Sunday, May 17, 2015

“Choking”: Is It a Flaw, or Strategy Gone Awry?

“Choking” is such a harsh term; the impact is so much gentler when we call it “succumbing to the pressure of the moment,” isn’t it? Either way, it ain’t good, referencing a failure to perform adequately when it mattered most.

After blowing 19-point second-half lead to the Rockets in a close-out Game Six, at home no less, Doc Rivers’s LA Clippers are the current poster boys for Performance Under-achievement. As every Houston long bomb found bottom in an amazing fourth-quarter rally (without their most explosive player, it should be noted), the aura of a long and far-from-lofty legacy kept closing in on the Clips, not to mention their nouveau-riche owner and fans.

Zero appearances in a Conference Final. The shame and ineptitude that was Donald Sterling. A prior owner who’d swapped the franchise, taking two future Hall-of-Famers with him to his new NBA home. The team had been up-rooted from Upstate New York to satisfy the Hollywood mogul who’d traded the Celtics to the KFC King who almost ran Red Auerbach out of town. Hollywood, indeed!

Celebration mode seemed to have descended upon the Staples Center in earnest during an impressive third-quarter run, what with CP3 high-steppin’ and Blake Griffin finishin’ with back-to-the-glass bankers and what-not. Things were still rosy, a double-digit lead still in place, with eight minutes or so to go – about the point where “clock awareness” becomes a factor.

The teams had been treading water for several minutes. To Rocket supporters, there were ONLY eight minutes left to do something to extend their season. To the Clipper faithful, there were STILL eight minutes of waiting for a watched pot to boil.

When this clock awareness enters the picture, a funny thing happens. The team that is in control of the game deems it advantageous to violate one of the basic principles of effective offensive execution (regardless to the style of attack a coach may prefer to run). In the interest of clock management, good shots are NOT taken. Consequently, the instinct (both individual and collective) that derives from structure and continuity is inevitably replaced by uncertainty.

Ever been “in the zone”? Everybody has at one time or another, even if only doing something insignificant like pitching horseshoes or shooting at a nerf goal. You just can’t miss – even the one that felt a little funny leaving your hand flops the right way for ya!

Do you know when the zone goes away? When reaction is replaced by reflection … in other words, as soon as you start to think. Paralysis by analysis, one might say.

The introduction of clock awareness creates a similar disruption to a team’s flow. The tone of a game, indeed that of an entire series, can be altered in the blink of an eye. (Except for the Paul Pierce rescue at the end, Washington had played that exact same fourth quarter against the Hawks a week earlier. Coach Budenholzer’s second unit erased a sizeable lead and restored the confidence of a teetering team every bit as much as PP’s ostentatious Truth.)

This Rocket-Clipper “clash” (only one game has been decided by single-digits) has just been daffy – right from Rivers’s pre-series quip that he and Houston headman Kevin McHale had a gentleman’s agreement regarding “hacking.” Hah!

While the Clipper franchise has historically endured ridicule, the Rockets and their analytics-driven GM Daryl Morey are basketball’s modern-day WTF’s with their threes-to-the-extreme offensive approach.

Let’s hope the story of today’s Game Seven is a break-out performance on a big stage, not one that starts with “what if…”