Thursday, May 9, 2019

Bigger not better

Re: 2019 WCF Semi Game 5:  **Start of Rant - feel free to move on**

Steph said something in the post-game interview that I know he's said a million times but it bothered me nonetheless.  He said that it was a game of runs...

At 3:00 left in the 2nd the Dubs were up 57 to 37.  You'd think any team in the convo for 'Best Ever', any team that can play the kind of defense that they could, would just control tempo and make the other team work.  From that point, one of the most talented teams in history scored not a single point missing on 8 straight attempts, all by their best three players - 2 by Steph, 3 by KD and 3 by Klay.  Only one was a drive to the basket: a blown layup by KD.

I remember the days when any team, let alone a championship team, would have a couple of empty trips down the floor and you just knew that the best player on the team would put their head down and go to the hole and get to the line.  The other team was putting together a run, so you came down and put yourself in a position to get a basket or a whistle.  There was an art to stifling a run - killing a run.  KD, Klay and Steph all remember those days, they grew up watching it on TV.  But they have so much talent that they don't have to do things like that, think the game. 

Talented scorers in the past the calibur of Klay, Steph and KD were always leveraging the threat of shooting at range to get easier shots and to get to the line, the way Harden does now.  But Klay shoots the ball 20 times and doesn't get to the line once in FORTY-FIVE minutes of play (doesn't even try to) and everyone is like that's normal.  Steph is the most dangerous shooter of all times and can break down guys on the perimeter seemingly at will, but going to the hole is like a complete afterthought.  He played absolute dogshit the first half, had no feel at all at range and you couldn't point to the moment when he said to himself he should try going to the hole and get to the line to get himself going.  Steph has gotten better but you can't tell me he's clearly getting smarter.

They really haven't had to get smarter because they have all these safety nets to fall back on.  I'm not talking about gaming the refs for a call.  I'm talking about putting pressure on the defense in a way that they don't expect when your shot isn't falling.  I'm talking about consciously feeding a hot Klay instead of watching him light it up for the first 12 minutes and then mindlessly going away from him.  For all the nonsense that Harden engages in, he has a much better sense of taking advantage of all of his talents, maximizing what's around him, mainly because he has to.  He scored only once in the last 8 minutes but he made the right play every time: Rox scored on 8 of 12 possessions.  It was only when KD went down did you see Steph actually consciously decide to go to the hole and mix it up.  Suddenly he's scoring again and if you asked him after the game, he probably wouldn't be able to see the relationship between going to the hole and finally putting some shots down.

People will say it's just because he has the ball in his hand more when KD's out.  It's not that.  It's what Steph does with it when it's in his hand.  If the defense is sure that you're going to shoot, then that's a problem.  The defense should never be sure what you're going to do when you're at Steph's level.  His live dribble gives him too many options to play like garbage.  No one who can handle the ball AND move off-ball like Steph has an excuse.

For all the bellyaching for how good the Warriors are, they should be way better than this.  Draymond is still reckless.  Klay is as dependable as he is predictable.  Livingston looks as bad as CP3.  Steph disappears in proportion to KD rising and STILL hasn't put together that avoiding a touch foul is more important than staying on the floor.  KD hasn't been incorporated into the Warriors system, leveraging him to make everyone else even more deadly. He just does his own thing and scores 35 because any double team he sees is by someone terrified to leave their man - because of the chaos of a simple off-ball screen for Steph or Klay.  If anything he's stifled their system in two ways: 1) off-ball stuff takes effort, KD iso doesn't and 2) KD's excellence lets Steph off the hook for stretches of the game.  Steph plays like shit and doesn't feel any urgency, doesn't do anything different, because KD's really good and when he's really good all they need from Steph is passable.  If they finished the half yesterday the way they should have, they way you expect of a championship team, they could have easily been up 20+.  Maybe KD doesn't have to log as many minutes, maybe he doesn't get injured. 

It's like - if the Dubs are so good, why is playing Harden, the corpse of 34 year old CP3, a Capela that is a shell of himself and "Here comes Austin Rivers" such a toss up? If the Rox need to lose the smugness if they go on to lose, I think the Dubs have to as well, too.  They could have legitimately been beaten by Harden and Eric Gordon.  The Dubs haven't decisively been the better team for two consecutive quarters in the whole series.  They haven't been dominant at all.  They could reasonably have lost every game.

TL;DR: People dislike the Dubs because they're so good.  If they were as good as they think they are, they sure as shit don't play like it.

***Rant over***

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Worry vs Panic in basketball

Watched 5 games last night and something occurred to me when thinking about the two players that really stood out: Kawhi and Steph.
I saw two possessions where Jimmy Butler (of winning with 3rd stringers fame) saw Kawhi standing in front of him and just passed the ball away. Which is the defensive equivalent of watching Kelly Oubre's face as Steph drains another 1st quarter 3.
Guys like KD and Jimmy Butler are players that you worry about. But Steph and Kawhi are guys that make the entire team panic, the other team always knows where they are either to try and stop them or to avoid them. It's the difference between being helpless and being hopeless. KD scores 30 on 72% shooting and the opponent feels helpless. But Kawhi standing between you and the basket or Steph bombing from the logo, makes players feel hopeless.
I know that AD and Giannis definitely increase the other team's stress levels. But are they at the level where the opposing coach sees them and says "Oh, shit..."?
Every player that is all-star level and above has moments where they are engaged and in sufficient rhythm that you would say the other team was panicked by their presence on the court.  My contention is that, whether it can be quantified by say points per possession or plus/minus, when talking about MVP level talent, there are players that are really good like DeMar DeRozen, whose performance is contributory to the outcome of the game and other players such as Harden last year, whose performance was deterministic of the outcome of the game.
DeMar could play well for the Raptors and the Raptors could lose, he could play badly and they could win.  Same thing for KD on the Warriors.  But it seems less likely that Kawhi could play well and the Raptors lose or that he could play poorly and the Raptors win, just as its difficult for the Warriors to overcome a poor night from Steph or fall short when Steph is lighting it up.  
Their influence on the court will either elevate or drag down all the others, because they represent a question that the other team doesn't have a meaningful answer for.  As the opposition continues trying to answer the question to no avail, other players become more of a threat.  Kawhi and Steph are the most fascinating examples because of the polar opposition of their effect: on offense, Steph broadens the effective field of play, while the ground that Kawhi can cover is like a big black hole on the court that causes most players to think twice about dribbling too close or passing too near.
Calling it gravity or repulsivity is only representative of the phenomenon as it relates to spacing.  But I'm also talking about the isolation factor - the one that Harden exemplified so well last year.  The idea that he can get points on anyone in the league, one on one.  Kawhi's bump-off fadeaway is at that level, Steph's one-dribble pull-up is at that level.  Harden's stepback was at that level last year.  LeBron is at that level against the Raptors but was less so against the Celtics.  His lack of that one defining move is probably one of the greatest criticisms of his game.
When people see those moves happen, they know it's going in.  When defenders see those moves happen they feel dejected.  So they do everything in their power to prevent those moves from getting a chance to happen.  Creating this desperation, this panic, is what separates the good from the elite.  And it isn't the same as simply putting up a lot of numbers.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

It's not fair...

In the NBA finals for 2018, we witness once more the obliteration of the Cavs of Cleveland by the Warriors of Golden State.  A graceless dominance...a one-sided affair; the battle between the last two teams standing was competitive only in spurts with no question as to the better team.  The two decade long disparity in the talent levels of the Eastern and Western Conferences since the retirement of Michael Jordan has reached its zenith with an Eastern Conference team being swept out of the Championships for the first time since 2007 - which happened to be LeBron's first Finals berth.

While each of the previous three matchups between these teams had their own flavor to it - LeBron without Love or Kyrie vs a virgin Warriors team, LeBron the underdog vs a 73-win juggernaut, KD and the Warriors avenging their defeats at LeBron's hands - this matchup had much less in the way of tactics or strategic dynamics at work by either squad.  Watching the games there was a strong sense that the Warriors didn't have to play their best to win and yet they did win and win in a fashion that was laughable and embarrassing.

In sport, we seem to want outcomes that are both competitive & definitive, and yet, we love the narrative of the underdog.  We love the idea of underdogs rising to the occasion and felling those who 'should' win.  But we also have a strange distaste for matches that are 'unfair' where the dispararity between two competitors is too vast.  This is a strange contradiction: the only way to have a meaningful underdog is when the talent disparity is overwhelming.  One would think that anyone that liked rooting for an underdog would also like seeing a team badly outmatched in a competition.  But it raises another, more profound paradox for those with even a passing concern for what is fair or right: why would it be more satisfying or fair for a bad team to prevail over a good team than for a dominant team to perform in a dominant fashion?  

Clearly this seems to fly in the face of definitive results and in basketball in particular, a definitive result can and has been reached in many seasons - when the team with the best record in the regular season is also the team that has the best record in the playoffs i.e. the team that wins the Finals.  Only in these conditions can a team be said in an unambiguous way to be the best team in basketball, and in a perfect world any team that doesn't do both of these things couldn't be the most winningest team and therefore would have a questionable claim to being the best.  In 2017, the Warriors had the best record in basketball and lost only once in the playoffs - the best team was clear.  In 2018, the Warriors had the second best record in basketball and was pushed to 7 games against the team with the best record, the Rockets of Houston, and prevailed while that team was missing its second best player, Chris Paul.  How could they clearly be the best team in basketball when those doubts remain?  Would they have even gone to the Finals had Chris Paul not been injured or if the Rockets hadn't achieved the statistically improbable feat of missing 27 consecutive 3-pointers in the decisive game 7 in front of their home crowd?

Thus, despite wanting definitive results and fair matchups, we see that not only can definitive results only come from unfair matchups but also that one type of winning - playoff or 16-game winning - is clearly seen as more important that another type of winning - consistent 82-game winning.  This creates this strange disatisfaction with the underdog win whereby the Cavs who won in 2016 have people saying that their win was due chiefly to luck, as people say of the Warriors in surpassing the Rockets this year.  This is the strange dichotomy that comes from wanting in the first place - that the underdog inspires us and reminds us that anything is possible yet at the same time it discomforts us that even the strong, the talented and the hard working can be felled by lesser rivals, by circumstances and the world around them.

Karate, like life, has little concern for what is fair.  LeBron is to individual athletes what the Warriors are to professional sports teams.  LeBron is a mixture of skill with overwhelming physical prowess; the Warriors are a mixture of system/culture with overwhelming basketball talent.  LeBron is going to finish with the most points in basketball history, cementing his claim to greatest of all time.  What is the signature move of his that helped him get all those points?  Is it the Duncan high-off-the-glass jumper?  The Hakeem dream-shake?  The Kareem sky-hook?  The Jordan fade-away?  The Iverson cross-over?  The Ginobli euro-step?

It is none of the above.  LeBron scored that many points without one go-to signature move because for his entire career he's been able to get to the basket at will based on sheer athleticism and strength alone.  This is something that absolutely no one has been able to do as well or as long.  This is a genetic reality that was apparent from his first days in the league.  "He's bigger and faster than the guy in front of him" has been the foundation of his 30000+ points.

Likewise, the Warriors could play the most skillful basketball but they really don't have to.  They have, on average, more people on the court who can score, score at a high percentage, and manufacture their own shot than perhaps any team in NBA history.  Only USA men's basketball teams have been better and the Warriors are currently better than some of those teams.

In a very real way this is 'unfair' by any definition of fairness.  It is interesting then that those who marvel at the seeming unfairness of the Warriors don't similarly remark about LeBron.  In a game such as basketball, where skill should be the determining factor, it isn't 'fair' that he can bully his way to the basket whenever he wants but that's the reality.  Some of us are born with gifts that others aren't.  

Kevin Durant - gifted in ways parallel to LeBron - felt the brunt of that 'unfairness' when his Thunder team fell to LeBron's Heat team in 2012.  The Warriors felt the brunt of that 'unfairness' in 2016 when they similarly fell to LeBron's Cavs.  Them teaming up to visit unfairness upon LeBron is something that only a non-karateka could complain about.

All of these ways in which people react to sport is revealing of the degree to which the average person lives under the illusion of fairness - the illusion of right.  To the karateka, complaining about fairness is missing the mark.  It certainly doesn't make us stronger or keep us safer.  Life is what we make of right and justice when it doesn't exist - what these things cause us to do.  How we perform and what lengths we are willing to go to in spite of an unfair world.  LeBron was 'unfairly' outmatched yet again and he opened his effort with a sublime 51 pt performance that made everyone for a moment question what was possible, wasted largely through a mental error on the part of his teammate, JR Smith.  But did he reach those heights again to see if the outcome could be changed?  No, he didn't and perhaps it is impossible to ask that.  Perhaps it is asking too much.  But this is a question that only LeBron can answer - a test that only he can take.  All of us have the choice of trying even harder tomorrow or satisfying ourselves that what is asked of us is impossible.

Wanting or expecting what is fair generally causes us to do the latter and not the former.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Chinks in the Armour

In karate, we speak of Shin-Gi-Tai - the interplay between the mind, the skill and the body.  But watching the NBA Finals last night I saw a remarkable example of this indivisible trinity at work and it reminded me of something that I've known for a long time...

There's no room for error at the mountain top.  Every misstep at the top is a slight tumble back to the Earth...

The example in this case is of course, someone who is at the top.  And for a long while, the mountain top in terms of individual basketball prowess has been LeBron James.  His prowess was on full display in this first game of the 2018 Championship round matched yet again against the Warriors of Golden State creating a third consecutive rematch following their first battle in 2015.  When all was said and done, LeBron's performance was superlative: 51 pts on 19/32 shooting.  It was a level of excellence and rhythm and mushin that is rarely seen at the highest levels of competition, when so much is at stake. But LeBron did all that one man could do to put his team in a position to win...

That is to say, he almost did...

Even to one from whom so much is asked, even more is needed.  This is the nature of asymmetrical warfare which lay at the heart of karate-jutsu - how you behave when you are outmatched but must fight all the same.  LeBron is laughably outmatched by the collective talent of the Warriors - the disparity is humbling to say the least.  And yet, the combination of his patience and his urgency on the game allowed his team to play the Warriors to a standstill: to an actual stalemate in the dying seconds with a pair of chances to win the game outright.

Cue the miscues.

George Hill can't be expected to hit every free throw and the one he missed that would have given the lead to the Cavs mightn't have given them the win.  But miss it he did.  And having secured the rebound from that miss, JR Smith mightn't have put a shot in the air that would have struck true, mightn't have found daylight trying to score, might have been blocked.  He might have found LeBron at the top of the circle, eager for the chance to win the game at a stroke with one finishing technique - with todome.  Instead, Smith picked this moment to lose a sense of his surrounding - a flaw in his zanshin - the abiding mind that remains aware of the situation and the circumstance.  He mistakenly thought that his team had the lead when it was in fact tied.  And thinking this, he ran as far as possible from the opposing players, trying to allow the remaining seconds to expire and secure victory when he had the outcome of the game in his hands for the taking.

LeBron spends those precious 4.7 seconds going through every possible thought that one of his level would think.  He gives himself an angle to receive the pass and calls for the ball.  He signals to Smith to go towards the net not away.  He tries to get Smith's attention to make another pass.  He turns to his bench in an last-ditch attempt to call timeout.  Yet the time expires.

Aghast, he chastises Smith for his lapse right there.  Smith admits that he lost track of the score.  LeBron thinks to push the issue and then relents, making his way to the bench.

And in that moment, there was nothing else that could be done.  That precious opportunity - there for the taking - was gone.  All that was left was to marshal his talents for the five additional minutes of basketball.

But the disappointment, the dismay, of a mistake of that magnitude on this stage, with such a small margin for error as it was, was too much.  These were the things that were going through LeBron's mind - exhausted from 47 minutes of basketball at the highest intensity - when he sat back on his bench and asked the simple question of his team:

"Did we still have a timeout?"

Coach Tyronn Lue confirmed for him that they did.

And what comes next is so profoundly human, isn't it?  To have tried so hard and to be undone in that one moment through no fault of your own.  To let slip that inner despair, that hurt, to let it seep out of you so that it doesn't swallow you whole.  Trying as hard as you can, feeling victory in your grasp and watching it slip away through the mistakes of others...anyone who had ever felt what LeBron felt in that moment probably felt it with far less of a burden on their shoulders than the burdens that LeBron shoulder.

But that's the thing: LeBron isn't allowed to be human.  Not being human is what made him 'LeBron'.  It's what set him above others at the mountaintop, in a position where others would have to look up.  He is a leader.

The naked display of emotion that he shows is a small chink in the armour.  Compared to the previous 47 minutes of superlative basketball where he answered every challenge posed, those ten seconds of disappointment should be inconsequential...

Instead they are the most important thing that he does all game.  The game, in that one moment, is lost.

And this is an essential lesson of karate - one characterized by these terms such as suki, fudoshin, shitai, kuzushi, kakugo.

Kyle Korver feels the moment, does what he can.  He claps his hands vigourously trying to rally the troops, trying to salve the pain of the moment.  A trigger to the Captain; a message that we haven't lost yet.

But what is that small vocal display of resistance when compared with the broken spirits of the Captain.  If the Captain's spirit is broken, so too, is the team's.

The Warriors would outscore the Cavs by 10 points in the final 5 minutes of the basketball game after having played them to a standstill for the previous 48 minutes.  Nothing during the game would suggest that they would be suddenly that much better than the Cavs during the overtime frame.

Save for LeBron's chink in the armour.

We all have gaps in us - suki - places where we are vulnerable.  When we are struck in these vulnerable spots, it is very, very, very easy for us to lose heart and it is even easier for someone to say that we shouldn't.  But resolve - kakugo - becomes the most important skill that anyone can have in these moments, more important than any punch, any kick and any jumpshot.  We are unbalanced - kuzushi - by these pitfalls when they hit us at a moment when our emotional investment is greatest, when our hopes are at their highest. We are knocked off our stride and almost invariably the disappointment fills our mind and then seeps out into our bodies and our posture - shitai - the listless body that follows the mind that has lost heart.

LeBron had done all that one man can do, but leaders must be able to do more than just a man.  They must abandone their own needs & their entitlement to their own emotions in order to be what the moment demands.  And even the greatest, most skilled humans can find this undertaking a bridge too far - so in moments when a person unaccustomed to great demands finds themselves similarly challenged, chances are good that they too will stumble.

To the karateka, who builds an army of one and then would dare to command that army irrespective of your fortunes or the chance at victory, the lesson of keeping heart in the direst of circumstances is one that we must take to heart.  Because there is no reason to think that LeBron couldn't have won that game if he'd sat down and said "Bad break, boys.  But I'm going to score on anyone they put in front of me in overtime and y'all are going to do the same!"  He'd been doing exactly that all game and he just needed two of the following three things to happen:  to believe he could do it, actually do it or convince his teammates that they could do it.  Resolve was all that was needed to win that game.

Asking this of him, of anyone really, is so simple as to be naive.  Perhaps fate was already decided.  But for those of us who would defy fate and the inevitable, be the outlier that challenges the odds as LeBron himself has been for so much of his life, for those of us who decide to live our lives to the last and fight because we have no other choice, this is the answer to the question of how to win when you have no reason to.  The only chance that anyone had to win a battle that seemed lost was to fight.

LeBron lost that fight.  The question is: is that insignificant?  Or is it the real reason that they lost the game?

Monday, December 4, 2017

12. On the Road Again...

As always the challenge is to simplify. Chop wood and carry water.  Jog and strengthen your core.  Lots of soreness in my vastus lateralis and my glutes.  Got to spend less time sitting.

Trying to stay in the moment, focusing on breathing and midfoot striking.  Still a fair amount of ankle pain.  Days off have to be devoted to stretching, strengthening the my groin and strengthening my ankle.  It is my biggest gap.

I feel so heavy out there.  I feel like each step is a 1.0 on the Richter scale.  2-3 weeks of going out every day should build up the needed capacity in my joints and ligaments.  Then we’ll start opening up the distance.

I figure once I’m able to run a 5k in an hour then it might be time to buckle down and do the handstand and pullup treatment.  Who knows when that might be.  Jogging for 20 minutes and my heart is bawling most of the way.

I’m an unfinished sentence.  I’m a work in progress.  It took me 12 months to count to 12.  Just need to improve on that mark.

I’m happy to be on the road again.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

11. Human being or becoming myself?

I am unfinished.  I am unfinished.  I am an unfinished sentence.  An unfinished story, an unfinished work of art.

The illusion is the idea of stasis: the idea of status quo.  The universe is defined by vectors and to understand this is to see our lives dramatically different - as big a difference as the difference between classical physics and relativity.  Yesterday I didn't do any exercise.  I didn't stay the same.  I changed. I got weaker.  Today I did 10 leg lifts.  And I will change again.  Tomorrow I'll be stronger.

There is a mountain top out there for all of us.  A vision of ourselves that we have in our heads.  We work at jobs we don't like and it's like an itch in your head that you can't scratch.  You know that you were meant to be more and we try to define 'more' by our salary, by things we buy.  But 'more' is that person in our heads: the vision of ourselves, a person who is unafraid and made real through pursuing what actually moves them.  We call this 'following our heart' but that expression reduces it to something emotional and irrational.

Living life this way is the most rational process a conscious, mortal being can make.  Living any other way is irrationality driven by an overvaluation of what we have and an undervaluation of what might be - of possibility.

We think that we are ourselves that we are beings and complete and definitive.  But the definitive version of ourselves is up on that mountain top.  And we know inside that we aren't there.  It is very important for us not to be okay with this.  Because once we become okay with it - with not being as good as we could be - we have decided on a direction.  We aren't standing pat, we've chosen a direction.

The direction is down.

Just because mortality has a 100% win record does mean that we should stop fighting it.  If we aren't going to fight it, why not just hasten it's victory?  Why equivocate?  I have a great deal of respect for people who smoke and drink and live themselves into an early death.  It's the difference between doing something and simply saying that you're doing something.  Why exist between those two decisions, those two positions?

Why do I do that?  After all, I think I know better - I always think I know better.  But do I really know better if knowing doesn't make me better?

Prove that you know.

Friday, October 6, 2017

10. Surprise…Counting to 52 will take longer than I thought

It wasn’t an unexpected turn.  Things just get away from us.  I’m disappointed that I let it get to my head.  I surrendered.  I told myself that I’d catch up after the fact but I surrendered.  And now I’m on the road again.

Ideally, I won’t worry so much about falling off the path.  I’ll worry a lot more about how fast I can get back on it.  Suki – suki is the appreciation of small things.  Small things can make a big difference.  I have always taken small things – like a step, or a day for granted.  I’m still working on it.  Human becoming and all that.

One kata.  One push-up.  One walk.  One sentence.  Even for a master calligrapher, the number one is the hardest to write.  One is the hardest part of counting to 52.  It’s just that when you count to one for a while it gets less hard.  I can’t see how it ever gets easier.  Just less difficult.

That's a big difference there.

The Stillpoint calls to me again.  I sprained my ankle and I thought that I was 26 instead of 36.  It still hurts and I have no excuse.  I used my recovering ankle as an excuse to postpone my counting.  When I know full well that being hurt is the most important time to count of all.   It is my hope that knowing this I’ll do better next time that I forget to count.

But for now, I’ll take pride in being able to finally count to…