Why The Unexpected Is So Important In Pro Sports
The Chicago Bulls did it, and won six championships. NFL teams make a living with it. Pitchers rely on it in baseball and we are beginning to see the benefits in this year’s NBA Post Season. It’s the unexpected. The things that don’t, for some reason, show up on the scouting reports.
Phil Jackson started just about every play-off game he ever won with the Chicago Bulls by getting the ball to a post player, despite having Jordan and Pippen on the floor. Most think he did it to keep Cartwright or Longley engaged in the game, and I'm sure that's at least partly true, but the real intent was to get the defense off-balance by attacking from a position that was unexpected. If all the focus was on MJ and Pippen you had to get it off them to start, then once you softened the defense up those two guys would carve you apart. In football, offenses script the first segment of plays as a way to counter the un-scouted wrinkle that may show up from the defense. Once the defense shows it’s hand the offensive coordinators shift their offenses and come up with some wrinkles of their own. I used to think it was crazy, until I considered the precision with which a good NFL team can pick apart a defense. Pitchers will throw you three straight fastballs, and as soon as the hitter thinks he’s comfortable with the rhythm and cadence of the pitches he’ll hit him with a cleverly concealed change-up and back to the dug-out that guy goes. Last night we saw the OKC thunder beat up on the hottest team in the NBA, the Spurs, by changing up some things and catching them off-guard.
Keep in mind this isn’t a new philosophy, Sun Tzu wrote “the Art of War” over 2500 years ago and one of it’s biggest tenants, “Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” And in today’s sports landscape, it’s more important than ever. Every team runs a variation of the same things. Coupled with the scouts that see every game and video availability it’s easy to see why coaches struggle with coming with those difference making wrinkles that win games. Scott Brooks made an excellent adjustment using Thabo Sefelosha on Tony Parker last night. Not only did it catch San Antonio off-guard, it put a better, longer defender, on Parker while freeing up Westbrook to be more of a pest out in the passing lanes and not forcing him to expend the energy to keep up with Parker. And it almost worked out for Boston in game two of their series with Miami as Miami dared Rajon Rondo to shoot, which he did. But he caught them off-guard by being ready and making shots. Miami had to adjust late in the game, but it was almost to late.
When I was with the Clippers, my coach, Bill Fitch, used me as a wrinkle and it definitely caught the opposition off-guard. After not playing for several games in a row coach Fitch came up to me just before the tip-off vs the then New Jersey Nets and told me I was starting. But then in the team meeting he went one step further and said he was going to isolate me vs Shawn Bradley. New Jersey wasn’t expecting that (neither was I.) But it worked for us, I scored 12 points in the 1st quarter, the defense adjusted to me, the main scorers were able take it the rest of the way and we went on to win the game. But you have to be careful, sometimes those little wrinkles can lead to disaster and what seemed like a good idea can lead to an embarrassing loss. But for the most part, in order to win in sports today you have to have a hidden trick up your sleeve.