This was a big week for us, as we played in the first round of the cup competition. Essentially, here, as in most countries, teams compete in two competitions: the domestic league and the domestic cup. In many countries, especially those with more money for basketball, the top teams may also play in a continental league, like the EuroLeague. The domestic cup is like a year-long tournament; our first game was this week, and if we won, our next game was in three weeks.
We practiced on Monday, which was an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes from the first league game and to prepare for the cup game. With only 90 minutes, and one game to review and another for which to prepare, time flies. I spent about 60 minutes on general things based on the previous game, and 30 minutes going over the personnel and some of the basic sets of our opponent.
Of course, when I showed up for the game on Wednesday, everything changed. Their second import player who had not played in their first two league games had received his player license that day, so he was eligible to play. That changed things considerably. During warm-ups, I watched tape of him from his college days at Oregon State on youtube to confirm what I remembered about him. I spoke about a couple subtle changes during our pre-game talk, but there was not time to change too much. We knew that he was a great passer, and he almost always turned to his left shoulder in the post. We knew their other import player always returned to his right-hand and was hitting three-pointers now, as he averaged 33 ppg and 53% shooting from the three-point line during their first two games.
We played well and led for most of the game. With 6 seconds left, a guy who had made one lay-up early in the game and hadn’t even looked at the basket since hit a three-pointer to win the game. The final was 89-86.
I can’t sleep after games. I replay plays and decisions over and over in my mind. We did not double team their post player because of his passing ability, but he still found cutters for lay-ups. Some of our young guys (I have four teenagers in my top 8) turn their heads on defense. We go over and over it in practice, and I stop it, and I talk to them about it, but we got beat a couple times for the exact same thing against the exact players who make the mistake in practice. However, as I tossed and turned, I wondered about my choice not to double him. Their other import scored 40 even though I thought we did a decent job handling their pick and rolls. He made some tough shots and managed to get to the free throw-line too much. I wondered about whether or not I should have given him the LeBron treatment and doubled him at half court. I told one of my guys to be ready to run at him to get the ball out of his hands in the last two minutes, but never saw a good time. On their last basket, they hit the shot with 2 seconds on the shot clock after it locked like everything was well-defended. Their PG jumped in the air and fired a skip pass across the court, and their guy hit the shot over a defender running out at him. The help defender was probably a step or two too low, but it was pretty well-defended. Sometimes they hit shots, and sometimes the best athlete on the court makes a play that nobody else on the court could make.
I am also still getting used to the rules. In high school and college, with six seconds to go and needing a three, I let my team push the ball against the unsettled defense. Considering my two best shooters are my two ball handlers, that was my immediate reaction. Unfortunately, we were fouled unintentionally at half court, so we did not get the three-point attempt away. As I thought about it, I probably made the mistake not calling the timeout. In FIBA in the last two minutes, you can advance the ball into the front court, like in the NBA. In retrospect, I should have used the timeout, advanced the ball, and run a play. However, in the heat of the moment, my habits and instincts were to push the ball against the unsettled defense and to trust my best players to make a play. In many ways, that’s one of the subtle differences between high school/college coaching and NBA/FIBA coaching. In a high school/college setting, I’d feel comfortable with my decision; in this setting, I probably did not make the best choice to put my team in the best position to win (of course, we’re not very good at executing on SLOB, so maybe it was for the best).
The next day was a tough practice, as we don’t have a full team on Thursdays, and a couple of the guys played 37+ minutes. One guy sprained his ankle before half-time and played through it, but it swelled up over night. I spent the afternoon working on his ankle (see below). Another guy jammed his finger and didn’t practice, so it was another non-productive evening.
Friday, I tried to work on our offense. Our true shooting percentage in our two games was 59% and 52%, but we were stagnant in key possessions. When I looked at the shot chart for the cup game, the difference was that we relied on shooting too many threes (26) and did not shoot a high-enough percentage (30%). Typically, we have been shooting around 15 threes per game, and making 33-38%. On the other hand, our defense typically forces our opponents into shooting more threes, but they only shot 12 against us. I attributed our higher number of threes to our stagnation, especially out of our Horns set.
Rather than add more plays, we played for 30 minutes with the objective to be creative within the Horns set (below). I did not want to see the same thing twice in a row. My hope was that they found new ways to create baskets by increasing the off-the-ball movement. In my head, I had several easy solutions to add movement and increase creativity, but we did not find any of these solutions. I was disappointed with the continued stagnation and lack of imagination. This is obviously something we need to improve upon.
My goal is for us to see the initial action as an entry, as a way to disorganize the defense. From there, with the defense disorganized, we simply need to play basketball. Where is the opening? How can we find the most open player? How can we create a better shot? Right now, we’re getting stuck in the first action, oftentimes because the defense isn’t great, and we get a decent look out of the first option. However, there are times we need more patience and a better look, like when a 20% three-point shooter is open off of one pass: We don’t need that shot.
We traveled four hours for our game on Sunday and played a team that I knew nothing about, except they were throttled in their first game. They shot the heck out of the ball, making at least 12 three-pointers, and we held on to win by 14, 87-73. Twice we had 12 point leads that we let evaporate. Our defense, again, left a lot to be desired, and our rebounding was poor. I only traveled 8 to the game because that is the size of the van, and the last guy in the van had a great game. He played virtually the entire second half, and he really improved our defense with his help and activity, and he pushed the ball more on offense. Rather than settling for jumpers, he was able to get to the rim and draw fouls. He only scored 5 points, but the end of the game would have been much tougher if he had not played. On the drive home, I wondered if I blew the cup game by not giving him a chance.
Rebounding will be the major focus of practice in the coming week. For the past two weeks, I have added a point for an offensive rebound to most of our scrimmages, and this week, added a sprint for the defense for every offensive rebound. So far, this has had little effect. Our rebounding problem is the same as out issue on cutters – we relax for a second on defense, or on a shot attempt, and by the time we react, the cutter is past us or the ball is over our head. Keeping the off-ball players engaged, ready, and anticipating is going to be the make-or-break challenge for the season, I believe.
By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League