I’m going to use this Memo to offer a rebuttal to today’s blog from 670 The Score’s Dan Bernstein on the subject of Joakim Noah’s “inspired” first quarter against the Pacers last night.
Dan is my guy, for my money the most intellectual sports media voice in this town, and someone who has the capacity to be a voice on an even bigger stage.
But Dan, the main theme of your thoughts today, questioning why Noah can't play that inspired all the time... I love you, but you’re better than that, and you're going to have to get a bit of a bitch-slapping.
And Bernsie, just so you don’t think we have no common ground today: I’m right there with you on Yelena Noah. Not only is she absolutely hot, but it’s a considerable brain-twister to comprehend that she can be both hot AND look just like Joakim Noah. It’s counterintuitive to the nth degree.
Anyway, back to the question of why Noah can’t just “do his damn job” and play that inspired every night... we’re going to wind our way towards the answer to that by way of some of your other topics past and present.
You said repeatedly over these past days that you expected Roberto Luongo and the Canucks to fold under pressure. You tweeted it constantly during the Hawks game last night. You called the Canucks “the Canubs”.
But you have relentlessly told anyone who would listen since last baseball season that there is no such thing as a player who performs better or worse under pressure. One article that twisted some numbers and employed some tortured logic made what was, to me, a far from convincing case that anyone who is talented and skilled and mentally tough enough to make it to the professional level in his sport is no more or less likely to perform under increased pressure than others at that level. While clutch-ness exists, and choking exists, there is no such thing as a player who is characteristically clutch or a characteristic choker, says your guru on this.
Of course, this all brings to mind Kevin Costner in “JFK”, in a characteristically bad New Orleans accent, explaining the Warren Commission’s “Magic Bullet Theory”: you can twist numbers to say that an elephant can hang off a cliff with his tail tied to a daisy, but use your eyes. You know it’s not so.
By the logic you have used as the foundation of your position on this ever since you read that article, there should have been no reason to expect that Roberto Luongo would be more or less likely to choke in a playoff game against the Blackhawks.
Yet for some reason you expected it. Why?
There is an actual science to the psychology of human performance. Emotions affect performance. And professional teams in all sports employ psychologists to help athletes manage their emotions to optimize performance.
Some people react positively to pressure, some react negatively, and some don’t react at all. This isn’t a myth, and it extends from amateurs to professionals in any endeavor. The expectations you had of Roberto Luongo reflect that you do in fact know this to be true. But in a (characteristic) act of OVER-thinking, you read one article and managed to talk yourself out of it.
Just as pressure impacts upon different people's brains in different ways, the same goes for the effect of inspiration. Anyone’s honest best effort will be better and stronger and look very different on a day when his actual emotional state is positively aroused by context or environment than it will on a normal day that he shows up for work.
Earlier this season, Dan, you remarked after an especially great performance from Derrick Rose that Tom Thibodeau had tried to inspire him before the game in an effort to see if he could “unleash the killer” in Rose. Rose went out and just killed. Question answered.
Well... why can’t the killer be out every night? If Rose can take the matchup with the Pacers as a personal challenge because of what happened earlier in the season, to have them on his "hit list", and respond to that motivation by dropping 40 on them in consecutive games... why can’t he play like that every single night? He was the #1 pick, the leader of the team, a two-time All-Star, and the prohibitive favorite for MVP. That’s “his damn job”, isn’t it?
Why did Michael Jordan concoct perceived slights all the time? It’s because he knew he had to unleash his own “killer”. He understood his own mind and body well enough to know that he needed that extra motivation to stimulate that part of his brain that would elevate him from a gifted and hard working player to a maniac. Why couldn’t Michael drop 55 on the Knicks every time he walked into Madison Square Garden?
Luol Deng, for his career, averages 16.1 points on 47.1% shooting in the regular season, with 6.4 rebounds per game. Yet in 26 career playoff games - in which he plays exclusively against winning teams, never playing against poor competition - his numbers go up to 18.1 points on 47.5% shooting, and 6.6 rebounds.
Deng reacts positively to the increased stakes and intensity of playoff basketball. But why can’t he do the same for 82 games? It’s because you can’t possibly contrive the illusion of the same playoff context on a nightly basis when your brain actually knows it's a January game against the Clippers. Only so much of the right chemicals and be produced in the body. It’s not physically possible to redline that and pump the emotional well every single night. Part of what makes people like Michael Jordan the greatest of the great is because they are able to do that with greater frequency than other professional athletes.
In evaluating Joakim Noah’s game yesterday, you’re confusing his degree of conscientious effort with his brain’s chemical ability to translate that into effort into actual physical performance under a different set of emotional conditions.
You can give your honest best effort every night. But your honest best effort will not be the same every night.