Psychology of the NBA Finals: Game 5

2014 NBA Champions

2014 NBA Champions

Well that’s it! The 2014 NBA Finals are over and it was the San Antonio Spurs who put last year’s defeat emphatically behind them, and prevented the Miami Heat from winning their third straight Championship, or “threepeating” if you will.

I don’t think anyone expected the Spurs to win in 5 Games and I certainly don’t think anyone expected the Heat to roll over without much of a fight. At the very least, I didn’t expect it, but I admit that I was hoping that the Spurs brand of TEAM FIRST basketball would be effective enough to get them past Miami. And it really, really was!

I said in the first blog-post of this series that I wanted to do a game-by-game ‘Psychology of the NBA Finals’ type thing. Key sport psych lessons or observations from each game. You can access the other blogs from the home page if you like. But what were the important points to take from Game 5?

Getting over the line.

Sometimes the hardest game to win is the last one.  Sometimes the hardest points to get are the last couple of points that will take you over the line and get you that victory. The Spurs went into Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals with a 3-1 series lead, needing to win one game on their home court to win their 5th NBA Championship.

The scene was set, the fans were loud, the air conditioning was fixed, and the Spurs were ready. And they had the worst start possible. The Miami Heat were the more aggressive team to start.

Let’s give some credit to Erik Spoelstra who made some changes to the starting line-up after Mario Chalmers had failed to do anything other than foul people in the first 4 games. Ray Allen started in his place, LeBron James shut down Tony Parker, and the Heat’s high-intensity defence helped them out to a 13-2 lead. They extended that lead to 22-6 midway through the first quarter. LeBron had 17 on 5-7 from the field, and it things did not look to good for the Spurs.

"The good thing is, you've got all game to get over this bad start."

“The great part is we’ve got all night long to take care of a bad start.”

Sometimes when you get close to your goal, it’s easy to lose a little bit of focus. Well, I say lose focus, but that’s not what really happens. I’ve said before that focus is about concentrating on the right things at the right times.

So focus doesn’t just disappear, it’s more that  sometimes we get sucked into thinking about the wrong things at the wrong times. For example, when you’re one game away from winning a championship, it’s pretty difficult not to think about that. What will it mean if we screw this up? What will it mean if we win? We had a lead last year and still lost! Our focus can get drawn away from what’s important now and we can easily start thinking about the future or the past.

I’m not saying that’s what was happening with the Spurs at the start of Game 5, but it’s not an easy thing to do, to put all of that stuff to one side. Do your thoughts wander to “what if?” when you’re close to winning? What are your strategies for maintaining focus on the here and now?

Hinge

"DO NOT TOUCH ME, RAY ALLEN!"

“DO NOT TOUCH ME, RAY ALLEN!”

Half way through the first quarter, Shane Battier of the Heat set a hard screen on Manu Ginobili. It wasn’t a dirty play, but it was a hard screen. Nothing out of the ordinary, but this was a key moment in the game. A turning point that seemed to energise the Spurs. Dr Rob Bell refers to them as “hinge moments.” Ginobili came down and hit a big three pointer, the Spurs went on a 12-0 run to get back into the game and (importantly) get the crowd back in the game.

In the second quarter, Spurs veteran, Tim Duncan decided it was time to take over and scored 6 straight points to spark an 11-0 run and give them 39-34 lead. The Heat only managed 6 points in the first 9 minutes of the second quarter. LeBron who looked like he was set to take over the series in the first quarter, started passing the ball again, deferring to his team-mates too much in my opinion. Then Manu Ginobili went crazy.

Be Ready

The final point I want to make about Game 5 is that whatever your role on the team, be ready. You may not have played much all game, or all month, or all year, but both physically and mentally, be ready when your number gets called.

When you’re watching a game from the bench, what are you doing? Are you sitting back, enjoying the view, laughing with your team-mates, or are you studying the player that you might end up guarding. What are his or her tendencies? What plays are the other team running? Where are the gaps in their defence? Even if you don’t play, this can be useful information for a team-mate!

An interesting statistic flashed up at one point, comparing the points that both teams benches had contributed in Game 5. At one point, it read 35-2 to the Spurs. Tony Parker was struggling, Danny Green hadn’t scored… the Spurs bench was ready.

One more year?

One more year?

I’ve loved watching this year’s finals. I started writing this blog while watching Game 5, and honestly just had to put the laptop down and sit and admire what I was seeing. The Spurs have been incredible all series and it’s been fantastic to watch. We saw them literally “beating the heat” in Game 1. Miami made the right adjustments and “kept their cool” to take a close Game 2.

After a couple of average performances, we saw deserved MVP, Kawhi Leonard, being aggressive and “doing his thing” in Game 3. The Spurs played some absolutely beautiful “Team First Basketball” to take Game 4, and after a shaky start, they refocused, turned the momentum on its head, and got support from the bench to take Game 5 and the 2014 Championship. Great team. Great coaching. I can’t wait for next season.

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