Ray Allen: a master in twilight

Boston’s Big Three has been steadily shrinking since their first golden season together. Now, as Kevin Garnett’s knees stubbornly refuse to transfer energy between his feet and his hips and Paul Pierce’s battered frame succumbs to thousands of digging, denting elbows and just as many tumbles across the hardwood, Ray Allen’s persevering excellence is more phenomenal than ever.

At 36, Allen is still logging more than 35 minutes per game and still leaving defenders wrecked on baseline screens like so many hotrods wrapped around highway telephone poles. Ray Allen is also shooting a bone-melting 57.4 percent from the 3-point line.

It seems fitting that perhaps his final seasons as a pro would be his two best as a distance shooter. Unlike most every skill, basketball players can become better shooters from the time they enter the league until they lose the athleticism to find the time and space to create open looks. That constant improvement comes from the steady accumulation of practice hours spent shooting the same shots the exact same way over and over and over.

Most equate practice with repetition, but repetition only improves when it is genuine, when the motion is truly and exactly repeated. No one is more genuine in his repetition than Allen, who is a confirmed obsessive. His extensive pregame routine is legendary, as is the “mild” case of OCD that Jackie MacMullan chronicled in 2008:

“If there is a speck of paper on the floor in his house, he cannot walk by without picking it up. He has tried. He has purposely marched up the stairs without correcting the glaring imperfection, but he’s unable to eliminate the image from his mind until he goes back down, throws the scrap in the wastebasket, and restores order in his home.”

The physical requirements to be a great shooter are fairly minimal. There’s a certain standard of athleticism that must be met by any NBA player, but for Allen, the real physical gift might be the balance of chemicals in his brain that makes him so uncompromisingly focused on getting the little details in place every time.

Shooting is all about perfection, about minimizing sources of error. The feet must be properly spaced. The hips must be loaded the same way to maintain that balance and create a consistent thrust upward. The upper body must be still in flight. The fingers must grip the ball from the tips. The elbow must travel straight from shot pocket to follow through. And, most importantly, it must all be done the exact same way each time. On a 26-foot heave, a centimeter’s difference in the position of the shooting elbow or the hand on the ball produces plenty of error to send the ball caroming off the rim.

After so many years of relentless sanding and shaving, Allen’s shooting motion knows nothing of the score of the game or what transpired only moments earlier. He has whittled away all excess and variance, all concern for such trivial matters. His shot is in some ways its own entity apart from Allen, though it is the one thing that will define his impact on the sport.

This quality makes Allen’s play seem eerily removed from the fray. When he took over for the incendiary Gary Payton as Sonics front man, I was struck by his indifference to his own brilliance. That isn’t to say Allen lacks pride or fire, but that his signature skill seems in a way unconscious. He has honed three-point stroke to the point that its performance is more like flicking a switch than an elaborate total body motion.

The Celtics Big Three are ossifying before our eyes. It’s uncomfortable to watch, like when a grandfather starts losing his train of thought in conversation and interjecting with non sequitor commentary. They’ve managed to age with dignity, but Allen alone actively defies nature.

Watch closely. The greatest shooter of the modern era reveals his secrets each time he begins his warm ups at 4:30 on the nose, each time he squares his feet on of a fade cut, and with every sudden flick of the wrist that efficiently transfers the energy from his soft-ball calves to the flight of the ball. The shooter’s craft is born in isolation. Ray Allen knows his Celtics are 4-8, but his jumper doesn’t.


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