rise and fall. He joined the coaching staff only after assistant Luke Walton was named head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, which, in retrospect, might have been a monumental mistake. Yet due to circumstances beyond his control – Steve Kerr’s ongoing health issues and recent setback – he gets to match wits in the Western Conference Finals with the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, his former employer and mentor, and easily the elite among active NBA coaches.
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The Warriors-Spurs series that begins Sunday has been anticipated for months, with themes aplenty. There is the young coaching disciple (Kerr) vs. his immensely respected mentor; the most gifted team vs. the enduring dinosaur that refuses to die; the trending upstart vs. the small-market team that has captured more NBA titles these past two decades than any other franchise.
The story took a bit of a rewrite recently with Brown stepping in for the ailing Kerr, though his longtime friend/current boss participated in practice Saturday for the first time since undergoing a spinal cord leakage procedure May 5 at Duke University. Though declining to address members of the media, Kerr sat on a cushioned bench outside the glass-enclosed weight room, chatting with Draymond Green and Brown, while several players lingered for extra shooting.
“It’s obviously great any time to hear his voice, see his face,” said Steph Curry. “You know he misses being here, the day to day routine, the atmosphere, practice, locker room and games. So for him to have the energy and ability to be here means a lot. Obviously coach Brown led most of it (practice preparation), but he was present.”
A more detailed medical update was unavailable. If Kerr were still a player instead of a third-year coach, the official roster would probably list him as day-to-day. The more likely scenario would seem to be series-by-series. But who knows? Who could have envisioned Kerr removing himself from the sidelines after the Warriors defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in the first two games of the series? Would he stroll back to the sidelines somewhere between Oakland and San Antonio? Would he wait for the Finals or remain in the background, involved in the preparation but cautious about where to tread?
Brown continues to say that he is the head coach until he isn’t, and outwardly at least, he appears surprisingly unfazed by the uniquely awkward, potentially untenable circumstances. If he is feeling the heat, it must be a low-grade fever. Outwardly, he is cool and calm, and increasingly comfortable in the environment.
“Steve didn’t want this to happen,” said Popovich, who hired Brown as an assistant when Kerr played for the Spurs. “But you know, they know each other well. Mike knows the program well. Steve is right there with him, in his ear. They’re doing things the way they’ve done it for a while now, and Mike is a good soldier, and he will be. Mikey has done a great job.”
Brown, who has coached the Lakers and twice coached the Cavaliers, and a year ago was in the midst of an extended sabbatical, approaches the current job like a temp employee; he has no intention of messing with a beautiful blueprint. The Warriors have cruised to an 8-0 postseason record (6-0 under Brown) in familiar fashion, with only an occasional hiccup. They overwhelm opponents with length, versatility, switching defenses, exquisite ball movement and perimeter shooting, and, when all else fails, the exceptional individual abilities of Curry, Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
With the offseason addition of Durant, who signed with Golden State for all of the above-mentioned reasons, the Warriors are favored to reach the NBA Finals and return the Lawrence O’Brien trophy to the Bay Area. A rematch with the Cavs would be wrapping on a gift, an opportunity to expunge the Oracle Arena odor from that seventh game.
But as Brown can attest from his up-close and professional experience, only losers underestimate the Spurs, those old men and their 68-year-old coach. Both are historically full of surprises. While the Warriors withstood the initial emotional shock of Kerr’s absence and went undefeated en route to the conference finals, the Spurs went 8-4 without Tony Parker and eliminated the Rockets in Houston while Kawhi Leonard sat out with an ankle sprain and James Harden starred in the role of Invisible Man.
The Warriors do what they do. What the Spurs do, whether Pop can mix and match, tweak this, tweak that, go big sometimes, surprise with small lineups other times, and somehow make this a contest, will be the story of the series.
“The key for us is the ability to rebound,” said Brown. “If we win the possession game, we feel we have a good chance of winning the game with our scoring power. That size alone, is something we have to do a job of, keeping the guys off the glass if we want to turn this into a track meet.”
Then he left, presumably to meet up again with Kerr in the back. In terms of clarity regarding Kerr’s situation, what it bodes for the future, that’s all there is.