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NBA Playoffs

Crucial coaching decisions that backfired in NBA Playoffs in recent memory

Mason Plumlee’s shoulders sank as quickly as Anthony Davis sank the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer in Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets. This, in turn, has slightly inspired this post on the NBA Playoffs and coaching blunders.

Many are blaming the backup big man for allowing AD to have an uncontested shot. Plumlee left Davis and went under the screen of LeBron James, leaving the seven-time All-Star as wide open as the Grand Canyon. Nikola Jokic admitted after the game that it was just a case of miscommunication.

Plumlee, who only played nine minutes, was a last-possession insertion for Nuggets coach Mike Malone, as he took out Paul Millsap, who suited up for 28 minutes. It seemed like a good decision, as Plumlee is athletic and long enough to cover AD. But Malone’s situational gamble backfired big-time.

If it’s any consolation for the 49-year-old tactician, he’s not the first one to have his plan blow up in his face. Yes, everything is easier to judge in hindsight, but here are other crucial coaching decisions that flopped in the NBA Playoffs in recent memory. Quite interestingly, all of them also involved personnel changes for supposed defensive purposes.

Gregg Popovich taking out Tim Duncan in Game 6 of 2013 Finals

NBA Playoffs

The San Antonio Spurs were just a win away from capturing their fifth title, leading the series against the Miami Heat, 3-2. The Spurs were also leading by two points in Game 6, 94-92, when Mike Miller fouled Kawhi Leonard to stop the clock with just 19.2 seconds left in the fourth quarter. The Heat were in penalty. Kawhi, only 22 years old and playing in his first NBA Finals, muffed the first free throw.

With no timeouts left and anticipating the Heat’s offensive possession, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich took out Tim Duncan and put in Boris Diaw. He wanted to have guys quick enough to chase defensively as he expected the Heat to shoot a three-pointer. It’s also worth noting that Pop also took out TD in the Heat’s previous possession, leading to a LeBron James three-pointer off an offensive rebound, cutting the lead to a basket.

Kawhi made the second free throw to give them a three-point edge. Then disaster struck for the Spurs in one of those Where-Were-You-When-It-Happened moments. With no timeouts left, the Heat raced to their side. LeBron James hoisted another three-pointer from the left elbow. It was too strong. Chris Bosh, the biggest man on the floor, grabbed the offensive rebound and kicked it out to Ray Allen in the right corner. Allen instinctively stepped back to his office–the three-point line. The next scene at the American Airlines Arena was absolute bedlam. You can still hear Mike Breen’s voice: “BANG! Tie game with five seconds remaining!”

The Spurs still had a chance to clinch the title, but Tony Parker missed a tough shot from the baseline and the game went into overtime. With the energy completely sapped out of them, the Spurs eventually lost, 103-100.

Some observers chided Popovich for his decision to take out TD in such a crucial NBA Playoffs moment, who was having a masterful game with team-highs of 30 points and 17 rebounds, five from the offensive glass. After the game, Pop defended his decision:

“Diaw has a little more speed than Duncan, so it makes sense to have him out there redding at the three‑point line. Unfortunately, we had two guys that went to LeBron and didn’t switch with (Bosh), and he went right to the hole. He’s the guy who got the rebound, so it has nothing to do with Duncan.”

The soft-spoken Duncan was even-keeled about his late-game NBA Playoffs benching:

“It is what it is. Obviously, I want to be in there every minute of the game. That’s just how we’re built. But we’ve done it all year long. We’ve been successful with it and if it comes down to it again, Pop will make the call again.”

Eventually, the devastating defeat became too much to recover from as the Spurs also lost in Game 7, giving the Heat back-to-back crowns.

Mike Dunleavy Sr. inserting Daniel Ewing in Game 5 of 2006 WCS

Sam Cassell, Mike Dunleavy, Clippers


This NBA Playoffs series was as intense as it could get. The second seed Phoenix Suns, at the peak of their high-octane Seven Seconds or Less machine, and the upset-hungry sixth seed Los Angeles Clippers featuring Elton Brand, Sam Cassell, Corey Maggette, Chris Kaman, and Cuttino Mobley.

Heading into Game 5, the two teams split the series with alternating wins. The Suns were leading by three points with only 40 seconds left in the fourth quarter when Cassell drained a long bomb to send the game into overtime. They continued to trade punches in the extension. With 31.5 ticks remaining, Steve Nash made a layup to cut the Clippers lead to one, 109-108. After both squads committed errors in the ensuing possessions, the Suns were forced to foul Cassell with only 3.6 seconds on the clock. The crafty guard, who shot a team-high 86.3% from the charity stripe that season, sank both free throws, giving the Clippers a 111-108 lead.

Then the inexplicable happened. As the Suns called timeout, Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. inserted rookie guard Daniel Ewing. The Suns were the NBA’s top three-point shooting team that year, making 10.2 per game at 39.9%. So Dunleavy didn’t want to take any chances. He wanted quick guys to cover the Suns’ shooters, also inserting Quintin Ross and Walter McCarty. The Clippers also had a foul to give. The problem was Ewing, the 32nd overall pick that year, played a whopping zero minutes prior to that possession. He only played a grand total of three minutes and three seconds in the first four meetings. He was as cold as frozen pizza.

With the Suns inbounding the ball, Raja Bell flashed to the left corner three-point area. Ewing was a few steps late in recovering. Bell easily caught the pass and sank the contested shot to send the game into a second OT. Cassell completely berated Ewing in the huddle. The Suns scattered 15 points in the second extension and stole the win, 125-118, to take a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Ewing told reporters he didn’t want to foul Bell to risk a four-point play. Dunleavy Sr. said he understood the rookie’s thinking. But Cassell wasn’t too diplomatic:

“We had a young guy in the game. It’s not his fault that Raja made his shot, but we’ve got to know better in that situation. We’ve got a foul to give, we’ve got to put Raja Bell in the fifth row with the popcorn man, but we didn’t do it.”

The loss proved to be costly for the Clippers as they eventually lost the series in seven games. After that year, the Clippers didn’t make the postseason for five straight seasons.

Frank Vogel subbing out Roy Hibbert in Game 1 of 2013 ECF

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The Miami Heat rampaged through the first two rounds of the NBA Playoffs that year, losing only once in nine games. But their dominant showing looked to be in peril against the surging Indiana Pacers. The game needed an extra five minutes after Paul George, who was named Most Improved Player that year, made a miraculous three-pointer with only 0.7 ticks left in regulation.

The overtime period was a physical nip-and-tuck affair. The Heat took a 101-99 lead with only 10 seconds remaining after LeBron James made a layup. After both teams traded turnovers, Dwyane Wade fouled George while shooting a three-pointer. The versatile third-year forward, playing in his first Eastern Conference Finals, calmly sank all his free throws to take a one-point advantage with only 2.2 seconds on the clock.

The Heat called a 20-second timeout. This is when Pacers coach Frank Vogel, only in his second postseason stint, decided to sit Roy Hibbert. The 7’2” center was the team’s defensive anchor, averaging 2.6 blocks that season, fourth-best in the NBA. But he was also slow-footed and Vogel was worried Hibbert might not be quick enough to defend on a switch. So he took him out for Tyler Hansbrough, who was having a solid game with 10 points and six rebounds off the bench.

Without the imposing Hibbert protecting the rim, the Heat spread the floor for LeBron. Ray Allen dove to the left corner three-pointer, pulling in Hansbrough. With no defenders in the paint, LeBron took the inbound pass from Shane Battier and quickly drove to his left side, catching George off-guard, and sank the game-winning layup as time expired to send a sea of white-clad Heat supporters into a frenzy.

After the game, Vogel acknowledged his crucial misstep in leaving out Hibbert:

“I would say we would probably have him in next time.”

The Pacers quickly bounced back after the loss, winning Game 2 and extending the series all the way to a Game 7, where they eventually lost. But how huge was that Game 1 defeat? At that time, the Pacers had only won two series in franchise history after dropping a Game 1.