Redemption. Determination. Validation.
These are things we all seek.
We seek them in all different aspects of our lives. We seek them in all different avenues of our lives. Most recently, Iâ€™ve noticed this search in one of the most cherished activities that I participate in â€“ coaching JV basketball. I know Iâ€™ve written about this here before and Iâ€™m sorry if itâ€™s getting bothersome but itâ€™s such an invested part of my life (with the final week starting today) and I feel like it helps me make sense of the NBA events that go on.
With our basketball team, you can preach and pretend you know the way to hoops success all you want but if you donâ€™t get the kids to produce tangible results on the court that they can see, itâ€™s hard to prove that all of the work, drilling and practice is actually worth anything. When our team is down, they seem to be REALLY down. Every time weâ€™ve lost a game during our season, weâ€™ve followed it with a second straight loss. We canâ€™t explain why, either. Often itâ€™s a simple issue such as free throw shooting or playing help line defense. But there has been something that holds us from being able to bounce back right away from a loss.
This past week, our team had a chance to wrap up a JV league title with two wins away from our home gym. The two games were against teams we had already beaten at home. In fact, weâ€™d beaten everybody in league up until this point in our campaign. We were 6-0 in league and had designs of going a perfect 10-0 in league. It was something that seemed inconceivable at the beginning of the season but was becoming and more real possibility with every bounce of the ball.
In our first away game of this past week, we were playing a team that nearly came back against us by hitting a ton of improbable three-pointers in the second half. We knew going into their gym, we were likely to suffer a similar barrage of long-range luck because they couldnâ€™t handle us athletically and would be willing to jack up threes in order to upset us. Â And thatâ€™s exactly what they did â€“ they hit three-pointers in this rematch.
In the final minute of the game, we found ourselves with the ball and down two. Our freshman guard took the ball strongly to the hoop, got fouled and made the basket. He sank the free throw for a three-point play and put us up one with just under a minute left. After some questionable officiating that belabored both sides, the opposing coach received a technical foul, which helped us retain possession of the ball and have a chance to push the lead to three. Instead, we missed both free throws and followed those misses up with two more misses by another player. We were given a chance to ice the game and improve our record to 7-0. Instead, we missed our 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th free throws of the game.
The opposing team went down the court and made a three to go up two. We came back down, put the ball in the hands of our freshman once again and he scored on an aggressive baseline drive to the basket to tie the game. What happened next can only be described as a swift kick to the groin that took away our ability to breathe.
With just four seconds left, they advanced the ball to half court, inbounded the ball to their best shooter, and he drove up the left side of the court. With one of our guys draped all over him defensively, he motored to the left corner of the court. He jumped off one foot (the wrong foot), contorted his body side ways from the deep corner and threw up a running, one-handed floater, Jeff Malone style. Despite the fact that he shot it from the left corner while falling out of bounds, someone how it banked off the backboard and fell through the hoop as time expired.
At that point, there was nothing that could be done. We were beaten. Our perfect league season was murdered. Our chance to clinch sole possession of a league title that week was toast. A desperate team with nothing to lose beat us. We didnâ€™t play with any desperation and it ended up hurting us. We were beaten by a H-O-R-S-E shot.
So what does any of this have to do with the NBA?
Everyone is trying to figure out the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. Everybody (including those who donâ€™t have Patella Cake on the line) expect the Thunder to get in despite the fact that they have to prove they can beat Western Conference teams that arenâ€™t the Warriors the rest of the season. Memphis is another feel good story that objective fans seem to be rooting for because their run this season has been so improbable. You also have a starless Houston team scrapping everything together and a Hornets team that will vault to the top of the feel good stories once Chris Paul comes back from his knee surgery.
So where does that leave the Portland Trail Blazers? During the first month of the season, it seemed like theyâ€™d be gunning for their own perfect league record. Obviously, they werenâ€™t going 82-0 or challenging the â€™96 Bulls for the all-time record but what they were doing was coming together nicely. Their early set backs were significant but nothing that could be considered crippling to the overall success of this season.
Nicolas Batum wasnâ€™t able to start the season with the team because of shoulder surgery. No problem. Rudy Fernandez needed to miss six weeks because of a procedure to alleviate nerve pressure in his back? Thatâ€™s not an issue. Kevin Pritchard had built this team into a deep roster of â€œMost Likely Toâ€™sâ€ and justified fan favorites. It didnâ€™t matter that Travis Outlaw was going to miss three to five months with foot surgery because they have positional putty to fill these holes. Martell Webster was there to reemerge as the small forward of the future.
But then Greg Oden went down by breaking his kneecap (which was foreseen by everybody but me). At the time, Greg Oden had been a defensive stalwart in the lane. Was he still in dumb foul trouble? Yes. Was he still a step too slow at times? Yes. But his rebounding rate and the amount of block shots he was accumulating in foul trouble-ridden minutes was astonishing. Hell heâ€™s still in Top 50 for blocked shots this season and he hasnâ€™t played in nine weeks. Were 11 points and 8.5 rebounds setting the world on fire like I predicted? No but it was better production than most centers in the NBA were giving their respective teams.
After he broke his kneecap, Joel Pryzbilla decided to join the party too. He ruptured a patella tendon and was also lost for the season. This left Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, LaMarcus Aldridge and the Dre/Blake/Bayless triumvirate to fend for themselves with Jeff Pendergraph, Juwan Howard and Dante Cunningham as the interior presence. Even their coach is injured!
And yet much like Antwone Fisher, theyâ€™re still standing. Theyâ€™re still here. Brandon Roy isnâ€™t coming back until after the All-Star break? No big deal. Andre Miller just scored 52 against one of the eight best teams in the league and I wouldnâ€™t be shocked if Jerryd Bayless had a 40-point explosion chambered for the next opponent.
Their ideal season has been taken away from them with blow after excruciating blow. Itâ€™s a sudden, random act of heartbreak that keeps finding new ways to infect the team. And yet they still hold a good record at home and are seven games over .500 right now. They keep getting handed these impossible H-O-R-S-E shots to beat and continue to bounce back.
After my JV team lost that game, we still had a chance to lock up at worst a share of the league title with our next game.
Based on our history of this season, we were slated to lose that game. We were going into a hostile, uncomfortable environment and they played an unconventional, hectic style that was feast or famine. Throughout most of the first half, it was nothing but famine for them. But in the third quarter, their hectic style started to break our kids a bit and you could feel the game about to unravel. Our freshman guard banged heads with a player on a loose ball and ended up splitting open the area between his eyelid and eyebrow so badly that I could see the shape of his eye through his wound. We were turning the ball over and not getting quality possessions.
But then something clicked. All of a sudden, the game started to slow down for our kids and even though we were being pestered, it seemed like we were a step ahead of everybody on the court. We broke the pressure, scored the ball and rebounded their misses. The offense ran properly. The defensive help was always there. The rebounding (led by one of our kids that outworked everybody on his way to 21 rebounds in a 32-minute game) belonged to us. We finished the game on a tear and ended up winning by over 20 in a game that we started to lose control of.
Our kids were doing everything we asked them to do. Free throws were buried. Help defense was a support system the team could rely on. We werenâ€™t taking bad shots. Everything we had been working towards for the previous three months was coming to fruition. We were validating our own claims and stakes on the season at hand. We were redeeming the confidence in ourselves that a BS falling out of bounds, one-handed, running, banked-in three-pointer tried to take away. We were determined to finish our goals from the beginning of the season even if they werenâ€™t exactly what we had envisioned.
The Portland Trail Blazers are getting this same opportunity. Itâ€™s easy to look away from them like a broken toy and pretend we donâ€™t care if they make the playoffs this year. We can look to other upstarts like the Thunder, Grizzlies and new-look Rockets as our picks to round out the playoff landscape.
However, ignoring this Blazers team because they seem too injured is a mistake. Theyâ€™ll be there in the post-season because of three things that injuries have tried but failed to take from them.
Redemption. Determination. Validation.