The Psychology of Focus in the NBA Playoffs

Art Rondeau@ArtRondeauSpecial ColumnistMay 8, 2013

In a world of cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, blogs and sports media, staying focused can be a daunting challenge for player and coach alike—and that’s just during the regular season.

The NBA playoffs are a whole different animal.  Not only are the distractions of the NBA regular season still present, at a more intense level even, but aspects of the playoffs introduce a number of different ways a player, team or coach can lose focus.

Players either learn to deal with these distractions or they don’t.  Their success or failure is often reflected in the box score and is often visible to those of us watching the game.  

While the focused player doesn’t always necessarily access his best game, for the most part the unfocused player accesses his worst.  

By “focus," I’m referring to the player’s ability to concentrate on doing what he needs to do to prepare for the game and, once the game begins, what he needs to do on the court.  Lack of focus in either area can cause what should have been a blowout win to be a close game or even a loss.

Pat Riley calls them “peripheral opponents”: family, friends, media and even team management who, when not speaking with one voice, distract a player or team from its mission.  It’s these distractions that have, through history, often cost superior teams the ultimate prize of an NBA championship.


Outside Voices

The more time between games, the more opportunities there are for distractions to seep in.  During the regular season, teams play a few times per week and travel to different cities for most of those games.  

The playoffs, however, with their 2-2-1-1-1 format (except for the finals’ 2-3-2 format) and the long stretches of downtime between games to accommodate television, keep both teams in the same city for long, uninterrupted stretches.  

This means that players have more time on their hands.  Time to be interviewed, time to read negative stories and Tweets about themselves and time to go out and relieve their stress.  You can see where this is headed.


Another potential pregame distraction is family.  Not the player’s wife and kids—I’m talking about the family that shows up from out of town because it’s playoff time.  

In the best of circumstances, this may mean that the player ends up entertaining company instead of taking his customary pregame nap.  In the worst of circumstances, he may have to deal with the family issues that most American families have.  

So, at a time that the player may need a bit more space because of the added pressure of the playoffs, he may instead be living the "Thanksgiving from Hell” over and over and over.  This would take a toll on many of us and certainly can take a toll on an NBA player as well.

A great example of how an outside distraction can get into an athlete’s head and seriously degrade performance comes not from the NBA but from the 2012 Olympics.  

Women’s gymnast Gabby Douglas started those Olympics by winning two gold medals (individual all-around and team all-around) and ended them by finishing seventh in the balance beam and eighth in the uneven bars.  

Why the huge drop from two golds medals to seventh and eighth place?  

During an interview right before the balance beam competition, Gabby was asked about some family problems.  Apparently distraught over hashing through some of those issues, her performance level immediately plummeted.



No matter how great a player is during the regular season, he’s often judged by his playoff statistics and success.  Sometimes it’s not a big deal.  Sometimes it is.  

Take Carmelo Anthony and this season’s New York Knicks.  Before these playoffs started, the Knicks hadn’t won a postseason series since May 2000.  

Head Coach Mike Woodson, who has an outstanding 68 percent regular season winning percentage as the Knicks head coach (72-34), was also sporting just a 35 percent career playoff winning percentage (12-22). 

Anthony, who received the only “non-LeBron James” first place vote for MVP this season, had gone to the playoffs 10 times and been knocked out in the first round in nine of them.  Melo’s playoff record was the NBA’s worst in the past 20 years.

Those are neither great playoff numbers nor a great playoff history and certainly not ones that you’d want a player to dwell on—that’s a sure way to mess up his focus.  But today’s game is media-intensive: they need angles for new stories, and NBA rules require players to be available daily for media sessions.  

Does it make sense that Melo would be asked about any of this?  And does it make sense that some of this might be on his mind?.

Did Melo’s bad playoff history impact his game in this season’s playoffs?  

You be the judge.  In the first three games of this season’s first round series against the Celtics, Carmelo shot 46 percent from the floor, 50 percent from behind the three-point line, and 96 percent from the free throw line.  Those are some fine shooting percentages.

But in Games 4 through 6, all games where the Knicks could have closed out the best-of-seven series, Melo shot like a man who was very aware of his past playoff failures and knew that he wasn’t supposed to make it out of the first round once again.  

He shot 31 percent from the floor and just 6 percent from the three.  Although he shot 85 percent from the free throw line, three of his four misses came at the end of Game 4, which was an OT loss to the Celtics.  

If Anthony had hit just one of those three free throws (or any of a bunch of shots he missed down the stretch), the Knicks would have swept the Celtics.  Instead, it took the Knicks six games to win the series.

I’m already on record saying that I don’t think Carmelo “choked," but that he believed, because of all his experiences, that he wouldn’t get out of the first round.  That type of belief can actually affect how a player performs.

Want more proof of that?  Anthony’s Knicks teammate, J.R. Smith, has almost as bad a first-round record as Melo, having been knocked out there in six of the seven post-season playoffs he’d qualified for prior to this season.  

Smith shot 44 percent from the floor in Games 1 through 3 but, after being suspended for Game 4, dropped to 30 percent in Games 5 and 6. Might Smith also have believed, based on past experience, that he’s not supposed to advance past the first round, or is this just some kind of shooting bug that’s going around?

Another playoff stat that can get into a team or player’s head is the “no team has ever” line.  

For example, no NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series.  This was recently discussed, ad nauseum, in regard to both this season’s Knicks-Celtics and Rockets-Thunder series.  

In an attempt to counteract the ominous weight that all that history carries with it, the Boston media kept referring to the 2004 Boston Red Sox victory over the New York Yankees, where the Sox were down 3-0 before historically winning the next four games.  

The Rockets jumped on board because they were down three games to none against the Thunder, and Houston general manager Daryl Morey had previously worked for the Celtics.  

Revisiting the Red Sox' comeback was a smart move, since proving that something extremely difficult is possible provides hope to a team.  But as inspirational as that Red Sox comeback was, it was not enough to boost either the Celtics or the Rockets to a Game 6 win.

History isn't always right, but it usually is.


In-Game Distractions

For the most part, in-game distractions come from just a few sources: trash talk, referee’s calls and fans.  

Sure, there’s the occasional marketing problem, like the Knicks’ annual attempt to get an “orange out” by having fans wear orange shirts which make it hard for outside shooters to distinguish the basket from the background.  But mostly, the players are dealing, often successfully, with situations from the heat of competition itself.

Trash talk is done by many players but only really mastered by a few.  And trash talk is only successful if the trasher (the one who’s doing the talking) pushes the buttons of the trashee (the one who’s getting upset).  

Some players thrive on trash talk. For instance, Reggie Miller always seemed to shoot the lights out everytime the Knicks fans booed him.  

Many learn to ignore it, but sometimes, trash talk really hits home.  

A great example is this season’s “Honeynut Cheerios” episode between the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett and the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony.  Suffice it to say that Melo wasn’t thrilled when Garnett supposedly said that Melo’s wife tasted like the aforementioned breakfast cereal.  

The Boston fans gave it to Melo during all three playoff games in Boston, but Melo has moved on.  His reaction to Garnett when the remark was first made was, in large part, due to surprise.  Knowing to expect the fans' taunting, Melo has mostly kept his focus on the games and away from breakfast, as his 48 percent shooting effort in Game 3 bears out.

For those players who yell at the refs a lot, and for those who just barely restrain themselves during the regular season, the playoffs offer a whole new reason to get a technical.  

There’s what is called “playoff rules”, a hypothetical impression that the playoffs are going to be more physical and that the refs are going to let a lot of things go.  

As you might imagine, the player who gripes about not going to the free throw line because he got bumped during the regular season is a lot more upset when the cross-body block he gets hit with goes unnoticed by the refs in the playoffs.


In Conclusion

In a world where the average worker doesn’t like having his boss looking over his shoulder, NBA players do an excellent job of performing at high levels under less-than-optimum conditions.  

But although they’ve learned, through many years on public display, to perform well under conditions that might prevent many of us from performing at all, they’re still human beings and can lose focus under the “right” circumstances.  

Eliminating or minimizing as many potential sources of distraction as possible gives players and teams the best chance of successfully executing the game plan, winning the game, and winning enough of them to take the series and advance to the next round.  

Who will be successful at staying focused and who will not will be apparent throughout the playoffs.


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