Before Thursday night's Game 6, one of the primary topics of conversation in the Eastern Conference finals was how summarily Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemed to be outfoxing Miami Heat bench boss Erik Spoelstra. Through the first five games — and certainly from Game 2, which featured a brilliant Rajon Rondo performance and could very well have seen the Celtics steal a road split in an overtime nail-biter, though Game 5, which the C's won to take a 3-2 lead on Miami's home floor — it appeared to many observers that Rivers had Spoelstra's number, mixing up defensive schemes to slow the Heat offense and devising ways for Boston's sixth-worst regular season/seventh-worst postseason offense to get quality looks against a Heat defense that has been one of the league's stingiest since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up under Spoelstra's guidance two years ago.
Coming into the series, it seemed to many — including me — that the talent, matchup and personnel advantages favored Miami too heavily for Boston to be able to make this a series. Clearly, I was wrong, as Boston headed into Thursday night with an opportunity to close Miami out at home at the TD Garden. That didn't happen, thanks to a sensational individual performance by LeBron James that knotted the series at three games apiece and set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7. But it's unlikely LeBron will go for 40-15-5 in Game 7, if for no other reason than that nobody had done it in nearly 50 years before he did it on Thursday night.
If LeBron's not a superhero, what then for Miami? Can Spoelstra bridge the gap, take away Rivers' advantages and put Miami on an equal playing field with an experienced Boston team? Or is Spoelstra — as ESPN's Chris Broussard suggested — just "in over his head" in matching wits with Rivers in the NBA's final four?
Stan Van Gundy — now-former head coach of the Orlando Magic, a pro with eight years of NBA coaching experience and a veteran of three Eastern Conference finals with the Heat and Magic — seems like a pretty good guy to ask those questions, so Miami columnist and radio host Dan LeBatard did. The answers? Well, they fit very neatly with what you might expect from a famously prickly sort who's not presently employed by an NBA team and has all kinds of "don't give a crap" running through the family bloodstream.
From "The Dan LeBatard Show" on Miami radio station 790 The Ticket (via Eric Schmoldt at the indispensable Sports Radio Interviews):
What are your thoughts on Chris Broussard writing that Erik Spoelstra is in over his head?:
"Well, there's a number of thoughts there. My first thought is that Chris Broussard has no knowledge of coaching and wouldn't know it if he saw it.
"My second thought is this: When he says they need somebody of the ilk of Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, two thoughts on that, there aren't many guys of that ilk, period … and second of all, if that's the ilk they need, maybe they're not that damn good anyway. And my third thing is, in the game today, there aren't many guys as good as Erik Spoelstra.
"And I would cite a couple things, rather than just an opinion. … That is the best defensive team that I have ever seen that doesn't have size. I've never seen an elite defensive team in the NBA, until this Miami team, that doesn't have size. To me, there has to be a hell of a lot of coaching in there."
OK, Stan, fair enough. But no one's ever questioned Spoelstra's defensive bona fides -- Miami was a strong unit on that end under his watch even before James and Bosh flew south, finishing 11th in defensive efficiency in the 2008-09 season and sixth in 2009-10.
Because he has talents like LeBron James at his disposal, Erik Spoelstra will never get the credit he deserves. … It's on the other end of the court that the coach has been questioned, specifically in his ability to get James and Wade -- two dominant wing players whose talents often seem to duplicate one another and who frequently seem to either trade possessions or get in one another's way offensively (although the tandem's on-court plus-minus numbers sure don't read that way during this series) -- easier, more consistent, higher-quality looks at the rim.
What about that, Stan? Doesn't Spoelstra fall short there? Shouldn't he … y'know … run more stuff? More from the interview:
On Broussard's comment that maybe the Heat should run a play like Boston does:
"Yeah, maybe like the play they ran when Paul Pierce hit the big 3 at the end of the game. There was nothing going on there. It was a step-back, got some space and made a 3. The Heat are doing every bit as much offensively in terms of running plays."
Sooooooo …. yeah. Maybe shut up, Chris Broussard? Like, according to Stan Van Gundy, at least. Not me. I don't know you. This is crazy. But here's my number. Shut up, maybe.
SVG went on to drop a key bit of knowledge and make a very interesting point:
"Here's the difference: Doc Rivers won a championship a few years ago, so everyone just gives him the credit of being a great coach — which Doc deserves, he's great. Erik hasn't won, so people go into the series assuming there's a great coaching advantage, which there is not. And because they have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, it's on Erik."
That's a really, really important point. Because so few of us fans actually know anything about what the job of being an NBA coach entails and what separates a good one from a bad one, wins, losses and titles remain just about the only metrics we use to separate the worthy from the worthless. In reality, the difference between a Guy Who Won One Ring Because He Had The Best Team That Year and a Guy Who Lost Because The Breaks Didn't Go the Right Way might be infinitesimal; in the world of our narrative understanding, the distance is the Grand Canyon.
One guy's a winner, one guy's not. One guy gets it done when it's Winning Time, the other can't get out of his own way when the money's on the table.
(Stop us when you get the LeBron/Wade or, once upon a time, Duncan/Garnett arguments here.)
It's an especially important coaching cultural meme because it also manifested itself in the Western Conference finals.
There, the Oklahoma City Thunder convincingly defeated the San Antonio Spurs in six games. That win is credited primarily to changes in that team's stars -- the developing greatness of Kevin Durant, the emerging brilliance of James Harden and the evolving patience of Russell Westbrook. Yet there's barely a peep about the growth of Thunder coach Scott Brooks, which you can argue was at least as important.
Brooks is a man who was taken to the woodshed by Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle in last year's Western Conference finals, who was considered a liability for his inability to create inventive enough offensive sets to move the OKC late-game offense past, "Get Durant the ball in an isolation and see what the hell happens." He was known not for moving the Thunder from dismal young team to contending force or for winning a Coach of the Year trophy, but rather primarily for his relative lack of talent.
Scott Brooks has come a long way. (Getty Images)And now? This year? He's not only kept the faith of his three best players, continued to develop integral fourth piece Serge Ibaka, won the trust of crusty veterans Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Derek Fisher, and figured out how best to deploy Swiss defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha, but he also designed basically the perfect play for his team, an offensive set that utilizes Westbrook's talent as a small screener, Durant's ability to move without the ball, Harden's ball-handling up top, Perkins' gift for getting guys open and any of several other Thunder players' knack for hitting open corner 3-pointers. It's a murderous option, something OKC can go to again and again with different looks each time, and San Antonio was at a total loss at how to stop it. Brooks did that. He took his excellent individual players and made them an unstoppable unit.
And yet, before, during and after the Western Conference finals, most of the coaching discussion centered on Spurs' head man Gregg Popovich, he of the short answers, barbed quips and four NBA titles. To hear many folks tell it, the Thunder somehow managed to outflank one of the best ever to stalk a sideline, but they did so on talent and without a truly capable guy on their own bench.
This is the kind of thing that drives Van Gundy nuts:
"Popovich is still the superior coach in everybody's mind. That's the thing — it doesn't matter. Now, it'll all change if Scott Brooks wins a championship. To me, that's what it's all about. Once you've won a championship, then you're immune to any criticism. You cannot make a bad coaching move. Anything you do is fine. And it's something else. Until you win a championship, then it's the coach's fault.
"So if Scott Brooks now wins a championship this year, which he very well could do obviously, then all of the sudden he'll be immune from all that criticism. … Had the Spurs won, it would have been because of coaching and the Thunder were able to win despite of the coaching."
There it is, from someone who's been on both sides of the coin, victor and victim, genius and idiot. If nothing else, Van Gundy's comments lay bare just how little we all really know about what it's like to coach an NBA team -- what the really important parts of it are and how best to tell who's actually good at it, beyond the standings. Coaching's one of the great remaining black boxes of sports analysis for fans; greater insight into what the job entails and how to separate the wheat from the chaff could help supporters better appreciate the good ones their squads have (or, alternatively, more vociferously bemoan the awful dudes their teams employ at the moment).
SVG's comments also point toward a larger truth about the way we perceive professionals, something reinforced by LeBron James' transcendent Game 6 -- that nothing means anything except what you did last and whether what you did last resulted in the raising of the trophy. At the end of the day, more often than not, we're all terrible ends-justify-the-means sorts who care only about the result of a win or a loss and could give a crap about the process of getting there. We're the collective meathead dad who spurs his jock son to tape a nerd's buns together. We are, frequently, the worst.
Have a nice weekend!