Get the Lead and Keep It

basketball scoreboardYou’ve heard numerous times in broadcasts of college or pro sports a variation of the following statement made during a recent MLB televised game between the SF Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, “The Cardinals are 65-0 this year when leading after 8 innings.”

Most often when I hear these declarations, I roll my eyes at its blatant obviousness because every MLB team has a very high winning percentage when ahead after 8 innings. It’s just more striking with the Cardinals because the number is absurd.

The same kind of stats are uttered all the time in basketball, “When team A is ahead with 2 minutes to go, they win 87% of the time,” or “When team B shoots 55% from the floor for the game, they win 89% of the time.” The truth of the matter is that fair and even poor teams win at very high percentages when ahead with 2 minutes to go or when they shoot 55% from the floor.

You can also take most stats-rebound differential, turnover differential, OER, DER, etc. and concoct the same types of seemingly spectacular stats. The “sizzle” of these statements is really not commensurate with the facts. In truth, these types of utterances are merely another example of statistical sliding scales.

For example, if I take the premise to its most absurd level, I might say, “The Spurs win 100% of their games when they are ahead by 5 with :01 left on the clock.” Logic tells us that only a fluke ending will result in a loss for not only the Spurs but also for every other team at any level with any record. Now, change the statement to include “ahead by 2 with :30 left on the clock”, and there is room for failure. The level of success with these terms certainly isn’t 100%-even for the best teams. You get the picture; the combination of more time on the clock and a smaller lead creates more opportunities for the team that is behind.

If you’re already not engaged in this kind of thinking, you can create your own crude analytics by just going back to your last season and simply computing your winning percentages when you were ahead at the end of the first 3 quarters- regardless of margin (or at 10 minute intervals for college programs). Then, you might repeat the process- by micro-managing the last quarter and computing your stats with 6:00, 4:00, 2:00 and 1:00 left. However, the most telling stats will be revealed if you just compute your numbers from competitive games. Blowouts either way will skew your view. In most cases, you’ll find your winning percentage will increase the later you go into a game. However, the real hidden feature of this line of thinking and playing is that it is easier to manufacture a 2nd Q lead with a 1st Q lead and then easier to manufacture a 3rd Q lead with a 2nd Q lead and ultimately a win with a 3rd Q lead.

So what’s the lesson? Get the lead and keep it-especially in high school basketball. The 32 minutes of playing time is the main mathematical deterrent. College plays an extra quarter (40 minutes) and the NBA plays an extra two quarters (forty-eight minutes). More time to come back obviously helps the team behind. Just as important as the extra time in comebacks is the higher skill and experience levels of NCAA and NBA players. Good, experienced players come back more often than less experienced and less skilled players. That’s not to say that getting the lead and keeping it at the highest levels isn’t important. It’s just not as important.

If you get your players to believe that getting an early lead and keeping it is important, then all possessions will become urgent to them and the chances for “empty” early possessions at either end of the floor will get reduced. If your players tune in to this thinking, it eventually gets “into their heads”, but even more important, it gets into your opponents’ heads. It becomes self-fulfilling. The more you play to be ahead, the more often you will get ahead. The more often your opponent gets behind, the more they will tend to stay behind. If you already foster play like this, you know of what I speak. If you play against teams that promote playing ahead, you know how difficult coming back against them can be. I like to call this playing approach as getting your opponent into a vise or a meat grinder.

One might ask, “What if we get behind?” The answers are simple. If you play this way, you’ll get behind less frequently and when you do, you’ll try to get back one possession at a time-because that’s how you already play.

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