Tuesday, May 11, 2010

More Than Meets the Bloodied Eye

Ever since Yang Yang discovered the Steve Nash video and posted an article about the implications of team touches, it's been difficult to NOT notice Nash's knack for multiple -- if not hundreds, even thousands -- of high fives. In the Suns' series clinching game against San Antonio, it seemed like the entire Phoenix franchise greeted each member again and again with myriad handshakes -- too many to count -- and from multiple angles as players formed a spontaneously complex line of people from sideline to midcourt. It looked as if they were supporting each other for a parachute jump from a prop plane ... and really happy about it.

And it wasn't even the pre-game introduction. Just a regular time out.

It's even greater to think that Nash's natural adeptness for bringing teammates together appears to have infected GM Steve Kerr. After hyperventilating from Goran Dragic's dramatic fourth quarter outburst in Game 3, I observed Kerr graciously and emphatically grab Goran, practically suffocating him with a humongous hug, as the backup PG made his way off the court. And that was just moments after Dragic's teammates swarmed him in a monumental, though brief, celebration. (Brief only because they knew they still had work to do and the party was on the Spurs' floor).

"Wow," I thought. "The chemistry is contagious."

And now, as the Suns move on to a tougher, but hopefully bright series from their perspective, we'll see how team toughness translates. Jonathan Abrams' New York Times article about the Suns' toughness couldn't have come at a better time for Phoenix. It should be assigned reading to the entire team so the players can appreciate their work and feed the inspiration engine as it moves into Los Angeles.

To be successful as Phoenix has extends beyond getting stops and making shots. Mental toughness and chemistry are paramount. All facets of task and social cohesion are apparent in how the Suns play and in how they talk about one another, which are effects of the greater system. When the leader and 2-time MVP comes back in to play with one eye and then remarks, "I'm proud that we've been tough ... both mentally and physically", he speaks subtly about himself but much more directly to his teammates -- just as a true captain should. It's not about him. It's about the system, a fresh blend of fast offense and more focused defense under Alvin Gentry (who, by the way, hasn't had nearly as much success with any other franchise, but has managed to find the right fit in Phoenix). Beyond sport psych talk, the statistical numbers show a potent pace and much better shooting percentages than in previous Suns-Spurs series.

The group's belief in the system combined with experienced stars and players who accept their roles (i.e., D-stopper in Hill, passion in Dudley, poised point in Dragic) make for a true team. But it didn't just suddenly happen. They hung together off the court. From the New York Times:
“I really believe that chemistry carries out onto the court,” said Hill, a 15-year N.B.A. veteran. “We know each other, and when you spend time with one another, you know what each other’s about and you hold each other accountable during games. We have a situation where some of the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a special, unique environment.”
The cast of characters and their personality factors genuinely found a way to effectively interact, ingredients that substantiate Gentry's idea of team rhythm (again, see Abrams' article). Is it any wonder that one of Grant Hill's college coaches, Johnny Dawkins, hired Dick Davey, who happens to be Nash's former college coach upon the Dukie's head coaching arrival at Stanford? Perhaps it's more than meets the bloodied eye. The toughness factor is a product of cohesiveness that has formed from specific actions throughout the year and even beyond ... and the thousands of high fives happen to serve as adhesives that reinforce remarkable team unity.

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