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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: Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead to stay in NBA draft

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12:  Isaiah Whitehead #15 of the Seton Hall Pirates reacts against the Villanova Wildcats during the Big East Basketball Tournament Championship at Madison Square Garden on March 12, 2016 in New York City. Seton Hall Pirates defeated Villanova Wildcats 69-67.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Update 2: Nevermind the nevermind. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

 

Update: Nevermind. Zagoria:

 

Isaiah Whitehead entered the 2016 NBA draft without an agent.

But it doesn’t appear he’ll return to Seton Hall.

Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv:

Isaiah Whitehead will announce his future plans on Thursday, with sources telling SNY.tv he will remain in the NBA Draft.

Whitehead looks like a second-round pick, though more likely to go undrafted than climb into the first round. However, this draft is particularly wide open. It takes just one team to like a player.

A 6-foot-5, 21-year-old score-first guard, Whitehead too often guns himself out of efficiency. He uses his strength and first step well to create separation for his pull-up jumper and has quality range on it. But, despite occasional impressive-looking finishes at the rim, his overall conversion rate in the paint is horrific. He’s not impressive enough outside to offset that.

His size would be a plus at point guard, but he lacks the distributing skills to play that position in the NBA any time soon. I don’t see what separates him as a shooting guard.

Steven Adams fires bullet pass to Andre Roberson for dunk (video)

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This is a heck of a pass from Thunder center pitcher Steven Adams.

Draymond Green trips Enes Kanter (video)

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors looks to rebound against Kevin Durant #35 and Enes Kanter #11 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Draymond Green tripped Enes Kanter.

But did he do it intentionally?

Green – who twice kicked Steven Adams in the groin, didn’t get suspended for it and then declared “I’m never going to be careful” – is back as the center of controversy. This time, it’s for his quick leg lock that sent Kanter to the floor in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

If it were any other player, we probably wouldn’t be discussing this play. Maybe we should be in other circumstances, but it’s a bang-bang play that happens throughout games. It usually, though not always, gets ignored. But Green has lost the benefit of the doubt.

I waffle on whether to sign intent. Yes, Green’s legs come together, but his left foot might have bounced off the floor while gravity brought his right leg. Remember, in any slow-motion replay, a player will appear to have greater control of his body. It doesn’t always play out that way in real speed – especially while a player is falling.

If the NBA assigns Green a flagrant 1 for this play, he’ll be suspended for Game 5. And at this point, he might deserve it. It’s just harder and harder to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Report: Stephen Curry still at 70 percent due to knee injury

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The Oklahoma City Thunder have overwhelmed the Golden State Warriors with their athleticism, their improved defense, and the shot making of stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder are doing a lot of things right and have lifted themselves up to an elite status.

But the Warriors have not pushed back against this. Not like we expected the defending champions and a 73-win team would. Draymond Green is a shell of himself, a -72 the last couple games the Thunder have gotten in his head and have him second guessing his every decision.

Then there is Stephen Curry, who is 13-of-37 shooting the past two games, 5-of-21 from three, and a -58. He hasn’t carried the Warriors as he did for stretches this season, and it is lingering issues from his knee injury that are partially holding him back, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Curry has been a shell of himself – missing shots, throwing away passes, losing his dribble, and completely unable to prove that there’s Curry-esque agility in that knee. “He’s playing at 70 percent, at best,” a source close to Curry told The Vertical. Curry refuses to make excuses, but privately the Thunder see something – no explosion, no ability to make the bigs switching onto him pay a price. Twenty points on 19 shots Tuesday night bore no resemblance to the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr dismissed the idea that Curry was injured after the game Tuesday, saying he “had a lousy night.”

Curry missed a couple of weeks of play with a sprained MCL, but returned last round.

There have been flashes of that old Curry since his return — the monster fourth quarter and overtime against Portland in Game 4, or the third quarter of Game 2 against the Thunder — but what made Curry a back-to-back MVP was a sustained level of excellence, and that has gone away. He just can’t flip the switch and change a game right now the way he could for most of the past couple seasons.

You can tell the Thunder sense it — they are going right at him, attacking Curry’s defense knowing he can’t move well enough to handle their athletes. There is no mercy in the NBA and if teams sense a weakness they will exploit it — the Thunder sense that with Curry.

The way the Thunder are playing, a healthy Curry may not have made a difference, but you can bet the last couple games would not have been the same blowouts.