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He Shoots, He Scores

By Tom Scocca | Posted 1/26/2000

Hope, in the National Basketball Association, seems to come from unpredictable quarters. A month ago, who would have thought anyone would volunteer to renovate the rickety mess of the Washington Wizards? And now Michael Jordan, of all people, is rolling up his sleeves—though not, sadly for the Wizards, changing into a tank top—and trying to trade Ike Austin.

But for me, Jordan's return to the basketball business is only No. 2 on the list of inspirational surprises in the NBA this month. No. 1 belongs to Clifford Robinson of the Phoenix Suns. On Jan. 16, just when my faith in humankind—at least, the part of humankind that plays basketball for a living—had begun to slip, the veteran forward hit 17 of 26 field goals and 13 of 15 free throws against the Denver Nuggets, for a shining round 50 points.

Fifty! God bless you please, Clifford Robinson. Till that night, I'd almost stopped believing that anyone would hit the nickel-aught this year. Two days before, as I watched game updates on TNT in a Dulles International departure lounge, I saw Toronto's Vince Carter make it to 47 points against the Milwaukee Bucks, with a chunk of time left. But he couldn't close the deal.

Then came Robinson. Nuggets/Suns not being a national-TV sort of match-up, I didn't see it happen. I just caught the highlights: Robinson spotting up, over and over, en route to a 23-point first quarter; Robinson scoring in close; Robinson at the free-throw line for the final point as the Suns iced the win, 113-100.

Even as a set of video clips—heck, even as a box score—it was thrilling. I'm not one to say that the league fell from grace when Jordan retired. But despite my agnosticism, I was quietly starting to feel a little nostalgia for No. 23. Or, more accurately, I was feeling nostalgia for scoring numbers over 40.

Under this season's new, more restrictive defensive-contact rules, NBA teams seem to have rediscovered the art of scoring after a run of sluggish years. Winning teams are once again routinely clearing 100 points; even losers sometimes crack three figures. Yet, the revival has been slower to reach the individual players. Time and again this season, someone would appear to be lighting it up early in the game, only to come away with a score somewhere in the high 30s.

And 37 points just doesn't have that glow to it. Nobody used to get excited when Jordan would score 37 points, any more than we'd get excited if Mike Tyson knocked somebody out in the sixth round. It was fine, but it wasn't dominant. Everyone knew he could do better.

Somehow, over the past decade, pure individual scoring fell out of fashion. The NBA doesn't even keep a list of the year's highest-scoring performances; instead, the league refers calls on the subject to the Elias Sports Bureau, which sifts the numbers out of its database. For the record, through Jan. 24 there had been 15 games this season in which someone scored 40 or more points. Besides Robinson and Carter, Grant Hill has done it four times, Allen Iverson three, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal twice each, and Karl Malone and Antonio McDyess once.

What I get from that list is that it's high time we start paying more attention to individual scoring. Through the dark ages of the slow-down game, fans and writers have been hoodwinked by the cult of strategy and expertise. We talk about the team game: good spacing, nice ball movement, a balanced attack. All the things, that is, that are under the control of the coaches. We keep a disapproving eye out for ball hogs.

But ball-hogging is only ball-hogging if your teammates can get the job done as well as you can. How many NBA teams are so rich with talent that it would be presumptuous for someone to take over the scoring for a night? I count the Portland Trail Blazers, the Indiana Pacers, and . . . ah . . . nobody else. When Duncan scored 19 points in the fourth quarter of a 46-point game against the Jazz, taking the ball straight at Malone every time down the court, that was leadership, not selfishness. When Iverson—so widely accused of selfishness—scores 30 or more, the 76ers are 16-6; in other games, they're 8-11.

Truth is, it's hard for a selfish or undisciplined player to put up 40 points. They can come close: The not-quite-40-point club this year includes Cedric Ceballos (39 points), Antoine Walker (39), and Isaiah Rider (38). But 40 points calls for sustained, professional effort—say, 14 baskets and a dozen free throws, spread out over 48 minutes of game time.

It's revealing to see which players have proven they can do that, and which ones haven't. Kobe Bryant, the Next Jordan, has never scored more than 38 in a game. Larry Hughes, who's chafing for a trade in Philadelphia because he considers himself a go-to scorer, has never exceeded 27. Elton Brand, the Bulls' No. 1 draft pick this season, hasn't topped 29.

And now Clifford Robinson, who's toiled quietly yet fruitfully out west these many years, rolls up not just 40, but 50. He starts scoring in the beginning, and keeps on scoring through to the end. This is what excellence looks like, seasoned with diligence. This is what a grown-up can do.

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