Coaching a European Club – Week 29: Semifinals

After sweeping our first-round play-off series, we had to wait until Wednesday night to find out our next opponent. I structured the week to focus on general things on Monday, our offense on Wednesday, and our defense on Friday, after we knew our opponent.

In our post/guard breakdowns, we play a lot of 2v2. On Monday, as I watched, we were not getting everything from the drill that I had hoped. It basically turned into 1v1 on the block with the other two watching. I stopped them and explained the purpose. First, I want the player with the ball to recognize the potential help defender. In a game, a post player cannot blindly make a move, as few teams allow post players to play 1v1 without providing some form of help. Second, I want the post players learning to work together to prevent the post-to-post double teams. Finally, I want the post defenders learning to play together, offering some help without over-committing. After the explanation, the games were more game realistic, and less strict 1v1.

With our offense, I primarily wanted to tighten a few things, and show more options if the play does not work as drawn up. Mainly, I wanted to run through our different sets to make them more automatic. I also added a sideline OB play and an underneath OB play because we had struggled to inbound the ball underneath our basket in the first series.

Wednesday night, after our practice, we found out that we would be playing the #1 seed who went 21-1 in the regular season and features a potential NBA player. It was the match-up that we anticipated. There was not a ton to do on Friday to prepare, as we played them in the last game of the regular season, and they do not run many sets or mix-up their defenses. They just play fast, use their size, and have good players. We talked about mixing up some things from our usual defense, and I gave the choice to the players, but we decided to stick with our normal defense, as it was a 2-possession game with one minute to play last time that we played them, so we felt confident.

We got off to a horrendous start and fell behind by 16. The officials did not call anything, which worked to their advantage as the bigger, stronger, deeper team. The biggest advantage was depth; they play fast at the beginning of games, and without any whistles, there was no chance to catch our breaths. In our quarterfinal series, the officials called everything in the first half, which enabled me to play my top two players almost 40 minutes because the pace of the game was so slow, and there were so many breaks in the action.

Once we settled down, and took better shots, we got back into the game. We executed the last possession of the half perfectly and went into half time trailing by 3 and feeling good. We started the second half with a play that I drew up at halftime, really an option off another simple play, and we scored to cut the lead to 1. We looked confident. They answered with an and-1, and in some ways, that was the game. We never got as close as 1 point again, though it was a 2-3 possession game throughout the second half until the last 2-3 minutes.

I think that I made two big mistakes. First, I went small, even though they are a big team, because their 4 is a terrible match-up. I have a big guard who defended our quarterfinal opponent’s 4 very well, so I hoped for the same result. He did not do a bad job, but they posted him more than they would if we had a bigger guy defending him. It is a little bit of pick your poison, as he has hit 3 3s in every game that we have played them this season. He is arguably the best player in the league, which is a testament to his skill, as he is not the potential future NBA player on his own team! My young starting post did a decent job on him, and I probably should have played him more, especially in the second half.

The second mistake was to go inside too much. My best player is my post, but they have a 6’10 athletic post defending him, and it isn’t a great match-up for us. I went to our “get the ball inside” play too early, and it worked twice in a row. However, it got everyone else out of a rhythm. We started to call the same play every time, and our two guards who were hot in the first half did not get as many looks in the second half. Whereas I do not call many plays, I should have had us run some different plays to keep some variety in our offense and to get our guards some better looks.

As it was, we had consecutive possessions where we missed lay-ups that would have given us a lead. That was a big momentum swing. When playing from behind, getting over that hump is a huge psychological barrier. If the leading team maintains its lead, even as the game gets close, it remains confident. However, if a team with a big lead loses the lead and falls behind, it can have a big effect. As a team fighting from behind, grabbing the lead, even if only briefly, can have a psychological effect too. The game feels more even when you have taken the lead than when you are constantly fighting uphill. That’s why the 3-point play was so big. One stop there and a score for us to take the lead right as the half started, and who knows?

We got killed in the second half by offensive rebounds. We did a good job boxing out and having everyone crash, but their big post would get a hand on the ball and bat it to half court for a teammate to get. Those were momentum killing plays, as we played good defense, forced a miss, boxed out, but still did not get the rebound, and had to play defense for another 24 seconds. They also hit two really tough shots at the shot-clock buzzer that were back breakers.

We need to make 1-2 key plays and who knows – maybe it is a different second half. Luckily it is a three-game series and not one-and-done.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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