PORTLAND—Mike Brown, taking over one of the most talented teams in NBA history, just wants his routine back.
“I really want to go to Starbucks right now. You guys kinda screwed up my routine for getting a coffee,” he told reporters yesterday ahead of the Warriors’ Game 4 matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers.
He corrected himself: “Actually, caramel mocha.” An important distinction. That’s mostly sugar, after all. At least he didn’t say he was going to order a Unicorn Frappuccino with extra whipped cream.
Brown is going to need all the caffeine he can get in the next few days (and possibly weeks or months) as he takes over the defending Western Conference champions while head coach Steve Kerr tries to find a solution for his nagging back problems, the result of a surgery gone wrong. Brown hasn’t been tested like this in years—needing to lead a championship contender through the slings and arrows of an arduous playoff campaign.
The facile argument is that he will struggle to captain this squad on short notice, that he doesn’t have the tactical mind to overcome offensive geniuses like Mike D’Antoni or statistical anomalies like LeBron James. The reality is he’s coaching a team that only needs him to be present. Concern isn’t warranted in a situation where the man in charge is so aware of his role.
“One of the things about this group I learned from Steve is you don’t need a lot of rah rah,” Brown said. “The biggest thing is just tell ’em the truth. A lot of times, they know what’s going on. They just need to hear it out loud.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way—the understudy stepping in for the Big Show—but sometimes, fate intervenes. On Sunday, Kerr surprised a press corps expecting to hear from Warriors GM Bob Myers, and revealed that he might not coach again this postseason due to symptoms that flared up five days ago, pending further word from his doctors.
“This is not gonna be a case where I’m coaching one night, not coaching the next,” he said. “I’m not going to do that to our team and our staff.”
The last time Kerr missed a significant number of games, the Warriors broke the record for the best start in NBA history. That stretch catapulted assistant Luke Walton to the Los Angeles Lakers’ top job. Instead of the relatively low-stress early days of the regular season, this is late April. These are the playoffs. This counts.
Fortunately for the Dubs, Brown, unlike Walton, has coached in the postseason and took the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007. The players already buy in. Draymond Green had nothing but praise for Brown after their come-from-behind win on Saturday. “I mean, he was the MVP tonight,” he said.
Green pointed to two turning points in the game, the first being Brown’s choice to bring Andre Iguodala in at the 9:30 mark in the third.
“Pressure picked up, we started to get into the ball more, we were flying around more,” Green said of Iguodala’s effect on the game.
The second was leaving Green in and giving JaVale McGee an unusual second stint of minutes in the second half.
“JaVale brought in even more energy, got a couple lobs and that was huge,” he said.
“I learned a lot from [Kerr], the rest of the staff and the players,” Brown said.
The routine he referenced includes regular meetings with Kerr. He said they met up in Kerr’s hotel room in Portland the night before Game 3 to talk strategy and again the next morning. The two coaches are thinking along the same lines, which gives the Warriors added hope of a smooth transition during this difficult time. Kerr watched the game from the couch in that same hotel room and recalled telling his son, “We should put so-and-so in right now and that guy was going to the table.”
Even if Kerr and Brown are drinking from the same fountain of knowledge, Brown’s own head-coaching history will be a topic of conversation as the Warriors’ playoff run continues. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, especially with Golden State’s infamous Finals loss after being up 3-1 on the Cavs. But their 3-0 lead on the Trail Blazers points to at least one more round of basketball for Brown’s charges. His 47-36 all-time playoff record is certainly respectable, but his last postseason run, with the 2011-12 Los Angeles Lakers, ended in a 4-1 thumping at the hands of the ascendant Oklahoma City Thunder, who went on to win the Western Conference title that year.
That Lakers team was rounding out of its prime, having been to at least the conference semis the previous five seasons, including three straight NBA Finals appearances under Phil Jackson. A slow start for the team—which had just added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash—the next year cost Brown his job and other than a short stint back in Cleveland, he hasn’t had a coaching job since. Brown tried and failed to institute the Princeton offense on an older, slower Lakers team that wasn’t accustomed to so much ball movement. It was a painful time in Laker Land, one when fans couldn’t wrap their brains around why Brown would attempt to force a team like that to play in an offensive scheme they were ill-equipped to execute.
But offense was never Brown’s specialty. He’s a defensive specialist and that’s going to come in handy against teams like the Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers that have so many shooters who demand attention. In the 2006-2007 season, when Brown took Cleveland to the Finals, the Cavs had the fourth-ranked defense in the league, per Basketball Reference. It showed in the second half of Game 3, when the Warriors started trapping and switching more effectively. The result was a mind-blowing 87.5 defensive rating for the half, per NBA.com.
Ultimately, no one is going to be reinventing these Warriors, certainly not Mike Brown. Trying to do so would be akin to adding a giant shark fin on top of the head of the Lincoln Memorial or a bunch of J. Cole features to a Future album. Still, as much credit as Brown will get if the Warriors win the title, fairly or unfairly, he’ll get just as much criticism if they lose.
“Obviously, the butterflies are there, because I haven’t been in that seat in a while,” he said.
For now, the philosophy is “Less is more.” As Walton figured out last season, it’s best to give this exceptional group as much space as possible and not try to do too much.
What they needed to hear in Game 3, and what they might need to hear again in Game 4, is that they must remain aggressive defensively. The Blazers shot lights-out in the first half in Game 3, and it wasn’t until the Warriors started trapping Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum up high that they were able to get the stops needed to cut a 16-point deficit in the third quarter.
They’ll also need more high-caliber bench play from McGee, who Brown singled out for his energy, presence on the boards and ability to cover pick-and-rolls in the second half.
McGee and fellow center Zaza Pachulia won’t have to contend with Yusuf Nurkic, who was ruled out of Game 4 due to continued soreness in his healing fractured right leg. Nurkic played in Game 3 and put up two points and 11 rebounds in 17 minutes. While the Blazers won’t miss his scoring, limited as it was due to his injury, they will be hampered by the loss of his size and passing out of the post.
A victory for Portland will be a tall order, even if Curry continues his uncharacteristic shooting woes and Kevin Durant remains on the bench as a preventative measure.
The Blazers face a Warriors team that is finding inspiration in its head coach’s health issues. Curry told his teammates to win Game 3 for Kerr and saved the game ball to give to him back at the hotel. By all accounts, they’re rallying around Brown and remain focused on the task at hand: snatching back the Larry O’Brien Trophy from LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
“I think if it was a younger group and communication wasn’t as open as it is right now, maybe there’d be some concern,” Brown said. “Everyone is obviously concerned for Steve as an individual. ... The way that Steve and Bob have communicated to the group, I think it’s kind of put everyone’s mind at ease, at least for the time being.”
Although the Warriors hold a commanding lead in the series and other Western Conference teams look vulnerable, it’s not yet time to pop champagne. But you can’t blame them for a caramel mocha or two in the interim.
Dave Schilling is a writer at large for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @dave_schilling.