Game 4, Philadelphia versus Boston: Boston Coach Bill Fitch knows he has to get the ball to Larry Bird, so he call a set play that has worked all season. After four options, Bird still can't get the ball. When he finally does, the 24-second clock has almost expired and he has to force an offbalance shot that is blocked.
Game 7, Milwaukee versus Philadelphia: Philadelphia Coach Billy Cunningham stands up and motions Julius Erving to one side of the floor. Then he tells the other 76ers to go to the other side. Give Doc the ball and get out of the way, he tells them. Erving drives to the basket, scores, gets fouled and makes a three-point play.
Game 7, Houston versus San Antonio: Calvin Murphy has not been starting all season, but Houston Coach Del Harris wants his team to get off to a quick start. He puts Murphy in the starting lineup and the usually methodical Rockets run, gun and win as Murphy scores 42 points.
Coaching in the NBA playoffs can be gut-wrenching work. The diagrams that work during the regular season fail in the postseason. The teams that win in the playoffs are the teams that execute and make adjustments on the floor as each game progresses.
In order to be successful in the playoffs, the best players -- Bird, Erving, Moses Malone and Reggie King -- must have the basketball as often as possible. The coaches must devise strategy to make that happen.
During the regular season, Bird probably could have gotten the ball after only one option. The 76ers wouldn't have had to isolate Erving to get him the ball. Murphy would still be coming off the bench. But the playoffs change the rules, even for the coaches.
"Some people don't like to hear this, but in the playoffs, it comes down to a one-on-one game," said Gene Shue, coach of the Bullets. "It's that way out of necessity. In the playoffs, there aren't many fast breaks and the defenses stop your plays so the game is reduced to the individual skills of the players. s
"I think Philadelphia is doing so well in its series with Boston because it has one-on-one players. Both teams are playing good defense and taking away each other's set offense, but Philadelphia has Julius Erving and Andrew Toney to go one on one and Boston has nobody. Bird is the closest thing they have to a one-on-one player, but he has to catch the ball where he can shoot it to really play that type of game. Erving and Toney can create things no matter where they get the ball."
Bernie Bickerstaff has been the Bullet assistant coach for eight seasons. In that time, the team has made the playoffs seven times, the finals three. He is considered one of the best in the league at scouting another team's plays.
During the regular season a team sees another team once a month, maybe. During the playoffs, they can see each other seven straight games. "You become very familiar when you're that close that long," said Bickerstaff.
"During the playoffs you know that the other team is going to know everything there is to know about you, even how you take your pants off. They just aren't going to let you do what you do best. You have to make adjustments. What it comes down to in the playoffs is half-court basketball and the teams who can't execute are in trouble. I think Philadelphia is winning that series because they're a better half-court team than Boston and when that breaks down, they have Toney and Doc to go to."
It can be frustrating when the other team knows your offense almost as well as you do.
"I couldn't believe it," Cunningham said after one game of the series with Boston. "They were running some of our plays at us."
The Sixers and Celtics have scouted each other so well, and the defense is so good because of it, that the games often look sloppy. That is deceiving.
In the first game of the Philadelphia-Boston series, the Celtics were shooting a free throw when Cunningham called Maurice Cheeks over and told him to run a No. 4 play when they got the ball back.
Fitch heard that and told Celtic guard Tiny Archibald the Sixers were going to run a No. 4, "so be ready". Archibald then told his teammates what play the 76ers were going to run and what to do against it.
Cheeks looked at Cunningham and said, "Shall we still run it?"
"Sure," said Cunningham. "They know it's coming, but let's see if they can stop it."
A coach can look like a genius by making a number of individual isolated moves, like starting one player instead of another or changing a certain matchup. Not many have worked out as dramactically as Harris' decision to start Murphy. Still, each of the four coaches still in the playoffs has made his strategical presence felt.
In the Milwaukee-Philadelphia series, Cunningham switched Erving off Marques Johnson and put Caldwell Jones on him. He also used the Erving isolaton offense.
In the Houston-Kansas City series, King was beating the Rockets inside, so Harris put Malone on him and the Rockets won the next two games.
After Bird scored 33 and 34 points in the first two games of the Boston-Philadelphia series, Cunningham put Erving on him and Bird was held to 22 and 20 points, respectively, in the next two games. The Celtics lost both. In the Kansas City-Phoenix series, with outside shooters Otis Birdsong and Phil Ford out with injuries, the Kings' big treat was King. Phoenix put two men on him. In the seventh game, Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons started John Lambert at guard to get more outside shooting, which opened the inside for King. It was Lambert's first start of the season and the Kings won the game and the series.
Of the four coaches left, Fitzsimmons is the only one who had to make major personnel adjustments. Because of injuries, his options were limited.
The playoffs also make coaches impatient. "Each game is a little season," said Fitch. "You can't do much experimenting in the playoffs. You have to go with your sure things."
One factor a coach can't prepare for is a player not performing up to his usual standards.
Milwaukee's Mickey Johnson was the hero of the sixth game of the Bucks' series with the 76ers, forcing a seventh game. But he got into early foul trouble and went scoreless.
"He was playing bad so I took him out," said Coach Don Nelson. "Then I'd put him back for a bit to see if he'd gotten any better. I game him one more check early in the second half and when I saw he didn't have it, I went with other people the rest of the way."
"Even when Doc isn't going good, he has to sit down in the playoffs," added Cunningham.
"But not for long."