Not just anyone can sink that one and only shot to win a game. And the importance of that final bucket cannot be exaggerated, as we saw last Sunday in Boston when the Lakers upended the Celtics.
First up was Bryant. With his Lakers trailing 89-88, he drove left into the key top, providing him with a view of the entire court that made doubling him too risky. Not that Allen appeared to need the help: He was aggressively mirroring Bryant, who was playing despite a sprained ankle that reduced his lift and long-lasting injuries to two fingers that affected his shooting. Nevertheless, he squirmed and spun and writhed up a flattened fallaway swish that Allen turned to watch like a pitcher glaring at a home run.
So now it was Allen's turn. During the Celtics' timeout with 7.3 seconds to go, he readied himself for the likelihood of a cross-court pass from
"You've got 10 seconds, this is it, so you definitely are locked in and everybody knows exactly the play you've got to make," said Allen, discussing this very scenario with me six days earlier in the Celtics' locker room. "It would be funny if you could take the five guys [coming out of the huddle], somewhat like the World Series of Poker, and you put the heart rate on them. And you would be able to say, 'He's getting the shot because his heart rate is a little elevated.' Or, 'His [heart] is so calm that he's getting the shot.' "
Allen has learned to read the poker faces coming out of those huddles. "It's like when we're in practice early in the season and we're playing the second unit, and it's a one-possession game and
I asked Allen how a monitor might rate his heartbeat coming out of the huddle for the final shot of a tight game.
"I think mine would be slower, sure," Allen said.
He appeared to be relaxed Sunday when Pierce drew in the defense and leapt to swing the ball to Allen at the left elbow of the three-point line near the Lakers' bench. Afterward, the 6-foot-5 Allen felt as if he might have rushed up the shot slightly, to compensate for the close-out defense of 6-foot-9
"I've missed plenty of [win-or-lose] shots," Allen said six days earlier. "People leave you alone when you miss a shot, or [they say], 'You'll get it next time.' But when you make a shot, they talk about it for two days like it's the greatest thing."
So it was. Bryant's shot clinched a winning road trip for the Lakers, who lost earlier at Cleveland (they finished 5-3 after a loss at Memphis one day after the Boston game). Meanwhile, Allen's Celtics faced renewed speculation that they were too old to contend and that he may soon be traded. The outcomes of one shot for each team had made all of the difference.
"I walk out there thinking they know I'm going to shoot it, I know I'm going to shoot it," said All-Star guard
Instead of tightening under the pressure, Mavericks guard
"I've got one picture in my basement in Atlanta, and I have two in Dallas. They're blown up big, and they actually say 'Game Winner' on the bottom of them. Pretty cool, pretty cool."
He can't say he was relaxed before making those shots. "More than anything, you're really locked in," he said. "It's almost like being in the zone, and especially if you know the play is coming to you. You already went through it time and time again in your head during that timeout, that 'Hey, I'm going to do whatever I've got to do to get this ball in the hole.' "
Smart, of course, made the 16-foot jumper with five seconds remaining to win the 1987 NCAA championship for
"I can't tell you, man," he said. "It just helps me relax. It's just a little mental thing that I do as I'm coming out on the floor. I do it especially if I know I'm about to get the last shot. It totally relaxes me and puts me in the mode."
But then, Davis is always preparing himself for the biggest moments. "All the time," he said. "You're always shooting against the clock when you're working out or playing on your own. Even as a kid you practice those last-second shots and you try to put yourself in that moment. That's the fun part of the game: You make it, you're the hero; you miss it, oh well."
A lot of drudgery and hard work goes into making those shots.
"That's the way that I train myself," Allen said. "I was on the treadmill this morning running -- you do everything you can do to condition your heart to beat in times where the atmosphere takes a jump to another level, where the energy juices up everything, and now you're sitting there thinking" -- he exhales -- "I'm rising with this energy. But then you're able to calm yourself, and you're not allowing your emotions to take you out. So you still can think."
While Celtics fans may be agonizing over the pressure, Allen is focusing on what he has done so many times before. This opportunity to win the game with one shot is something he has earned -- or so he reminds himself.
"The last-second shots, they're one of those things, when you go to do it, you don't think about it," he said. "Because this is what you've done forever. It just so happens this is the last three or four minutes when everybody else is thinking, Boy, we've got to do this for the game. But I'm just thinking, Get the ball right here, and I'll get to my spot and let it fly.
"Have you ever seen those panoramic views of a stadium, where you look down and everything's channeled on the court and you see all these people surrounding the court? Everybody's focused right in and that one guy is shooting a free throw, and everybody is thinking, Man, how do you make that shot while everybody is watching you? Because all these eyes are around you watching, and then there's everybody watching on TV. But for us, it's just one man, one basket, one ball, and you're just there looking at the rim. You never think about the gravity of the situation."
Or if you do, you'll probably never make the shot.
Roy knew he had that gift by his senior year at Washington.
"We were playing Arizona and we drew up a play, and the play wasn't for me," he said. "We were down three and the play was for our three-point shooter. But I'm bringing the ball up and I was the senior -- there's no way I'm going to give this ball up to a sophomore to shoot the three. If we were going to lose, I didn't want that pressure on him. So I came up and good thing he was somewhat denied, and so, OK, now I'm going to take the shot. And it hit all net. And I could tell it was kind of a relief for him. But for me it was like, I've always felt like I'll handle that pressure, I can deal with not making that shot. I don't want that on any of my teammates, so I take pride in having the ball late in games."
Could he do the same things in the NBA? Roy found out during his second season in the closing seconds of regulation at Sacramento on a play designed for
"Zach popped and they denied him, so I popped and I think
Those other plays appear mundane compared to the 30-footer Roy made at the buzzer early last season for a 101-99 win over the visiting Rockets. At 1.9 seconds, he'd hit a 21-foot turnaround for 98-96 lead, but then Roy fouled
"That's how I wanted to shoot it -- when I'm in a gym by myself, that's how I shoot it, I feel like it has a better chance," he said. "When I caught that ball and I faded and I let go, I got off a clean look. When I saw just net, it didn't hit the rim. That's when I was shocked. I was like, 'Man, that didn't even rattle, that hit bottom.' That was crazy. That was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
"I can't say I knew I was go to make that shot, but I just wanted a chance to make up for what I did. All I was thinking about was, Man, I can't have these people go home and I blew the game."
Playing for the Lakers has raised the standards for
That's why Fisher looks up to Bryant for living up to that standard month after month for 14 years. He and Bryant approach winner-take-all shots in the same way, said Fisher, "in terms of the willingness or the desire or the confidence to make the shot. But I think the context is different. Because I know that his place in the game of basketball -- and his legacy and what he represents -- is different than mine. So each time he makes one of those plays, it's on a different scale when Kobe Bryant does it versus Derek Fisher or
The shot in Boston was Bryant's fourth game-winner in two months. One of them was admittedly luck, an off-balance three-pointer in December that banked off the glass to turn a loss against Miami into a win. But the other three shots were the result of nothing more magical than practice, as he told a group of reporters last month after beating Sacramento with a corner three the night before. "The one last night, I've worked on that thousands of times, that's three-point catch-and-shoot," he said. "It's just a practice shot."
There was a little more to it than that. Bryant had been squeezed tight against the sideline, and Kings coach
Bryant had never forgotten watching
"Then you're like, 'OK, that is a good way to get around that,' " he said. "That's what came into mind, being in the league 14 years. Better to be safe than sorry, so shoot it on my tippy-toes."
Such are the lessons that come with age.
If Bryant were scoring for a losing team, then I would agree with you, Jeremy. But his scoring has positioned L.A. to win four titles with No. 5 possibly on the way. His seizure of the Lakers' scoring record is worth noting because he ranks ahead of a lot of great players who won a lot of games -- and championships -- for that franchise.
To make it clear, I didn't say he was the greatest Laker, Sam; I only raised the question.
Nobody in the NBA goes far with middling teammates. When
I'll also point out that the Bulls won 102 regular-season games during the two years of Jordan's initial "retirement," including 55 victories during his first full year away from the team; so it's not like he didn't have talent around him.
That would make sense for the Lakers, definitely. While that potential trade wouldn't help Chicago much on the court, it would provide the Bulls with more cap space to apply to free agents this summer as they seek a lineup that exploits the strengths of
The two teams that appear to be in the market for Hinrich as an expensive third guard are the Lakers and Celtics, both of whom need a backup point guard. There doesn't appear to be a large market for Hinrich as he's a luxury item at $17 million over the two full seasons ahead. And I'm not buying rumors of Ray Allen going to Chicago for a Hinrich package. When they discussed a potential deal in December, the Celtics were planning to give up
If the league contracts as you suggest, Chris, that means six to 10 owners spent hundreds of millions to buy teams and ultimately realize nothing on their investment. That is not a precedent the league is likely to pursue. The alternative would be to have their fellow owners buy them out, but that isn't realistic either. The owners are having enough trouble preventing themselves from overpaying their own players and operating their own teams at a profit, so I don't see them spending billions to buy each other out as well.
For one thing, it will be harder than ever to make a trade if every team's payroll is bumping up against the impenetrable ceiling of a hard cap. In many cases, players would be dealt for each other only if their salaries matched up exactly. "You don't see many player-for-player trades in the NFL," one GM said.
The executive went on to advise his peers to be careful about wishing for a hard-cap system similar to the NFL's; Football's system is almost impossible to follow because the ceiling is circumvented by bonuses and all kinds of hidden money.
There is truth in that point of view. I think I have a decent understanding of sports economics after following the NBA for so many years, but even I can't figure out the metrics of the NFL's system.
I spoke Thursday with a GM who predicts the owners will compel the players to accept 50 percent or less of overall revenues. (The players are supposed to receive 57 percent under the current deal, but they're actually taking in more than 60 percent thanks to all the salaries paid by clubs above the luxury-tax threshold.) From there, he said, the league needs to slash the mid-level exception down to $3 million or less annually, limit annual raises to cost-of-living increases, trim back rookie contracts and make a few other small changes. "Once those things are done,'' he said, "everything will be fine.''
One idea I've heard is utterly simple: Give the players all of the ticket revenues (not including suites), which I'm told accounts for almost 50 percent of league revenues. Those revenues will be split equally among the 30 team payrolls, and then (you may remember me mentioning this part last week) the players will sign contracts entitling them to a negotiated percentage of that revenue. When the ticket revenues go up, the players' salaries go up; when the revenues go down, so too will salaries.
I promise you that players will grow more conscious of helping to sell tickets, which would be a good thing for the league. But the players will be loathe to give up their current salary structure, which is guaranteed regardless of revenues. I can also see how they would question whether franchises were working hard enough to sell tickets, and whether the ticket prices were being kept low artificially now that owners weren't taking home those profits.
These contenders are approaching the Feb. 18 deadline from a relative position of strength.
The one trade that many rivals don't want to see the Cavs making is for Jamison, who would improve their frontcourt balance while further stabilizing their locker room.
The Rockets are also offering
"In the old days, teams used to control players," he said. "Now the teams have lost that control, to the point that the NBA had to put in rules that players are not allowed to use Twitter at halftime. The thing with these players, their lifestyles revolve around technology. They want instant information.
"You're now dealing with kids who think that anything you do or say is public. To them it is public, because they all communicate with each other."
This week, the Celtics dealt with a half-day of speculation that Pierce was out for the year after teammate
"Twitter has become a broadcasting network for athletes. Around July 1, there is going to be so much tweeting among the free agents, and all of these guys will be communicating with each other, and if you don't think they're going to be telling each other about the offers they're getting, then you're crazy. It's going to be the summer of instant information, and it's going to change the whole market, because everybody will know what kind of money is out there and what each team is trying to do.
"If I were a GM, I'd hire two or three kids from college and have them scour the Internet every day to find out what's being said by who. If you want to know what's going on, that's how you can find out."