The creature is in the details
I'll be honest: I'd assumed, as had most of the land, that Game 1 of this round's marquee series would be a star-driven barrage: Nash conjuring up another effortless offensive tone poem, Kobe making everyone uncomfortable by, um, forcing his will on the game by drilling, penetrating, and splitting his way to an ultimately futile 40 or 50 (worst possible NBA figure to catch a rape charge). Two of the three front-runners for the Mo-Pod, each in their own way spinning individual brilliance into the foundation for post-season legitimacy. Instead, I got clear-cut proof that either this is the most endlessly tricky match-up of Round 1, or Suns/Lakers is at heart a coaching chess match.
I had a long list of quizzical observations on the game ready to go, but then KAREEM'S JACKET descended from beyond this earth and ground them all to a pulp. Suffice to say that, if this had indeed been a player's game—which we'd all assumed it would be—it would've been more fluid, less jagged, and much less of cerebral puzzle for the viewer. We all know that the Nash can manufacture points at will, and Kobe insist upon about as many per night as he sees fit to. I would also like to take this chance to point out how telling it is that the Suns are never accused of being soft, as the Kings and Mavs before them so often were; they aren't even judged as a team effort, or a collective spirit, since it's so clearly Nash juggling mostly interchangable pieces to achieve the desired result. Granted, Marion and Diaw are among the most valuable players we have in this league, but it's Nash's pinball table and they're just living in it.
Fast forward to what just was: D'Antoni/Jackson, plain and simple. That Lakers team had found its organic, Kobe-centric logic by the end of the regular season, and that's no doubt a joint effort of Bryant's maturity and Jackson's passive aggressive management skills. This one, though, was so game-planned to death that it seemed ripped from the pages of Larry Brown's wine-stained family haggadah ("Let the Right Way Go!"). Targeting the Suns's weaknesses, deciding who and what could be allied to run amuck, obsessively situating Kwame and Odom while making sure that Smush flexed like the "X Factor" Jackson apparently identified him as to the media. Even Kobe's quiet, quiet performance seemed part of a master strategy; I would not put it past Phil's genius and Kobe's demonic—no, not "devilish"—opera of self to get together and purposefully freeze him, and victory, out of game one to throw the planet off keel and leave a roaring void of doubt in the mind of Phoenix. Proof that this was so far out of the hands of the players: Odom and Kwame, who probably have some of the worst touch in the Association right around the basket, were repeatedly put in that position that's neither shooting nor laying it in (where, significantly, Zach Randolph and Eddy Curry thrive). It was at times painful to watch, but Phil seemed to think it important to prove that they could.
When it became clear that Phil had some wise thoughts on how to disrupt Nash's all-mighty puppet show, D'Antoni stepped in and not only met him head-on. In the process of doing that which was necessary, he made it clear just how much the Suns themselves are a coaching masterstroke. We all know about the Diaw switch, and the stockpiling of edgy, new era three-point specialists. But the juggling of line-ups, the utility belt with which Nash descends upon the offensive end, has been an elaborate system of red herrings, jabs, parrys, feints, end-arounds, and all other sorts of heady language that could apply just as easily to super-aggressive coaching or high IQ basketball playing. Even Nash sometimes seemed putty in D'Antoni's hands; against the Spurs, getting him to committ to scoring proved to be a way of gumming up the system. But with brilliant coaching shuffling the cards to dictate where and when Nash would be compelled to flip the switch, it ended being a predictable way of destablizing the system of mismatches and pre-determined causes that Phil had opted to stake his victory on.
I am still not entirely sure if this was as exciting to watch as this prose would make it sound, but I can safely say that I've never before interested in seeing how coaching would override letting players play. And while I don't think we have to worry that D'Antonio or Jackson are threats to Brown or Jerry Sloan's seats on the Supreme Council, it did make a case for how hard it is to have an MVP-type season without an equally resourceful coach putting in serious work, even if it's only blatantly obvious on these most exceptional of occasions. I'd still like to see Kobe make this into a battle of performance, rather than execution. If only because I'd like to see Nash show that he, and these Suns, can sweat, grunt, and make dramatic, micro-adjustments of effort that would align them with last season's team—and make me believe that they two are a team of players.