We entered the week down 1-0 to the top seed (21-1 in regular season). We had two practices to prepare after a 14-point loss. Nobody in the club gave us much of a chance; the club manager stopped me Thursday before our game and asked if we were going to practice on Friday. He was implying that we would lose Thursday night, and our season would be over. I said, “Of course we’re practicing. We’re not losing at home,” and walked away. He told me over the Christmas break that reaching the play-offs would be a good accomplishment, but not reaching them wouldn’t be the end of the world. The club hadn’t beaten our semifinal opponent in four seasons or been past the semifinals, and nobody believed that would change now.
I did not know where the players’ belief was, and I decided to take a gamble. Usually, I never allow a team to look ahead. In our quarterfinal series, a player who was not dressed for the game told me the score of another game as we left the locker room at halftime, and I yelled at him. I told him that I was busy with our game and didn’t care what anyone else was doing at the moment. I did not want any of the players to lose focus from our second half. This week, however, I was more worried about lack of belief than lack of focus. On Wednesday, the other semifinal series had been decided. We knew who the opponent would be and when we would play if we were able to win two games and close out our series. Rather than ignoring it, I kept bringing up that opponent. I gave the team the schedule for the rest of the season that included the final series. I did not want them to think ahead or overlook our current opponent, but I knew they would not or could not overlook or underestimate a club that nobody on the team had beaten in their careers. I wanted to show belief and work on their confidence. Rather than ignore the future, I wanted to put the image in their minds of playing in the championship series.
Monday was a light practice. I asked a couple guys how they felt during warm-ups, and they said they were tight and tired. We got up some shots and focused on some defensive things. I wanted to change up our defense from our basic defense, and we did three short scrimmages, each with a different defense. I wanted to see our comfort level with each of them before deciding. We were not very good at any of them, as we have played our base defense 90% of the time this season.
After practice, I thought about the defenses. I thought about our opponent’s plays and realized that one option would work much better against what they did than it did against our own plays, and I felt confident that we could execute it. I eliminated one of the three completely. At Wednesday’s practice, we focused on the new defense, and walked through the defense against their plays. I showed which players would do specific things. We played a little with the second defense, just in case. Again, it was a light practice, primarily walking through some defensive stuff and getting up some shots.
Game 2 was the opposite of Game 1. Game 1 came out with a blistering pace, as they were running for fast breaks on every possession, seemingly trying to blow us out of the gym in the 1st quarter. There were not many stops, as it was 45-42 at halftime. In Game 2, I think there were 3-4 minutes gone before either team scored. Both teams were pretty tense, and it showed. There were a lot of mistakes and missed shots. The officials did not call anything; we average 21 free throw attempts at home, and we shot 8 for the game. It was 11-8 at the end of the first quarter, and we are 2 of the 3 highest scoring teams in the league (we average over 81 ppg at home)!
We fell behind in the second quarter. We could not score. We pulled ahead by 10 in the 4th, but then nobody wanted to shoot, and they made a run to tie the game. We missed two free throws. Then we were fouled again off a sideline out of bounds play from a timeout and made both free throws to go up 58-56. We got a stop on the next possession. We held the ball, they ran at our point guard to double late in the shot clock, and he passed to the corner to our 19-year-old starting 3 and he hit a three-pointer at the shot clock buzzer with 19 seconds left. We got one more stop, made another free throw, and won 62-56.
Our defense was awesome. We trailed at halftime, and I told the guys that we were playing too hard, and our defense was too good not to win the game. I knew some shots would start to fall; we just had to maintain the effort. As with our clinching win in the quarterfinals, we out-competed our opponent. It was not pretty, but guys just did not want their season to end. Sometimes, that is the most important thing.
We practiced Friday, but it was another light practice because we played Game 3 on Saturday, 40 hours after Game 2. Guys were beat up physically. We did a shooting drill to start practice, and then walked through some offensive things. I did not want to add a lot, but I felt we needed something new. Game 3 was our fourth game against this team in less than a month (we’ve spent three of the last four Saturdays in their gym), so we knew each other well. I showed two counters on two of our most-used plays to get an easy shot against the way that they were defending us, and I added two very basic sets. In the end, we used only one of them in the game, but got two baskets off the play, and it was the basket that got our young point guard into the game after some early struggles.
Game 3 was not as frenetic as Game 1, but more well-played than Game 2. We jumped out to a 9-0 lead to start the game, and it should have been 12 or 14. The whole game was runs. We would go up by 10, they would cut it to 3. We would go up by 11, they would cut it to 3. The whole game went like that. Just when I thought we were going to blow ope the game, they would hit a three-ponter and get a steal for a lay-up, and we would be back to a two possession game. In that way, it was a little like Game 1, except they were chasing us now. Like Game 1, we never relinquished the lead. We won 82-77.
Our defense was pretty good again; we took away their posts, but one of their wings got hot and hit a bunch of threes. There were two huge plays. The first, with roughly four minutes left, our American, who had picked up his fourth foul, took a charge on a fast break. It was an easy call, but if it had gone the other way, I don’t know if we could have held on. Then, we had a terrible offensive possession as they were making a run. Our young point guard ended up with the ball with four seconds left on the shot clock. It did not look like he realized it, as we had had a shot blocked on the possession and got the offensive rebound, but there was no shot clock reset. Also, in FIBA, you play offense in front of your bench in the first half, so he was on the far side of the court away from the bench. As the shot clock expired, he rose up over his defender who was chest to chest and hit a three-pointer. Back to back games, the biggest shot of the game was made by one of our youngest players.
I took my last timeout around the 4 minute mark (I thought I had one left; score table disagreed), as my American motioned to me to take one, as he was tired and had come down awkwardly on his ankle. In the huddle, we talked about offense. I drew up one of our standard plays. Our best player and starting post said, “Can we try this?” and explained how his defender was playing and what he thought would work. We went out, did what he said and scored. As they were walking out onto the court from that timeout, I asked what they thought about going zone for two possessions. I had three guys on the court with four fouls and one with three fouls, we seemed tired, and we were getting stuck on a moving staggered screen that led to their 3s. They said no, we got this. We stayed man, nobody fouled out, and we got the stops that we needed to win the game.
I have had this discussion with coaches before, and I know most would be aghast if the players disagreed with them. I asked what they wanted to do because I want them to play with confidence. I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable. Even if zone was 100% the right call, if the players don’t believe in it or are not comfortable and confident, then it is not the right call. On their last real possession, they called timeout and had an underneath out of bounds play. We went zone out of that timeout to take away the play that they drew up. They executed and got the stop. To me, these two instances – the post making his suggestion and the team deciding together to stay man when I suggested zone – are the two signs of growth with this team. The players are taking responsibility and leadership roles. It took a long time to get to this point, but I think it is a big reason why we are still playing.
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