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Tonight in Oakland, Calif., the Golden State Warriors host game one of the NBA Finals against the defending champion, Cleveland Cavaliers. The teams are meeting in the finals for a third straight year. That's a first for the NBA. And there is a unique situation on Golden State's bench. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, the Warriors are trying to avenge last year's loss to Cleveland without their ailing head coach.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Depending on how these finals shakeout, two days last July will loom large. July 7, 2016 - of course, that's the day the Warriors signed 6-foot-11 all-star Kevin Durant. The day before with less fanfare, Golden State announced the hiring of Mike Brown as an assistant coach. An important part of Brown's resume - significant head coaching experience. Ironically, he coached Cleveland and a young LeBron James in the 2007 NBA Finals. The experience became essential a little over a month ago.
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STEVE KERR: Tomorrow, I will not coach. And, you know, hopefully we can find some things to help over the next few days, and I'll get back out there.
GOLDMAN: Golden State head coach Steve Kerr has not coached since that announcement in late April. Kerr still is battling symptoms from a spinal fluid leak that happened after routine back surgery in 2015. And now the ultimate frustration - his health will keep him off the bench against those dastardly Cavs who came back to win last year's title after falling in a three-games-to-one hole. Mike Brown took over early in these playoffs. Since then, the Warriors have won 10, lost none and still are favored to beat Cleveland for the title.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He already got four of them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I know.
GOLDMAN: Yesterday was a combined practice and media day at Oakland's Oracle Arena. The Cavs, at least publicly, were not counting Kerr's absence as an advantage.
IMAN SHUMPERT: I think that the foundation that he's laid on that team and the influence that he's had on that team stays with them.
GOLDMAN: Iman Shumpert is a guard for the Cavaliers.
SHUMPERT: We're not headed into this thinking that they're missing out on their X's and O's.
GOLDMAN: Golden State Guard Shaun Livingston confirmed - the Warriors with Mike Brown on the bench are not missing out when it comes to the nitty gritty of coaching.
SHAUN LIVINGSTON: Yeah. I think he's done a great job making play calls and substitutions. And, you know, I think we're getting more and more comfortable with him. And it helps to win, right? It helps to win.
GOLDMAN: But Cleveland will be Golden State's toughest postseason competition by far. And as well as Mike Brown's done, as respected as he is by players and coaches on both teams, Steve Kerr would come in real handy on the bench in a close, intense Finals. Golden State assistant coach Ron Adams calls Kerr a special leader.
RON ADAMS: Who's a very mindful person, who has the ability to not overuse language, get to his point, and I think he's a very calming influence to our team. He always has been. This is his strength.
GOLDMAN: Kerr obviously knows how to win, too. As a head coach in 2015 and as a great shooting reserve guard, he collected five championship rings. Now, he's in a weird situation where he's kind of a reserve head coach. But certainly, it's nothing to dwell on. Kerr says he doesn't want to become a distraction during the Finals. He'll try to mend and see if he can coach at some point during the series. Mike Brown says he's open to anything.
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MIKE BROWN: Hey, at the end of the day, this is his team. He's the head coach, and I'm just doing my job.
GOLDMAN: If Kerr doesn't coach, he'll still be in the locker room talking to players, talking to Brown and doing everything he can without a suit, a tie and a clipboard to make Golden State a champion again. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.