An NBA court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. During a game, 10 exceptionally large human beings move at high speed for 48 minutes, focusing their activity on two small rims at either end.
And some say basketball isn’t a contact sport – though of course, they couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, there are more bodies slamming into each other during a football game, but football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Successful basketball teams, though, understand the difference, and the fundamental nature of the game. They not only accept contact, they embrace it.
Even the Golden State Warriors, known for their beautiful game, constant movement and long-distance shooting, grasp that basic, and sometimes brutal reality. Before the pivotal game four of the Finals against the Celtics, Kevon Looney said “We have to play with more force, more physicality” – and that’s exactly what they did.
The obvious reference point is rebounding. Yes, a lot of NBA guys don’t bother with anything but jumping to grab a missed shot, but it’s hard to jump when you’re getting pushed back by a solid screen-out. And even the tallest, springiest player can be shoved out of rebounding range by a smaller, more determined defender.
But even though Boston won game three and had a substantial edge in rebounds, the Celtics outrebounded the Warriors in game two and lost. And yes, the Warriors dominated the boards in game four and won, but the rebound totals were even in game one – and they lost.
So where else does physicality show up? Well, just watch Marcus Smart and his 220 pounds go to work on Steph Curry, who weighs 30 or so pounds less. Smart’s goal is to get close enough to Curry to impose that weight and strength on the smaller man – and if he can, then not only will Curry likely lose that particular battle, the Warriors’ guard will presumably get worn down over the course of a game and a series.
If the officials let Smart bump and grind with Curry, that’s obviously a problem for the Warriors, but relying on the refs is not a good way to win an NBA title. Curry must respond, and does, with as much physicality as he can muster. He cannot back down physically, and must accept the contact that Smart is going to initiate – and initiate some of his own.
The key word here is “initiate.” Some players shy away from contact. They make it clear they don’t want to get hit. Jordan Poole, though willing to get bumped on his way to the basket, has not been as willing to initiate contact on the defensive end. His tendency to rely on finesse and length defensively just won’t play in the NBA Finals, which is why his minutes were reduced – until he showed a sudden burst of physicality on the defensive end.
Now, Poole is still a bad defender, but his desire to make contact changes his game, and just as important, his presence, if you will, on the court. Now Poole is challenging Jayson Tatum, not backing away. Now Poole is forcing Tatum to beat him, to go through him to the basket, rather than letting the bigger man dictate the possession.
Watch Gary Payton II. Does the offensive player ever dictate to Payton how the possession will go? And what does Payton, at 6-2 (maybe), use to control his man? Physicality and as much contact as the officials will allow him.
Now we’re down to three games in the NBA Finals, and there’s a lot of loose talk about home court advantage and matchups and adjustments. But at this point, the coaches’ bags of tricks are about empty, and both teams know they can win on the other’s home court. And sure, it’s a make-it-or-miss-it game, but no one, not even Steph, can control whether the ball goes in or not.
What players can control, though, is the attitude they bring to the court, their willingness to initiate contact, and their desire to impose their physical presence on the game. And so, barring an injury or statistically improbable shooting, this series, this defining moment for the Golden State Warriors’
dynasty, will be decided by the hidden fundamentals of the sport. The team that is the most physical, the team that initiates the most contact, the team that takes control of that 4,700 square feet of hardwood, will win the championship.
And if the Warriors want to be that team, they must do more than play a beautiful game – they must play a brutal one.