A few minutes before playing the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the Jazz’s opening-round NBA playoff series, Tyrone Corbin thought he’d experienced it all in the NBA. He played in the league for 16 years. He worked as an assistant coach for a decade. He’d been a part of meaningless and meaningful games of all sorts. He played and coached under iconic basketball men, including Cotton Fitzsimmons, Lenny Wilkens, Rick Adelman and Jerry Sloan. He thought he was prepared for what would come next.
And then …
He had a panic attack.
Not a classic, clinical one, rather a spell of uncertainty, a rush of anxiety, an unsettled feeling about his young team’s preparation for the fight it was about to face.
“I felt fine right up to the beginning of the game, and then the jitters started,” he said. “I started thinking: ‘Are we ready? Did we cover everything? Are the combinations right? Is the lineup right? Do the players understand everything?’ It just started spinning like that.”
Corbin, an incessant worker, suddenly became an incessant worrier.
He said he followed his typical pregame routine, having watched film of the Spurs, having reviewed details with his team, and was ready to watch the game plan unfold.
“It was all good and then, man, it was a different feel — the building, the crowd, the importance of the game, the importance of every possession and every play, the intensity of the moment,” he said. “You want to give the guys what they need, make sure they are as comfortable as they can be, that they feel good about where we are and just go out and play.”
But if the head coach is nervous, the players pick up on that.
“I’ll have to get better,” he said. “Make sure I’m relaxed.”
Let’s say it the way it is here: If this playoff series comes down to a battle of minds and nerves and synapses between Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Ty Corbin, the Jazz are in trouble.
Popovich is considered one of the most grizzled and savvy coaches around. He wins because he has great players, but, as the conductor of the Spurs symphony, he’s led the band to four NBA titles. Concerns don’t go on spin-dry inside his bean just before the opening tip. Anxiety doesn’t blindside him.
Corbin is a smart, tough man, though, and, never having been a head coach in the postseason, he’ll gather in the intricacies as he goes. But it is a difficult place to learn, especially when the other team is flat-out better than his.
“Ty understands it,” assistant coach Jeff Hornacek said. “It’s his first time as a head coach in the playoffs. He worries, but that’s what coaching is about. You can’t always control what the players do. For a lot of them, this is their first time in the playoffs, too. It’s all of us learning together, learning what it takes to win.”
A day after Utah’s first loss in the series, a game during which the Jazz couldn’t contain Tony Parker, couldn’t defend the pick-and-roll, couldn’t disrupt the Spurs’ shooters, couldn’t find enough offensive efficiency to hang with San Antonio, Corbin was still rummaging through the remains.
“I’m still critiquing my performance,” he said. “I’ve studied the film now a couple of times. I just want to make sure I’m covering everything. You have to continue to work. You do second-guess yourself — I do that too much — but then you’ve got to let it go. Everyone I talk to says, ‘Look, you make a decision in the moment because you think it’s the right decision to make. You look at it and you run a play. If it doesn’t work, you have to move on.’ ”
The Jazz are trying to do exactly that.
Corbin wouldn’t specify what changes he’ll make in Game 2, but finding a way to slow Parker is at the top of his list. Other changes will be slight. He said he likely wouldn’t alter his lineup and that he favors improved execution over massive schematic changes.
“In the playoffs, you have to make sure you execute every time down,” he said. “A team like [San Antonio] takes advantage of it if you don’t. You take a bad shot, they get a run-out. You turn the ball over, they’re going to attack you early. If you don’t get to your spot, they bump you off your spot.”
Added Hornacek: “Whatever we do, we have to do it better. Against the Spurs, you can’t have lapses. If you have that happen five times a game, it turns into 10 points and you lose by 10. It’s as simple as that.”
So, the Jazz will attempt to limit their lapses in Game 2. Corbin said he’s certain his team will play harder, smarter, better on Wednesday night, and that he’ll coach harder, smarter, better.
“I’ll be fine, I’m not worried about breaking down or anything,” he said, laughing. “This is what we want. This is what you play for. This is the playoffs. It’s different for the players and it’s different for me. But we’re going to grow together. We can compete with these guys. We just have to clean up some things and we’ll be OK.”
Gordon Monson hosts the “Gordon Monson Show” weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone.