I planned to write a game preview, during which I would question whether the Celtics—after a Game 3 that was simultaneously draining (to say the least) and invigorating (ditto)—still have enough to take Game 4. Rajon Rondo will play tonight with an arm that might as well be filled with sand rather than muscle. Kevin Garnett should be exhausted from his best game as a Boston Celtic. Paul Pierce still has a strained Achilles. Delonte West’s shoulder almost required an MRI. And Shaq, well, Shaq had problems running on three months rest. How will he do now, on only one day rest?
But my game preview took a backseat after I read a Henry Abbott article on TrueHoop. Essentially, he argued that mental toughness in basketball might not exist. He cited the Los Angeles Lakers, who should have been battle-tested and playoff-ready but still fell apart more quickly than a Tim Hardaway crossover.
Or, here’s another radical theory. Maybe there is no such type of [mentally tough] person. Maybe the playoffs were never anything but basketball. Maybe it’s not that we’re doing a bad job identifying the players with the special gifts of mental toughness, but that there are no such players.
Maybe who wins is really not about exciting war stuff like who has the resolve, but about boring basketball stuff like who closes out shooters, who gets the good rebounding position, who spaces the floor, moves the ball, runs the best pick-and-roll, and all that basketball stuff.
Maybe Dirk Nowitzki and the Lakers conspired, in other words, to not just invert the mental toughness scale, but to destroy it.
Does winning playoff games ultimately come down to basketball? Of course it does. Winning playoff games, as winning regular season games does, comes down to who closes out to shooters, who gets the good rebounding position, who spaces the floor, who moves the ball, who runs the best pick-and-roll, and all that basketball stuff Abbott described. But there’s also an element of mental toughness, one that allows players to make the right basketball play when they need to.
To me, the Los Angeles Lakers weren’t an example that mental toughness doesn’t exist; they were the perfect example that it does. If you judged the Mavericks and Lakers by talent alone, the Lakers are better. They’re taller, just as athletic, and more skilled. They have the league’s best frontcourt (talent-wise, at least), and the world’s best winner and most refined player (damn, I hate Kobe) in their backcourt. Yet the Mavericks, who made all the right plays while the Lakers, for whatever reason, didn’t have the mental capacity they normally have—the capacity that allows a team to close out to shooters, make the right decisions, and all that other basketball jazz Abbott described—beat LA over the head with a slab of concrete.
The Lakers fell apart, mentally, culminating in a Game 4 that saw the Lakers come completely unhinged, fouling people flagrantly and leaving good shooters wide open for the majority of the game. The Lakers certainly aren’t that bad at basketball, but, for some reason (again, I’m not even going to try explaining it) they didn’t have the mental fortitude to follow their game plan properly. They didn’t have the mental capacity to allow their greater talent to win out. Something was wrong, and it wasn’t the Lakers’ skill level.
Would I have guessed that LA would be the mentally weaker team? No, just as I wouldn’t have guessed that Memphis would slap San Antonio around. Sometimes you get out-talented, while other times you get out-worked, and other times you just aren’t mentally tough enough. Often, the three go hand-in-hand.
Mental toughness manifests itself in every aspect of basketball. Does a player have the ability to focus for 48 minutes, to make the right defensive rotation on every play? Can a player get scored on at one end and still refrain from playing one-on-one, revenge basketball at the other end? Can a player make the right pass instead of the hero pass? Can a player hear the sound of 20,000 fans rooting for the other team and still execute with zest? Can a team read the media blasting their play and still persevere through the adversity? Can a player get down ten points and still keep trust in his teammates? Can a player miss ten shots and still have confidence he’ll make the next one? Mental toughness helps to dictate the answers to all those questions.
There’s a reason Derek Fisher has stayed in the league so long, and played so well. Damn, I’m waxing poetically about far too many Lakers, but I’ll proceed anyway. He’s not the most talented point guard. He’s not even close. But he makes the right decisions. He knows his limitations. He can shoot and he normally makes the right play, and he’s always focused, every single possession. Because he’s mentally stronger than most point guards, because he maximizes his potential by making the right decision more often than most—whether there’s five seconds left or 25 minutes—-Fisher has carved a hell of a career. He has been an essential part of winning basketball teams.
If you want me to talk about Celtics, I could discuss why P.J. Brown was a solid defender despite possessing all the athleticism of a brick wall. I could discuss how Eddie House was always ready to play off the bench, no matter how many games in a row he had registered DNPs. I could discuss how James Posey always remained perfectly poised, always remained perfectly alert for when to jump after loose balls, always shot with the same form whether it was in an exhibition game or Game 6 of the NBA Finals. I could discuss how Mikki Moore never knew what in the world he was doing, Gerald Green could never harness his otherworldly talent, and Tony Allen could never be trusted in a critical moment. The Tony Allen point is a good one because he has evolved into a leader of sorts in Memphis, where he even makes good decisions once in a while. Mental toughness, like physical skill, can change. But always, mental toughness manifests itself on the court.
Which is what this is all about. At the end of the day, the team that plays better basketball more often wins a playoff series. Mental toughness is only one element required to play better basketball, but it matters. If I played Chris Bosh one-on-one tomorrow, I would lose. I’d have no chance, because he’s ten inches taller and more skilled in every sense. But if Bosh and I had equal skill levels, the player with more mental toughness would win more often than not. And even if I was slightly less skilled than Bosh, my more advanced mental toughness might be enough to give me the win. Especially if we played in front of 20,000 screaming fans at the TD Garden. Zing.
Look, I’m not even going to pretend I know what happened in Los Angeles’ heads, why they went from two-time defending champion to “team that’s unable to make a simple defensive rotation” so quickly. But to watch them crumble in Game 4 and basically give zero shits about the series showed a limited mental capacity. Their hearts had been stolen.
Mental toughness is not everything in sports. Talent matters, too, of course, as do a bevy of other factors—homecourt advantage, health, even luck. But when all other things are equal, mental toughness can make the difference. Even if it’s sometimes difficult to judge, and, at least in LA, can be quite fickle.