Steve Kerr has seen a little of almost everything during his wildly successful five-year run as coach of the Golden State Warriors.
This, however, is something new.
For the first time, Kerr and the Warriors are staring at a 1-0 deficit in the NBA Finals. They’ve trailed in series before, faced plenty of adverse moments along the way, but this is the newest challenge for a franchise trying to join the short list of clubs that have won three consecutive championships.
“The experience helps,” Kerr said Friday, a day after the Toronto Raptors struck first. “Winning multiple championships helps because you have seen it all. There’s also just the knowledge that you’ve been here before. You’ve been down. We have been up 3-1 and lost a series. We have been down 3-1 and won a series. Everything in between. So nothing is going to catch these guys off-guard.”
That’s his hope, anyway.
There was a clear air of confidence from the Warriors even in the very first moments after the loss Thursday night. They knew they didn’t play particularly well, and lost by only nine. They trailed most of the way, yet still were within striking distance plenty of times. They seemed far from rattled.
“No matter what, our sights were coming in that it’s a long series,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said. “And Game 2 is an opportunity for us to right the wrongs and get a big win and go back home.”
No one needs to explain to the Warriors that a win on Sunday completely shifts the narrative.
And even though the axiom has always been that Game 1 winners usually go on to win the series — and that is still the case — it seems that a 1-0 deficit isn’t as daunting to teams as it once might have been.
Since the league went to the 16-team format for the 1984 postseason, Game 1 winners have never been as vulnerable as they have seemed to be this year. In the 14 series this year that preceded the NBA Finals, six Game 1 winners wound up losing their series. That’s never happened before in this format.
In the 2010s, Game 1 winners have gone on to lose a series 31% of the time. In the 2000s, it was 25%; in the 1990s, 15%.
“As soon as you lose a game, it will be on the crawl that now we only have a 19.7% chance of winning the series. Then if we win (Sunday) we’ll have a 42.7% chance of not losing the series,” said Kerr, tongue firmly planted in cheek. “This stuff is what it is. You lose a game, you come back and you try to win.”
Kerr’s stance is clear: A simpler approach — study film, find ways to get better, apply them Sunday — is best.
On the other hand, Golden State hadn’t lost a Game 1 this season. Or the season before that. Or the season before that.
The last time the Warriors woke up and were down 1-0 in a series was the Western Conference finals in 2016 — against Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City. The Warriors responded with a blowout win in Game 2 and went on to prevail in seven games.
“You never lose that experience,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “You can always look back on it and it’s more about how you felt, what was your mindset then. But it’s impossible to be the same because it’s completely different teams. And although some of us may have that experience, others on our team have not had that experience.”
It bears noting that the Raptors know a 1-0 series lead doesn’t mean much.
Orlando had one of those against Toronto in the first round, and lost in five games.
Milwaukee had one of those against Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals — 2-0, actually — and lost in six games.
“We’ve tried to (have) a conscious thought process of not really caring what the score of the series is,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I think we know that the games are really hard. We know that after a win, the team that gets beat gets really determined. They try to fix things. They mostly play a lot harder and more physical and all those kind of things.”
The challenge for his team is to do the same. That process started with a long film session Friday, and there was much to clean up.
“There was plenty on there that we need to do better if we want to win another game in this series,” Nurse said.