Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 4

Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.
Team-first basketball has given the Spurs a 3-1 series lead.

San Antonio took Game 3 in dramatic fashion to lead the series 2-1. They hit 19 of their first 21 shots, they scored 41 in the 1st quarter, and they had 71 by half-time! It was always an uphill struggle for the Heat, but the Spurs won by being aggressive and doing their thing, especially Kawhi Leonard who had an outstanding game (career high 29 points) after a relatively quite Game 1 and Game 2.

So, how did the Heat make adjustments? Did Mario Chalmers decide to do something… anything? I predicted that the Heat would respond with a BIG game, that they would be the more aggressive team in Game 4, and that they would do their thing to get back into the series: Swarming defence, steals, fast break points… I could not have been more wrong.

Team First

Yet again the Spurs proved that they were by far the better team, getting off to another quick start. They had eight different scorers in the first quarter. The Heat looked lost for ideas on offence, while the Spurs continued to do their thing and play TEAM FIRST basketball. I’ve been watching this sport for a long time, and there were a few plays in last night’s game that left me open-mouthed with admiration. The interior passing, the movement, the chemistry and cohesion between each member of the Spurs team.

It was, at times, beautiful to watch. In team sports, you win with the team, and one of the things that makes a team work, is cohesion.

Spurs 'Big 3' have sacrificed minutes, salaries, and individual rewards, in the pursuit of team goals.
Spurs ‘Big 3’ have sacrificed minutes, salaries, and individual rewards, in the pursuit of team goals.

The Spurs are a totally cohesive unit right now. They constantly “sacrifice the me for the we”, to use one of those awful, corny, motivational phrases. They don’t have anyone in the top 10 in scoring. In fact, Tony Parker is the Spurs’ leading scorer this season on 16.7 ppg – he is 41st in the league!

Tim Duncan is their leading rebounder – 12th in the league and the only Spur in the top 25.  Nobody on the roster is out for individual titles and this attitude has brought the Spurs consistent success.

In Game 4, Danny Green made a mistake, challenging a Ray Allen three pointer by running past, rather than at him. He got yelled at by his coach and taken out of the game. What would your reaction be? The very next play, Green was on his feet, cheering, waving his towel, excited about his team-mates doing well.

Think about how you react to getting subbed out of a game. Ever sulked and gone and sat on the end of the bench? Rolled your eyes, tutted, and done that sulky walk thing where you shake your head about and look miserable? You know the one. What do you think your team-mates see when you react like that? What does the coach see? Can you be a better team-mate and part of a totally cohesive unit?

So what is this team cohesion thing and how do you develop it?

Albert Carron¹ defined cohesion as “a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency of a group to remain united in the pursuit of its goals and objective.” The first thing that stands out there is that it’s a dynamic process, which means it’s ever changing, which means you have to keep working at it! There are two types of cohesion. Task cohesion refers to how well a team can work together to achieve their goals. Social cohesion is essentially how well the members of a team get on. Which is more important?

Well there is research to suggest that social cohesion is not that important and that team’s can be successful without it.² Think about some of the great sports teams of the past. Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman weren’t exactly the best of friends, but they found a way to work together towards their goal (high task cohesion). Manchester City are a successful football team, but do they all get along?

However, while being best of friends might not be that important at the elite level , perhaps social cohesion is an important factor at other levels of competition.³ Being a highly cohesive team certainly doesn’t guarantee success, but looking at the San Antonio Spurs, it seems like it has it’s advantages! So how can you develop team cohesion? There are loads of different factors involved, but for the sake of keeping it simple and short, I’ll pick three.

The Heat just looked lost in Game 4. Can they come together as a team?
The Heat just looked lost in Game 4. Can they come together as a team?

Shared goals

Does your team have group goals to work towards, as well as individual goals. It may sound obvious and it may sound simple, but having clearly defined group goals (SMART GOALS) is a way to enhance group cohesion. These team-goals need to be performance based (e.g., keep teams to under 80 points) and process based (e.g., box out on every shot), rather than outcome based (e.g., winning).

Involve the team members in the setting of these team-goals to enhance motivation and commitment. In doing so, the communication and understanding between team members will also be enhanced.

Understanding roles

If your role is to come off the bench and provide some energy, then it’s important to know and understand that. If your job is to grab rebounds, then you need to understand that. Coaches should make sure that every player knows the importance of their role, from starter, to sixth man, to last man off the bench.

It’s also important for team members to know each other’s roles. Let players practice in each others’ positions every know and then. Maybe have your big men play point guard during practice and have your guards play inside (or whatever’s appropriate in your sport). That way, each member understands their own, and everyone else’s roles on the team.

Get to know each other

So social cohesion may not be as important at the elite level, but getting to know one another can enhance levels of communication, confidence, and trust within a team. Having social events can be a great way of getting to know more about your team and letting your players get to know each other on a more personal level.

Everyone loves a team barbecue!
Everyone loves a team barbecue!

So anyway, back to the Psychology of the NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs are and have been a great example of a TEAM in the true sense of the word. Their displays in these Finals have been nothing short of sensational so far. The only problem with having such a good team is that, should they go on to win, there’s no clear candidate for MVP.

Coaches, what are you doing to develop group cohesion. It won’t just happen by itself! Athletes, are you the best team-mate you can be? What else can you do to help develop that all-important team chemistry?

In 31 attempts, precisely 0 teams have come back from 3-1 down to win a Finals Series. Do you think the Heat can be the first?



  1. Carron, A. (1982). Cohesiveness in sport groups: Interpretations and considerations. Journal of Sport Psychology4, 123-138.
  2. Lenk, H. (1969). Top performance despite internal conflict. Am antithesis to a functional proposition. In J. Loy & G. Kenyon (Eds.), Sport, Culture and Society, A reader on the Sociology of Sport. Toronto, ON: MacMillan
  3. Carron, A.V., & Brawley, L.R.  (2008). Group dynamics in sport and physical activity. In T.S. Horn (Ed.), Advances in Sport Psychology (3rd Edition). Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics.

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