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Are NBA Coaches Intentionally Punting on Certain Playoff Games?

Zach Lowe joins ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ to break down Celtics-Cavs, and the in-series adjustments that coaches are—or aren’t—making

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The NBA playoffs are well underway, and coaches like the Celtics’ Brad Stevens and the Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni still have some adjustments up their sleeves. But on this episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe joins to answer the question: Are some coaches intentionally punting on certain playoff games?

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Bill Simmons: Alright, important question—Conspiracy Bill is now in the house.

Zach Lowe: Oh boy.

Simmons: Are we seeing NBA coaches kind of punt on the strategy that they know might work, and save it for the next game because they feel like the deck is stacked against them for a certain game? I have no evidence of this, [but] it’s something that I think Brad Stevens—he knows what the right adjustment is, but I think he will hold off on that adjustment in a game that he feels like is probably a long shot [for the Celtics to] come back and win, and would rather save it for the next game.

Like, Game 6 [against] Milwaukee [in the first round] was a very strange game, where [the Celtics] kind of came out almost like they knew Milwaukee was just going to hit them with a haymaker, and they didn’t do certain things in that game that, in Game 7, all of a sudden it [changed]. And it was the same thing against Philly in Game 4 [of the second round] when [the Sixers] were playing the smaller guys and the Celtics weren’t posting them up, and it was like, “That’s weird, they have [J.J.] Redick and [Marco] Belinelli, [T.J.] McConnell, we should be posting these dudes up.” Then in Game 5, that was the entire strategy.

So Game 3 [against the Cavaliers, Stevens] doesn’t start [Aron] Baynes, doesn’t really play Baynes a lot even though we learned in Game 2 that that big lineup—against Cleveland, with [Tristan] Thompson and [Kevin] Love and LeBron [James]—you’re better off starting Baynes. So I think he’s going to start Baynes in Game 4 [on Monday night]. Do you think these coaches look at these series sometimes and are like, “I’m going to wait until this game to do this”?

Lowe: Maybe, but I don’t think [they’re] like, “I’m saving this for Game 4.” I do think when they get down 25 in the third quarter—you can just look at [Al] Horford’s minutes. I think you just sort of pack it in, and you get your [Guerschon] Yabuseles and your [Greg] Monroes out there.

Simmons: Jaylen Brown only played, I think 21 minutes in Game 3.

Lowe: For a coach who doesn’t care about foul trouble, and has said so repeatedly.

Simmons: Right. Then the other thing I was looking at was with the Rockets. ... I like that lineup with [Chris] Paul and [Eric] Gordon and [James] Harden and [Trevor] Ariza and [P.J.] Tucker, and I think if they can beat the Warriors in this series, that’s probably the key lineup—just throw away [Clint] Capela and just put shooters out there and try to outscore them. Which is kind of the unthinkable, to put more offense on the floor than the Warriors have, but I really think that might be their only chance. And they didn’t really play that lineup [on Sunday]—it was almost like [coach] Mike [D’Antoni] knew, like, “Game 3, we’re not winning this one—Game 4 is the game.” So you’re not buying this conspiracy?

Lowe: No, I mean, I buy it that you bag out when you’re down big and just save your guys and save your best cards for the next [game]. I buy it. I believe that’s their second-most-played lineup of the series. It has played only 18 minutes—that’s not enough. But can I disagree with you on your own podcast about a couple things?

Simmons: Please do.

Lowe: I think [the Celtics] shouldn’t start Baynes. And that’s no. 1. I think they should stick with the lineup that they have. Baynes and Horford actually played more together in Game 3 than they did in any other game, and I’m riding with the five out or whatever I can get with Horford at center. But I assumed they would just start the same lineup again—I’m fascinated that you think they won’t, and now I’m super intrigued for Game 4, which I just wrote an entire preview piece for and did not mention the things about the starting lineup.

Simmons: Well, here’s the case for it: I think [Marcus] Morris has to be on LeBron, and I think Horford has to be on Love. So if you’re gonna do that, the choices now are either have Jaylen or [Jayson] Tatum guarding Thompson.

Lowe: I love it! They’re doing it.

Simmons: I know, but I don’t love that because it seems like over and over again the guys get messed up, and all of a sudden Morris isn’t on LeBron. And I want to take Thompson [out of the game]—I don’t want him to get offensive rebounds. The first six minutes of the game against Cleveland I think is super important. I don’t want offensive rebounds, I don’t want LeBron to get going, and I don’t want Love to get going.

And the other thing I think they’ll do [Monday night]—if George Hill is looking competent in the first couple minutes, I think [Stevens is] gonna bring in [Marcus] Smart early. Because George Hill—you can’t let him do one thing. You’ve just gotta take him out. And I think if you look at what [the Celtics] did against Philly in Game 5, they played seven guys, and they played [Semi] Ojeleye for eight minutes. But it was basically a seven-man team for that game. I think that’s what they do in this game. I think this is the haymaker game, because you don’t want to go to Game [6]. … You could put this series away in five if you win [Monday night].

Lowe: I agree that this is an urgent game for the Celtics, and at some point they are gonna lose a home game, especially when the other team has LeBron. So I would go so far as to say whoever wins tonight wins the series.