Programming note: Warriors-Jazz Game 1 coverage starts tonight at 6:30pm with Warriors Playoff Central on NBC Sports Bay Area Plus, and streaming live right here.
OAKLAND -- Up and down the roster, man after man, the Warriors have cleared their throats, straightened their ties and furrowed their collective brow.
They are getting serious. Not so serious that they can’t have fun. The laughs will always be there because that’s how they live and also because ailing coach Steve Kerr insists on joy being a component of the overall experience.
But the Warriors are adopting a more earnest approach, a higher and more conspicuous level of professional obligation. And it’s a direct result of Kerr’s indefinite absence.
“It makes us focus a little bit more,” concedes veteran forward Andre Iguodala.
As they enter the Western Conference Semifinals Tuesday night against Utah under acting head coach Mike Brown, the Warriors have never looked and felt more like the team Kerr wants them to be. They’re primed to more consistently take ownership in ways they occasionally did when Kerr was constantly pleading for it.
“You have to as a leader,” forward Draymond Green says. “Steve’s the head of the snake. If you chop the head off, it’s done. We don’t want that to be our case, where the head of the snake is out and we go down the drain. You can’t expect, as great a job as Mike B has done, to just expect him to step in and be Steve. It’s unreal.”
Backup guard Ian Clark acknowledges the new vibe and attributes it to the players understanding the situation and, with Kerr out, embracing the responsibility.
“We want to make sure that we do the little things and not necessarily make him proud . . . but it’s more of a pride thing for us,” Clark says. “Knowing that we can tighten up in certain areas, knowing things that he would want us to do -- and make sure that we do them.”
The most graphic example of the Warriors holding themselves more accountable is in the number of turnovers committed in their series sweep over Portland. In Games 1 and 2, with Kerr on the bench, they committed 33. In Games 3 and 4, on the road and with Brown on the bench, they committed 17 -- 8.5 per game, numbers plucked from Kerr’s dreams.
After blowing a 3-1 lead in The Finals last June, the Warriors clearly understand the postseason is not the time to devolve into Globetrotters mode. While they’ll be sure to play with joy, and there always will be specific showboat elements, they will be light on pretension. Going playground now, or playing hero ball, would look like kids acting out before the sub.
Then there is this: The Warriors may be realizing they can play great and exciting basketball without getting silly or reckless. What happens on the court is a more explicit reflection on them and their commitment to the process.
“When I’m out there on the floor, it’s not like I’m looking over at Coach Kerr every second wondering ‘What do I do now?’ Stephen Curry says. “The principles are set in stone of how we need to play. It’s my job to execute them.”
It helps that the team is built around self-aware veterans. Curry, for one, is more acutely mindful -- another of Kerr’s tenets -- of his role in making the Warriors run as smoothly as possible. Green and Iguodala practically are unofficial assistant coaches. Veterans David West and Shaun Livingston also bring plenty of savvy and knowhow.
They all feel what Brown, who joined the team last summer, is facing. He’s taking the seat normally occupied by the man who was behind the team that last season won an NBA-record 73 games. He’s sitting in for the only coach to preside over a team that won at least 67 games in three successive seasons.
It’s a position that, for Brown, has vast potential for awkwardness, something Green quickly recognized.
“As a leader,” he says, “it’s your job to make things comfortable.”
Which provides some insight into the sizzling start of Game 4 in Portland. Looking the close out the series, the Warriors played a near flawless first quarter, needing only a few minutes to destroy the Trail Blazers.
That was the first time the players rolled out of bed in the morning knowing Brown, not Kerr, would be holding the clipboard. Their focus at both ends of the court was sharp enough to cut glass.
“We have some great leaders on this team,” Brown says, “and those guys are taking the approach that, ‘Hey, we’re going help out Mike and the staff. We’ve got to make sure we’re on point, because we don’t want to mess them up, nor do we want to mess ourselves up and let Steve down.’
“When you have guys that can police themselves, and they’re players that are impactful for you, it makes things easier. Those guys have all stepped up that way.”
If the Warriors take this approach throughout the postseason, no one would be happier than Kerr, who values the process above all, regardless of conducting practices and calling timeouts during the game.
A focused Warriors team, after all, would be tough for any opponent to deal with.