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Back-to-Back to the Wall

"We're going to have to start playing scrimmages the night before we play a game."
Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy, after being told that the Clippers are 9-2 in the second game of back-to-backs.

The above quote was related by Art Thompson III in today's OC Register.  This success in back-to-backs (they're actually 8-3) is something I noted at the end of December.
In a bizarre quirk, the Clippers record in the second game of back-to-backs this season is an astounding 6-2, including 5 straight wins.  Of course, it's not that astounding until you consider that they are 12-16 overall, leaving them 6-14 when playing after one or more days off, and the 5 straight have come in a time when they couldn't buy other wins.  They've snapped a 5 game losing streak, a 6 game losing streak, a 7 game road losing streak, and a 4 game home losing streak, all with wins in the second of back-to-backs.  There's no logical explanation for this, though it is a tad frightening to consider the possibility that MDSr has actually HURT their chances of winning when they've had time to prepare for an opponent.  I don't actually believe that - I've always thought that MDSr's diligence in preparing opponent specific game plans has been a strength.  But the evidence so far suggests they're better off just showing up at the arena and balling.

At the time I wrote the above, I was just thinking out loud about MDSr's coaching style, and how it might play into this situation.  But last weekend, I came across this in the OCR:

Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy's game plans might be too encompassing for some players, Clippers guard Sam Cassell thinks.
"With this team, everybody has a responsibility," Cassell said. "And to win in this league, everybody has to do what they do. Mike prepares the heck out of us. I think that sometimes he prepares us so much that it clutters some of these guys' minds. Anything another team does, we know, because of Mike. And he enjoys doing it."
But there's a downside, Cassell said: "We're not playing collectively together, freely."

Wow.  Cassell is saying exactly what I was surmising back on Dec. 29.  Combined with the actual evidence of SIGNIFICANTLY better results in the second game of a back-to-back, when there is less time to prepare, this is pretty damn interesting.  Cause.  Effect.  This team is 22-22 overall - yet they are 5 games over .500 in the second of back-to-backs, traditionally the toughest game in the NBA.  League wide, teams are way below .500 in such games.  Yet the Clippers struggle when they have time to prepare, and thrive when they don't.  Hmmmm.

I have been a big supporter of MDSr.  I don't like his handling of Maggette, but other than that, I tend to be a fan.  There's no denying the positive impact he had on the team in his first three years (9 or 10 game improvements each season).  I wrote that he deserved his extension, although the team was slumping at the time.  And on the old blog, I defended him when he was taking significant heat for losses in the Suns series in games 1 (resting Brand), 3 (leaving Cassell out too long) and 5 (putting Ewing on Bell).  

Coach and his perfectly pointy pocket puff.
Coach Mike Dunleavy Sr.
                                           © Henry Chen, all rights reserved
But the guy is clearly a control freak, and borderline OCD.  All you have to do is look at the four perfect points on his pocket puff to know that.  I watch NBA games all the time and see coaches make mistakes simply because they didn't think something through.  That's not MDSr's problem.  He thinks about EVERYTHING.  He is incredibly well-prepared, and the wheels in his head are always spinning.  

Just off the top of my head, here are some recent MDSr moves:

  • With the first quarter winding down and a foul to give, MDSr switches Luke Jackson onto Baron Davis to give the foul so that Q doesn't have to use one of his.  I remember at the time thinking, why is Jackson on Davis?  
  • At the end of the half of the New Jersey game, with less than a second on the clock and Maggette at the line, he took EB out of the game and put in James Singleton, so that Elton wouldn't pick up a foul in those few tenths of a second.  (He does this one frequently.)
  • Of course, he's never happier than at the end of a game with lots of clock stoppages so that he can go offense-defense, shuttling Sam and Corey in and out for Livingston and Q.

But is this thinking, or over-thinking?  Is Brand really going to get a foul in less than a second?  Is he stupid?  And Luke Jackson is probably lucky to get close enough to actually foul Baron Davis.  

The classic of all time of course was putting Ewing and McCarthy into Game 5 against Phoenix.  But it's pure MDSr.  He thought about it, and decided that the five players he put on the floor were the best matchups for the five Suns who were in the game.  I can't tell you why he thought that per se, but rest assured he had his reasons.  To suggest that he didn't tell Ewing to foul Bell is ludicrous.  Of course he told him.  But he also told him not to foul him if he was behind the line and in his shooting motion. And he probably told him about ten other things to think about.

This also illustrates a potentially fatal flaw in MDSr's coaching.  While he is as prepared, as detailed and as thoughtful as any coach in the NBA (and make no mistake, these are all good things), he has surprisingly little feel for the flow of the game itself.  If coaching is part science and part art, he's got the science bit nailed, and has little idea of the art.  Ewing may well have been the right matchup in a vacuum, but he was also an ice cold rookie.  Similarly, in his substitution patterns you can see a paint-by-numbers approach.  I will bring in Thomas for Kaman and Livingston for Cassell at the 10 minute mark of the first quarter.  I will bring in Maggette for Ross at the 11 minute mark.  If a player gets 2 fouls, I will bring in his designated substitute earlier.  Other than Kaman, he almost never makes a substitution based on how a player is actually PLAYING.  Mobley is 1 for 9 and Maggette is 4 for 4?  That's interesting.  Mobley will start the second half, and Maggette will enter with 2 minutes remaining, because that's how I do it.

Throughout each game, you can see Clipper players looking to the bench and MDSr telling them where to be for the play he wants run.  I used to wonder why the Clippers get out and fast break so much better with Cassell on the floor than with Livingston, when Livingston is the greyhound while Cassell is closer to a pit bull.  The answer, I believe, is that Cassell is willing/allowed to run, to diverge from a play call, while Livingston is always looking to MDSr for direction.  Ironically, sometimes the direction is PUSH, but of course the moment may be passed simply because Shaun had to be told.  This is what Cassell is talking about when he says the team does not play "freely".  

Watching the first quarter of the Minnesota game on Saturday, the T-Wolves were overplaying every passing lane and creating turnovers, 9 in the quarter.  The way you beat the overplay is by cutting back door, but when was the last time you saw the Clippers cut back door?  The first pass of the play that is called is the first pass of the play that is called.  You have to make the first pass before you can make the second pass.  If you cut back door for a layup on the first pass, you'll never get to the second pass, and then... anarchy.  There's just no improvisation, especially from the young guys.  

MDSr's dedication to his job, the massive hours of preparation he puts in - there's no question that the Clippers are a better team today than they were 4 seasons ago in large part because of these things.  Particularly on the defensive end, the Clippers usually know what play the opposition is running, and one could argue that preparation was the single biggest factor in turning the defensively-challenged Clippers into one of the top defensive teams in the league last year.  One of the big mysteries of this season has been how a team, with essentially the same personnel, can be so different on the defensive end.  But is it possible that MDSr feels he's had these guys long enough, so he can pile more details on them?  Have they reached the saturation point and now they're in information overload?

It's harder to explain on defense, but the affects of over-regimentation are obvious on offense.  Hey guess what?  Other teams prepare also.  They too know what play is coming, and without the confidence and the authority to improvise, the Clippers tend to run the play right into the teeth of the defense.  

All of this would be diverting hypothetical blather, the kind of stuff that bloggers excel at, except for one thing:  8-3 in the second game of back-to-backs.  Could it just be a coincidence?  Sure, it could.  But we're talking about fully one fourth of the games this season, a pretty good sample size, and the winning percentage is 73% in games with less preparation, 42% in games with more preparation.  These last two games are a microcosm - incredibly important game, with a day to prepare, the Clippers come out flat, and lose.  Arrive in Seattle at 3 AM, have a brief film session and an afternoon nap, and they win easily.  

So MDSr can joke about playing scrimmages the night before, but he would be wise to take a serious look at the numbers, and try to adjust his style accordingly.  Less science - more art.  Maybe forego the pocket puff for one game.