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Don't Blame the Argentine: Hornets 96, Kings 94

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Anyone who faults Andres Nocioni for that missed free throw, the one which at 96-94 Hornets with 1.1 seconds left effectively ended the game, should remember who pulled in the offensive rebound which preceded the final, fatal attempts.

Since 2002 I have rued discussion of choking, or some lack of innate resolve these Kings supposedly had. That epic Game 7 in 2002 is memorably painful for many reasons, but the worst of which remain the airballs. Peja. Doug. Whooooosh. Stojakovic took on an unfair rap, as if he had never missed a shot against a great defense before! And for someone to argue that Doug Christie, in 2002, couldn't handle pressure ... that accuser either has no clue about Doug Christie, or has bought into the well-spread, cliche conventional wisdom about athletic competition.

As it goes with Nocioni, one of the least quivering players in the league. Like so many of his current teammates, El Chapu backs down from no challenge, and certainly a vital free throw in December isn't going to render his spine a strand of angel hair pasta. Nocioni just happens to be a non-elite free throw shooter. Even the excellent miss some. No one has ever shot 100 percent from the line, right? Everyone misses some. (Or if you're Justin Williams, you miss most.) Some misses happen in the middle of the second quarter, some happen to come at a critical juncture. There's no magical method to hitting the critical ones that isn't used in the second quarter. You think if players, if Nocioni had a special spell he could use for important free throws he wouldn't use it all 48 minutes? It's foolish, really, to think there exists choke artists in the NBA, and that Nocioni would be one of them.

Tangent ended. A heartrending loss for the Kings, who really deserve another road win. They continue to play with their balls out (figuratively), giving every opponent every ounce of effort they've got. Jason Thompson is the rare NBA complainant who doesn't scream when called for a questionable foul because of some perceived injustice: he complains because he knows he must now leave the game. I don't know, maybe that's the same reason Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace gets techs, because they really don't want to sit on the bench. It seems implausible, but maybe that's the case. With J.T., I know that's the case. It kills him to be on the bench during the final moments, when he could be in the paint, playing defense, running the break, looking for paths to the rim.

That's evident all over the roster. Sergio Rodriguez made a couple of miscues again, but it's not because he's trying to get on SportsCenter. It's because he's anxious to get an easy hoop for his teammates on every possession. A matter underdiscussed in discourse about the "unselfishness" of pass-first players is that they basically take on complete risk for the play. If Sergio goes backdoor to Ime Udoka, but Ime doesn't cut, well then it's Sergio's fault, because he shouldn't have made the pass without proper communication. If Ime does cut and the Kings get two, the credit is shared. With Sergio, it's not completely about a clever passer sharing his gifts with cutting wings and lurking big men. It's about risk assumption. I think that's why his turnover numbers spike: because of the type of work he does, when he fails, it must go horribly, horribly wrong. He's like William Tell, in that sense.

One NBA trope that has always bothered me was the idea that your best player had to take every game-on-the-line possession. You'll remember the whole LeBron saga of 2006, when The Chosen One drove the lane on the Cavaliers' final deficit possession of a playoff game against the Pistons ... and he passed off to a lesser teammate, who had an open three due to the defense LeBron drew. James wasn't exactly castigated for the decision -- he had his defenders -- but it drew a ton of discussion, with the central thrust that the greatest players don't pass. They want the ball. They want the fate of the game to carry their mark, their DNA. I never really bought that this was smart. Studies have shown that efficiency on these plays goes way, way down -- because the offense becomes predictable (high screen for LeBron) and the defenses can key in (collapse the lane). I always figured that if you have Kobe and Pau, maybe run a post play for Pau. He's good, too.

But when Tyreke Evans drove the lane in the final Sacramento possession, I think I understood. I don't really believe in basketball mystics all that much (see my first point in this post) and I don't think the NBA's superstars have a different blood type than the hoi polloi. Superstars are just really super star players. As such, if the defense aims to make the superstar weak at the expense of putting a lesser player in super position to score, then the lesser player with the super position ought to be called upon. But having the type of dominant player we have in Reke might have changed my thinking, at least in these boom-boom cases, where there hasn't been a time-out. Coming down the floor, do you rely on your best player in perhaps tougher-than-usual circumstances, or do you rely on your B-list? I mean, if the Kings gave the ball to Beno, given the way Evans had been getting to the rim, I might have been apopletic. And Beno played great! Even with share-happy teams, the NBA is such an individualist sport. When one player can affect as much as LeBron, Wade, Howard, Paul or Evans can, you're foolish not to let them try to affect the game in the final moments. Without Kevin Martin in action, the Kings did not have a better option than Evans driving the lane. He did, he nearly got the winning basket, and Nocioni got the offensive rebound and a chance to tie the game. That last possession didn't work out, but it went well, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

And if I may, in closing: Spencer Hawes played really well. His defense was active and smart. His offense was fine. I will take that Spencer Hawes seven days a week.