Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Sports

In the NBA, Billy Donovan adapts and overcomes

It was the morning of Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinal series, and Billy Donovan, coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, was taking questions from the media as his team finished its workout.

Two nights earlier, in Game 1, the Thunder had been embarrassed by the San Antonio Spurs, losing by 32 points. Midway through the interview, one reporter asked Donovan if there was anything he could learn from watching the way Gregg Popovich, his Spurs counterpart, worked and managed his team. "He's one of the greatest coaches ever," the reporter added.

Donovan hesitated for a moment and then politely deflected the question, saying he was too wrapped up in his own team to pay attention to Popovich's work, although he made sure to add how much he respected Popovich.

The interaction was brief, but it illuminated the way many were viewing the series at the time: Popovich, the guru, going against Donovan, the rookie NBA coach — never mind that Donovan had spent almost two decades becoming one of the top college coaches in the nation.

On Thursday, Donovan and the Thunder vanquished Popovich and the Spurs with a Game 6 victory, making the Game 1 loss a distant memory and earning Donovan another dose of respect in his first NBA season.

"We know that Pop is an unbelievable coach — the ways he draws up plays, the ways he subs, the way he does things — but Billy was pretty much ready for everything the Spurs threw at us," veteran guard Randy Foye said. "He did an unbelievable job of adjusting and growing, game in and game out."

Donovan, 50, was hired one year ago to coach the Thunder, a supremely talented team that nevertheless has repeatedly fallen short of the trophy. He had spent 19 seasons as coach at the University of Florida, posting a 467-186 record and leading the Gators to two national titles.

Donovan used the regular season to adjust to his new environs. The basketball is different. The players are in different points of their lives. He learned how to calibrate his message, and pare it to its essence, amid a grueling schedule.

Whatever growing pains he might have encountered, the team won 55 games and produced 109.9 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, according to NBA.com, a figure second only to the 73-win Golden State Warriors' 112.5.

"First year, everything happens so fast," guard Dion Waiters said last week. "We know that. But coach has adapted. He's got great coaches around him who are helping. You've got to learn on the fly in the NBA."

Game 1 against the Spurs left Donovan and the Thunder chastened. He changed things, little things, to address the team's deficiencies. He took care, at the same time, to stay steady with his players, to reiterate their identity and strengths.

Donovan's rotation management proved crucial. For example, he used centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together for long stretches in every game after Game 1 to great effect. The Spurs had no answer to that.

Oklahoma City, which struggled at times in the fourth quarter during the regular season, looked mostly poised in one close finish after another, until it had secured the series win.

"It's all them, man," Adams said of Donovan and his staff. "We just show up and play. All the strategy is down to them. They've done an amazing job, scouting-wise, adjustments, all that. They're on top of everything, which was amazing. That's all credit to him this series."

Donovan has spent recent days preparing for the Warriors, who represent an even loftier challenge than the Spurs. He will match up this time against Steve Kerr, who won 67 games in 2014-15 as a rookie coach. Kerr's team won the championship last year. He was named the coach of the year this season.

After years of playing do-or-die NCAA tournament games, Donovan has embraced the longer, more contemplative process of managing an NBA playoff series. The ability to adjust has been great, as has been the ability to recover mentally from a loss.

Against the Spurs, the Thunder took advantage of that opportunity. When the final game was over, and colored streamers fell from the ceiling to mark Oklahoma City's series win, Donovan and Popovich met at center court. They shook hands, and Popovich did not let go of his grip.

"Good job, man," Popovich said, leaning into Donovan's left ear to be heard over the din. "Good job."

It was another moment of validation for the supposed neophyte.

— New York Times

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