Sunday, March 2, 2008

Game 58 - A New (if odd) Hope

There is this idea, described most recently in "The Shock Doctrine" by Naomi Klein, that when people are in shock they are more likely to suggestion. Despite the dark tone of her work, it seems to be just what the Nets need...

The Nets beat a bad, but hungry and recently successful Milwaukee team by 14 (!) points, just the 6th time ALL SEASON that they've won by double digits, albeit the second of three since Kidd left, and the other was an 8 point win. (Contrast that with their largest win skein of the season, when they won 7 of 8 in December with an average margin of victory less than 2 points...) The only time it got a little dicey was at the end of 3 when they led by a mere 6. The Nets then went on a spurt in the mid 4th to put it out of the realm of question.

They scored 68 points in the first half, easily a season high, on 64% shooting, also easily a season high. Still, with Milwaukee shooting only 45%, the lead was only 13. One would expect at the very least that the Nets shooting pct would come down from the stratosphere, leaving us with a tight game, and at the end of the third it looked exactly that. In fact, the Bucks were outshooting the Nets 51.7% to 51.3%. (They tied for the game at just over 50%.) And from the middle of the second to the end of the third, the Nets got only 5 stops, 4 of them in the third, with the Bucks driving the lane seemingly at will. Luckily, altho Milwaukee's shots were mostly layups and dunks, the Nets shot incredibly well from the outside, and managed a double digit lead that proved insurmountable.

(One yearns for the kinds of wins they had in the 2002-2006 era, when fast breaks and back doors led to solid leads that did not depend on one or another jump shooter being hot, but at 26-32, we'll take what we can get.)

The entirety of the media gave credit almost exclusively to Devin Harris (CBS Sportline headline - "Jason Who?"), who was playing his first game as a Net, but closer inspection reveals another story.

In the first game after Kidd officially left (because the first game without Kidd was in Toronto with him in streets as the Raptors blew their socks off; we're not counting that one...) the Nets similarly cruised to a victory over a team in a similar position in the playoff race - the Bulls. There was no Devin Harris then.

What both victories had in common, and what the two losses and the squeaker win that intervened did not have, was this - Lawrence Frank did not coach the game in his usual robotic fashion.

I remarked within this blog about that first game back that Frank did not substitute according to plan (and anyone who watches all the games knows it's a predetermined plan and that he NEVER wavers from it) and used up all his timeouts with more than a minute left in a close game. Remarkably - and since I have predicted it all season and longer, predictably - he did not need them. The Nets won comfortably. Marcus Williams shined without the Damocles' Sword of LFrank's rigid substitution pattern.

Frank then went back to his old ways, and so did the Nets, losing 2 out of 3 with the team having to suffer thru the inane and never successful (see the more recent post about this strategy above) hack-a-whomever strategy at the end.

What do these two impressive victories, last night and vs Chicago, have in common? Conditions presented themselves wherein Frank was not in his comfort zone and was forced to coach the game within the context the game, NOT according to some predetermined plan. That is, he was shocked out of his automatic responses and actually had to think on his feet.

The result? Two victories that really weren't close. Two victories where the team's deep talent shone. Two victories with balanced scoring. Two victories where the team felt good about itself.

This is no coincidence. Despite his impressive record this year, Byron Scott clearly was not an effective big game coach in the NBA when he was with the Nets. Commentators noticed this in 2003, questioning his substitution patterns and bizarre use of timeouts (sound familiar?), chalking it up at the time to Jason Kidd's putative demands to play less time than the previous year, even tho his average minutes played wound up being essentially identical. Scott's failings became painfully obvious when he benched an on fire Kerry Kittles to start the fourth in Game Six in 2003 and failed to use timeouts properly to preserve the 11 point lead his team had during a Spurs 19 point run. Kidd sardonically joked about this abysmal coaching performance, and by the middle of the next season, Scott was gone.

In his place stepped Lawrence Frank, and despite his fine job to finish the 2004 season (in which only Kidd's lame leg prevented them from finishing off the Pistons and probably moving to their third straight NBA finals appearance), he soon revealed himself to be a Byron Scott disciple in the two areas where Scott was weakest - substitutions and timeouts.

The media are respectful of coaches, more than players, more than they should be. There are loads of reasons for this (race, respect for authority and age, pressure from team management, the prevalent (and I claim mistaken) belief that only talent matters in the Nothing But Ability NBA, flat out lack of sophistication, etc) but commentators spend a great deal of time making excuses and using explanations for odd coaching that stretch credulity. So for 4 years LFrank has been given copious passes regarding his rigid substitution patterns, with most speculation centering on the "contract demands" of one Jason Kidd.

Well, Kidd's gone. What's the excuse now?

Five games is really not enough time to assess what Frank has learned or how he might or might not have been freed from the presumably self-centered and pernicious demands of Number 5, but the early results are in: When Frank deviates from his preconceived notions, the team plays very well and wins handily. When he does not deviate, the best outcome is a squeaker.

The shock of no Kidd forced Frank into a situation where Williams had to play a lot of minutes and where Frank had to keep his team in it because of a reduced roster and no obvious method of coaching to that. Williams, along with the Big 2 out of 3, responded. Frank used timeouts early to preserve a big lead. Easy Nets win. Well, relatively, for them.

With Devin Harris sidelined, Frank settled into his old ways, and the team lost embarrassingly to Indiana, shakily won over mediocre Indiana in the second leg of a "home and home", and lost to Orlando, with Frank allowing the Magic to go on a run with little time left in the game, then subjecting his team to the humiliation of the foul and two strategy (again, see an analysis of this strategy above).

Then Harris is ready. Now Frank can't merely designate one of them as the Kidd-heir-apparent, so he cannot revert to his mechanical substitutions. Result? Comfortable Nets win.

Frank even called a key timeout when he needed to, in the first half, when his team was dissembling with bad shots, stupid fouls and even sillier turnovers, like Swift stepping on the line during an unchallenged in bounds pass. It took a while, but with a 5 point lead (down from 9) and the potential of it becoming a 3 or even 2 point lead, he did call a timeout and settled the team down. Nets then went on a 12-0 run and essentially put the game away.

Lawrence Frank - Are you listening? Are you paying attention?

You CAN coach in this league if you can get over being Byron Scott the Younger. You DO have enough talent to make some noise this year and even contend next year if you can get over being Mr. Roboto, thank you (ie, domo arigato). Your team CAN find the same level of success as with Jason Kidd if you would only TRUST YOUR FEELINGS.

In summary, there is hope for the Nets, as long as Lawrence Frank is shocked out of relying on unsuccessful and mechanical modes of in game coaching. It's an odd hope, but their best hope. Byron Scott is not your Obi-wan, Frank - not your only hope. Use the force, Lawrence.

And leave the computer at home.

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