Archives For February 2009

We’ve spent a lot of time today talking about psychology, the Celtics, confidence, etc. Before that mood passes, here is a second round of scattered thoughts on point. Warning: there might be nothing less worth reading than someone playing pop psychologist in the world of sports.

At the end of the Christmas Lakers-Celtics game, a close friend called and, after appropriate gushing, prophesied an extended rough patch for the Celtics. I rejected the notion out of hand – they had just won 19 games in a row, were the reigning champions, had handily defeated LA in the finals the year before – what was one regular season loss to them? Nevertheless, my visionary friend firmly pressed on: “you don’t understand the psychological impact of that loss and the mental fragility of Boston.” The Celtics lost six of their next eight games, most totally unexplainable: a self destructing Golden State, Portland with no Roy, New York, Charlotte, at home to an injured Houston, and a total thumping from the Cavs. Prophecy fulfilled. This made me think more about the hand of psychology in sports.

Every team has a unique identity, earned through months and years of successes and failures; victories and losses; scandals and fights; heroism and selflessness. This identity reflects the team’s psychology more than its physical characteristics. A team is “soft” or “steely” or “united” or “disinterested,” but they are always something.

The current Celtics team has perhaps the most identifiable identity in recent memory. The typical watch word is “intensity,” but I believe this confuses an effect with its cause. Yes, the Celtics are perhaps the most intense team in recent memory, but this trait springs from a more fundamental characteristic – one that I think captures their psychological identity: insecurity. Now, at first blush that sounds like a petty jab, but when properly understood I think it also serves to compliment our rival. Insecurity, like most primal traits, manifests itself in several ways. On the positive end, it fuels hunger, intensity, work ethic, common purpose, a chip on the shoulder – all to prove naysayers wrong. On the flip side, it fuels self doubt, wild swings in confidence, and a constant need to show others up. Boston is all of these things. They pile on the trash talk; they are hungry, devoted, on a mission; they are white hot with confidence one minute, and full of strange doubt the next; they run off huge win streaks, but then are capable of immediately falling apart; they are, in a word, the team embodiment of insecurity.

For such a successful team, whence this strange insecurity? I believe it springs from the players’ and team’s roots with failure. First Garnett, the spiritual leader of the team and the prototype for insecure athletes. From off the court beginnings to his decade of failed championship questing in Minnesota, KG lived in the shadow of failure for a long time – always labeled as that star who couldn’t get out of the first round, and always afraid of the big shot. We all know people like him – the alpha male who has to be in charge, picks on the little guy, works like a demon, seems haunted by lingering self doubt, and is wildly successful.

For much of the rest of the team, I think the 2007 season sets the stage – the year before the championship. This was probably rock bottom for the Celtics as a franchise. After years of struggling to get over the hump in the east and going through various phases of rebuilding, the team saw salvation in Oden and Durant and (like a few others) shamefully tanked. We all remember the infamous Ryan Gomes quote after being withheld from key parts of a close game:

“I probably (would have played), but since we were in the hunt for a high draft pick, of course things are different,” Gomes said. “I understand that. Hopefully things get better. Now that we clinched at least having the second-most balls in the lottery, the last three games we’ll see what happens. We’ll see if we can go out and finish some games.”

Or this article, titled “Tankology,” from Boston.com, where the author breaks down the evidence, including the team’s shutting down “injured” stars, playing odd lineup combinations during critical parts of games, limiting the best players minutes, etc. The author concludes:

Look, I don’t think the players were trying to lose any of these games intentionally. I do, however, think they weren’t properly motivated to give their best efforts as a team. I also think that Doc intentionally did not make his best effort coaching the team in late, close situations, under the guise of “I wanted to see what the guys would do” or “I thought we had a favorable matchup and didn’t want a timeout to ruin it” even though he had to know the players on the floor would not pull off what he supposedly wanted to see them do.”

At the same time, Jeff at Celtics blog was unleashing a steady stream of tongue in cheek articles monitoring the dive in the standings: “Tanks for the Memories,” “Tank Job Complete,” and “Welcome to Tank Week.” Jeff sums up his feelings when commenting on another’s tanking analysis: “the general feeling that he had (and that I share) is that it is great that we got the 2nd worst record, but we can’t help but feel a little icky about how it all happened.” Simmons chimed in with “From Celtic Pride to Celtic Shame,” and pushed for retooling the lottery system to punish would be tankers.

Several key members of the current Celtics were born on that team: Rondo, Perkins, Powe, Tony Allen. Their first taste of the league was on a team that seemed to break the one cardinal rule in sports: no matter what else you do, when on the court you play to win. They lost 18 games in a row, mostly because they were bad, but also because Doc and Ainge wanted Durant and Oden at any cost. They were the laughing stock of the league and Exhibit A for what was wrong with the league’s draft system. Deep insecurity was born.

When the lottery came and Boston’s plan failed (karma?), all seemed lost for a while. Pierce wanted out unless something dramatic happened. Ainge made a move for Garnett, but he initially refused to join the struggling franchise. He relented only when Allen was added and Kobe made it clear he wanted out of LA. With Garnett and Allen in the fold, a few critical veterans came for cheap (Posey, Allen, Brown, Cassell), filling out the holes.

This is when and how the current Celtics team was born – on the heels of embarrassment and failure. The players and team were full of hunger and intensity, but also faced lingering self doubt. Rondo and Perkins and Powe were easy converts to Garnett’s mantra of work and intensity, but they also shared his ghosts, even if they stemmed from different roots. We see both sides of that insecurity now, with the team exhibiting unparalleled work ethic, intensity, and confidence, but also strange periods of implosion. The bullyish side of the coin leads even rookie point guards like DJ Augustin (who should keep their mouths shut) to say things like: “(The Celtics) come in and intimidate you and try to punk you. But if you don’t back down from them, they kind of fold.” As Wojnarowski noted in his column last month, the Celtics’ antics have stirred up an unusual amount of disrespect from the rest of the league.

Now, let’s tie this back to the Lakers. What is the psychological identity of this Laker team? Does it have one?

This team is clearly distinguishable from the Shaq-Kobe-Phil teams. Those teams, despite the presence of all sacrificing role players like Fish, Fox, and Horry, seemed to carry the primal trait of self love. Shaq and Kobe both wanted to win, but they wanted to win in a way such that they could be The Man. They juggled an intense desire for team success with grand personal ambitions – mvp awards, legacies, media favor, etc. On the positive side, this resulted in steely self confidence down the stretch of key games (that rubbed off on others) and unthinkable on court accomplishments. On the negative side, it resulted in constant bickering, public posturing, division, and ultimately a team blown up well before its time. This is not who the Lakers are now.

Are we, perhaps, more like the Spurs psychologically? Driven by Duncan and Pop, those teams have always been characterized fundamentally by calmness and humility – which translates to being steady, united, moderate, unflappable, and enduring; but also creates complacency (remember that they always start slow and are counted out, only to pull it together at the end). There are some similarities, but the Lakers are still very different.

The truth is I don’t know if this Laker team has found its identity yet. Two things give me hope that the identity is grounded on something that is positive and will endure. First, in contrast with the Celtics, this team was not thrown together patchwork on the heels of disaster. By and large, Mitch added one piece at a time through the draft and modest trades. Gasol is the exception, but for the most part the team has grown step by step together. The core and system have been in place for years. Second, Kobe, Fisher, and Jackson present a united front of leadership and they emanate focus, professionalism, and intense competitiveness. But there’s also a casualness to the team that doesn’t fit with that – Odom, Radmanovic, Walton, Bynum. While Kobe has a killer instinct, I don’t know if the team does. While Fisher is a relentless competitor, the team as a whole isn’t all the way there.

Surely, they are developing, and in the right direction, but until we/they figure out who they are deep down, I sense we’ll always be left a bit unsure of what to expect on any given night. With the Shaq-Kobe teams, we were often frustrated by the drama, but knew that come playoff time the competitiveness and confidence would carry through. I think wins like we saw last night, or on Christmas, or against Cleveland reveal that this team is slowly adopting Kobe and Fisher’s character and developing a mental edge that harmonizes with its physical talents. This will result in an identity based on simple confidence. To me, this development is the last step before we overcome all. When Pau, Drew, Odom, Farmar, Ariza, etc. believe in themselves and their ability to win like Kobe and Fish do then we’ll see the titles roll in.

After last night, I believe we are well on our way.

–Reed

(PS, make sure to read Dex’s brilliant comment).

Basking in the Sweet Afterglow

Kurt —  February 6, 2009

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles LakersI’ve said before that I don’t think there is much if any carry over from regular season games to the playoffs.

Man, I hope I’m wrong.

Last night provided not only another thrilling game, not only more proof that these two teams are pretty evenly matched, but also even more hope that these Lakers are evolving into a champion. A Lakers team with a ton of excuses to lose rejected them all and found a way to win. Reed laid out a very good argument as to why I am wrong an this game and that kind of win will matter.

While basking in the sweet afterglow of victory, I will kindly disagree with Kurt’s statement regarding the meaning of the game and join with Lazenby.

Psychology does matter in sports. A great deal. The mystery is that, because we are disconnected from the players, we can’t accurately identify when an influential swing in psyche has occurred or why. But the swings do occur and they do affect the outcome of games on the court.

Why did the Lakers get blown away in game 6 of the finals? Were they suddenly less talented than the team that blitzed the West or that hung tight with Boston the first 3 games? No – it was pure psychology. Boston broke their spirit in the game 4 comeback and that was that.

Why did LA destroy Toronto last January on the day they announced the Gasol trade – with no Drew and almost too few players to suit up? Psychology.

Why did Dallas lose 3 games in a row to an inferior Heat team (besides the refs…)? The psychological burden of being up big in game 3 and blowing the win crushed them.

Why do Horry and Fisher consistently make clutch shots while more talented players (Christie, Malone, Peja, Nick Anderson, Bryon Russell) shrink? Psychology.

Why did the Celtics lose 7 games immediately after winning 19 in a row this year? Did they sustain an injury? No – it was the psychological swing of falling from the top of the world to being beaten by bitter rivals on the public stage.

Now, the hand of psychology can only be accurately identified in hindsight, not predicted. LA might come out of this win overconfident and complacent, or confident and focused, or the same as before; Boston might get fired up and go on another win streak, or sustain another temporary fall, or neither. But, whatever happens, I think the psychological fallout of this game will be a factor. The players, coaches, even fans were heavy with desire, focus, and emotion. The result may not technically matter come May or June, but it will practically matter a great deal then – indeed this win might be a source of critical resolve in some critical future playoff test, when the players dig deep and realize they have faced adversity before and conquered. Odom may calmly approach key free throws, rather than nervously smile; Pau may embrace a crunch time post up, rather than expectantly look for Kobe.

A win is a win, but sometimes it is more. Tonight seemed to be one of those nights. LA will come out of this stronger and Boston weaker. I expect a swing of psyche for both.

I hope he is right.

Preview & Chat: The Evil Empire

Kurt —  February 5, 2009
Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers

Records: Lakers 39-9 (1st in the West) Celtics 41-9 (1st in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.6 (1st in league) Celtics 110.9 (5th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.4 (7th in league) Celtics 100.2 (1st in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Celtics Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins

What does it really mean: I think a lot of debate on this site and others about this (and the Christmas) Lakers v. Celtics game comes down to this:

How much does it matter come June?

Certainly the win has importance in the tight home-court race (more on that in a minute). But what about psychologically? There are some Lakers fans who think the team needs these wins to gain confidence they can do it when it matters. Myself and others think that this game has virtually no impact on the Lakers (or anyone elses) psyche come the Finals.

I just don’t think the Lakers will put that much into a loss. They are playing their fifth game in seven days, second night of a back-to-back, without their star center. Win or lose, if these two teams meet in the Finals things will look different. (Maybe the Celts will have a player with a star tattooed on his head.) I think for professionals, this game may mean more than last night, but it does not mean as much as the first round of the playoffs.

We fans don’t like to see it that way, by the way, we tend to take the wins and losses harder. But we don’t have to wake up in the morning and start preparing for Cleveland.

Still, far smarter people than myself (say Roland Lazenby) seem to fall on the other side of the fence:

Yes, they beat the Celtics in Los Angeles on Christmas day. That has helped Jackson’s young players in dealing with their profound embarrassments of the 2008 championship series against Boston.
But those bad memories linger and will continue to do so.

Here’s the hard part: The Lakers will never put that series behind them unless they win the championship series this year. It would help if they claimed that title with a win over the Celtics. That’s all getting way ahead of the task at hand, of course.

Before they win another title, the Lakers have to emerge from a challenging field in the Western Conference.

Still, that doesn’t set aside the psychology of all this.

Home court will matter, and a new Celtics blog called Celtics Hub takes a detailed look at the remaining schedules of the Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers. They see a tight race between the Celtics and Cavs, which is interesting only because the Lakers play fewer good teams. Check out the data and reach your own conclusions.

Keys To The Game: The Kobe & Pau show the last couple of nights has been impressive — the Lakers two biggest players steppeed up when the team needed tnem most. But it will take more than that tonight.

Remember back to the Lakers being up 24 points in a Finals game last year? Remember Christmas? The Lakers did that by ball and player movement. The Celtics try to keep the triangle on one side of the floor, not allow the ball reversals and quick cuts that make the offense hum. When the Lakers have fought through that they have exposed KG for his wanderlust on defense. Last June they just didn’t do it consistently, but tonight they get another chance.

On defense, the Lakers did a great job on Christmas with Kobe on Rondo, sagging off and helping while turning the PG into a jumpshooter. That is key — when he gets in the lane he is a threat to pass and score, but from 18 feet out you let him shoot all he wants. The Lakers need to play the screen and roll well with Pierce (they like to run a double-screen, one on each side of him from each big, so he can choose how to attack, that could be a problem).

The guys on the Lakers bench are really going to have to bring it.

Where you can watch: 5 p.m. on TNT. The good news about that is for a change the Lakers are part of the first game of the double header, so we’ll get to see the entire first quarter.

Preview & Chat: The Toronto Raptors

Kurt —  February 4, 2009

Records: Lakers 38-9 (1st in the West) Raptors 19-30 (14th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.4 (1st in league) Raptors 107.0 (16th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.2 (6th in league) Raptors 109.7 (25th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Raptors Jose Calderon, Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon, Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh

Bynum Injury Redux: For more info, check out the good brothers over at the Los Angeles Times who talked to ESPN’s in-house doctor about the knee injury.

I think The Dude Abides did the best job I read of explaining how this season is very different from last season:

The difference between Andrew’s injury last season and his injury this year is that this year there is certainty regarding the specific nature of the injury. Last year, he subluxated his patella (momentary dislocation of the kneecap but then it popped back in). I’ve had the same type of injury two or three times, and each time I was back at full strength after one month. However, Andrew’s subluxation was so violent that he also suffered a severe bone bruise, an injury that can take a long time to heal. I once bruised a bone in my foot, and I wasn’t back on the court until two months later.

So, the uncertainty regarding the bone bruise was one factor last year regarding whether or not to have surgery. When it got to mid-May (four months post-injury), and he couldn’t make that final step in rehab, they decided to have his NY doctor take a look. He recommended surgery, and one of the important actions he took in surgery was to smooth the edge of the kneecap, which apparently was rendered a little bit jagged from the subluxation.

In contrast, the partial tear of the MCL is a much more common injury with a straightforward and certain rehab process. No surgery necessary, just strengthening the muscles around Andrew’s knee and increasing the range of motion. I would not be surprised to see him in a game by April 1st.

Thoughts and links: Just a lot of stuff I’ve wanted to get to.

• Great ideas here about upgrading All Star weekend. Maybe my favorite — have the NDBL All-Stars play the NBA Rookie Team. Those “minor leaguers” would have a huge chip on their shoulder and make a real game of it.

• One day after a published interview where I say that LeBron is the MVP right now, I will also agree with the commenters yesterday that said Kobe has injected himself into that conversation now.

Tim Duncan or Shaq? Who is the best big man of his generation?

• Sad to see Jameer Nelson go down, maybe for the season. That guy had clearly put in the work to bring his game up the next level, and he was the second most important player to the Magic. Hope it’s a quick recovery.

• I can’t believe I’m saying this regarding a fictional character, but that Jack In The Box Super Bowl commercial was just disturbing and wrong.

This made me laugh harder than anything has in a while. (Note, lots of cussing, if that offends you.)

The Raptors Coming In: Before the season, there was a question about just how good the Raptors would be, but nobody expected them to be this bad. To help us out, I asked a couple questions of Ryan over at Hoops Addict.

1. Obviously, this year has been a disaster compared to expectations, what went awry?

I think what went wrong is the injury bug struck early and often for Toronto. Heading into the season anyone associated with the team would point to Chris Bosh, Jermaine O’Neal and Jose Calderon as being the three main components to this team. Needless to say, when anyone team loses one of their three main parts they go through a rough stretch. For Toronto this was compounded due to the fact the team was trying to work O’Neal into the mix with new teammates but with him missing nearly one third of the season this has been an impossible task to accomplish.

That’s the easy, surface answer.

If you dig a little deeper you realize that Bryan Colangelo has always rolled the dice but in the past his gambles have paid off. He took a big gamble on his European experiment and when Jorge Garbajosa and Anthony Parker worked out he was adored by the local media and Raptors fans across Canada. This year it kind of fizzled as he placed faith in Calderon being a starter but the Spaniard showed he can’t shoulder starters minutes, Parker’s showing signs of age and his two summer signings – Will Solomon and Roko Ukic – have failed to earn the minutes at backup point guard which have forced Jay Triano to play Parker as the teams backup point guard. He also rolled the dice on O’Neal being able to regain his form and that clearly hasn’t happened.

2. How could the ship be righted long term?

Colangelo needs to roll the dice once again and shake things up… by not making a trade.

Right now the team is only four games out of the playoffs, yet it’s the Eastern Conference we’re talking about so it’s deceiving. While we’re within striking distance of Milwaukee, we’ve lost two heartbreakers within the past month to that team which will more than likely cost us our chance of leapfrogging them in the standings. In fact, if you switch those two losses alone then we’re able to move ahead of Milwaukee and we’re currently sitting in the eighth spot.

What’s sure to drive Colangelo crazy is the knowledge that we had the toughest start to the season of any team in the NBA and our schedule in March and April has us only playing six games with teams that currently have winning records. That means if we win against teams with records under .500 than we could finish the season on a 16-6 run which would have us in the playoffs. Throw into the mix some wins against Houston (who we’ve already beaten), Dallas (who we’ve always played well against) and another playoff team and we could be looking at a better record than last season. None of these games are unwinnable as Toronto has already beaten Orlando this season. There has to be part of Colangelo that wants to deal Jermaine O’Neal to get some help at the wing and bolster our chances of making the playoffs while still improving on last years record.

While that is all fine and good, how does that help us long term? I think this franchise needs to look at what it needs to do to ensure we can re-sign Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010. Personally, I think winning does a long way but with O’Neal’s expiring deal worth nearly $24 that summer it looks to serve as the ticket to being able to afford Bosh while inking another All-Star caliber player to run alongside Bosh and Calderon.

After the team has dealt with trying to add O’Neal into the rotation and switching coaches midseason, is trying to add another player like Shawn Marion into the mix the answer? I don’t think so. If anything, now is the time to hold firm and let some of the pieces gel and get healthy.

Keys To The Game: Kobe drops 61 in the Garden, now he goes to face the Raptors. Has he ever done much against Toronto? Oh, there was this.

Still, I don’t expect 81 or even 61 out of Bryant tonight, but the Raptors have been weak at perimeter defense. They, shockingly, are one of the league leaders in fewest points in the paint allowed. That said, the Lakers can’t go in thinking jumpers, they have to attack the paint, with penetration and with passing, particularly early. But this is a game where Sasha/Fisher/Radman could be big as they get open looks. Oh, and that Kobe guy, too,

The Lakers cannot get caught looking ahead to tomorrow. They started this trip 3-0 and before it even started (back with Bynum healthy) Laker fans would have taken 4-2 as a solid trip. Win tonight and you can do no worse than that, and you get the chance tomake a statement in the next two games. But they need to win this game first. Focus on the task at hand.

Where you can watch: 4 p.m.,, KCAL 9 here in Los Angeles and League Pass and the usual spots nationally.

Like A Sun Burst Through The Clouds

Kurt —  February 3, 2009

LAKERS-KNICKS
Don’t things seem a little brighter today?

Sure, the Lakers are still going to be without Bynum for a few months. But yesterday at noon I felt like I lived in a gulag. Clouds darkened the sky, food was without taste, everything seemed like hard labor.

Today the sun has pierced the clouds. Hope has returned. There are a couple reasons for that

First, there was the slow realization that while this is not good for Bynum, this is totally different than last year. Rehab starts in a couple weeks, hard rehab gets underway in about a month. He should be back for the playoffs. Listen to the words of Bynum himself:

I was worried until we got the results of the MRI, obviously I didn’t want to miss the whole season because I just did that last year. After we got the results back they told me it was a pretty severe sprain but it’s better than anything else that could have happened. No surgery needed, I’m just going to rehab it and get back on the court…..

When you have a doctor tell you this is the best thing that could have happened to you, having seen the play, you get a little bit relieved, and he said no surgery, which was a little more of a relief.

The other thing was the reminder of just how special Kobe Bryant is, and how beautiful and fun the game can be. We shouldn’t need that reminder, but we Lakers fans have come to take the amazing as the expected from Bryant. We take is greatness for granted.

It takes the extraordinary — like dropping 61 in Madison Square Garden on the Knicks — to make us stop for a second again and really appreciate Kobe. Appreciate the footwork. The basketball intelligence. The Athleticism. The Passion. He is part of a select group that can elevate his game and the game to artistry.

Last night was also a reminder that even without Bynum, this team is still a contender. This is not the team that went to the Finals last year — this is the team that went to the Finals with Trevor Ariza added to the mix and a year of experience for the then-overwhelmed younger players. This team is very, very good. Can it beat Boston then Cleveland on the road this week? Who knows? Who knows if they could have won these two games on the road with Bynum? But right after the Bynum announcement I would have said they could not, with a night to sleep on it I can say maybe. And that gives me hope. And more importantly, my hope extends to whether or not they could beat those teams in a seven-game series.

I know, from the comments here and around the Lakers Nation, some Lakers fans have resigned themselves to the gulag. I just can’t be that guy. I would urge all of you to step into the sunshine and bathe in its warmth. Everything is not lost, far from it, there is so much fun and excitement ahead of us, so many amazing moments of great basketball and exciting series to come. The journey is the fun part. And we have no idea where that journey will end, but there is still hope and belief that it can end where we want.