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.

Watch Stephen Curry drain shots from center-court logo during warmups like it’s nothing

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In case you need any kind of reminder that Stephen Curry is a flat-out ridiculous shooter — particularly during warm-ups, well, you’re in luck.

Check out this pregame video of Curry knocking down shots from the center-court logo at Oracle like it’s nothing.

The man changes the game. Even in warmups.

James Harden being out clouds latest Rockets-Warriors clash

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.

The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.

Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.

The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.

More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.

“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”

At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.

In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.

While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.

The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.

“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”

The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.

That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.

Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.

Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.

Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.

Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).

Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.

 

James Harden fined $25,000 for calling referee Scott Foster ‘rude and arrogant’

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“Scott Foster, man. I never really talk about officiating or anything like that, but just rude and arrogant. I mean, you aren’t able to talk to him throughout the course of the game, and it’s like, how do you build that relationship with officials? And it’s not even that call [Harden’s sixth foul, ending his night]. It’s just who he is on that floor.”

Houston’s James Harden knew the fine was coming before he even uttered those words following the Rockets loss to the Lakers Thursday night, in which Foster called two offensive fouls on Harden, one that limited his minutes early and another that set him up to eventually foul him out of the game.

Harden got what was expected on Saturday, the NBA fined him $25,000 for “public criticism of the officiating.”

Harden wasn’t alone in his frustration. Chris Paul fouled out and picked up a technical, and coach Mike D’Antoni picked up a technical as well.

For the game, Foster called 12 fouls on the Rockets and six on the Lakers. This season in games Foster has officiated, the Rockets are 1-1.

The Rockets are not the only team to have frustrations with Foster, he has a reputation around the league for a short fuse that doesn’t let you question calls. LeBron James‘ Heat teams and others have felt how Harden does.

Lakers’ Lonzo Ball could be out longer due to bone bruise in ankle

Associated Press
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Lonzo Ball has missed the last 11 Laker games. In that time the team is 4-7 with a bottom 10 offense and defense, and they have been outscored by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. Granted, LeBron James was out for a number of those games as well, but even LeBron is talking about how much Ball is missed in the rotation.

The Lakers could be missing him a while longer.

While we are starting to approach the ballpark return date projected for Ball’s Grade 3 ankle sprain, he could miss more time due to a bone bruise in the ankle, reports Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.

Ball moved quickly through the early stages of his rehab. He used crutches for about a week and wore a protective boot on his left ankle for less time than that.

Ball began running on an underwater treadmill two weeks ago and last week he began work on an antigravity treadmill, but was limited because of the bone bruise.

Ball injured his ankle back on January 19 and it looked bad when it happened.

The Lakers could use him as they make a push down the stretch to get into the playoffs — the Laker defense is 3.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ball is on the court this season. The Lakers, 29-29, enter Saturday as the 10th seed in the West, three games back of the Clippers in the eighth seed and final playoff spot. The Sacramento Kings are also between the Lakers and the postseason — to get in the Lakers are going to need to go on a LeBron-led run. Ball would help with that, but it may be a little while longer before we see him on the court.