Last Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs visited the Los Angeles Clippers in a meeting of Western Conference frontrunners. It was, by all accounts, your typical NBA game. At least, it looked that way for 47 minutes and 50 seconds.
But, oh. How a game can change.
In the span of 3.8 seconds, the Clippers went from sure victors to dumbfounded authors of one of the most ill-advised plays in the NBA this season. Up three with less than 10 seconds to play, the Clippers merely had to inbound the ball and sink a couple routine foul shots to ice the game. The Spurs nine-game winning streak had come to end and the Clippers had picked up an impressive win.
Or, at least, those would have been the headlines. Instead, we are left with one of the worst inbounding blunders in NBA history.
Normally, I would be cautious in labeling a mistake that definitively, attributing the reaction to our shock. But, seriously. This was bad.
I do have to condition that statement. I am talking about the pure mistake, in and of itself, setting the stakes aside and looking at the play alone. Obviously, there have been mistakes made in much more significant games —playoff collapses and the like are certainly bigger blunders — but the error itself, in this case, was certainly more striking than anything in recent memory.
What I am saying might be clarified by an analogy. Taking a baseball example, one of the worst ever blunders in sports history was Bill Buckner’s infamous Game Six defensive gaffe in the 1986 World Series.
On a slow roller down to first base, which would have been the final out of the 10th inning, Buckner misplayed the ball, allowing it to roll through his legs, allowing the winning run to score and allowing the Mets to come back to win the World Series. It goes without saying that Chris Paul’s mistake does not even deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Buckner’s. Buckner’s mistake, though, to misplay a groundball, is made on a relatively regular basis by even the best infielders; the timing of Buckner’s error, though, was horrendous.
The Clippers mistake, on the other hand, is a rare occurrence, more a comedy of errors than anything else. What made LA’s mistake so laughable was that it was really a two-for-one deal: two mistakes at once.
The possession began routinely with LA forward Ryan Gomes looking to inbound the ball on the Clippers’ half of the court.
Chris Paul ran towards the backcourt to receive the pass, but Gomes, unfortunately for him, decided to make the pass while Paul was still on LA’s half of the court. This was the Clippers’ first mistake.
It goes entirely against what players are taught, but to avoid an over-and-back violation (the rule that one cannot cross back over half court after they have possession of the ball on their side), Gomes should have waited for Paul to cross half court before the pass.
There was not a lot of defensive pressure, there was no risk of a five-second violation. Gomes simply had a mind-cramp.
On the receiving end, running full tilt with no chance of stopping his momentum, Chris Paul caught the pass one step from half court.
Now, it is important to realize that Chris Paul is an All-Star point guard. In fact, this season, Paul has played at an MVP-worthy level. Given that he has made the Clippers attention-worthy for the first time in their history, his play has been unarguably phenomenal, which makes his mistake all the more shocking.
At the moment when he caught the pass, there were a host of “acceptable” decisions Paul could have made. He could have thrown the ball behind him, hoping a teammate would catch it or, at least, forcing the Spurs to go the length of the court to score.
He could have held onto the ball and accepted the violation — probably the smartest choice — which would have allowed the Clippers to prepare for the next defensive possession. He could have even thrown the ball out of bounds, twenty rows into the crowd.
Instead, of all the choices, of all the possibilities, Paul probably made the worst choice he could have. He threw the ball directly into the hands of Spurs’ guard Gary Neal.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, Neal happens to be one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA. He also happened to be standing precisely at the Spurs’ three-point line. The outcome was inevitable. Neal rose up, draining the game-tying three, and San Antonio rode the momentum to an overtime victory.
My goal in writing this, though, is not to mock Paul. I think the fact that he is such an outstanding player lends perspective on what it means for athletes to perform at a high level.
They are human. They make mistakes. But as a society, we put them on a “superhuman” pedestal, expecting perfection from them.
While we do stand in awe of their abilities, we also tend to take their skills for granted. Just because Kobe Bryant has hit so many game-winners does not make his next one any less impressive. Just because Tiger Woods seems to put together his best golf at the very end of tournaments does not make his next 25-footer to win a given. Just because Eli Manning led eight fourth-quarter comebacks last year should not make another such performance any less exciting.
These are amazing, incredible moments that should inspire us. Many of these moments, however, have become almost ordinary.
Perhaps it is the bombardment of buzzer-beaters and incredible comebacks that ESPN brings us on a weekly basis, but we have become numb to how special those moments are. I do not think we would go crazy for any of those miraculous moments listed above. Sure, we might appreciate them, but we certainly would not go berserk. In a sense, our expectations have gotten too high.
In a way, the Clippers’ blunder can remind us that mistakes are the norm. ESPN doesn’t air all the missed shots and thwarted comebacks. Those are commonplace.
The game-winners, however, and miracles that we do witness, are not mundane in the least. They are extraordinary. They should be inspirational.
We just have to remember that.