What do 1-for-9 and 1-for-6 have to do with this season’s NY Knicks? No, it’s not J.R. Smith’s game 5 box score. Those numbers are Carmelo Anthony’s and J.R. Smith’s results for first round NBA playoff series. Melo’s been in the playoffs in all 9 seasons before this one and only gotten out of the first round once. J.R.’s been in the playoffs in all 6 seasons before this one and only gotten out of the first round once.
Those numbers are mind blowing. And they’re also a great indicator that Melo and J.R. are not, unlike the regular season, the guys you want to go to with the first round playoff series against the Celtics on the line.
Consider this: in the first 3 games of this Knicks-Celtics series, Melo is shooting 36-for-78 (46%) from the floor, 8-for-16 (50%) from behind the 3-point line, and 16-for-17 (94%) from the free throw line. In the last 2 games, the ones where the Knicks could have closed out the series, he’s shooting 18-for-59 (31%) from the floor, 0-for-12 (yes, 0%) from behind the 3-point line, and 22-for-26 (85%) from the free throw line. Did the Celtics’ green suddenly become Kryptonite? I don’t think so.
My belief is that their beliefs are messing them up, not that they’re choking. To support my point, I’ll use an example from the 1999-2000 season, when I worked with Allan Houston and helped him make his first NBA All-Star team, and an example from my early coaching experience. I’ll also use an acknowledged strength of Carmelo’s to bolster my argument.
If you’ve read any of the articles I’ve written or been interviewed for recently, you know that I frequently point to a player’s belief about his ability to perform, or not, as a major determinant of how he’ll actually perform. When Carmelo has hit clutch shots in seasons past, what has he said about it? “I do this.” A strongly held belief, simply stated.
I believe that Melo is one of the top clutch performers in the NBA and stated as such, in different words, when I was asked about clutch players’ mindsets for a recent article. More importantly, Melo believes he’s a clutch player and has a string of experiences where he’s hit clutch shots that support his belief. So choking in the past couple of games most likely isn’t the issue.
There are a number of ways that beliefs are created but the one we’ll deal with here is through the identification of a pattern. Melo goes to the playoffs and gets knocked out in the first round. And he goes to the playoffs the next year and gets knocked out in the first round. Lather, rinse, repeat. Again and again.
With 8 seasons of “one and done”, would you think that it would be reasonable for him to believe “I have trouble getting out of the first round”? And what happens when reporters constantly point it out to him? It reinforces the belief.
J.R.’s in the same boat, just with fewer years of failure.
Add to this that they’re playing for a coach who has a very poor playoff record (12-and-22 (35.3%) prior to this season). And they’re playing for a Knicks franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since May 2000.
Is there anything in that prior paragraph that makes you think, or would make them think, that first round success is just 48 minutes away? I didn’t think so.
As I said earlier, I don’t think Melo is choking. I think his belief that he won’t get out of the first round is impacting his play. Our beliefs impact our emotions, our emotions impact our blood chemistry and our blood chemistry impacts how our muscles work. So just a little emotional stress or a lack of confidence can translate to stiff muscles when taking a jump shot. And that usually translates to a rebound.
In spite of Melo having proven on numerous occasions that he can make a big shot, he went 3-for-10 from the floor and 2-for-5 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter of game 4 in Boston, a game the Knicks lost in an overtime they never should have needed to play. Worse, in the last 3 minutes of the 4th quarter, Melo went 0-for-5 from the floor (0-for-2 on 3s) and 0-for-2 on free throws. If he scored just 1 point during that span, the Knicks would be gearing up for round 2. This longtime clutch player didn’t choke; he lived into his belief of first round failure.
While I don’t discuss things that clients confide to me, the example of belief affecting performance from my time with Allan Houston is something that started with a newspaper headline. During the ’99-’00 season, the Knicks’ record in the second game of back-to-backs was pathetic. All the newspapers noted it and player quotes all confirmed it.
As the Knicks were getting ready to go west on a road trip, I saw that their game at Golden State, which would be Latrell Sprewell’s first trip back to Oakland since he’d choked Golden State head coach P.J. Carlesimo, was the second game of a back-to-back. I spoke with Allan and told him that I didn’t think he could expect Latrell to score much in that game – he’d be too pumped up to have a soft touch – and that Allan was going to have to do most of the scoring. Allan and I worked to change his belief that he’d play poorly in the second game of a back-to-back and, instead, installed a belief that he’d play well.
On game day, Allan shot well, was the Knicks high scorer (Latrell shot badly as predicted) and the Knicks won a rare 2nd game of a back-to-back. It’s just one example of how Allan and I changed a belief to improve his performance and, since it was Latrell’s first game back, is a noteworthy one.
Believing you’ll do well helps you do well. Believing you’ll do poorly “helps” you play poorly. And if you believe you won’t get out of the first round, you’re not the best person to carry your team into the second round. The Knicks have Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd, who have both won NBA titles, and Marcus Camby, who’s gone to the NBA Finals. These guys KNOW it can be done. They’re not just hoping – they’ve been there. Having them on the floor at the end of a close game 6 makes a lot of sense.
Keep the ball in J-Kidd’s hands at the end of the game and let him direct the offense. Let him distribute the ball to the guys who will make the shots. If it’s Melo or J.R. for a catch-and-shoot, so be it. But it shouldn’t go to either of them if they’re going to try to create their own shot.
Once a negative belief has been broken, results can improve dramatically. When I coached a very highly ranked women’s softball years ago, there was a team in our league that we always beat in the regular season but always lost to in the playoffs or post-season tournaments. After a few years of this, we were down to them by a run with 2 outs in the final inning of a playoff game and had a runner on first base. Our power hitter came up and hit a long, very catchable, fly ball.
As the right fielder ran to get under it, she tripped on a sprinkler that hadn’t been pushed far enough into the ground. The ball dropped in and became a home run. We won the game and didn’t lose to that team again in the playoffs or post-season tournaments for the next few years. It took a fluke for us to break the negative belief but once it was broken, we played to the best of our abilities and won a lot more games.
It’s probably going to take someone besides Melo or J.R. to make the big shot if a big shot is needed. They can avoid the need to hit a big shot altogether if they build and protect a double-digit lead. But if they’re going to force the issue by giving Melo or J.R. the ball with the game on the line, they’d better hope there’s a sprinkler that a Celtic can trip over or the series may be heading back to MSG.