Author Archives: Seerat Sohi

82 Games.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Flickr.

Nothing quite compares to following the day-to-day rhythms of a sport, save for following it so closely that the events, musings and ensuing “adjustments” of any given season feel overwhelmingly predictable. For fans and analysts, this process can become tiresome. Often, we watch sports to escape the mundane drudgery of our realistic lives with realistic goals and realistic setbacks but 65 games into an 82-game regular season, much of the once-magical narrative that fused an ebbing and flowing connection between our minds and our television screens turns into just that: mundane drivel.

You’ll often hear people say that sports are a metaphor for life. The NBA; that prodigal, apt product with no regard for the bothersome nature of back-to-back’s and holiday matchups, has mastered this fine truth in-so-far that it anticipates and mimics the boredom that haunts our lives even more effectively than it does our triumphs. For most of us, real-life victories are rarely, if ever, delivered with the same sense of menacing, instantaneous euphoria and jaw-clenching supremacy of a last-second block or a game-winning shot. Ours is a long-awaited, cerebral, calming success — the kind that, since it’s expected, simply soothes our souls and does away with our worries. On the other hand, in the sports world, success and failure are abstractions created for the purpose of being overblown and exacerbated.

Instead, boredom — even under the lights of the Garden — creeps in like a decidedly human beast. It teaches us that even in a subworld dominated by LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant’s snark and Kevin Durant, anything with a circadian regularity feels menial after a period. We learn that it’s necessary to remind ourselves, really force ourselves, to do what we love. More importantly, we learn that doing so doesn’t undermine our love but that what we love is just another part of life and that life, in spite of what the #inspirational quotes tell you, is supposed to feel meaningless sometimes. Here’s the thing. Sports really are a metaphor for life. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that sentence and moaned since the first time I saw it but it’s true. 82 games remind us that the key to having a good game is to pick your spots. Let the game come to you. Don’t burn out too early in the season. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. More than anything, it reminds us that the evidence provided by 82 games is really just the summation of one grand lesson: if you have even a fraction of a choice, play the long game.

So, this is a little crazy: it’s midnight in a foreign city and I’m only a few beats away from completely freaking out. Sure, there are triggers, but you don’t really get to choose a convenient time for this kind of thing to happen. Anxiety leaves me vulnerable to even the most weightless fear so it’s not often that anything can keep me calm in moments like these but today, by some means, basketball has that power.

“Regression to the mean. Regression to the mean. Regression to the me…”
“Defense wins championships. Defense wins championships. Defense wins ch…”
“There’s no such thing is an extended miracle. There’s no such thing as…”

Really, what the logical part of my mind is trying to tell the other parts is that no matter what happens, no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, “everything is going to be alright.” It’s hard to communicate that sort of a phrase in a way that resonates, however. Bubbling under the graceless, oversaturated use of clichés is an unsought truth: the phrases we’ve run dry through mockery and ill-use remain talismanic thanks to their necessity. Simply put, clichés, because we focus on the fact that they sound lame over how necessary they are, never really have an effect past semi-thoughtful, mostly hazy tweets at 3 AM, if that. It doesn’t matter what your favourite sport is (unless your favourite sport is going through articles and editing my Canadian spelling because that sport sucks and so do you, Jared). Every sport is nothing more than just a game. It’s unimportant. It’s menial. At the core, it’s super-human specimens dedicating their lives to arbitrary rules based on arbitrary boundaries for the sake of our entertainment. Writing about these things is fun. It allows me the means for creativity provided by a news cycle without the pressure of reporting real news, and sometimes it — wrongly, I might add — fuels a sense of worthlessness I feel within myself that compels me to attach that worthlessness to everything I do, including the words I create. That works, right? Sports aren’t mundane, just worthless. Unfortunately, that line of thinking is troublesome as well. Basketball is a metaphor for life and in being such a thing, it forces us to consider and take heed to the adages we so often take for granted. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. Stay true. Try. Try harder. Just keep on keepin’ on. Sports are important, so much so that each inconsequential reaction is worthy of every gut-wrenching, mind-draining emotion or word I’ll ever spend on it.

The everlasting rhythmic qualities of a season are as such: to begin, a sense of hope prospered by the enchanting glow of two zero’s and with a dash in between them; in the middle, obscurity in the face of unanswered narratives, tiresome dialogues and diminished consequences and lastly, the end; that insatiably immortalizing answer to all prior questions, dangerously simplifying the frenzy and gleeful confusion of eight months past. That’s where sports and life differ the most. We never really get to see the end. Rather, we see the end of certain phases. And even then, we mock the seemingly trivial concerns of the past; adults disparaging adolescence, seniors offering their sage advice to those same 40-something’s. Still, there’s something to be learned here, like maybe we should take a step back in order to avoid overreacting to every waking moment. “In the grand scheme of things, does this really change anything?” “It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over.” Again, it’s impossible to drill quotes from the internet into your head, useful and wise as they may be. Especially when you’re 19 and every mistake feels like it’s the end of the world. It’s a funny age to be, 19. We’re relaxed but at the same time, we’re constantly rushing for no reason. We want to feel a sense of achievement, often before we’ve felt the sweat and blood of real, damning work. We’re lost; consuming information more often than we’re actually learning anything and we’re overwhelmed. Luckily, over the course of countless two-and-half-hour intervals and hundreds of meaningless final scores, the clichés become easier to fundamentally understand. 82 games reminds me that one doesn’t matter and that no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, the sun will still rise the next day. We all pine for a deeper, omniscient kind of success — immortality in some form or another — 82 games reminds me that even in the world of sports, where literal immortality is an achievable end, the journey, despite what people tell you, holds the highest esteem in our memories.

My problem is I’m always sifting through things, compiling lists and looking forward to finishing them — trying to induce myself to reach the end. My mind races; I become very caught up in this stuff and it sucks because a to-do list is never really finished in that it never runs out of ways to discombobulate and speed up your thoughts. 82 games reminds me the journey is the part worth remembering and the end is just a conceptualized vision I have for a final, conclusive intersection between satisfaction and joy (or something to that effect) that’s never existed and never will. And it’s probably a good thing. The twists and toils of real life, while maddening, deafening and ultimately, tiresome will always be accompanied by greater rewards.

Slowly, you begin to realize that these games reinforce every cliché you’ve quenched with the same irony to which you eagerly retreat every time you’ve had to feel the brunt of being tested, although sincere deliberation could have saved your life. Because sports are a metaphor for everything. If you allow it to, a sporting match can put life’s most burdensome topics — death, war, love and struggle — into simplified, more finalized and answerable terms. As long as you remember these things aren’t exactly the same; that sports are still primarily entertainment and real life will always be accompanied by complications while bereft of endings, there’s a lot to take away when you’re paying attention for 82 games.

You learn what you like and what you believe in so you develop a certain value system. Some of these philosophies stay with you throughout your life, always stubbornly, while others make a quicker exit than the Nietzche-driven existential crisis you picked up during your first semester at the liberal arts institution of your choosing. You’ve learned that you have to make a few tough adjustments along the way — maybe trading a fan favorite — or else you’ll perish.

You learn that sometimes you have to shut your mind off and do what feels right; throw caution to the wind, consequences be damned. Just shut up and play. You learn that you have to let some things go because while games have final scores, life doesn’t. You learn that it’s okay, because some things are meant to be open-ended and some stories are better left unanswered. More importantly, you learn that life doesn’t provide you with a clear game plan for winning because life has no clear winners and no clear losers.

You learn that it’s important to be innovative and fearless in the eye of a challenge but that recklessness rarely leads to overblown triumph like the climaxes of movies would have you believe. Most of the time, the shot that starts the engine for Tracy McGrady’s 13-points-33-second’s marvel clangs off the rim and seals a victory for the other team. You learn that sometimes the climax becomes a crippling aftermath, all for the sake of decisions you never really wanted to make. You learn that history’s conquering acts of heroism often involve allowing someone else to take the role of the hero. You learn that Kobe usually won’t hit that shot. You learn that progress requires a fine balance between creativity, carelessness and predictability  that no one ever really masters.

You learn that the whole of life is just a gigantic struggle between deciding when to be selfish and when to be unselfish. When to shoot and when to pass. When to drive the lane with reckless abandon and when to set the offense. You learn that these things are as simple as they are impossible. It takes experience, it takes a cerebral, Chris Paul-esque sense of everything that’s happening around you. It takes the skillful ability and willingness to do both at the blink of an eye.

You learn that it takes a lot more than what 99 percent of us are given. You learn that you’re supposed to fail. Statistics suggest that on a yearly basis, 29 out of every 30 people fail.  If you’re not failing, you’re probably not even playing the game. You learn that sometimes the things you love force you to think about the final score, so you have to learn how to push back and force yourself to continue doing the things you love despite the unlikeliness of your dreams. Again, you learn that this doesn’t diminish your love but that this is simply the nature of things and that in life, even when it comes to matters of love, you create your own silver linings.

All in all, you learn.

The Short Peace: Featuring Kent Bazemore

Photograph from Lunaé Parracho via Flickr

The NBA is a league defined by constant change. Thanks to the analytics movement, aspects of the game like offensive efficiency and spacing that were only just materializing a few years ago are now a main focus of attention for teams. A successfully mutated Morey Project and a Steph Curry-led playoff run later, it’s clear that we’re now observing the NBA as a shooter’s league.

For players struggling to find roster spots, the analytics revolution has caused a substantial paradigm shift. Essentially, if you can shoot, you’ll find your way on to a roster at some point in the season. Conversely, for those who don’t possess an outside stroke… well, let’s just say they better be a specialist in another field. 3-and-D guys have stockpiled across the league and consequently, players cut from that unshakable-on-defense-but-forgettable-on-offense, Tony-Allen-esque cloth, have been driven to oblivion.

Despite all of his cheerleading capabilities, Old Dominion product Kent Bazemore still falls under the latter category. Bazemore, who was present at Summer League last year, quickly became a celebratory tale for D-League prospects when he scrapped and hustled for his way onto the Golden State Warriors’ roster after going undrafted in 2012.

Of course, Bazemore didn’t get where he is right now by some stroke of imaginary luck. In his four years at OD, he picked up an NCAA Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as two CAA DPOY’s, establishing that he could in fact dominate at one end of the floor enough to make up for his shortcomings on the other. I had a chance to sit down with Bazemore for a few minutes and he reaffirmed the idea that the NBA’s newfound emphasis on three-pointers deterred his chances of producing at the next level. “Once you’ve been in the league for a year, I understood. I looked back at my college career, I really didn’t show that I had a chance to be a pro.”

This is what he said when I asked him if he’s made improving his shot a point of emphasis:

“Absolutely, you gotta keep guys honest…if I can’t hit the three, the guy who closes out on me is gonna stay short and it’s gonna make it easier for his team to rotate. I think my biggest thing is that once I prove I can hit that three consistently, it’ll open up a lot more things. The game will be a lot easier.”

For the record, Bazemore attempted four treys on Tuesday and connected on two of them. After spending four years in college, Bazemore says a lot of his newly-acquired techniques are indebted to the shot the Warriors gave him. “Once I got my foot in the door and I was able to learn the NBA game, I just took off from there.  I’ve had an opportunity to watch Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes. So I’ll pull them to the side in practice or even during the game just to see (what happened), and have them explain (the play) so next time I’m in, I’m looking for the same thing.”

This shouldn’t be taken as a surprise when you consider the extent to which the now-sophomore prides himself on being a sponge.  “One thing I’ve always hung my head on is being coachable you know, just listening. If it’s a rookie, you listen to them. It doesn’t matter, you can learn from everybody. If a kid comes up and tells me something I’m gonna take it with a grain of salt but I’m gonna listen,” he laughed. “That’s the easiest way to get better at this game.” Words like coachability aren’t thrown around lightly in NBA circles, and Bazemore’s desire to learn appears more comparable to an addiction than to a tiresome responsibility. This, as much as anything else, gives him a leg up on his uber-competitive peers.

The 25-year old is more than just a swab that soaks up and stores all the information that comes his way, though. Rather, he has a sort of contagious demeanour that spreads to the rest of his team. Essentially, there’s both a sense of absorption and diffusion. Bazemore doesn’t create chaos and thrive in its dissociated creativity like Kenneth Faried or Eric Bledsoe. Instead, his mark on the game is more cerebral: it can be found in carefully but tenaciously defended 21-second possessions that end in contested mid-range jumpers for his opponent as an alternative to chase-down blocks and interceptions. Of course, it’s not as if the 6’5″ swingman with a ridiculous 6’11” wingspan is afraid of using his gangly arms to accumulate a few opportune steals, from time to time. Still, his is a more fundamentally safe brand of chaos, a kind of suppressed radiance that blossoms from his analytic, calculative nature.

“It’s just being cerebral, being in the right spot. (If) the ball is away from you, pull in. If it comes to you, inch out. If you’re the low man on the backside, tag your roll man and close out good to your shooters. It’s just things like that constantly play in your mind. You always have to be thinking, you have to always be locked down and if you’re not, man, you’re gonna pay.

“It’s just a game within a game within a game,” he added. “Sometimes you’re playing 2-on-2, sometimes 3-on-2. You just have to keep your brain turned on.”

There’s a definite sense of dissonance between the Bazemore we see on the court and the ecstatic bundle of unabridged energy we see on the bench. Bazemore’s claim to fame, aside from almost sealing a Game 1 victory for the Warriors against the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, is his fervency for amazing bench celebrations.

On the sidelines, Bazemore is an heir apparent to Brian Scalabrine. So much so that his trademark three-point bowling strike is featured in the forthcoming NBA 2K14.

A year ago, Bazemore was here in Vegas, playing the role of a hopeful suitor for a team that needed a Jimmy Butler-esque stopper without having to go through the twists and toils of finding and paying for a first-round pick like Butler.  This time around, he’s shored up his skills on both sides of the ball and Summer League provides him with the perfect stage to hone his skills. “It’s something I look to come out and do,” he told me. “Show my playmaking skills and have control with the ball in my hands.”

The decisive qualities with which Bazemore has earned esteem with the Warriors are, first, his calculative, analytic, coachable nature — you get the sense that he isn’t anywhere close to rounding out just yet; second, a palpable energy that somehow stays true to his careful, plotting nature; and lastly, what feels like a higher level of admiration for the game than displayed by most.

It’s widely accepted that Summer League is more a haven for ill-conceived mid-range shots and risky, not-often-rewarding passes than it is a representation of NBA-level basketball. Here’s the thing, though: the rewarding aspect of Summer League lies not in the games, but in the fact that it gives players in Bazemore’s situation the chance to show that what’s bubbling under a raw, unrefined exterior has at least a fragment of translatable potential.

The blur of six games in one day, the fear of being crushed by overly aggressive players rushing into the stands, the sense that all the days are just being puréed together into one conglomerate of basketball mush… it’s all worth it. Even if you do have to witness a Bazemore-Draymond Green pick-and-roll.

All The Small Things

Photograph by Bryan Jones via Flickr

Over the past few years, I’ve seen over 1000 basketball games. Not a single one of them was without the filter of a television screen, two play-by-play announcers and the comfort of my sofa. Before Friday afternoon, I had never seen live NBA action. Evidently, the screen filtered out more than just the metronomic beat of a basketball thumping incessantly on the hardwood.

The television provides a calming sensation that has no business being in the realm of an arena.  Everything is more pronounced in real life. The players are exceptionally bigger and faster, somehow more daunting and inexplicably human at the same time. The stakes, despite the almost non-existent stage of summer league, feel unexplainably higher.

Open shots are never really open shots — there’s never more than a second of time before the ball leaves the hands of a shooter and he’s smothered by a defender. Fred Katz, sitting beside me, said it made him appreciate the Matt Barnes’ and Rip Hamilton’s of the world for the way they manage to find and create space for themselves on a consistent basis.

We constantly chastise guards that seemingly turn basketball into a dribbling performance exhibition match but it’s hard not to recognize the importance of every stutter step that Marquis Teague makes, and the ripple effect that it causes — in this case, a sliver of extra time for Andrew Goudelock to connect on a floater — when you’re just ten feet away from the basket.

Passing lanes and driving lanes are as equally congested as they are impossible to maneuver through, despite what Brandon Davies, an undrafted senior out of BYU told me about adjusting to defense at the next level: that the increased spacing “makes it harder” and, in pure interview autopilot form, “a lot of fun.”

Fouls, both hard and “soft”, are more excruciating and physical than imaginable. Imagine watching two steam engines (if I’ve learned anything this weekend, it’s that, by human standards, all professional athletes are steam engines) crash into each other. Okay, now imagine that collision happening just a few metres away from you.

Of course, this description is more of a memoir for my personal memory box than it is for anyone reading this… I’d say probably 90 percent of you guys have seen an NBA game before. Still, the sheer immensity of the difference between watching from home and watching live warrants recognition.

For the most part, individual plays don’t carry any inordinate appeal when they’re channeled out by a TV screen. The feeling is that you’re watching what may be a highly entertaining but at the same time, ordinary, game. Each and every step contributes to either a win or a loss, but we only give pause to the plays that are followed by immediate and obvious consequences.

In reality, it’s really so much more than that. The dunks, the shots, the missed shots, the close-outs, and the late close-outs, too. And the blocks. Oh, man, the blocked dunk attempts.The proximity, the theatrics and somehow, the sounds, of live action introduce a new form of basketball watching that allows you to develop a deeper appreciation for the nuances of the game that otherwise go unnoticed.

J.J. Redick and the Evidence of Things Not Seen

Photo from Rafe Saltman via Flickr

NBA fans are interesting. Every so often, for reasons that escape any scope of rational thought, a player that everyone loves to hate emerges. Be it because of a rumoured arrogance, his collegiate history or his late-blooming NBA relevance, J.J. Redick has been something of a punching bag for disgruntled fans that see him as the poster-boy for what they deem as “everything that’s wrong about sports”: a sense of entitlement before achievement, elitism, and of course, wearing a Duke Blue Devils uniform for four years.

The reputation Redick acquired thanks to his time at Duke quickly evaded him as it became apparent that he’s almost exactly the opposite of what he was touted as. In reality, J.J.’s characteristics — an unrelenting work ethic, a fundamentally intelligent playing style and the sense that he stayed true to his dream — are qualities we’re conditioned to adore. In a few arenas, the boos will forever echo at the sight of Redick but the majority of the animosity towards J.J., the person, has withered away.

Still, the criticisms of Redick as a player continue to prevail in some circles. Despite the mounting evidence, there’s one label Redick can’t seem to shake: that he’s a one-trick pony. On the court and in the gym, Redick has done everything in his power to shed that one final denunciation. At 29 years old and in the prime of his professional career, he’s finally maximized his potential but this newly-discovered state of tranquility doesn’t quite feel authentic. J.J.’s path to success was littered with speed bumps (his undersized, unathletic frame, Stan Van Gundy’s abhorrent affinity to keep him glued to the bench) and it’s apparent in the mechanical nature of his game. Aside from connecting on long-distance bombs, nothing looks easy for him.

Every time Redick makes a great play, you get the feeling that he’s barely threading the needle, that he’s grasping for straws and he’s not far from relapsing into mediocrity. Redick successfully made the same cringe-inducing, heart-stopping plays for an entire season with every made basket and assist screaming louder and louder, “THIS IS WHO I AM. WHY DON’T YOU BELIEVE ME?” but while it’s easy for the eyes to defy the mind, it’s nearly impossible for the mind to betray its eyes. It’s almost as if there’s a chasm between the J.J. we see and the J.J. that is.

Of course, it didn’t help Redick’s case that he wasn’t given a chance to showcase his full array of tricks until after Dwight Howard’s departure from the Orlando Magic. Boiling under Redick’s sharpshooting surface were tenacious defensive instincts and a unique intelligence on offense that finally came into fruition. He defended the ball better than the majority of shooting guards in the NBA, allowing just 0.7 ppp (points per play) in isolation, per Synergy — good for 57th-best in the NBA — and 0.67 ppp as a pick-and-roll defender, which puts him at an impressive 26th-best in the league. With no one watching, Redick was quietly turning in the best season of his career.

Today’s Redick, a representative of the “3 and D” prototype, is an inversion of his younger self: reserved, cerebral and, above all else, unnoticed. Even more surprisingly so, he’s become more of a celebrated figure than an object of derision. After multiple seasons warming the bench for more aggrandizing and less effective players, an up-close and personal experience of the Dwightmare, and being exiled to Wisconsin for a few months, it’s finally become recognized that Redick has paid his proverbial dues. The “entitlement before achievement” tag has officially been removed as the basketball world rejoices at the fact that he’ll likely be a starter for his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, one of the NBA’s most exciting squads.

With the bright lights in Los Angeles looming, the spotlight won’t be as fixated on the ever-improving and voracious J.J. Redick as it was during his days in Durham, but the opportunity to shatter any remaining misconceptions is his for the taking.

Death By Narrative

There’s a chasm in the NBA between the conventional and the unconventional. Beyond the analytics revolution, the pleas for efficiency and the constant fight against using championships as an implication of greatness lies an even deeper, more salient clash: a discourse on the fundamental ways that basketball should be played that, until recently, were never truly questioned.

On one end of this spectrum is a team like the Houston Rockets, one that disregarded the antiquated mid-range jumper altogether, shot more three-pointers than any team in the league and ran the floor at every opportunity. And if there’s a gap between the two movements, former Denver Nuggets’ head coach George Karl may have become the first victim of the abyss.

Karl’s Nuggets, not all that different from the Rockets aside from their deficiency from beyond the arc, were a prototype for traditionalist hatred. They played small too often, their preferred form of garnering offense was capitalizing on live-ball turnovers and, perhaps the most tantalizing of the three, they didn’t have a go-to guy in crunchtime.

Naturally, Denver finished the season with the third seed in the West, accumulating a 15-game winning streak and the best home record in the league on the way. How’d they do it? Well, the exciting, savvy and versatile lineups that Karl formulated equipped the Nuggets with the highest percentage of points in the paint and fast break points in the league per NBA.com’s Stats tool, one of the best offensive attacks and right on cue, one of the best crunchtime offenses in the NBA.

Still, the dictated wisdom of the past suggested that regardless of their regular season success, the Nuggets’ philosophy was burdened with cracks that would lead to an inevitable playoff loss. So when the Nuggets looked defeated against the Warriors in the first round, the walls started to cave in on the 2013 Coach of the Year. The Nuggets were deemed an experiment — one that was defined and conducted by Karl — so once they lost, the experiment was surmised as a failure and as such, so was the conductor.

Here’s what really happened, though — and why the “experiment” may have been effective all along. Streaky shooting and the orchestrated heroics of Stephen Curry aside, the Warriors defeated the Nuggets by beating them at their own game. They went from scoring just 13.8 percent of their points off of turnovers in the regular season to 17.6 percent — a rate that would have had them in the top 10. David Lee went down and Golden State discovered a diamond in the rough: the beauty of playing small ball with Harrison Barnes at the power forward. Oh, and it didn’t help that Danilo Gallinari — the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer with a net efficiency rating of 7.2 points per 100 possessions and resident ScreenBuster (trademarked by Jordan White) — tore his ACL six games before the playoffs started.

Look at it this way. In a large sense, the NBA is slowly moving towards more dynamic crunchtime sets and away from the dreaded isolation-at-the-top-of-the-key plays. Yet no team stymied the opposing defense with more misdirection and screening in the closing minutes than the Nuggets. In the last five minutes of action with either team within five points, the Nuggets were top-3 in field goal percentage and fourth in offensive efficiency. The teams that preceded them? The Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, otherwise known as the teams that had LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant to helm their late game attacks.

The Nuggets, as we all know, didn’t have one of those guys. In response, Karl tried to compose the next best thing and he managed to do it. He said, “Hey, let’s stop mimicking what the other guys do. We don’t have what they have but we do have something special here. Let’s try and do this the best way we know how.”  For NBA modernists, he was a step forward for the league. In the real world though, the results still take precedence over the process and Karl was punished for being ahead of the curve.

The scapegoating of Karl was an illogical crutch but it was an inevitable aftermath in a sports world that has no mercy for the failure to live up to expectations, even when situations changes and expectations are due for reevaluation. Moreover, criticism amplifies when the object of one’s contempt is working against the preserved mode of thinking. In reality, the Nuggets succeeded because Karl refused to give into the ever-present narratives lined up against his team.

All Stats per NBA.com’s Stats tool.

My Finals Memory: Foreign Relations

 

It’s June 6th, 2010. I’m sitting in the patio area of a random bar in downtown Toronto with my parents. It was one of those places that would let minors in as long as they were accompanied by an adult. It’s safe to say that a lot of what I was experiencing was alien to me. This was my second time visiting Toronto but it was the first time I truly fell in love with it. I felt like I had grown since the last time I was here. The noise. The speed. The rush. The life, the inexplicable feeling that the city had a beating heart and a vibrant soul. It was a captivating experience, one that was a welcome contrast from the drudgery called Edmonton. And the game was pretty good, too.

In plain sight, there’s a full-screen television inside the bar and Game 2 of the Lakers-Celtics series is playing. At this point, I’ve been a die-hard NBA fan for about four months. I’m captivated. “Seerat, what are you looking at? Seerat, are you listening? Seerat?” “Sorry, what? I was just… uhh.. what?” If you wrote about this day from my mom’s perspective it would probably end with something along the lines of “… and that’s when we knew we’d lost her forever.”

In reality, I was infatuated with basketball since I was nine years old but it wasn’t often that I cared to watch it. My summers consisted of endless days at the playground trying to master the art of reaching the rim on free throws. My winters consisted of kicking ass and taking names with Steve Nash in whichever NBA video game dictated my life at the time.

This brings me back to 2010. Like almost every 16-year-old girl in high school, I’d recently developed an all-consuming interest in the NBA. Naturally, I began to spend the majority of my time watching highlight reels, “studying” basic statistics and watching every nationally televised game I could get my hands on. I didn’t know much but I had picked up on a few things. I knew I loved the Bulls — familial obligations had figured that out for me years ago — and that Kirk Hinrich was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I knew Kobe had willed himself to be great but that LeBron was destined for a kind of greatness that came naturally. A few nights earlier, Kobe and the Lakers made mincemeat of my beloved Nash-led Suns so I knew I hated them. In response, I knew I loved the Celtics.

The Celtics won that game and Ray Allen hit a bunch of threes, as I’m sure you’ve heard. This was probably my 100th time watching basketball, and I can’t exactly explain why, but it was the first time I fell in love with it. I felt like I had grown since the last time I was here.

Sanity Restoration

The NBA playoffs are like Project Mayhem for narratives. You’re not supposed to ask questions, you simply follow orders. The line of reasoning goes that if you trust the system, it will take care of you. Eventually, though, they run with reckless abandon taking out just about everything and anything that gets in the way. Buildings start to blow up and the debt record gets erased. Or something. Stretched metaphors aside, there is a certain element of playoff basketball that mirrors the final scene of Fight Club: not everyone makes it to the other side, but those who do receive a clean break. It’s 0-0 again.

For some teams, it’s a perfect situation. For others, matchup nightmares and a few unlucky strokes can spell an untimely death. The idea of hitting the restart button is tantalizing but with all things being equal, the elite generally find their way back to the top while the weak are cast away. So what better story to evoke the mania and uncertainty of a potential post-Fight Club world than the rise of an underdog?

The underdog team embodies the perfect narrative: it’s both loveable and relatable. In the sports world, the rise of 8 to 12 unlikely heroes demonstrates the overarching themes that justify a nation’s obsession with putting a ball into a basket. Triumph and its elusiveness. The notion that perseverance and hard work will be rewarded, regardless of who you are. A level playing field.

What separates the story of the underdog from other forms of sports glory is that it breeds excitement by nature. In a league that’s often more concerned with the process than the result, where the outcome feels like a forgone conclusion and the best always find a way to survive, the underdog gives us something new to talk about. There’s nothing interesting about perfection. Even deliberation on greatness has its limits. We don’t care if LeBron is 40 inches in the air and picking up speeding violations on his way to a ferocious dunk anymore. I mean, we do… but it’s more fun if he’s victimizing Jason Terry at the same time.

Why? Two reasons:

1. We want to be able to say we were there. Not for the regular and irregular fluctuations of an 82-game NBA season but for the moments that matter.

2. Short-term, amplified craziness resonates with us.

Whenever the perceived weak take down the elite, the tides turn. For whatever period of time, it feels like things are changing. The hysteria can be maddening and enlightening. Our collective state of mind becomes elevated for two and a half hours. Whether it was the buzzwords we love to hate or the much more logical conclusions that HP’s Andrew Lynch addressed earlier that skyrocketed the Warriors as this year’s underdog, they introduced us to an alternate reality or better yet, a blip in time where nothing made sense.

A few beats later, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (known to some not-unbiased parties as the best shooting backcourt in NBA history) miss two shots they’d normally make and order is restored. In some form or another, the same progressions apply to all sports matches in general but the life of the underdog is always more fragile. As if its existence is always fleeting. That’s the entire point, though.

The underdog reminds us that nothing is certain and in doing so reminds us that everything is certain. We can entertain the taste of something new and love it because it’s just that: a taste. A seismic shift, however? That’s too much. It begins to put at risk the things that we value as individuals, like the ranking of our favourite team… or the money the bank owes us, or the things we own that end up owning us (nailed it!).

In the grand scheme of things, we don’t want things to change. We’re a society that’s equally as obsessed with continuity as it is with breaking free from the same uniformity that coddles us. A team like the Warriors provides us with a perfect change of pace from our routine. We love them because we don’t fear them. They’re fun, they’re exciting, they provided a much-needed deviation from topics like the deterioration of the Eastern Conference and Kevin Durant’s Kevin Durantiness… and most importantly, their demise came at the perfect time.

Lion Face Lemon Face 4/23/2013: Shooters Gon’ Shoot

Welcome to Lion Face Lemon Face, where we recap last night’s NBA action Ben and Matty style. In case you didn’t already know, Lion Face equals good and Lemon Face equals bad. At least that’s how I think this whole thing works.

Lion Face: Dwyane Wade’s monster put-back dunk

Wade may be 31 years old, a reluctant defender in transition for stretches during the playoffs and spending the majority of his time raising his eyebrows at Brandon Jennings but give the man his due: He hasn’t lost it yet, whatever “it” is.

Lemon Face: Norris Cole’s missed dunk

Norris Cole, on the other hand, is 24 years old. Here’s a general rule of thumb: if your name isn’t Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade or Blake Griffin and your running the floor beside LeBron James, the only thing that should be on your mind is “how do I get this flying death machine freight train superhuman machine basketball player the ball?”

Lion Face: Presented without comment, a real Lion Face.

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Lemon Face: Brandon Jennings

There’s nothing wrong with making sweeping declarations. In fact, I encourage them. They give me funny things to tweet about. The problem here is that Jennings is all shot and no substance. Here’s his shooting chart from last night:

jennings shooting

A whole lot of red and nothing in-between. Daryl Morey is only mildly impressed. Lucky for Jennings, the Bucks can technically still win this series in six games. That is, if LeBron James spontaneously combusts and Dwyane Wade is too emotionally shattered to continue playing. Even then, Chris Bosh and a healthy mix of shooters could get the Heat over the proverbial hump.

Lion Face: JR Smith

Your 6th Man of the Year, folks…

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Lemon Face: The Celtics’ offense

I’m not really sure what happened here. All I know is that Knicks-Celtics felt a lot more like a first round series in the Eastern Conference than I thought it would. Here’s the Celtics’ shot chart from the second half:

celtics shot chart

That shouldn’t be allowed in the NBA. This looks like if a fifth grade version of me went on Microsoft Paint and decided that red was my favourite colour and that all basketball courts should be red because I said so! What’s worse is that the Celtics went the final nine minutes of the game without getting a single basket. Part of the issue was that the C’s just couldn’t capitalize on their open shots — especially the open threes Paul Pierce produced from the post — but I have to give kudos to the Knicks’ defense. They were absolutely suffocating. “Signing Kenyon Martin in the middle of the season sure made a difference for the Knicks” is close to number one on my list of things I never thought I’d say in 2013.

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Lion Face: The Knicks’ third quarter

This is the only scoreboard you need from the third quarter: Carmelo Anthony – 13, Boston Celtics – 11. I guess it’s an improvement from Boston’s fourth quarter performance in Game 1 when they were held to just eight points. One thing’s certain: it won’t matter that the Celtics are in the TD Garden for the next two games if they continue to score less than 13 points for multiple quarters.

Lion Face: America’s team. I think. Probably not.

Last night, the Golden State Warriors became the first team to score over 130 points in a playoff game since the Celtics eviscerated the Lakers in Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals. Jarrett Jack, Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson combined for 101 points on 63 shots. In completely unrelated news, Golden State’s small ball is awesome. Here’s the Warriors’ shot chart:

warriors shot chart

Notice the way that this one contrasts with Boston’s shot chart from the second half? Yeah, that’s an inherently good thing. Oh, and here’s an incoming super overreaction: The Warriors are kind of perfectly set up to be this year’s “they just went on a crazy shooting run and knocked off a few teams that they really shouldn’t have knocked off” team.

Lion Face: Harrison Barnes’ Reverse Slam, proceeding celebration

BarnesReverseWarriorsBench

Lemon Face: Denver’s defense

Here’s the thing about the Warrior’s small line up, which might end up being the ultimate “diamond in the rough” non-acquisition this Spring: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack are all capable and willing shooters. Per NBA.com, the trio shot 43.5 percent from 16-24 feet over the course of the regular season, miles ahead of the league average. The Nuggets, on the other hand, aren’t employed with big men that are adept at closing out on shooters off the pick and roll. As a result, they allow the league’s second worst opponent field goal percentage from that range. Unless George Karl is an even better coach than I think he is (likely), Denver’s going to be in a bit of a pickle.

All statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com

Electron Microscope: The Fine Line Between Chaos and Creation

Electron Microscope is a weekly column in which I’ll be choosing one thing that I love about the NBA, dissecting it and then magnifying it to lavish proportions. Here’s the first edition:

Basketball, in its most sublime form, challenges and shatters the periphery of its definition as a sport. On occasion, the NBA grants us moments which are either so grand in magnitude or impossibility that the act of putting a ball into a basket transforms into something much greater: high art. The regularity with which our favourite players deliver the impalpable serves as a double-edged sword. We witness greatness so often that, unless it’s shoved in our faces, we no longer recognize it. And the most compelling form of greatness is quite possibly the kind that stems from intrepidity. A risky play is ephemeral by nature, walking the line between life and death with such glory that its demise feels like an inevitable byproduct of its heroism.

This brings me to my personal form of basketball porn: the art of penetrating and dishing in the paint. When performed successfully, it’s touted as aggressive, decisive and marvellous. The execution requires a certain mastery of discombobulating ones opponent, or at least the sheer ability to overpower him. When that bullet pass morphs into a turnover, it’s considered more reckless than valiant, characterized as a microcosm for the combination of inexperience and potential. The NBA’s most tantalizing passers have sung this same ballad time and time again. Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio and Andre Miller come to mind but none of these particular players encapsulate the life-or-death nature of living in the paint the way that Jeremy Lin, the Rockets’ tried and true embodiment of orchestrated chaos, does.

Lin, of course, has a unique story. Just a year ago, his survival in the league was predicated on his aggressiveness. A relentless attack was the engine that fuelled Linsanity and its success has manifested itself once again in Houston. In his short stint with the Knicks, 3.4 of Lin’s 6.1 assists were at the rim, according to HoopData.com. This season, 3.2 of his 6 assists came at the rim.

The beauty of this play, one that Lin has made countless times, is established in the abandonment with which he performs it. Any other guard in the league — save for Rondo, who led the league in assists at the rim with 4.3 per game — would be subdued by Oklahoma’s seemingly perfect defense on this play. Lin had other things in mind. Lin has captivatingly trademarked the act of faking a layup attempt mid-air, only to dump it off in less than a seconds notice. Lin wasn’t the first to do it and he won’t be the last but the deliberate ambivalence with which he makes decisions while four feet above the ground is both thrilling and endearing. However, the dangerous style that makes Lin so effective is the same thing that makes him human, and prone to turning the ball over as the ratio of his assists to turnovers is 2.09, slightly below the league average for point guards.

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Rondo’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.83 is not only nominally better than Lin’s, it’s far more impressive when you consider the sheer number of dimes he picked up per game (11.8). But even Rondo, nor any other guard in the league, comes close to doing anything like this: over 50 percent of Lin’s assists come from the rim. Of course, his point guard counterparts notch more assists than him, but none of them share ball-handling duties with James Harden. In fact, Lin’s usage rate of 20.36 ranks 24th out of the 29 point guards to play over 30 minutes per game this season. Nonetheless, Rondo headlines the passing creativity of his generation’s point guards, passing just as effectively in the paint if not more electrifyingly.

Where Lin tends to drop the pass off right in his teammates hands, Rondo is a master at leading the ball — and his teammates — where he thinks it should go. It’s the kind of mastery that takes an infinite understanding of the opposing defense, personnel and above all, years of experience playing with the same teammates.

It’s the kind of mastery you know is coming every time, you know exactly what it’s going to look like and you’ll know it’s about to happen right before it does. Still, it’s worth sitting through a game for. Best (and for now, worst) of all, it’s the kind of mastery that makes us pine for the announcer to scream “from Rondo… to KG” while the TD Garden emphatically cheers in unison. Come on, Danny Ainge. Make the same mistake one more time. If for nothing else, do it for my basketball watching pleasure.

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There’s also Andre Miller, whose role as a key cog for the strongest second-unit in the league has garnered him the most assists at the rim per 40 minutes over the past two seasons. Miller may be a few miles removed from living in a world where nothing matters except for LaMarcus Aldridge’s proximity to the rim but he’s found a new alley to his oop in the seven-foot tall bundle of joy that is JaVale McGee. Miller’s expertise’ in the alley-oop department is admirable, but that’s not what compels fans towards him.

Dre is an inscrutable player. He’s a trusted floor general with an unquestionable feel for the game but he also actively covets moments in which he can throw caution to the wind and generate plays that effectively reestablish the connection between our eyes and our brains. Like the one above, for example. Not many players would be willing to throw a bounce pass across the paint between three different defenders. The success of the play makes it memorable, but the readiness with which Miller fires the pass is what fascinates.

***

Finally, enter Ricky Rubio. Rubio’s passing prowess, much like the games of most international players, is another thing altogether. The sophomore sensation reads the defense in a completely different language from his counterparts because he was raised in a completely different basketball environment. That alone makes him tantalizing to the NBA fan.

He teaches us new ways of seeing the game while mocking us at the same time. The plays that perplex us, that boggle our minds and coerce a collective response of “OMG” are the same ones that Ricky considers child’s play. Rubio isn’t as reckless as he is foreign but his unique style makes him one of the NBA’s toughest covers.

***

All of this brings me back to Lin. Not because he’s an equivocally better passer than any of the aforementioned players but because he’s maddening. His technique is moulded by the obstinate commitment to risk that gave birth to Linsanity and it’s the same commitment that stymies his potential as a star. For Jeremy Lin, the artist and the basketball player will likely never be in true harmony… but maybe that’s the point.

Statistical support for this story provided by HoopData.com 


The Return to Innocence Lost: On Lebron James, the human condition and perfection

LeBron James is having one of the greatest individual seasons of all time, and the Miami Heat just recently fell six games short of making history. The man who was once the most polarizing player in the NBA is now undoubtedly, unanimously considered the best on the planet. His game does not simply reflect greatness, it manifests it. Kobe Bryant patterned his game after Michael Jordan. Kevin Durant, the greatest — yet, still inconsequential — threat to LeBron’s throne, recently stated that he’s tried to mirror his game after Larry Bird’s. This isn’t a criticism of Durant nor Kobe. There’s nothing contemptible about taking the self-prescribed tutelage of those who have previously dominated in their field. It’s a practice that is persistent in every art form, including basketball, and it’s also what separates LeBron from his competitors. Kobe, when he’s at his best, pays tribute to His Airness. LeBron, on the other hand, churns out a masterpiece that is unique to himself. He reveals something new every night he laces up his sneakers.

His never-before-seen game has caused a domino effect in two different ways:

1. LeBron has moulded himself as both the most electrifying player of this generation and the measuring stick for the next.

2. Observers — media and fans alike — have no idea what to make of him. We don’t know what he’ll do next, and we won’t know why he’ll do it. LeBron is an enigma. Because of this, he’s often been mischaracterized and chastised.

LeBron’s path to immortality was not without its speed bumps. James is a man who has been tested like no other professional athlete. Before he rightfully claimed his seat atop the throne, he had been subjected to farcical levels of ridicule. The height of his mockery took place ten months ago, on the eve of June 7th, 2012. And then something great happened. James channeled the hate and did something that illustrates exactly why sports are so infectious: he rose above it. In his most vilified moment, LeBron robotically embraced his role and dialled in the greatest game of his career. Ironically, his most supernatural, “that-man-is-not-from-planet-Earth” 48 minutes on the hardwood are what humanized him. It was a defining moment for both LeBron’s career and the future of NBA basketball. But did the ends justify the means?

Let’s rewind to June 6th, 2012. It’s the Eastern Conference Finals. The Miami Heat lost Game 5 to the Boston Celtics, taking a 2-3 disadvantage in the series. Paul Pierce hit a dagger trey over LeBron’s face. Everyone has seen the replay about 100 times. Twitter is littered with “good job, good effort” jokes. The Internet is about one more LeBron meme away from exploding. Fans are using the “count the rings” argument, and not in a funny way. Every basketball forum in the nation is riddled with gifs of LeBron’s collection of missed buzzer beaters. It’s an amalgamation of the overbearing culture of sports combined with social media. In other words, 21st century pandemonium at its worst. On the other side, analysts are asking questions like “Will LeBron James ever get over the hump? Does he possess that killer instinct? The clutch gene? Will he ever live up to his potential?” In hindsight, LeBron didn’t just eradicate his criticisms, he also made a mockery out of basketball buzzwords.

Anyway, after 48 hours to digest everything that was going on, James walked into the TD Garden looking like a man without a soul. He didn’t look despondent… but he didn’t look focused either. The enigma had never looked more like an enigma before this moment. Suffice it to say that he startled each and every person watching. His 45-point, 15-rebound, five-assist performance was more than just a great game. This was LeBron’s eff-you moment. It was orchestrated like an open letter: “All of this is mine. My moment, my stage… my greatness. So stop trying to take it away from me. I’m not having it anymore.”

Watching LeBron decimate the Celtics was bewildering. It was like watching the inception of a monster. James’ performance at the TD Garden will be immortalized in NBA history. It’ll forever be talked about as one of the greatest games played by one of the greatest players of all time. Maybe it’ll be considered the greatest response game of all time. That’s not why it’ll be remembered, though. We’ll remember it because we were witnesses to the monster that we created. No, monster is the wrong word. He was more like a robot. He didn’t smile. He didn’t look angry. He didn’t even bat an eyelash. He just played. And he played well. For years, we wanted the villain. We practically begged for the villain. Well, he gave it to us.

Here’s the thing, though: LeBron wasn’t the villain because of his own evil. He was the villain because he reminded us of the evil we possess. We called for LeBron to just shut up and play, but once he did, it stopped feeling right. Every basket that night reminded me of Lebron in Cleveland. The one we all vilified because he smiled when he played the game that he loved. Then I thought, “did we strip him of that?” For one night at least, he was a machine that only served one purpose: to win ballgames.

Once LeBron finished eviscerating the Celtics, sports fans were left with just one thing to say: What the hell just happened? I’m not sure if “SMH” has ever been a trending topic on Twitter, but it must have come close that night. It should have been one of those glorified sports moments that alludes to making the impossible happen, to stepping up, to exceeding expectations. But before we could register what was happening in a local, encapsulated “where does this rank among great individual games?” sense, the shock set in. Instead, the game evinced emotions that aren’t often synonymous with professional sports: Guilt. Shame for the human condition. Could we be so cruel, so trapped in a groupthink mentality that we were the ones who pushed him to the brink? Of course we were. It doesn’t take an in-depth look into human history to get a grasp of what we’re capable of.

But hey… maybe, I’m exaggerating. Maybe, it’s not so bad. Maybe… just maybe, we were the fuel to LeBron’s fire. Even so, did we really just break a man down to his core for the sake of garnering a response? We were successful but what does that make us? We were like the overbearing dad that put an insurmountable amount of pressure on his kid because his dreams were already dead. We were the Dan Scott to LeBron’s Nathan. And for what? A great sports story. That’s all.

Every disparaging comment made about post-Decision LeBron probably made him who he is today. Game 6 at the TD Garden was a make or break moment for the self-proclaimed King. He was pushed the point where he’d either collapse or triumph. In the end, it all worked out. On June 9th, 2012, LeBron tested the limits of perfection for 48 minutes. He’s reproducing the essence of that perfection time and time again this season. LeBron won his way back into our hearts by forcing his greatness onto us so convincingly that we’ve started believing ourselves, too, to be capable of perfection… but again, do the ends justify the means?