What wins championships? During the playoffs each year we always hear the phrase, “Defense wins championships.” However, that is not the only quality of a championship team. Having star players surely helps, having a team filled with talented, cohesive and unselfish players help, making shots are an obvious part of winning games and championships, perhaps even a little luck. However, one component that every championship team has that is often overlooked is a good coaching staff.
With four teams currently left in the NBA Playoffs, it’s easy to look at the star power among the four teams and use that as a premise as to how each team made it to their respective Conference Finals. However, talent and star power alone can only get you so far. A good coach can be the difference between a team being a first round exit, a Conference Finals contender, a champion, or a missing the playoffs altogether.
Take the Western Conference Finals: When this series first became official, NBA fans everywhere were salivating to see the matchup between “The Splash Brothers” Golden State Warriors tandem of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and two of the top five players in the world, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These are four of the premier players in the NBA today, but how come all four of them haven’t all been able to produce at the elite, All-Star level they are all capable of? Well to some degree, coaching.
Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan has put his imprint all over this series by putting his players in position to succeed, while taking the opposing players out of their comfort zones. In a Game 1 come-from-behind win, Donovan made the decision to use a big lineup down the stretch with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams both on the court, which gave the Warriors plenty of fits. The Warriors like to finish games with a smaller lineup and that night, the Warriors had no answer. However, when that lineup didn’t work in Game 2, Donovan showed his versatility in the next game.
When Steve Kerr took over as the coach of the Warriors in 2014, one of the first things he did was elect to start Harrison Barnes instead of Andre Iguodala and get his team to play faster, with more fluidity, and better ball movement. As of Game 4 of this year’s Conference Finals, Kerr has amassed a total record of 165-36 including the regular season and playoffs since taking over as the Warriors coach. With his “Death Lineup” consisting of Curry, Thompson,Draymond Green, Barnes, and Iguodala, the Warriors have been blowing teams out of the water left and right. When most coaches may have been left with no answer for that lineup, Coach Donovan went ahead and combatted against that deadly small lineup with a smaller lineup of his own.
Westbrook, Dion Waiters, Andre Roberson, Durant, and Serge Ibaka has badly outplayed and outscored the Warriors small lineup that has completely dominated the opposition for the past two seasons. While the star power of Durant and Westbrook has surely helped OKC be up 3-1 against the defending champions, Coach Donovan’s in-game adjustments and willingness to put lineups on the floor based on how the game is going has gone a long way in the success of the Thunder’s postseason run. Trapping Curry, denying him the ball and having players go at him when he is guarding them is an adjustment Donovan has gotten his players to utilize and it has worked very well.
Flip the script over to the Eastern Conference Finals: The Cleveland Cavaliers completely steamrolled the Toronto Raptors in Games 1 and 2, in large part by way of scorching hot three-point shooting and incredibly easy paths to the rim. Raptors coach Dwayne Casey, knowing that three point shooting like that is unsustainable, went into Game 3 with the game plan of allowing the Cavs to continue shooting those threes while putting an emphasis of protecting the paint with Bismack Biyombo. As a result, the Cavaliers saw their three point shooting dip dramatically from over 50 percent to 33 percent. Biyombo as the enforcer and rim protector has forced the Cavs shooters to take forced and contested threes while hesitating to drive to the rim. That coupled with the reemergence of Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan playing like the All-Star guards they are, the Raptors were able to tie the series up 2-2 heading back to Cleveland Wednesday night for Game 5.
Over on the Cavaliers side, Coach Tyronn Lue has been credited greatly for getting the Cavs to play at a faster pace and getting Kevin Love in better positions on the court in order to produce. As a result, Coach Lue became the first coach in NBA history to go 10-0 in his first 10 playoff games. Splitting ball-handling duties between Lebron James and Kyrie Irving has allowed James to not have to carry all the load for his team the way he has for many years. That has allowed James to play a playoff career low 35 minutes a game and average a playoff career low 23.5 points per game. With a 10-0 start to the postseason, James would gladly take the rather easy wins over mind-boggling stats.
However, starting in Game 3 that all changed. In Game 3, James, Irving, and Love all struggled and had rather subpar games in Toronto. Same in Game 4. However, Game 4 in particular went against everything we saw during the first 11 games of the Cavaliers postseason as it regarded to James. With Love and Irving both struggling again, it was the early 4th quarter efforts of Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye that got Cleveland right back into the game. That is until the game slipped away from them once again. In the final 5 minutes of the game, James attempted only one shot, missing it and ended up playing a total of 46 minutes. Coach Lue resorted to overplaying James when his main goal all postseason long was to allow James to not have to do as much.
The coaching has really shined bright in this year’s Conference Finals. While having elite players on the roster is always great, in many instances the sign of a championship team falls into the hands of the coaches. So many things can change throughout the course of a playoff series. Having a game plan, but not being afraid to adjust and deviate from that game plan based on how a game or series is going can go a long way in how successful a team is. It is all about gaining an advantage and while it may be the players who get the majority of the accolades, the coaches should be given a bulk of the credit too. They put their players in position to do what they do best and if the players and coaches see eye-to-eye, the possibilities for on court success are endless.
Spark Sports NBA Analyst