Posted: Tuesday May 30, 2006 12:01PM; Updated: Tuesday May 30, 2006 1:17PM
With a 3-1 lead on the Pistons, it seems likely that Pat Riley's move back to the Heat bench will pay off with a trip to the Finals.
As coach of the T'wolves, Saunders once had seven straight first-round playoff exits. Never mind that his teams were always heavy underdogs -- he still took criticism for not getting them to the next level. Anything short of a title this season and he's going to face those old slings and arrows again.
Pat Riley, Heat
His Hall of Fame reputation is going to take a hit if the Heat don't make it to the Finals. After all, it was his decision as team president to break up the supporting cast from last year's squad that came within a whisker of reaching the Finals. It was also his decision to take over on the team's bench after Stan Van Gundy abruptly resigned as coach early in the season.
So far Riley has done enough to hold off his critics. He kept the Heat afloat during the Bulls series, when the team appeared to be unraveling. He came up with a game plan to slow Vince Carter enough in the Nets series. He got a huge lift from newcomers Antoine Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams in Miami's win at Detroit in Game 1.
But if the Heat should cough up a 3-1 series lead and lose again to the Pistons, Riley will get the majority of the blame. The bottom line is that Van Gundy guided Miami to a narrow Game 7 loss to the Pistons last year, despite not having a fully healthy Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal. If Riley can't do it with a healthy Wade and Shaq, the critics will have all the ammunition they need.
Avery Johnson, Mavericks
Sure, he guided the Mavs to a 60-22 record and took home the COY award in his first season. But the NBA is a bottom-line business, and Dallas fans have their sights set on a championship -- especially after taking down the defending-champion Spurs in the last round. Johnson has to get the Mavs to the Finals if he wants to enjoy his summer.
The good news for the Lil' General is that he has pushed most of the right buttons so far. His decision to put Harris in the starting lineup before Game 2 of the Spurs series helped turn the tide. Likewise, his use of Diop over the last two games of the Suns series has proven beneficial.
Of course, Johnson has made his share of rookie mistakes. Why he didn't put the 7-foot Diop on the floor to defend Boris Diaw for the final play of Game 1 is a mystery. And Dallas' poor transition defense in that contest didn't exactly back up those claims of how he's changed the team's defensive philosophy.
But hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. The important thing is that Johnson has shown the ability to adapt and make changes depending on what he sees. As long as the Mavs don't blow this series, Avery will come out looking OK.
Mike D'Antoni, Suns
D'Antoni, last year's COY winner, is still dogged by critics who say a team can't win a title with such an offensive-minded approach. He truly believes the Suns can score so efficiently that it makes up for any defensive weaknesses. He also doesn't want to get outcoached by Johnson. D'Antoni has made subtle moves, such as putting Tim Thomas on Erick Dampier in Game 1 and then on Dirk Nowitzki in Game 3. But the injury to Raja Bell has left him with few strategic options.
That's why, of all the coaches on this list, D'Antoni faces the least amount of pressure. After all, this Suns season already has been an unqualified success. Few expected Phoenix to even make the playoffs after Amaré Stoudemire went down with a knee injury. Yet the Suns not only won 50 games and the Pacific Division, they also showed admirable resiliency by coming back from a 3-1 deficit against the Lakers in the first round.
If that's not enough to ease the pressure a bit, here's one more factor in D'Antoni's favor: He also serves as the team's GM.