Adjustments don’t show up in playoff box scores

May 16, 2006 6:11 AM

Playoff basketball pits the best against the best, which gets even more heated when we reach June.

The star players and better teams usually find themselves advancing. This is why it’s essential to keep close tabs on coaching adjustments and strategic shifts that take place from game to game.

Coaches can earn their money this time of the season, but can hurt their team by doing nothing or the wrong thing. The first round series between the Suns and the Lakers was a fascinating chess match of coaching strategy. During the regular season meetings, Kobe Bryant had some of his most explosive games against Phoenix, yet the results were almost always the same: The Suns won with an avalanche of points.

So, Lakers coach Phil Jackson made several strategic adjustments for the series: Instead of letting Kobe do all the shooting, he asked Kobe to distribute the basketball more — asking others to look for their shot. He also recognized that the Suns have a smallish frontcourt, so LA pounded the ball down low often. LA shot for a high percentage and dominated the points in the paint while taking a 3-1 series lead. The first four games went under the total, too, as the Lakers controlled the tempo.

However, starting in Game 5, the Suns changed strategy by releasing players early on defense in an attempt to push the tempo more. They were able to find more looks on the perimeter. While mounting their comeback against the Lakers, the Suns shot 45 and 47.6 percent in the final two games from three-point land, after shooting 33, 43.5 and 35 in Games 2, 3 and 4 (all losses).

During their three-game blitz of the Lakers and impressive Game 1 win over the Clippers last week, Phoenix made 57.4 percent of its shots and averaging 122.8 in the four wins. That was right after the Lakers had held them to 93, 92 and 98 points — the last in overtime! The Lakers didn’t have the talent or depth to counterpunch once the Suns adjusted. The better team ended up winning. Point, counterpoint, checkmate!

Notice that the Suns went 5-0 ”˜OVER’ the total once those adjustments were instituted. Sports bettors need to watch as many games as possible and carefully read up on them the next day. Injuries and strategic adjustments can be revealing.

After the Spurs took Game 1, 87-85, Dallas made a key adjustment. After seeing how much his team struggled against the Spurs’ halfcourt defense in Game 1 — the Mavericks scored just 33 in the second half — Coach Avery Johnson made it clear he wanted to quicken the pace.

To do so, he started Devin Harris in place of Adrian Griffin, giving the Mavericks a lineup with two point guards. It was the first time all season Johnson had started Harris, Josh Howard and Jason Terry together. Their speed was too much for the Spurs to match.

Dallas went up-tempo in Game 2, shooting 46 percent in controlling from start to finish 113-91 as an underdog. Dallas repeatedly beat the Spurs down the floor. The Mavericks’ 13 fast-break points in the first half were nearly double what they totaled in Game 1.

Howard set the tone with his aggressiveness. In 2003 the Spurs could have drafted Howard one spot ahead of Dallas, but traded the pick to save salary-cap room for a run at guard Jason Kidd. And, they failed to land Kidd.

The Spurs didn’t have an answer for the athletic Howard because Bruce Bowen was busy guarding Dirk Nowitzki. All this was important for bettors because the underdog Mavs not only won, but the total shot 22 points ”˜OVER’ 182.

If you just read the boxscore or caught the final score on TV, you might think that it was an aberration and that both teams simply had strong nights offensively. The fact is a key strategic adjustment by one coach changed the tempo and the other team failed to adjust.