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.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.

Luka Doncic named EuroLeague MVP at age 19

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Luka Doncic, the likely top two pick in the upcoming NBA draft, has led his Real Madrid team to the EuroLeague finals at age 19.

Now he has been named the youngest player ever win the EuroLeague MVP.

For those unfamiliar, EuroLeague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer — the very best club teams from around the continent face off against each other. On this biggest of European stages, Doncic has been a force. He is a gifted passer with great court vision. He can take his man off the dribble. He can hit threes. And he knows how to be a floor general and run a game. Did we mention he’s just 19?

Doncic said before the start of EuroLeague that he hasn’t decided what he is going to do about coming to the NBA or going back to Real Madrid. Don’t buy it. This is like asking a major college basketball star right before the NCAA Tournament if he is coming back to “State U” next year, they don’t want to say “no” right before the tourney so they give a non-committal answer. Same here. He’s not leaving millions on the table, he’ll be in the NBA next season.

And he’ll bee good.

Playoff losses wearing on LeBron James: ‘I lose sleep’

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Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers lost one game before reaching the NBA Finals. The season before that, two. The season before that also two. In Miami before that, the last couple of years they went to the Finals the Heat lost three and four games before reaching the Finals.

This year, the Cavaliers have lost five games already and find themselves down 0-2 to the Boston Celtics heading into Game 3 Saturday night in Cleveland.

The losses do weigh on LeBron, as reported by Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“I mean, I lose sleep,” James said after shootaround Saturday morning. “I mean, at the end of the day, when you lose any game in the postseason, [you lose sleep], so it’s never comfort. Playoffs is never comfort. There’s nothing about the playoffs that’s comfortable until you either win it all or you lose and go into the summer.

“So, for me, it’s always [a] day-to-day grind to figure out ways that you can be better.”

Cleveland has a lot to figure out to win the next two games because if they don’t and go down 3-1 in this series, it’s hard to envision how LeBron can drag this roster back to the Finals (what would be his eighth straight trip).

Offensively Cleveland has to get consistent play from guys other than LeBron (and to a lesser extent, Kevin Love) — J.R. Smith has been awful and needs to find a rhythm at home, George Hill needs to make some plays, Kyle Korver needs to get open and knock down some looks, and some help from the bench is needed.

But that’s not even the end of the floor that is the Cavs real problem. Defensively the Cavaliers recognition and communication has been dreadful, and the passing and player movement of the Celtics has carved them up. Cleveland has outscored teams and not defended all that well for a long time now — that’s how they made the Finals a season ago — but it’s not enough now. The offense and LeBron can’t carry them all the way.

We’ll see after Game 3 if LeBron is going to be able to get any sleep Saturday night.

Bulls’ Paul Zipser has surgery to repair broken left foot

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CHICAGO (AP) — Chicago Bulls forward Paul Zipser has had surgery to repair a broken left foot.

The team said Friday the operation was performed in his native Germany. The Bulls gave no timetable for his recovery.

Zipser averaged 4.0 points in 54 appearances before sitting out the final nine games last season.