Every now and again in football, someone will hit an insanely long field goal.
When they do, everyone says: "Amazing kick!"
David Thorpe says: "Amazing coaching decision!"
Sending a kicker out to attempt a kick that may well turn out to be a turnover is a bold thing -- and an incredible expression of confidence in the player.
Most coaches in most sports consider it their business to ask players to do things they are known to do well. That's great, unless you are in the business of encouraging players to expand their games. If players are to develop, sometimes you have to ask them to do things you're not sure they can do.
Asking him to kick a record-setting field goal is a great way to get the best out of that kicker. What better way to make him feel he's the best in the world?
Thorpe and I have talked about this kind of coaching a number of times. Once was about three months ago, when he pointed out, as an example, that Phil Jackson was being a little bold in letting Trevor Ariza shoot 3s.
By any measure, Trevor Ariza is not a 3-point shooter. Before this season, no kidding, Ariza had hit a total of eight 3-pointers since joining the league in 2004.
There are half-minutes of practice when Kobe Bryant has hit more 3-pointers than that.
Ariza's career 3-point percentage is sub-30%.
Remember, of course, that before the season, the Lakers were everybody's pick to win the West, and most people's pick to win the title. They had a lot on the line in every regular season game. Every time Ariza let a long ball fly, the team was passing up opportunities for more polished scorers like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum.
Nevertheless, Phil Jackson gave Ariza a green light, expressing confidence in him as a 3-point shooter.
This season, Ariza attempted 191, and hit 61 of them. That's 32%.
And it makes a ton of sense. Ariza is a player who almost has to be on the floor -- he's the gazelle on a team that has gotten slower in recent years. If he can punish teams for doubling off him, the Laker scorers get to do their thing inimpeded by constant doubles.
What I was wondering, as the playoffs started, was: Is the experiment over, or does Ariza still have the green light?
Wouldn't you know that in the playoffs, he has hit 48% of his 3-pointers? He has made 27 of his 56.
In the Lakers' most important game of the season -- ultimately, the one that got the back the Finals -- the Nuggets left Ariza space to shoot. And Ariza, with a season of confidence-building behind him -- did not hesitate. He fired with poise, and had one of the best shooting nights of his life. In the early part of the game, before it became a blowout and things were tense, Ariza nailed three of four from downtown.
His final 3 came with a few minutes left in the first half, and turned a tense four-point game into a on-its-way-to-over seven-point game. It never got much closer than that, as the Lakers unveiled some of their best basketball of the season.
Ariza finished with 17 points on just nine shots. Three 3-pointers might not seem like much. But those are nine points in what was then a seven-point game -- with the Finals on the line. Those are nine big points the Lakers never would have had without the long-term expression of uncommon confidence in a player's ability to expand his game.