When a choke is just a miss

I apologize in advance for what, even by FreeDarko’s standards, should register as one of the most deliriously ragged posts in the history of bloggetry. Despite my grouchy-ass attempt to do and see as little as possible, South by Southwest proved to be a motherfucker, leaving me to call to you from a rotten hearth of depleted health. All of the quality time I spent with my houseguest DLIC should bear immediate dividends for the future of FreeDarko, but Saturday was one for the ages: building with Brickowski and his better half over breakfast tacos, witnessing what might have been the finest live set of my rap fan career, sharing the moment with your favorite bloggers’ favorite bloggers, and rolling up on P.F. Chang’s as a twice-removed member of Starks’s entourage. Factor in the time my girl spent talking official UH business with Devin after she’d gotten bounced from the Fader tent, and I darn near felt like the internets had indeed been made flesh. If only I’d been able to swallow my pride and talk with Kelefa Sanneh about how his writing nearly inspired me to stick with the freelance game.

Yet in the midst of all the logistical terror and infinitely compacted scene-mongering, I did manage to catch five minutes of NBA action. After all was said and done, I happened to switch on the ol’ idiot box right when the Lakers/Cavs contest was winding down. Hubie informed me that “sometimes, great games just sneak up on you,” which I took to mean that, had I made a point of watching the damn thing, I might well have given up halfway through. I know that this is a game of runs, but sometimes you’re so demoralized by the time the light bulb beams that no late game tension is going to salvage the morning or mask the shame inside.

In any and all cases, I knew the second I smelled “eleventh hour tie” that it was going to come down to last-second Kobe or Bron. Unlike the college game (fuck a NCAA’s, incidentally), in which that last desperate possession always reaks of random circumstance, in the Association it’s an essential part of some dudes’ weaponry. I’ll lay it out all trans-sportionally: in what I see as the ideal incarnation of the National Basketball Association, inheriting the wind as the clock dwindles away is not unlike the two-minute drill for an esteemed quarterback. Time bears down, but this merely demands a different kind of perfect approach, as opposed to inflicting chaos upon the athlete’s ability to see the situation and move through it accordingly.

What I see when I bother to look at March Madness wonder moments is far more akin to the guy who happens to come up to bat in the ninth: like any other possession, but more wigged-out and struggly, with the outcome more a matter of what happens to happen than someone willing victory from out between the crunch. Even when it ends up in the hand of the obvious triggerman, you don’t see him pulling it off with the same adjustment to the moment’s gravity, possibly since they just don’t get the chance to go through it enough times. But the pros who can pull it off so deftly do so exactly because they’ve realized that this brief, flickering window is a whole different game. Clutch is an attitude, a confidence in the face of context that insists things can go on as usual; buzzer-beaters require ceding to the pressure in order to overcome it, reformulating one’s game so that it addresses the true singularity of the situation.

At this point, I would like to refer you all to the latest NBA disquisition by Bill Simmons, which I will quote at length from more as object than as valid subjective peer:

Interesting work from 82games.com last month, which kept track of everyone's stats in game-winning situations (24 seconds or less: tie game, down by one, down by two) for the past two-plus seasons. Carmelo had the best numbers -- 8-for-14, and that was before he made two more game-winners in the past three weeks. One of the worst guys? Kobe Bryant ... 6-for-25. You read that correctly.

(You know what that means, right? I can dump him from my 2008 Dream Team because it turns out that he ISN'T that clutch! Good times!)

What’s worth noting here, aside from the astoundingly uncomfortable mix of petulance and poise that seems to have become Simmons’ way to be, is the assumption underlying the sarcasm: Kobe’s numbers in those situations may stink, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still an ace at it. As in, they ask him to pull something out way too often, and his success rate is a reflection on how difficult the feat is, not his aptitude at it. Yesterday, Hubie uttered that most dry of NBA incantations: “everyone knows it’s going to him.” That’s part of the last-second task, and for no one is it more true than for Kobe. You could even make the case that Melo is thriving because he’s figured out the nature of the beast without the beast deciding to up the ante on him. Or maybe Kobe is going through a slump of sorts, like a gunner who has to shoot his way back into rhythm. In either case, pure statistics don’t begin to tell the story of what happens as the game expires, when it takes a special, special man making a highly deliberate kind of play to give a team more than a random, well-meaning spitwad’s chance in Prayersville.

Addendum of sorts: There was a low-level coup raging in the comments section this weekend over whether the Spurs could ever overcome their oppressive reputation for boringness and boredom, and, implicitly, if the Jazz could ever not seem so “white.” There are two things at issue here: first, to retool a franchise’s image like that, you’d have to do away with nearly all of the perceived liabilities. In the Spurs case, this would probably involve getting a new coach, making Duncan the secondary figure on the team (at least symbolically), and ceasing to be a dumping ground for cagey vets on the verge of collapse. For Utah, no more Sloan might well do the trick. But the other, far trickier, proposition requires by law that you bring in the raw goo of promise to take the place of the dross. As in, maybe Manu is the shit, but Parker, speedy as he is, is about as indelicately bland a guard as you’ll find creating that much on the floor. And where the fuck are you going to get an entire roster’s worth of dudes to run with those two? Same goes for the Jazz—dump Sloan, fine, but then who takes the helm to mount the gargantuan task of changing that team’s style? Plus, again, where do all the pieces come from? Just some knowledge for thought. . . there’s a reason why identity is such an easy sell for organizations, on both an operational and a commercial level.


At 3/20/2006 12:55 PM, Anonymous TheMarkPike said...

You at SXSW? I hit up that Ghostface show (Fader one) Saturday early evening. Dude was on point. My voice like Mr. Ed after versin' Triumph.
What other ish you hit up?

At 3/20/2006 2:15 PM, Anonymous Glenn Gervasio said...

I assume by your mention of a last second Bron, you are referring to Lebron passing up the shot in favor of Flip Murray or Damon Jones. That's his trademark.

At 3/20/2006 2:21 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

Though if a choke is sometimes just a miss (which it obviously often is), how often is a "clutch shot" simply a "made shot"?

At 3/20/2006 2:29 PM, Anonymous pyrex chapman said...

those statistics cited by simmons are interesting but meaningless as an indicator of "clutchness". gleaned from two and a half years of games, the miniscule sample sizes render analysis and interpretation a pointless exercise in reductionism. no matter the specificity of the situation, judging a fellow like kobe bryant on 25 of the 4,269 shots he's chucked up over the last few seasons is shoddy science (for the record, that's 0.59% of his total field goal attempts).

to be sure, kobe's preference for hoisting up a 3-pointer while draped in a triple-team instead of dishing off the game-winner to an open teammate (lamar, hold your head) doubtlessly contributes to his dismal "clutchness", but i still maintain the numbers we're working with are too small to give any credence to.

i guess that's my point: different players have strengths and weaknesses that help shape these "clutch" numbers (quick release, elevation on jump shots, deadly 3-point range, epic greediness), but drawing any conclusions about a player's ability to mentally "step up" with the game is on the line is milking too much from too little of a teat.

although a great scorer with a knack for getting good looks at the basket, carmelo is so far ahead of the league average that it's a lot safer to chalk him off as a statistical aberration than some 11th hour superhero.

At 3/20/2006 3:06 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

If you follow the link to 82games.com, the writers there say themselves that this isn't really meaningful to evaluating the INDIVIDUAL PLAYER.

They write:

"Ultimately while this kind of thing is fun, it's not to our minds particularly meaningful, other than indicating that the league as a whole could probably get more efficient in "end game" possessions...one easy place to start might be to try and be less predictable! It's nice to have a go-to guy, but when the other team knows without much doubt that a certain guy is getting the ball, it is going to be a lot easier to defend!"

At 3/20/2006 3:33 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

pv, my main point was that in college ball a clutch shot is usually just a made shot, whereas in the pros it's a skill unto itself (like the two-minute drill). i don't think nba clutch translates well into statistics, but i also don't feel it's such a mess of intangibles that it operates to the same degree in baseball, say, where every at-bat is more or less identical. like i said,it's the star embracing and responding to the craziness of the final seconds, as opposed to getting waylaid by as they try to operate as usual.

glenn, lebron's trademark avoidance of the game-winner is, to my mind, a valid alternative—the focal point of the team making an effective decision in the frantic moment. if it worked, that is. what i'm saying is, yes, different strengths allow for different solutions to the problem, but they all come down to one man's ability to negotiate the assumed conditions of the final play.

this all goes back to thinking of nba action as supremely complex, so that so-called "intangibles" actually have a formal effect on the way things work, however subtle. i would argue that football is the extreme opposite of baseball/college hoops' near-mysticism, since it's no mystery that every single motion on the field changes markedly to defense against late-game heroics. it's such a game of discrete positions that there's really nothing left to the imagination, as far as the difference between clutch and usual is concerned.

At 3/20/2006 3:37 PM, Anonymous Mr. Six said...

If LeBron finished his career having made the assist on a series of memorable last-minute shots that in turn led to a handful of championships, I imagine he'd retire contented in having expanded the definition of "clutchness," if not redefined it altogether.

At 3/20/2006 3:58 PM, Blogger mutoni said...

i know that simmons is an unabashed kobe-hater, so he probably wet himself when he found that little nugget on 82games.com; however, kobe remains (as shoals put it) the ace when the game is on the line. This season, and this season alone, anthony has been the premiere clutch shooter. If you look at their histories, though, Bryant is laughably ahead of carmelo or just about anyone else in the league in terms of the number of big shots made and trusted to take in big games.

I hope melo keeps it up in the playoffs and does it for a number of years, but only then could this actually become debatable.

March Madness bores me. Just wanted to mention that. Haven't been able to sit through a single game so far. Not enough character development. Who the hell are these guys and why should I care about them, let alone who wins?

At 3/20/2006 4:05 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i'll put it this way: we've seen melo make a lot of game-winner this year, and that's the beginning of something. but with kobe, there's absolutely no doubt that he understands that scenario and how to operate in it like no one else in the league.

there's also probably an important distinction to draw here between "shot-making" and "playmaking."

this is when i say "robert horry" and shit gets crazy.

At 3/20/2006 4:10 PM, Blogger Brickowski said...

i can't believe you guys hit up PF Changs with Tone! Something tells me he'd put gobs of extra mustard in his sauce.

i second everything you said about the differences between NBA and college in the clutch, and think these differences are even apparent in the way the two market themselves. March Madness is a nice way of saying "fluky shit is bound to happen!" while the L always puts the spotlight on our beloved stars (kobe. lebron. it's fanntastic!).

and i've been trying hard to avoid simmons-bashing, but that column was one of the laziest things i've ever read. this isn't even another chapter of freedarko at war with statistics. i'm all for questioning conventional wisdom, but if you don't think kobe is the deadliest man in the league when the chips are down you've obviously never watched your team play a meaningful game against him.

However, Simba really took laziness to a new level with this gem: "I bet this is Popovich's last season. Just a gut feeling." Gut feeling? Are you kidding me? Fuck, I don't even think O'Reilly uses that line anymore now that Colbert's made it into an art. You're right, Bill, after a career coaching Airforce and the Pomona Sagehens Pop is going to walk away now that he's assembled a team capable of flirting with the dynasty tag. And to think it used to make my day when Simmons had a new NBA column...

At 3/20/2006 4:47 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

I understand the point about football being very controlled at all moments, but I've watched enough of the NFL to know that the last two minutes of a close game are an entirely different version of football than the rest of the game, and that some players thrive in those situations, and some don't. I don't know if it's a matter of "clutch" ability or simply having the skills that the different style of game requires. A combination of both, I presume, much like the NBA. The big difference between clutch performances in the NBA and the NFL are in attitude (or at least, as the attitudes are perceived). Clutch basketball players are portrayed as supremely confident, cocky individuals asserting their total will--they know the situation and are embracing it. Clutch football players are portrayed with words like "cool"--it's not that they assert will, but that they maintain poise, control, and precision under the chaotic pressure of the field with a game on the line. Compare attitudes of Kobe to Brady. But I suppose that's part of the point of difference--the NBA clutch performer makes the moment, while the NFL clutch performer maintains standard quality of play despite the heightened moment.

At 3/20/2006 5:00 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

"poise, control, and precision under the chaotic pressure of the field with a game on the line"

being clutch in the nfl is all about knowing how to bring order to what could be a chaotic situation--by realizing that it needs a different kind of order. nba clutch is riding that chaos and ultimately rising above.

At 3/20/2006 5:03 PM, Anonymous T. said...

I know we're trying to look at basketball through a new prism - but seriously, if there's one player who scares me with the ball in his hands at the end of the game, it's the black mamba. I just know he's going to make the shot or the play.

At 3/20/2006 5:16 PM, Blogger Mirabeau Lamar said...

Not to become the most predictible commentor on this blog, but I'll take Shoals's Big Shot bait. Horry's rep for hitting crucial, late-game shots began in H-Town, grew in Hollywood and came in to full fruition in San Antonio. He already had received the nickname Big Shot Rob, before his play in the fourth quarter and overtime in Gm 5 of last year's Finals (21 pts in 17 minutes) sealed the deal. However, there has been talk that he is crazy overrated, due to his mediocre career stats. If he missed those "clutch" shots, no one would have blinked an eye; he's not supposed to hit those shots. But when he does, he's Big Shot Rob, the greatest clutch role player in league history. Sadly, when Bron or Kobe miss those shots, it's a "choke" or "lack of will."
This article from the Slate last year (written before Game 5) sums up the argument against Horry and even includes an bombastic quote from Simmons about Horry's significance:

Maybe he's just the League's luckiest player in decades. After all, this is a dude who bit Jason Terry and Stackhouse on the arm a few weeks ago, during the end of an important game, which was rather un-clutch of him.

At 3/21/2006 10:58 AM, Blogger emynd said...

I agree that, for the most part, the NCAA tournament is mostly boring, but I don't think there is any doubt that the last 3 or 4 minutes of any particular game can be pretty exciting, precisely because of the accident-factor. I recently suggested to a bunch of very high friends that each game in the tournament should only last right around 5 minutes. They giggled.

It'd make the games a lot more watchable and we could skip the other 35 minutes of mostly unwatchable play.

I feel like this piece is a much better-articulated version of what I was trying to get at with the "freestyle/written rap" metaphor: namley that "clutch play" is a different beast than the rest of the game. Or, as shoals says so fucking eloquently: "Time bears down, but this merely demands a different kind of perfect approach, as opposed to inflicting chaos upon the athlete’s ability to see the situation and move through it accordingly."


At 3/21/2006 11:16 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

really, i'm not contradicting myself by having just said

"being clutch in the nfl is all about knowing how to bring order to what could be a chaotic situation--by realizing that it needs a different kind of order. nba clutch is riding that chaos and ultimately rising above."

because that "rising above" is discovering the perfection within it. order and perfection are two very different things.

my point in bringing up horry is merely that he makes big shots, but you'd never say he makes big plays. that's kind of the difference between kobe and melo at this point.

At 3/21/2006 11:19 AM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

one more thing: in the end of an nfl game, everything is order, but of a different kind. with the clock dying out in the nba, though, generally the only thing not chaotic is the star winning the game.

and why has no one called me out on failing to adequately account for "big shots" that happen with, say, forty seconds left? in many cases, those do tend toward the football clutch model of hyper-deliberate execution.

At 3/21/2006 12:12 PM, Anonymous Aaron said...

Can I state that I hate the basketball endgame? It's way too slow and boring, and commercials make this an even bigger problem when you're watching games on TV.

I like watching the ends of blowouts much more, because you don't have the incessant interruptions of play, the incessant fouling and free throws and the time-outs after every single play.

Surely the modern basketball end game is not Free Darko. Only the final shot, the idea of having the ball in a single individual's hands with the chance to change the outcome of the game... that's the thing that's Free Darko.

At 3/21/2006 12:56 PM, Blogger Rocco Chappelle said...


I was just about to comment on "40 sec. clutch", I agree with most here that Kobe is the definitive clutch performer of our day when it comes to finality. I feel like that topic has been adequately covered, so there's no reason to enumerate why I feel this way. But if my team needs a 3 with 52 ticks left to get within 4 points of the opponent to give my team a chance to win or if I needed a tough 2 with the shot clock running down and 38 sec. remaining to put my team up by 6; sealing the victory, there is no one I'd like taking that shot more than Chauncey Billups. His form of “clutch” is completely different from what Kobe does. Kobe embraces the drama of the moment and stakes his claim to it. Billups defuses the drama but in a singularly thrilling way.

As a side note, how many times have we seen the Lakers down by 3 with 4 minutes to go, Kobe comes down the court, bricks 3 consecutive fade aways, then down by 7 with a 1 1/2 minutes to go he drives to the hole, drops the shot, gets fouled, the Lakers get a stop, Kobe hits a long 2, and somehow the Lakers end up down by 2 with 5 secs. left and Kobe barely misses a 3 to win the game. If he had played within himself with 4 minutes to go his last second heroics wouldn't have been necessary. Kobe creates the drama. I totally believe that Kobe sabotaged games in high school simply to build his legend.

At 3/21/2006 1:16 PM, Blogger S-Love said...

Regarding Lebron's passing:
Damon Jones and Flip Murray needed those shots. These were not just good passes, but strokes for the egos of two role players who will come in handy down the line.
Mr. Six makes a good point that Lebron's legend might come from famous assists, but I think that's more history repeating itself than re-tooling the definition of clutch. You knew the Bulls had their title after Jordan made the obligatory assit pass to either Paxon or Kerr.
I don't know about Kobe deliberately tanking games, but I will say that he doesn't stroke his teammate's egos like Lebron has. When he missed the three the other night, then yelled at his teammate about calling a timeout, I wasn't sure what to think. What does he say to the teammate if the shot goes in?

At 3/21/2006 5:09 PM, Anonymous T. said...

I will note, especially for Shoals - that Hollinger just listed Gerald Wallace as the captain of his all underrated team.

At 3/21/2006 10:05 PM, Blogger Vegan Viking said...

In a lot of societies throughout history, order and perfection have been considered the same thing. I think NBA coaches might say they still are. It's a matter of tastes, I suppose.

At 3/21/2006 10:33 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

maybe this is what i should've said in the first place: last-minute football is an orderly thing with undertones of chaos; in last-minute basketball the star must find his own, heuristic order within a strained situation. i meant perfection in terms of something crafted, rather than the way things naturall occur.

saying they were "very different things" was fucking retarded of me

At 3/22/2006 12:25 AM, Anonymous T. said...

perhaps the difference is in football, a player must perform in a situation created for him. in the nba, the player must (oftentimes) create his own situation. perhaps this is why improvisional talented quarterbacks (aaron brooks, culpepper, jake plummer, vick) have had similar or less success then guys who are system guys (Brad Johnson - heck even Trent Dilfer won a super bowl). or maybe i'm just grasping at straws and inventing my own examples to support a weak arguement?

At 3/23/2006 10:02 AM, Anonymous Nightingale said...

I think Bron's been reading the FreeDarko comments - last night he dimes to Flip for the game-tying 3 with 0.4 left in regulation, but takes it himself in OT.

At 1/11/2007 2:42 AM, Anonymous Jonathan said...

Actually, I look forward to when Kobe has the ball in the final seconds, because I know that he'll almost always miss and take away from his "legend" that much more. He's always been overrated - how many huge shots did Fisher or Horry make when they were there? How often did the defense still have to worry about collapsing in on Shaq on crucial plays? Ever since those guys left, Kobe has looked bad down the wire far often than he's looked good. If you want a larger sample size, why not check his shooting percentage in the last 5 minutes of close games? Or how about in the 4th quarter? He sucks by both of those standards too.


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