It’s Finals or fired for some coaches

Something apparently tickles the fancy of the Celtics’ Ray Allen and the Magic’s Vince Carter in the first half. Something apparently tickles the fancy of the Celtics’ Ray Allen and the Magic’s Vince Carter in the first half. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Gary Washburn Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 25, 2010

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The firing of Mike Brown in Cleveland sends a disturbing signal to those in the NBA coaching fraternity who put emphasis on regular-season success, such as Orlando’s Stan Van Gundy.

Not that Van Gundy doesn’t want to win the NBA title. He surely believed he has the team to make a run this season. Obviously, given the Magic’s overall Eastern Conference finals performance, that isn’t the case.

The question is whether Van Gundy’s job will be at stake if the Magic don’t mount a historic comeback from an 0-3 deficit. The Cavaliers won 61 regular-season games, nabbed another Central Division title, and gave win-starved Cleveland something to cherish, yet Brown is probably scanning the NBA coaches job board looking to catch up with Eddie Jordan, Mike Woodson, and Vinny Del Negro.

Woodson’s firing was an indication that reaching the playoffs three consecutive seasons for a franchise that hadn’t reached the postseason the eight previous years was unacceptable. However, there’s more to this story. The Hawks were growing stale and their inability to compete with the Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals exposed their weaknesses.

Still, his firing was a stark indication that regular-season success and the inability to thrive in the postseason will result in job loss. And that is even more disconcerting for Brown, who was the Cavaliers’ most successful coach and had guided them to the NBA Finals in 2007.

Playoff series losses, a megastar (LeBron James) who seemingly gave up in the final two games of their Eastern Conference semifinals defeat in six games to the Celtics, and lack of adjustments following Cleveland’s Game 3 victory in Boston led to Brown’s downfall. Fair or not, Brown paid for the inability to win the ultimate crown in an NBA market where most owners believe a good coach is one who works miracles with mediocre talent.

“I’m a coach, OK,’’ Van Gundy said before last night’s Game 4 victory over the Celtics at TD Garden. “The guy [Brown] was in Cleveland five years. He went to the NBA Finals three years ago. He was the coach of the year, a year ago. The best record in the league the last two years, so whether you agree with the firing or not, I think it is very fair to say that he got fired on the basis of three games, the last three games of the [Celtics] series.

“I believe today when he was still an active coach, I believe he had the highest [winning] percentage of any active coach. The facts certainly support that Mike Brown is one hell of a basketball coach in this league.’’

Of course, Van Gundy could be headed for the same fate. But his opinion is indicative of a coaching group that’s confused about its expectations. Jordan got fired in Philadelphia for not leading a bad 76ers team to the postseason, and he was replaced by three-time fired coach Doug Collins, who has a career 15-23 playoff record.

Doc Rivers led the Magic to three straight winning seasons but was bounced from his first NBA head coaching job after a 1-10 start in 2003-04. After outmaneuvering Brown and Van Gundy in the first three games of this series, he is considered an elite coach along with Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich.

But his memory is long and Rivers realizes the days of coaches orchestrating their own exit are long gone.

“I was not thrilled to see it,’’ Rivers said of Brown’s firing. “I don’t know what you have to do to keep your job. He’s done as much as you can do, back-to-back 60-win seasons, so it’s tough. Our profession is tough that way and it seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher.’’

Rivers sacrificed the regular season for the sake of postseason success. He held Kevin Garnett out of games, limited practice time, and allowed players to heal fully from injury to get the Celtics on the cusp of the NBA Finals.

Of course, president Danny Ainge called the 50-win regular season a disappointment. The Celtics were an afterthought entering this postseason, an old team judged strictly on its regular-season perils.

Perhaps the downfall of the Cavaliers and success of the Celtics will alter how coaches approach the regular season. Will owners be more patient of coaches who rest veterans, measure practice time, and limit minutes? It is a question to ponder because obviously 60-win seasons, coach of the year awards, and division titles mean nothing if the prize is an NBA championship and nothing less.

“I am not up here to kill [Cavaliers majority owner] Dan Gilbert,’’ Van Gundy said. “But the facts certainly support that Mike Brown is one hell of a basketball coach in this league.’’

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