The guys were beat up on Monday. This was the toughest stretch of the season: play Thursday, practice Friday, play Saturday on the road (home after 1 A.M.), off Sunday, practice Monday, play Tuesday on the road (home after 3 A.M.). Compared to an NBA schedule, or even some high school schedules, it does not seem so bad, but players here are accustomed to playing one game per week.
We did not do anything very physical on Monday. We basically had a pre-game walk-through. We talked about their offensive sets, went over our zone offenses, as our final’s opponent plays a lot of zone, and got up some shots. The guys really did not have anything physically. When one of the young guys asked if we could go over something on defense, the starters immediately walked to the sideline, and the 10 young guys scrimmaged for a couple minutes. I was worried about the environment being too lackadaisical, but my primary goal was to get through practice with no injuries, and my secondary goal was to be as fresh as possible on Tuesday for the game.
I underestimated the traffic on the way to the game on Tuesday (I thought we would be against traffic), and we arrived barely an hour before our game. I was confident. I watched film of one of their earlier play-off games, and I felt that if we could prevent them from getting easy lay-ups off of steals, we would have a great chance.
We started out down 13-2. They could not miss, hitting three three-pointers for a team who hit 4 three-pointers in two games against us in the regular season, and we missed three lay-ups, two free throws, and a wide open three-pointer in our first six possessions. We were tentative and nervous. They stayed hot, and we fell behind by 16. However, right before halftime, we put together a run and trailed 39-35 at halftime. I was confident in the locker room. I told the team that we played about as poorly as we had played all season, and we were down by four. We needed to adjust to them hitting the outside shots, and if we could make the adjustment, we would win.
We tied the game twice in the third quarter, but we could not get shots to fall, and they would not miss. They went 12/28 from the three-point line, and one player who was 0/2 from the three-point line against us in two games went 7/9. We went 6/24. We lost by 15. The officials lost control of the game towards the end, and it got chippy. I took out my starters with about three minutes left to avoid an injury. They kept in their starters and tried to score until the final buzzer. End game situations are much different in Europe than in the U.S. – we are really the only team that sits on the ball when we have a lead and the ball with the shot clock off. My 19-year-old wing led us with 23 points and 11 rebounds.
We took off Wednesday. I texted our 17-year-old point guard and told him that I would be at the gym if he wanted to work out. He had a terrible game and looked destroyed the entire drive home. I did not want him to work out hard, or to punish him; I wanted him to get some confidence. He came, and I showed him two things. Then we shot for 40 minutes. It was good for him mentally, if nothing else.
Thursday was our hard practice. We worked on defending shooters, matching up in transition quicker, and getting more movement against the zone. Our posts worked specifically on the lay-ups that our zone offense should provide. We played a couple halfcourt scrimmages, and one fullcourt scrimmage. The players looked much better than they did on Monday.
We went through more of a walk-through on Friday. However, we played two short scrimmages to maintain some sharpness. One scrimmage focused on our offense against their zones, and one focused on our defense.
Saturday we started much better, and probably should have had a bigger lead at the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, everything that could go wrong, did. My best played sprained his ankle and came out of the game to tape it. While he was out, my other two post players picked up their third fouls. I put him back in the game, and they immediately called two ridiculous calls against him on back to back possessions, both offensive fouls. I had no timeouts, as I used my last timeout of the half to stall while he was taping his ankle. We trailed 39-35 at halftime again.
The third quarter was even for the most part. We played zone to try and manage our foul trouble, but my other two posts picked up their fourth fouls. It was a two-point game with about a minute left in the quarter, and somehow they hit a three-pointer at the buzzer (by a guy who had not played in any of our first three games) to cap a 7-0 run and take a nine-point lead.
At the quarter, I told the guys to relax. I stressed that we had been here before, and we had plenty of time to get back into the game. We eventually tied the game and then took the lead. With just under two minutes left, and the score tied at 76, I called a timeout to give the guys a break. It also advanced the ball to the front court. We ran one of our standard plays. Our 17-year-old point guard broke off the play, went 1v1, knocked down a 10-foot jump shots, and drew a foul. He missed the free throw, but that was the shot that gave us the lead (78-76) that we never relinquished, as we made some free throws and won 82-78. Our two youngest guys who played led us with scoring with 23 and 19, and our third under-20 starter probably had the best game of his season, including a dunk in the halfcourt against their zone.
Despite giving up 78 points, our defense was improved. It was a faster game (almost 20 more possessions) with many more free throw attempts (55 total to 40) than game 1. The two players who combined to make 11 of their 12 three-pointers in game 1 combined for 1 three-pointer in game 2.
I told the guys after the loss on Tuesday that we had one game to get to the championship game. Now, we have to go on the road again for the championship game this week.
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