Saturday, April 28, 2007

Doubt Is A Four Letter Word.

"I'm 28 now. I shouldn't miss a free throw down the stretch, but it happens. We're all human. If we were all machines, it would be boring. Emotions play a factor in a big game like that."

"I think anyone who says they don't get tense is lying," Nowitzki said. "In big games, you've just got to find ways to stay loose and relaxed. I've been doing a decent job of not letting the pressure get to me and still enjoying the moment.

"I love to have the ball at the end of games. That's what it's all about, that your teammates trust you and you have confidence in yourself that you can get it done. It's a great situation to be in."
-Dirk Nowitzki

"Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen."
Michael Jordan

The definitive excellence of Michael Jordan was in his ability to consistently meet-and raise-expectations. Reaching the pinnacle of success is a lonely and perilous journey. The air gets thin up there. A successful reputation is twofold; the more successful one is, the more seriously they will be taken and the more cautious opponents will be in their plan of attack. For some, with continued success comes a fear of failure. A fear of exposure, belittlement, infamy. They know that players don't gracefully descend this mountain, they are thrown off by someone hungrier, and recovery isn't promised. Only the strong survive.

It's never shown in the box scores of a game, but the psychological and emotional advantage are just as important as the actual point totals. The playoffs are a battle of wills, and any sign of weakness is exploited. To doubt one's own will can make even rudimentary exercises such as a trip to the line excruciatingly difficult. Ask Nick Anderson, Karl Malone, or Gilbert Arenas. By definition, free throws should be easy, but in a tight game situation it's that very assumption of simplicity which complicates the process. It's also the reason there often isn't a repeat champion. Maintaining a competitive edge in this league is difficult enough, but the added burden of expectations can absolutely cripple a player and a team.

It's one thing to perform well during the monotonous redundancy of the eighty two, but to sustain that effort amidst the pressure and finality of the playoffs is something else entirely. Ask the '94 Sonics or the '99 Heat. In a game of synergy and snap decisions, the physical and mental manifestations which spring from a seed of doubt are anathema. Hesitancy or over thinking, lead to bated breath and quickened pulses, which produce dry mouths and sweaty palms. Nerves. As the crowd roars and the lights shine, the ears plug, the throat closes, and the vision blurs. Passes and rebounds are mishandled, defensive rotations are missed, jumpers get short armed, and games are lost. It's called choking, and once it starts it's hard to stop.

That's the beauty of being an underdog. They can't choke, they can only induce it in others.

"We will not sweep Miami"

-Andres Nocioni

He knew what he was doing. He knew the defending champion Heat were no strangers to injuries or 2-0 deficits. He knew Miami's talent and experience could fuel a rally and that many would in fact, expect that to happen. The Bulls were not the favorites in this series, and wouldn't be unless they won game 3, which is why Chicago withstood the inevitable Heatwave (womp, womp....) with a marked composure. Miami came out aggressive, took excellent care of the ball and led by seven at the half. They were riding an eight game home playoff win streak, and had won 26 consecutive playoff games which they led at halftime. The Bulls were uncontrollably turning the ball over and the Heat carried their lead into the fourth quarter. It all fell apart in one possession.

The Bulls raced to the other end and Hinrich attacked Shaq with a floater in the lane. The doubt O'Neal had instilled in Chicago with his earlier dominance was supplanted by confidence. A few possessions later Gordon would also lob one in over the Diesel, and that began a parade to the paint which resulted in a 15-2 run of nothing but free throws and easy buckets for the Chi. Miami lost their composure, the game, and now are looking not to be the first defending champs to get swept in the first round.

Why didn't Shaq dunk the ball in that earlier sequence? After he elbowed Ben Wallace in the head to clear his way to the basket, he certainly could have. Maybe he was just shocked he got blocked and rushed his followup. Or maybe he rushed that follow up because he was scared of the line. He and Dwyane Wade were a combined 7-22 from the charity stripe (The team shot 19-35). Miami's bid for another title is essentially over because they couldn't make their free throws. Karma's a bitch, ain't it?

"Dirk said that they gave us the championship last year. But he's the reason they lost the championship, because he wasn't the leader he's supposed to be in the closing moments."
-Dwyane Wade

"You look at what happened to him last year in the Finals. You can't let your team give away games like that, in the biggest series of your career. Look at what he did this year in their biggest games. When they played Phoenix, he made bad decisions, he made stupid plays late.

"And then he admitted to feeling pressure. He admitted it. That's the worst thing you can do is say, 'The pressure got to me.' My God, even if you feel that, why would you say that?"
-Rick Barry

"I'm coming back with a bunch of schmoes"
-Don Nelson

The whispers started a while ago, and he didn't do much to quiet them. 'Is Dirk a clutch player?' Hmmm... If there ever was a time for the 'we have nothing to lose' routine, this was it. He's openly acknowledged that he can be rattled and that anything less than an O'Brien this year is a letdown, so why wouldn't Nellie apply the pressure? His barrage of compliments towards Dallas are an obvious ploy, and so far they're working.

They're younger and more athletic, but Golden State's strength is in their fearlessness. They ain't no punks to begin with, and they're coming off a 13 year playoff drought? Against a team they took three from already this year? Sheeeeeeeeet..... S-Jax'll tell ya, "Toss that muthafucka up there and let's get this shit poppin'!"

That emotion can get the best of them, as it did in Game 2, but when questions arose of whether the Warriors would completely unravel, it was Dallas who lost their cool in the following game. This was supposed to be a five game series, six at the most. That prediction might actually prove true if the Mavericks don't find themselves. This is a 67 win team? This is the MVP? Everything is on the line and everyone is watching, how will he respond? If his first few shots don't fall, will he fall apart? Has there ever been a shakier 90% free throw shooter?

Observance changes that which is being observed, and tomorrow night the delicate flower that is Dirk Nowitzki will be our latest case study. He will either prove to be a shrinking violet, or his leadership will finally blossom before the world. In order to be effective he needs to exhaust the versatility of his game. He may be pestered by smaller, quicker players, but he can shoot over them, and post any one of them up-which should provide scoring opportunities for teammates. Either way, Dallas will live or die with him and he can't lead with the same self-effacing blather he's been spouting all year. It's time for him to drown out the whispers with a battle cry of ...

"If we don't get out of the first round this year, it's on me!"
-Tracy McGrady

In what appears to be an effort to circumvent media pressure, TMac has played himself right into Jerry Sloan's hands. It's unclear whether McGrady doesn't trust Yao enough, or if he's simply overzealous, but what's quite evident is that the Jazz are running to minimize Ming's effectiveness and his teammate is allowing it to happen. Despite playing only seven more minutes than his center (154-147), Mac has taken sixteen more shots (87-71). This in itself is not a completely telling statistic, but Yao has taken nineteen more free throws (39-53/26-34), while McGrady continues to struggle from the field (32-87, 37% in addition to 28% from three, 6-21). He's never been out of the first round because he's never had good teammates, and now that he finally has them, they're underutilized. Why? Expectations.

And don't get me started on Kirilenko.

"I thought they played harder than we did," "And we didn't stick to our game plan like we did in the first two games. We were a step slow and we weren't in the right spots. Defensively, we need to concentrate and be in the right spots."
-Steve Nash

"We had a chance to put them away," "They shot the ball well, Kobe was on fire. Game 4 will be a different story. We normally take care of the ball, but they were the aggressor."
-Amare Stoudemire

"It was effort. You can go over execution and X's and O's all you want. What you have to have is effort."
-Kobe Bryant

Foul trouble, missing open jumpers, poor defensive rotations and rebounding, whatever. However Phoenix lost the edge in this series doesn't matter as much as how they plan to re-establish it. They must look forward, not back. They have to give that same effort that built them a seventeen point lead in Game 3, and they have to know that L.A. will match that intensity. They have to know that Laker defenders are going to continue to show and hassle Nash on the screen/roll, that they will continue to attack the basket and crash the boards. Just as the Suns bent countless opponents to the will of their fastbreak, they have to know the Lakers seek to do the same through controlling the paint. Kobe wasn't on fire, he was waltzing to the basket for uncontested layups. So was Lamar, and so was Kwame.

Phoenix might be under more pressure than Dallas this year. They're interchangable title favorites comprised of All-Star rosters, led by interchangable MVP candidates. Neither should be struggling in the first round, but Phoenix is having this problem for the second time with the same team. What will happen tomorrow if the intimidator fails to intimidate? Again? As Marion disappears for quarters at a time and they continue to be outrebounded by a wide margin, will the Suns feel an added pressure to make every shot? What if there's more foul trouble waiting for them? Will they have to forego their plans for second round rest and acknowledge that this series isn't over yet? Home court or not, do they really want a best of three with Kobe Bryant? Will they feel that dream slipping away? Again?

As the final buzzer sounded on Game 3, Smush Parker attempted a dunk that would have put an exclamation point on the jubilant roars of the Staples Center. He was fouled by Raja Bell, and Mike D'Antoni was incensed by Parker's supposed lack of sportsmanship. Or was he trying to motivate his team through this perceived slight to keep their spirits up? To alleviate the tension? Anything to keep them from remembering this?

Can it happen again?

I don't doubt it.

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