The folly of fast starts
It’s one of the most weathered cliches in sports, uttered endlessly by people who get paid to tell you what you don’t already know about a game.
We’re talking about fast starts, and the purported need to have one in a basketball game. The theory is that a team that might be lacking confidence, or feel inferior to its opponent, needs to start quickly to prop up its emotions and build some mojo. Doug Collins went there before the Pacers’ game at New York on Wednesday, when he said about the struggling Knicks:
“To me, a game like tonight, they’ve got to get off to a great start.”
Well, they did, jumping to a 13-0 lead before five minutes had passed. But a lot of good it did them. Their lead was down to five at the end of the quarter, down to one in the second quarter and vanished when the Pacers took their first lead with 7:08 left in the third. By the time the Pacers had forced overtime on Paul George’s three foul shots and gone on to dominate the extra session, that great start was as meaningful to the Knicks as a Hawthorne Wingo autograph.(1)
Fact is, fast starts are usually a bad thing for basketball teams. It happens over and over, a team taking an early double-figure lead and losing the game – or, at least, losing the lead. The exception usually occurs in games when one team is dramatically worse than the other (a rarity in the NBA), or a team simply isn’t that into the game on that particular occasion.
Take the Pacers this season:
In their season-opener against Orlando, they jumped to a 12-0 lead against a clearly inferior team, only to trail by four points at the half. They came back to win by 10.
The next night in New Orleans, they trailed by 10 at the end of the first quarter, and by 16 in the second. The won in overtime.
The following week against Detroit, they led by 15 in the first quarter, but trailed by 3 at halftime. They came back to win by 8.
Later that week against Toronto, they trailed by 12 in the final minute of the first quarter, but won by 7.
The following night in Brooklyn they allowed the Nets a 9-2 lead, and trailed by nine twice in the first quarter – but won by five.
It’s nothing new. It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. It was happening in Pacers games so often in the 1999-2000 season that I started to wade through the play-by-play stats of each game to calculate how many times a double-figure first-quarter lead had led to a loss (either for them or their opponent). I soon realized it was going to require more time than I had spent studying for my final exams in college, and abandoned the project.
I do have a specific memory of a home game against New York that season, when the Knicks jumped to a 10-0 lead. As soon as they scored the basket that brought the double-figure lead, I told my then-Indianapolis Star colleague Bill Benner that the Pacers were going to win. And they did.
It happens in college, too. Three years ago, Purdue fell behind drastically in a home game with Illinois – something along the lines of 16-3 – and came back to win. Last season, Purdue fell behind by 13 points in the first half at Wisconsin, only to come back and win by 13.
This might seem like some sort of phenomenon, like water streaming uphill, but it’s not. It’s merely a reflection of human nature, with a dose of the law of averages tossed in. When things are going well, we tend to relax. When things go badly, we intensify our focus and effort to make them better. When the sun is shining and the winds are calm, people lay on the beach. When tornadoes, hurricanes and hurricanes strike, they band together and perform heroic acts.
In a basketball game, an early double-figure deficit isn’t a crisis, but it’s a call to action. An early comfortable advantage leads to sloppy play, and once momentum is lost, it’s difficult to get back a second time.
I can’t cite statistics, but I’m convinced that aside from games in which one team is far better than the other, a team that falls behind by 10 or more points in the first quarter wins the game far more often than it loses. It’s certainly been the case with the Pacers over the years.
Remember this the next time some commentator dons his genius cap and tells you that a basketball team needs to get off to a good start. You and I know it’s far more important to get off to a fast finish.
1 – For the uninitiated, Hawthorne Wingo was an end-of-bench player on the Knicks’ 1973 NBA championship team who averaged 1.5 points.