Although the Chicago Bulls easily dismissed the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1991 Eastern Conference Semifinals, 4-1, Sixers forward Armen Gilliam was giving both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant fits in the post. But as Phil Jackson wrote in Sacred Hoops:
In an inspired moment, I decided to throw Scott Williams, then an untested rookie, at Gilliam, and it worked. To keep Scott from losing his composure in the closing minutes of the game, I told Jordan to keep his eye on him. From then on, Scott, who like Michael is a North Carolina alum, became Jordan’s personal project. All because I refused to play the game by the book.
Ultimately, leadership takes a lot of what St. Paul called faith: “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). You have to trust your inner knowing. If you have a clear mind and an open heart, you won’t have to search for direction. Direction will come to you.
In terms of advanced statistics, overwhelmingly detailed scouting reports, and NBA-specific video software, much has changed since 1991. Now, many head coaches will use these advancements almost to a fault; they rely on assistant coaches to feed them this data, and effectively, they think less and less about what is going on during the course of a game and more about what is supposed to happen (see: Stan Van Gundy, 2009 NBA Finals and 2010 Eastern Conference Finals).
Perhaps this is what separates Phil Jackson most from his counterparts.
Even with 10 NBA Championships under his belt, Phil will always hear the whispers that he has succeeded only because he has coached a combination of four of the greatest players to ever step onto the hardwood (Shaq, Kobe, Jordan, Pippen). And in 20, then 50 years, when revisionist history creeps up on the reality of Jackson’s successes, the whispers might become more dominant as to define his legacy.
This is a mistake, though, and Jackson continues to display what makes him the greatest NBA coach of all-time. Besides having two units that keep nearly the entire team feeling involved, Phil truly feels the flow of the game. He makes decisions based on what he sees evolving, and often times they’re the right ones. As an L.A. Times article pointed out after Game 3, Jackson made the rare decision of calling a timeout early in the game. Jackson called the timeout following two quick Ron Artest fouls, but then he did something even more surprising: he put Luke Walton in the game. Walton held Paul Pierce scoreless in the first quarter and did not allow Pierce to get into any sort of rhythm. After the “rare” timeout, the Lakers went on a 32-8 run and the Celtics never recovered.
In Game 4, though, Jackson’s risk-taking worked in the Celtics’ favor. Kobe again played 43 minutes and did not get his usual rest to start the 4th quarter. Although he was hot, and as the Lakers would soon find out, Glen Davis‘s inner beast could not be stopped, Kobe could have used the extra rest and the Lakers could have gone with a bigger lineup.
Of course, the story of Game 4 was Glen Davis and Nate Robinson as Doc Rivers stole a move out of Phil Jackson’s playbook. He stuck with the players who would refuse to lose rather than going back to his starters. Throughout this year’s playoffs Rivers has “felt” the game in a Jackson-esque way. Whereas Stan Van Gundy stuck with what had worked all season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, Rivers has adjusted to the opposing team in each series. By the time Stan Van Gundy realized too late that Brandon Bass and Marcin Gortat were active players on his roster, Rivers unleashed the now-disciplined, forever grateful, and ultimate warrior Nate Robinson to seal the fate of the Magic in Game 6.
Jackson was the coach of the Bulls while Rivers was in the prime of his playing career, but it is becoming increasingly clear that their coaching philosophy is more similar than not. When it comes down to it, the closing minutes of an NBA Finals game is all about “the evidence of things not seen,” and adding to St. Paul’s truism, statistically unaccounted for. Jackson and Rivers, then, are blessed with a feel for the game.