A Case of ‘Playing Not To Lose’

The Phoenix Fuelmasters outlasted the Globalport Batang Pier 104-100 last Friday in a bizarre game of fiery streaks and fast-changing tides. The Fuelmasters needed a precious victory to gain at least a tie for the last quarterfinal berth in the PBA Philippine Cup. The win propelled them to a winner-take-all game against the veteran TNT KaTropa squad this Sunday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Sensing the urgency of their situation, the Fuelmasters zoomed ahead midway through the opening quarter with an offensive machine that could do no wrong, leading by a whopping 63-35 at halftime. Starring the country’s premiere gunman, Matthew Wright, Phoenix would even stretch the lead to 31 at the start of the 3rd canto.
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Phoenix doing right with Wright. (Rappler)

And then things started to unravel.

From a team that could do no wrong, Phoenix became a team that could do no right – even with Wright. Like a bulb that was switched off, Phoenix guns were suddenly silenced, and Globalport’s speedy guards were off and running.

With the comebacking Terrence Romeo, Stanley Pringle and Nico Elorde taking turns at the sprinting blocks, Globalport came alive in the second half to make it a competitive game in the end. They cut the lead to 19 at the end of the 3rd quarter, then trailed by only 4 at the last minute mark. Given another minute, the Fuelmasters’ gigantic halftime lead would have been upended.

After the game, Coach Louie Alas remarked that “we don’t know how to finish until now.” He further noted that when he highlighted the dwindling lead at 12, the team became even more pressured, as opposed to being challenged by the situation. “Masyadong nag-protect”, referring to the players’ tendency to simply protect the lead.

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Coach Alas is determined to bring his team to greater heights. (Tristan Tamayo/Inq)

Coach Alas hit it right on the head there. Instead of carrying on an attitude of ‘playing to win’, the team suddenly went to a ‘playing not to lose’ mode. They were smooth as silk when they were on the ‘winning’ mode; they were error-prone and tentative when they switched to the ‘don’t lose’ mode.

Phoenix was ‘playing to win’ in the first half, as they were focused on the need to get the win to make the next round. After building up a big lead, they changed tact and were simply ‘playing not to lose’ in the second half.

And as they tried to protect the lead by ‘killing the time’ and ‘freezing the ball’, they allowed the other team to set up their defenses properly. By the last quarter, almost all of Phoenix’ shots were taken from the midcourt or from long range, mostly hurried shots as the time clock expired. There were very few strong incursions inside the paint, as the defense was very much in place.

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Jason Perkins shows promise in the paint. (Spin.ph) 
As a result, they also inadvertently gave the offensive mindset to the other side. Globalport’s offensive transition went full throttle in the last quarter, as Phoenix played for ‘no errors, use up the clock, take the shot at the last second’. And the lead continued to dwindle still.
Sports psychologists have seen the big difference among athletes who sometimes ‘play to win’ and at other times simply ‘play not to lose’. There is a big difference between winning and not losing.
There is a science in winning and losing that must be ingrained in each athlete. Veteran athletes will know the pitfalls of ‘playing not to lose’. If a team has not matured enough, or has not gained enough mental toughness to know how it’s done, it would be far better to let them play even more aggressively. To keep the opponent at bay at all times.
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Playing to win as opposed to playing not to lose. (PBA.com)
There are players who will look at different situations and see the challenge. There are those who will see the situation and see only the threat. Coaches need to have the insight to see who among his players will rise to the occasion. Who will be challenged, and who will be threatened.
This Sunday, Phoenix will play a winner-take-all game against a veteran team that they have beaten only once before. The grizzled TNT KaTropa faces them for the right to meet the top-seed San Miguel Beermen. How the Fuelmasters look at this will spell the difference. Will the Fuelmasters see them as a challenge? Or will they see them as a threat?
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