The Inbounds: Rajon Rondo and a game of art not science

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Over Labor Day, I had an opportunity to share a beach house with both a scientist and an artist. (Don’t get jealous, we were pretty much living off our friends’ generosity, it’s not like I’m skipping off to the Hamptons every other weekend.) A social situation involving people on opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum, particularly in their late 20’s when ways of life and outlooks have cemented somewhat can bring some borderline fascinating observations on the conversations and how they develop. The rest of the group was evenly split between leaning more towards the analytically-inclined (an engineer and a financial services rep) and the less-so (an English grad student). So it provided a nice background. The differential between how the two approached things wasn’t striking, it was subtle and textured. Both also very much had a strong crossover to the other’s side of the world. But at their core, one was a scientist, one was an artist, briefly living in each other’s shared universe.

It made me think of Rajon Rondo.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss interviewed Rondo for Bleacher Report as he continued his Red Bull promotional tour last week. In the interview, Strauss asked a series of insightful questions trying to get to the core of how Rondo looks at the way he plays. (Actual basketball questions in a player interview! “The horror,” cried most media.) Rondo answered the way an artist answers a question about the science of their approach. It’s not that there’s not a science to it, it’s that the approach is using science to create art, not the other way around. Two particularly notable sections of an interview I beg you to read:

B/R: Do you ever wonder why more guys in the NBA don’t do what you do with the ball fakes?

RR: I don’t know (laughs). I have no idea. I don’t want them to pick up on it, ya know? I like having a unique game and doing my own thing.

B/R: When did you come up with the ball-fake strategy, because, guys throw ball fakes when they’re on the move, but you do it when you’re planted. Is that just something that came instinctively?

RR: I just came with it. It’s actually funny. A lot of my moves, it just comes out. I don’t really predetermine or practice.

……………

B/R: Did you do that because, when you were growing up, fundamental-minded coaches didn’t like some of the cool, different things you were doing, and you wanted to do it differently?

RR: I just want to give them something different. I don’t want to come out here and give a boring camp. I want to give them something that they actually see me do out on the court. I don’t want to teach them a regular bounce-pass. I want to show them why I throw the behind-the-back pass to Kevin on the pick-and-roll, why I do my shot fake.

B/R: You do throw that behind-the-back on the pick-and-pop a lot of the time to Kevin Garnett. What’s your favorite kind of pass to throw? Is is that one? 

RR: Oh, I like throwing a cross-court one-hand bounce-pass between the defense to P (Paul Pierce). I’ll throw a little English on the ball, throw it between two, three guys that are trying to run extremely hard to the paint. Then you got Paul Pierce trailing for the three—and obviously I’m pleased when he makes it.

via Rajon Rondo Dishes on His Current and Future Status with the Boston Celtics | Bleacher Report.

The answers aren’t particularly shocking. A lot of players like to talk about basketball, but from the outside, you can press too deep, and then they’re like “I’m not overthinking it, I just do it.” It’s basketball, not advanced chemistry. The game is complex, but the actions are instinctive a lot of the time. It’s part of what makes the game so perfect from a conceptual and execution standpoint. The games that reach true popularity are those that have the right balance of entertaining features and no discernible holes for exploitation. The major sports are the models of this. But Rondo’s statement above “I don’t really predetermine or practice” speaks really to who he is and how we consider him.

Chris Paul is considered the Point God for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple superiority of his execution. His floater is in perfect form. He routinely flirts with a 50-40-90 line from the field. His passes are on target nearly 80% of the time, and by that I don’t mean they reach their target, I mean that he lands it in the hand he wants, at the height he wants, at the velocity. If you want to teach a player how to execute the pick and roll or pop, cue up Paul’s execution, which is consistent to a stunning degree, steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor.

But Rondo’s inherently different. It’s not that he’s not consistent. Lord knows he’s run that pick and pop with Garnett the same way so many times the process should be permanently embedded in Spencer Hawes’ brain like in “The Manchurian Candidate” (and yet Hawes will still watch as Garnett nails that 18-footer). He has a series of plays that he runs the same way. But that’s not why we’re wowed by him. Those that come down as pro-Rondo marvel at his instinctive ability in his creativity. Artists don’t wake up one day, say “I will become an artist, now,” and then go learn to draw. Not often, anyway. It starts with drawing with crayons or markers as a kid, with filling notebooks, constantly messing with clay, spending hours on graphic design programs. It fills the brain the way numbers fill the minds of statisticians or biblical passages ruminate in the minds of the devout. It’s just there, it’s the way they process. And the same with Rondo.

It doesn’t come from plotting, from a blueprint, it comes in spontaneous moments, in the instantaneous creation of a play. Observe:

Rondo could likely play in the clinical manner of a lot of point guards. He wouldn’t be as good as Paul, he’d just be a standard, good, blue-collar point guard. I have no way of knowing, but it’s an impression I get that the biggest reason Rondo plays the way he does is that he would get bored otherwise. Read that second quote section. “I just want to give them something different.” Rondo is consistently criticized for his attitude, and there’s every indication he’s driven Doc Rivers absolutely guano over the past five years. He’s temperamental. This is pretty in-check with most of the artists I know. That bit of artistry is all that keeps the world from becoming mundane.

Rondo’s driven by creating plays which fall outside of the ordinary. It’s those plays that make him remarkable, that separate him. And just as it is with most artists, when he’s in a creative groove, the results can be stunning not only in their quality, but volume. His absurd triple-doubles with 20-assists remind me of stories of how Ryan Adams will go into studious and pump out dozens of songs in a session, all stockpiled in his brain.

Rondo’s an avid rollerskater. Think about the actions and way that you do that. It’s about freedom, and spontaneity of movement. Spins, twists, twirls, jumps. The objective is mobile grace. The ball-fakes he uses are sometimes wholly unnecessary. They’re not fooling anyone. It’s just a mechanism. But when it works out perfectly, he fools the defense completely and it’s one of the most unique plays you’ll see, sweeping left to right, whipping the ball from one angle to the polar opposite, and sliding in the layup.

Maybe that’s what’s at the core of the debate over Rondo. Superiority in execution is dependent on precision, consistency, and effort. Rondo’s investment in all three of those principles waxes and wanes as the game goes on, the same way an artist’s involvement in his work can be subject to emotional twists and turns. Much of basketball is geometry. Rondo is constantly working to get bend geometry, trying to do things which aren’t just unnatural in the course of a game, but seem to run almost counter to the principles which decide success.

If you’re not into art, or at least not in basketball, Rondo’s going to seem sloppy, a pain, too inconsistent. But if you can appreciate the attempts to make the game more than a game, even if he’s not consciously aware of that attempt (and Rondo’s mostly just playing basketball and getting paid here, let’s be honest), then he means something wholly different. Creativity can be a liability, but if you consider the endeavor inherently worthwhile, then Rondo’s the point guard for you.

Artists and creative types abhor labels and boundaries. They instinctively act to get past those limitations into a creative and mental freedom. It may not be intentional, but you can see a lot of the same thing in the play of Rajon Rondo.

Did you know Myles Garrett, No. 1 pick in NFL draft, has brother who played in NBA?

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The Cleveland Browns are trying something new: Making smart decisions. That included drafting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett with the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft.

Garrett has NBA ties. His half brother, Sean Williams, was the No. 17 pick by the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Williams played just four years in the NBA, also spending time with the Mavericks and Celtics. He serves as a cautionary tale for Garrett.

Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated in a 2015 profile of Garrett:

Then there’s Sean Williams, Myles’s older brother by almost 10 years, a pro athlete who accompanied him on an official visit to College Station and served as a role model and mentor. More important, he offered a cautionary tale. “Myles looks up to Sean and loves Sean but knows the things Sean went through and how my mom hated watching her son self-destruct,” says Brea. “Myles never wanted to let my mom down. Honestly, the best thing Sean could have done for Myles was to f— up.”

Myles remembers approaching a Chevrolet Avalanche with smoke pluming from its windows. He was around 12, and as he pleaded with the man inside to stop smoking weed, tears streaked his face. Sean, then a 6’10”, 235-pound shot-blocking power forward for the Nets, had heard his little brother make this request many times before but never heeded him. “Definitely not,” Williams, 28, says when asked if he maximized his potential. “I let bad decisions get in the way, [let] smoking so much get in the way.”

As he got older, Myles played a lot of basketball with Sean, and despite the gaps in age and size, they went at it hard. Along with the stellar genes, Audrey gave her children an edge: “There was no allowing the kids to win in our house, be it Uno or tic-tac-toe. They could have been bums, but they would have been competitive bums.”

Myles idolized Sean. After the Nets picked Sean, Myles spent vacations in New Jersey with him, celebrating when he finally won in video games and when he first dunked on his big brother by grabbing onto him with one arm and tomahawking the ball with the other. In 2011-12, when Sean was playing for the Mavericks, the brothers often squared off at the team facility. One day Sean’s agent, Bernie Lee, got a call from Dallas GM Donnie Nelson. “You have to tell Sean to stop bringing his friend in to play one-on-one,” Nelson told Lee. “We’re scared they are going to hurt each other.” Nelson didn’t know who the friend was but guessed he was Sean’s bodyguard. Myles had just turned 16.

Check out the rest of Thamel’s story for a fuller basketball-colored introduction to Garrett.

Report: Isaiah Thomas scheduled to fly from Chicago to Washington after Celtics-Bulls Game 6

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Isaiah Thomas has played – and played well – in all five games of the Celtics’ first-round series against the Bulls, which Boston leads 3-2.

But he has done so while travelling more than his teammates, flying home to Washington to be with his family after Game 2, following his sister’s death in a car crash. He’ll again make the extra trip after Game 6 tonight.

Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe:

After the Celtics and Bulls play Game 6 at the United Center on Friday night, Thomas is scheduled to fly to Tacoma to attend his sister’s funeral at noon on Saturday. If the Celtics win Game 6, this series will be over. But if Chicago wins, Game 7 will be played in Boston at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Teams up 3-2 with a road Game 6 in a 2-2-1-1-1 have won Game 6 just over half the time. The Celtics have been inspired to play for Thomas, who is admittedly emotionally exhausted, and I suspect this will only intensify his teammates’ desire to win for him.

I can’t imagine how Thomas has handled such a heavy burden, but it’d be nice if he had a little relief rather than the pressure to return to Boston by early Sunday afternoon.

Bruno Caboclo leads Raptors 905 to NBA D-League title

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MISSISSAUGA, Ontario (AP) Bruno Coboclo led Raptors 905 to the NBA Development League title Thursday night, scoring 31 points and adding 11 rebounds in a 122-96 victory over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

Raptors 905 won the best-of-three series 2-1, taking the last two at home after dropping the opener at Rio Grande.

Caboclo was 13 for 19 from the field, going 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Fred VanVleet added 28 points on 10-of-17 shooting and 14 rebounds, and Pascal Siakim had 17 points. Troy Williams led the Vipers with 23 points.

Raptors 905 is affiliated with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and Rio Grande with the Houston Rockets.

Gregg Popovich: “Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now”

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The Spurs are on to the second round of the playoffs, and the reason is Kawhi Leonard. Through six games he averaged 31.2 points per game on 54.8 percent shooting overall and 48.3 percent from three. Plus he was taking on Mike Conley — the toughest Grizzly to defend — for stretches of the game. Leonard has a PER of 36.4 through the first round of the playoffs, which is flat-out ridiculous.

That comes on the heels of a season where Leonard was a legitimate MVP candidate who will draw a lot of votes.

“We have a knack for hanging in ’cause things happen, and obviously Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. “He’s the best two-way player, and does it all with such class, it’s impressive.”

“His conditioning is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale added about Leonard. “I mean, the guy, he just keeps coming and keeps coming and keeps coming and he finds a way to make a play, a winning play, whether it’s a steal, a block, a rebound, a drive, pass. He made plays tonight off the dribble.”

If Leonard isn’t the best player in the game — LeBron James can stake a claim, among others — he’s damn close. He’s a Swiss Army knife who can do whatever a team needs to win — get buckets driving the lane, hit threes, grab a board, or lock down an opponent on a key play. That kind of versatility is rare.

It just feels like an MVP trophy and some more rings are in Leonard’s future, although probably not this season. On either count.