Knicks must avoid storm to beat Heat

As it is, the Knicks will have their hands full with the Miami Heat’s Big 3 of Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh.  If they’re going to beat the Heat, the Knicks must do their best to avoid a storm.

(A quick heads up here: I’m about to take a stab at a couple of basketball’s “sacred cows”.  I hope you like your steak ‘rare’.  Please take a deep breath and count to 10 before you comment.  Thank you.  We now continue with our regularly scheduled programming.)

If you’ve ever studied team dynamics, you may have heard the expression “Forming, Storming, and Norming”.  And if you’ve watched the Knicks this season, you’ve seen that expression acted out, numerous times, on and off the court.

“Forming, Storming, and Norming” is a phrase used to describe a team coming together (“Forming”); some issue causing problems within the team (“Storming”); and the eventual resolution of the issue resulting in the team becoming a cohesive unit again (“Norming”).  It happens with most teams and groups and can happen multiple times, just like it did with the Knicks.

That the Knicks are playing so well after all that’s gone on is a credit to the players and coaches and is just one of many reasons that the Knicks will be wise to drop the “interim” tag from Mike Woodson’s title at season’s end.  Many teams would have folded from all the chaos that’s been a part of the Knicks during a season already made chaotic by the lockout.  But the Knicks currently stand strong.

Although there may be some minor bumps when injured players Jared Jeffries and Jeremy Lin return, there’s nothing on the horizon worthy of being called “Storming”.  That’s a great thing because, to beat the Heat, the Knicks need to play as well as they can play.

What could cause a major storm, however, is for the Knicks, or any playoff team really, to blindly follow conventional NBA playoff wisdom.  That’s the wisdom that says that a coach must shorten his rotation in the playoffs.  If a team has a valid reason to shorten its rotation, it should do so.  But doing so because a slogan has been passed down from generation to generation could be a major mistake.

Why can blindly shortening the rotation be a problem?  By this time in the season, a playoff-eligible team that’s “Norming” has established certain patterns that contribute to their winning.  Reducing the number of players who get into the games can have a physical and mental toll on the players who still get on the court.  And it can introduce “Storming” at the absolute worst time for a team to deal with it.

What does shortening the rotation do?  It increases minutes and changes playing and resting patterns for the players who get into the games.  And it eliminates playing time for one, two, maybe three players who have been seeing action and have believed that they’re part of the winning effort that got the team into the playoffs in the first place.  Sometimes, eliminating a player’s minutes is going to start some controversy, start some griping, quietly depress an enthusiastic player, or cause something else to happen that starts the team “Storming”.  That’s not good when your team’s also trying to upset an opponent that’s stocked with talent and is looking to use your team as an “example”.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Miami Heat.

Another catchy-but-not-totally-correct statement comes into play here: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”  While I have no issues with the reference to the spelling, I know that, for a competitive athlete to be okay with doing something like “not playing”, he’s got to have a reason that means something to him, personally.  Not to the coach, not to the media, not to you or me.  The “no ‘I’ in team” thing most often misses that “personal” mark.  (When I hear the statement, I usually follow with “but you’d better find ‘me’ in there somewhere”.)  Remember, people do things for own their reasons and players are people, too.

Look at the situation this season with Lamar Odom and the Dallas Mavericks.  There were issues that Odom was dealing with and they affected his performance.  That impacted his playing time and, in general, created a “Storming” situation with the team.  When attempts by both sides failed to resolve the issues, the team decided to “deactivate” Odom so the rest of the team could “Norm”.

Having followed Odom’s career since he was at URI, I don’t think that what was going on with him was planned nor a sign of indifference.  And having spoken with Mark Cuban on a few occasions and seeing what he’s willing to do to help the Mavericks win, I don’t think it was a lack of effort on his or his team’s part either.  What I think happened is that neither the underlying cause of Odom’s malaise nor his “me” leverage was ever identified.  Because of that, everyone’s attempts at a solution were shots in the dark and destined to fail.

No team should start dealing with “Storming” during the playoffs, at least not if it’s a storm that can be avoided.  But blindly following conventional wisdom could cause something like what happened in Dallas to take place.  Whether you’re talking about the Knicks, the Heat, the Mavs, or any of the other playoff teams, they’ve got too much to deal with in order to beat their opponents and too little experience in knowing all the ins and outs of each players psyche.  “Best of seven” is not the time to try to gain that experience.

One saying that’s been passed down that I believe in is “Don’t kick a skunk”.  My father told me that years ago and it’s served me well.  Although he meant that it was better to avoid stirring up situations that I knew wouldn’t end well, I’ve modified it to mean that it’s better to avoid stirring up situations when a bad result is very possible and would ruin the outcome.  Thanks, Dad.

The “skunk” here is how game players will react to having their minutes and rest patterns messed with and how players who’ve suddenly lost all their playing time will react after being an active part of regular-season victories.  While the Knicks players have, for the most part, shown maturity and a real desire to support their teammates, why chance damaging that if you don’t have to?  And while all of us can say why players “should” be okay with their designated roles, can any of us say we know any player well enough to truly know what his “me” leverage is?  Without speaking directly with the player, and knowing what to ask him, identifying his “me” leverage is extremely difficult.

The Knicks are rated as serious underdogs against the Heat.  But they’ve got talent enough to win.  A first round upset is possible, if the Knicks can avoid unnecessary storms.

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