Monday, June 7, 2010

MT, A Masterful Discovery

After Rajon Rondo's dazzling display of leadership and basketball skills -- one that produced another postseason triple-double and big-time W -- he was asked about his team's approach after a disappointing Game 1 in Los Angeles. Citing "mental toughness" midway through the interview, he sounds so sure of the psychological element that helped his team tie the series as it heads back to Boston, that there must be a secret bottle of it -- MT, we'll call it -- somewhere. Perhaps the Celtics training staff concocted it on a day off or had it shipped from Beantown where more awaits on Tuesday.

Often eluded to in pre- and post-game discussions, yet often overlooked in preparation and real-time play because of limited time, ambiguity, or indifference, it's the aspect of the game that the greats hold so dear. Whatever Rondo did to consume it or feel that way, it's best that he holds on to the process.

A few days prior, Rondo's teammate Paul Pierce even conceded his thoughts on the subject, albeit suggesting the untouchable work of his foe-to-be:

"Once you master the mental part of the game, you become a master of the game of basketball," Pierce said. "There's only been one master in basketball ever, and that's Michael Jordan, but Kobe is pretty close."
That is a strong statement. One, because it addresses what Kobe has that no other contemporary can claim. Two, because it's a former NBA Finals MVP showing his sincerity all the while aware that he is not at that level himself.

The mental aspect -- the area that separates the good from the great, and in this example, the master from all the rest -- is regarded in this arena as THE skill to master. More than the quickest and most accurate jump shot, the deadliest drop step, the smoothest crossover, the swiftest slide into a defensive stance, one who can elevate his game -- and even more, his teammates' -- with his mind has the ultimate advantage.

Was Rondo speaking for his team as a whole, or was it simply the way he felt at the time of the question? Some may think not the former, as a couple teammates didn't even turn in sub-par performances. But Rondo spoke as a leader and one who certainly believed in his priorities, tasks that aided his team down to the last second. A strip, a swat, a tip, a jumper. Masterful work stemming from his mindset to keep on clawing. He had the hot hand in more ways than just shooting. And that mentality allowed him to look like a master, at least for a couple of periods.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hot Shooting from a Seasoned Shooter

Despite research and debate that may negate that a "hot hand" exists in basketball -- as a player, coach, and sport psych educator -- I do believe in the phenomenon, but not for some existential sake. Rather, for pure basketball sake. Simply knowing that practice and performance sometimes fuse perfectly and allow a player to shine.

Ray Allen was hot in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. But not out of luck. His display cannot be contrived as a series of penny flips. Or a string of randomness.

Allen has the physical and mental aptitude to put together such an exposition -- an awe-inspiring record eight 3-pointers made in the finals -- and tonight he happened to be placed in situations that allowed him to knock the LA lights out. It's understandable that hot hands tend to cool quickly. As players knock down a couple jumpers, their self-efficacy (situational self-confidence) increases. Because of that seemingly advantageous fluctuation, they want the ball and the next shot. They believe they are rolling into the zone. And, more often that not, according to the research, they miss because the degree of difficultly shoots up as quickly as their next attempt.

Unfortunately for them, the next field goal try may be an off-balance jump shot. Or a contested 3-pointer. Or perhaps a fade away from the corner. Or a ridiculous leaner. All things considered, the shot isn't like the first two. If it falls through the net, they really are considered hot. If it misses, end of scorching streak -- just like the classic NBA Jam video game.

Balanced. Comfortable. In the flow of the offense. All ideas that coaches preach. Good shots born of structure and teamwork. Shots that put teammates in positions to rebound. Shots that place the other four companions in good spaces, and shots that are created because of good spacing.

These are the scenarios that Allen discovered himself in. Prime real estate on the ultimate stage. He practiced -- and always does practice -- those shots from those spots hours prior to tip-off. That is his ritual. His pregame habit, bordering on obsessiveness. Warm-up to a point of complete control. Put himself in the right frame of mind and his body in the right moments in time. Get balanced. Become comfortable. Make himself feel good going into the game.

And there he was. Ready. Not in foul trouble. Getting touches. Enjoying the moment. And soon to be in a record-breaking rhythm.

His 3-point attempts were smooth. They came from kick outs and transition opportunities. And quintessential set up situations from the offense. A drive and find. A pull up at the perfect pace. A misdirection and screen. Balanced. Comfortable. In the flow of the offense.

With Allen's conditioning level, shooting mechanics, and belief in doing what he does best, he demonstrated what it means to be hot -- and maintain the heat for a half by replicating the previous shot as best as possible. For a game that changes so rapidly with various defenses being concocted to try and slow the heat source, the variance in Allen's shot selection was minimal. And so he continued to remain balanced, comfortable, and in the flow of the offense.

Doc Rivers knew it. Rajon Rondo knew it. And they delivered the ball to the player who knew it. Simple as that.

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