Mark Jackson and Doc Rivers aren't so different, you know. They both hail from American metropolises—Jackson from New York, Rivers from Chicago. Both were prolific, hard-nosed All-Stars at the point guard position as pros. They were even traded for one another back in 1992.
The parallelisms between the two extend well beyond their playing careers, though. Both went into broadcasting upon retirement and subsequently left the booth to pursue head coaching jobs, without any prior experience in such a position.
As it happens, experience is probably the biggest difference between the two at this point. Rivers' 15 seasons leading the Orlando Magic, the Boston Celtics and now the Los Angeles Clippers have afforded him ample opportunity to master the details of the position, work out the kinks and ultimately become one of the best in the business.
Jackson, on the other hand, is in the midst of just his third season as a head coach. He's done about as well as anyone could've expected so far. Last year, he led the Golden State Warriors to their first playoff appearance since 2007. This time around, he guided them to their first 50-win season in two decades.
But Jackson's apparent problems with managing his staff and all-too-frequent lack of tactical acumen has brought his job security into question and, more immediately, put his Warriors at risk of a first-round ouster. Golden State did well to steal Game 1 of its series against the Clippers in L.A. but was ultimately undone by Doc's anti-Stephen Curry scheme in Game 2.
More specifically, it's on Jackson. It's his job, not those of Curry or Klay Thompson or David Lee, that's on the line right now. It's his club that was caught flat-footed, even after facing in Game 1 the very same defensive blueprint that did the Dubs in two nights later.
And if the Warriors are going to win Game 3 and take a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series, they'll need Jackson to coach less like a doe-eyed traditionalist and more like a true tactician.
Like, say, Doc Rivers.
Crises and Opportunities
Frankly, the Warriors were lucky to win that opener. Blake Griffin, who piled up 35 points in Game 2, was saddled with foul trouble in Game 1. And yet, the adjustments on Jackson's part were few and far between afterward.
The Warriors will need much more than the smiling eyes of the basketball gods to stop the Clips in Game 3, even at Oracle Arena, where L.A. has lost 15 times in its last 17 visits. These Clippers, equipped with the NBA's best offense and a veritable arsenal of weapons on both ends of the floor, are for real.
The Warriors, on the other hand, are operating well below full strength. They've been without Andrew Bogut, their starting center and defensive anchor, since the tail end of the regular season and might not get him back until 2014-15 on account of a busted rib.
The Dubs clearly miss Bogut and everything he brings to the table. Without the big Aussie around to protect the interior, Golden State has given up a gaggle of points in the paint—42 in Game 1, 46 in Game 2.
There's not much the Warriors can do to make up for that, other than seal off the middle of the floor at all costs and hope to Joe Pesci that Jermaine O'Neal and his 35 years can provide some resistance at the summit.
As for Bogut's offensive contributions (i.e., pinpoint passes, jarring screens, hustle and muscle on the boards), the Warriors are far from hopeless in making up for them. Jackson need look no further than Draymond Green for a solution.
"Draymond has set incredible screens," Jackson said at Warriors practice on Wednesday (via The Mercury News). "That’s who he is. We’ve got to do a better job putting a little Draymond in our games."
Or, better yet, put Draymond in the game a little more. Golden State was 17 points better than L.A. during Green's 22 minutes in Game 1.
Of course, that script flipped in Game 2, when the Clippers outscored the Warriors in Green's 24 minutes. But the second-year jack-of-all-trades out of Michigan State was hardly alone in that regard.
In any case, the crisis of losing Bogut needn't be cause for catastrophe in the Bay. If anything, Jackson would be wise to seize on it as an opportunity to experiment with some different lineups that could unleash his team's true scoring talents.
Many of which can and should involve Green. He's an unselfish player whose versatility allows him to affect the games in many different ways, even if none of them are particularly eye-catching. He can pass, he can dribble, he can defend multiple positions and, after an abysmal rookie year from beyond the arc, he's now a passable three-point shooter (33.3 percent).
With Green in the mix, Golden State can try out more small-ball arrangements with which to torture the Clips, particularly when Griffin is the biggest guy on the floor for L.A. According to NBA.com, 14 of the Warriors' 25 most effective five-man units from the regular season (minimum 20 minutes) featured Green in some capacity. Green served as the nominal power forward in 11 of those 14.
One of the other three should pique Jackson's strategic interest: Green-Curry-Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Harrison Barnes. For those of you keeping score at home, Green is the only one of those five who might be mistaken for a big.
That group played just 41 minutes together across 22 games in 2013-14, but did some impressive work therein. They played at blistering pace (105.5 possessions per game), scored efficiently (124.5 points per 100 possessions) while setting the nets ablaze from beyond the arc (.433) and locked down on defense (89.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Granted, the size of this particular example makes its results difficult, if not downright unreliable, to extrapolate with any accuracy. But there are some basic maneuvers that Jackson can take away from it and apply with greater frequency (and to greater effect) in these playoffs.
As wonderful a job as Jackson has done to turn the Warriors into a hard-nosed half-court club, they're still at their best when they're pushing the pace and spreading the floor with shooters and playmakers. Putting in Green, as the lone player of any reputable size, alongside four other capable shooters would force the Clippers to extend their defense, thereby opening up the middle for more drive-and-kick action from Curry, Iguodala and whoever else might be inclined to venture inward.
Baiting the Clippers into a run-and-gun game is a dangerous proposition, given L.A.'s tremendous talent in transition. But the Dubs would do well to get easy buckets whenever they can, and having Green running the floor, rather than Lee or O'Neal, would allow Golden State to do so with greater ease.
Taking Pressure off Steph
Green's talents as a facilitator would also come in handy as a means of relieving Curry of some of his more onerous on-ball duties. The Clippers have thus far exploited Curry's creative talents and the role they play in Golden State's success by double- and triple-teaming Golden State's All-Star guard at seemingly every turn.
The constant pressure has clearly worn on Curry. He's been held down in seven of the eight quarters played in this series so far.
The lone exception? The third quarter of Game 2, when the Warriors were already down by more than 30 points.
"I think it was a little bit of us, yeah," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after Game 2 of the job his team has done on Curry (via The Mercury News). “But he also was trying to get his teammates involved."
As great as Curry is at orchestrating an offense, he's still at his best when he can focus on shooting and let others create for him.
To that end, Green can help to move the ball around when he's on the floor with Curry. Steve Blake and Jordan Crawford are both capable playing the point with Curry off the ball as well.
But if there's any one player in the Bay who's equipped to shove Curry over to shooting guard, as Jarrett Jack so often did last season, it's Iguodala. He averaged 4.2 assists in what was a down year for him; he tallied an average of 5.5 assists per game over his previous seven campaigns.
"We need him to be more aggressive, whether it be for himself or making plays," Jackson said of Iguodala at practice (via The Mercury News). "If they’re going to play Steph that way, then guys have got to be live options."
Iggy is certainly that, especially when he's playing next to Curry. According to NBA.com, Curry shot 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from three when he shared the court with Iguodala this season. When Iguodala sat, those numbers dropped to 45.8 percent and 39.9 percent, respectively—both still above average for a guard of Curry's stature, but far from the superstar-caliber ones that Iguodala unlocked.
Iguodala, too, is uniquely positioned to be a matchup nightmare for L.A. He's nimble enough to man any of the guard/wing spots and can hold his own against bigger post players if need be.
"We put the ball in (Iguodala’s) hands and they put Blake Griffin on him," Jackson added. "Those plays are opportunities for him to take advantage of the match-ups.
"But he’s a guy that I know he’s going to be fine and I know he’s a guy that embraces moments like this. So there’s no concern."
Nor should there be. Iguodala's already made game-winning plays for the Warriors during his first season in Golden State. It would behoove Jackson to let his team's biggest summer acquisition do the same in the postseason and free Curry of some of that responsibility in the process.
Getting Curry Hot
If Curry doesn't have to worry as much about setting up his teammates, he can devote more of his energy to getting good looks for himself.
"I've got to make plays. I've got to find ways to not let them take me out the game," Curry said after Game 2 (via Marcus Thompson of The Mercury News). "Double teams, that's the point of why they're trying to do it. I had to get to my spots where I can be efficient even if they're going to double-team me."
That's not all on Curry. If the Clippers are going to swarm him, the Warriors will have to respond by freeing him with the sorts of sturdy screens that Bogut once provided and for which Green has garnered praise.
As great as Curry is at pulling up and knocking down shots, he's even better when coming off screens. According to Synergy Sports, Curry was the fifth-best in the league in that regard this season, scoring 1.2 points per possession while shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 39.4 percent from three.
And if the Warriors' other playmakers can get the ball to Curry at a standstill, even better. Per Synergy, he scored 1.27 points per possession on spot-up shots, which he hit with blistering efficiency (51.3 percent from the field, 46.9 percent from three).
Either way, having Curry move around the court without the ball could pay dividends for the Warriors in other ways. By putting Curry in motion, the Warriors can bend the Clippers defense one way or another, all while forcing L.A.'s perimeter defenders to chase Curry from place to place.
Imagine how much better off Golden State would be if, say, Chris Paul had to chase Curry around all night. Either Paul would tire out, and thereby be left susceptible to late-game mistakes, or the Clippers would have to try other, lesser defenders on Curry and risk getting burned in a big way.
More than anything, though, putting Curry at shooting guard would allow him to be aggressive and seek out his own shot, rather than passively attempt to get everyone else involved. His 20-point third quarter in Game 2 was but a brief reminder of what kind of damage Curry can do when he's geared up to score.
"I was glad he was able to find a rhythm against what they were doing," David Lee said of Curry's breakout period (via The Mercury News). "He threw being strategic out the window and instead focused on being aggressive."
Golden State's massive deficit at the time might've had something to do with that. So, too, might've the frustration built up with every hit that Curry drew in driving the lane—and every whistle that was swallowed in the aftermath. Perhaps Curry's tossing of his mouth guard, which drew a technical foul, will be the spark that this team needs.
"Just frustrated," Curry said of the incident (via The Mercury News). "Obviously the score had a lot to do with it. Felt like I was getting to the basket, getting some contact and wasn’t getting the call. Just voicing my opinion at that specific time.
"That playoff atmosphere is energetic. When things aren’t going your way, you’ve got to find a little way to get yourself going and get your teammates going, show some fire."
It's all well and good that Curry's found that fire. Now it's Jackson's job to help the rest of his players catch it as well.
Chief among them is Klay Thompson. The third-year shooting guard played a huge part in Golden State's Game 1 win (22 points, four threes, seven rebounds, five assists in 41 minutes), but was practically DQ'd in Game 2 (seven points, two assists) on account of early foul trouble.
Jackson didn't exactly help Thompson any in that regard. He left Thompson in the game after Klay picked up his second foul with 8:15 to go in the opening frame. Thompson responded by scoring Golden State's next seven points, but was hardly heard from again after getting whistled for his third infraction at the 4:09 mark.
As streaky as Thompson is, the Dubs can't afford for him to sit for extended stretches. Otherwise, his hot hand is liable to cool off in a hurry and never be heard from again.
Jackson can only control so much of that, though. It's on Thompson to defend without fouling and to proceed with caution when the whistles aren't blowing in his favor.
But Jackson can do plenty to get Thompson going. Like Curry, Thompson is a fantastic shooter, particularly when spotting up (1.14 points per possession, 43 percent from three) and coming off screens (1.01 points per play, 45.8 percent from three). The earlier Thompson gets involved, the more likely he is to catch fire and put together an explosive evening.
And the more Thompson scores, the better off the Warriors are. They went 4-1 this season when Thompson topped the 30-point plateau. In games like those, opposing defenses have to pay more attention to Thompson. Curry, in turn, benefits doubly: he gets a reprieve from the constant attention and a reliable target to whom he can deliver the ball when he's in playmaking mode.
Golden State can be sure, too, that Thompson will shoot it when he gets it. According to The Washington Post's Neil Greenberg, Thompson registered the lowest pass-to-touch ratio of anyone who appeared in at least 40 games this season.
BE AGGRESSIVE! B-E AGGRESSIVE!
Jackson's need to get the Splash Brothers going underlines his most important task, one that has little to do with any purported chess match with Doc Rivers.
That is, Jackson must make sure that his guys are ready to play from the opening tip, that they're the ones putting the Clippers on their heels and not the other way around.
"We've got to come out playing with force, being aggressive and we didn't do that in two games now," Jackson told The Mercury News' Jimmy Durkin on Tuesday. "We've been the counter-puncher, but we've got to find a way to be the puncher."
He's certainly not wrong in that regard. The Warriors were able to dig themselves out of a 12-1 hole in Game 1, but failed to recover from their early double-digit deficits in Game 2. Capable of three-point barrages though they may be, the Dubs can ill afford to fall so far behind a team as good as Rivers' Clippers if surviving beyond the first round is, indeed, Golden State's objective.
Who will "win" the coaching battle in Game 3?
This team, while prone to mistakes, shouldn't be tentative. Most of the key players on this roster sport deep postseason experience. Iguodala's the only member of Golden State's core who wasn't on last year's Cinderella squad, though he was on the brink of sneaking into the Eastern Conference Finals with the Philadelphia 76ers two years ago.
"Sometimes the playoffs do that," Jermaine O'Neal told The Mercury News. "You want to play well and do well and sometimes playing well and doing well consists of making mistakes. We started the games out turning the ball over at a high rate. We were able to respond in the first game, but they didn't let us respond last night."
"Let" seems a curious word choice there. If the Warriors are going to succeed from here on out, they'll have to force the issue instead of waiting for an opening. "We've got to come out with the mindset of destroying them," Green added. "If we come out with that mindset, we'll be fine."
Jackson should have little trouble motivating his players to do just that. He practically specializes in motivational speaking, with plenty of experience to boot from his years as a pastor. By all accounts, Jackson still has the full support of his locker room, despite whatever ruckus the changes he made to his coaching staff during the season might've stirred up.
And, frankly, if the Warriors can't get up for a pivotal playoff game, in front of a raucous home crowd, against a team with which they share a veritable blood feud, then Golden State's problems are beyond anything Mark Jackson can solve with a pep talk here or a tactical adjustment there.
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