BOSTON — When Steve Kerr came to the Warriors, it was because the team needed a head coach who would reset the culture in Oakland.
After five straight NBA Finals and a move across the Bay, it was obvious Kerr had done that.
The Warriors’ offensive and defensive systems are the envy of the league, and the team’s environment of positivity and accountability is legendary.
But the Warriors needed something more than a big-picture coach this season, particularly in the NBA Finals.
They needed a tactical master. Someone who could adapt to any situation and deploy his players in the perfect way. They needed someone to handle the micro.
It’s rare to be a quality team visionary. It’s tough to be an X’s-and-O’s master.
To be both? That would arguably make a coach the best in the NBA.
And that’s what Kerr proved himself to be this season.
“Man, you’re talking about one of the greatest coaches of all-time,” Andrew Wiggins, the poster child for the ‘Warriors Way,’ said after Game 6. “The way he challenges his players but supports them, it’s amazing. He gives his players confidence, and he puts his players in position to succeed. So I’m definitely thankful for Steve Kerr.”
Kerr’s adjustments throughout the NBA Finals were critical for the Dubs in claiming the series and a fourth title under his reign.
The early portion of the series saw little separating Golden State and Boston. The Celtics might have been the more talented team; the Warriors were certainly the more experienced. The basic tactics were on point for both teams from the opening tip of Game 1 in San Francisco.
No, this series was going to be won or lost either because of injury — and thank goodness that wasn’t a true factor — or a series of small adjustments that could prove to make a big difference.
Starting in Game 4, with the Warriors down 2-1 in the series, Kerr comprehensively out-adjusted Boston’s first-year head coach, Ime Udoka. He worked over the rookie, and it resulted in three straight wins and a fourth NBA title in eight years.
For a coach who has so often defaulted to the Warriors’ ideals, this was a realpolitik performance from Kerr.
And it manifested in his benching of Draymond Green for a period of the fourth quarter of that game last week in Boston.
It was a risky but necessary move. It paid off with Green’s finish to that game and finish to the series.
Meanwhile, the Boston coach had one move: imploring his team to stop playing soft.
That stopped working around halftime of Game 4.
The Warriors, meanwhile, tinkered, mixed and matched all the way to the final whistle.
And when Kerr found something that worked, he had no problem pushing the button again and again late in the series.
Kerr still had moves remaining. He dared Boston to counter. In the final two games, those counters didn’t come.
The biggest adjustment the Warriors made was in Game 5, when Wiggins was matched with Jayson Tatum for every minute the latter was on the court.
In the NHL playoffs, teams try to match lines to defend star opponents — this was Kerr’s hockey play.
Tatum shot 16-for-38 over the final two games and was far more of a detriment than benefit to the Celtics in that time. Wiggins had him second-guessing everything.
Earlier in the series, the Warriors had found some success with Gary Payton II in the rotation. He sat in Game 1, but he was an impact player in Game 2. Then Kerr couldn’t find him big minutes in Games 3 and 4.
That was not a problem in Game 5 or Game 6, though. Kerr played Payton 46 minutes — a top-five number among all Warriors in the final two games of the Finals — and Payton had 21 points, eight rebounds, a block and six steals. No one had a better net rating in the final two games.
Kerr also staggered Kevon Looney and Green more in Games 5 and 6 — their minutes on the court together were limited. Both players were marvelous, but having two non-shooters on the floor proved challenging for the Dubs, even if there were defensive positives.
The final big adjustment that Kerr made was to go against what had been working in the series up until Game 4.
But, trust me, it was a pragmatic move.
The Celtics were keying in on the Warriors’ high pick-and-roll — an action that Golden State avoids on principle but started using heavily in Game 1 because of Boston’s switch-everything defense.
After Curry scored 43 points in Game 4, the Celtics made it clear from tipoff in Game 5 that they were going to make anyone but No. 30 beat them.
Kerr anticipated the move, and the Warriors ran their traditional motion offense almost exclusively for the final two games. Boston was stuck in no man’s land, and the Warriors claimed the title.
There will be countless questions in the coming months as to whether the Warriors can again do what they did when Kerr first arrived. Can they go on another run of NBA Finals appearances?
There’s one question that won’t have to be asked, in any capacity: Is the right man at the helm for whatever happens next?
Kerr has proven himself four times over now, and this might have been the most impressive coaching performance of the lot.