The old basketball joke is about as stale and unfunny as the old hockey joke. You know the two:
“I went to the fights last night and a hockey game broke out.”
“You see the last five minutes of a pro basketball game, you’ve seen the whole thing.”
Done laughing yet? Thought so.
In the case of the oh-so-savvy hoops observation, it barely requires a response. Yeah, nothing that happens in the preceding 43 minutes could possibly impact the outcome. Whatever’s going on at the end, that’s what transpired from the start. No shifts in strategy. No adjustments to one man’s hot hand or another man’s foul trouble. So on and so forth.
It’s drivel on its face. And while we’re not looking to give those who don’t like the NBA (no, we won’t resort to “haters”) any ammo, a strong case could be made Saturday that the first five minutes dictated more outcomes than the final five.
Good or bad starts propelled or doomed teams to their eventual destinations by the end of the night.
Of the 10 games played, six of them were won by the team that won the first quarter. That’s mere heads-or-tails territory. But within that, there were starts that dictated the rest of the evening:
- In Washington, the Wizards’ starters came out disjointed and dug their team a huge hole. They made only one of their first 14 shots and trailed 17-2 in what became an 89-86 loss to Boston. “Our starts are so bad, you don’t know if you’re ever going to see daylight again,” coach Randy Wittman said. “I didn’t know if the sun was coming up tomorrow.” Wittman’s team, it must be noted, is missing starters John Wall and Nene, both out with injuries.
- Same game, Boston coach Doc Rivers went with rookie Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup, supplanting Brandon Bass. Sullinger scored two early baskets and, considering the results, might make that spot his own.
- In Chicago, where the Bulls were facing a Hornets team that was without both Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, they fell behind 10-2. While they eventually caught up, the Bulls never truly caught fire; they shot 33 percent and didn’t go hard at the altered New Orleans frontcourt.
- In Los Angeles, the Clippers spotted Golden State a 9-0 lead through the game’s first three minutes. That prompted play-by-play man Ralph Lawler to say of coach Vinny Del Negro: “Yikes, it’s 9-0. Vinny showing no signs of flinching or blinking on the bench.” The Warriors still led by nine when the first quarter ended, en route to a four-point victory.
So maybe cynics should modify their write-off of the NBA. Sometimes it isn’t just the last five minutes. Sometimes it’s the first five minutes. Sometimes it’s more than that.
Lots of coaches talk about the first and last five minutes of halves. Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau is one of them – particularly after the Bulls started badly and exited the second quarter horribly, giving up a 9-0 run that wiped out their last lead of the night.
Said Thibodeau: “There are four parts of the game we talk about you always have to take care of: The first five minutes of the game, the last five minutes of the second quarter, the first five minutes of the second half and the last five minutes of the game. We failed in the first five and the last five of the second quarter. And that really was the game. We were chasing the whole second half and it was tough on us.”
So now we’re up to 20 minutes out of the 48 in a standard NBA game. And even that doesn’t account for those nights when a sixth man enters late in the first quarter or early in the second and sparks a 12-4 run. Or something similar from a bench unit deep into the third quarter.
So we’ll put it to you: What are the most important parts of an NBA game? Is there any pattern in terms of the most vital 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes that matter most, night in, night out?