Monday, June 21, 2010

Professional Service

Rick Pitino is a college coach of the highest order. His credentials speak for themselves. Pitino’s NBA track record, however, is not so easy to define. His last tour of duty — 248 games with the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001 — was a disastrous stretch that ended with a 102-146 record, no playoffs and the enduring soundbite of a weary Pitino explaining to a rabid fan base that “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door.”

That last bit is great fodder for the argument that Pitino was out of his depth on the professional level. His tenure with the Celtics also obscured the relative success Pitino enjoyed with the New York Knicks in 1987-’88 and 1988-’89. A close reading of a random game during Pitino’s stint with the Knicks highlights his strengths and weaknesses as a pro coach.

The Knicks’ 120-116 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 22, 1989, proved to be a great yardstick to measure an NBA coach — a game in the doldrums of the season, in the midst of a brutal seven-game road trip and against a playoff-caliber opponent.

The first thing that pops off the screen is Pitino’s manic energy. He was then firmly entrenched in the wunderkind stage of his career, a 36-year-old workaholic who had, the season before, led the Knicks to a 14-game improvement in his first year at the helm. Pitino paced the sideline, well-turned-out in his Italian suit, and his voice was easily picked up by the television crew above the uncommonly silent crowd at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. It is a different temperament than most NBA coaches, the common perception being that a coach needs to emotionally pace himself to make it through the grind of an NBA season.

College coaches are often slaves to their systems. This can cause problems when transitioning to the pro game because the talents are so much greater and diverse that drastic adjustments are needed from game to game. Pitino’s style is based on pressure defense and a guard-dominated offense.

Pressure defense is so hard to implement in the NBA, mostly because of the sheer talent of the players. That’s not to say that it won’t catch some teams off guard, like the Blazers on this night. Portland had 13 turnovers in the first half and 11 in the third quarter. But a professional coach also will find some holes in the pressure. Pitino was matching wits with Portland’s Mike Schuler, not in the class of a Red Auerbach but a serviceable NBA coach. (Schuler would be fired a month after this game and replaced by assistant Rick Adelman.)

Schuler’s counterforce against the defense was simple — send Clyde Drexler on a fly pattern down the sideline for a long pass over the top of the defense. Drexler was in full “Gylde” mode then, and the results were spectacular. He had 26 points in the first half and nine of his 10 baskets came on fast breaks. Drexler enjoyed one of his finest games as a pro, 48 points on 20-for-28 shooting including 18 layups or dunks.

Pitino’s offensive strategies also seemed counterintuitive. He had Patrick Ewing just entering his prime, but the all-star center got only six shots in the first half. The Knicks were content with Mark Jackson and Trent Tucker dominating the ball on the perimeter. It was no coincidence that Ewing’s scoring average jumped from 22.7 to 28.6 when Stu Jackson replaced Pitino the next season.

Pitino has always been masterful about getting the most out of guys on the bottom end of his rotation. He is, after all, the best-selling author of “Success is a Choice.” The motivational tactics and knack for choosing the right personnel won this game for Pitino. After getting into a 17-point hole in the third period, Pitino brought in Rod Strickland, Gerald Wilkens and the newly signed Pete Myers for Jackson, Tucker and Johnny Newman. That lineup fed into Pitino’s fast-paced attack and cut the margin to 90-88 heading into the fourth quarter.

The Knicks finally got the ball to Ewing in the fourth quarter and held on for the victory. Pitino acted as if they had clinched the Eastern Conference championship, hugging each player as they headed toward the locker room. Pitino’s enthusiasm certainly breathed new life into a moribund franchise, making consecutive playoffs under his stewardship. But after the season Pitino took the job at Kentucky, back in the college ranks where his style is a safer bet.

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