A Calm, Sensible Step-Back 3

 

It probably took me less than 30 seconds to become completely and totally infatuated with Damian Lillard’s game.

I remember it vividly.

I was lounging at my friends’ Nikki and David’s place, feeling fairly homesick but still grateful to have a place to stay. A few days earlier, Hurricane Superstorm Uninvited Guest and Literal Homewrecker (fine, I’ll go with the first one) Hurricane Sandy had been wreaking havoc with travel plans across the eastern seaboard, and I was stranded in Maryland for five extra days. My hosts graciously allowed me to commandeer their living room for the Trail Blazers season opener against the hated LA Los Angeles Lakers (around these parts, “LA” stands exclusively for LaMarcus Aldridge), although I suppose it was only gracious inasmuch as they were willing to endure any potential outbursts in the living room while they were trying to sleep upstairs, since the game didn’t start until after 10PM Eastern.

I did my best to honor their hospitality by trying not to get too excited.

But right out of the gate, Lillard pulled one of these:

Oh my.

I nearly lost it right then and there. I jumped out of my seat so quickly and so high, I was glad there was no light fixture above me because I surely would’ve broken it. It was as if the gleeful yell that I wanted to let loose instead was diverted into my limbs, which propelled me into a silent victory leap, where I half-expected to freeze in midair, like the end of an 80s sitcom.

As I’ve come to observe Lillard’s game in more detail, and seen the ways in which it’s helped propel these 2014 Trail Blazers to unprecedented heights so quickly, there’s a lot to love. He’s a good passer, he’s got decent handles, and he can attack the rim. But his quiet intensity often comes out in the form of dagger threes, like this game-winner against Cleveland last December:

Defending Lillard here, Kyrie’s gotta be thinking, “have mercy!”

Damian Lillard’s step-back three is one of the most devastating weapons in his offensive arsenal, in part because it’s so audacious and unexpected. There’s usually just a hint of a ball-fake, or a brief nod in the direction of a dribble drive, before Dame rises for the trey. It’s the kind of shot that defenses are often designed to give up, usually because few players are ballsy reckless confident enough to shoot them with alacrity or accuracy, both of which Lillard has in abundance.

For most players at most times, a step-back three is rarely considered a good shot, a shot that players take when they play the game “the right way.” Usually a step-back three is the weapon of a nuisance ballhog gunner lower efficiency volume shooter, but after a certain point, you can no longer argue with the end result. In the cold logic of the scoreboard, a shot that goes in the hoop is a good shot. In the hands of Damian Lillard, a step-back three is often just that — good.

And with Lillard’s heady shooting, career numbers from Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, decent rebounding and rim protection from new center Robin Lopez, and an MVP-caliber campaign from two-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, the Portland Trail Blazers’ rebuilding plan looks to be several years ahead of schedule.

And as a fan, this… is… AWESOME.

No question about it, it’s really, really fun for Blazers fans like me to enjoy the ride, and occasionally rub it in our adversaries’ noses.

But as a person, I’ve noticed that it’s starting to do something to me.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started to happen, but somewhere along the line I stopped hoping to see the Blazers win games, and started expecting the Blazers to win games.

I could tell that I’d already made this shift mentally when the Blazers dropped one at home against the Philadelphia 76ers, the oft-considered rebuilding Sixers, against whom the Blazers had just made a record-setting shooting performance not even a month prior. This seemed to be as much of a sure thing as can be expected in the regular season, so much so, that I didn’t even bother to listen to the game on the radio or even check the score on my phone, electing instead to watch a movie with my wife.

After the final credits rolled, I absentmindedly checked the score, and let out an audible, “WHAT?!”

After receiving a mild glare from her (for spoiling her late-night chill vibe), I realized something ominous. I’d made the subtle shift from feeling confident to feeling entitled. I’d tasted blood from the spoils of victory, and it only made me want more.

And so I’m realizing now, that sometimes even fans need to take a step-back 3.

These are the three thoughts that I have to come back to in order to maintain enough space to keep a good perspective on the matter. These are the three points I must make in order to keep my Trail Blazers fandom from running amok in my psyche.

1. Even though I identify as a fan, this team is not a reflection of me.

My stepmom Kathy, when observing a particularly jubilant postgame celebration from a fan of any particular sport, often likes to pithily ask, “so when do you get your check?” When the person tells her they’re not getting one, she responds, “oh, well you were getting so excited I just assumed you were getting something out of this.”

It is true. Even if the Blazers somehow win the whole thing (and by the way, as of January 6th, I’m holding out a sliver of hope that both of Paul Allen’s teams can win titles in the same year), as good as it will feel, it will not share in their success in any substantive way. Despite how much their marketing department tries to convince me otherwise in an effort to separate me from my disposable income, their successes are not my successes and their failures are not my failures.

Which means that if they get screwed on a bad call, or suffer an epic collapse in a series-ending fourth quarter, I don’t have to respond by lashing out or being rude and sullen. Sure, certain losses are difficult, but it’s still just basketball we’re talking about.

2. Being good at something is not a guarantee of success.

Past performances are not always indicators of future results. In the aggregate, maybe. But once you zoom down to zero-level, we-need-a-bucket-or-a-stop-right-here-right-now type moments, anything can happen. Pressure does things to people. No matter how much we fans and media types long to attach meaning and narrative to sporting events, in the end we’re all cheering for laundry and hoping the ball bounces in.

So athletes who don’t go on to win it all aren’t somehow lesser people or lesser competitors, and athletes who do win it all may be “winners” in the most basic, obvious use of the word, but that doesn’t make them somehow more “clutch” or “big-time” or “great” or whatever other superlative you want to throw at your sports hero du jour. 

and finally,

3. End results do not solely validate or nullify the goodness of the process.

Sometimes good movies have bad endings. Sometimes good teams crash and burn at inopportune times. Sometimes you can put your heart and soul into a project, organization, event or endeavor, and it may not end well, but that doesn’t mean it was all a waste. We all carry with us the residue of our past experiences, and those experiences shape us. When we win, we can be confident, or we can become cocky. When we lose, we can gain humility, or we can become overly shy or withdrawn. There are elements of good and bad in just about anything we go through.

If I can step back and hit those three points, I’ll be assured to have a much better life as I enjoy this basketball season.

And now, every time Lillard hits another deadly step-back three, I can make as much noise as I want.

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