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NBA Playoffs Strategic Adjustments

   by Al McMordie - 05/04/2008

It's the time of the season where NBA coaches REALLY earn their money. The NBA Playoffs is largely about three key points: Talent, defense, and adjustments. Naturally, you can't win without talent on the court. Defense is another key, as well as strategic adjustments by the coaching staff. If you don't think coaching strategy is that important, think again. The Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich have seen it all, winning 4 NBA titles since 1999. They’ve beaten run and gun teams like the Lakers and Suns, and slow down, defensive-oriented teams, such as last year’s NBA Finals against the Cavaliers, a 4-0 sweep, and 2005's Finals vs. the Pistons.

They showcased their experience in the last series, dispatching the talented, veteran Suns again in 5 games. Now a talented young team threatens the defending champs, as the Hornets dominated Game 1, 101-82. New Orleans shot 50 percent from the field, outrebounded the Spurs 50-34 and held Tim Duncan to one of the worst nights of his postseason career. “They’re a hell of a basketball team,â€쳌 Popovich said. “They can play with anyone. They’re real.â€쳌 That means three of the six worst losses of the season for San Antonio have come at the hands of New Orleans (the Hornets also won 100-75 and 102-78 in the regular season).

The Hornets present a unique challenge as they have a one-two inside punch of Tyson Chandler and David West, a sparkplug in superstar Chris Paul, and a long-range threat in Peja Stojakovic. Don’t count out the Spurs just yet, as they’ve been through wars like this so many times. Four years ago when the Lakers beat the Spurs in the playoffs, the Lakers simply packed the defensive paint to double team Tim Duncan, and let the San Antonio guards shoot from long range. They failed miserably, so the Spurs went out in the off-season and upgraded their three-point shooting. Shooting the trey was a huge asset as they won the title in 2005 and 2007 with reliable long range threats like Brent Barry, Robert Horry and Manu Ginobili.

Which brings up some interesting strategic moves in other playoff series. The Pistons decided to go physical up-front in Game 1 against Orlando, pushing Dwight Howard out of his comfort zone. It worked, leading to Detroit's 91-72 win. Flip Saunders deployed the team in a zone for the second half, and it flummoxed the Magic. The game got heated at times, leading to technicals against Rasheed Wallace along with Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. Howard had just 12 points, eight rebounds after being the first player to score 20 points and grab 20 rebounds in three playoff games since Wilt Chamberlain did it in 1972.

Just as important a note to keep an eye on is that Howard injured his left thumb and played with blue tape protecting it. He says it’s fine, but watch his numbers carefully the next few games. The Pistons have a huge edge in the backcourt with Billups and Hamilton, as Orlando has had a shaky backcourt all season. It’s clear the Pistons are going to pack the paint and harass Dwight Howard, daring the Magic guards to beat them. They failed in Game 1, with Orlando shooting 40% from the field and 2-of-15 from long range. Five Orlando guards shot 8-of-23. "We always just try to change it up on Howard," Detroit coach Flip Saunders said. "We sent a lot of bodies at him. We wanted to keep a fresh body on him all the time." Can Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy come up with an adjustment?

Two years ago the Lakers made a clear strategic challenge to the Suns. Phil Jackson didn't want to play the Suns run-and-gun game, and he saw that during the regular season, Kobe Bryant had big games against the Suns, but the Lakers still lost most of them. So he changed strategy, spreading the ball around with Kobe taking fewer shots, and they pushed the ball into the low post to take advantage of the more finesse Suns. They nearly won Game 1 and did win Game 2 on the road as a dog.

In Game 1, Kwame Brown (14 points) and Lamar Odom (21 points) got shots and points, and the Lakers won the points-in-the-paint category, 42-30. In Game 2, Odom had 21, Brown had 12 and they held the Phoenix offense to 93 points and 42% shooting. All of which slowed the pace down, and notice that both games went under the total. Pay close attention to strategic adjustments during playoff series, and less attention to regular season meetings. After all, the Celtics dominated the Atlanta Hawks during the regular season, then lost 3 straight at Atlanta last week. Good coaches will make adjustments, which can influence the side and total. It’s the job of the handicapper to keep up with these moves, and even wager against poor coaches who might not have a clue about adjustments. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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