Monday, May 10, 2010

Finishing Arbitrary Divisions Of Game Time

TNT’s Doug Collins, whom we discussed yesterday, is fond of emphasizing the importance of finishing quarters strongly. To be sure, there may be a temptation to slacken effort when a break looms; that is not unusual in any professional setting. (Most government offices that I have seen feature "Friday afternoon happy hour" that starts around 2:00.) So sure, it is important to resist this temptation in the final two minutes of a game. On the other hand, a "finish strong" ethos common among athletes could result in increased, not reduced, effort towards the end of quarters. I am not sure which way the tendency cuts, overall. However, in any case, we should not regard developments in those segments of time as different from the rest of the game.

Score gains or score losses against your opponent in the first two minutes of a quarter count for just as much as gains/losses in the final two minutes of a quarter. The same can be said for the second two minutes, the third two minutes, the fourth two minutes, and the fifth two minutes. Towards the end of quarters, Collins often says things like: "The team now leading by 12 should be careful: if they don't play hard, that lead could be down to 4 by the end of the quarter." True, but the potential to allow a "run" of several baskets by your opponent exists at any time during the game. Is it worse if this happens at the end of a quarter? A basketball game consists of 48 minutes. Why is the point differential after the 12th, 24th, and 36th minute any more significant than the differential after the 5th, 19th, or 40th minute?

In one sense, the division of the game into four 12-minute blocks is arbitrary. Indeed, the rest time during TV breaks within quarters can be just as long as the rest time between quarters. Given that everyone psychologically regards quarters and halves as some heuristically convenient way to tote up partial performance, perhaps nebulous entities like motivation, confidence, strategic planning, and "momentum" are more affected by the score at the end of quarters compared to the score at any randomly selected moment within a quarter — hence Doug Collins's special concern. But surely a slam dunk "with no regard for human life!" or a dagger three-pointer to cap a run can energize a crowd and provoke some navel-gazing, even it occurs three minutes into the third.

It is a close call, but I do believe that Collins's concern with finishing quarters is overblown.

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