I have a Newton’s cradle sitting on a table in my living room. I was reflecting on a recent loss and fiddling with it when this nerdy metaphor came to me. Bear with me. If you have forgotten what a Newton’s cradle looks like, here’s a video:
Newton’s cradle is a toy that demonstrates the law of conservation of momentum. This law is based on conclusions of Newton’s Laws. Basically, skipping most of the physics stuff, it says that the total momentum of two objects before a collision is equal to the total momentum of the two objects after the collision, so that the total momentum is conserved. Now, this law only applies in closed systems, which are systems free from external forces that alter the momentum of the system.
Pretend that a basketball game is a closed system. That is, there is no external force which can alter the momentum of the game. An example of one such external force might be refs, although we would hope that refs would be a balanced force. Another example might be where the game is played. But let’s just pretend that the game is a closed system. As coaches, I think we want to believe that games are indeed closed systems. The objects in our metaphorical collision would be each team.
Now think of each possession as its own collision. We can assume that in each possession (or collision) there is a winner and a loser. The defensive team would be the winner in the case of a stop whereas the offensive team would be the winner in the case of a score. Each possession that you win in a row gives you a little more momentum. Basically, runs equal momentum. You are winning each possession, continuing your run, and the total momentum of the entire game is still equal, you just have more of the total number.
It’s like the entire game is equal to this arbitrary number of 100, so at the tip each team (Team 1 and Team 2) has 50. 50+50=100. As Team 1 goes on a run, Team 1 gains what Team 2 loses by giving up the run. Let’s say +5. That would mean that Team 1 has 55 and Team 2 would now have 45, because it has to equal 100. 55+45=100. If Team 1 gives up a run (let’s say -7), then Team 1 would be down to 48 and Team 2 would increase to 52. Get it? So at the end of the game, the total amount of momentum has to be 100. The only numbers that can change are the amount of momentum that Team 1 and Team 2 have individually. Whoever is closer to 100 at the end of the game wins probably 99% of the time.
This idea of conserving momentum makes runs doubly as valuable. Going on a run not only adds to Team 1’s number, but it subtracts from Team 2’s number. And giving up a run hurts twice as much, because not only does it add to Team 2’s number, but it takes away from Team 1’s number.
We say basketball is a game of runs, but sometimes I think we fail to understand the significance of a run, both players and coaches. So what do we do? We learn how to go on runs and we learn how to stop a run.
Tips for Going on a Run:
- Make the game your tempo. If you can’t dictate the tempo, it’s really hard to get momentum.
- Get great shots. That means that the players you want to take the shots are taking shots from where they should be taken.
- Finish possessions on both ends of the floor. Defensive rebounds are key.
- Play defense with your feet. This is key all the time, but giving up a silly foul can make it hard to go on a run.
- Don’t get sloppy. Trust what you do.
Tips for Stopping a Run:
- Runs are an inevitable part of the game. Know how big of a run your team can give up while staying in control. For some teams, giving up a basket followed by a turnover may be too much. Other teams might be able to give up a couple lay-ups and have a few empty trips before they need a timeout.
- Get to the free throw line. Free throws are a great time to recollect and get set.
- Have a go-to play. It doesn’t matter if it’s a post iso or a clear out for a guard, but it needs to be a high percentage look.
- Don’t be extraordinary. Do what you do. There’s no sense trying to hit a pull-up 3 in transition if that’s not your game. Most of the time, getting to the rim works best, unless you are (or you have) a knockdown shooter with the green light.
- No “And 1’s” and nothing easy. Those “and 1s” can really get benches fired up.
- Stay together. One phrase we use a lot is the “snowball effect”. When things are going great, they keep getting better. When things start to go down hill, it can get out of hand in a hurry. When things do start to go down hill and the other team goes on a run, the best thing you can do is come together. If people try to go off on their own and be the hero, it will just get worse.
- Prepare your team by practicing situations.
It’s important to remember that momentum gained for one team doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It is taken from the other team.
When our high school team went on a run, Coach J always said, “Put the nail in the coffin.” I’ve also heard, “Step on their throats.” It’s not good enough to just knock them down. You have to finish the job. When your team is on a run, you have to finish the job. When your team is giving up the run, you can’t quit. You have to find a way to stop it. What do you do when shit hits the fan? You don’t duck and you don’t run away. That just makes a bigger mess. You unplug the thing.