Goal Posts

Commentary on the complex relationships between motivation, performance, competition, cooperation, and goals.

The Psychology of the NBA Finals

Celtics vs. Lakers: Round (Game) 3

In the last edition of Goal Posts, we examined some of the psychological factors at work in the NBA Championship Series. Two games in, the series is tied 1-1, and hoops fans are prepared for a potential classic. Below are a couple additional subplots to follow over the remainder of the series:

1) Physically strong, mentally tough: In the last goal posts I discussed how Ron Artest's physical play could wear Paul Pierce down during the series. The tone was set less than one minute into Game 1 when Pierce and Artest got tangled up, shoved each other, and were both given technical fouls. This seemed as if it were Artest and the Lakers sending a message that they would not back down to the Lakers. L.A. went on to control Game 1 easily, and Artest's message seemed to be effective.

In Game 2, Boston looked more like the Celtics of old, outrebounding the Lakers and showing their physical and mental mettle. One late play in the game typified the Boston mindset. Pau Gasol has an open lay-up with less than 30 seconds left, down by 10. Paul Pierce fouls him hard (but not flagrantly), preventing Gasol from getting a shot off. Gasol glares a bit, and you can tell Pierce is now sending the message: "No easy baskets against the Celtics." That's an important message to send because it may lead Gasol to miss an easy lay-up later in the series when he expects to get fouled. Neither team quits during the last minute even when the game is decided. This is another omen that this series is going to get ultra-competitive and may go the distance. With 112 fouls called through 2 games (the most in the NBA Finals since 1996), we should brace ourselves for a heavyweight fight, NBA-style.

2) Confidence: Kevin Garnett looks like a fish out of water. Whether he is injured or just out of rhythm, he is struggling to score, rebound, and defend. In fact, he looks like a shell of his former self. Two games into the series, he is 9-21 (42%), and averaging 11 points and 4 rebounds. These numbers are way down from his career (20 ppg, 11 rpg), season (14ppg, 7rpg, 52% FG), and first two playoff series (18ppg, 8rpg, 55% FG). The Celtics will struggle to win this series without better type of productivity out of Garnett.

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On the other hand, the most confident play of the night in my mind was Rajon Rondo hitting an 18-foot jumper in the last three minutes to extend a 3-point lead to 5. The Lakers are literally daring Rondo to shoot jump shots every time he gets the ball. He has the discipline and intelligence to turn most of these down, but if he can shoot the mid-range jumper with confidence, the triple double he had in Game 2 will not be his last in the series. It is amazing to watch a point guard of his stature do so much in every aspect of the game. Whether it's rebounds, assists, the blocked shot on Derek Fisher, or the wraparound steal on Kobe (both critical plays in the 4th quarter), Rondo has become the individual story of the playoffs (you need to look no further than my 7-year old son Jack, who now proudly dons a Rondo jersey for games, after not knowing who he was one month ago).

3) The Hot Hand? Ray Allen hit 7 consecutive three-point baskets, and eight on the game. Accuscore.com ran 10,000 simulations of Game 2, and Allen hit seven threes in a row 1 out of every 1,000 games! The odds of any streak of seven threes for Allen, a 40% career 3-point shooter, all going in are approximately 1.5 out of 1,000. We haven't seen Allen this hot since he played Jesus Shuttlesworth alongside Denzel Washington in the movie "He Got Game".

Simply put, Ray was on fire. Or was he? For decades, psychologists have tried to measure and identify "the hot hand". Gilovich and colleagues studied NBA players and found little evidence of the hot hand. Retrospectively it is easy to say Allen was on fire, but in science we need to:

a) Predict ahead of time the conditions under which Allen would catch fire, and

b) Predict when Allen would cool off (why did he start 7-7 and then go 1-4? If he were truly on fire, why would the streak end).

So, what do we look for in critical Game 3, knowing that when NBA Finals have been tied 1-1, 88% of the time, the team that wins Game 3 goes on to win the series? Expect a rabid Boston Garden, physical play, more Paul Pierce, more Kobe Bryant, and a hard fought Celtics victory. Watch also for the intensity and competitiveness to increase a few notches as both teams fight to get closer to their goal. Enjoy the game Tuesday night, and look for these psychological subplots to continue to unfold as the series progresses.

References:

Gilovich, T, Vallone, R., & Tversky, A. (1985). The hot hand in basketball: On the misperception of random sequences. Cognitive Psychology, 17, 295-314.

 

John Tauer, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Assistant Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas.

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