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NBA Playoff Adjustments

   by Al McMordie - 05/29/2006

Adjustments are so important in sports, which is where coaches earn their money. This NBA postseason has been filled with key strategic moves by coaches like Avery Johnson, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson. The current Eastern Conference Finals between the Pistons and Heat also offers excellent example of the importance of strategic shifts (and of moves that coaches are NOT making).

The Miami Heat saw something they didn't like in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. They were so concerned with stopping Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace that they forgot about Tayshaun Prince. Prince led the Pistons with 24 points and 11 rebounds during their 92-88 victory in Game 2. Heat coach Pat Riley said the Heat needed to devote more defensive effort in trying to slow Prince down. "He has made some very big, big plays when our defense has been really good," Riley said. "We've got to make an adjustment on him. He is a great, great player. Not a good player. A great player. He has proven that to Milwaukee and Cleveland and he is making most of their big plays." Added Gary Payton: "We are watching everybody else and Tayshaun is the one killing us."

Prince averaged 13.8 points a game against the Heat during the regular season but is averaging 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds during the playoffs. So they refused to let Prince roam free in Game 3. In 46 minutes in Game 3, Prince made just 1-of-7 shots for three points and turned the ball over four times. Said Riley afterward, "Once a player goes off on you in a game, the guy that's assigned to him is just more aware." They were, and they did, shutting down Prince as Miami also won the game, 98-83.

Going back to Game 2, Shaquille O'Neal complained about not getting the ball enough and Dwyane Wade grumbled about the liberties given to Richard Hamilton on the defensive end. O'Neal said the Heat became too much of a jump-shooting team in Game 2 and that he did not get enough touches. So what happened in Game 3? Miami went to the low post game more for better shot selection. The team shot 58%! The Miami duo shook off the previous game to combine for 62 points on 24-of-32 shooting. Wade mixed in his usual drive game with a handful of midrange jumpers to shoot an efficient 13 of 17 from the floor on his way to 35 points, and O'Neal stuck to his power game to open the floor for his teammates and had 27 points and 12 rebounds.

Those are good examples of a coach listening to players and working together as a team to improve. Contrast that to what happened with the suddenly slumping Pistons: Trailing by eight points in Game 3, the Pistons resorted to the Hack-a-Shaq strategy, sending him to the foul line with 4:28 remaining and the Heat leading 83-75. Rasheed Wallace was visibly upset with the strategy, yelling, "Why?" in the locker room. Wallace was also upset about having to come out of the game when he picked up his second foul in the first quarter. He told Saunders that he knows how to play with two fouls. You have to wonder if Saunders is getting outcoached by Riley, as he nearly got upset by a Cavaliers team that Detroit was expected to have little trouble with.

One strategic move that backfired was when Pat Riley played centers Alonzo Mourning and O'Neal together. He said it was a mistake because Mourning got paired up against Rasheed Wallace. Mourning's first instinct is to play off a player because he lacks the foot speed to stop drives to the basket. Wallace took advantage by hitting a couple jump shots over Zo. "It was a mistake," Riley said shaking his head. "I don't think it was a good matchup, to be honest with you." It's not just about guys hitting jumps shots and blocking shots, coaching moves can be significant. So let's see how Game 4 plays out on Monday night. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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