The Warriors played with apathy, sloppiness and fatigue. But even if the Warriors lost three of their first seven regular-season games by playing below their championship standard, coach Steve Kerr spoke in a calm and measured tone.
"It's about not snapping right now," Kerr said.
Nearly six months later, Kerr snapped. In a 20-point loss in Indiana in mid-April, the Warriors showed nearly the same level of apathy, sloppiness and fatigue as they had to open the 2017-18 regular season. They were also in the midst of losing 10 of their last 17 regular-season games. So Kerr told both his players in the locker room and to reporters outside that he considered the performance "embarrassing" and "pathetic."
Those two incidents captured Kerr's season-long balancing act. Sometimes, Kerr showed patience, mindful that his players' apathy and inconsistency partly stemmed from appearing in three consecutive NBA Finals. Sometimes, Kerr expressed frustration, mindful that poor habits could lead to poor postseason results.
The source of Kerr's varying approach: he experienced the same championship hangover with the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls team after previously winning two back-to-back NBA titles. Despite a sluggish start, overlapping injuries and a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series against Indiana, the Bulls then won a third consecutive NBA championship by both leaning on their star- studded roster and navigating the regular-season marathon.
"You feel that as a player. So I know how our guys feel," Kerr told The Bay Area News Group. "That's why I try to pace them and understand it's going to be a roller-coaster ride."
That roller-coaster ride featured many twists and turns. But the Warriors are have almost completed the ride without falling off. After still finishing with the Western Conference's second-best record (58-27), the Warriors have a Finals lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I just tried to find the balance between pushing them and reminding them how important the details are and not pushing them too hard at the same time and not grinding them and wearing them out," Kerr said. "It's a delicate balance."
The Warriors argue that Kerr mostly mastered that delicate balance.
"He's lived it. I don't think I'd rather have anybody else shepherding us through this journey than Steve," said Warriors general manager Bob Myers. "He's got a great equanimity about it. He predicted it would be pretty hard."
After all, Kerr remembered what happened during the Bull's 1997-98 season. They had set an NBA regular-season record in 1995-96 (72-10), which Golden State later broke in 2015-16. The Bulls followed that up with a 67-15 record and another NBA title. The following season, though, the Bulls started 8-7. Chicago forward Scottie Pippen missed the first 35 games because of offseason foot surgery. And Kerr recalled "having several discussions as a team" on how to fix everything.
They eventually did.
The Bulls had a 16-3 record to close out the regular season. They won seven of their first eight playoff games. After surviving a seven-game Eastern Conference finals series against Indiana, the Bulls beat the Jazz in six games in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year. It was not easy, though. Kerr still remembers Pippen riding a stationary bike to keep his back warm during a Game 6 that could have decided their title fortunes.
"It felt like everything was hanging in the balance. If we lost that game, we were facing a Game 7 on the road," Kerr said. "Obviously we had this guy, Michael Jordan, who did some good things that night and was able to win. But it really did feel like we were hanging on by a thread."
All of this happened under a unique backdrop.
The Bulls knew this would be the final year. Former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and former Bulls coach Phil Jackson had such philosophical differences that it appeared evident that Jackson would not stay. Several star players, including Michael Jordan and Pippen, had the same allegiances to Jackson and the same views toward Krause, whose "organizations win championships" alienated players. Therefore, Jackson called the season "The Last Dance."
"Phil kind of set the tone," Kerr recalled. "We kind of knew that was it. We had to take advantage of it and get everybody excited to play and not worry about what was next."
The Warriors do not have such concerns. They re-signed Stephen Curry last summer to a five-year, $201 million deal. Though Kevin Durant will be a free agent in July, he has reiterated his plans to stay. Warriors guard Klay Thompson has expressed openness to re-sign to a relative discount possibly before he becomes a free agent in 2019. Warriors forward Draymond Green will become an unrestricted free agent in 2020. As Kerr said, "hopefully we have many years together. We'll see. But you never know how this stuff goes."
"That Bulls team, they didn't accomplish everything they had to accomplish together. It was their time to finish and break it up," Durant said. "For us, it's still a little new and fresh and we're still learning each other. We're still figuring each other out."
The Warriors figured things out well enough. They are two wins away from their third NBA title in four years, partly because they followed a similar road approach the 1997-98 Bulls took. The Warriors handled overlapping injuries to their All-Star players during the 2017-18 season, including Curry, who missed a combined 31 games with four ankle injuries and a left knee injury. By March, the Warriors put higher priority on sitting hurt players than holding home-court advantage over Houston.
"You have to manage guys minutes throughout the season and play the young guys in case you may need them late in the season," Durant said. "You have to coach them every day. I think Steve's done a good job of that."
Despite handling that job by leaning on his playing career in Chicago, Kerr said he rarely shares stories about his three-year NBA title run with the Bulls because "I don't want to be that guy." Warriors assistant Bruce Fraser, one of Kerr's closest friends, added that Kerr "doesn't want to be arrogant; he doesn't like to use the word, 'I." Yet, Kerr said he has talked about the Bulls' 1997-98 season "when applicable."
"He brings that situation up and also how guys were not tired of each other, but it had been a long two years. That third year was even longer," Warriors veteran guard Shaun Livingston said. "He was letting us know it's not anything new. It's not anything we can't figure out."
The Warriors did not always figure things out.
Kerr became upset with Curry when he forgot to run a play Kerr drew up off of a timeout in mid-November in Philadelphia. Kerr shouted expletives when reserve Patrick McCaw did not run a play correctly in a 30-point loss in Utah in late January. Following the Warriors' 20-point loss in Indiana, Kerr questioned the team's effort in an exchange that prompted Durant to publicly defend his teammates.
"It was frustrating. We just wanted to get to the end of the season," Durant said. "But we still wanted to take advantage of those games that we had. It's a weird, weird mix. I think he was trying to light a fire under us and let us know what it takes to win again."
Kerr, however, often refrained from trying to light a fire under his players for a simple reason. As Kerr said, "it probably wasn't going to work."
Not only might players tune Kerr out. They might become exhausted with the work.
"He doesn't want to put us on the line and run sprints. It's counter intuitive," Livingston said. "It's counter productive. Now we're worn out come April and May when we need it. So it's about talking to us about the process. It helps."
Instead, Kerr tried to break up the monotony with shorter practices, guest speakers and off days. In a regular-season game against Phoenix in mid February, Kerr had his players lead the huddles and draw up plays during timeouts.
"There were times throughout our season we had disinterested members in practice or in games. We were scratching our head," Fraser said. "But Steve was taking the side of, 'Look, this is a long season. We can't just whip these guys all the time.'"
After all, Kerr credited former Bulls coach Phil Jackson from abstaining from the same tactic.
"I'm competitive. I want to win every game," Kerr said. "But I recognize, especially having been on their shoes literally with that Bulls team, that we're going to be fine."
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