Whither the Grin?

(Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

“He had a smile on his face as he was waiting for the pass!”

With two minutes and thirty nine seconds left in last night’s game and Miami trailing Boston 91-94, Shane Battier gathered a defensive rebound, dished the ball to LeBron James and ran up the right side of the court to the right corner, where he spotted up for an entire possession.

Elsewhere: A LeBron/ Haslem pick and roll fizzles and dies, Dwyane Wade surveys the defense, LeBron half-heartedly posts up Rajon Rondo—through it all, Battier sits in the corner, twitching his fingers with his hands ready for the pass. Finally, LeBron swings the ball across the court to Mario Chalmers, and Chalmers finds Battier in the corner. Tie ball game. As they run down the court, Mike Breen tells us Shane Battier was smiling as he received the pass.

Video evidence is inconclusive. None of the angles available capture his face. As we see Battier running down the court, he is once again focused, stoic. So we’ll have to take Breen’s word. Some how, for some reason, Battier found some private well of contentment, joy even, while he waited for the pass. So what was he thinking?

Battier often plays with a knowing joi de vivre that borders on the haughty. Those opalescent teeth, that canyoned chin, his yearbook smile. If the NBA were a live production of the Beauty and the Beast, Shane Battier would be the waffle-headed Gaston, toothily unshaken in his confidence. But why? He’s been slower than most of the league for years, and the apex of his career came when the New York Times wrote about him for being, like, way better than he looks, you guys. Now, he is a meme, so overexposed as the “no-stats” All-Star that his every action on the court seems to refer to his overstated reputation as the thinking man’s player. And there he was, smiling as he waited for the pass. I ask you again: What was he thinking?

Maybe Battier is the analytics cyborg that Daryl Morey would have us all believe. Perhaps he perceived, as LeBron briefly backed Rondo down, a certain buoyancy in the hardwood created by Kevin Garnett preparing to help the strong side. His fingers twitch, feeling the air pressure. He has studied the film. He went to Duke. He knows the barometric measurements that cause KG’s old knees to become slow with inflated scar tissue. His trap is sprung, and a grin of expectant triumph blossoms, if ever so faintly.

Or perhaps Battier is not just a smart basketball player. Why, after all, is his head like that? Even in college, as a young man, he sported the shar pei dome—what must have caused that? Could it be that his mind was replaced at a young age with a combination of morse code transmitters, AccuScore predictors and playbooks? Was he, as a child, coerced into sports and physics experiments, his scalp clumsily replaced by the sick geniuses who made him the perfect basketball machine? His fingers tap out messages to his controllers, and they radio back to his hard-wired skull the perfect shooting mechanism given the impending closeout. Grim, robotic, satisfaction spreads across Battier’s face.

Least likely of all, perhaps Shane Battier has internalized years of excellent coaching, beginning with an uncommonly competitive and high-profile college experience when his identity as a basketball player was being formed. Perhaps this warped individual is so removed from basic human insecurity that he relishes the opportunity to have his skills reflected back to him in the most crucial situations possible. Further, this alien has so overcome his need to assert his dominance that mere seconds after finding himself still capable of delivering on important plays, he has already stored away his self-regard and is once again focused on the basketball game at hand.

One thing is sure: there was never any doubt that Battier was shooting. For all the movement on the strong side, Battier basically sets up a tent in that corner, and the defense knows it. He’s open, but he’s not that open – he knew he was going up with that shot as soon as the ball left LeBron’s hand.

It’s a moment with little mystery, except the one we never get to see: Why that smile?

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