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How stress might be bogging the Lakers down in crunch time

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We all know stress sucks, but it can also force you to revert to old habits, something the Lakers seem to be doing.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

A recent topic of discussion on the Locked On Lakers Podcast was why the Lakers’ offense gets so bogged down late in games, and why the Lakers start to significantly deviate from the things that have been working offensively before crunch time.

One possible reason could be the stress associated with late-game situations, especially in close games, and science backs this up. I’m sure you’ve heard of how stress can negatively impact your health, but did you know it also kills sound decision-making and reverts you back to comfortable, baseline behaviors such as not pushing the ball, or trying to force everything 1-on-1? Maybe even missed free throws?

To understand why, you have to understand a little bit about stress neuroscience. Stress changes the balance between two key regulating centers in the brain: the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) — which is responsible for high-level executive decision making — and and the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions.

An excess amount of stress will downshift (inhibit) the PFC while upshifting (reinforcing) the limbic system. Here’s a visual example:

Don’t worry about the names here, just focus on how the arrows are spreading outwards. Credit - ScienceGate

So as the intensity/stress level ratchets up during the game, the PFC is inhibited, which means poorer judgement and the basal ganglia (plays a key role in movement) goes “enough with that new stuff, I’m going with what I know!” The team stops playing at pace, half-court movement goes from decent to non-existent, and there’s a bunch of 1-on-1 play.

These things will certainly get better as the season goes on and the team begins to develop different baseline habits, but getting to that point is certainly a roller-coaster of a process. There’s a handful of teams I can name who actually executed their offense late in games as well as they did early in games, headlined by the 2002 Lakers and 2014 Spurs. No surprise those were battle and stress tested teams.

It’s not a certainty that this is the only issue affecting Los Angeles in crunch time, but to sum it all up: When high stress hits, you revert to baseline habits. If you ever wondered why those new healthy habits you were trying to pick up fell by the wayside during a a high stress period (apt timing with the holidays coming up), now you know. Same goes for the Lakers’ offense during crunch time, but there’s still plenty of time to create those habits and execute a functional offense down the stretch of games. It’s just going to take some time.