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On “clutch,” “choking,” and ships passing quietly in the night

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Those in and around the basketball community engage in debate on an incredible number of game-related topics. Yet in truth, most reasonable observers of the game share more common opinions than one might initially think. There are subtle differences — mostly relative ones discovered in the process of comparing one player or team to another — regarding skill and ability, but the most common source of debate and dispute lie in differences in rhetoric, even if those participating in said dispute fail to realize it. The sports world has become laden with particularly weighty jargon, and it’s those specific word choices that typically incite the fiery passions of die-hard fans. Those words reflect the values specific to sport itself: an ability to exceed perceived value, dominance over other competitors, and high-level performance under the most intense and extreme of circumstances.

That last aspect of athletic performance is held on a higher pedestal than all else; the “clutch,” are feared and revered, while the “chokers,” are turned into joke-a-minute punchlines in the over-diluted world of sports consumption and coverage. Any who seems to shrink from a late-game situation is put in the stocks for all to throw rocks and produce at, despite the fact that there isn’t anywhere near a universal understanding of what words like “clutch,” and “choke,” actually mean.

Case in point: a column from Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

Just last weekend, we saw the U.S. women’s soccer team become the latest to succumb to the massive pressure that often accompanies our games. Two blown in the leads in the late stages of a Women’s World Cup final against Japan, a team that had never beaten the top-ranked Americans in 25 previous tries. Three straight botched penalty kicks by the U.S., which had gone 5-for-5 in that same situation one week earlier against Brazil.

They choked, right? Of course, they did. Just like LeBron James in the NBA Finals or Rory McIlroy at the Masters or Scott Norwood in the Super Bowl.

“I think it happens to everybody,” says former Heat great Alonzo Mourning, now a team community-relations executive. “We, as professional athletes, when we’re put in that situation, the public, the team, everybody watching expects you to respond at that moment because you’re a highly paid athlete.”

But these are human beings, not machines, so more often than anyone would care to admit our sporting contests are decided by who blinks first.

“There are certain pressure points where the sense of responsibility rises,” Mourning says. “Anxiety increases and people, for lack of a better word, get nervous. People tighten up. You do things that you would not do when you’re at a comfort level.”

That’s not just a sports phenomenon either.

“All choking is,” says CBS college football analyst Spencer Tillman, “is when external situations impact what has traditionally been routine and normal for you.”

If only it were so simple. Individuals let external factors influence their decisions and performance at all times. If we’re restricted to basketball alone, it decides what shots are taken, what passes are made, how the defense chooses to cover certain players, how the clock is used, how the coaches elect to use the resources available to them, etc., etc., forever and ever. More accurately, “choking,” is whatever the public consensus decides that it should be, which usually serves to confirm a widely held belief of a player or is sparked and sustained by a single and brilliant irrefutable play.

Hit a game-winning shot in a big playoff game, and your reputation is made. Miss a crucial free throw with the game on the line, and that same rep is sunk…so long as the adoring public is willing to let the visions of clutch greatness go. The memory of the basketball fan collective is astoundingly selective, and whatever evidence is deemed admissible is twisted and spun in a way that simultaneously creates a clutch résumé and amends the very fluid definition of the term itself. Then come the arguments based on such a malleable foundation, a discussion that pretends to be based on a shared notion but only remains bound by the most abstract of concepts.

“Clutch,” is whatever we want it to be. It’s a word so powerful in the sporting realm that it is defined and guarded by every sports fan with a mouth or a Twitter account. We can rifle through all of the data in the world with all of the qualifiers and filters available, but individual definitions (and the perceptions that stem from them) will always dictate the discussion in a way that inconvenient facts cannot.

Kevin Durant leads USA to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Kevin Durant scored 19 points, Klay Thompson added 17 and the U.S. basketball team rolled to a second straight blowout exhibition victory, 106-57 over China on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan scored 13 points in his hometown, and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and seven rebounds in another impressive performance to open the Americans’ pre-Olympic tour. While they’re still learning their teammates’ tendencies and solidifying player rotations, the newly assembled U.S. team looked remarkably cohesive for long stretches against an overmatched opponent with no current NBA players.

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan scored 12 points and led a strong defensive effort with three blocks for the Americans, who held the Chinese to 30.9 percent shooting.

After opening their showcase tour by trouncing Argentina in Las Vegas on Friday night, the U.S. team posted another rout at a packed Staples Center.

The Americans haven’t lost a game since the 2006 world championships. They’re 47-1 in exhibitions since NBA stars took over the roster in 1992, going undefeated since 2004.

Anthony was the only holdover in the Americans’ starting lineup from Las Vegas. Krzyzewski put Paul George in with Anthony, Jordan, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, whose family watched from courtside.

Jordan got the exhibition off to a rousing start with a blocked shot on China’s first possession and an alley-oop dunk on the other end for the Americans’ first points.

Both teams had early shooting struggles, but the Americans took charge with impressive speed late in the first quarter.

Durant, one of the two returning American gold medalists from London, heard boos from the LA crowd during pregame introductions. He quickly found his outside stroke with 14 points and four assists in the first half, and Cousins overpowered the Chinese down low for 12 first-half points on the way to a 55-29 halftime lead.

The Chinese team’s most recognizable name to North Americans is Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks’ choice with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent five seasons with four NBA teams before heading back to the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Yi led the Chinese with 18 points. Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 center drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round last month, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Exciting guard Zhao Jiwei scored 14 points.

The teams meet again Tuesday in Oakland, where Durant will play in front of his new home fans for the first time since defecting from Oklahoma City to the Golden State Warriors earlier this month.

They’ll also meet Aug. 6 in the opening game of Olympic competition in Brazil.

No. 39 pick David Michineau not joining Clippers this season

TREVISO, ITALY - JUNE 12:   David Michineau in action during Adidas Eurocamp Day Three at La Ghirada sports center on June 12, 2016 in Treviso, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images for Adidas)
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images for Adidas
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Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers said he expected all three of his 2016 draft picks to join the team this season.

The Clippers signed No. 25 pick Brice Johnson and No. 40 pick Diamond Stone.

But No. 39 pick David Michineau will remain in France.

Eurobasket:

Hyeres-Toulon Var Basket (ProA) inked 22-year old point guard David Michineau (191-94). He has played for the last two years at ES Chalon-Sur-Saone in the ProA.

Michineau is a 6-foot-4 point guard with some intriguing physical sills, but he’s not ready to run an NBA offense. Plus, the Clippers already re-signed Austin Rivers and signed Raymond Felton to back up Chris Paul.

The Clippers have one roster spot left. They’re better off using that on a veteran who can help now than Michineau.

DeMarre Carroll: Jae Crowder’s Raptors criticism due to playoff naïveté

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Celtics forward Jae Crowder — between criticizing Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and Al Horford considering the Wizards — took aim at the Raptors.

“Toronto is not a team we’re worried about,” Crowder said.

Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll, via CSN New England:

“It’s a comment from a person who hasn’t really been in the playoffs that much. That’s how I reacted to that type of comment. When you haven’t been on that level and you don’t understand what it takes to get to that level. Myself going to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, I understand what it takes,”Carroll said on SportsNet.ca. “It’s a comment from a guy who hasn’t been on that level, who hasn’t played on that level. It sounds like a young comment.”

“We’ll let Jae Crowder do all the talking,” Carroll said. “We’ll just fly under the radar and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Carroll is right. Crowder has never won a playoff series — though I’m not sure advancing in the postseason will make him any less brash.

Carroll’s credentials here also aren’t impeccable. He helped the Hawks in 2015 and Raptors in 2016 make relatively uninspiring runs to the Eastern Conference finals.

Still, that’s more than Crowder has accomplished. If Carroll wants to use that experience to shoot back at Crowder, more power to him.

For what it’s worth, I’ll take the Celtics over the Raptors next season — though Toronto is close enough that Boston shouldn’t look past its neighbor to the north.

Luis Scola to carry Argentina’s flag in Olympic opening ceremony

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Luis Scola #4 of Argentina brings the ball up the court against the United States during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Pau Gasol carried Spain’s flag and Yi Jianlian carried China’s flag for the 2012 Olympics.

The NBA will once again be prominently represented in the opening ceremony this year — with new Net Luis Scola.

Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press:

Argentina is back in the Olympics, and this time Scola isn’t just leading the basketball team.

He’s leading the whole delegation.

The veteran forward will carry the flag in the opening ceremony

Scola will team with Manu Ginobili to try stopping Argentina’s Olympic slide — gold in 2004, bronze in 2008, fourth in 2012.