Several Game 2 and Game 3 showdowns in the opening round of the NBA playoffs have been settled by which teams prevailed in the battle of the boards.
The dry-erase boards. These coaching tools of X-and-O distribution often are under-appreciated by many who assume the league is nothing more than a well-paid pick-up game. Well, that often is true during the regular season. But now that we’ve reached the money rounds, some coaches are proving to be worth their weight in non-permanent markers. And while it’s true that players have to make plays before coaching genius really kicks in, it certainly helps to have a sharpie mind sitting on your sideline.
With apologies to those coaches whose pre-series tactics have flourished through two or three games and require little (if any) tweaking, let’s take a look at between-game and in-game adjustments that really worked well. For the record, much of the strategy involves deploying and stopping screen-and-roll maneuvers, which are to the NBA as the running game is to the NFL.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
During their Game 3 win over the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers, Coach of the Year Scott Brooks decided a contribution from rookie guard James Harden wouldn’t hurt the collective effort. Harden, who had failed to scratch in the first two games, played 32 minutes in Thursday’s win while starter Thabo Sefolosha spent considerably more time as a spectator. But with Harden, not exactly a shut-down defender, working at two-guard, Brooks was obliged to put franchise star Kevin Durant — a rangy small forward — in a defensive posture against the mighty Kobe Bryant. Bryant was beginning to find his rhythm against Sefolosha anyway, so with Harden knocking in 18 points in Game 3 on one end, Durant’s length and lateral quickness helped to limit Kobe (with considerable help) to a 5-of-17 shooting effort in the second half.
The Lakers, with Coach Phil Jackson having success running Bryant to the ball off screens in the second quarter, will look to do more of the same — rather than the typical, ol’ fourth-quarter isolations — when Durant is guarding Kobe in Game 4.
The backcourt of Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich combined for 58 points to overcome a 39-point effort by LeBron James and cut the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers’ two-game series lead in half.
While receiving big scoring contributions from its backcourt isn’t anything new, the Bulls were able to generate more clean looks for Rose and Hinrich than usual by using immediate ball screens during the opening stages of their secondary break, rather than waiting for everyone to show up, thus allowing the Cleveland defense to lock in. Coach Vinny Del Negro’s approach to early offense off of quick-hitting screens prevented the Cavaliers from accounting for Rose’s teammates, who capitalized on slow rotations when Rose was able to come off of the picks and get into the lane.
Hinrich, who had 27 points, made 9 of 12 shots from the field and was perfect in four tries from three-point range. Before Cleveland adjusted in its help against Rose, the 2009 Rookie of the Year was able to get to the rim; he made half of his 26 shots and finished with 31 points.
Del Negro also helped himself by limiting defensive help against LBJ’s drives; LeBron finished with 39 points, but his cronies weren’t free to lock and load from behind the arc.
PHOENIX SUNS We had intended to offer an adjustment by Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, but based on the Suns’ Game 3 whacking on Thursday, his big change — giving more minutes to Jerryd Bayless and limiting the time of Rudy Fernandez against Steve Nash — didn’t accomplish much. Well, when Bayless had foul difficulty, Fernandez returned and was able to help shoot the Blazers into semi-contention. And McMillan may have found an interesting option on defense against Nash in 6-foot-7 forward Martell Webster, who did a nice job of forcing the Suns’ point guard back into help on ball-screen defense.
Anyway, we’re giving the adjustments nod to Alvin Gentry, who has become quite skilled at carefully folding sound defensive concepts into an overall strategy harking back to the Mike D’Antoni regime (of which he was a part). He had this as his main Game 2 mandate: Slow down Trail Blazers point guard Andre Miller.
Yeah, Andre Miller. See, in the Blazers’ Game 1 upset of the Suns in Phoenix, Andre poured in 31 points (including 10 of 10 at the free-throw line). He was working against Suns two-guard Jason Richardson, who earned this assignment because point guard Nash is a turnstile as an on-ball defender. Unfortunately, Richardson rarely uses his quickness and length to a defensive advantage, so Miller torched him. To make the crisis even more desperate, whatever energy JR did use on defense was unavailable to the Suns on offense.
After becoming the only home team to lose in Game 1, the Suns and Gentry moved veteran small forward Grant Hill to Miller duty. Even though Miller was able to get past Hill on occasion in the debris of transition, Andre managed only 12 points and four free-throw attempts in a 29-point Phoenix triumph. Richardson, it should be noted, had 29 points while having a less-important defensive role and Hill was 10-for-11 from the field, often getting to the post against Miller because NBA teams just hate to cross-match. Loving the freedom of not checking the opposing point guard seemed to work even more in Game 3, when Richardson burned Portland for 42 points.
In that Game 3, McMillan attempted to make Gentry pay for the Hill-on-Miller switch by reducing ball screens (bringing a second defender to the ball) and allowing Andre to work with more space. Well, it was a nice theory … Miller missed 7 of 11 shots and finished with 11 points.
It also should be noted that Gentry’s Game 2 and Game 3 offense did a better job of taking what the Blazers gave them … and they weren’t giving ’em Amar’e Stoudemire. After slogging through Game 1 with Portland defenders collapsing toward Stoudemire on screen-roll sets with Nash, the Suns’ had four wide-open perimeters snipers squeeze off more shots than Amar’e.
Now if Alvin can figure out a way to make center Robin Lopez (back) healthy, his coaching chops will be cemented for eternity … or maybe until the Suns’ next defeat. It should be pointed out that Gentry has more healthy options than does McMillan — now missing Brandon Roy in addition to his two original centers — with which to make changes.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS OK, the obvious move was for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — whose team coughed up 36 points to Dallas Maverick Dirk Nowitzki in a canine-like Game 1 performance — was a type of press coverage from veteran Antonio McDyess. McDyess played about seven more minutes in Game 2, challenged every shot and Dirk didn’t do much work until the Spurs were almost comfortably ahead. It also was a fine idea for McDyess and Matt Bonner to quit helping off of Nowitzki when other Mavericks attempted dribble penetration (this should always be the rule when playing Dallas).
Another fine change was limiting Dirk’s looks after his screens on and off the ball. On-ball screens were doubled, while a third defender rotated early to the pick-and-popping Nowitzki. Instead of bumping cutters when Dirk screened off the ball, McDyess and Bonner stayed home and their screen-hampered teammates were instructed to closely trail on the pick.
For the Mavs to free Dirk in Game 3, one adjustment to the adjustments would be using downscreens from the Dallas guards and simple open sets that allow Nowitzki to work his jab-step series for one-on-one looks from the top or skip passes to teammates that require long Spurs rotations.
San Antonio’s Game 2 achievement was abetted, in part, by improved offensive flow. This means that instead of running the usual misdirection sets that end up with Tim Duncan crossing the lane for a post up, San Antonio spread the floor more deliberately and used its dribble penetrators to slice up the Mavericks. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were quite good at this, as was first-year Spur Richard Jefferson. With RJ attempting to make up for a Game 1 stinker by attacking the basket (13 points in the second quarter) or looking for his shot off of dribble penetration, Dallas defenders were forced to stay at home.
By the fourth quarter, the lane was free enough for Duncan to provide 10 of his 25 points in a home-stretch drive that repelled the Dallas comeback.
After prized addition Vince Carter stunk up the gym in Orlando’s Game 1 triumph over the Charlotte Bobcats, Coach Stan Van Gundy trotted out more screen-roll in Game 2. With Bobcat on-ball defenders sliding under screens and Charlotte post players seemingly reluctant to show, Vince was able to turn the corner for pull-up jumpers or drives to the hoop. He finished with 19 points and shot 11 free throws.
The Game 3 adjustment for Larry Brown would seem to be either a hard show or ball-screen trap, but tardy rotations can lead to open threes or a dive and dunk by Dwight Howard. It might be a bit more prudent to attempt to fight over the screen and take your chances that Carter is a little chilly.
OK, Andrei Kirilenko was already gone, making it seemingly impossible for Utah to stop Carmelo Anthony. Then center Mehmet Okur was lost (Achilles), giving the Jazz little or no chance of winning Game 2 against the Nuggets in Denver. But they did, because — in addition to his ability to score off the screen-roll — point guard Deron Williams carved up the Denver defense. Yeah, that’s pretty standard.
But the Game-2 difference was weakside activity by Utah’s lesser options (that means everyone but Carlos Boozer). Rather than having D-Will’s teammates spot up and wait for perimeter looks off of dribble penetration (well, Kyle Korver did register some of these), other Utah players took advantage of lazy rotations and wandered the baseline for lay ups.
In Game 3, look for Denver to tighten its proposed ball-screen traps — Williams split most of them in Game 2 — and attempt to force those screens to happen on the sideline instead of in the middle of the floor. Crowding one side of the floor makes rotating easier and might help the Nuggets stay afloat until George Karl returns.