The Most Overused Playoff Clichés in the NBA and What They Really Mean

Bryant Knox@@BryantKnoxFeatured ColumnistApril 21, 2013

The Boston Celtics' recent success has been brought down to Earth by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The Boston Celtics' recent success has been brought down to Earth by LeBron James and the Miami Heat.Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The 2013 NBA playoffs have arrived, which means fans should be officially glued to their TVs through June. Great basketball and colorful analysis come with the postseason, but so do the clichés we’ve heard over and over again.

The thing about clichés is that they’re used for a reason. Often they make sense and are presented appropriately, but other times, they’re used blindly, creating murky definitions that don’t always hold true.

Dipping into the platitudes has become common practice, so it’s important to know exactly what’s being said with the year winding down.


Crunch Time

In the clutch. Crunch time. Down the stretch.

These are all terms we hear on a regular basis, but the question is, what do they mean in the context of a game?

According to, these terms pertain to the “fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points.” It’s easy to tell when the clock is winding down, but now we have a way of evaluating late-game performance.

Unfortunately for fans, the game’s top two clutch scorers (according to are out for the 2013 postseason. Kyrie Irving will watch from home, while Kobe Bryant will watch—and coach—from the sidelines.

Luckily, 11 of the next 13 players on the list will be on display, and when defenses lock down in closing scenarios, look for them to create memorable moments with the game on the line.


Must-win Situation

If there’s any cliché that has lost its luster, this might be it.

We all know what a must-win situation is in sports. If you lose, you’re out; if you win, you move on. However, “win or go home” may be more appropriate, as “must win” can be heard as early as the second game of any series.

The fact is that until the team has given up three victories, it’s not in a true must-win situation. The odds of advancing drop with every loss, but until its backs are against the wall, there's still wiggle room for a team to succeed.

Another variation of this is the do-or-die moments. This is a cliché that means the same thing, but in all honestly, it should be completely abolished.

While nobody believes the NBA is full of life-or-death situations, "do or die" is a hyperbole that has become inappropriate in today’s day and age. There are people in the world who truly face life-or-death scenarios, so let’s stick with "must win" at this juncture.


Let Them Play

Nobody likes when referees make potentially game-deciding calls. Then again, nobody likes when their team is the one not earning the whistle, either.

There’s really no winning when it comes to playoff officiating, but the consensus is that players want to play without refs getting in the way.

“Let them play” is a phase you’re bound to hear from every direction. Most people love a physical series, and it appears as if fewer whistles equals a happier fanbase.

Fans, coaches and media alike will shout this ad nauseam from April to June. Nobody minds seeing the obvious fouls acknowledged, but it’s the so-called ticky-tack plays that nobody wants to see.

The NBA’s hand-checking rule makes it tough for refs to swallow the whistle, but down in the paint, too many calls can disrupt momentum—an extremely important aspect of playoff basketball.

If the referees can impact a game without making headlines, everybody wins. 


Want it More

To say that one team, or one player, simply wants it more has a direct correlation with aggression. Wanting it more is a compliment to the subject at hand, but in reality, it’s more of a slap in the face to anybody not playing at an elite level.

Energy is a quality that can’t be tracked. Aggressiveness will never have its own column on a stat sheet, but when given the eye test, it’s easy to tell when one team is playing harder than another.

Is this phrase overused? You bet it is. Sometimes it’s less about desire and more about talent and organization. Other times, though, it truly comes down to effort, and it’s obvious when a team has given up in times of adversity.


End of an Era/Start of a Dynasty

It’s not very often that we witness a team crumble before our eyes, or another start something historic on the NBA stage. When we do, however, everybody knows about it, as it’s discussed throughout the duration of the playoffs.

The Association thrives off storylines. Fans watch the games because of what happens on the court, but it’s the drama that keeps people interested on a year-round basis.

To watch the end of an era unfold is to witness a once-great team propel themselves into competitive—or not-so competitive—mediocrity. To start a dynasty is quite the opposite, as the team in question gives fans hope for an extremely bright future.

These terms are used a bit loosely in today’s NBA, but the concept of greatness is subjective in and of itself.


Protect Home Court

This might be the most overused cliché in all of playoff basketball, but it’s easy to see why.

So much is made about home-court advantage. The crowd on your side provides an extra boost of energy, and when it comes down to it, 80 percent of home teams win Game 7 (according to

No squad wants to be embarrassed in front of its fans, which is where the wartime mentality of protection from invasion kicks in.

The only downside to this approach is that if every team manages to only win at home, the crew with the best record becomes the instant champion. Teams must be capable of winning in any venue, which could be a much more appropriate night-in, night-out theme.


Make Adjustments

Whether it’s from live commentary, in-game interviews or post-game press conferences, it’s unlikely you’ll escape the playoffs without hearing, “We must make adjustments.”

The act of making modifications is an art in the NBA. Not everybody can do it, but when you can, it gives you a huge advantage against stale, predictable performances.

The problem is that when we hear this phrase used, often we don’t get a thorough explanation. Sometimes a team must combat inside scoring by switching into an occasional zone defense. Other times, isolation scorers aren’t getting it done, so running more back-door sets has to be an option.

There’s nothing wrong with altering the plan, so long as the person making the claim knows exactly what must change.


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