Psychology of the NBA Finals: One game at a time.

I Love This Game!
I Love This Game!

It’s been a while since my last post on here. I’ve been largely trying to avoid the internet while the NBA Playoffs have been happening. People seem unable to resist posting results on social media sites and, since I can no longer stay up until 5am and function adequately the next day, I’ve been recording games to watch when I get home from work the following day.

Even though I’m not watching the games live, I can still obviously influence the result by shouting at the TV, so knowing the results essentially ruins watching sports… and spending a whole day in a Sports Department and NOT finding out sporting results is not easy.

Anyway, that’s why I’ve been “off the internet” for a while, but I’m back now, and what an NBA Final Series we have this year! I’m not a Spurs fan as such, but I’m a fan of the way they play basketball… the right way. They were literally inches from winning the Finals last year, so I was really pleased to see them make their way back there this year, and loved the way their unselfish, team basketball, got them past the one-on-one, never-going-to-be-successful, even-Jordan-passed-the-ball-sometimes, nightmare that is the OKC Thunder.

images (1)
Team first.

As for the Miami Heat, they had a so-so season. You get the idea that it was never really difficult, but at the same time, they didn’t perhaps dominate as much as they could have, which led a lot of people to wonder whether they would make it back to the Finals.

If Indiana hadn’t experienced a somewhat spectacular case of BTS (Borderline Terrible Syndrome) for pretty much the whole second half of the season, Miami might have had to work hard to reach the Finals again, but they didn’t. Not really, anyway.

But now both teams are here and, as I have done in recent years, I’ve been watching this final series mostly from a fan perspective, but I can’t help watching as a sport psychologist too. There are always lessons to be learned from watching elite athletes at the top of their game, so I thought I’d do a game-by-game, psychology of the NBA Finals type thing. You know, key lessons or observations (in my humble opinion) from each game. Probably makes sense to start with Game 1 then.

Game 1 – ‘Beating the Heat’ and ‘Short Memory Shooting’

LeBron cramps up towards the end of Game 1.
LeBron cramps up towards the end of Game 1.

Research suggests that being able to take control of your environment (rather than letting your environment control you) is an important part of what some people would refer to as Mental Toughness¹. The mentally tough athlete isn’t worried about what the weather is like. The state of the pitch or court doesn’t affect the way they approach the game. The way the referees are calling a game is of no concern to them. Everyone else has to deal with the same environmental conditions, so why should it affect them?

In game one of the 2014 NBA Finals, the air conditioning at the AT&T Center in San Antonio broke. The fans were suffering from the heat inside the arena, and all they had to do was sit there. So imagine what it was like for the players! On court, temperatures rose to over 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius) and it was clearly affecting the players… some more than others.

The Spurs were uncharacteristically turning the ball over… like, A LOT. They said afterwards, that it wasn’t to do with the temperature and in fairness, it probably wasn’t, but the Heat players, especially LeBron James who was wearing a microphone for the game, were repeatedly heard complaining about the temperature. Now I honestly think LeBron got a lot of undeserved criticism for missing the last 4 minutes of the game.

Cramp is cramp and when your body decides it’s going to cramp up, there’s little you can do about it! So what if Larry Bird played in extreme heat and didn’t get cramp. That doesn’t make him more mentally tough, it just means he didn’t get cramp that day.

But cramps aside, the environmental conditions rattled one team more than they did the other. If you’re thinking about the heat all the time, you’re not thinking about what you’re supposed to be thinking about. You’re letting the environment control what you’re thinking and doing. Just get on with it and focus on your job. Everyone is playing in the same building. Everyone has to deal with the same conditions.

Danny Green: Take a bow, son.
Danny Green: Take a bow, son.

My second observation from Game 1 relates to the play of Spurs’ guard, Danny Green. Green set a record in last year’s Finals, hitting 27 three pointers over the 7 game series. He had also been shooting pretty well coming into this year’s Finals (a shade under 47% from 3 in the playoffs), and is usually a better shooter at home. However, coming into the game in the fourth quarter with his team trailing by 8, Danny Green had missed every shot he’d taken (0-5).

Now some athletes will let the past affect the present. They will dwell on poor performances, think about missed shots, missed opportunities, think about what’s just happened. Not Danny Green though, who went 4/4 in the 4th quarter for 11 points (including 3 three pointers).

It’s easy to let your mind think about mistakes, and in some ways it’s important to take time to think about how you could have done something better… but not while you’re still trying to compete! If you’re thinking about the past, you’re not focusing on WHAT’S IMPORTANT RIGHT NOW!

Athletes who are successful tend to have a short memory. When they get the ball in their hands, they’ve already forgotten about the shot they just missed. It’s all about WHAT’S IMPORTANT NOW. Run the floor. Feet square. Elbow in. Follow through.

So are you the type of athlete who will let the environment control them?

  • “It’s raining outside, so I won’t go for my run this morning.”
  • “These referees are terrible. This game’s gonna be tough.”
  • “This pitch is awful. I hate playing here.”

Or perhaps you think about the past (or even the future!) when your focus needs to be in the here and now?

  • “Ok, so I’ve missed my two first free-throws, people are gonna think I’m terrible.”
  • “Just two more points and I’ll be in the final!”
  • “We’ve gone out of the tournament on penalties in every tournament since time began.”

If you recognise some of those thoughts, think about what you might do to take back control over the environment, or think about strategies you could use to help focus on the present, rather than the past or future. What are your current strategies? Leave a comment below…



¹Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the world’s best performers. The Sport Psychologist21, 243-264.

  7 comments for “Psychology of the NBA Finals: One game at a time.

  1. David Gilbert
    June 10, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Enjoyed reading the article Pete.

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