Winning in The Post-Season
The post-season has a different feel to it. Conference tournaments have a different intensity to them for a number of reasons. For one, the good teams and the bad teams have been established. The standings over a full season make that pretty clear. There are no teams trying to establish themselves, play a certain way, or thinking long-term about the type of team they want to be during the season. That is over. They are thinking about just one thing - winning the next game.
Many teams, especially underdogs, are willing to play a certain way just to win that one game. The scouting report generally is about what it takes to stop that one player or beat that one team, and not what we are trying to do as a team this year. You know if your opponent is too good for you to run with them, or too quick for you to pressure them. You just do what it takes to bother them and give yourself a chance to win. What your opponent doesn't like to do becomes more important than what you like to do if you are the underdog.
The post-season also comes with a different emotion, one that creates a different edge for each game: desperation. Almost everyone, but certainly the bad teams, realize this is their last shot to make something out of their season. It's win or put the balls away and turn in the uniforms. Three days in March can make or break a team's season. I always tell my team to expect a different opponent than the one we faced twice in the regular season. Desperation helps create an edge that you don't necessarily see throughout the year, and you need to be prepared for it.
Playing well in the post-season is more about what you do all season than what you do when the conference tournament finally arrives. The way you practice, how hard you compete, how tough you are - all of these things develop a trust that is essential to winning tough games in the post-season. But there are some things you can do to establish the right mentality to get your team playing it's best when the conference tournament begins.
Playmakers. I read a great quote from Rick Pitino a few years back on preparing his team for the post-season. He said he tells his team to "Take risks. Take a chance. Make a play." I love the approach. Teams that get tight in the post-season go home. A lot of coaches get tight too, and might be afraid to tell their kids to "take a chance." But I love the mentality it fosters. We tell our kids that scared goes home in the post-season. We want playmakers. Ultimately if your team is afraid to make a play, they are going to make mistakes. Tight teams rarely win in the post-season.
Composure and urgency. I always say that winning in the post-season takes the greatest balance of composure and urgency that we can find as a team. We talk about it all year, but everything is more intense in the post-season. Finding the comfort zone of playing as hard as you can possibly play, balanced by the poise needed to execute, is a key to winning big games.
How do you do it? It's not very easy, because composure and urgency can naturally contradict. One good approach is to look for composure on the offensive end, look for urgency on the defensive end. Generally it's better to slow down on offense and crank up the intensity on defense. Find the plays in practice where you can point this out to your team. When a post guy gathers himself against a double team, uses a ball-fake to create space and then finishes the play - that's composure. Blow the whistle and tell your team that. When a guard sprints back in transition and goes hard to the glass to keep a rebound alive with a tip that one of his teammates grabs, that's urgency. That's the intensity you need to win.
Make sure you show your team specific plays that represent the composure and urgency they will need to win, instead of just telling them to do it. It's such a hard balance to find, and they need to see it.
Let them make mistakes. Brian Kelly had a great quote before Notre Dame played for the national title two years ago, saying that he told his team "I hope we make the most mistakes tonight. Because that way I know we are playing to win."
Mistake-subbing in basketball is never the right approach, but in the post-season you have to be more mindful of it. You have to let your kids make mistakes, and play through them. If you don't you'll have a tight team that is afraid to make a play - the very thing you want to avoid. A huge part of poise in the post-season is the ability to not react to mistakes. If you remain poised, your team will as well. Don't hammer your guys for making mistakes. They know when they made a bad play. If you need to point something out to them that they did wrong, do it in a way that makes them comfortable. After a bad turnover you say "make sure our spacing is good so there are better gaps to drive into. But let's get it back on defense right here." There are ways to coach without being negative about a mistake that was made that will keep your guys in the right frame of mind. This is very important in the post-season, where everything is magnified.
Stay with your plan. You hear a lot of talk (especially in the NBA) about "tightening the rotation" in the post-season. I'm not a believer in that. If you've had success all year playing a lot of guys, you should continue to do so. It's one of the toughest things for a coach in a game, to give time to the bench guys when your team isn't playing well. If you are down 8 with 12 minutes to play, it's hard to have your best players on the bench. But those guys have been helping you all year, and their energy can make a big difference when you aren't playing well. Furthermore, if you are afraid to play those guys it's a sign that you are getting tight - the last thing you want your team to see. The plan that has worked all year will continue to work in the post-season, you just have to believe in it.
Keep it loose. They know how big of a game it is. They realize if you lose the season is over - no championship, no NCAA Tournament, turn in the jerseys. There is a natural tension that comes along with that. Don't be afraid to make a joke when you are going over the scouting report. Make fun of one of your players in the huddle for doing something goofy, in a way that will make the other players laugh. Finish your shoot-around with a game of half-court knockout. If they know you are loose and this one game isn't life and death, they won't feel that way either.
Focus on the process. This is both a long-term approach and a short-term approach that can help your team in the post-season. Over the course of the year it's the best way to keep your team getting better - worry about how you do things, and not the result. A benefit is that in specific games, especially post-season games, you can continue to do that without changing anything. Don't worry about the score. Focus your team on how they are playing. You can execute really well and get a great look, and not score because you missed a wide-open shot. It happens.
I remember a great interview with Jay Wright after a first round NCAA win Villanova had against American, a game American led by 7 at the half. It had all the makings of a high-seed upset in the first round of the tournament. Wright said after that "I told my team at halftime, you know what, we might lose this game. They might beat us. And that's OK. But we are certainly not going to get beat playing the way we are playing, tentative, scared to make a play." I love the fact that he told his team they might lose, and that it was OK. The message being let's focus on how we are playing and what we can control, and not the scoreboard. I'm sure that approach helped loosen up what had to be a very tight team at halftime.
Move on. Stan Van Gundy once told me this: "One thing the NBA taught me was that margin of victory is almost meaningless. Especially in the post-season. There is no time to worry about what went wrong. You have to move on and be ready to win the next game." He told me that after our RIC team, the #1 seed and our first team to ever win our league, beat the #8 seed in overtime in the first round of the conference tournament. And our guys all showed up the next day wondering what was wrong. We had a semi-final game two days later with the championship the day after that. Coach Van Gundy's words gave us great perspective. We did what we needed to do to win, and now we are moving on. There is no time to dwell in the post-season. Past performance is not going to project future results. The focus should be forward.
Playing well in the post-season starts with the right mindset, and that mindset is built by what you do every day throughout the course of the year. It's a level of trust based on the way you competed on the practice floor day in and day out. But everything is magnified in the post-season, and your players know it is a big deal. Recognizing that and doing what you can to handle it will put your team in the right frame of mind to expect and achieve success in the post-season.