Pop won the well-deserved COTY award this year. Rick Carlisle is giving him a real run for his money in this series. Why is it that coaching is important here?
We fans seem to really enjoy thinking that coaching is about match ups, substitutions, rotations, and a bit of drawing up plays and strategy. We then analyze these things after individual games and point out what all the coach did wrong or should have done differently. It's easy to be informed with hind-sight and come to these conclusions which seem fairly obvious. But a really great coach is not moved by these little blips that we all see. A great coach understands a lot more of the long view.
In this series, each coach may have evaluated their biggest threats. If you are competing, whether it's on a basketball court or in business, the best plan is to deal first with the biggest strength of your opponent. The key to winning regardless of the quality of your competition is to cause the competitor to operate outside of their strengths, while allowing your own side to operate within your area of strengths. So the key is to identify what those strengths are.
From the Mavericks' view, the strength of the Spurs, as we have all said all year long, is "the bench". 2/3 of the "Big 3" are aging and have relaxed, playing fewer minutes and having a smaller numerical impact. "The bench", by contrast, contains a young and talented roster of elite shooters along with some effective role players, led by play-maker-extraordinaire, Manu Ginobili. History tells us that Manu is fragile by the time the playoffs come along, and particularly considering his age, his coach is likely to err on the side of caution and limit his play time to avoid risk, particularly in the first round. So conventional wisdom may mute the effectiveness of "the bench" somewhat, considering a 1-8 matchup and a risky on-court leader. Then as the Mavericks' coach, I would have to just contend with "the bench". How do I make "the bench" of the Spurs become ineffective. Well, they can't contribute unless they are on the court. One reason "the bench" may be so good may be due to the relative large portion of time they are on the court compared with other teams' backup rosters. Marco & Mills cannot light up the scoreboard with 3s if they are on the sideline towel-waving and fist-pumping. Bonner can't bury clutch jumpers and Manu can't contort ridiculous and-1 generating layups or miraculous assists if they are sitting down. Then how do I keep "the bench" on the bench? I convince the Spurs that they are better off staying with the starters.. Let Duncan, Parker and Leonard be just effective enough that Pop thinks they can carry the team to victory. But shut down whoever we can shut down to keep the score from getting out of hand such that Pop puts the bench guys in early. The tactics to make this strategy work are now well known, and they are, by and large, working. This is excellent coaching.
If I am the Spurs, I consider Dallas' main strength may be Dirk. It's not their only strength, but you cannot plan to beat Dallas if you can't control Dirk. If Dallas is forced to play through guys other than Dirk, then they are playing with fire. They might get lucky, some other player might get hot, but eventually their luck may run out. So if I am Pop, I am going to try to contain Dirk enough to tempt Dallas into creating a new game plan that doesn't rely on Dirk. Then when they create that new plan, I am going to trust the talent and adaptability of my defense to be able to handle it. To hedge, I will put my best defender on their 2nd biggest threat, even if it's a mismatch. In 2014 that guy is Kawhi Leonard, and the 2nd threat on the Mavs team is Monta Ellis. The Spurs game plan is to trust "the system", which is we have an overarching offense and defense plan that results in success, we execute it with some degree of discipline, and if we can keep from being distracted from that plan, most likely we will win. Tactically, to contain Dirk, I will present him with a big defender who is very strong in the post and cut off half of Dirk's game, conceding that maybe his fade-away is going to still work. On the other end of the court, I will force Dirk to have to play defense against this same big man. That's Tiago Splitter. In the long run, over a 7-game series, if I can get Dallas to retool on the fly to avoid reliance on Dirk, then we can win. And this strategy is working, barely, and it is also excellent coaching.
Coaching is not the whole story. Sometimes it pays off in ways you don't expect, sometimes it doesn't work and you have to change or adapt. Further, neither coach anticipates exactly what the opposing coach will do. On top of that, you can never know how exactly your own players or the opposing team's players will react when they are presented with the opposition's plan. In the case of the Spurs, their reaction in games 1-2 was to completely break the Spurs game plan. And this had the effect of causing precisely what Carlisle wanted: the bench stayed on the bench. Game 3 was the outlier because not only was the game planning affecting them, but also the emotions of the Mavs' first game at home and momentum of the series. However, by game 4, Pop's strategy paid off, and by way of coincidence, he found a flaw in the Mavs' very successful strategy.
Splitter had, for three games, forced the Mavs to retool their offense a little bit, because of his successful containment of Dirk. Unfortunately for the Spurs, so far that retooling was paying off. The guards were torching the Spurs defense. So even with an ineffective Dirk, the Mavs were winning. Then in game 3, Splitter and Duncan both got into foul trouble, effectively forcing Pop to bring in more of the bench than he had likely planned. And these bench players adapted to a game plan, cobbled together, for which the Mavericks were not prepared. Carlisle's play was much more of a chess game with Popovich. Misdirection. Keep Pop from bringing in the bench. Convince him to ride the starters. But one of the starters gets in foul trouble and Pop snapped out of the trance and brought in the bench. Suddenly the chemistry that worked so well for 82 games came back on like a light switch. The unexpected lineup of Mills-Ginobili-Leonard-Diaw-Bonner presented a threat that Dallas was not good at defending. And this is where truly great coaching starts to pay off.
To win two out of the next three in this series is going to require the Spurs to play the bench. Given the fact that Parker is perhaps exhausted or injured, Carlisle's plan may be backfiring. But it's a game of attrition. It's a gamble. If the starters get too worn out too fast, then Pop will have no choice but to go to the bench and then the Spurs will return to winning. They move back to their strength. The Mavericks' hopes must rest on the starters playing heavy minutes from here on out. In game 4, Mills got back in rhythm. If Green and Belinelli also find their ordinary shooting touch then Dallas is doomed to a round-1 exit.