Pivotal 3rd Quarter Allows Spurs to Advance

Don Casey has nearly 20 years of NBA experience, breaking into the league as a Chicago Bulls assistant coach in 1982. In the late '80s, Casey was the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers for a season and a half. Later, he was the head coach of the New Jersey Nets for a year and a half, including the 1999-2000 season. Casey shares his insights as to what he has seen and what we can expect throughout the 2005 Playoffs.

By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

June 2 --Breakin’ It Down: In the first half, the Suns went back to their classic pick-and-roll, which they shredded Dallas with. The Spurs’ defense of this was to push it down to the baseline and they did not let Steve Nash get into the middle where he can do a multitude of damage to the defense. The Spurs did that well but, in the first half, they did not rotate back to Stoudemire. Nash passed back to him, one was behind-the-back, and Amaré was hitting his jump shot.

Parker celebrates a Western Conference title.
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Also, the Suns had a very quick double-team on Tim Duncan. They came from up top and there was no set double-teamer. Sometimes they would send Manu Ginobili’s man and sometimes it was Tony Parker’s man. The Spurs have definitely seen this in the past, but when the ball came back out, the Suns did not challenge Parker. If they did, he would have dribbled to the basket and gone in for a layup or kicked it back out. The strategy was to shadow Parker and see what he could do from the perimeter. Normally teams would say that he has to make three shots before we will come back and really guard them. He took them, but he did not make them.

Between both of these strategies, the Suns kept it close and went in to halftime with a one-point lead.

Know you come out in the third quarter—obviously the Spurs reviewed this in the locker room—and their defense rotated very well. The Suns could not get a comfortable shot. Nash and Amare Stoudemire were held to seven points and the team was held to 20, overall in this quarter. That is where the game was won. The Suns labored. They did not go to Plan B and the Spurs’ adjustments and energy was too much.

There is an old adage that if there is a lot of pressure on a team and they are coming off a bad loss, they play better on the road. They are more relaxed. When you play at home, there is a little more pressure. That was a little bit prevalent tonight. There is a lot of pressure on a young team at home in the playoffs, but do not tell that to Stoudemire. In going against Duncan and a very good team-defense, this young man demonstrated that he has a big time game. He can hit the jumper from the foul-line in, he has a power game and he has a finesse game. This kid is going to be excellent.

But we have to go back to the Suns’ bench. What bench? Their reserves were a non-factor. Quentin Richardson and Shawn Marion also gave them nothing as starters. They tried to run plays for Marion, but for whatever reason, he could not get out of that rut. He looked tentative and that hurt. But Phoenix was still in the game because of Nash, and Stoudemire. But going up a very experienced team that has nine or ten guys scoring, this is not going to work. It was amazing that the Suns were in the game at all.

The Spurs entire organization is great—from the ownership, to the general management, to the staff, to Ginobili and Parker. Of course, Coach Popovich has gotten them to play his way. He has also plugged in some good assistants to help him share the burden. The players know the system works and they know the coaches are working hard for them, so they work hard for their teammates. It is a collective effort.

You can see it in their eyes, their expressions, their huddles on the sidelines—this is an absolute group effort. Everybody knows and accepts their job. Think about this: They made a trade and got Nazr Mohammed. Are you serious? But they pulled it off. This is how it should be done. You also have too look at Pat Riley in Miami and Joe Dumars in Detroit. Like the Spurs, they have both done great jobs. Only the strong survive and we are seeing this now.

Heat, Wade Rise to the Occasion
May 26 -- You have to give Miami a lot of credit for making the adjustment of putting the ball in Dwyane Wade's hands and putting him in the middle of the floor. That was a very good move. He took advantage of it.

Wade and Shaq, together again.
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He was struggling a little bit early on, but he turned it around. He got himself into the middle of the floor, into the key, and when he does that, all kinds of things can happen. Miami also did a good thing when they put Wade and Shaq in a pick-and-roll which they had not done on a consistent basis. Christian Laettner played well for the Heat and Mourning gave the team some monster minutes. I like when Miami plays Shaq and Mourning together. Detroit thinks they can run on them, but I think it worked out for the Heat.

I do not think Shaq looked well at the end. He did not have much lift and he seemed much more energized in the first quarter. His foul shooting also continues to be a problem. Was he shooting for the side of the basket? One of his shots did not even hit anything. Miami should be concerned. They are lucky they have three days off.

But this was a big game for Wade. He will always look back on this night especially after he had such a tough time in Game 1. Miami put the ball in Wade’s hands, kind of like what the Sixers do with Iverson. They said, "Let's just let him make the decision rather than having someone pass him to ball." When Dwyane has the ball, it makes it harder for Detroit to cheat on defense. That was a very intelligent basketball decision.

Still, the game was really close tonight. Chauncey Billups had eight of the team's 12 turnovers in the first half, they did not finish on a lot of breaks and they never really got in a rhythm.

They posted up Rasheed more than they have done in the past. I had indicated earlier that this would be good strategy for the Pistons. He did not really get in there, though. He was not the same factor that he was in Game 1. Detroit has to try to get him off early, like they did in Game 1. It is not a good sign, though, that they could not keep the lead late in the game.

Despite all of this, they were in the game. Detroit played tough defense and they pressured the ball handlers well. I also do not expect Detroit to turn the ball over as much at home. As long as the Pistons continue with their strategy, the rest of the stuff will fall in place.

This latest Larry Brown controversy has to be a little unsettling for Detroit, though. He always appeared to be interested in something else. Here you are playing for a Championship and there are all these reports linking Brown to Cleveland. Some of the players have to be worried that Coach Brown might not be around next year. You do not need any of these distractions. I do not say because of the loss last night, but you cannot have all this frivolous stuff with Brown saying, "No comment," and Joe Dumars refusing to comment. It takes away from the emphasis on the moment. The focus should be on stopping Wade and Shaq, not whether or not Larry Brown will be the next president of the Cavaliers.

I still like Detroit, though. They play the total game and they have much more experience than the Heat.

Plenty of Intrigue in Miami
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

May 23 -- In looking at this series, I think Detroit will get one win in Miami. They have the rhythm, now. They are serious. They were having spike effects against Indiana, but now they are in more of a groove, particularly on the defensive end.

Will Shaq be able to help Flash in the Eastern Conference Finals?
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There is a feeling among the Detroit people that since they defended Shaq and Kobe very well in the Finals last year, they will be able to do similarly well against Shaq and Dwyane Wade. I do not fully agree with that because the Lakers were in chaos. There were many disruptions on and off the court and when the triangle offense is not flowing, it is not that difficult to shut people down.

Miami is a different animal, however. The Heat will have Wade running off a multitude of screens, he will be handling the ball and they will put him in pick-and-rolls. He will play a different game than Kobe did last year, even though Detroit might not think so.

The only hitch for Miami is that they do not have a true point guard á la Nash, Tony Parker—people of that ilk. They have very good ball-handling twos and threes and Keyon Dooling can get up and down the floor, but I think that Detroit can have success with their swarming half-court defense to try to disrupt Miami’s offense. I do not think Detroit can play a normal half-court defense and allow Miami to run their structured offense. They have to disrupt the Heat’s offense before it gets going.

It will also be interesting to see what Detroit does when the ball goes into Shaq in the low post. Will it be mano-á-mano with Ben Wallace trying to get what he can, flopping and taking charges? Will the defense stay with their man to prevent Shaq from kicking it out and igniting Miami’s shooters? Detroit will probably not try to double-team Shaq, at least early on, because this is how Damon Jones, Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones get going.

If they do not double, we will have to see what kind of condition Shaq is in. How many minutes can he go? Detroit should take a page out of Phoenix’s playbook and try to run a little more than usual in luring to trap Shaq in pick-and-rolls. This could wear him down and tire him and then in comes Mourning, who is doing fine, but, compared to Shaq, he is just a normal player.

Rasheed Wallace could also cause problems for Miami. He is as good a post-up player as you will find in these league. He can also take fours and fives away from the basket. He can spot up, he can shoot, he can catch and go and he causes a multitude of matchup problems. Miami will also have to get creative in dealing with Richard Hamilton. They might not want to put Dwyane Wade on him because Hamilton can tire him out, constantly running around the court. Eddie Jones or even Keyon Dooling might be a better matchup.

Miami is coming off a long layoff and they have not faced a team like Detroit in the postseason. We will see early on how the Heat will react to these factors. But, this will be a chess match. Stan Van Gundy has done a very nice job coaching the Heat and Larry Brown is always prepared.

I like Miami’s chances, but I’m a firm believer that you have to beat the champions. And the Pistons are still the champions. They have stood up and they play good defense. I think Detroit will win this series.

On Second Thought...
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

Feb. 19 -- Dallas is in deep trouble.

Steve Nash's play is turning heads.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
The fact is, on the pick-and-rolls, the Mavericks are not denying Steve Nash from where he wants to go. This guy is getting below the foul line and getting jump shots. That is where his high shot production is coming from. This is a fatal flaw which I believe will bring Dallas down. The Mavericks have to challenge Nash.

As Chuck Daly would say, they have to show the Suns different types of defenses. They can trap it and make him make another play. They can push it down to the sideline, like the Bulls used to do against Utah. In this way, the Bulls were able to stop Stockton and Malone, arguably the best pick-and-roll combination ever.

The Mavericks’ job is not even this hard. They just have to stop Nash. The Suns do not really have a guy like Malone. They have to come to some conclusion of what they are going to do with the pick-and-roll.

Now, Dallas just has Dampier waiting in the wings and laying back so they do not get burned with Stoudemire driving to the hole. This is not working. Just watch Nash. He is dribbling all over the place. He can get anywhere he wants and this is shocking for Nash. It is obvious why he got 28 shots in Game 4. He had 26 shots last night and the other guys got their shots up too. The Suns took 92 shots, 21 more than Game 4. The Suns were not racing up and down the court, but they did not have to because Dallas could not defend the pick-and-roll.

This is lethal.

Unless they do a better job in Game 6, this series is over.

Johnson and Johnson
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

After a big win in Game 4, I think Dallas is going to win the series. The X-factor is Jerry Stackhouse and he has played much more efficiently than I thought he would. I also think Erick Dampier got the message and he is getting himself more involved.

The Suns miss Joe Johnson's shooting eye.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
May 16 -- If Joe Johnson was healthy, though, this would absolutely be a different series. You are talking apples and oranges. In the postseason, he was averaging 39 minutes, 19 points on 57 percent shooting and he was running the point when Nash got his rest. You cannot replace that at this point in the year.

And with Johnson out, the Phoenix starters are playing a lot of minutes and they are going to have to continue to play these minutes. Jim Jackson has to come up big for Phoenix to win the series.

Although Dallas has the edge, Phoenix definitely has a chance because both teams give up points like they do not care. Dallas is scoring 104 points in the playoffs and their opponents are scoring 103. Phoenix is shooting 49 percent overall and 45 percent from the three-point line. These guys are going to keep running it out and scoring as many points as they can and hope that they are within striking distance at the end.

That said, Phoenix cannot do it with Steve Nash getting 28 shots. When Amare Stoudemire only goes 3 for 8, you are not going to win. This happened because Dallas really did not honor Nash in the pick-and-roll.

They let him come off the screens and it looked like they were saying, "We will let Nash get his jumpers but we will not let him get the ball to Stoudemire in a pick-and-roll."

Casey's impressed with Johnson's adjustments.
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Also, Nash did not even have a layup until late in the second half. This is an indication that he was not near the basket and because of this, others did not get in the mix. This is the whole key for Phoenix. Nash always get everybody involved, he always drives and kicks out, but Dallas took this away by covering the shooters and forcing him to take jumper after jumper. This philosophy worked for one game, but it may come back to haunt Dallas. The Mavericks are flirting with the devil but Phoenix is not going anywhere with Stoudemire playing 43 minutes and only getting eight shots.

I think Phoenix needs to think about using more structured plays. They need to try to get the ball inside to Stoudemire or to their shooters and they cannot let Dallas’ defense or, in this case, lack of defense dictate how they run their offense.

Dallas has to be ready because Phoenix will be working harder to make their pick-and-roll work. Dallas has to come up and play defense a couple different ways. There needs to be some real chess-thinking on the fly because the Suns are going to come out with different strategies. I like when Avery Johnson puts the small team out there. They do a lot of things and they are quick. But, they also need Dampier there to grind out and get the Ben Wallace-type shots.

Dallas has momentum, right now. Avery has done a tremendous job in getting after them and getting them to do what they should be doing, particularly, in the last five minutes of the game. This is hard for any coach, especially a young coach.

Zoning Out the Pistons
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

May 13 -- Detroit just came up empty in Game 2. Richard Hamilton and the other main guys did not get their shots mainly because Indiana employed a tough, zone-like defense.

The Pistons were standing around because this defense kept them from moving off picks, which they normally do very well. It curtailed the pick-and-roll enough to allow Indiana to crawl back. The Pacers then settled into some good solid basketball after they disrupted Detroit’s style and established their rhythm.

Larry Brown even looked flat in the second half. So, when you take Hamilton and both Wallace’s out of the flow, you have yourself a game. I think this will happen again. Indiana will keep messing around with this zone-type defense to see if it can be as successful as it was in the last game.

I think the Pacers are doing more than just hanging around. Stephen Jackson, in particular, is playing very well. Not only is he getting his threes, but he is strong enough to take you into the post or to help guard people in the post.

Jeff Foster also came up huge in Game 2, but I have my doubts he will have another game like that. Still, he is an energizer player that makes things happen. Indiana has to continue to manage Hamilton coming off the baseline screens, which he does very well. They also have to manage the pick-and-roll, particularly with Ben Wallace going to the basket or Rasheed Wallace fading to the basket.

I think Detroit will continue to have trouble with Indiana. Indiana is a team running on destiny because of all the events earlier in the season and they have guys rising up to play the last game for Reggie. This is a dangerous team.

Foster demonstrated this mentality during the last game. He is not going to let Reggie Miller’s career end with a loss. Indiana can really hook onto the fact that this is Reggie’s last season. The magic of Reggie and the fact that he keeps coming through with big games is a perfect rallying point.

But Indiana is at a disadvantage because they really do not have a true point guard. Detroit should take advantage of this and go back to their half-court pressure. Over the course of the year, they would pick the ball up deep down the floor and put a lot of pressure on the guards to try to use the clock up. They would steal a pass here, steal a pass there. I do not see them doing that as much in the postseason. I think this is an excellent way of jamming and trying to disrupt the entry into an opposing team’s offense.

Indiana has proven they can keep up with Detroit and this will be an interesting series. Down deep inside my heart, though, I still see Detroit and Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Has Houston Lost Focus?
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

May 3 -- I think this series can go seven games but Houston needs more out of their starting backcourt of David Wesley and Bobby Sura. You cannot have only five for 10 shooting and three assists between two people. As good as Yao and T-Mac are, they cannot be expected to carry the team. Houston has to get more production out of the other players. Mike James gave them some last night and Jon Barry is a little streaky.

T-Mac and the Rockets find themselves down 3-2 after winning the first two.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
The Rockets only took 67 shots which indicates they are not running. Even though they shot well, they are not getting up and down the floor. Dallas, on the other hand, took 79 shots which indicates that they are moving up and down the floor more than Houston. Dallas has been pushing and getting back, getting up, getting early offense and looking for mismatches when they go small. They had 19 points on fastbreaks last night. The tempo of the game is very important for Dallas. It is in their nature to push, push, push. They miss Steven Nash to a certain extent, but they have been surviving without him.

One of the keys for the Mavs is that Michael Finley has awoken. He’s getting more minutes now that Keith Van Horn has gone down. There are a lot of contributing factors. I think their balanced scoring has been able to offset Dirk Nowitzki when he has had bad games. Now he is having good games and they are back again with about five, six guys in double figures.

I like the Mavs going small because it really creates a lot of defensive decisions for Houston to make. If Nowitzki is in the post, do you let Yao guard him by himself? Or when they are big and Nowitzki is being guarded by McGrady instead of Yao, do they use Yao as double-teamer? This is hard for the offensive man, but Yao is slower in getting out of the rotations and when a shot goes up, if he is doubling, he is not in the best position to get rebounds. But Houston has to continue to double-teaming. The Mavericks have a lot of firepower and I do not think the Rockets want to go one-on-one with Nowitzki. Dallas knows they can break Houston’s defense down. So, the Rockets’ double-team efforts are a pretty good strategy.

The question is: Can Yao have more big games? This is possible. We know T-Mac will. But Houston has to get Wesley and Sura involved. They need to get points from other people to be a consistent threat. Having said that, if they had made their foul shots, they might have won Monday night’s game.

Avery Johnson has done an excellent job during the last five minutes of each game. He subbed well. He’s used his 20-second timeouts very well. Just looking at him consulting with Del Harris shows he is trying to learn. Head coaches are under a lot of pressure in the playoffs and he is doing a tremendous job. He has talent, there is no question about that, but they were down 0-2 and they rallied by sticking together. Avery has exuberance and confidence and the players have picked up on it. That is why they are in the position they are today.

Dirk and the Mavs are focused.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
Jeff Van Gundy is a combative person and his teams are always well-prepared. You saw how furiously they came back Monday night. I do not think he is worrying about whether he is a failure because they were up 2-0. I do not think that bothers him. I think he is a game-for-game guy and he reacts to what the situation is at the moment.

But Van Gundy has recently made some comments that have shifted the focus off the actual game. This is a little troubling for Houston, because you have to focus on the game to be competitive and that is what players like Bird, Magic, Kobe and Michael have done.

Now, besides the game, there are other elements that are floating all around this series. How much of that is a distraction? How much energy does it take up answering questions? Is Yao Ming on the defensive because of his coach? Is the coach on the defensive about his statement about the officiating? This can sap you. This can take away from your thoughts and what you want to do for the game because you are out now in a defensive mode.

The league is angry and upset and we have a problem. The main thing, though, is the game. Houston has to win the game and worry about this afterwards. But, this issue is there and it will not go away. This controversy might be a series-breaker. The old saying is, "Off-court problems affect on-court happenings." This is what you always try to settle down with your players. You try to tell them that everything is fine with the girlfriend, the agent, so your mind can completely focus on the game. That is what coaches normally do. What Van Gundy did could be a focus-breaker.

However, it could work to Houston’s advantage, though. Did Yao play as well as he did last night because his coach defended him in public? I do not really think so, but this is something to think about. They did an excellent job on the pick-and-roll where Yao rolled to the basket, got it and became very active and aggressive in finishing. Normally, his pick-and-rolls are slow, just to spring up the shooters. I think Houston should keep going inside to Yao and look for kick-outs. Dallas has to keep the pace up. I like it when they go small and I think it becomes an energy game instead of an X-and-O game.

I do not see the coaches trying anything clever. We saw Washington go into a zone on Sunday, but I do not expect anything like that. We have to see if Houston uses McGrady and Yao to double-down. We have to see if Dallas continues goes small and how effective their push-game is. Whatever happens, it is going to be a tremendous atmosphere at the game on Thursday night. I like the capability of Houston to reach back and stop the run, but I still think Dallas will win the series.

Around the NBA Horn
By Don Casey (as told to John Hareas)

April 28 -- What I’m impressed with right now, is we have young coaches rising into the NBA scene and doing an excellent job. I’m talking particularly about Stan Van Gundy, Scott Skiles and Lawrence Frank. And, of course, we have the old salts that we’re seeing in Fratello, Popovich and George Karl.

For Parker, Duncan and the Spurs, a first-round matchup with Denver is no walk in the park.
Chris Birck/NBAE/Getty Images
San Antonio versus Denver should continue to be competitive, but I think Popovich’s steadiness and Duncan and Parker realizing this is not going to be a walk in the park has really helped the Spurs in this series. They rallied around after the loss in Game 1 and then you saw how explosive they can be in Game 2.

My concern for Denver is Kenyon Martin who doesn’t seem to be the force he was in New Jersey. My guess is Kenyon, like others, was made better by Jason Kidd and his style. He got a lot of follow-ups and easy baskets on the fast breaks. But it looks like his offensive game is suffering in the quickness of the West.

Denver has to continue to do it as a group or it’s going to be over. I think they will get one at home, though. Once you get one on the road, you can usually get one at home. But Denver has shown that you can’t be successful in the playoffs by playing to extremes. By that I’m saying, you can’t play defense like Denver did in Game 1 and then just capitulate in the second game. That spikeness is not good in playoffs.

Chicago looks to be on their way to the second round. They’ve been playing very well. I was also very disappointed with Washington’s defense because they let the Bulls take the ball wherever they wanted to. After their two wins, Chicago has a bounce. They’re confident and they always have potential big-time scorers with Gordon and Hinrich. And Arenas is not taking quality shots for Washington. So, all those threes and long jumpers he misses, Chicago gets the rebound and, boom, they take off.

As far as the Nets and Heats series, I’m disappointed in Carter and Kidd. I was expecting them to really exert themselves and to push the ball up and put the pressure on the Heat, but it’s been just the opposite. They gave it a good shot last night at the Meadowlands. They looked a little bouncier and a little friskier and they pushed it to double-overtime, but they still lost and now they’re down 3-0. They could definitely get swept.

In the Seattle and Sacramento matchup, the Kings, all of a sudden look like they don’t have an identity. They’re flat. It’s hard to describe. Bibby had a catastrophic Game 1 going 1 for 16 and Jackson, coming back in, has not been the spark that they wanted. They just don’t seem to have it for this playoff run. I would be very deeply concerned for Sacramento. On the other hand, Nate’s doing a great job for the Sonics. He’s got Seattle bouncing around, running up and down, doing dunks, throwing lobs. They’re showing a lot of energy and enthusiasm which is missing from Sacramento.

Phoenix looks good and they will get by Memphis. They haven’t changed their style, which is great. They haven’t got cautious or reserved. They come out and dance with the person that brought them to the dance and that’s the push-game offense. Nash is doing what I thought Kidd would do. He is constantly pushing that offense up. They went down and double-teamed Gasol in a good part of the Game 2 and Memphis’ perimeter players did not respond by hitting the open shot.

Detroit also looks great. They’re playing the old ABA, North Carolina, meet them at halfcourt, run and jump, take them out of their flow early-type of game. That is exactly what they’re doing to Philly. Allen Iverson’s bringing the ball up, he’s giving it up and he’s not getting it back in good spots. I see a possible sweep.

Looking ahead, I think Detroit could really benefit from something I saw at the end of Game 2 in the New Jersey-Miami series. The Nets went to a zone press, a little two-two zone press, and it bothered Miami because they don’t have a pure penetrating, playmaking-type guard. I guess Dooling would be the closest thing to that type of player for them.

It was kind of late for the Nets, but it could be a strategy for Detroit if they face the Heat. If Miami gets to Detroit, the Pistons will jam them as hard as they can at halfcourt, as they’ve done in the past, forcing Shaq into a pressure-release situation. So I think we should keep that in the back of our minds when these two teams meet. The team-scrambling defense could be the whole key for the Pistons to get into the Finals.

The first game of the Boston-Indiana series reminded me of the Memorial Day Massacre when the Lakers were blown out by the Celtics in the first game of the 1985 Finals. As we said we knew the floodgates were open. But the Pacers bounced back with wins in Games 2 and 3. A bad sign for the Celtics is that Antoine Walker has disappeared. A good sign for the Pacers is Reggie will not let his team down and will go out with a fight.

I think that Carlisle and Bird and Reggie—I know they all met up there because my friend saw them out to dinner—rallied the team and realized they could win some games if they stayed the course. These have been tremendous wins for the Pacers. I still don’t have a feel for the winner, but I’d give Indiana the edge. Indy’s big-time players have risen to the occasion and that’s what you need in the playoffs.