Two interesting topics which have come through the inbox the last couple weeks:
1. Why can't supposedly "good" three-point shooters hit wide open shots (a phenomenon we've discussed in a couple of recap threads).
2. Why is Brandon Roy playing late in the fourth period?
I put them together because they have, at least in part, a common root. Call it swagger, killer instinct, prime-time chops, or whatever you want. Some players have it, some don't. It comes to bear in both of these situations.
At first it may seem odd that an unguarded three would bring any kind of tension. It's an odd situation, though. If you're loosely guarded or a guy is closing fast you don't have time to think. You set, release, instinct takes over. When you're as open as the Blazers often are from the arc your mind has time to take over. In these cases it travels down one of two broad paths. Either it's thinking, "I can't believe these punks left me that far open. Take that!" Or it's thinking, "Crap, I'm wide open. I better hit this." The first case is the killer instinct swagger. You know who you are. You're insulted that everybody doesn't. Big mistake. You're gonna tattoo a memory deep in their brain. The second is the opposite. You're not sure who you are. You need to prove it. But what happens if the shot goes wrong? What will people think? You'll look like a fool.
This phenomenon is not confined to sports. Some people are meant to be lead singers, others with fine voices are more comfortable in the back-up crew. Some folks are natural politicians, calling attention to themselves. Others can't muster the ego (and it is self-centered in a way) to push through the opposition and claim the prize. You never know what's going to happen until the spotlight hits you.
That same kind of brash confidence, drive to be The One, and lack of regard for opposition is what makes a great crunch-time player and big-shot taker. You hear it all the time from analysts. Some guys crave the ball in those situations, others shy away.
There's nothing wrong with the skill of any of our three-point shooters. On paper Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews should be amazing. Only Matthews is reaching a good percentage right now and even he looks iffy. On the other hand you have Gerald Wallace, a mundane distance shooter at best, staring down the barrel of those same shots and hitting them like they were nothing. The difference is that swagger. Wallace knows how to kill people. Nicolas Batum doesn't, or at least not yet. For that same reason I want Brandon Roy on the court, warts and all, when the game is on the line more than some other players who might be healthier and quicker.
Ask me which Blazers have that killer instinct at this point and I will give you three names for sure: Roy, Wallace, and Andre Miller. That doesn't mean they'll hit every shot. It means that I have zero nervousness relying on them for a critical possession, in Miller's case providing that possession is within 20 feet of the rim.
I'd put at least a couple players in the asterisk category. If Rudy Fernandez could ever learn to finish a drive I think he has the confidence and tools to rise to that level. Wesley Matthews could sneak in the back door someday, more through hard work and repetition than natural instinct or personality. I don't believe either is there yet though, or even close. If you're counting right now, these guys have to be a "no".
Two guys I worry about are LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Both are ultra-talented players. I wouldn't like to part with either. (Many people translate pointing out a single characteristic as saying a player stinks overall. This is not true.) Aldridge goes crazy when he's dominant and he has stepped up during some games in the second half. But he seems to have a difficult time shifting into a higher gear when a game is not going well. He's also shaky in high-pressure, one-shot situations, including late-game from the foul line. Batum is even farther back than Aldridge in this area and I wonder if he'll ever develop the capacity to destroy an opponent rather than fencing with them.
Fortunately swagger can be developed over time even if a true killer personality is innate. With enough positive feedback a guy can start believing in himself as a closer. It doesn't happen often, but it can. So it's not like the door is closed completely. Also not every player on your team has to have this ability. It's enough to have a couple in most situations. The Blazers have that...for now. It's a little worrisome that one of the three defined players is chronically hurt and the other two could be on short contracts. Portland certainly needs more of a killer personality overall. The guys you dream about being life-long Blazers don't seem to have it. The Blazers will have to factor in the effect a Roy or Miller or Wallace has above and beyond their skills when making decisions regarding these players.
Until the Blazers get that swagger as individuals and as a group you're going to continue seeing plenty of iffy games and iffy possessions. You'll know things have progressed when they start to show fewer three-goggles upon splashing shots and more middle fingers...mentally, of course. It's a technical foul and suspension otherwise and something we'd never advocate happening outside of their minds. But it should be happening in their minds and it should come out in their steely-eyed gazes. That's the kind of attitude these players are going to need if they're going to make the most of their talent. A little less nice and a little more "Take that!!!" would go a long way. You'd see more open threes go down and you'd have more end-game choices than are currently available.
Until then if you ask me who I want taking the Big Shot, the final free throw, the deciding drive it's Roy, Miller, Wallace all the way.