Monday, May 5, 2008

Hard To Quantify, And Scary As Hell

There is a human element to professional basketball that is generally misapplied and given far too much credence. Fans, announcers, coaches, players - we all too easily fall into the trap of cliches by saying how one team "wanted it more" or how one team "mentally collapsed", or maybe how a player "inspired a team to victory". These everyday proverbs have bits of truth to them - but this is the NBA, and mental fortitude means little in comparison to talent level. When you get to the NBA mental fortitude is an ingrained talent, and it doesn't waver nearly as much as we think from game to game, preseason to postseason. Yes, pro basketball is an emotional sport - but emotions only take you so far, and most of the time you can analyze the game objectively without becoming overly melodramatic. In the long run the team that has better talent almost always wins. This is the pride and tradition of the NBA.

Yet exceptions to this general tenet rear their head most often in the playoffs, and they are real exceptions. It is at this juncture where statistics, almost always useful, stop having much meaning. It is where the great ones show their superiority over the very good ones, something that plain numbers cannot easily reveal. If the NBA has a mental component, we see it fully only in the Spring. And it always shows itself. Only the strong survive. But make no mistake - you have to be very good to even get in that position where mental strength really helps.

Which brings us back to the Celtics. While this mental superiority often splendidly exemplifies itself in May and June (think Duncan, Ginobili and Wade as recent pillars of higher virtue) there is also an exact opposite which surfaces: choking. Some excellent teams get tight and slightly unravel (think the Pistons the last few years),while some out-and-out choke(the 2000 Blazers). Judging from their queasy first round, it appears the C's could fall into either unfortunate category.

Or not. It is very hard to pinpoint how choking happens, and how it can be rectified. There are outright collapses like the Kings and Blazers had against the Lakers, but these are only egregious examples. And with each failure (which the Celtics had in Games 4 & 6) a higher immunity to the infliction might appear. Switching sports momentarily, let's think of Peyton Manning. Manning choked so many times early in his career that at this point he seems almost above it. Conversely clutch players like Tom Brady or Tim Duncan don't always seem impervious from letting nerves stand in their way.

So choking is a hard thing to put your finger on. We know KG has had a reputation for disappearing down the stretch, and he did little to disprove that in the first round. It is one thing to play well in a pressure game when you're up by 15, another when you're down by 4 on the road. Will he be able to step up the way Duncan, Kobe and LeBron have done in the past? It certainly does not seem beyond him, and it also may be unfair to lump all of the load on his shoulders.

Nonetheless, how the Celtics play under extreme pressure will be one of the main elements everybody will be examining from now on. The key, as it has been the whole season, will be the defensive intensity. If the Celtics can maintain their excellence on that end of the ball they should be playing into June. But as we saw in the last ten days, we can no longer safely assume that this will automatically happen.

3 comments:

Matt Dunkel said...

Tim -- good post. The psychological side of pro sports is constantly over-emphasized... as if pro athletes are gonna poop their pants like you or I would if we were the ones on that free throw line.

At the same time, I want to respond re: KG's "reputation." I remember watching on TV on Garnett's birthday in 2004, when he showed up with a MONSTER Game 7 (32 pts, 21 boards) to beat the Kings. Both of the Wolves' PGs got hurt in that next Lakers series, so the team never went as far as it could have. But KG definitely showed that he can come up huge when it counts.

Here's hoping that he can get himself back to that dominant place this year!

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