I was watching tonight’s match-up of the Golden State Warriors at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State was coming off of a bad loss; Cleveland was coming off of some strong wins. Cleveland was pretty much embarrassed off the court. Cleveland called timeout less that two minutes into the game, already down 10-2 at the time.
Cleveland needed to make a statement in this game. They needed to come out and prove that they could play with Golden State, given that these two are the favorites to repeat last year’s NBA Finals. Instead, Golden State came out, was very loose, and played like they were the ones that needed to make the statement.
I’m reminded of the worst game I ever coached – my 2008 Heat versus the 2008 Knicks in the re-match that year. We were coming off of a huge win, and feeling really good about ourselves. We were expecting to play well against the opponent. We had superior scoring, superior rebounding, and superior passing, and we were confident.
We came out flat. Just plain flat. We looked awful, and we were down at the half. We had our strong line-ups coming out, and I wanted us focused and intense. I opened fire with both barrels in the half-time talk.
You could tell that we weren’t the same team that left the court at halftime. You could tell it from the looks on our faces coming out. 9 players coming out with upset, angry looks on our faces. And one player – Josh Wade – who was absolutely happy to be there, playing, and no one – no coach, no fan, no older brother – who he was getting matched up against – was going to take away the joy of playing the game from him.
Three players had good games in the second half. The first was Austin Renwick. That’s because of all my players, Austin was the one who was most in touch with his emotions. He knew what being angry meant, and he knew that when he was angry, he had to focus, to not let it interfere with him doing what he needed to do.
The second was Eric Abele, who the Greyhound Trophy for Hardest Worker is named after. He played great because Eric was always focused on doing exactly what our game plan called for; Eric was the model of consistency who never drifted off game-plan. He came out, focused as always.
The third, was, of course, Josh Wade. He was out there to have fun, and was going to bring everything he could. I’ve never had any player outwork Josh Wade. (Having Josh and Eric on the same team was amazing because of the level of hard work they both put in.) But Josh wasn’t playing “angry.” He was already aggressive, and already intense, and already hard-working. He didn’t need to be “angry.” We nicknamed him “The King of Pain,” because of how often he ended up on the floor diving and fighting for the basketball.
The rest of my team didn’t play anything like the players I had. That’s because to those guys, “angry” was an alien concept. They weren’t “angry” players. Instead of fixing the focus and sloppiness and flatness problems we had, with my poor coaching, especially at halftime, I just added a new one to the load.
Needless to say, we didn’t win.
I’ve seen lately several teams trying to play “angry” rather than playing “re-focused.” For some players – folks like Austin, or players like me – playing “angry” helps us re-focus and puts us back in aggressive, commanding mode. But I’m growing to believe that many – if not most – players don’t work that way. Team Carfax doesn’t play well “angry.” The 2008 Heat didn’t play well “angry.” And there are tons of players and friends who don’t play well “angry.”
Cleveland, tonight, should have come out focused, knowing how important of a game it was. They came out absolutely sloppy defensively. Cleveland, tonight, should have come out with a strong game plan. They came out absolutely flat and confused.
And when they saw the FUN Golden State was having at their expense, THEY GOT MAD. And sure enough, that was it for them. They completely became unraveled. Cheap shot fouls and scuffles. A couple of players – players who knew how to play mad – looked okay. But others were pretty much gone.
Part of it is the style that Cleveland plays against Golden State. Part of it was the fact that they play so many games, that every once in a while, players are going to come out flat. But part of it is coaching, and part of it is a mental weakness.
I’m not saying Cleveland CAN’T beat Golden State. But I am saying that there is a significant problem that Golden State has exposed in Cleveland. Part of it comes from the isolation-type style that Cleveland tries to play, and part of it comes from poor coaching, but more than anything, I think Golden State has exposed the fact that Cleveland don’t have the emotional control and focus to, as a team, enforce their will upon an opponent. Pull at the strings hard enough, and Cleveland will turn on each other and unravel. This is something that I think Cleveland needs to fix.
How did my Heat respond? Quite well, actually. In our next practice, we let go of the anger, and got re-focused, and came out and did some incredible things in our next game, against the Bulls. In fact, in the fourth period of that game, we started and ended the period with long bomb inbound passes from Patrick Smith to Tate Cooper and to Eric Abele, respectively, with Tate, Eric, and Austin hustling back behind all the defenders.
Focus and playing aggressively are not the same thing as anger. Anger allows us to come unglued, and turn that anger in all different directions – most of which do not produce good outcomes. Some players understand how to channel anger in productive ways, but more often than not, it takes away from FUN.
Cleveland doesn’t look like they know how to have fun playing basketball. That’s what concerns me the most about that team.