Detroit, Indiana and San Antonio were all riding high after opening their respective series with two dominating wins on their home courts.
In the East, the Pistons' defense slowed the Nets' fast break and solved the intricacies of their "Princeton" half-court offense, while the Pacers won the firs two games against the Heat by comfortable margins. In the West, the Spurs parlayed the swift penetrations of Tony Parker with the strong inside game of Tim Duncan to dominate the Lakers by 10 points in Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio.
Since then, the three series have taken on a new look. The Nets, Heat and Lakers appear to have found the game plan that will win for them. For coaches Lawrence Frank, Stan Van Gundy and Phil Jackson, it's a matter of continuing to play it.
But what about Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Larry Brown? What can they do to stem the surge of momentum that has overwhelmed their teams? Are there adjustments they must make in personnel or game plan? Or do they simply count on that good old home-court advantage to pull them through?
Larry Brown. He must slow the game tempo to the pace of the first two games in which the Nets scored 56 and 80 points, respectively. New Jersey averaged 16 fastbreak points in those games, compared to 23 points in Games 3 and 4. Effective Detroit offense, strong rebounding and quick transition defense will get that job done.
Chauncey Billups is a key performer in the Pistons' offense. He's the team's best penetrator and creates open shots for his teammates -- especially Rip Hamilton. Billups has been hampered with a strained back which has reduced his mobility. If Billups can't play, Mike James and Lindsey Hunter must fill the hole.
Brown must also get increased output from Rasheed Wallace (the team's only low-post scoring threat), more consistency from small forward Tayshaun Prince and continued defense and rebounding from Ben Wallace.
Rick Carlisle. He must get his team back to basics. In the regular season, the Pacers kept opponents to 85.6 points per game and .432 field-goal shooting. In their two losses to Miami, the Heat averaged 97 points and shot nearly 50 percent from the field. Those numbers accompany open driving lanes to the hoop, uncontested jumpers and putback scores on missed shots. The Pacers have gotten little offense from any players other than Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley shot 1-for-5 from the field and was ejected in Game 4 and shooting guard Reggie Miller was a combined 1-for-7 in the two defeats.
Gregg Popovich. He has often said that defense is the key element of the Spurs' strength. There was some slippage in that area in the two losses in L.A. Granted, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant represent tremendous challenges, but both were held to reasonable numbers in the first two games. The Spurs must limit Shaq's catches in the paint to a bare minimum and they must force Kobe to give up the ball to open teammates rather than permit him to finish at the basket.
Coach Pop also needs to tweak his offense a tad so that Parker and Duncan are not so predictable. Duncan needs to get the ball more on the move, rather than limiting his game to post-ups on the left block. Pop has built-in options for getting the ball to his big forward at various spots on the floor where he's an effective scorer. Duncan needs to make his scoring move on the catch instead of waiting until he's double-teamed. A catch-and-shoot from 15 feet is a high-percentage shot for Tim. It also seems that the Lakers are giving him the left baseline for drives to the hoop which he seldom takes. TD should have 20 good shooting opportunities if he's aggressive going after his shot. That will also help to cut down on his turnovers. The Spurs need that from him.
Parker must balance the number of penetrations with open shots from the perimeter -- which the Lakers concede. Gary Payton and Derek Fisher typically go under high screens when defending Parker and that leaves Parker open for quality jump shots. He needs to take enough of them to bring the Lakers' defenders to him. That opens up the lane for scoring drives to the hoop or passes to open teammates. Hedo Turkoglu, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Rasho Nesterovic, Robert Horry (or Malik Rose) and Devin Brown must knock down the open looks.
The coaches involved in the lost advantages -- Brown, Carlisle and Popovich -- are all experienced in the NBA wars. They are not going to panic because their series has been tied. Their players expect them to analyze the situation and set a successful course of action. Circumstances dictate whether or not changes in personnel and/or strategy are necessary.
The coach has the best sense of what his team needs and how to fill that need. When I coached the Trail Blazers in 1977, we fell behind Philadelphia 2-0 in the NBA Finals. On the plane ride home after the second defeat, my assistant, Jack McKinney, sat with me to discuss the things we might do to change the direction of the series. We talked about changing personnel, using some trapping defenses and making other minor adjustments.
After McKinney returned to his seat, I thought for a long time about the options I could take ... and I decided to do none of them. I knew that we hadn't played our best basketball and the players knew it, too. I felt that making changes would indicate to the players that we weren't good enough to beat Philadelphia with the game we were playing. So I decided that the best approach was to increase the intensity of our defense and rebounding. That would get our fast break going. In our half-court offense, we stayed with our basic turn-out system that had gotten us great shots throughout the season.
I made that plan known to the players the next day at practice. It seemed to be what they wanted to hear. We had a great practice that day, then blew out the Sixers in both games in Portland. That gave us the confidence to win Game 5 in Philly and finish the series with a win in Portland.
Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.