When the Brooklyn Nets play their first postseason game in about three weeks, it will mark Jason Kidd's 18th trip to the NBA Playoffs. For the first time, however, Kidd will be roaming the sidelines as a coach instead of dribbling a basketball between them as a player. Is he ready for this new challenge?
Let us first establish that finding success in the playoffs as a coach is more difficult than picking up wins during the regular season (just ask Mike D'Antoni). The obvious distinction is that the level of play is raised, since only a shrinking pool of the league's best teams remains.
But there are also other complexities. Playing a team as many as seven consecutive times requires a different set of coaching capabilities. It's harder to whitewash over your own team's weaknesses when faced with a skilled opponent on a repeated basis. Whereas Kidd could more easily ignore the Nets' rebounding problems during the regular season since they only were exposed every few weeks or so by a physical team, he'll have to address them immediately when pitted against a good opponent on the boards, such as the Chicago Bulls.
Plus, there's no room for growing pains, no time to try out different rotations as you color in your team's identity. Jason Kidd's inauspicious start—the Nets began the season 3-10—has been mostly forgotten due to the team's turnaround over the past several months. However, there isn't the luxury of extended opportunity in the postseason: A single poor game could end the Nets' season, and a handful of them definitely will. There's no such thing as a gradual adjustment in the playoffs.
So even though Kidd has received some well-earned praise for his large-scale adjustments to the Nets' strategy, it's more likely that smaller in-game decisions will decide the Nets' playoff fate. How can we evaluate those in-game decisions? Let's take a look at two of the Nets' more recent signature wins.
In one of league's better games of the entire season, the Nets beat the Miami Heat 96-95 on March 12. The contest wasn't decided until Brooklyn was able to execute a final defensive stop off of a Miami inbounds play in the game's last four seconds:
Shaun Livingston was able to poke away Chris Bosh's pass to seal the victory, but it was more than just a pair of pesky hands that saved the Nets in the final play. Brooklyn sets up their defense to combat LeBron James' adept dual attack. Kidd instructs Livingston to switch onto James after he sets a pick for Ray Allen. Switching is not a favored tactic in these do-or-die scenarios, since a moment of hesitation or confusion can free up a deciding shot, but Kidd stated after the game that it was his intention.
"I wanted to get better with our switching," said Kidd, according to Dan Devine of Yahoo! Sports. "We lost some games earlier in the year by (poorly) switching."
The switch allows Livingston to not only effectively deny the inbounds pass, but takes away the potential for James to receive the ball, face up Livingston and create a shot off the dribble. Why try to avoid such a scenario? Because this can happen.
The adjustment does open James to the possibility of attacking the basket with Livingston behind him, but Brooklyn is also prepared for that outcome. Mason Plumlee slacks off the inbounds passer Bosh, allowing him to provide a little bit of coverage on Allen in the corner and dissuade Bosh from passing to him. In turn, Joe Johnson is able to abandon Allen and double James. Of course, we never get to witness this result since a loose ball ensues, but even if James had gotten possession, he was facing immediate and premeditated double coverage.
Now for an offensive example. Brooklyn was able to escape from Dallas with a huge overtime victory on March 23. With under ten seconds left in regulation, Johnson converted a layup after blowing past the Mavericks' Shawn Marion to tie the game at 91:
But why was Johnson unchallenged once he got to the rim? Because Kidd used a bizarre five-man unit that stretched out the Mavericks defense. Dallas center Samuel Dalembert had dominated the paint all night, swatting away seven shots. In response, Kidd employed a small-ball lineup of Johnson, Livingston, Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Alan Anderson—all primarily guards or small forwards throughout their careers—in the game's deciding moment.
Perhaps the tallest Net on the floor at 6'7", Pierce played the role of center and drew Dalembert on defense. Pierce never touched the ball on this key possession, but he did stand several feet beyond the three-point line across from Johnson. Out of the necessity to guard Pierce's accurate long-range shooting, Dalembert was pulled toward the perimeter. No legitimate rim protector remained in the paint, giving Johnson a relatively easy layup to tie the game once he got past Marion. Brooklyn would go on to win in the extra period.
A couple of successful late-game schemes doesn't mean Kidd will outmaneuver his counterparts in the playoffs. If LeBron James banks in a short jumper or Shawn Marion forces Joe Johnson to his right, maybe the Nets have two losses in those games.
But we can still deduce some important things from these examples. First of all, Kidd is not a passive coach. Although he was criticized during his early-season woes for his inactivity on the sidelines, clearly he's found ways to influence important games in key moments.
We also see that Kidd is willing to be experimental. In both situations, the Nets were on the road against highly skilled opponents. It would be easy for a rookie head coach to bow to convention and hope for the best in these cases. Yet Kidd used distinctly unconventional plans both times, and the Nets picked up two important wins.
It's likely that Kidd will be faced with more close-and-late scenarios in the playoffs, requiring him to again enter into a battle of wits with the opposing coach. He might make the right call, and he also might get burned for his unorthodox decisions.
But he won't be hindered by predictability, and for that reason alone Jason Kidd is ready to coach in the NBA Playoffs. He has the audacity to take risks on big stages. We know Kidd will roll the dice in the postseason, and now we just have to see what numbers come up.