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Brown's paranoia is Heat's best friend
by Dennis Hans / May 29, 2005

Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown is rightly regarded as one of the best coaches around. But his unwillingness to trust smart, talented starters to play effectively with mild foul trouble was a factor in the Pistons Game 2 loss at Miami. If Brown doesn’t rethink his approach to such situations, he could single-handedly blow the series.

Detroit lost Game 2 by the score of 92-86. The Pistons outscored the Heat by four in the three quarters that they did not play with one hand tied behind their back. In the quarter that they did play with a hand tied behind their back, the second, they were outscored 23-13.

Tayshaun Prince did not play one second of that quarter. He had committed his second foul on a dubious call near the end of the first quarter, and because his paranoid coach was afraid he might commit a third, Prince sat out the second quarter.

Brown prefers to have his starters saddled with no more than two fouls at the start of the second half. With 9:36 remaining in the second quarter, Tayshaun was joined on the bench by Rasheed Wallace, who had just been whistled for his second. He too would be a spectator the remainder of the half.

This is really dumb coaching. Never in a million years would Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson make such decisions. They would give their best players the best opportunity to win the game, and that means giving them the chance to play their optimum number of minutes, be it 35, 40, 45 or some other number.

Not only did the Pistons lose the contributions of two outstanding starters, the other players were less effective in that quarter because of their absence. Ben Wallace is a more useful offensive player whenever he’s surrounded by skilled operators who can hit him for alley-oops or set him up for a dunk with a drive and dish. Prince makes
everybody better. Rasheed Wallace can post up and score, or draw a rebounder out to the three-point line by spotting up for threes. Both guys do lots of good things at both ends of the court.

Rasheed Wallace and Prince finished the game with four fouls, so they had two left over just in case the game went to three or four overtimes. Wallace is averaging 33.9 minutes in the postseason; that night he played 29. Prince is averaging 42.5; that night he played 36.

Sitting Prince was particularly absurd. He averaged only 2.0 fouls per game in the regular season, and he’s averaging even less in the playoffs. It’s obvious that he can play his outstanding, well-rounded game while drawing very few whistles.

Wallace is somewhat more foul-prone, but he only averaged 3.0 fouls in the regular season in 34.0 minutes. That’s one foul every 11.3 minutes; in the playoffs, he’s averaging one every 10.7 minutes. It’s not like he’s a walking foul machine like Yao Ming, Erick Dampier or Brown’s center years ago with the Pacers, Rik Smits.

I pointed out after last year’s Finals that if the Pistons had lost – the series would have been nip and tuck if Karl Malone hadn’t reinjured his knee in Game 2 – Brown’s foul-trouble phobia would have been a key factor:

“In those moments of the Finals when Malone could move a little bit (mostly the first quarters, before his knee stiffened up), he not only put the clamps on Rasheed, he consistently got him in foul trouble. Granted, this was mild foul trouble. It’s Brown’s fault, not the refs, that Rasheed sat out so many second quarters with just two fouls. Brown’s extreme caution cut into Rasheed’s minutes, prevented him from getting into an offensive groove or learning how to play effectively with fouls, and would have been a huge factor if the Lakers had ended up
winning the Finals.”

If Hall-of-Famer Dave Cowens had been forced to sit out the rest of the first half every time he picked up two fouls, he’d have averaged about 32 minutes per playoff game rather than 42.3. Sure, he fouled out 15 times in his 89 playoff games, but he hung around long enough to average 18.9 points and 14.4 rebounds. That is, he produced lots of points and rebounds that contributed to the Celtics cause, even if he wasn’t always around for the final horn.

There’s a reason why Prince and Wallace are and Cowens was a starter: They’re great players, far superior to their backups. Cowens’ coach, Tommy Heinsohn, wanted Big Red to be out there for 40-45 minutes in playoff games. That’s a mathematical impossibility if he sits the entire second quarter with imaginary foul trouble.

Cowens led the Celtics to NBA crowns in 1974 and 1976. He fouled out twice in 18 games in the 1974 playoffs, four times in 18 games in 1976. Heinsohn couldn’t have cared less. What mattered to him and Celtic president Red Auerbach was Big Red’s production: In the 1974 playoffs he averaged 42.9 minutes, 20.5 points and 13.3 rebounds. In 1976 he upped it to 44.3 minutes, 21.0 points and 16.4 rebounds.

Those numbers, and Cowens’ relentless hustle, were prime factors in winning championships that may have eluded the Celtics if they had been coached by paranoid, super-cautious Larry Brown.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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