OAKLAND (AP) — With the stakes high and fans ready to question and critique every move, Steve Kerr knew he’d be in the spotlight no matter how things played out this postseason.
That’s just the reality of being a rookie coach with the NBA MVP and the league’s top-seeded team.
Of course, Kerr is no stranger to playoff pressure. This is the same guy who received a pass from Michael Jordan and calmly hit a 17-foot jumper that sealed the 1997 NBA title for the Chicago Bulls.
A five-time champion as a player, Kerr has kept his cool so far as a coach in these playoffs and lived up to his nickname “Ice.”
He made a series-changing move that helped rally the Golden State Warriors from a 2-1 deficit against the Memphis Grizzlies and has the franchise in the Western Conference finals for the first time in 39 years.
Kerr has no time to savor the accomplishment, nor relish his role in it. The spotlight on him will be even brighter beginning Tuesday night, when the Warriors host the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of the conference finals.
“The playoffs are a different animal, they are. You feel it as a coach,” Kerr said. “I felt it as a player, but to feel it as a coach you can tell the difference in preparation from one day to the next.”
Kerr’s key to success is focusing on the task at hand — each game, each practice, each play. But he does get away from the game at least once a day by reading a non-basketball related book.
The current title on his list is “All the Light We Cannot See,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Anthony Doerr that takes place during World War II.
Kerr encourages his players and staff to read each day during the playoffs. It’s a philosophy he adopted from one of his coaching mentors, Phil Jackson.
“If you can get an hour a day where you just get lost in your thoughts and forget about the game a little bit, it’s a good respite,” Kerr said.
Kerr often solicits ideas from others, especially in his first postseason as a coach. The biggest and boldest move of his tenure came last week after listening to the advice of his coaching staff, notably assistant Ron Adams, who is one of the league’s most respected defensive minds.
Before Game 4 against the Grizzlies, Kerr and his staff decided to make Memphis pay for playing disruptive defender Tony Allen extended minutes.
Kerr essentially told his players not to guard Allen — a poor shooter — on the perimeter, allowing center Andrew Bogut to be a help-side defender that could pack the paint and double-team Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The unorthodox strategy allowed the Warriors to make more stops and push the pace, freeing up Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for open 3-pointers in transition.
While the Warriors won the final three games, the move initially surprised players.
“We didn’t know if coach maybe didn’t get any sleep last night or if he was throwing in the towel. It was unheard of,” forward Harrison Barnes said.
But players never questioned the move, Barnes said, because Kerr sold it to them so well. He said Kerr’s conversation with them highlighted what assistant coach Bruce Fraser, a close Kerr confident, had nicknamed the coach long ago: Ice.
“When (Kerr) said that, he said it very calm,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to do something very unconventional in a pivotal game for us.’ It was like, ‘All right, (Bogut) is going to guard Tony Allen and we’re going to go from there. And it was like, ‘Wow, OK. Let’s see how this goes.’ He was calm as ice.”
Kerr credited his staff — Adams, Fraser, Alvin Gentry, Luke Walton and Jarron Collins — for deciding on the move. And that serves as another example of one of Kerr’s qualities: modesty.
A lack of it is one of the reasons former coach Mark Jackson couldn’t co-exist with management and some players, leading to his dismissal after last season. Kerr assembled a stronger staff — which Warriors co-owner Joe Lacob wanted Jackson to do — and delegated responsibilities to those with more experience than him.
“He has all the characteristics that great leaders have,” said Adams, a longtime NBA assistant.
Kerr’s communication skills and attention to detail — and willingness to give credit when and where it’s due — has not gone unnoticed by players, either.
In his MVP acceptance speech, Curry, an ardent Jackson supporter last season, went out of his way to thank Kerr for being “very humble the way that you’ve approached this season.”
Since he took over last May, Kerr has praised Jackson for building the team’s foundation. But Kerr is carving his own history now, with the Warriors four wins from reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since the franchise won the championship in 1975.
Kerr is confident the Warriors can get there. He also knows he’ll have to answer for it if they don’t — he’s perfectly comfortable being in that role.
“It’s fun. It’s competition,” Kerr said. “This is why I came back into the competitive side of it.”