Starting with its second season in 2001, I’ve been an avid, devoted fan of CBS’ long-running reality competition series, Survivor. There’s nothing on television to match Survivor’s gripping mix of offbeat characters, team drama and cutthroat competition — as 16 castaways on a tropical island contend to outwit, outplay and outlast each other in order to win a million dollars.
Unless it’s the 16 basketball teams filled with millionaires contending for a championship in the NBA Playoffs.
Like the contestants on Survivor, the NBA playoff teams run a prime time gauntlet in which only one contender takes the prize. (Though unlike Survivor, backstabbing teammates is not a good strategy for winning the NBA playoffs.) Yet, the best NBA playoff teams are those that can outwit, outplay and outlast their opponents.
Strategy is key on Survivor but often overlooked in the NBA – a league filled with spectacular athletes who can do marvelous, almost miraculous things on the basketball court.
In the 7-game series format of the NBA playoffs, brains can often outweigh brawn – and savvy game strategy, mental discipline, and smart decisions on the court take on added value.
Great coaching is key. According to conventional wisdom early this season, the old, fading stars on the San Antonio Spurs had little chance to go deep into the playoffs. But head coach Gregg Popovich is a basketball genius with more playoff experience than any coach who will oppose him.
In the NBA playoffs, where a mental edge matters, Coach Popovich is a difference maker. So is Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers – another guy who’s kept an aging ballclub in contention.
As for players who can outwit opponents, there are point guards like the Spurs’ Tony Parker and the Clippers’ Chris Paul who can dissect a defense on the fly, break it down, and create shots for either themselves or their teammates – all in a series of split-second decisions. LeBron James can do it, too.
It’s called “basketball IQ”, and champions have it.
Then there are those talented players who are undone by their lack of mental discipline. Even a smart guy like Boston’s Rajon Rondo – who has a relatively high basketball IQ – managed to hurt his team by chest-bumping a referee with just 41 seconds remaining in a Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, earning him an automatic ejection – and a suspension for Game 2.
Los Angeles Lakers power forward Meta World Peace (aka Ron Artest) momentarily lost his (volatile) mind in the last game of the regular season and sent Oklahoma City’s James Harden crashing to the floor with a vicious elbow to the head. The league hit World Peace with a 7-game suspension, sending The Lakers into the first round of the playoffs without him.
In another mad mental breakdown, New York Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire, took out his frustration after the Knicks’ Game 2 loss to the Miami Heat by putting his fist through the glass door of a fire extinguisher case. Stoudemire’s lapse of judgment required 15 stitches in his left hand, and his status for Game 3 – and beyond — is in doubt.
The NBA playoffs are a mental endurance contest, and Rondo, World Peace and Stoudemire are prime examples of what happens when players let their emotions overwhelm their judgment.
Rodman won 5 NBA championships by getting into his opponents’ heads.
In another sign of the importance of the mental game, Chris Paul led the Clippers to an historic come-from behind victory after falling behind 27 points late in the third quarter of Game 1 against the Grizzlies in Memphis.
When Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro tried to rest Paul early in the fourth quarter of what appeared to be an inevitable losing cause, his All-Star point guard urged his coach to keep him in the game. “Give us a chance,” he implored De Negro. That attitude proved infectious.
Later in the quarter, with less than nine minutes in the clock and The Clippers trailing by 24, the team huddled – and reserve forward Reggie Evans stepped up to say, “C’mon, man, we’re not quitting.” And, according to Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin, “That was the attitude we had the rest of the way.” It was an attitude that Chris Paul reminded Griffin about when he stepped to the line to shoot two critical free throws in the closing moments of the game. “Give us these two. Just give us a chance,” Paul told Griffin – and the usually unreliable free throw shooter knocked them both down to cut Memphis’ lead to one before the Clippers closed out the Grizzlies 99-98 to steal home court advantage in the series.
The Clippers kept their wits about them – and the Grizzlies lost theirs. Thus, the Clippers survived.
Contestants on Survivor talk a lot about wanting to be respected as players of the game. But to be a great Survivor player, you’ve got to excel at both sides of the game: in the challenges and back art camp. A skilled and athletic player can win rewards and immunity in a challenge – but if they don’t watch their back at camp – where alliances are made and schemes are set in motion — a treacherous blindside might await that player at Tribal Council even if he or she has won immunity.
There have been few challenge players better than big, strong James on Survivor: China in the show’s fifteenth season. James managed to win one immunity idol and he found another – but he was a lousy strategic player in camp and got blindsided in spectacular fashion: getting voted off the island while holding both immunity idols because, overconfident and out-of-the-loop, he failed to play one at Tribal Council. It was the first (and probably the last) time that happened to anyone on the show.
The best Survivor challenge competitor ever, Ozzy, won five out of six individual immunity challenges on Survivor: Cook Islands. At the final Tribal Council, he was praised for his physical skills, yet criticized for being a loner at camp. So, despite the fact that host Jeff Probst said Ozzy had dominated physically like nobody ever has, he finished in second place. On Survivor: Micronesia, after dominating the challenges again, Ozzy managed to get himself voted out while holding an immunity idol.
In Survivor, champions must excel on both sides of the game.
You don’t make it to the NBA Playoffs if you can’t play. At this level, everyone on the floor is a skilled player. But if you want to win an NBA title you must play at a high level consistently, minute-to-minute, quarter-to-quarter, game-to-game – on both the offensive and defensive end. You’ve got to do the pretty work and the dirty work.
Why are the exceptionally talented Oklahoma City Thunder, blessed with the young and gifted Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, struggling to stay just one lousy basket ahead of the aging Boston Celtics? Because The Thunder doesn’t bring intensity to the defensive end. And on offense, The Thunder is not doing the hard work of getting into the paint, drawing contact, and taking the ball to the rim. Jump shooting is nice. 3-point shots are really cool. But NBA championships are won by hard-nosed play in the lane.
Everyone knows the Miami Heat have great players. In fact, they have three of the league’s best in LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. But it’s not Miami’s highlight reel offense that wins games – it’s their suffocating, athletic defense. As amamzing as LeBron James is on the offensive end – he plays even bigger on the defensive end, often taking on the role of stopper against the other team’s best player. That’s not something you’ll see The Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony do. And that’s among the reasons you won’t see Carmelo getting a ring anytime soon.
The Lakers’ playoff chances rise when their defense stiffens – and their title hopes soared when their mercurial center Andrew Bynum blocked 10 shots in their Game 1 victory over Denver. Bynum doesn’t always play defense (or offense) with that kind of intensity. He’ll have to play consistently at a high rate on both ends of the floor if the Lakers hope to have a shot at the title – despite how well Kobe Bryant plays. (And you know killer Kobe will bring his A-game each and every night.)
The third key to Survivor and NBA Playoff victory is not always in the player’s control: just like when this season’s nasty, scheming villain Colton was forced off Survivor island due to appendicitis.
Colton was carried off on a stretcher by the Survivor medical team — still clutching his now-worthless immunity idol.
Sometimes, an NBA player, like Stoudemire, will take himself out of the playoffs with an injury he could have easily avoided. But far more often, fate deals a shockingly cruel blow – as it did to Chicago’s star point guard, Derrick Rose, who tore his ACL in the closing moments of the Bull’s Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, ending his season and, perhaps, the Bulls title hopes in 2012.
Later that same day, The Knicks’ valuable rookie guard Iman Shumpert injured his knee during their brutal 33-point Game 1 loss to the Heat, tearing both his anterior cruciate ligament and his meniscus. (Ouch!)
Without Stoudemire and Shumpert (and Jeremy Linn who’s also out with a severe knee injury) it doesn’t look like The Knicks will outlast anyone in these NBA playoffs.
The Clippers resounding comeback victory in Game 1 against The Grizzlies was marred by a late-game injury to their starting forward, Caron Butler. A key piece of the Clipper’s winning puzzle, Butler is set to miss the next four to six weeks with a broken left hand, which he caught in an opposing player’s jersey. It was a freak injury – and a blow to the Clippers’ playoff hopes.
A team has got to stay healthy to outlast the field in the NBA Playoffs.
Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.
That’s what I love about Survivor – and the NBA Playoffs.