We're supposed to be seeing championship basketball -- crisp and efficient, the NBA at its best, with each team having honed its game in the preliminary rounds. Instead, what we're getting is just plain ugly. Missed layups, open jumpers and free throws; botched defensive assignments; reckless guard-play and turnovers galore. To say nothing of misguided coaching strategies.
Even so, somebody's going to win the series and be acclaimed as the champs.
Right now, the Spurs are a tad sharper than the Nets and seem to be in control. Yet, like the weather in Oklahoma, playoff series are subject to immediate and dramatic changes. Let's take a look at exactly what the Nets must do to calm the storm and give themselves a chance to win.
Reconfigure their inept zone offense. Up till now, New Jersey has attempted to combat the Spurs' 3-2-cum-2-1-2 zone by sending desultory cutters sashaying through the middle -- a passive tactic that has accomplished nothing. Occasionally, the Nets also flash a big man from the foul line into the pivot to the same effect. (What needs to happen here is another big man moving quickly into the vacated foul line area -- move and replace being one of the principles of a sound zone offense.)
Most often the Nets leave the middle open and have all five players manning spots along the periphery. The idea is to create a situation where the Spurs' interior defenders are guarding nobody. As a result, quick swing passes will theoretically find an undefended shooter. Good idea, bad execution.
The problem is that the Nets usually have only one sure-shot bomber in the lineup -- either Kerry Kittles or Lucious Harris. "Everybody else," says one of the Spurs, "looks like they're afraid to shoot the ball."
|If the Nets don't act fast, Duncan will go home with his second ring.|
Get Jason Kidd off of Tony Parker. J-Kidd is expending far too much energy chasing the young speedster up and down the court. The Nets MVP (would you believe he finished ninth in the league-wide MVP voting?) has too much responsibility at the offensive end and seemed to be dragging at the end of Game 3. Put Kidd on Stephen Jackson, and have Kittles, with his length, size, and quickness, shadow Parker.
Adjust the defensive rotation to provide more coverage of the Spurs 3-point shooters. For the first three games (and, indeed for the entire season), the Nets reacted to opponents' penetration by sending all five defenders into the paint. To some degree, this strategy has proved successful against the Spurs -- primarily because Parker, Jackson and Manu Ginobili repeatedly dribble into the lane and attempt to make precision interior passes while they're airborne. This has been the impetus for most of San Antonio's numerous turnovers. At the same time, whenever the Spurs manage to toss the ball back out to either Ginobili, Jackson or (especially) Parker, the result is a clean shot and, more often than not, a costly 3-pointer.
Why not send only three defenders to plug the paint? The tradeoff for fewer turnovers created would be more than balanced by the decrease in successful 3-balls.
Be grateful for Dikembe Motumbo's unexpected contributions in Game 2, but from now on keep the lid tightly nailed on his coffin. "The Nets' offense is paralyzed when Mutombo plays," says another San Antonio player. "And when he's guarding Duncan, TD can face him up and get whatever he wants. If we weren't playing so sloppily, and if we were passing the ball more instead of dribbling, we'd shred the Nets at both ends whenever Motumbo was on the court."
Do not stuff the ball into Kenyon Martin and let him go one-on-one at the end of the game for two reasons: K-Mart is simply too exhausted from battling the bigger and stronger Duncan, to the point where he failed to box out TD and yielded a damaging offensive rebound when Parker bricked a free throw in the closing moments of Game 3. And Martin holds the ball too long before he makes his move. All this does is allow the Spurs' defense to click into place.
|If Kidd wants to cement his place in history he needs to act now.|
Eliminate the confusion as to when, and from where, Duncan will be two-timed. One of the deciding sequences in Game 3 occurred with 7:26 left in the fourth quarter and the Spurs up, 65-60. Duncan clutched an entry pass on the left box and nobody jumped him when he drove his right hand to the middle. The result was that Martin was tagged with his fifth foul, and the Nets noticeably sagged until a Kittles' 3-pointer revived them several minutes later.
Thus far, several factors are working in the Nets' favor: They are unafraid of the Spurs. They know that the Spurs are shaky in the fourth quarter. Several of the Spurs are mistake-prone -- especially at the free throw line. And they understand that they have the goods to deliver the title to the Swampland.
But for the Nets to succeed, they must take their game plan back to the drawing board.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."