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

Jun 3, 2010, 12:43 AM EDT

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.

  1. frank - Jun 3, 2010 at 12:58 AM

    nice to see somebody giving doc his due

  2. sam - Jun 3, 2010 at 2:02 AM

    Doc is the same bad coach that was in the hot seat prior to the 08 season. Just because he got better players, doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a better coach. Just look at “Coach of the Year” Mike Brown.

  3. Ron - Jun 3, 2010 at 2:24 AM

    Throwing in a bunch of superlatives doesn’t make you a better writer, Matt.

  4. Ron - Jun 3, 2010 at 2:26 AM

    Throwing in a bunch of superlatives doesn’t make you a better writer, Matt.

  5. JD - Jun 3, 2010 at 10:55 AM

    Yes, Phil will get the better of Doc this time.

  6. ocgunslinger - Jun 3, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    Not to take a thing away from Doc Rivers but I think the writer is over analyzing a speculative if not dubious subject with irrational conclusions. Why not just say “I guess Jackson has always coached against mediocre opponents and has just been lucky his whole career”.

  7. Mr8bit - Jun 3, 2010 at 12:05 PM

    Funny that some people try to discredit my man Doc by saying, “He’s successful because he has good players.” Then they turn around and say how great a coach Phil Jackson is because he has a ring for every finger. What? Ever hear of MICHAEL JORDAN? Or Scotty Pippen? Or Shaq? And KOBE? It’s a transparently ludicrous argument and I find myself hearing it presented WAY too often. Doc outcoached Brown, he outcoached Van Gundy, and he’s going to outcoach Jackson again. Give the man his due, people!

  8. Ron - Jun 3, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    As a radio station commercial here is playing…
    “Hey Celtics fan, the ’80s want their chant back.”

  9. Sam - Jun 3, 2010 at 1:43 PM

    Jordan had Pippen and Kobe had Shaq, but none of them won a ring until Phil Jackson showed up.

  10. Omnius - Jun 3, 2010 at 1:47 PM

    Yes! Phil Jackson will get the better of Doc this year. Phil was short two important pieces from his chess board in 2008, Bynum and Ariza. This year Phil has all of his pieces in place, even if Bynum is playing injured and is physically limited. Better believe that Phil is still smarting from losing to Doc two years ago and wants revenge. Ron Artest is the newest Laker player and he is going to make the difference because Artest is Too Fierce for Pierce. Watch the Aging Celtics meltdown tonight as they whine about every call and rack up lots of technicals. Bet Big Baby Davis doesn’t last the first game before he gets T’eed up. Lakers in 6 though 5 would be better!

  11. Mr8bit - Jun 3, 2010 at 2:02 PM

    Uh, yeah. I guess there should be a shelf-life on bitter rivalries in sports. And we should just ignore the history between the two teams. GOOD POINT. Nitwit.

  12. kp - Jun 3, 2010 at 3:13 PM

    u can say the samething about Phil Jackson..Michael Jordan in 90’s and Kobe now…never coached a team without best player of his generation..if not ever..

  13. dave - Jun 3, 2010 at 3:15 PM

    yeah phil will probably get the better of doc by working the officials (cause phil they don’t know the script unless you tell them, only when they lose of course ), but the Celts will get the better of the lakers , oh yeah and the aging celts against the ever so young lakers like kobe, artest,odam,fisher and gasol the baby of the group at what 30..

  14. nissanchick - Jun 3, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    i was a laker fan while pat riley and the boys played
    i was a laker fan when they acquired phil and shaq
    i hung my laker gear up to dry when kobe decided to be an a**
    i didn’t like the celtics then, don’t really care for them now.
    but i hope they win i like doc rivers

  15. Sean - Jun 3, 2010 at 4:29 PM

    Did this Matt guy steal your girlfriend or something? You seriously double post on every one of his articles with some lame insult or flame. Seriously, you need to get a life and move on.

  16. observer - Jun 3, 2010 at 5:23 PM

    Matt doesn’t need superlatives;just a typewriter because he is already a superior writer hands dowm.This Ron guy needs a check-up
    from the neck up!! Until matt writes it isnt completely written.I agree with Sean…In short, Matt has water to swim in when Ron don’t have it to drink. Keep the venerable ink flowing matt.

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