Adjustmentequals $$$

May 15, 2007 6:55 AM

Playoff basketball pits the best against the best, which gets even more heated the deeper we get toward June.

The star players and the better teams usually find themselves advancing, although don’t tell that to the Dallas Mavericks. They ran up against any top seed’s worst nightmare — the red-hot opponent. One aspect that all seeds, hot and cold, do this time of year is make coaching adjustments and strategic shifts.

Handicappers need to keep up on these adjustments as it can influence the side and total of the next contest.

Coaches can earn their money this time of the season — or hurt their team by doing nothing or the wrong thing. The first round series between the Mavs and Warriors was a fascinating chess match of strategy. The Warriors went small-ball under Don Nelson in Game 1. Dallas coach Avery Johnson matched Nellie with a small, quick lineup of his own. The countermove failed. Golden State’s Baron Davis and Jason Richardson were better at small ball, even on defense, and the Warriors won 97-85 as a 10-point dog.

In Game 2, Johnson countered by going with his big men, the center tandem of Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop. The result as a +7 edge on the glass and a 112-99 win. By Game 4, Johnson was using his third starting lineup of the series, but he couldn’t curtail the fired up Warriors home court edge as the Mavs fell behind 3-1.

Mismatches and coaching moves can do so much to alter things. Look at Game 1 of the Spurs/Suns series last week, a 116-112 San Antonio road win that sailed over the total. Game 2 was very different — a 101-81 Suns victory that sailed under the total by 23 points! So what happened? Kurt Thomas was assigned to guard Tim Duncan 1-on-1 and 6-7 forward Shawn Marion guarded Tony Parker.

The Suns’ most significant contributions came from Marion and Thomas, who were added to the starting lineup. The Suns didn’t double-team Duncan, who got little help from his teammates. Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni’s decision to start Thomas and have him defend Duncan freed up Amare Stoudemire to concentrate on offense. As a result, Stoudemire had plenty of energy and scored 21 second half points. The Suns went to 8-0 with Thomas as a starter.

Watch as many games as possible and carefully read up on the games the next day. Such things as injuries and strategic adjustments can be revealing. You may recall during last year’s regular season meetings, Kobe Bryant had some of his most explosive games against Phoenix. Yet, the result was almost always the same: The Suns won with an avalanche of points.

So, Laker coach Phil Jackson made several strategic adjustments for the 2006 playoff series. Instead of letting Kobe do all the shooting, he asked Bryant to distribute the basketball more and others to look for their shot. He recognized the Suns had a smallish frontcourt, so LA often pounded the ball down low. The Lakers shot a high percentage and dominated points in the paint to take a 3-1 series lead before the Suns adjusted. The first four games also went under the total with LA controlling tempo.

However, starting in Game 5, the Suns changed strategy by releasing players early on defense. The tempo was pushed up and the Suns found more looks on the perimeter. Phoenix shot 45 and 47.6 percent from 3-point land in the final two games after marks of 33, 43.5 and 35 in Games 2, 3 and 4 (all losses).

The Lakers didn’t have the talent or depth to counterpunch once the Suns adjusted and the better team won. Point, counterpoint, checkmate!

Notice that the Suns went 3-0 over the total once those adjustments were instituted. If you just read the box score or caught the final score on TV, you might not understand all the complex moves taking place. The fact is, key strategic adjustments by the coaches can influence the series, sides and totals.