It was the obvious tactical move, intended to jolt his team from its whiny and somnolent funk, and Steve Kerr should be hailed today for prioritizing common sense over ego. Many months ago, he approached a proud, accomplished veteran named Andre Iguodala and said he no longer wanted to use him as a starter. A lot of crusty cranks in the coaching profession never would consider going back on such a controversial decision, especially after it had proved effective all season.
But Kerr needed a smaller, quicker lineup in Game 4, the gamble a coach must make in a championship moment. So he summoned Iguodala, the former All-Star he had demoted, and told him he wanted him in the starting lineup Thursday night. No one would have blamed Iguodala, who said recently that only an NBA title”will save me from kicking Steve Kerr’s ass for making me come off the bench,” if he started laughing in the coach’s face.
Instead, he simply nodded.
“No cynicism. He just nodded his head and said, ‘All right, let’s go,’” Kerr said.
If the Warriors proceed to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy, we’ll remember Kerr’s strategic wisdom and Iguodala’s symbolic sacrifice as the impetus for the Finals turnaround. No longer is this about Stephen Curry, the Splash Brothers and the swagger and electricity of a revolutionary offense. Your series MVP right now is Iguodala, and while you’d be foolish to think the Warriors now have the series in their back pocket, the 103-82 romp proves again that Kerr, as seen in the Memphis series, knows how to play a trump card to reverse momentum. And it shows again that Iguodala, in a powerful lesson for young athletes everywhere, cares more about the collective team than himself.
“We use our strength in numbers,” said Iguodala, using the Kerr slogan seen on t-shirts throughout the Bay Area. “Not only do we have a good first unit, but we’ve got a second unit that is coming at you with the same type of speed, same type of high-IQ basketball. It’s hard to keep up with us.”
Not only did Iguodala score 22 points, he helped limit a battered, exhausted LeBron James to 20 points on a 7-of-22 shooting night. You could say this was a game where James was exposed on and off the court — just before tipoff, as he was adjusting his game shorts, ABC cameras showed a glimpse of LeBron that instantly became the most infamous wardrobe malfunction since Janet Jackson. At one point, Iguodala even mocked James by pretending to injure his arm and clutching it, then smiling. His coach and teammates were in awe.</p>
“I mean, he looks great out there. He’s been our best player for four games,” said Kerr, who admitted to “lying” when he said earlier in the day that he wasn’t changing the lineup. “He guards LeBron pretty much every possession out there, and his offense has been terrific. The guy is brilliant at both ends. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around. He sees the game. If he wants to coach someday, he’d be a great coach.”
So great, in fact, that maybe Iguodala would have known to start Iguodala in the previous game. And maybe he wouldn’t have lied about it. “If I tell the truth, it’s the equivalent of knocking on (Cavaliers coach) David Blatt’s door and saying, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do,’” Kerr said in his smart-alecky tone. “I could evade the question, which would start this Twitter phenomenon, ‘Who is going to start for the Warriors?’ Or I could lie. So I lied. Sorry, but I don’t think they hand you the trophy based on morality. They give it to you if you win. I’m sorry about that.”
No one was demanding an apology. Kerr’s players were blown away by the guts of the decision … and the professionalism of Iguodala. “I knew that before tonight that he has been the best player in the series,” said Draymond Green, who finally stopped talking and complaining to the officials and played well, thanks to a verbal scolding from his famous tweeting mother. “Guarding LeBron, being aggressive on the offensive end … he’s been phenomenal for us, that steady force in every game. It brought pace to the game. He was knocking down shots. He was all over the floor, getting deflections, coming up with loose balls and rebounds. So that’s one of those decisions that coach Kerr made that most coaches probably wouldn’t make. He’s had the heart to do it.”
“He pretty much embodies the importance of always being ready,” said Curry, who played second fiddle to Iguodala on the interview podium after his 22-point night. “[Kerr] wasn’t afraid to take a chance, and obviously it’s not a blind guess. He’s a smart coach who is willing to make adjustments to put us in a better position to win a game. Coach manages that really well. You’ve got to take a chance.”
Suddenly, the Warriors rediscovered their free-flowing identity, dictated the pace and created offense via defense with some basketball basics: spacing, cutting, whip passing, screening and opening the court for Curry to regain his shooting stroke. In doing so, Kerr demoted Andrew Bogut, who also greeted the news with selfless aplomb. Yet, even in playing just three minutes, the big man was instrumental in another development that looms large as a 2-2 series returns to Oracle Arena.
If Bogut does nothing more in this series, or the rest of his basketball life, he’ll be remembered for the Australian-rules-football shove that reminded the world that James actually is a human being who really does bleed. It was a hard foul, borderline dirty, but it wasn’t the only reason James was left writhing in pain near the basket with blood oozing from a gaping scalp wound.
As he flew headfirst over the baseline, James’ head struck a TV camera.
A camera held by an NBA TV videographer, no less.
Suddenly, then and there, his singular dominance of these NBA Finals stopped. Groggy and requiring post-game stitches, James was far from his unstoppable self the rest of Game 4, and the Warriors took advantage. The question now becomes whether James, who later suffered the same cramps that slowed him late in Game 3 and helped trigger the Miami Heat’s quick demise in last year’s Finals, finally has been wounded and worn down to the point he won’t be able to pull off his superhuman act the rest of the series.
The people of northeast Ohio, predictably incensed and sensing the familiar impending doom that accompanies a 51-year sports championship drought, think Bogut is a thug. Closer to the truth, the NBA bit the hand that feeds it and helped the Warriors save their season. In allowing photographers and their dangerously hard equipment so close to the action, the league always has risked the health of the very players it is trying to market. In this case, the Warriors benefited from self-inflicted foolishness, with James missing 10 of 14 shots and numerous free throws after the crash.
“I’d say LeBron’s a true warrior,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said.
He should have said, “I’m moving the camera people back 15 feet.”
Blatt finally had to rest James at the start of the fourth quarter, recognizing that he has played 183 of a possible 202 minutes in the series. As the only game of the series preceded by only a one-day layoff, the Warriors had no option but to seize the opportunity — along with the fact no team ever has overcome a 1-3 deficit to win the Finals and no James team ever had blown a 3-1 lead in the Finals. James received stitches after the game — “enough to close it up,” he said — and said he had a “slight” headache. “Which I think every last one of you guys probably would have if you ran into a camera,” he said. “I was just trying to regain my composure and I was holding my head. It was hurting. I was just hoping I wasn’t bleeding. But the camera cut me pretty bad.”
The blood symbolized that the Warriors indeed can muck it up. And they have to feel good that the Cavs, from James to Matthew Dellavedova to the end of a frail seven-man rotation, look spent. They have two days to recover, but James knows what’s coming at Oracle — another headache, noise-related — and the only way Cleveland wins the championship is by stealing one in Oakland. James pulled it off in Game 2. Can he again?
“Game 5 at Golden State is not that big when it comes to going to Boston and you lose multiple times in that arena,” he said, apparently not impressed with the Warriors’ tradition when compared to the Celtics. “The franchise I was with at the time (the Cavaliers, also his current franchise) had never won a playoff game in Boston. Now that’s pretty challenging. So I’ve been through a little bit in my pretty cool career.”
He admitted he was “gassed.” He will not be gassed Sunday, and his headache will be gone, and he will spend time in his now-famous liquid nitrogen freezing chamber — which uses subzero temperatures to treat tissue damage, meaning LeBron literally is freezing himself to prepare his body. But will he get enough help from his remarkably depleted roster? The Warriors clearly are doing what they should be doing: exploiting the weakest supporting cast in Finals history. To their credit, they backed up their brash words of the previous hours, when Green challenged his teammates to play harder and Klay Thompson guaranteed a championship if the offense improved. The offense improved: 46.8 percent shooting, 24 assists, four players in double figures, only seven turnovers.
“After Game 3, we weren’t feeling good at all. It was just awesome to come out here and impose our will on both sides of the ball and play our brand of basketball,” said Broadway Klay. “That’s been winning us games all year. We’re really happy, but we’re not going to celebrate yet. We still have two more wins to go.”
Kerr also realized the need to trap James and double-team him. In his 300 touches over the first three games, the Warriors had doubled him only 15 times. Again, like the Memphis series, the rookie coach had to figure out the mess. It helped that he’s playing a limited team, but that’s not his problem. He’s earning his $25 million. Over at the broadcast table, his deposed predecessor, Mark Jackson, had to acknowledge as much.
“I don’t think the biggest difference was the starting lineup or the adjustment we made,” Kerr said. “I think the biggest difference was we played a lot harder.”
He’s much too humble, even in the biggest moment of his young coaching life. The reason the Warriors played harder is because he made the lineup adjustment that motivated them.
The Kerr-ect decision, call it.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.