Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Playoffs and Mike D'Antoni: Formerly Synonymous

There's a lot going on in the NBA as the Playoffs hit the stretch and the Knicks hire their new coach, Mike D'Antoni. Let's take this one at a time.

The Playoffs.

The playoffs are looking really exciting from here on out. The series that is the least fun to watch (Orlando/Detroit) is over and done, the Lakers/Jazz and Celtics/Cavs series are both at 2-2, and the New Orleans/San Antonio series is arguably the most historic contest in five years.

When the Lakers were up 1-0, I said the Jazz would win in seven, and I still think they will. I'm really happy that they climbed out of their 0-2 hole and it's exciting to see them keep up with LA offensively.

Maybe I'm underestimating Kobe (or Pau Gasol), but I'm discouraged that the Jazz have had to outscore the Lakers rather than beat them with defense. The Lakers are a two-dimensional team at best, and they can't rebound or play defense. That the Jazz are in this series based on their scoring is an incredible endorsement for Deron Williams and, in my eyes, one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs.

The Celtics/Cavaliers series is obviously not playing out as I expected (Celtics in 4). I incorrectly believed that the Celtics aversion to the road was an anomaly and that it was their inability to deal with two slashers (and Josh Smith's out of character shooting excellence) that made the difference for the Hawks. The Cavs, with only one slasher (albeit the best in the league), seemed to me like armadillos in the road. Frankly, I still feel that way.

What I can't fathom is the Celtics' inability to score against the Cavaliers, who have only been able to produce meaningful offense in one of the contests. It's a serious problem; the Celtics have failed to score 90 points in any game. That is unbelievable for a team that averaged over 100 during the regular season and scored over 110 in two of the four regular season games against Cleveland (one was an overtime game).

I have to admit that I was a little surprised (owing to my own ignorance) to find the Cavs had beaten the Celtics twice this year. Perhaps that should have been an indicator of their ability to match up, or gain a mental edge, or something. But I still don't see it, and until I can put my finger on why the Celtics are unable to score against Cleveland, I continue to believe that they should be favored to win every game. I think they will from here on out.

Random note: Did you know that Sam Cassell's 1994-1995 Houston Rockets set a playoff record with seven straight away wins? Cassell, a 25 year old rookie at the time, noted "I love the playoffs because they're the money games, that's where you make your name. You don't have to be 35 years old to figure that out." Let's hope a 35 year old Cassell can help Boston figure it out.

Detroit Basketball! has gone from a team I loved to watch (when Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown coached them and they took down the Lakers Dynasty) to a team I generally avoid. I just don't care for them anymore, even though they play great defense, good offense, have a great point guard, and seem like a club I would enjoy following. They're something that I may have enjoyed at one time but now I've just had enough. It's like when there's nothing on but a Frasier rerun.

The most important series that makes the rest of the playoffs seem unimportant is New Orleans/San Antonio. Who could have imagined that in one season the Suns and Mavericks would falter as the Spurs main foe and the Hornets would rise to fill the spot with perhaps more talent, brains, and tenacity than any of their forebearers? Not I, and I love them to death.

It seemed remarkable at first that the Hornets opened up a 2-0 lead, but the Spurs held serve at home (following a year-long pattern) and seemed to crush the resolve of the boys from New Orleans by bringing the series to 2-2.

New Orleans, though, showed their psychological strength by coming back and blowing out the Spurs, setting up one chance at home and once chance in San Antonio to end the Spurs' season.

I think they'll have to get off the mat one more time but that they will be able to make the Game 6 away game closer than their other two losses, and that this will give them the belief in themselves to go home and take care of the Spurs. It's an incredibly hard task against the most-seasoned, best-coached, best-executing team in the league, but I have faith in Chris Paul above everything else. There are just some players that are superior, and when they play point guard or center, they can win a game by themselves.

One thing that I think really helped New Orleans was their reluctance to double-team Tim Duncan in Game 5. I have urged singled coverage from the start and believe that if the Hornets let Tim Duncan get his shots off against one man while avoiding those backbreaking role-player three pointers (almost always the result of late switches caused by double teams in the post), they will win. Last night, the Hornets did that, and were successful at compromising Duncan's offense as well as the Spurs' three point attack (The Spurs went 9-23 with a 3-4 night from Ime Udoka, but I still consider the Hornets' strategy to have succeeded.)

There is one huge problem for New Orleans, and that's the possible loss of Tyson Chandler. I am a huge Chandler fan and I think he's necessary for his defensive and rebounding acumen and his ability to guard Duncan and save David West from potential fatigue and foul trouble. The late word is that Chandler will be okay for Game 6, but he's as much an athlete as a basketball player, and if he can't run and jump well, he's going to be ineffective. We'll see.

Iron Mike

In closing, I want to comment on today's news that Mike D'Antoni is being hired by the Knicks. I have nothing against D'Antoni and frankly don't believe the person chosen to coach the Knicks will matter much, as their problems have much more to do with personnel and salary.

However, I'm saddened that the Knicks felt they needed to sign D'Antoni to a 4-year, $24 million dollar deal, continuing a cycle of finding a big name, hiring them at a huge cost (money and time) and waiting and hoping.

I realize that the big deal was probably the only way to get D'Antoni, but we're not talking about a member of the NBA's coaching elite the way we were with Larry Brown five years ago. I can understand throwing money at a coach that is possibly top ten. With D'Antoni, I would argue that despite his coach of the year awards, he is not.

It seems to me that the best thing for the Knicks to do would have been to have gotten either someone with a lot of experience who is now an assistant or "retired" (how about Rudy T? Paul Westphal?) or an assistant on the rise. (Why not go after Gregg Poppovich's assistants? How about Bob McAdoo?) If either of those two options are taken, you have a fresh face for a low salary and a chance for them to coach for a season with almost no culpability. If they succeed at all, they've clearly got the goods. If they fail, no big deal, try someone else and see if they work.

The Knicks are just continuing a pattern of refusing to look at many options (how about doing some interviews?) and throwing money at their problems. It doesn't work, and it never will.

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