OAKLAND (AP) — Even as he spent the first 43 games of the season on the sideline while recovering from back problems, Steve Kerr always kept his finger on the pulse of the Golden State Warriors.
That connection, the sense of what buttons to push and what whiteboards to smash, was all over Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
“He has just a great feel for the energy and the temperature of the team,” said Warriors guard Shaun Livingston, who scored 20 points in Golden State’s 104-89 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night. “He’s great at just taking the temperature and finding the right matchups for us and putting us in places where we can excel.”
The Warriors sent a statement to the Cavaliers that the “Strength In Numbers” message on those gold shirts that were draped over the seats at Oracle Arena is so much more than just a catchy slogan.
Kerr’s first big move of the series was the one he didn’t make. After veteran Andre Iguodala helped the Warriors tilt the Western Conference finals and come back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kerr resisted the temptation to start him against LeBron James and the Cavs.
Iguodala was the Finals MVP a year ago for his all-around performance against the Cavaliers, but Kerr stayed with the same starting lineup that had worked during a record-setting 73-win regular season. The oft-criticized Harrison Barnes started at small forward and hit 3 of 4 shots in the first quarter to get the Warriors rolling.
“Harrison has started for two years and it’s been a pretty good two years for us,” Kerr said. “We’ve had a good run. It’s been very effective playing the way we’ve played in terms of the lineup and the rotation. I didn’t feel any need to change our lineup for Game 1 of the series.”
The ability to step back and look at the bigger picture in the chaos of the moment has always been one of Kerr’s strong suits and the Warriors have flourished under his even-keeled approach.
Even watching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson morph from the greatest shooting tandem in NBA history into a pair of brick layers wasn’t enough to rattle the seemingly unshakeable coach.
The Splash Brothers combined for just 20 points on 8-for-27 shooting and were 4 for 13 from 3-point range. The Warriors’ bench rose to the occasion, with Livingston, Leandro Barbosa and Iguodala picking up the slack and Kerr rode them during the turning point in the game, a run that really caught fire after guard Matthew Dellavedova swiped at the ball but hit Iguodala in the groin.
The Cavaliers had come back to take the lead in the third quarter, and Curry just couldn’t find the mark. But Kerr trusted the depth of his team, and let his reserves take center stage for the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
The lead ballooned to 20 points during that stretch.
“He obviously plays the matchups well,” Livingston said. “Just to be able to kind of rotate is impressive.”
The only time he lost his cool was when the ball stopped moving and the turnovers started coming in the third quarter. The Cavs jumped in front and Kerr shattered his whiteboard with his marker like a judo champion breaking a stack of bricks.
The move even worked out for the league’s coach of the year.
“Destruction tends to ease some of the anger,” Kerr quipped. “So I try to take it out on a clipboard instead of a player. So it’s better that way. Better not to break your players.”
Now the pressure is on Cavs rookie head coach Tyronn Lue to make adjustments. Lue’s defensive game plan worked marvelously against Curry and Thompson, with the Cavs getting physical with the two-time MVP and forcing Thompson into early foul trouble to get him out of rhythm.
But the Cavs still lost by a wide margin and had no answer for the Warriors surge that seemingly comes every game.
The Cavaliers shot 38 percent, turned the ball over 17 times and only had 17 assists.
“They’re a great team when you just hold the ball and pound the ball,” James said. “So we’ve got to do a better job with that, which coach Lue and the coaching staff will make sure we do in Game 2.”
This is why the Cavaliers made that stunning coaching change in midseason, firing David Blatt after he led them to the finals last year and a 30-11 start to this season.
The Cavaliers, and James in particular, trust Lue in ways they never did Blatt. And now it’s up to him to match wits with one of the best coaching staffs in the NBA.
“Their bench played well,” Lue said. “So we’ve got to go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to take those guys out of the game.”
Game 2 is Sunday in Oakland.
“I’m looking forward to the film session and seeing ways we can get better going into Game 2,” James said. “And I think our team is as well.”