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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.

Carmelo Anthony’s jumper with 0.3 seconds left gives Knicks 110-109 win over 76ers

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NEW YORK (AP) — Carmelo Anthony made a jumper with 0.3 seconds left to give the New York Knicks a 110-109 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night.

The Knicks blew a 17-point lead and fell behind by one when Jahlil Okafor scored with 9 seconds remaining. But Anthony dribbled left after a timeout, pulling up over Robert Covington to cap his 37-point performance.

The Knicks then intercepted the 76ers’ inbounds pass to hold on and snap their two-game losing streak.

Derrick Rose added 18 points and Justin Holiday had 14 for the Knicks, who won for just the third time in 11 games. They played without starters Kristaps Porzingis (sprained right ankle) and Joakim Noah (sore left hamstring).

Okafor had a season-high 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the 76ers nearly pulled out the victory after beating Washington on Friday. Dario Saric had 19 points and 15 rebounds, and Covington finished with 20 points and 10 boards.

The Knicks avoided falling behind the 76ers into 13th place in the Eastern Conference, but they seem to realize it might be too late to get ahead of the teams they need to. They came in five games behind Detroit for the eighth and final playoff spot, and coach Jeff Hornacek before the game talked of players’ development as a goal instead of trying to make a playoff push.

Before the game, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said his experience was that teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back usually started quickly before getting fatigued. But it was the Knicks was started fast thanks to Anthony, who was 7 for 10 for 17 points as New York led 31-25.

The Knicks led by 10 at halftime and Rose scored 10 in the third to keep Philadelphia from cutting into it. The Sixers were still down double digits well into the fourth quarter before Okafor and T.J. McConnell led them in what became a frantic finish.

TIP-INS

76ers: Philadelphia had won four of its previous five games. … The Sixers have dropped six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Hornacek said Porzingis was considered day-to-day, with a possibility of returning in their next game Monday. But he said Noah would be out longer after having a setback in his recovery during the break. … Noah celebrated his 32nd birthday.

TWEETS

Knicks President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson tweeted for just the fourth time this season on Saturday, wishing Tex Winter a happy 95th birthday. Winter was his former assistant coach and is considered the pioneer of the triangle offense. Jackson ended the tweet with a triangle emoji.

SPEAKING OF THE TRIANGLE

The Knicks have started running it more, according to Hornacek. He says it not only benefits the younger players on offense but also helps the Knicks be in better position to get back on defense. The Knicks ran the offense that Jackson used to win 11 championships as a coach under Derek Fisher and Kurt Rambis the previous two seasons, but Hornacek had opened up the offense this season to get the Knicks playing quicker.

UP NEXT

76ers: Host Golden State on Monday.

Knicks: Host Toronto on Monday. The Raptors have won the last five meetings.

Anthony Morrow says he’ll switch from No. 1 with Bulls after Derrick Rose fans complain

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 24: Anthony Morrow #1 of the Chicago Bulls participates in warm-ups beofre the Bulls take on the Phoenix Suns at the United Center on February 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Anthony Morrow clearly didn’t follow the Michael Carter-Williams saga.

Morrow, like Carter-Williams, took No. 1 when joining the Bulls.

And Morrow, like Carter-Williams, swiftly changed course when Derrick Rose fans protested.

Morrow:

Morrow had never worn No. 1 in the NBA. The No. 23 he wore with the Mavericks is obviously retired in Chicago for Michael Jordan, and two of Morrow’s other previous numbers — No. 2 (Jerian Grant), No. 3 (Dwyane Wade) — were already taken. As far as Morrow’s other previous number, Cameron Payne, who came from the Thunder with Morrow, kept the No. 22 the point guard wore in Oklahoma City.

So, Morrow needed a new number. I’m just not sure why the Bulls didn’t warn him off No. 1 and the backlash that would come with it.

Doc Rivers on DeMarcus Cousins: “I’m 55. It’s tough for me to call a grown man ‘Boogie'”

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The Kings trade with the Pelicans has made DeMarcus Cousins the NBA’s mostdiscussed player lately.

But Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers isn’t sure he can address Cousins by his nickname.

J.A. Adande of ESPN:

Cool story, Glenn.

Deron Williams clears waivers, intends to sign with Cavs

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 01:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks brings the ball down the floor against the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Spectrum Center on December 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. 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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND (AP) — Free agent guard Deron Williams has cleared waivers and told the Cleveland Cavaliers he intends to sign with them.

Williams, a five-time All-Star, was waived earlier this week by Dallas. He will give the defending NBA champions a playmaker they’ve needed all season and one LeBron James demanded.

Williams cannot sign with the Cavs until Monday. Cleveland hosts the Milwaukee Bucks that night. The Cavs will be the fourth team for Williams, who is averaging 13.1 points this season.

Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue can bring him off the bench and also play him with Cleveland’s starters to give James and Kyrie Irving rest before the playoffs.