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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.

Report: Andrew Bogut to be out two weeks with bone bruise in knee

Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut (6) of Australia reaches down to his right leg after suffering an unknown injury in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Andrew Bogut left just 10 minutes into Dallas’ eventual loss to Charlotte Monday with what looked to be a hyperextended knee. After the game, coach Rick Carlisle said an MRI was coming, but they expected Bogut to miss time.

Looks like it will be a couple of weeks at least, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Mavericks are 8.6 points per 100 possessions better when Bogut is on the court, all because their defense is vastly superior when he is on the court.

With Bogut out, look for Dwight Powell to get more run.

Bogut’s name has come up in trade rumors, this kind of injury isn’t going to change that.

Meyers Leonard yells ‘Meyers’ at Bulls PA announcer, who kept calling him Myles (video)

Portland Trail Blazers' Meyers Leonard foreground, battles Chicago Bulls' Jimmy Butler background, for a rebound during the second half of a NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Chicago. Portland won 112-110. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
AP Photo/Paul Beaty
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Meyers Leonard grew up in Illinois. He played at the University of Illinois.

So, last night’s Trail Blazers-Bulls game in Chicago was a bit of a homecoming for him.

That’s probably why he was particular perturbed the Bulls’ PA announcer kept calling him Myles. So, the Portland big man issued a stern correction:

For anyone in the Midwest, I trimmed this into a handy Vine you can use in case anyone asks which grocery store you’re headed to:

Klay Thompson masters scoring while barely having the ball

Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson follows through on a shot during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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Warriors guard Klay Thompson possessed the ball for 1:28 last night.

Teammate Ian Clark had it for 2:05.

Obviously, Thompson made a little more of his opportunities.

Thompson scored an insane 60 points in 29 minutes in Golden State’s win over the Pacers.

Remarkably, he didn’t hijack the offense to produce those eye-popping numbers. Thompson shot a cool 21-of-33 from the field, and 20 of his baskets were assisted. In addition to Clark, Stephen Curry,Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Shaun Livingston all possessed the ball longer than Thompson.

In fact, nobody has come close to scoring so much while having the ball so little.

Here are the highest scoring games since the NBA began publishing possession time in 2013-14, marking points in time of possession:

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The the second-lowest time of possession on that leaderboard was also by Thompson. He scored 52 points in 2:40 of possession against the Kings in 2015.

But even that game required more than a minute of extra touch time.

Who has scored the most points in a game while possessing the ball for fewer than two minutes? Again, Thompson litters the list – with last night blowing the rest out of the water:

  • Klay Thompson (GSW-IND 12-5-16):60 in 1:28
  • Klay Thompson (GSW-DAL 1-27-16):45 in 1:40
  • Bojan Bogdanovic (BRK-PHI 3-15-16):44 points in 1:53
  • Klay Thompson (GSW-PHO 12-16-15):43 in 1:17
  • Anthony Davis (NOP-UTA 11-22-14):43 points in 1:36

Maybe Thompson knew what he was talking about when he said he wasn’t sacrificing for Durant. Even with his usage rate down slightly, Thompson has still found ways to flourish. He gets hot in a hurry.

It does take him a while to cool down, though.

Stephen Curry runs from bench into tunnel celebrating Klay Thompson 3-pointer (video)

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Ever been so excited you didn’t know to react?

That was Stephen Curry as Klay Thompson worked his way toward 60 points in 29 minutes, running from the bench toward midcourt then doubling back and heading right into the tunnel.

Eventually, Curry found his senses and tried to put out the fire.