So here it was, the dreaded blindspot, the first time Steve Kerr’s sideline presence would be sorely missed. As in: Why was Stephen Curry still on the bench, with Draymond Green, as the Warriors were allowing what once was a 17-point lead to backslide into a 10-point deficit with just eight minutes left?
Did the interim head coach not realize that a regulation NBA game ends after 48 minutes? Did he not grasp that Curry, whose standing as one of the dynamic shotmakers in the annals of humankind has somehow grown this season, could not help the Warriors from his cushioned seat? Did he not understand that the opponents were the Los Angeles Clippers, their antagonists, who were drooling at the thought of snatching an early emotional edge by beating the Champs on their home hardwood?
Turns out it was our collective blunder not to recognize that Luke Walton, as a tactical and spiritual extension of Kerr, knew exactly what he was doing. There’s a reason Kerr says Walton will be “a great coach in this league,” and he exhibited it late on a memorable November night at Oracle Arena, when he calmly inserted Curry and Green after a timeout and had faith that his team would have a better chance of erasing the lead than the bumbling Clippers would of protecting it. He simply shifted to the smallball lineup that U-turned the NBA Finals and watched as his artwork offense found the open shooter — Harrison Barnes, twice, for killer threes from each corner — while the reliable defensive machinery made stops. Everyone knew what was next, the Curry Flurry, and Walton remained unbeaten in five games.
It was the first tangible, heat-of-moment evidence that Walton can lead a championship team through a gauntlet. And maybe now, the doubters will stop forecasting stumbles for the Warriors until Kerr returns. It is indeed possible that Kerr’s struggle with headaches, which require him to remain heavily medicated, will continue past the holidays and into the new year. If so, Cool Head Luke has shown in his first month that he’ll maintain what Kerr built and formulated. When he took over, he said he was “hoping and praying” that Kerr would return soon. On Opening Night, his anxiety level had reduced to being “nervous.” Now, he’s relieved. By next month at this rate, he’ll be a Coach of the Year candidate.
That’s some progression for a guy who joined Kerr’s staff last year, was named lead assistant in July and had zero head coaching experience other than a Summer League stint with the team’s younger players. Now, he’s outcoaching Doc Rivers in a prime-time national thriller.
“I feel a lot of relief, absolutely,” Walton said. “In the big picture, the NBA game is at a point, with so much media and social media, that without Steve here, if we’d have lost a game or two early, there would be a ton of stories everywhere that it was the end of the world. So from my seat, I’m relieved where we are right now.”
The perception that Kerr is using a high-tech device in the locker room, sending instructions to Walton via an Apple Watch or Skype, is dead-wrong. Oh, he’s in there all right, watching on TV and offering input at halftime, but Kerr wants his disciple to learn on the job without too much meddling. It may turn out to be a project that helps an opponent, with the buzz heavy that the Los Angeles Lakers are eyeing Walton — who won two title rings with the franchise as a player, is a favorite of team boss Jeanie Buss and was introduced to the craft when Buss’ fiance, Phil Jackson, invited Walton into coaches’ meetings when he was injured near the end of his playing career.
But if Kerr is a product of the Jackson and Gregg Popovich coaching trees, he’ll also have his own tree. Consider Walton to be his first creation. And it’s his voice the players hear at halftime. “Mainly, I speak to the team,” Walton said. “If [Kerr] has anything he wants to say, we obviously allow that to happen. As a staff, we always meet in the coaches’ room before we go in and talk to the players and we discuss what points we need to emphasize and what the message should be to the guys. Having him there — it’s obviously nice to have his brain and input involved.”
The players are comfortable enough with Walton on the bench that no one blanched or blinked when Klay Thompson blurted out a possible goal: a 70-win season. As Kerr knows, having played on the 72-10 Chicago Bulls team of 20 years ago, it takes extraordinary luck — there’s that word again — and soft competition within a conference. Already, the Warriors are having injury issues and play in the demanding Western Conference. But the fact the players own such confidence is a reflection of their belief in Walton.
“Luke’s not a fiery guy, but we respect everything that comes out of his mouth,” Thompson said after the 112-108 win over the Clippers. “He’s a very smart, intellectual coach. And he told us what had to be done and we responded well.”
“You can see Luke growing every day,” Festus Ezeli said. “His composure is way different now even just from the preseason games. We just continue to get better.”
Some coaches never adapt to the four-foot bench gap between helping out and running the show. While anyone might look like a genius with Curry destroying the enemy every game, Thompson draining shots, Green playing quarterback on the defensive end and Andre Iguodala exuding leadership, the Warriors aren’t some self-driving car designed by Elon Musk. They still need a director. If Walton was a bad idea, we’d already know it.
“As an assistant, it’s kind of fun to sit there and watch and see what you think could be an advantage to recommend to Steve at the next timeout,” he said. “As a head coach, you are watching everything that is happening. You are looking to see what subs are coming and what you have to do matchup-wise, and then you get to a timeout and have two minutes to figure out what you want to run and who to put in. That’s probably been the most challenging just because you have to make so many decisions so quickly.”
All you need to know is that Walton made Rivers look silly with one play call. It has been in the Warriors’ arsenal, brought to Kerr by then-assistant Alvin Gentry last year — the same Alvin Gentry who used to work for Rivers. During Curry’s rush of 13 straight points in the final minutes, there was a play where he curled and raced around screens and slipped past defenders to find an opening, which was all he needed for a three that made Rivers cry and call it “a gameplan mistake.”
“The biggest play of the game was literally our play that Alvin Gentry gave to them,” Rivers said. “We talked about it. To see Curry wide open in the corner was disheartening for us.”
So was the game’s final play, a Thompson block of Jamal Crawford’s three-point attempt. The Clippers, according to Rivers, forgot what he had called. “Everybody should know the play, not just the guy with the ball, and we didn’t know the play,” he said.
He’s tied for the best all-time winning percentage in his profession.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.