OSSEO, Mich. — Watch these NBA Finals with a Cavs fan, and the mood is darker than a David Fincher film.
Watch them with a coach, and ... “Did you see that!!!?”
“There it was again,” Tod Kowalczyk said excitedly.
While it may be Cleveland that needs a return to the drawing board, it was the Toledo basketball coach who held one Sunday night in the living room of his vacation home.
I joined him to watch Game 2, and after Stephen Curry rained in another of his finals-record nine 3-pointers late in the drubbing, Kowalczyk was as delighted as the roaring fans at Oracle Arena.
Just for a different reason.
He loved the give-and-go concept that created the shot, one he plans to introduce to the team.
It was the kind of manic sequence that comes off as a happy accident, not a clever way to set free the most wanted gunslinger in the West. The first time Kowalczyk saw the Warriors run it a couple of months ago, he thought Curry looked like a sugar-doped third grader running toward the ball.
By now, though, he appreciated the rhyme and reason — Rockets graduate assistant Jordan Lauf edited a video package of the play in action — and here it was again, unfolding like clockwork. The Curry drive and kick to the wing. The sprint to the strong-side corner. The screen down. The pass back. Swish.
“I’ve never seen a team do that,” Kowalczyk said. “We’re going to drill that this summer and we’re going to do a lot of that. I think that would be phenomenal to run for Marreon [Jackson] or Jaelan [Sanford].”
I made the hour drive up here for just such insight, knowing how closely the ninth-year Rockets coach follows the NBA.
There exists a dumb divide in basketball, with many seeing the college and pro games as an either/or deal. Battle lines are drawn, college fans trashing the pros as iso-ball mercenaries who play no defense, pro fans snubbing their nose at the inferior minor league.
It’s idiotic, and Kowalczyk knows it.
“They’re both great,” he said. “I love the NBA.”
After the college season, in fact, it’s most of what he watches. Kowalczyk recently broke down tape of 18 full Jazz games — he puts Utah’s Quin Snyder on the Mount Rushmore of active pro coaches alongside Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, and Brad Stevens — and, despite sneaking away to his cottage here no more than a few weeks a year, ordered a six-month cable subscription for one reason.
“The NBA playoffs,” he said. “I want to learn from the best. If college coaches don’t study the NBA, they’re shortchanging their program because they’re the greatest coaches and they’re ahead of the game.”
In that spirit, my idea was to attend class with Kowalczyk.
With his feet kicked up and pen and paper in hand, school began.
He made note of his favorite offensive sets. (Yes, the Cavs run plays, too.) He texted Lauf when the broadcast showed injured Warriors forward Andre Iguodola instructing a rookie teammate in a timeout. (”That’s something we’ve got to show our players.”) He weighed in on the Jordan-LeBron debate. (”My personal opinion? It’s not even close. LeBron is the greatest to ever play the game.”)
He texted a recruit to watch the form-perfect release of Klay Thompson. (”Fundamentally, he’s the greatest shooter I’ve ever seen. J.R. Smith is just the opposite.”) He wondered why Kevin Durant escaped criticism at the end of Game 1. (”I haven't heard one person kill him for not boxing out on the free throw.”) He marveled at the way analytics have countered intuition.
For instance, you know teams in the NBA this season allowed more points per possession off of an offensive miss at the rim (1.14) than off a long-rebound miss from beyond the arc (1.09)? His players soon will.
“Somebody misses a shot at the rim for us, we’re going jail break to get back this year,” Kowalczyk said. “I need to drill that, too. Never would have thought it, but it’s because when a guy misses a bad shot inside, they fall out of position.”
That’s but one new trick the 51-year-old coach has learned. Take another way he’s seen the NBA — which he suggests is strategically two to three years ahead of the college game — evolve. We watched as the Warriors and Cavs switched near every ball screen, a once-inconceivable concept that in theory — but no longer practice in an increasingly positionless sport — activates major mismatches. “We’re going to have to be prepared for people switching every ball screen on us because of the success in the NBA,” he said.
Of course, sometimes there is nothing you can do.
With a roster of four long-bombing all-stars who perfectly space the floor — no, really, “Look at that spacing!” — another all-time Golden State team looks like too much.
After a Tristan Thompson alley-oop cut the Cleveland deficit to five midway through the third quarter, Kowalczyk spoke aloud the fear of God: “Problem with the Warriors is they're a three-minute spurt from being up 20.”
Three minutes later, the rout was on.
As the fat lady cleared her pipes — for the game and perhaps the series — I asked Kowalczyk if the Cavs had a chance. Ever the coach, he replied, “Yes, absolutely.”
Call it LeBron and a prayer.
“You have the greatest player in the world,” he said. “Win your home games and give yourself a chance in Game 7. That’s all you've got to do.”
Back to the drawing board.
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