When Avery Johnson sat all of his starters and most of his regular rotation against the Warriors in the next to the last game of the season, I found it to be a strange decision on many levels. My immediate reaction was admittedly selfish - the Clippers needed one more Warriors loss to have a chance to make the playoffs, and with only two games remaining (the last one against the legitimately starter-less Trailblazers) the Mavericks game certainly had a 'last-hope' sort of feel. Listening to the Clippers on the radio at the time, I was flabbergasted when Matt Pinto announced a Dallas starting lineup of JJ Barea, Mo Ager, Devean George, Greg Buckner and DeSagana Diop. How could Avery Johnson so blatantly disregard the implications of the game to the rest of the league? More importantly, how could he be so stupid as to not try to eliminate the Warriors before the playoffs started?
I may regret it (the series isn't over, the Mavs won 67 regular season games, all they have to do is win two games in Dallas and one in Oakland, etc. etc.), but after a come-from-behind win in Game 4 to take a 3-1 series lead, I can resist no longer. With the Clippers busy preparing for their summer Reality Show, "Who Wants to Bring the Ball Upcourt?" the Warriors and the Suns are my new teams. Let's face it - the East stinks, the Spurs and Rockets are BORING, and Utah is, well, Utah. I am openly rooting for a Warriors-Suns Western Conference Final. As Citizen mp pointed out in a recent Diary, it would be a gift from the basketball gods. Can I get an AMEN?
There's an interesting historical parallel which may explain some of my own hostility towards Avery Johnson. Way back in 1994, the last time the Warriors made the playoffs, the Suns were my co-favorite team (with the Clippers), Kevin Johnson was my favorite player, and Avery Johnson was the starting point guard for Don Nelson's Golden State Warriors. At the time, Avery was a 28 year old 6 year veteran and career backup. But an injury to Tim Hardaway had thrust him into a starting role. On more than one occasion, KJ had singled AJ out for ridicule - calling out his Suns' teammates when they lost to the Warriors late in the regular season (I can't believe we lost to a team with a midget for a point guard, or something to that effect), and later criticizing the committee selecting 'Dream Team II' to compete in the 1994 World Championships ("If they're not going to pick me, who are they going to pick? Avery Johnson?") KJ was and is my favorite player, so I got the message loud and clear: Avery Johnson sucks. By the way, KJ and Barkley swept the Warriors in the first round that year. KJ scored 38 in game 2.
When Avery fielded his 'Z' team against the Warriors, I bloggily mused about the karmic implications of the decision ("karma's a bitch and so is Avery Johnson"). I also spent some time trying to discern his motivation (I had the time - there was nothing to say about the Clippers at that point.)
Wes from Mavs Moneyball told me that he thought Avery was just keeping his cards close to his chest. He didn't want to show anything to Nelson with the playoff series looming. Now, that seems plausible, but I tend to think head coaches put WAY too much credence into that sort of thing. I mean, Nelson has 81 other games worth of video to watch, not too mention the fact that he used to COACH the Mavs. What exactly is Avery hiding from him in this one game?
And of course there is the old standby that the Mavs were simply doing the smart thing, resting up for the playoffs and avoiding injuries to key players during meaningless games. This would make a lot more sense were it not for the fact that all of the starters played significant minutes in the games before and after the Warriors game. Those games were of course even less meaningful, as the Warriors game had massive implications for the Warriors and Clippers. And for the Mavs, as we now see.
(As for the implications for the Clippers, more than one Mavs fan pointed out that the Clippers had only themselves to blame after losing to the Kings on 4/15. That's certainly true, and at the end of the day it's better that the Warriors made the playoffs instead of the Clippers, since the Warriors are playing their best ball of the season, but the argument is nonetheless specious. The NBA schedule is 82 games, and the record that matters is the one you have after those 82 games. If the Warriors are given a gift victory by the best team in the NBA in game 81, it has an impact, and don't pretend that it doesn't.)
I personally believe that Avery was whistling in the dark on 4/17. Everyone assumed that the Mavs were worried about the Warriors, the only team they had not beaten on the season. They were riding a four game losing streak at the time - why wouldn't they be concerned about the Warriors? Avery wanted to prove that he wasn't worried about them, and what better way than to hand them the season series sweep and gift wrap a five game winning streak heading into the playoffs? Avery E. Newman. What, me worry? This approach had one very concrete benefit as well. Sure, the press could make a big deal about the eight seed dominating the season series with the one seed - but at least some writers would dismiss the 'sweep' as meaningless, in part because of the joke lineup in the final game. Indeed, that's exactly what happened. Apparently it's only a loss if you were actually trying to win. Brilliant, right?
Only one problem: Dallas had every reason to be scared of the Warriors. Really, truly, first-one-seed-in-history-to-lose-to-an-eight-seed-in-a-seven-game-series petrified. In fact Avery was scared. If he wasn't, he simply wasn't paying attention. Not only had the Warriors been beating the Mavs - since they got everyone together and healthy, they were beating EVERYBODY. 16-4 in 20 games with Baron, JRich, Jax and Harrington is not some flukey matchup problem. It's just flat out winning. That's why I say he was whistling in the dark. If he wasn't even thinking about Golden State, why go to such trouble to start such a bizarre lineup on 4/17? He didn't start those guys when he rested Dirk against Minnesota. But Avery thought at the time that the worst case scenario was that he would play his regular rotation and STILL lose (the likely outcome, as we now see). Then he'd have no excuses heading into the playoffs.
Guess what? He certainly has no excuses now. Wouldn't it have made a lot more sense to go after the Warriors on 4/17, in an attempt to (a) send them a message and (b) get them out of the playoffs? If you win that game, you probably don't have to see those guys in the first round, and even if you do, you've got the momentum. Hindsight is 20-20, but the eye chart was sitting there for all to see.
Ironically, this series may in fact be illustrating what a terrific (regular season) coach Avery Johnson is. Sure, he's made some dubious decisions in this series (we won 67 regular season games, but I think I'll start a new lineup in the first game of the playoffs), but overall the Mavs are getting outplayed, not outcoached. I mean, look at the teams: on paper, who's got more talent? The Warriors are friggin' loaded (although it's fairly recently that this group has been assembled and healthy). By comparison, the Mavs look pretty mediocre. So you have to give Avery a lot of credit for winning so many regular season games with this group. The NBA season is way too long. You don't win 67 games without showing up game in and game out. Take away their poor start and the Mavs were focused and sharp the rest of the season. The coach gets a lot of credit for that.
But the playoffs are all that really matters. Here's the thing: the Warriors are up 3-1 in this series, and they haven't played anywhere near their best ball. The fast break has been good, but not unstoppable, they've shot poorly from distance, and Al Harrington has been simply atrocious. I mean, the Mavericks were +15 rebounding last night, the Warriors missed 14 free throws, the Mavs led 88-80 with 7 minutes to go, and they LOST! The better team is not supposed to give up an 8 point lead in the fourth quarter. The better team didn't.
I suppose if you're Dallas, coming off an NBA Finals collapse, anything less than a ring is a disappointment. In that situation, you're going to have to beat anybody and everybody, and so there's no point trying to avoid a red-hot 8 seed in the first round. But the only thing that can top the embarrassment of winning the first 2 and 7/8ths games in last season's finals only to lose the series would be losing to the eight seed in your very next playoff series. Look at it this way - the Mavs have lost 8 of their last 9 games against the Warriors, and 7 of their last 8 playoff games. How do you like their odds in a playoff game against the Warriors? Anything can happen, and it's entirely possible that the Mavs will come back. But the games will have to look a lot different than they have so far.
If I may be allowed to flash forward to that potential Western Conference Final between the Suns and the Warriors, I am reminded of another series from the past. 18 years ago in the 1989 playoffs, the Warriors were playing the first generation of Nellie small ball. After sweeping a three game series against the Jazz in the first round by going small (Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond, Terry Teagle, Winston Garland and Rod Higgins were the top five scorers for the Warriors that season), the Warriors were heading into a second round series with the Tom Chambers, KJ, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle Suns. Asked if he thought his team could beat the Suns with small ball, Nellie said no; "Their small lineup is better than our small lineup." Indeed, the Suns won the series 4-1. If we get our gift from the basketball gods, I think the Suns will win. But, man, will it be fun to watch if it happens.