CLEVELAND -- The Golden State Warriors didn't just even the NBA Finals on Thursday night, they gained something. In the voyage of discovery that is their first trip to June in 40 years, they learned their coach can handle this. When things aren't going their way and there's a tactical move to be made, Steve Kerr is willing to take the risk for the sake of the necessary adjustment.
Kerr has the two required attributes: daring and deceit.
When he was asked at the shootaround if the Warriors' 2-1 deficit in the series would prompt any changes in the starting lineup, specifically with Andrew Bogut, Kerr said no.
"I lied," Kerr said much later, long after his falsehood already had been exposed when Andre Iguodala started in Bogut's place, well after the smaller lineups turned the Warriors back into the Warriors and they ran away from the exhausted Cavaliers in a 103-82 victory.
"No, I did. I mean, I lied."
The Warriors had spent the aftermath of their disappointing Game 3 loss talking about the need to do whatever it took to get back in the series. For the players, it meant matching the undermanned Cavaliers' intensity, making the effort to push the pace back to their preferred faster tempo. For Kerr, it meant going small and lying about it.
"Sorry, but I don't think they hand you the trophy based on morality," Kerr said. "They give it to you if you win. So, sorry about that."
Don't let the skateboarder-type attire he wears to the arena fool you. Kerr is more cutthroat than he appears. And after the victory he sounded more sore-throat than at any point in the series, even after his team's best performance. Championships require sacrifice. Kerr gave up his voice, after he was willing to risk his reputation.
Going small after the Cavaliers already had been punishing the Warriors on the offensive boards meant risking them grabbing literally every rebound. It meant risking points in the paint to a Cavaliers team that could use an alternative to its shaky outside shooting. It meant potentially exposing Kerr as a rookie coach who wasn't up to the tactical maneuvers necessary to win the NBA Finals, and bringing on all the scalding criticism.
"It's part of the gig," Kerr said. "That's why they pay me a lot of money. Really. It's not to come and coach basketball, because I love doing that. The money comes because of the intense interest worldwide in the sport. With that comes scrutiny and criticism. It's OK. That's part of it. You've got to just do what you believe and coach your team and try to ignore everything else."
Kerr's "that's what the money is for" attitude is the same approach he takes with his players. He says they don't get paid millions to dribble and shoot, they're well compensated because they are subject to being traded or released or benched or a host of other indignations and inconveniences. This makes for a healthy environment, just as much as the music that sometimes booms through Warriors practices. If Kerr never complains about his circumstances being unfair, then they can't either.
The flip side is that players have to be willing to be coached. Whenever people talk about following the San Antonio Spurs' model, it starts with the relationship between Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. Kerr had buy-in from his stars, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but more important was the buy-in from the former All-Stars, Iguodala and David Lee, who were willing to accept reduced roles when the team moved in a different direction.
Kerr never lost them, and it might have saved the Warriors from losing this series. Iguodala has been their most consistent player in the Finals, and he responded to his first start of the season with 22 points, eight rebounds and more of the as-good-as-you-can-ask-for defense on LeBron James.
Lee went from outcast to essential part of the Warriors' eventually futile comeback in Game 3. He also represented the first evidence of Kerr's willingness to make a radical departure from the pre-series game plan if the situation called for it.
Lee's productive Game 3 effort helped make the case for the Warriors employing small lineups, and earned him 15½ more minutes of playing time in Game 4, providing nine points, five rebounds and three assists.
Kerr credited video coordinator Nick U'Ren with the idea to start Iguodala over Bogut. But that's something he certainly would not have said if it didn't work out. Kerr would have taken the hit, not thrown the video coordinator under the bus. That's what the money is for.
It wasn't just that the Warriors started small, it's that they stayed small. Kerr didn't hedge after Tristan Thompson grabbed the first three missed shots of the game and the Cavaliers went ahead 7-0. Kerr stuck with the 6-foot-7 Draymond Green and/or the 6-9 Lee as the biggest Warriors on the court until midway through the second quarter, when he sent Bogut in for a three-minute shift.
"When we have that [small] lineup out there in parts of the game, we were able to turn defensive stops into transition and just pick the tempo and the pace of the game up," Curry said. "And if we can do that from the jump, we thought we'd put some pressure on and not let them be so comfortable with the lead like they've had the last couple games."
They wound up with a 31-point first quarter and ended a regulation quarter with the lead for the first time in the series. They scored 11 fast-break points, seven more than they had in Game 3. The 3-pointers started falling -- 12-of-30, including 4-of-7 by Curry, perhaps finally rounding into form.
With the teams playing their third game in five days for the only time this series, this was the time to strike quickly. Perhaps not literally quickly, as in the start of the game, but with a faster tempo that would run the weary Cavaliers ragged. Cavaliers coach David Blatt said fatigue was a factor, LeBron said he was gassed after playing the entire third quarter, and in the fourth the Cavaliers never came closer than their six-point deficit at the outset of the period.
"The whole point is," Kerr said in one more explanation of the lineup change, "we spent three games running in mud. We had to try to get the pace going."
As Kerr spoke to a couple of reporters, reserve center Festus Ezeli walked by to see if his coach needed protection from the pesky "intruders."
"You all right?" Ezeli asked. "You need help?"
Ezeli was the only Warrior who didn't play in Game 4, and here he was looking after the coach who kept him on the bench. As if the team's performance on the court wasn't enough, the little scene in a back hallway drove home the point: The Warriors believe in their coach. And with good reason.