Kerr is quick read in postseason debut 

click to enlarge Steve Kerr
  • Mark Humphrey/AP file photo
  • In his first postseason as a coach, Steve Kerr, left, has helped guide Klay Thompson and the Warriors to the conference finals.

On the surface, the question was relatively innocuous, something about a pair of teams who rely on the 3-point shot making it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. But the question was also freighted with subtext, and Steve Kerr, media-trained and self-aware, recognized it right away on Monday afternoon, understood that this all led back to the recent tweets of his one-time coach in Chicago, Phil Jackson, who had ridiculed the very idea of 3-point-reliant teams succeeding in the playoffs.

“You trying to bait me into something?” Kerr replied.

He was joking mostly, but there was just the slightest trace of bite behind it. And this, say those who know him best, is the central paradox of Steve Kerr: He comes across as almost alarmingly laid-back human being, but inside is the same fierce competitor who once famously went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan during practice. He is a quintessential nice guy who is constantly re-evaluating and adjusting his view of the world, but he is also a man who did not hesitate when asked to hit a game-winning shot for the Bulls in the 1997 NBA Finals.

These are heady times for the mythos of Kerr as we reach the potential midway point of his first NBA playoffs as a head coach. He goes into this series against the Houston Rockets with his Warriors team once again heavily favored, having righted themselves amid a physical Western Conference semifinal victory over the Grizzlies that threatened to expose his weaknesses as a newcomer to the profession.

The strategic adjustments Kerr and his coaching staff made during that series — most notably the defensive shift on Memphis’ Tony Allen, leaving him open on the perimeter and allowing him to take (and miss) wide-open jump shots — proved the catalyst in getting the Warriors beyond a 2-1 series deficit. With each victory, with each series conquered, Kerr’s status as the next great thinking man’s coach, in the vein of both Jackson and another of his mentors, Gregg Popovich, seems to elevate. With each obstacle overcome, the legend of Steve Kerr as a guru who seems to have incorporated the best qualities of all the coaches he’s worked with in the past continues to grow.

“He just handled it the same way he’s handled the rest of the year,” the Warriors’ Draymond Green said of the semifinals series. “[The coaches] really proved themselves at making adjustments, because for a while, I read a few things that said [Kerr] was getting out-coached. So I guess he changed that mentality of y’all’s. He didn’t really teach me something that I didn’t know already.”

We are now intimately familiar with Kerr’s reading habits and his inherent curiosity, thanks to a recent Wall Street Journal article that revealed Kerr consistently requests the public relations staff to send him clippings that have nothing to do with basketball. Asked before Game 5, Kerr said he was reading Anthony Doerr’s best-selling World War II novel, “All The Light You Cannot See” and confessed that there was a great peace to be had in sinking into a book for an hour or so in the midst of the most stressful moments of his still-fledgling coaching career. This is where the Warriors found themselves after Game 3 in Memphis — trapped in their own self-congratulatory holding pattern after Stephen Curry’s Most Valuable Player award was presented, seemingly unprepared for the sudden return of Grizzlies guard Mike Conley from a facial fracture — and this is when Kerr and his coaching staff took a step back and re-examined themselves. This is when Kerr proved himself unafraid to try something different, but it’s also when he proved that he could maintain that preternatural calm in the midst of a trying moment. “Just to experience it [as a coaching staff] and go through it and feel it, it’s all going to happen again,” Kerr said Monday, “so it’s good to have it in our back pocket.”

When it will happen again, no one seems to know, but this is Kerr’s charge as the Warriors prepare to face a Rockets team they beat all four times during the regular season: To guard against overconfidence, to recognize that the challenges with come, in varied forms. It is, he said yesterday, hard for him to imagine that any team could be overconfident heading into a conference finals, but this is a team that has so far overcome everything that’s stood in its way.

How much of that can be attributed to the Tao of Steve Kerr is still up for debate, but at some point, you start to realize that him is too well-prepared for this moment to be baited into much of anything.

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Michael Weinreb

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