• Matthew Legros

Popovich vs D'Antoni

The San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets are facing off in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Amidst two of the top 3 MVP candidates meeting in dramatic fashion, one of the key highlights of the series is the coaching battle. Perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the NBA meets perhaps the greatest offensive minded coach of all-time. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs and Mike D'Antoni of the Houston Rockets have their teams poised to advance to the Conference Finals and contend for a championship. How will their coaching styles impact this series?

Gregg Popovich is a revolutionary coach that has played a role in the revolution of NBA play. His San Antonio Spurs have perfected a ball-movement friendly coordinated attack on all their opponents, translating to 5 championships. This season, the Spurs have not strayed away from the identity that has seen so much success over the years.

Mike D'Antoni on the other hand also has a role in the current landscape of the NBA. His 7-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns molded what is the pick-and-roll heavy offensive schemes in the NBA today, and high octane offenses as a whole. This season, D'Antonio has rejuvenated a Houston Rockets team suffering from internal strife.

Put on display in Game 1 was a full onslaught of three pointers flung by the Houston Rockets. Coach D'Antoni recognized that the only way to beat the Spurs would be to expand the floor, shoot the three, and run the floor. Using his team's youth to their advantage, D'Antoni masterfully opened the lane for Harden and his bigs to operate in the pick and roll, and beyond the arc, the Rockets made a fool of the Spurs, converting on 44% of their three point attempts. 22 made threes in Game 1 is 3 shy of the Cleveland Cavaliers record set last season against the Atlanta Hawks in the postseason. The free flowing, fast paced offense resulted in 6 Rockets players scoring in double figures. The Spurs, on the other hand, were abysmal. Outside of Kawhi Leonard, who did not play great himself, no other player contributed. The rest of the starters combined for 27 points. That's what Lamarcus Aldridge alone should have tinkered on this game.

Beyond offense, the Rockets actually played exceptional defense. Using a small ball lineup half the time, the Rockets switched on many pick and roll situations, and remained composed whilst contesting shots, forcing Kawhi Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge to take bad shots. D'Antoni's defensive scheme did not disappoint, as the Rockets held the ever-so-efficient Spurs to a meager 37% from the field. Its clear Mike D'Antoni and his coaching staff had his team ready to clog the lanes and put pressure on the offense from the jump. The Spurs, however, had no answer.

Game 2 saw a complete shift in dominance. The Spurs handled the Rockets by a similar margin of victory, and the tempo of the game changed tremendously. This was a complete subset of the coaching adjustment Gregg Popovich made. As seen in the game, players positions 1-5 closed out hard on every three point attempt fired or even thought of. The Spurs played with a no-threes mentality, and as a result, the NBA's best defense disrupted James Harden in the pick and roll, and forced dynamic shooters like Lou Williams and Trevor Ariza to take it into the paint.

Games 3 and 4 showed similar defensive prowess from the Spurs, but the Rockets surely made adjustments of their own. The Rockets decided to take what they could get, as opposed to beating the Spurs solely off the three point line. When Spurs players closed out, the Rockets penetrated, leading to 72 points scored inside the arc and in the paint in a crucial series tying Game 4 win. Last night, the Spurs and Rockets met each others' match in Game 5. Having exposed each other's' weaknesses and made their own respective changes, the game went into overtime, where, you guessed it, coaching played a major role in the outcome. Late in the fourth quarter, Pop pulled Kawhi Leonard from the game due to an ailment. He proceeded to run a post-entry, screen away offense, dumping the ball into Lamarcus Aldridge to attract the double team and set up shooters on the wing. On the other side of the ball however, D'Antoni committed perhaps a coaching dud. Playing only 7 players showed lack of confidence in his bench, especially with the injury to Nene. Also, taking Ryan Anderson out of the starting lineup had adverse effects on the boards, losing that battle as a team (52 to 47 respectively).

With Game 6 set for Thursday, these teams will both have to regroup after an arduous 5 game stretch. Throughout the series, we have seen the Spurs transition from keeping up with the Rockets uptempo style, to enforcing their defensive prowess, and disrupting the game plan of Houston. We have seen Houston, however, expand the floor and knock down the long ball at a tremendous rate. Going forward, there are issues that both coaches need to fix. For one, the free flowing Houston offense is slowly but surely reverting back to heavy reliance on James Harden. D'Antoni needs to implement more of his bench, generate even more points inside the 3 point arc, and find a way to contain Kawhi Leonard. For Pop, closing out the series will mean exploiting Houston in every way possible. Without Nene, and an incompetent Ryan Anderson on defense, the coaching staff needs to ingratiate Pau Gasol into the offense more effectively. 4 points in 20 minutes for a future Hall-of-Famer, no matter how old, is unacceptable, and like we've seen with the great Eric Spoelstra in Miami during the big 3 era, Pop has to dump the ball into Gasol to get him going the way Spo did Chris Bosh. This way there is more cohesion on the offensive end and more guys are in rhythm when slumps occur. The finale of this series will come down to the coaching, and the coach who implements better strategy will be victorious.

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