One of my favorite things about the NBA Playoffs is the way it shatters some stereotypes that even NBA fans have. Don't think the players play hard? Watch the playoffs. Don't think the fans care? Watch the playoffs. Etc.
But you want to know my favorite stereotype that gets shattered in the NBA Playoffs? The "coaches don't matter" stereotype.
This is a pretty common stereotype too. Back in November of 2008, Slate published a column quoting noted economist and Wages of Wins author David Berri and suggesting that coaches don't matter. Here's the money line.
For almost one-quarter of the NBA's 30 teams, 2008 is a year of change. Whether it's Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense in New York or Larry Brown getting the lowly Charlotte Bobcats to "play the right way," fans in seven cities have new head coaches and great expectations. They shouldn't get their hopes up. Despite years of careful analysis, nobody has determined what it is that NBA coaches actually do.
Nobody has determined what it is that NBA coaches actually do? Really? I hate to go all holier than thou here, but what would Berri and Ryan McCarthy (the author of that article) have said if they watched the Atlanta Hawks epically melt down in Game 5, all while the undermanned Bucks kept plugging away? What would they have said about the Jazz-Nuggets series, which pits a longtime coach succeeding despite two injured starters against an overmatched assistant that basically admitted his team doesn't run plays? What would they have said about the Mavs-Spurs series, where one coach is yanking guys in and out of the rotation as the other's regular-season patience with his old and young guys has paid off? What would they have said about last year's Eastern Conference Finals, when Mike Brown never adjusted to the unique challenges Stan Van Gundy's team presented?
Bottom line: coaches matter. If they didn't, the Cavs would have won last year's title, the Nuggets would have overwhelmed the undermanned Jazz and the Hawks would have wiped "Fear The Dear" off the map.
And don't think this is just a playoff thing, because the conditions that spurred these coaches' performances were created in the regular season. Mike Woodson's Hawks always relied on the same, predictable offensive sets and the same idiosyncratic "always switch screens" defensive strategy; it's no wonder the Bucks have figured them out as the series has gone along. Rick Carlisle spent all year inconsistently doling out minutes to his players - it's no wonder they underperform in big spots. The Nuggets never were an organized team; it's no wonder they can't be now that they desperately need to rally around the loss of their coach and get organized.
Coaches matter. That's the bottom line.
Onto tonight, where I'm hoping we have some Game 7s in our future.
Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs: Game 6, 8:00 p.m., TNT
Problem the Spurs must solve to win: The dirty little secret of the Spurs is that their two big guns are playing really, really poorly. Manu Ginobili followed up a bad Game 4 with an even worse Game 5, and Tim Duncan did the same. They were saved by George Hill in Game 4, but as good as Hill has become, the Spurs can't rely on him to consistently win games for them.
Luckily, SB Nation's Spurs blog Pounding the Rock expects a much better performance out of Duncan tonight.
This is just a hunch. Total hunch. Tim Duncan will not be on the court tonight. We will be seeing Playoff Timmy. You may remember him from Game 2. Playoff Timmy is going to have a big night tonight. Playoff Timmy is going to get this win.
Problem the Mavericks must solve to win: Jason Kidd has to get going. He had a decent game in Game 5, but he needs to play much better than he did in Games 3 and 4 if the Mavericks are to win. It appears Carlisle, despite his spotty performance in this series, has made the necessary coaching adjustments -- he's starting Brendan Haywood like he always should have, and he got Butler going -- so now it's up for the players to perform. It starts with Kidd, the guy who has not played well on either end of the floor this series.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: I hate to harp on this point, but I really want to see Rodrigue Beaubois (or as Bill Simmons calls him, "the little French kid") get some burn tonight. I actually think he could really help snap the Mavs out of their series-long funk and energize them.
Prediction: I've always said this series was going seven, and I'm not backing down now. Mavericks 104, Spurs 101.
Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers: Game 6, 10:30 p.m., TNT
Game 5 in one sentence: The Blazers made an early surge, but the Suns held them off and pulled away thanks, once again, to the play of their bench.
Problem the Blazers must solve to win: Stop letting the Suns get all these offensive rebounds! I thought you were a good rebounding team! (Okay, I'll stop with the exclamation marks).
In all seriousness, it is funny how the Blazers haven't been able to keep the Suns off the boards. Dave from SB Nation's Blazers Edge lists this as his number one key.
Can the Blazers keep the Suns off of the offensive glass? It's totally understandable that the Blazers are giving up some offensive rebounds of their own in order to get back on defense. Letting Phoenix make free with extra opportunities defeats the purpose, though. In a way each offensive rebound is like a mini-fast break. If the Suns don't get an immediate shot at the rim with the board they get to catch Portland's defense unprepared. When the Blazers have limited the Suns to one shot they've been successful. Granted Phoenix spreading the court makes it harder to rebound but at some point the Blazers have to live with perimeter attempts as long as they come one at a time.
2010's most unlikely do-or-die NBA player. When he's good, you can't beat the Suns. When he sucks, you can absolutely beat the Suns. Don't believe me? During the season, he averaged 17.8 PPG, 52% FG and 46% 3FG in wins ... and 11.7 PPG, 39.3% FG and 25% 3FG in losses. In the playoffs, he scored 84 points (58% FG) in Phoenix's 3 wins and 29 points (31% FG) in its two losses.
I wouldn't call it "unlikely" that he's a do-or-die player -- we are talking about Jason Richardson, the expert three-point marksman on a team that employs the toughest pick and roll combination in the league -- but still, those are some staggering stats.
Totally inconsequential thing I want to see happen: I want to hear the sound of the crazy Blazers crowd when Amare Stoudemire does anything remotely physical. FLAGRANT FOUL! THROW HIM OUT OF THE GAME! LOUD NOISES!
Prediction: Portland will put up a good fight, but I think Phoenix eventually pulls away in the fourth quarter, again on the strength of their bench. I'm guessing the crowd will give one hell of a standing ovation once the game is finally out of reach. Suns 102, Blazers 92.