Coaching a European Club – Week 32: Finals

After our win on Saturday, our opponent did not know the date of the third game. They had scheduled the game for Tuesday originally, but its women’s team made the finals as well, and played away on Tuesday, so they asked to change the game. We agreed to change the game to Wednesday. After they won the first game, they expected to win game 2, and they never booked a gym for Wednesday. Throughout Sunday, the clubs went back and fort about the game. Despite the minor ankle injury to my best player, which should have meant that we would be happy to push back the game as far as possible, our American point guard was having a baby in the States this week, and we wanted him to get home for the birth, which is why we pushed for the game to be as early in the week as possible. 

With the game settled for Tuesday late on Sunday night, we had one practice to prepare for game 3. Somehow, the person recording the game made a mistake, and we had only the first half on tape. The second half is when most of the changes occurred, as we played some zone when we were in foul trouble, and they changed defenses between man, zone, and a box-and-1. I wanted to watch the tape to watch our zone. I knew that we made two errors that led to open three-pointers, but one was by a player unlikely to play in game 3. I thought the zone was effective, but the players don’t feel comfortable in zone, and the women’s coach thought I stayed in the zone too long. Not being able to watch the tape of the game hurt the preparation, but generally-speaking, both teams knew what the other was going to do.

Monday, we went over some basic things That I saw from the first half and from memory. Most were individual things, like how they were doubling our post, where my wing was calling for the ball in the post, what shots were open for my American, how my second post used his hands on defense, etc. We worked on our shooting, played two scrimmages to work on minor adjustments to our offenses, and that was it.

The game started similarly to game 1 – with us unable to make a basket – but we were able to stop them. The score was like 4-2 after 5 minutes. Eventually we settled down, and started to make some shots, and were having success going inside.

Early in the second quarter, my best player hyperextended his knee as he tried to stop and change directions. He hurt his meniscus in September and missed 9 games. When he hurt it originally, they never did an MRI, and they told him to rest two weeks. When he could not move after two weeks, I told him to sit out until Christmas and to work on strengthening it. He had exercises that he was supposed to do, but he only came for practices three days a week, as he does not live in town, and he goes to school an hour away from town. As our only local player who had played at a truly professional level earlier in his career, I had to trust him to do the exercises, but I was always a little uneasy about playing him, as I do not think a true medical diagnosis was made.

He exited the game. After two possessions, I called timeout. He said that he was ready to go back into the game. I trusted him, as he is older. I also thought the fear factor caused him to feel pain as much as anything else. He has been very sensitive to his knee since the original injury. He returned and after a couple possessions where he moved gingerly, he appeared to be moving without any problems.

Despite a fairly unlucky first half – a ludicrous technical foul, an unsportsmanlike foul on a loose ball, a banked in three-pointer by their worst shooter, the injury, a missed lay-up on the last possession of the half – we were down 12. It was not exactly where we wanted to be, but we’ve played from behind so many times in the play-offs that we felt comfortable. We knew that we could come from behind. Much of their lead was due to self-inflicted wounds – turnovers, bad shot selection – that we knew if we could take care of ourselves, we would be okay.

We started the second half immediately cutting into their lead. We settled down, attacked better, and were playing better. By other starting post picked up two quick fouls, and I took him out of the game with four fouls. within a minute, my best player crumpled to the ground again. It was a 5-point game, and we had the ball, when he fell to the ground (causing a turnover). We lost all of our momentum at that point. I tried to buy a couple minutes without fourth post player, to save my starter from picking up his fifth foul, but he was not ready for such a big moment. We took bad shot after bad shot as everyone tried to do too much to make up for our post’s absence.

After game 1, we talked about the key offensively being to reverse the ball. We started to take shots off 0 to 1 passes. I used all of my second half timeouts, and eventually went small with my best five healthy players. They took advantage inside. I probably should have gone zone, but they were starting to catch fire from outside. We kept the game around 10 points for a while, but ran out of gas. Without our best player, we did not have enough to win, especially when trying to fight from behind.

It was a disappointing end to the season even though we went further than anyone expected. The two teams that geared up for this season to earn promotion to the league were the team that we beat in the 1st Round and the team that we faced in the finals. In between, we played the team that went 21-1 in the regular season. That team’s coach told me every time that we played, 5 times, about the youth of his team. They had five u18 players (I only had 5 players 20+, but I never said anything). Only two of his u18s played regularly, and only one started, and he is a high D1 recruit. That team had two players who rarely played on the end of its bench who made the u18 National Team over my starting point guard and third best player. When I think about things in those terms, we probably were pretty successful, even though it still feels like failure when you lose in the last game.

In the preseason, the club manager told me that we should finish in the top 4, as the team had the previous season. That was based on adding another player to replace their starting center from last season. Last season, the coach played 6-7 guys in the playoffs. This season, three of the top 6 were gone. Two left the team, and one tore his Achilles in September, returned for a couple games, and then was out again. In the end, the club never replaced the two starters with new signings; we replaced them with u19 players who played in the third division last season. At our winter break, after watching the first half of the season and looking at the schedule ahead, the club manager told me that it would be disappointing not to make the playoffs, but not the end of the world. He said that it was clear that we did not have the talent to compete with the best teams, so we should work to develop our younger players rather than worrying about winning. I think this was his way of justifying not signing another player.

We started three u19 players. Two of the u19s hit the big 4th quarter shot in our last three playoff wins, and one led us in scoring in half of our playoff games. I believe we started more u19 players than any team in the league, and definitely more than any of the play-off teams. In that respect, we developed the young players, as two guys went from the Third Division to starting for a First Division finalist in the span of 6 months.

For some reason, the doctor still refuses to order an MRI, but told my player that he is out for six weeks with a “loose” ACL  and a “crack” on the side of his knee. His reason for not ordering an MRI was that the knee was not locking, but that is not a symptom of all, or even most, torn ACLs. Therefore, who knows what he actually did to his knee, but he is retiring anyway.

In all likelihood, this was the club’s last, best chance. Many of the players are likely to move on to university next season, and there are only two players in the club between 15 and 18. The next group of players is the u15 team. The town is getting older and smaller every year, and some of the local schools are scheduled to close in the next couple of years due to declining enrollment. The club manager is likely to stick around, as his son is 12, and they have a good u12 team. It could be that their next chance is with that team, 6-8 years from now. However, with few jobs, and no colleges or universities, retaining local players once they complete high school is difficult.

It’s frustrating to get so close, and not to win, but the off-season has started already. Less than 24 hours after the game, I was in the weight room with the back-up point guard. Until I leave, I will work out individually and in the weight room with the younger players to prepare them for whatever is next, whether playing here or elsewhere next season.

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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