Watching a close NBA playoff game is awesome. It is also a form of psychological warfare. I present to thee: The five stages of playoff-watching, currently waiting on peer review.
Stage 1: Cost-benefit analysis
Every fan, no matter how dire the situation may be, practices the holy pregame ritual of deciding how proportionally disastrous every possible outcome of the playoff game would be. This is a deep psychological experience, as a team’s mathematical odds of winning a series are hardly the only outcomes to consider.
Some common cost-benefit stage questions: How will the media react to a win or a loss? If we lose but look really strong, could we potentially take something positive out of this? How will this game affect [insert star player here]’s legacy?
As with any distressing situation, it is only natural to try and mentally prepare for as many tough realities as we can beforehand. However, General Carl von Clausewitz reminds us that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
Stage 2: Total emotional overreaction
It is very rare that an NBA playoff game looks even from the beginning. Usually, one team is significantly more locked in than the other. Take Game 2 of the Celtics-Hawks series on April 19. Atlanta got up by double digits midway through the first quarter. My mind began racing, and all memories of the utter domination from Game 1 were thrown out the window.
Had Jaylen Brown re-aggravated his hand injury? Was Coach Joe Mazzulla tactically outmatched? Had the Celtics’ window already closed? Would Jayson Tatum demand a trade in the offseason? Would the owners move the team to Seattle?
On the flip side, at the same point in Game 1, I was convinced the Hawks were a Division II college team and I began booking our tickets to Philadelphia.
Stage 3: Rational stabilization
At some point, the forces of reason take over and one realizes that the world is not ending. The players and fans settle into the experience, not as susceptible to polar swings in energy. The second quarter and halftime provide much needed time to recover from what can be a draining first half, as well as a time to replenish refreshments and maybe even start an unrelated conversation with whomever else is in the room.
Third Quarter and Beginning of Fourth Quarter
Stage 4: Total agony
Coming out of halftime, one team is usually in the driver’s seat. However, at some point in the third quarter, the losing team begins to make a run and cut into the deficit. Regardless of what side you are on, the pins and needles of these runs are excruciating. A fan of a team down 20 will make insane deals with themselves: “If we can cut it to 10 … no 12, by the four-minute mark we’re okay. Single digits by the end of the quarter.” Conversely, a fan of the team up 20 will begin involuntarily practicing transcendental meditation, repeating the tortured mantra: “We’re still winning. We’re still winning…”
End of Game
Stage 5: Complete psychological breakdown
Every single shot, dribble, on-ball screen, whistle, Eurostep, backdoor cut and squeak of shoes on the hardwood can trigger a physical reaction. From involuntary fist pumping in public places to the obligatory “oh come on ref,” even when it was obviously a foul, every emotion is in play at this stage. Once the final buzzer sounds, a mix of sadness, elation and relief can overwhelm some.
As with anything, playoff viewing experiences may vary. Yet, the feeling that one has gone to war and survived is what makes them so special. Just make sure to have a glass of water and a cold towel ready to go.