This is a revision/expansion of my earlier posting:
Some thoughts on the Eastern and Western Conference NBA Finals in which the LA Lakers-Phoenix Suns are tied at 2-2 in the Western Conference and the Boston Celtics are up on the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the East:
It's all about the game plan. Some sportswriters, for example, those at the LA Times, chalk up the Lakers' game 4 loss to Phoenix - its second straight loss to the Suns - to the lack of production and intensity of the Laker bench.
The Magic were analogously criticized after they lost game 3 to the Celtics, marking three losses in a row and putting them on the verge of the wrong end of a sweep, for an alleged lack of heart.
These are valid, but really fundamentally secondary, considerations. The Lakers and the Magic are both championship quality teams and their players wouldn't be where they are in the playoffs if they didn't have plenty of competitive spirit.
The problem for both teams' losses was, in fact, in their respective coach's game plans. You cannot expect a team to show the necessary intensity throughout the full 48 minutes if they are carrying out a faulty and losing game plan. The players know - because they're the ones experiencing it firsthand - when a strategy is working or not. You tend to lose heart and intensity when you see that you have no hope of winning.
While the odds are stacked tremendously against them, if the Magic go into tonight's game with the right game plan, they have a chance to win another game and put fear in Boston for game 6.
What's that right game plan? The Magic need to take advantage of their youth and run the Celtics ragged by pushing the ball like they did in the first half of game 4; they need to continue to set screens for point guard Jameer Nelson to penetrate the paint; and they need to keep center Dwight Howard in motion for passes and easy hoops. Howard also needs to change his free throw motion, although since he doesn't read my blog, he's not going to know! : )
For the Lakers, the problem isn't, as Lamar Odom put it after game 4, that they're not swinging the ball around in passes to each other enough on offense. The problem isn't that they aren't hitting enough of their outside shots either. After all, how many teams can keep hitting from the outside for most of a game? That's not a winning strategy. Not even Kobe, who was extremely hot last night, can hit outside jumpers for the entire game. They Lakers have to drive the lane.
The team that penetrates the lane wins and the team that doesn't, hoping to score from the perimeter all night, loses.
The Lakers, for reasons I can't fathom, haven't been able to solve the puzzle of the Sun's zone defense for the last 1 3/4 games. Ok, so the Lakers don't have a true point guard who can dribble penetrate the lane (the Suns have TWO guards like this.) But Kobe can do it, and/or you can pass the ball into the post and then have another player slash into the lane for a give and go. If the Lakers play the next game like they have the last 1 3/4 games by passing the ball around the perimeter and relying on Kobe being hot the entire game, they will lose again.
Give Coach Stan Van Gundy of the Orlando Magic credit and give Jameer Nelson his props - they came out in Game 4 in Boston and created a winning game plan. They did so belatedly, but they're still alive in the series. The other key to their win on Monday night was the faster pace with Nelson et al bringing up the ball after rebounds or made shots very quickly before the Celtics could set up the half-court defense. In the fourth quarter Nelson stopped doing this and that's a major reason why Boston got close and nearly won. Note how tired the Celtics were in the fourth quarter. Boston's Paul Pierce kept missing his shots off the front of the rim in the fourth.
Finally, as to Howard's poor free throw shooting, which could be a deciding factor in this series: I don't know what style he has used in the past, but he's now releasing the ball from around face high, which is the problem. His ball is traveling with too much momentum horizontally and thus he hits the backboard and the back of the rim too hard. He needs to release the ball from higher up, preferably above his head so that his wrist snap produces more relative vertical trajectory, producing a softer shot with much greater accuracy and likelihood of dropping in the net. Unlike Shaq whose free throw shooting troubles are legendary, Howard has a good wrist snap. He just needs to adjust where he releases the ball.
Try this yourself, you can readily see what I mean.
I usually write about politics on this blog. Sports aren't that much of a departure, however, as sports are a form of stylized warfare. And warfare is, as Clausewitz famously pointed out, politics pursued by other (violent) means.
The relationship between heart and having a winning strategy (a strategy that has the potential to win, not a guarantee) are one that is often misunderstood in politics as it is in sports. While heart is absolutely indispensable, after all, winning armies and winning teams almost always have higher morale than those they defeat, having a strategy that gives you a chance to win is also necessary. People often bemoan the fact that the American people are apathetic in the face of egregious actions by the government and corporate America. While there is some real truth to this complaint, since the desire to fight must be there in the first place, what it misses is the fact that many people are also held back by the recognition that to do anything meaningful requires a plan that has a chance to succeed. In the absence of knowing what that plan is, they demur.
Those who would lead others need to keep both of these factors in mind.