NBA Playoffs: Coaches’ Decision Making in Playoffs


Nov 21, 2012; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich scratches his head during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The playoffs are all about coaches making adjustments to opposing teams, opposing players, and to certain situations.  The adjustments might include changes to the starting lineup, changes to the defensive matchups, changes to the rotation, and changes to the offense.

While the regular season is 82 games, a playoff series can be as little as 4 games, so coaches are under a lot more pressure to make the decisions that will increase the teams chance of winning each game and the overall playoff series. However making too many adjustments, or the wrong adjustments could decrease the teams chances of getting farther in the playoffs.

12 coaches were fired this season and among those fired, 6 of them made the playoffs. George Karl won the Coach of the Year award and set a franchise record 57 wins for the Denver Nuggets.  Lionel Hollins set a franchise record 56 wins for the Memphis Grizzlies.  But in the eyes of the fans and especially the owner of the team, that means nothing when the team doesn’t win in the playoffs.

In basketball the playoffs are where players and coaches need to step up to the plate and make the right adjustments.  Who knows how much a playoff series loss can be attributed to the coach, but one thing for sure is one or two adjustments can change a game and could change the outcome of who comes out on top in a playoff series.

Below are 3 well-respected coaches (all of which still have their jobs) that did not make the correct adjustments by tinkering with what worked in the regular season a little too much in the playoffs. While there countless great adjustments, I just want to take note of the note so good adjustments.

Lets Start with Mike Woodson’s poor coaching decisions in the conference semi-finals against the Indiana Pacers.

May 18, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson on the sidelines against the Indiana Pacers in game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Game 4 – Knicks are down 2-1 in the series

After the Knicks get hammered on the boards in game 1 and game 3, Woodson steps away from the small lineup of having both Felton and Prigioni in the backcourt and inserts Kenyon Martin for Prigioni.  This didn’t work as Martin only grabbed 5 rebounds in 29 minutes and the Pacers outrebounded the Knicks by 18 including 16 more offensive rebounds.

Woodson decided to switch to the small starting lineup of both Felton and Prgioni late in the season. When Prigioni did start, the Knicks were 16-2.  Yet Woodson thought it was a good idea to take out the player that had been the main facilitator on offense, and the player that gets up into the points guard jock on defense. Prigioni had the best plus/minus in the whole playoffs, and Woodson only plays him for 3.5 minutes in Game 4.

Game 6 – Knicks are down 3-2 in the series

The Knicks entered the 4th all tied up after a stellar 3rd quarter by the Knicks lead by Iman Shumpert hitting 4 threes in a row to erase a 10 point deficit.  Chris Copeland continued the Knicks hot three point shooting by adding two of his own and the Knicks went up 3 with 10 minutes to go in the game.

Woodson then reinserts Melo back in the game and instead of taking out the cold JR Smith he takes out the hot Shumpert.  The rest of the game goes downhill from this point as JR and Melo take 12 of the 13 remaining shots only 4 of which were makes and the Knicks lose by 6 end of series.

Woodson should’ve made the adjustment of not closing out with JR.  For the series he shot 28% FG and 23% from 3 point range, yet Woodson kept on going back to him expecting that he would have a good game.  This would make sense since the Knicks needed his scoring, but in game 6 with a hot Shumpert and JR being detrimental to the Knicks team, Woodson should’ve made the proper adjustment of not closing out with JR in the game .

Woodson also waited way too long in the series to play Copeland big minutes.  He finally got his chance in game 5 when he scored 13 points in 19 minutes and score 9 points in 19 minutes in game 6.  What took Woodson so long???

Now onto Frank Vogel against the Heat

May 26, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel stands on the sideline against the Miami Heat in game three of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Heat won 114-96. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

Game 1 

The Pacers are up 1 in overtime with 2.2 seconds left in the game and the Heat have the ball on their side of half court.  Vogel decides to take out rim-protector and Lebron James intimidator, Roy Hibbert out of the game for “matchup purposes” and Lebron James receives the ball and gracefully finishes an unguarded layup to win the game.

Hibbert was in disbelief with Vogel’s decision, people watching were in disbelief with Vogel’s decisions – it cost them a big opening win. Vogel completely over thought the play and tried making an unnecessary adjustments.  No matter what the matchups are, you never take out your best interior defender.

Now onto Greg Popovich against the Heat

Game 6 – Spurs are up 3-2 in the series.

1. 20 seconds left to go in the 4th and the Spurs are up three after Kawhi Leonard misses his second free throw – Lebron gets the rebound and pushes the ball up the floor. Usually in this situation, Popovich tells his Spurs team to foul preventing them from having the opportunity to tie the game up but he didn’t tell his players this time. This leads to a wide open three by Lebron, and although he missed it, it leads to the offensive rebound by Chris Bosh that was passed out for the three by Ray Allen that ties the game.

2. Popovich takes out Duncan for the final sequence leading to an offensive rebound by Bosh since no other big guy was in the game, and a dish out to Allen for the three that ties the game up. Shouldn’t Popovich have realized that you don’t take out your big guy in the final moments of a game like what Frank Vogel did taking out Hibbert in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals?

Overtime Game 6

Nov 21, 2012; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward/center Tim Duncan (21) talks with head coach Gregg Popovich during the first quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Banknorth Garden. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

3. Spurs Down 1 with 9 seconds left,  and Dwayne Wade misses a mid-range jump shot. Instead of calling a timeout to draw up a play and put Tony Parker (your best finisher) back in the game, Popovich lets the play go on for  Manu Ginobili just to add to his already 7 turnovers and lose the ball in the paint.  There was a questionable foul call but no excuse for Popovich’s bad decision.

4. With the Spurs down three with 1.9 seconds left in the game, Popovich draws up a play for Green to try to tie to the game where he gets a pick set from Tiago Splitter on his defender for an open three.  This miserably fails as Bosh gets off his defender and stuffs Green and the Heat have won the game.  Why doesn’t Popovich have a guy that is a three-point threat set the pick for green instead Splitter such as Matt Bonner. This way Bosh wouldn’t have been able to be so deep in the help position to get to Green in time.

Game 7 – Spurs ties with Miami at 3-3 in the series

1. Way too much playing time for Manu – he turned the ball over way too many times and I know you need his offense but he was just detrimental to the team. Game 6 had a -21  and game 7, he dropped passes, took crazy shots. Down the stretch he took ill advised shots when the Spurs still had a slight chance of coming back.  Popovich needed to make the decision here and take him out of the game.

2. Popovich is known for making adjustments, so why didn’t he tell Danny Green that he should stop driving for floaters (all of which were misses) or to stop picking up his dribble in the corner (all of which led to turnovers) and be more confident and strong with the ball, take a short jumper in stead of an off balanced floater. Pop needed to given Green one his Pop speeches and he clearly didn’t.

3. With the Spurs down 4 with 23 seconds left, Pop takes out Tony Parker (I know he’s exhausted but why do the same thing that you did in game 6 and take parker out (makes no sense Pop!!). Instead Popovich draws up a play with Ginobili and Duncan and of course Ginobili throws the ball away and now games over and Heat have won the finals.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that these coaches are the reason for the playoff losses.  You could blame JR Smith’s poor shooting for the Knicks vs Pacers series, the poor performance by the Indiana backcourt in the Pacers vs. Heat series, and the miss free-throw by Leonard in Game 6 and Duncan’s missed layup in Game 7 in the Spurs vs. Heat series. But I do believe that the coaches made way too many matchup adjustments instead of sticking with their star players (Hibbert, Parker, Duncan) late in the game.

Adjustments are for the sole purpose of improving the team’s performance, and coaches should realize that sometimes they are simply over coaching.  Woodson has been a consistent elite coach throughout his career, Vogel is a rising elite coach and Popovich could go down as one of the best coaches in the history in the NBA, but even the best coaches make poor decisions.