People watch sports for a variety of reasons. Some watch if for the pure aesthetics of the game: the joy one gets from watching Andres Iniesta execute a perfectly weighted chip pass into the box; the raw aggression of Blake Griffin taking on a 7 foot tall center 10 feet up in the air and then slamming the ball all over his face; or a tight spiral from Tom Brady to a streaking Randy Moss 40 yards downfield.
Others watch it for the sense of community one gets in being a supporter of a team. Those nights spent mingling with fellow fans at a pub before the match and bellowing “YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE” after a victory.
But similarly thrilling to me is watching an athlete at the absolute peak of his abilities. When they come through so often that you EXPECT them to come through every time, and then they continue to deliver above and beyond what anyone expected.
This is what I had come to expect from CJ Bruton in the big moments in Game 2. He was not the Breakers’ best player (that was Gary Wilkinson). Nor was he the most important player (that would be Cedric Jackson, who got to the rim at will and kicked it out for easy looks for everyone else). But what he is, is a grizzled veteran who’s seen it all – a guy who’s taken and made big shots in both domestic and international competitions and was completely unafraid of the moment. It was this fearless shot making which helped the Breakers to control the game for 30 minutes, before the wheels came off in the second half. The crazy “no-no-no – YES!!!!” shots that went in earlier started to rim out.
We all love to watch this brand of “hero-ball”. It’s why Kobe Bryant has an almost religious following while LeBron James is widely mocked and belittled for his apparent inability to “take over” when the moment demands it. Not just fans, but the players themselves respect this trait more than anything. Kobe’s willingness – nay, NEED – to take that shot is why he has year in and year out been voted by his peers as the player they’d most want to take the last shot in a game, despite the pretty conclusive evidence to the contrary.
But the whole idea of hero-ball raises some confusing contradictions. Normally we’re all about winning. We praise the players who talk about being selfless and submitting themselves for the greater good – which when you boil it down is really a way of saying we want to achieve peak efficiency. And yet hero ball is not efficient at all and it defies logic why teams decide they need to play differently in the last 5 minutes of a game, or on the last shot of a game, than they have the rest of the game. The Breakers have the most efficient offense in the league – why not run some of that offense instead of clearing out for one guy to take the final shot?
Sure, hero-ball can work. Just by the law of averages, there will be some nights where one player can get hot and carry the team to victory. But the question is: is it sustainable? The answer is no. For all the game winning shots you see on TV, there are many other games where a player will miss the key shots down the stretch. Hero-ball is a low-percentage philosophy. Even at the NBA level, the mighty Kobe Bryant shoots 35% from the floor on the last possession of close games. LeBron James? 29%. Guys like Paul Pierce (24%) and Dwyane Wade (19%) don’t shoot it much better despite having reputations for being great closers. How we frame these misses depends on the narrative surrounding this player. If the player has a clutch reputation, then it just “wasn’t his night”. If they have a reputation for coming up short though? “LOL THE FROZEN ONE HE ONLY HAS CHANGE FOR 3 QUARTERS LOLOL!!111”
There is arguably some logic to the execution of hero-ball on last-shot situations – ideally you want one guy to handle the ball so that you can run the clock all the way down before you take that last shot. But at the same time, Bruton was scoring in only two ways all game: he was either firing away from 3, or he would take one dribble and pull up at the elbow. With no time remaining though, Wildcats forward Shawn Redhage had the freedom to leave his man and come out to contest the shot right where Bruton wanted to pull up. I can’t criticise Bruton for being the guy to take the shot. He is THE guy for the Breakers in crunchtime, and he had just hit the dagger 3 put them up 83-81 a few moments ago. But for me the problem isn’t the player taking the shot, so much as the predictable shot selection. I would have liked to see maybe a bit of two-man action between Wilk and Bruton so that CJ had at least some options. Wilkinson was cooking all game and the threat of him catching and shooting off the pick and pop would have at least made the Wildcats have to think and make some choices defensively.
Fans will point to the somewhat puzzling officiating down the stretch, but speaking from personal experience (I’m a Mavericks fan who suffered through the 2006 NBA Finals) I’ve seen much worse. Jesse Wagstaff The Curly Haired Bitch (his full name on this blog from here on out) was trying to get under the Breakers skin all game. He succeeded in the end, and the refs did do a terrible job in letting him get away with it, yes. But part of being a champion is being mentally tougher than the other team – not letting anything get under your skin. For a team with such strong veteran leaders like the Breakers to get rattled by Wagstaff TCHB or the referees was uncharacteristic.
If you want to blame anything, you can blame the fact that besides Gary Wilkinson (the Breakers’ player of the game in my opinion) no Breaker grabbed more than 4 rebounds. Alex “The Chief” Pledger snagged 3 in just 11 minutes of burn and caused problems with his size whenever he was in there, but Coach Lemanis used him sparingly, in favour of a yet-again ineffective Mika Vukona (4 points 3 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 18 minutes), while DILLONSANITY failed to make an appearance at this game as Boucher struggled to make much of an impact (2 points 1 rebound 5 turnovers in 18 minutes. Yep, the Breakers got a combined 6 points 4 rebounds and 8 turnovers from their power forwards on the night). With the Breakers unable to keep Perth off the offensive glass, the Wildcats enjoyed a 6 point advantage on second chance points, and that was ultimately the difference in this game. It was especially disappointing considering the Breakers were far and away the best defensive rebounding team in the league this year, claiming 72% of available caroms.
It’s the old cliché in basketball – if you live by the three, you’ll die by the three. Although this is somewhat of a misnomer (even though they appear more difficult, there is the greater return for your risk in the additional point which will make it worth it. Especially with the shorter NBL 3 point line), in this particular game the type of shots the Breakers were making in the first half appeared unsustainable. Indeed, they managed to shoot a sizzling 60% from the floor in the first half and yet they led by just 8 points. When the shots stopped falling, they needed something else they could fall back on – I thought DILLONSANITY would come in and take some charges, swipe at some balls and they’d get a few stops defensively. When that didn’t happen I think coach Lemanis should’ve gone with the twin towers in playing Wilk and Pledger together and clog the paint. The Wildcats were painfully off from 3 point range (just 1 make in 18 attempts) so it’s not like they should’ve been worried about closing out on the perimeter either.
But at the end of the day, what’s gotten the breakers to this point and what will get them over the hump and to their second straight NBL championship, is the type of brave shot making that has been the story of the series thus far. For the series now, the Breakers have outscored the Wildcats 75-21 from behind the arc, and have outshot them 42%-24%. It IS possible to win the title with a jump shooting team. But these need to be good shots coming off ball movement, and not the type of shots the Breakers ended up taking on Friday night – with a hand in their face. Because at some point, these same “YOLO” shots will start rimming out, and then you’re left with an offense that’s completely out of rhythm and out of time, and they will have to look for their hero to bail them out.
Sometime it works, and that’s how legends are made. On Friday night it didn’t.