NBA finals, Lakers Celtics: The Doc, the Master, and when to say enough

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jackson.jpgIf coaching basketball, is, as they say, a chess game, then why is so much of it predicated upon dramatic shifts in approach? Yes, you have your pieces, and yes, you’re maneuvering for advantage, to neutralize your opponent’s pieces and move in for the checkmate (having more points than the other team), but in chess, the sides are equal. Each team begins with the same number of pieces, and each piece has a corresponding alternate on the other side.

This is not how it is in basketball, or any other sport.

Doc Rivers’ knight in this case, Paul Pierce, is considerably better than the Lakers’ bishop, Ron Artest. And Phil Jackson begins this game with his bishop, Kobe Bryant, at a supreme advantage over Doc Rivers. But even more explicitly, in a well matched chess game, your objective is to spring the same strategy. It’s nearly impossible to commit resources to one approach, have it met with disaster, then manage a victory through improvisation and guile. It can be done, but the game isn’t particularly built on adjustment and often when one piece falls, the rest follow.

But it is just that, adjustments and improvisation, that are going to be a central component in the Finals’ coaching matchup. And in a strongly bizarre twist, and for the second time, Doc Rivers may actually have the advantage in this area.

In 2008, we expected a dominant performance from Jackson. After all, he had nine rings at that point and Doc Rivers was a season away from the hotseat, often derided even during that championship season for his inability to formulate a rotation. It looked like it would be a complete wipeout for Rivers against the man with the rings. Turns out, Rivers coached rings around Jackson, consistently having his teams more ready and able to tweak things.

Part of that has to do with the intrinsic nature of both coaches. Jackson is renowned for his resistance to adjusting to his opponent. His philosophy is to force your opponent to adapt to you. In a similar vein, he often resists timeouts during big runs by his opponents, opting to let his team “play through it.”

Take his frontcourt. If Kevin Garnett begins to give Pau Gasol trouble, Jackson won’t be changing his approach; he’ll trust Gasol to come through. This may reflect the coach’s response to all the talk of Rondo. There will be wrinkles, sure. Tiny reflections of things they think of. But you have to force the Lakers pretty far with the edge of your sword to provoke a parry from Jackson.

But this Celtics team has enough versatility and advantages that Jackson needs to adjust that approach. If Rondo is consistently detonating whatever approach the Lakers take on him, Jackson needs to be willing to make those changes, quickly. And if the conventional approaches aren’t working, he needs to be willing to try things before untested. If that means Shannon Brown in for spot duty, go with it. If that means a move away from the overload defense, so be it. Similarly, if a player is having success on the offensive end, sticking with the plan may not be in order, especially if the Oklahoma City Kobe shows up.

Rivers on the other hand, probably has what he needs. The Big 3 and Rondo means that he doesn’t need to juggle much in the way of managing minutes. And any adjustments from there on out are fluid, unlikely to disrupt much. The Celtics’ defense is dependent upon its players knowing when to help one another, and executing the fundamentals. If their talent can stand up to LA’s, Rivers will be in a position to combat whatever wrinkles the Lakers throw at them.

Perhaps this is the series where Jackson comes out on top, however. Maybe he makes one significant adjustment (Bryant on Rondo, perhaps) and comes out on top. But whereas two years ago, this looked like a wild coaching mismatch, suddenly, it appears much closer, due to Jackson’s insistence on playing chess while Rivers mans an XBox.

James Harden scores 37 but Joel Embiid’s 32 leads 76ers to 121-93 rout of Rockets

Associated Press
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid relished the chance to face James Harden, and wasn’t going to let a little back tightness stop him.

Embiid had 32 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past fellow MVP contender Harden and the Houston Rockets 121-93 on Monday night.

“I love playing against guys you guys say are better than me,” Embiid said.

Harden, selected Western Conference player of the week earlier in the day, finished with 37 points – giving him 20 straight games with at least 30.

Philadelphia played without four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (sore right wrist), and Embiid more than made up for his absence.

“It was really fun for us,” Embiid said. “Don’t think it was fun for them.”

Embiid was questionable before the game with lower back soreness and coach Brett Brown hinted during pregame it might be best for the Philadelphia big man to sit this one out. Embiid clearly had other intentions.

“I want to fight with my teammates,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I’ll do for my team.”

His 24 first-half points helped Philadelphia to a 65-50 halftime lead, and he punctuated an entertaining opening 24 minutes by pinning Harden’s layup attempt with 7.5 seconds left for a crowd-pleasing block. The duo had to be separated with 38.7 seconds left in the half, with each being issued a technical, after Harden took exception to Embiid’s foul on him.

The 76ers broke the game open in a dominant third quarter as they outscored Houston 29-13 to take a 94-63 advantage into the fourth. Ben Simmons stole Harden’s pass, made a layup and finished a three-point play after being fouled by Harden to make it 73-52. The lead kept growing, getting as large as 31.

“We were due for a game like this,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden had 10 points in the third but missed four of six field goal tries as the 76ers hounded him defensively with double-teams and different looks. A tired-looking Harden’s air ball with 12.3 seconds left in the third showed the effects of the Philadelphia defense – and, perhaps, Harden’s offensive workload.

With the game out of range, Harden sat in the fourth.

“This is not a great way to rest him, but we rested him today,” D’Antoni said.

 

Doc Rivers seemingly blames Steve Ballmer for Clippers losing Joe Ingles

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Entering the 2014-15 season, the Clippers had to waive someone to meet the regular-season roster maximum. Their choice came down to Joe Ingles and Jared Cunningham, neither of whom had guaranteed salaries.

L.A. kept Cunningham and waived Ingles. Cunningham never made a significant NBA impact. The Jazz claimed Ingles on waivers, and he became a quality starter in Utah.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was also team president at that time.

Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News:

When asked Wednesday if he regrets that decision, Rivers answered, “all the time.”

“I said it the day we released him that this was a bad decision and that we’re going to regret it,” he said. “Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract. We were begging to eat one contract and they said that will never happen and we had to let him go.”

Did Rivers confuse the timeline and think he was blaming Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was notoriously cheap? Current owner Steve Ballmer bought the team and was announced as the owner before the start of the 2014-15 season, when Ingles was signed for camp and released. Ballmer has talked big about spending, and is Rivers’ boss right now. It’d be strange for Rivers to criticize Ballmer like this, but I also can’t figure out whom else he’d be referring to besides the owner. As team president, Rivers had no other oversight within basketball operations.

Maybe Rivers wanted to keep both Ingles and Cunningham and waive someone with a guaranteed salary – likely Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ekpe Udoh or Glen Davis. But, in hindsight, the obviously right call would have been waiving whichever of those players was necessary to keep Ingles.

The frequent criticism of the Clippers about Ingles is somewhat unfair. They brought Ingles to training camp when other teams didn’t. The only reason they were positioned to waive him is because they were ahead of the curve on him.

But they also had the unique opportunity to evaluate him up close and still decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot.

How did that decision get made? Rivers passing the buck only adds confusion. It seemed as if it were his decision.

Luka Doncic becomes second NBA teenager to record triple-double, Bucks rout Mavs anyway

Associated Press
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Is Luka Doncic an All-Star?

He’s not a starter (in my vote, anyway) but in what is an exhibition designed to give the fans what they want, why not have Doncic in the game? He is what the fans want. I’m not convinced he’ll make the cut — at least in the ridiculously deep West, in the East he probably would — but it’s a legitimate conversation. The kid can flat-out ball.

Case in point, he dropped a triple-double on the Bucks on MLK Day, becoming only the second teenager to record an NBA triple-double. (The other was Markelle Fultz, who was 10-days younger when he got his, also against Milwaukee.) Doncic finished the game with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Doncic’s play was not enough to keep the Bucks from racking up their fifth straight win, and doing it pretty easily (although Dallas made an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to make it a little interesting). Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 15 rebounds, while Eric Bledsoe had 21 points, and Brook Lopez finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks (that was Lopez’s first double-double with the Bucks).

Reports: Houston trades Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, who will waive him

Associated Press
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Carmelo Anthony‘s sabbatical is over. Sort of.

Anthony, who has been on the Houston roster but not with the team after that experiment crashed and burned 10 games into the season, will be traded to the Chicago Bulls. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story (and other reports have since confirmed it). However, he’s not going to be putting on a Bulls’ jersey.

He may not be waived until after the Feb. 7 deadline, in case the Bulls find a way to use his salary in a one-for-one trade (his salary cannot be combined with others in a deal because he was just traded). If/when he is waived, at that point there will be more roster shuffling around the league and a landing spot for ‘Melo may open up.

Houston’s trade is much like the trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta last summer that moved Anthony off the Thunder roster. The Hawks waived him and Anthony signed with the Rockets. For the Rockets, this is about saving money.

The Bulls also make a little under a million in this deal. If another team signs Anthony, it would be a benefit for the Hawks.

It’s unclear where Anthony’s ultimate landing spot will be, although his agent has said there are options.

After his struggles in Houston — where the future Hall of Famer thought he deserved more than a bench role due to his stature, even though because of his declining offensive skills and defense that’s all he warranted — it’s hard to imagine another contender or even playoff team picking him up. Maybe a franchise going all in on the Zion Williamson chase but wants a bump at the gate from the name recognition Anthony brings him in? Although for teams trying to develop young talent why take the ball out of those young guys’ hands to let Anthony jack up contested twos? Most likely it will be a team battling injuries and looking for help.

In 10 games for the Rockets this season coming off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, shot just 40.5 percent overall and 32.8 percent from three. The Rockets’ defense was 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony sat.