With about a minute left in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals Pau Gasol chased down an offensive rebound in the corner.
Steve Nash is loaded with veteran tricks. Gasol had his back turned. Nash resolved to get a steal by sneaking up behind to poke it away. It almost worked! But at the last instant, Gasol saw the approaching Canadian and whipped a pass to Ron Artest, who was just about to ignite a hailstorm of criticism.
Nash was now horribly out of position, still in the corner. Three Lakers -- Artest, Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant -- were spread across the arc of the 3-point line, and every single one of them about as open as NBA players ever get.
Without a lot of analysis, the general thought is to burn clock in this situation. The Lakers have the lead, and would be smart to limit the number of times the Suns get the ball to try to change that.
But under no circumstances were the Lakers going to get an easier scoring opportunity over the remaining seconds of the game than this moment, and they were certain to need a bucket or two before the final buzzer to win.
Three NBA players empowered by their coaches to shoots 3s. No defense. You don't have to be an idiot to consider pulling that trigger. And this regular season Artest, believe it or not, was the best 3-point shooter of those three. He made 36% of his shots from downtown, compared to Fisher's 35% and Bryant's 33%.
So he shot it.
Commentators were uniformly dumbfounded. Even though Artest would later win the game with an amazing and heroic play, this shot overshadowed all as the big topic of his post-game interview.
His poor judgment features prominently in all kinds of game coverage. Which seems a little unfair, for four reasons:
There are a thousand sins worse than taking a wide open jumper.
If anyone hurt his team with poor judgment on that play, you'd have to at least consider the possibility it may have been the out-of-position Nash. Artest had a 36% chance at making that shot. What chance did Nash have at getting the steal, 5%?
You can't prove burning clock leads to more wins.
That's the accepted dogma, but a lot of accepted dogma is wrong. How many truly wide open shots does an NBA team get in the playoffs? Can you afford to pass up any of them? I'm not saying I know the answer, but I am saying that there is way more tradition than evidence at work.
Are they criticizing the decision to shoot, or the miss?
Shot selection is about decision-making before the shot goes up -- not whether it happens to come down in the basket or not. This player, that spot, these teammates, those defenders, that game plan, that many seconds on the clock ... that's what matters in judging if the decision to shoot was good or not.
But we the fans and the media have a sloppy habit in talking about shot selection, which is that if the ball happens to go in, it gets a free pass. (Find me examples of experts criticizing players for poor shot selection after makes. It's not easy.)
If Artest's shot had gone in, today the world would be praising his poise and killer instinct in icing the game, not unlike the adulation Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh received in this year's NCAA tournament for a similar decision. That's the shot Artest thought he was taking. And if it had gone in, everybody would have seen it his way.
This is what Artest always does!
I could have told you when the Lakers signed Artest last summer that he'd take that shot.
About every ten minutes Ron Artest is in an NBA game, he hoists a 3-pointer, and it's seldom a good idea. This has been going on for a decade.
If you were a high school coach, wanting to teach your players about shot selection, these 2,690 attempts would be riddled with examples of what not to do.
It's not that he's a terrible shooter. It's that he often chooses to take terrible shots.
A 3 is a difficult enough shot that, unless you're truly special, you should only shoot them when the conditions are just right -- when you're open, for instance, and when you're catching a good pass with balance and rhythm. Ideally, you'd also be in the corner, where the 3-point line is closer to the rim.
Artest doesn't really seem to believe any of that, and as a result his career average is 34%. (He points out that he was, at one time, a 40% 3-point shooter, which is technically true. He was a percentage point shy of that last season in Houston. The only time he beat that mark was the season he was suspended after seven games and took only 17 3s, making seven.)
When Artest played for the Rockets, G.M. Daryl Morey asked Shane Battier for advice in controlling Artest's shot selection, and Battier essentially advised that Morey that it was impossible, saying "you can't cage a pit bull."
The thing that bugs basketball people is that Artest could make a much higher percentage. So many of his attempts are compromised. Maybe he has a hand in his face. Or perhaps he's coming off the dribble, leaning to one side or doesn't have his feet set correctly.
There are just a hundred reasons to criticize the guy's shot selection throughout his career. There have been some dreadful leaners, on the run, with a hand in his face. There have been 36-footers with open teammates wholly unnoticed. He has ignored his own coach's plays, and befuddled teammates, to shoot wild 3s.
But that one? Last night? Artest could not have been more open. His feet were set. It was in rhythm.
Shooting early in the shot clock is the tiniest of misdemeanors compared to the shot selection crimes on this guy's record. Now's a strange time to jump on him for his decision making.