Coaching a European Club – Week 28: Play-offs

Play-offs. We ended the regular season as the #5 seed, which meant an opening game on the road. The game was scheduled on Tuesday night at 9:00 P.M. 4.5 hours away from our town. Far from the ideal, and about the worst case scenario of all the possibilities going into the final week of play. 

For two weeks, we expected to play on Wednesday night; or normal practice schedule is Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. This meant that we would have played Saturday, practiced Monday, played Wednesday, so we planned to have a Sunday night practice in order to have another practice to prepare for our opponent. As it turned out, the final game of the season started at 5:30 P.M. on Sunday, and we practiced at 7:30 P.M., so I did not know who our opponent would be until I received a text shortly before practice started. I gambled during the day and watched tape of the team who I anticipated playing, but as luck would have it, there was a crazy ending in the game, and we ended up playing a different team. Luckily, it was a team who we had swept during the regular season, so we felt good about our chances.

Sunday night, I focused on offense. I asked the team to pick six plays that we would run, and we could forget everything else. We have probably used 10-11 plays during the year, and some have been eliminated naturally as the season has progressed the the point guards have stopped running them. After we picked our six plays, I asked if they thought that they could handle two new plays. Many said no. We do not have the smartest team, and despite our offensive success (80+ ppg), we do not always execute plays correctly.

When they said no, I asked if I could show them the easy play. They agreed, and I did. They thought we could add it. It is barely a play. It is a counter to one of our other plays, and is a very simple action. All of our plays are basically quick hitters. We do not have any plays with multiple options, counters, or actions. We are very vanilla. The quick hitters are primarily to start the action and to disorganize the defense, and then we attack from there with the dribble or the pass. It is not sophisticated by any means. Most teams know exactly what we are doing by the second quarter, which is one reason that I wanted to add a counter to a play, but it does not matter as long as we attack and move the ball. They are able to take away the action and prevent the quick shot, but in doing so, they often leave something better available. For instance, if they want to switch to take away my American point guard as he comes off a screen, we have a mismatch with my post, or if they trap him off a ball screen, my other guards get wide open three-pointers. That is basic offense to me, and our quick hitters are used to start the process more than anything.

After we added the easy play, I asked if we could add the more involved play. As luck would have it, it is an action that our first-round opponent uses, so we have discussed how to defend it previously, and we have used the action in practice for defensive purposes. Therefore, when I showed it, everyone agreed that it should be easy to incorporate.

This was the focus for Sunday. Because I knew when planning the practice that I would not know our opponent in time to watch film, I planned for Sunday’s practice to focus on offense, and Monday’s to focus on defense. Also, we had the bigger gym on Sunday, so we did a lot of shooting, as I did not want to go too hard the day after a game.

Monday night was the absolute worst practice of the season. I only had 10 players, as the u20s had an away game. The club allowed me to travel 10 to the play-off game, so everyone headed to the game was at practice, and the u20s had to play with 5 guys.

I watched two games of our opponent, and they barely run anything discernible. They are a pretty talented group, and big, with the best player in the league, but they are erratic and use a player-coach. Therefore, there was not a ton to do in preparation. I basically focused on two adjustments; really, I emphasized two things that I have been saying all season and that we do not do very well.

Then, we scrimmaged using out-of-bounds plays. We have four underneath and four sideline plays. One player admitted that he did not know the plays, so the players broke up to he two baskets and practiced the plays. I attempted to change our defense on OB plays – one small adjustment – but it went terribly, so we nixed that idea. We do not talk well enough on defense to do anything too sophisticated; we have to be very vanilla. Talking on defense is probably our biggest weakness; we have two players who talk very well, and a lot of silent players. I have been playing 5v4 lately to force the defense to talk, but it has not transferred as well as hoped.

The OB games went terribly. One guy made so many mistakes, he walked off the court like he was going to quit. The practice was just a disaster. Not the type of thing that you want before a game. It went so poorly that I did not get through my entire plan, even though I had planned to go short. We managed not to shoot a single free throw, among other things.

We played pretty well though. We won 91-75 in the first game. The officials called it tight, and we made most of our free throws. we shot over 30 free throws, which is a season high, and made close to 90% (no official stats, and nobody to keep a shot chart on the road). They are huge, often employing a SG as big as my center. My young guard did a great job defensively against their best player who has a lot of size and experience on him, and my bigs did a great job protecting the paint. We knew the key to beating them was to take away their transition shots and to prevent second-chance points, and we did a pretty good job on both accounts.

In the second half, we gave away an 11-point lead in like four possessions and looked rattled. We went exclusively to our new play, and it worked perfectly to get some easy shots and to draw some fouls to put them in the penalty. We stretched the lead back to seven almost immediately, and pulled away in the last couple possessions.

With the practices and games, not to mention work schedules, we took off Wednesday and practiced Thursday and Friday. I ended both practices short. I learned from Monday. I wanted the players feeling fresh and positive. I did not want another tough practice or one with a lot of failure. We basically did one hard drill each day, walked through some things, talked about strategy, and got up shots. On Thursday, the focus was transition; on Friday, it was boxing out on free throws.

I used a game that I started to use last season with the high-school freshmen.  Divide into two teams. Score points by making free throws. Make the free throw, and your team continues to shoot. Miss the free throw and get an offensive rebound and your team continues to shoot. The defense has to get the defensive rebound to shoot free throws. The drill may have worked, as we did a much better job rebounding on free throws on Saturday.

Saturday’s game could not have started worse. We were down 11-3 early. We looked like junior-high school players throwing away outlet passes, missing lay-ups, missing defensive assignments. Disappointing. We managed to cut it to 11-7, and they called a timeout. From that point on, I did not have a doubt in my mind that we would win, even though we trailed at the end of the first quarter.

They made the adjustment that I would have made if I was them, and they played their best five rather than their biggest five. I think that they thought that they could bully us in the first game with their big line-up, but they just got in each other’s way. Their best line-up is a smaller line-up, as they have five shooters on the court. I adjusted and played four guards for most of the game.

Shortly before half, we started to execute. we ran our zone offense perfectly for a wide open lay-up. Then, in the third quarter, we ran a sideline OB play that we never run correctly (I was shocked that they even called for it), and we executed perfectly for a wide-open three-pointer. It was close throughout, but I felt like we were in control. Eventually, we won 73-63.

The game was officiated totally differently than the first game. We shot 19 free throws (just below our season average of 21), even after they committed a couple fouls at the end to put us on the line. We adjusted well. In the first game, our two best players carried us, as they combined for over 50 points. In the second game, our two young wings stepped up big time and combined for over 30 points. It was good to be able to win big and win small, win in a tightly called contest and one where they let us play, and to win with our stars doing their things and one with our role players knocking down big shots.

Now we wait to see who we play next Saturday in the semi-finals.

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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