NBA Playoffs, Magic Celtics: Game 4 a good a reason as any of why Stan Van Gundy's job isn't in jeopardy


SVanGundy.jpgThe Magic were on the brink of franchise embarrassment on Monday night, as the Celtics were in command of the series with a 3-0 lead and came back to force overtime despite fantastic outings by Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson. Orlando’s season could have drifted away had Paul Pierce found an open Ray Allen at the end of regulation, but Pierce uncharacteristically bobbled away a late-game possession and the Magic survived the overtime period to avoid elimination.

That possession though, and the overtime as well, were icing on the cake of a much-improved overall game for the Magic. The defense still has plenty of room for the improvement and some of the missed opportunities on offense were just painful, but Orlando looked to be a substantial step closer to the excellence they displayed in the first two rounds of the playoffs and the final months of the regular season.

As good as the Celtics have been, the Magic’s unraveling has been something of a wonder. It can’t all be chalked up to Boston’s top-notch defense, as some of Orlando’s underwhelming Conference Finals showing seems to stem from nowhere at all. The Magic played against quality defensive teams in the regular season, but none of those games have been quite as befuddling as the first three in this series, during which Orlando’s offense was shackled, weighted, and thrown into the ocean.

Even beyond that, the Magic were the second best defensive team in the regular season, but the Celtics have averaged a full +3.7 points per 100 possessions above the Magic’s regular season mark in defensive efficiency. Considering how ho-hum this Boston team can be on offense when Rajon Rondo isn’t inspiring epic poems of his exploits, that’s a troublesome and somewhat inexplicable number. Orlando has underperformed in this series, perhaps woefully so.

Reading through that narrative, it may sound shocking similar to that of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were a superb team in the regular season and still looked awfully strong in their playoff debut. Yet the team crumbled, and the first head to roll was head coach Mike Brown. LeBron received plenty of criticism for his Game 5 anomaly, but it was Brown’s reluctance to adapt the rotation that made the series against the Celtics far more difficult than it had to be. The Cavs still may not have won even if Brown’s performance had been flawless, but he was as culpable as anyone for the way Cleveland left the playoffs.

Yet you won’t — and shouldn’t — see anything in the coaching of that series that even remotely parallels this one. It may seem like Stan Van Gundy’s system is under fire, but SVG’s offensive adjustments in Game 4 showed why he’s still one of the best in the business.

With an understanding that guard penetration would be the key to unlocking the offense and that limiting Rajon Rondo’s effectiveness on the other end would ease his team’s defensive burden, Van Gundy devised an approach that could tackle both problems simultaneously. Whenever Jameer Nelson had the ball on the perimeter, he had the option of using two staggered screens to brush off Rondo. Rajon’s length and quickness had bothered Jameer throughout the series, and having not one, but two big bodies running interference freed up Nelson enough to pull-up from behind the arc or get all the way to the rim.

Plus, no one should discount how much running through screens can take out of a defender. Just ask any player who’s had the displeasure of defending Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, or Rip Hamilton about how exhausting it can be to chase shooters through screens all night. It’s not exactly the way that any player wants to spend their time on the defensive end. With Rondo asked to fight through several screens on pretty much every possession down the floor (another essential component of the plan was putting the ball in Nelson’s hands more often, which worked beautifully) while also running the Celtics offense, the burden of those dual responsibilities undoubtedly took a physical toll on him.

Running Rondo ragged, playing J.J. Redick major minutes, sitting the ice-cold Vince Carter during crucial moments in the fourth quarter — these are the reasons why Stan Van Gundy would have a job even if the Eastern Conference Finals had ended in a sweep. Among the most logical reasons to fire a coach is a distrust in them to make the right adjustments. That has never and will never be the case with Van Gundy. He makes mistakes — with sets, with the rotation, with certain play calls — but he’s a perfectionist that works tirelessly to correct those mistakes. He’s always tinkering, and his willingness to adjust is what makes him so valuable as a head coach.

Stan Van Gundy is not Mike Brown. Brown may not deserve the ridiculous amount of criticism he’s received over the years, but his inability to compromise — which is a bit odd to say for so amicable a coach — put his team at a disadvantage at inopportune times. The same is just not true of Van Gundy, and wouldn’t have been made more true if the Magic’s playoff run ended in a sweep. 

51Q: Can Billy Donovan or Fred Hoiberg repeat Steve Kerr’s success?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can Billy Donovan or Fred Hoiberg repeat Steve Kerr’s success?

Has any first-year NBA head coach ever walked into a more “win now” situation than Billy Donovan?

The Oklahoma City Thunder are have been considered title contenders ever since they stepped on the court in the 2012 Finals. However, they have yet to return to that stage due to a combination of personnel moves and injuries. Next summer their superstar Kevin Durant is a free agent and he’s the kind of franchise-changing player who will draw 29 other suitors. If OKC is going to keep him they have to prove to Durant he can win it all without having to change addresses. It’s a lot to ask of a rookie NBA coach.

Maybe the guy who can best relate is Fred Holberg, who was brought in from Iowa State to take over a Chicago Bulls team that has not lived up to expectations the past several seasons. He takes over for an innovative coach, but with with a mandate from management to rest guys more, modernize the offense, and lift a team known for physically breaking down up to challenge Cleveland.

That’s setting the bar ridiculously high.

Donovan and Hoiberg can thank Steve Kerr for that — he cleared that bar his rookie season. Kerr came in and made the right personnel changes — starting Draymond Green over the higher-paid David Lee, for example — and pushed the right buttons all season long to lift the Warriors to the level of champions.

Can Donovan or Hoiberg match that success?

It would take a lot of luck — Kerr and the Warriors caught breaks on the injury front — but Kerr laid out a blueprint for how to do it.

The first step was admitting what he didn’t know — Kerr went out and hired top-flight NBA assistant coaches (Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams). The Warriors paid to bring in the experience Kerr lacked.

Donovan has followed that well — Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks and Thunder are assistant coaches. Both are well-respected former NBA head coaches who can help Donovan with the details, plus help him avoid stepping in some steaming piles of trouble along the way.

Hoiberg and the Bulls didn’t go for the big names, which isn’t to say they don’t have experience and these are not good coaches, it’s just a different tactic. Hoiberg hired Randy Brown — the Bulls’ assistant general manager the past six seasons — and Charlie Henry, who was with Holberg at Iowa State. The Bulls also retained Mike Wilhelm on staff.

The second step for Kerr was to take the time to talk to each and every player over the summer, get to know them, and sell them on his vision. He didn’t disparage the popular coach he was replacing; rather he sold the players on his vision.

Hoiberg and Donovan both did this. What’s more, both are considered very good communicators — their college players love them to this day. Both of these guys realized that they may have left college but they didn’t stop recruiting.

The third thing on Kerr’s list was the primary reason both Donovan and Hoiberg were hired — modernize the offense.

This doesn’t mean changing who gets shots — if you’re Donovan you want Durant and Russell Westbrook to take a lot of shots. But where they get them on the floor and how they come about getting them is going to change — less isolation is a good thing. Westbrook has already said he feels more space to operate in Donovan’s offense. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

“The thing that makes Donovan so appealing from an NBA perspective is that his coaching style will fit in well at the professional level,” CollegeBasketballTalk’s Rob Dauster told PBT right after the hire. “At Florida, he ran a ball-screen motion offense built around floor-spacing, which are offensive concepts that are quite prevalent in the NBA. Not all college coaches will fit in well at the professional level. Donovan will.”

Hoiberg is doing the same thing in Chicago, where the offense under Tom Thibodeau was predictable. Hoiberg is also going to trust his bench more and get guys like Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol more rest in the regular season, so they are fresh come the postseason.

The fourth and final thing Kerr did brilliantly was keep the team focused on the finish line. To use the coaching cliché, trust the process. It was not about wins and losses in December, it was about getting better, staying healthy, and peaking when the playoffs hit. This may have been what Kerr did best — and considering he played for Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, you see where he got it.

Donovan and Hoiberg understand this, but the NBA regular season presents twice as many games as their college teams ever played in a season — and it’s after that things get serious. It’s easy to talk about focusing on the big picture, but both of these men need to walk the walk.

I think Donovan, if everything goes right and guys stay healthy, has a shot to replicate what Kerr did. That is a contending team he takes over, if they can just not devolve into a M*A*S*H* unit again there’s a chance. I think Hoiberg will be a good coach, but I’m not sure there’s enough left in the roster he was given to get out of the Eastern Conference.

But Kerr may have set the bar impossibly high even for two excellent coaches.

Stan Van Gundy rips ‘selfish’ Pistons

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The Pistons had just 19 assists – to 22 turnovers – in their 93-83 loss to the Nets last night.

Stan Van Gundy was none too pleased.

On offensive problems:

I told them in there – that was the first thing – we’re not playing together at all. I thought it was a very selfish performance, and guys wouldn’t just pass the ball to open men. They wanted to see if they could take one more dribble to get their own shot, so the passing angles were gone. I just thought we forced play after play after play. We’re not willing to move the ball

On Reggie Jackson, who scored seven points on 3-of-10 shooting with six assists and six turnovers, and was coming off Achilles soreness:

He was not good at all. He was forcing everything.

On injuries to point guards – Jackson, Brandon Jennings and Steve Blake – hindering the team’s flow in practice and that carrying over to the game:

We could probably make a lot of excuses for our guys, but we were selfish.

Van Gundy is clearly trying to send a message, and the preseason is the best time to do it.

But it’s somewhat troubling he had to do it after this game.

Eight of the 10 Pistons who played against Brooklyn project to make the regular-season rotation. Joel Anthony played over Aron Baynes, and once healthy, Blake could challenge Spencer Dinwiddie to become back up point guard – at least until Jennings is ready. Otherwise, Detroit – with Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, Ersan Ilyasova, Andre Drummond, Jodie Meeks, Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver – looked similar to its opening-night lineup.

Van Gundy is blunt, but he doesn’t tell the media things he hasn’t already directly told his players. They appreciate that.

He’d appreciate them getting this message.