SAN JOSE, Calif. — It was no great mystery why the Golden State Warriors were imploding. The evidence was all over the large-screen television in front of Sue Phillips. A team celebrated for its relentless ball movement had resorted to a sad, steady diet of one-on-one possessions, and Phillips commiserated with Coach Steve Kerr from afar.
“See how he’s telling them to move?” said Phillips, who was taking the Warriors’ meltdown hard. “I might lose my lunch.”
Phillips, one of the most respected high school coaches in the country, was viewing Game 4 of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference finals from the living room of one of her former players — except that the former player, Leslie Cook, was not there. Cook had scored a ticket to watch the game at Oracle Arena, where she wound up suffering through the final moments of the Warriors’ 95-92 loss to the Houston Rockets up close and in person.
Phillips, on the other hand, along with her senior point guard, Karisma Ortiz, was able to watch from a safe remove with Leslie Cook’s husband, Sean, and the Cook children — Katelyn, 12, and Emma, 10 — who had decked themselves out in Warriors jerseys for the game. I was there, too, as a part of my effort to watch each game of the series with a shrewd basketball mind.
Phillips, 49, is the girls’ basketball coach at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, where she has led the Monarchs to 21 league titles, six state titles and a 667-125 record. She is synonymous with Bay Area basketball, having sent numerous players to Division I programs. She also coached Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball. But back in the day, Walsh was a pretty good basketball player, too. Great defender. Amazing rebounder.
“She had the most incredible hands of anyone I’ve ever seen,” Phillips said. “They were like flypaper.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, after proctoring her final math exam of the school year, Phillips made her way to the Cook family couch for Game 4. She harbored pregame concerns. She wondered how the absence of Andre Iguodala, who was out with a knee injury, would affect Golden State. It was not ideal.
“What do we think about Iggy not being in the lineup tonight?” she said.
She was not asking the most impartial audience. These were big fans of the Dubs. During the Warriors’ quick start on Tuesday, Emma even approved when Nick Young chucked a wild 3-pointer that nearly cratered the backboard.
“He tried to bank it in like me!” said Emma, who along with her sister was a ball girl for Archbishop Mitty last season.
At the same time, Phillips anticipated that the Warriors might be able to exploit overeager defenders, especially after destroying the Rockets in Game 3. Sure enough, after Young set a screen for Stephen Curry in the second quarter, he recognized that his defender, Chris Paul, had taken a half-step toward Curry — likely out of fear that Curry would be open for a 3-pointer. So Young cut to the basket, and Draymond Green passed to him for an easy layup.
“The Rockets are switching hard and hedging so hard on the shooter,” Phillips said, “that the person setting the screen can slip and get a quick bucket inside.”
Still, Houston went into halftime with a slim lead, and Phillips cited one of the joys of a best-of-seven series: the continual adjustments. Coaches make them, and so do great players. Perhaps fans do, too. Emma and Katelyn switched seats before the start of the third quarter in hopes of slowing the Rockets’ momentum.
It seemed to work, at least for a while. In the third quarter, Phillips noticed how the Warriors’ Kevin Durant got a favorable matchup off a screen and simply shot a short jumper over Paul, a much smaller defender.
A few possessions later, Durant found himself being guarded by Paul again. But this time, instead of rising for the quick shot, Durant waited for a double-team to come — because he knew it would — before dumping a pass to Jordan Bell for a dunk.
“They’re just so superb moving without the ball,” Phillips said.
Mitty recently wrapped up another extraordinary season, albeit one that ended in heartbreak when the Pinewood School, from Los Altos Hills, Calif., upset the Monarchs in triple overtime in a state regional final. It was Mitty’s only loss of the season. USA Today still saw it fit to rank Mitty as the No. 1 team in the country in its final poll of the season. For her efforts, Phillips was named the 2018 Naismith High School Girls’ Coach of the Year.
Her most recent batch of players was special, she said, in large part because the players went about their business with so much camaraderie and chemistry. In that sense, she said, they were Warriors-esque.
“It was amazing to hear the amount of laughter and conversation, along with the trash talk,” she said.
Phillips also gave her players the freedom to be creative. The first 10 seconds of each offensive possession belonged to them: If they saw an opening to run the floor and score an easy basket in transition, she encouraged them to do it.
“That tended to work out a lot of times,” said Ortiz, a 6-foot point guard who has committed to play at Penn State next season.
In addition, Phillips had a member of her staff chart the team’s number of possessions as each game was played. The goal was for the Monarchs to average a point per possession. If the players were exceeding that goal, they knew they had Phillips’s tacit permission to be a little “flashier,” as she put it. She also referenced a highly unscientific metric known as the “fun meter.”
The formula worked. The Monarchs averaged 75.6 points a game. They also played some defense, limiting a slate of talented opponents to 43.6 points a game. Haley Jones, a junior wing, was named a first-team all-American.
As for Ortiz, she said she had been using the N.B.A. playoffs to study how the Rockets’ James Harden operates with the ball — in particular, the way he hesitates with his dribble, all those starts and stops forcing his defenders to sway like palm trees in a hurricane. Harden plays with deceptive quickness, Ortiz said.
On Tuesday, Harden helped lead the Rockets’ stunning comeback — not that the Warriors did themselves any favors.
“They’re going isolation on everything,” Ortiz said. “They’re not forcing Houston to defend.”
As the Warriors’ empty trips piled up, Phillips was practically begging for them to attack the basket.
“If they settle for another jump shot, I don’t know what I’m going to do right now,” she said.
In the end, the Warriors kept settling for contested outside shots, and it cost them. The Rockets escaped to even the series, 2-2, with Game 5 scheduled for Thursday night in Houston. Phillips, ever the hoops aficionado, saw the silver lining.
“Hey,” she said, “all this means is we get to see more basketball.”
Follow Scott Cacciola on Twitter: @ScottCacciola.