There's great news for those of you who've been looking forward to a Rick Carlisle vs. Larry Brown coaching matchup, including all six of you who aren't employed in the media: The Pacers and Pistons tip off Game 1 Saturday night, Detroit having earned its spot with a ridiculously lopsided Game 7 win over the Nets Thursday. The final score was 90-69, and the less said about it the better.
The series winner will play the Lakers or Timberwolves, who play Game 1 Friday night. Who said there's no religious revival in America? There's been a run on Kevin Garnett voodoo dolls and sewing needles in both Manhattan and Burbank as NBA and Disney executives pray that the Finals aren't an all-Midwest affair.
The typists and chatterers have been looking forward to Carlisle vs. Brown because it's a good story, not so much in the sense that it's interesting but in the sense that it pretty much writes itself. Carlisle was dumped by the Pistons last summer after two successful years at the helm because Brown, supergenius lacking championship portfolio, became available. Then Carlisle was snapped up by the Pacers, whom he proceeded to coach to the best record in the NBA, seven games better than the Pistons.
So we all get to do stories about how this thing is personal, especially for the tossed-aside Carlisle, in which both coaches will say that the whole personal thing is overblown, to which the fandom of America will say, "Right. Who tunes in to watch the coach?" And then there will be stories about the rivalry between team honchos Joe Dumars of the Pistons and Larry Bird of the Pacers, former on-court rivals who will say the whole personal rivalry thing doesn't matter.
Well, personal rivalries aside, I always enjoy following Brown's career because I have a theory about him, and what is life without theories? My theory is that he's one of those coaches who can make a lousy team OK and an OK team good, but he's never going to win a championship in the NBA. He shares this trait with Don Nelson, who is likewise thought of as a supergenius and is likewise the owner of a trophy case uncrowded by NBA championship hardware.
The way to win an NBA title is to get some really good players and then create the atmosphere that best helps them play together as a team. Frankly I don't know how one does the latter, but if I ever want to find out I'm going to ask Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich, and I might even ask Carlisle. If I want to learn how to steal a game in a series against a more talented team or win 50 games with a 40-win roster before losing in the first round of the playoffs, I'll ask Brown or Nelson.
So Brown is eight wins away from the NBA title that has eluded him as he's coached every team in the league twice plus half of all college teams and the Green Bay Packers. OK, actually he's only coached Denver, New Jersey, San Antonio, the Clippers, Indiana, Philadelphia and Detroit. He's been known to stay in one place for as long as three weeks in pursuit of that championship ring -- coincidentally the length between games in the Pistons-Nets series.
In 21 seasons as a coach, this is his 16th time in the playoffs, but only the fourth time his team has reached the third round. Brown took Indiana to the conference finals in 1994 and 1995, where the Pacers lost in seven games to the Knicks and then the Magic.
The 76ers made it to the NBA Finals in 2001, where they stole Game 1 against the dominant Lakers. The hero of that game was Allen Iverson, Brown's least favorite player. In Game 2, when Iverson was being blanketed by gnatlike Tyronn Lue, Brown did nothing to free his star scorer -- one genius idea would have been to have someone set a pick -- and the Sixers lost their first of four in a row. Brown wasn't going to let a repeat of Game 1 happen. Better to lose than to hand the game over to your best player. Shucks, any old coach can do that.
The Pistons are a talented bunch and they're playing well. The newfound offensive skills of Ben Wallace, not to mention newly acquired Rasheed Wallace, make them a vastly more dangerous team than the one that lost to the Nets in the conference finals last year. In fact, the picture of Big Ben as strictly a defender and rebounder who adds nothing on the offensive end is simply no longer accurate.
The Pacers looked a bit vulnerable in the last round against the Heat, but they got away, and they have a couple of pretty good two-way players themselves in Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest. It's an intriguing series. It won't be pretty to watch unless you like low-scoring grinders, but it should be close. And, by the way, thank you, NBA, for scheduling both conference final series so that there are games every other day. It's about time the playoffs moved along at a reasonable clip.
The Pistons and Pacers are each good enough to beat the other, and while whichever team wins this series will be an underdog in the Finals, it won't be hopelessly overmatched.
Nobody tunes in to watch coaches coach, but I'm joining the media pack in paying attention to the guys waving their arms on the sideline: The closer we get to the end of the playoffs, the more I'm inclined to bet against Larry Brown. Pacers in seven.
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