12 February 2019

Who should take the last shot?

It happens in close games. You make a shot just as time is running out and you can either tie, sending the game to overtime, or you can win the game for your team. Buzzer beaters, that’s what they are called in basketball. 

This is about buzzer beaters. The thinking is solely that of my friend and fellow hoops fan, Tony Courseault. He was commenting on a Toronto Raptors game a few weeks ago. The Raptors had made a fierce comeback with a minute and 10 seconds left, to shave an 11 point deficit to a deuce. AND they had the last possession. 

Here’s Tony’s commentary:

‘And what did they do? They give it to Kawhi Leonard and had everybody else clear out. The worst single effing basketball play in the history of all sports.  Kawhi had almost nothing to do with the comeback, and yet the team and the coaching strategy just gave him the keys for the last gratuitous, hero shot.  An unnecessary 3-point attempt.  No passing On that last possession. No movement with the other players. Nothing.  All of a sudden I don’t like the raptors anymore.’

For the record the Raptors are in second place in the Eastern Conference of the NBA, just 1.5 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks.

Tony started off his comment with a broadside: ‘Tonight’s rockets raptors game illustrates perfectly how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have destroyed basketball.’ He would explain, subsequently, but by way of counterpoint, consider this comment a day or two later:

‘Did you see the end of that Boston Golden State game last night? It was a two point game and the Celtics have a ball with five seconds left but The ball moved and found the open man… Marcus Morris. Had a great look but just missed. Happens. At that point I realized the Celtics were back and they will beat the Raptors.  They fired an excellent coach and got his back up. Toronto deserves what they get.’

Back to Kobe and Michael.

‘I went to a huge playoff game years ago with some friends. The Lakers were up 3 - 1 against Steve Nash in the Phoenix Suns. This was after Shaq or before Gasol, the Lakers were the seventh seed and the Suns were the second seed. TREMENDOUS upset in the making.  The Lakers had Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum as their centers. Not all-stars. But the game plan was to go inside out. Phil Jackson emphasized this to his team by having them watch the movie, The Inside Man, by Denzel Washington

‘So this was game six and the series was at 3 to 2.  The inside out game was working to perfection… Until this game.  All of a sudden, Kobe completely abandons a game plan and just started shooting wildly. He scored 50 points. The Lakers lost in overtime. Kobe was not criticized. But the last possession illustrated just how egregious Kobe’s decision making was. 

‘With 18 seconds left, Kobe has the ball, languorously dribbling the ball and time away at near half court.  Just standing and dribbling. Again, the game is tied and any score wins the series in what would have surely not only been one of the nba’s biggest upsets, but Kobe and Phil’s sweetest victory.  7 seconds, 6...5...4...3...2...Kobe wants to shoot a 3 pointer over his defender but by now they’ve doubled and he’s forced to jack up a wild, fall away 3 that doesn’t even touch the rim.  Ideally, with 18 seconds left, I would’ve liked to have seen the ball move around naturally. But, let’s say that Kobe wanted to be the hero. He should have driven to the basket for a two pointer that he can make over anybody, or all the way to the basket and get the certain whistle and foul shots to ice the game and series. 

Nothing like seeing that in real life and just how bad he read the defense or ignored the best set of options. He did it the first five games, so he knew how to do it and was willing earlier. After that series, Kobe kind of lost me. Even after winning two more titles.’

And he had this to say about Jordan:

‘The difference with Jordan was, quite frankly, he made more of those shots and his teams won. But like the Golden state warriors and their prolific three point shooting, it’s the talent that transcends conventional playing. It’s not recommended for others. But everybody from California to China is playing this way now. So when you try to play like the Warriors, or Michael Jordan, without the same ability, It results in you being dominated over and over and over again like groundhogs day. If the bad boy Detroit Pistons try to do fast break like the streaking Los Angeles Lakers, they would not have had a chance. But they played graded out basketball and toppled Magic Johnson and the mighty Lakers.’

It’s easy to say stuff from the sideline and after the game, this we must remember. On the other hand, professional basketball players are supposed to be just that. Professional. God-like status on account of achievements allow players to get away with what could be called brain-fade. True, it’s a split-second decision at times, but in the instances referred to above, there was enough time to play with. 

Had Kawhi had made the shot, all this would have been forgotten by most, except the likes of Tony Courseault who is a true student of the game. Even a made shot doesn’t justify the kind of play that Kawhi, his coach and the Raptors had scripted. 

It’s a simple truth that’s often forgotten. Greatness is one thing, but even the greats have to play second fiddle in certain situations. There are periods, perhaps lasting a quarter or even just a few minutes, when other players come to the party, when the superstars take a back seat. If going with what works makes sense, Kawhi should not have had the ball in the dying seconds of that game. Neither should Kobe have indulged in grandstanding. It cost the Raptors a game and the Lakers a series, respectively. That’s a huge price to pay.