Posted Jun 17 2010 11:53AM
LOS ANGELES -- John Wooden did it in college. Al McGuire did it, too. But Red Auerbach didn't, and as far as we know, no NBA coach in recent memory announced that he was retiring (or even just quitting) on the brink of a championship.
Wouldn't it add to the already heady mix of emotions and excitement if Phil Jackson of the Lakers or Boston's Doc Rivers went all-in in the most profound way Thursday night before Game 7 of The Finals at Staples Center? The professional futures of both already have been the targets of much speculation. For Jackson, it is the familiar issue of burnout, a curious mind, some health problems and the possibilities of new, greater and richer opportunities elsewhere. For Rivers, it's the lure of family time as his children grow up and move on, mixed with the freedom and leverage that comes from his success as an NBA lifer.
Imagine the heightened interest if Rivers and Jackson turned this best-of-one-game finale into a "win and go home" proposition: Winner gets to exit not just gracefully but classically, moving on to his life's next challenge or leisure as he prefers. Loser agrees to come back and try one more time.
It would at least get folks talking about something other than Kendrick Perkins' and Andrew Bynum's unfortunate knees.
It also would shine more light on a matchup in this series -- Jackson vs. Rivers -- that has served as a backdrop without, so far, much resolution. At various points through the first six games, the question has been asked: Who's outcoaching whom? But the answers have swung with the outcomes of each game, not necessarily in lockstep but tracking closely enough to negate any claims of a blowout.
It's a funky competition to begin with, pitting two guys in suits who -- unlike all that is happening on the floor -- never come into contact with each other. Some may see the coaching showdown as two chessmasters working opposite ends of a 94-foot board. But to others, Jackson and Rivers might as well be playing Gershwin vs. Dixieland in a battle of two bands. Or whipping up a Thanksgiving turkey vs. Peking duck on a cooking show.
Two different coaches, two different rosters, two different tunes, two different recipes. ... you get the idea.
"It's more or less whether your players execute," said Jim Cleamons, Jackson's longtime assistant in Chicago and L.A. "If the other team executes better, people will say you're getting 'outcoached.'
"But the games we have lost in this series have boiled down to Boston getting second shots. In two games in particular, I would give [Nate] Robinson, [Rajon] Rondo and [Glen] Davis credit for making better effort plays. Loose balls, keeping balls alive, second-chance points. We missed free throws and shot the ball poorly -- but did we shoot poorly because we missed our shots or because they contested? As a coach, you have to always give the other team credit."
Clearly there is a difference in style, a contrast in how each man goes about his business during games and behind closed doors. Jackson, 64, is the Zen master with the exotic offensive system. He is the unflappable one, the anchor who tries to bring calm to the inevitable chaos on the court. He challenges his players first through their minds, handing out books, daring them to play through timeouts not called. Never frantic, his reserves of wisdom and strategy run deep.
Rivers, 48, is way more hands-on, much more sweaty as a traditional, defense-first coach. He works through his guys' hearts and wears his on his sleeve. He goes with his gut. He trusted, for one quick example, some of the league's shakiest personalities (Robinson, Davis, Tony Allen, Rasheed Wallace) off the bench with Game 4 of the Finals at stake.
There are similarities between the two head coaches -- their backgrounds as former NBA players, their ease in delegating to solid assistants, their work as strategists (Jackson's triangle, Rivers messing with it), their ability to adjust on the fly. But the differences stand out.
Will Perdue, the former NBA center turned ESPN Radio analyst, cited the moment in Game 4 when Rivers rushed onto the court to get a timeout called. It saved the Celtics from an 8-second violation. But it looked a little frenzied, too.
"His players are running by, slapping him on the back, rubbing his head, giving him a hard time," said Perdue, a backup center on Jackson's Bulls teams in the early 1990s.
"Have you ever seen that kind of interaction between Phil and players? There are interactions between them in practice, but it's behind closed doors. Where you see openly how much respect the players have for Doc."
Perdue looked at Game 7, with the championship on the line, this way: "If the Lakers win, it's obvious who your MVP is [Kobe Bryant]. But if the Celtics win, who's the MVP? I contend it's Doc Rivers. You take where this team was going into the playoffs -- the fourth seed [in the East] -- there's no doubt they took the most difficult route to get here.
"I think a lot of that has to do with what Doc's done as far as lineups, motivating guys, getting them to believe in what's going on, making adjustments on the fly ... Knowing his guys and being able to communicate with them. How many guys would have the gall to go to Rondo and tell him, 'I need you to make sacrifices for the good of the team?' [Paul] Pierce and KG [Kevin Garnett] had dealt with injuries, and he needed Rondo to get them going. Putting Nate Robinson in? He could get crucified for that."
Remember, Perdue played six seasons for Jackson in Chicago, contributing to the Bulls' first three-peat (1991-93). He also played for Doug Collins, Gregg Popovich (1999 title) and Mike Dunleavy in a 13-year NBA career. "Is Phil the best X&O guy? I played for better X&O guys," Perdue said. "But to me, he's the best delegator and he's the best guy at pushing the right buttons for players."
This is only the second time since 1987 that the two head coaches in The Finals already have championship rings (Popovich and Larry Brown had done it by the time they met in 2005, San Antonio vs. Detroit). Jackson already has 10 championships as coach, Rivers one.
Is it even possible for a guy with 10 rings to get "outcoached?"
"If the Lakers lose, it's going to be 'someone else's fault,' ' Perdue said. "Phil's at that status that, because of the rings, because of the experience, he must be doing everything right. So, 'The players must not be executing the game plan.' "
So who's outcoaching whom? Like the series itself, the matchup looks pretty even to most observers. That's why, in this Hollywood setting, the coaches themselves could add some last-episode-of-Lost drama with a retirement wager.
Though there's probably enough drama as it is.
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