EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Privately, this is what advance scouts who have watched Sam Mitchell for three seasons were curious to see. They saw him with Bryan Colangelo's resurrected roster, and a depleted Atlantic Division, and thought it would be most intriguing to see what happened with the Toronto Raptors coach in the playoffs, when he had to make adjustments and counters under the scrutiny of a seven-game series.
As postseason failures go, Mitchell's has been spectacular so far. What had been merely a troubling Eastern Conference series turned traumatic on Sunday night, a 102-81 Game 5 loss to the New Jersey Nets that was a 30-point game until Jason Kidd and Vince Carter left the Meadowlands court for good. The Nets have taken away everything – Chris Bosh in the post, T.J. Ford on the drive and, maybe most of all, the will of the Atlantic champions.
They go back to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday with so much riding for this franchise, a season that was such a renaissance for the Raptors turning into a referendum on Mitchell. Whatever leverage Mitchell gained with a franchise-record 47 victories and the Red Auerbach trophy largely has been lost in the avalanche of this three-games-to-one deficit to sixth-seeded New Jersey.
The Nets have neutralized Bosh, flooding the All-Star in the post and using Kidd to cheat on him because the New Jersey point guard has refused to respect Ford's jumper. Mitchell needs to get Bosh the ball where he can do damage. What's more, the Nets are forever adjusting to Toronto's changing defenses, constantly getting uncontested shots in this series. Kidd and Vince Carter are playing out of their minds, but that's partly because Mitchell's team looks intimidated and unwilling to challenge New Jersey.
There's a lot on the line for Mitchell here. Several league sources insist that he's the top choice of Pacers president Donnie Walsh to replace Rick Carlisle in Indiana, and maybe that's still the case considering that the Pacers are looking like a rebuilding project. For now, they don't need Mitchell to be a playoff coach there. Nevertheless, the rapidly developing Raptors do, and Colangelo, Toronto's president and general manager, must consider how much he wants to commit contractually to Mitchell at season's end.
Before Game 4, Colangelo, easily the Executive of the Year in the NBA, insisted that the entire body of work – regular season and playoffs – would be the judge for Mitchell's offer. He wants Mitchell back, he said. He deserves to be rewarded with a new contract. Nevertheless, Colangelo told Yahoo! Sports that there won't be a long negotiation process with Mitchell.
"I'm going to try and get to a decision fairly quickly," Colangelo said. "It's nothing that I want to linger. June 30 is the official end of the contract, and I'm going to want to know which way we're going."
Considering that Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, who was part of the contender that Colangelo constructed in Phoenix, will be one of the most coveted candidates on the market, it's hard to believe that Colangelo will let him go elsewhere should negotiations stall with Mitchell. Around the league, there's a belief that Colangelo will low-ball Mitchell, dare him to leave and bring in his own guy.
Colangelo bristles at the suggestion, saying, "He's the leader of the team, and that's what makes us encouraged about where we are."
Yet, make no mistake: How Mitchell handles the next 48 hours will be a telling window into that leadership. After getting blown out in Games 3 and 4 at the Meadowlands, he walked into the losing locker room Sunday night and refused to rip into his team. Perhaps the old Mitchell would've gone off the deep end, yelling and screaming, but Mitchell has matured as a coach. He decided that he would try to build them up again, show his players that he still believed in them at a time perhaps no one else does.
Nevertheless, this was no time for him to walk into his press conference and start telling people that no one thought Toronto would be here after a 2-8 start to the season, and blah, blah, blah. This was a misdirection play that carried little weight in this series because his team hasn't showed up.
"I explained to them that we won 47 games, we won the Atlantic Division and we've earned the right to be in the playoffs," Mitchell said. "We can't let one bad night take away all that we've done."
Here's the deal: The Raptors are here, and they shouldn't be so completely non-competitive. As much as anything, this all sounded like a concession speech for the end of a series. No one is terribly surprised that the Nets, with Kidd (17 points, eight rebounds, 13 assists) Carter (27 points, seven assists) and Richard Jefferson (23 points), are winning the series. Toronto is still young, still growing, but it is the third seed in the East. Everyone is surprised to see such little resistance, to watch the Raptors let the Nets do whatever they please on the floor without so much as the appearance of making a stand.
Kidd is killing these Raptors, and Mitchell must take his share of the blame. Why in the world did he decide to question the validity of Kidd's banged-up left knee? This was Mitchell thinking like a player, not a coach. As most of the great ones do, Kidd lives for slights, real and imagined. Mitchell should've just said that whether Kidd was injured or not he knew they would get the best of the Nets' star. That's all.
"To say I'm faking, that didn't bother me," Kidd said. Only no one in the Nets organization believed Kidd on that one. They know how Kidd thinks, how he finds his edge, and he understood this was the wrong play, way wrong, by Mitchell. "He did us a favor," one Nets official said. "What was he thinking?"
For his own good, Mitchell could use a tough, final stand out of his team in Game 5. Right now, he's getting run out of the series. Whatever people thought of his X's and O's, Mitchell always has been able to get his team to play hard for him. Now, the Raptors look lost. They look rattled. He changed his lineup for Game 4, starting Andrea Bargnani, and promised to try something else for Game 5. He's reaching now. He's a little desperate. As it turns out, Sam Mitchell hasn't completely escaped his referendum season in Toronto.
Perhaps he's coaching for the Pacers job, perhaps for a longer, richer extension with the Raptors – whatever. Through it all, Mitchell could go a long way toward validating his Coach of the Year trophy with a simple solution on Tuesday night: Just raise these Raptors out of the rubble again, just get them back to Jersey for a Game 6.
This is a freefall for Mitchell and the Raptors, and a freefall doesn't leave historic franchise seasons with tidy bows and ribbons. They've come too far, too fast this year, to go down in this kind of heap. The coach is on the clock for Game 5.