SALT LAKE CITY — The Warriors knew they’d have to cope with some pain.
Emotions hit when the team returned to Utah to play the Jazz on Monday for the first time since assistant coach Dejan Milojevic’s fatal heart attack at a team dinner in Salt Lake City last month.
They came without a handful of their own — coach Steve Kerr, assistant coaches Chris DeMarco and Ron Adams along with general manager Mike Dunleavy, Zaza Pachulia and vice president of player health and performance Rick Celebrini flew to Milojevic’s homeland Serbia on Sunday morning for his memorial.
Assistant coach Kenny Atkinson filled in for Kerr, leading the Warriors to a comfortable 129-107 win, the team’s fifth straight victory amid a stark turning point this season. Winning, the team found, helped them cope with the burden of grief.
“Winning helps,” Atkinson said before the game. “When you’re starting to go on a little bit of a win streak, you want more. So there’s that enthusiasm. We also know we’re behind (in the standings). So there’s a little bit of an edge to us. A positive edge.”
Atkinson spoke with Kerr briefly about the game plan. And when it came to the emotional trauma, Atkinson and the staff thought keeping the memories and grief at bay was the best way to cope. At the team’s morning film session, Atkinson only gave an update on Kerr and the group’s status in Serbia before diving into basketball.
“Other than giving an update on how they were doing, we didn’t say anything about it,” Draymond Green said. “I thought that was wonderful because the moment you start talking about it, you start feeling all those emotions again. Although those emotions don’t go away, they’re still there. I thought it was good to leave them in the back of mind. We can’t not live with that, that’s our guy. We live with that pain every day, but you learn to move forward.”
Players and staff all wore “BRATE” shirts throughout their day in Utah — the team made these shirts with the Serbian word for “brother” to commemorate their beloved coach Deki. During the game, Atkinson let his players take the reins a bit. At times he let some of the veteran players draw up plays — a throwback to when Kerr let Andre Iguodala draw up plays during a game in 2019.
“We knew this trip was going to be tough all the way around, the emotions of what Deki meant to us at the place it happened,” Steph Curry said. “But it was definitely weird without Steve, CD, Rick. It also helped us to acknowledge and celebrate what they were doing and where they were at, where they should have been, and our ability to go out and win the game to honor Deki. I think it helped to be a little uncomfortable in the game.”