Those that follow this site know that I’m a fan of X’s and O’s. When I watch games I often put most of my focus on the action taking place off the ball in order to see how the players are deployed and what wrinkles are implemented to make a play successful. I’m a fan of the little things and often those are the product of what the coaches emphasize and the nuance of the scheme that a team runs. This is the stuff that matters to me most because even though talent is always needed to win in this league, the truly elite teams – the ones that contend for championships year after year – are the ones that pair those players with the best schemes that are executed the best possession after possession over the course of a game, a playoff series, a season.
So saying all that, it’s no surprise that out of all the marquee names and match ups between the Heat and the Lakers, the one I’ll be most interested in will be taking place on the sidelines between Phil Jackson and Erik Spoelstra. Don’t get me wrong, the action on the floor will carry the game and I’ll be paying close attention to how Artest guards Lebron, how Kobe and Wade go at each other, and looking at Gasol and Bosh to see which big man can most affect the game. But when the ball tips off and the chess match between the coaches begins, I’ll also be looking at the adjustments made and what points of emphasis become apparent on both sides of the ball.
For what it’s worth, Phil Jackson is already begun prepping his team by putting them through a pretty grueling practice session yesterday. From Land O’ Lakers:
“We got a lot of stuff done,” confirmed Pau Gasol. “We worked intensely. It was probably one of the best days we’ve had all year.” Phil Jackson praised the continuity offered by working with everyone present and accounted for. Guys like Andrew Bynum (newly returned) and Joe Smith (new in every sense) were given the rare opportunity to build dress rehearsal chemistry with the entire active roster. Steve Blake mentioned detail-drenched sessions on both sides of the ball. Lamar Odom echoed that assessment, noting how much easier it is to address “small things” with a full compliment of players.
The story goes on to cite that the longer than expected practice session was just as much a reaction to the poor play offered up by the Lakers in Tuesday’s game versus the Bucks as it was an effort to prepare for tomorrow’s game against the visiting Heat, but it’s also easy to see that this session was designed to get his team ready for one of the more anticipated regular season games this season. And I’m sure that Coach Spoelstra is doing the same.
While some (most?) will point to this match up of coaches and think it’s a mismatch out of the gate, there’s actually a history of close games between these two coaches when their teams match up. Phil may have a history of unprecedented success in this league and Spoelstra’s relative inexperience as a head man makes it easy to dismiss his credentials in this match up, but when you look at the results from the games between the Lakers and Heat during both men’s tenures you’ll see a string of nail biters that were split between the teams. (None more famous than the one from last year where Kobe needed a miracle shot to take down the Heat in their lone visit to Staples.)
And with this history of close games, coaching strategy and adjustments to what the man pacing the opposing sideline has in store will surely come into play. What types of defensive schemes will each coach use? What offensive wrinkles will be put in place to get the key players in position to do the most damage? Will substitutions be altered for match up purposes? What counters will be put in place to limit the effectiveness of the other’s moves? These are only a few questions that I’ll be looking at throughout the game but there are literally dozens more.
So while I’m watching Kobe and Pau doing work at the elbows and Lebron and Wade trying to get out in transition, I’ll also have one eye on the sidelines to look at what the coaches have in store in order to pull this game out. It may not be the sexiest part of the Christmas Day game, but it could prove to be the most meaningful.