Kevin Durant did not have a great game tonight, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the box score. 27 points, 10 rebounds, and a handful of blocks, assists and steals is a pretty good line. But in the fourth quarter Durant went 0-2 (though he did hit six free throws) as San Antonio took control of the game. Durant was taken out of his comfort zone by Stephen Jackson, who harassed Durant above the three-point line and fought extremely hard through screens. On the occasions where Jackson was beat, he was able to effectively funnel Durant to his help defense.
Though it was a different defensive tactic, it reminded me a lot of the LeBron James v. Carmelo Anthony matchup from the first round of the playoffs. For a lot of that series, especially in the beginning, the Heat fronted Carmelo Anthony, forcing the Knicks to waste ten seconds off the shot clock trying to make an entry pass. I criticized Mike Woodson for his inability to counter this relatively simple defensive tactic. The Knicks didn’t really try running Anthony off ball screens, using him as the primary ball handler, using him as the five in a small ball lineup, or anything else that could potentially free him up. I want to go on the record right now that I think the Mike Woodson era is going to be a disaster.
Which brings me back to my question: is Scott Brooks a good coach? On the face of it, this is an absurd question. He won the coach of the year award in 2009-10 and has led the Thunder to a better winning percentage every year he has been in charge, as well as back-to-back Conference Finals. But I’m still not sure if he is a great coach.
It is extremely difficult to measure the impact that a coach has on a squad, and some people even argue that they have no impact. To me, there are two aspects of coaching that matter: personnel management and tactics. In the regular season, personnel management is of paramount importance. With 82 games you have to be able to cultivate a deep bench, substitute properly, motivate the team etc. Of course tactics come into play, but with so many confounding factors (a different opponent each night, back-to-backs, injuries) there isn’t too much time for tactics beyond the offensive and defensive sets that were installed in training camp.
All this changes in the playoffs, however. With a minimum of four games against the same team, the value of a coaches tactics rises tenfold. Scott Brooks is obviously a competent coach, but is he an elite one? I think we will have the answer to this question in about a week. After game 1, Brooks has two tactical adjustments to make. First, he needs to figure out how to make Durant’s life easier on offense, as I suspect Pop is going to throw a lot more of SJax his way. Shooting 8-19, and 0-4 on threes, isn’t going to cut it. Secondly, Brooks needs to make better decisions regarding his small ball lineup (or if to even use it at all). With four minutes left in the third quarter, Serge Ibaka subbed out for what would turn out to be the rest of the game. With Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Durant as the two interior men, Ginobli et al had a field day driving to the hoop. Even after Perkins picked up his fifth foul with seven minutes left, Brooks refused to bring Ibaka back in. In 22 minutes Ibaka had 7 points, 2 blocks and picked up 0 fouls. In 28 minutes Perkins had 2 points, 1 block and picked up 5 fouls. Brooks picked the wrong guy to play at the end of the game, and it very well may have cost the Thunder a crucial road win.