Before Game 3 of the Washington Wizards’ first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, Paul Millsap delivered a promise. He and his teammates would refrain from verbal skirmishes with their opponents. It had not worked when Millsap pronounced the Hawks played basketball while the Wizards “played MMA” in Game 1. He is a veteran, a savvy, four-time all-star, and it was not difficult for Millsap to take a different approach.
“The key to do that is just shutting the hell up,” Millsap said Tuesday after practice. “That’s it.”
In the NBA playoffs, though, players and coaches rarely shut up. Rather than existing as the same rote exchanges of information and sound bites they mostly serve as in the regular season, news conferences during the NBA playoffs become performance art. Media obligations multiply, and the statements made — or not made — behind podiums can be dissected and replayed as much the games themselves. Players and coaches use briefings and news conferences to send messages to opponents, referees, teammates or whomever else might be listening.
Some of the defining moments of this postseason have come before or between games, not during them. In response to a question not about free throws, Memphis Grizzlies Coach David Fizdale famously ranted about the imbalance of free throws between his team and the San Antonio Spurs following Game 2 of that Western Conference matchup.
“They not gonna rook us!” he declared. Then, after rattling off stats to back his point, Fizdale slammed the table and shouted, “Take that for data!” before he walked away. The Grizzlies printed shirts with the insta-slogan, the Grizzlies responded with two wins at home to tie the series.
Russell Westbrook cut off a reporter trying to ask Steven Adams about why the Oklahoma City Thunder played so poorly with the MVP candidate on the bench, accusing the questioner of trying to split apart his team. “Next question,” Westbrook repeated. Never mind that the question really wasn’t an attempt to sow dissension; Westbrook saw an opportunity to galvanize, and he used the platform he had.[Bontemps: Everything in OKC revolves around Westbrook]
In Hawks-Wizards, Millsap’s quote — “the MMA stuff,” as John Wall said Tuesday — shaped the tone and flow of the series. Markieff Morris, Millsap’s foil, declared Game 2 might be “double MMA.” The officials, perhaps wary of the series becoming overly physical, called an abundance of fouls in Game 2, and Morris has been sidled with foul trouble in three straight games. It led Morris, after Game 3, to label Millsap “a crybaby.”
As the Hawks have quieted down, they have seized a psychological edge. The Wizards have been grumbling about fouls and freighted with foul trouble. The Hawks have exploited their advantage in interior muscle and athleticism while forcing Wall and Bradley Beal to carry an untenable scoring and minutes burden.
“I think a lot of players watch to see what other players say,” Millsap said. “Opposing teams may see what other players are saying. They may give you a little something that you need. They may expose something that they’re doing. I think you can look into that, for sure.”
The chatter has also served as catnip for reporters in search of story lines. For anyone who needed extra reason to pay attention to the 4-5 matchup in the East, the MMA discussion and Morris’s comments provided it.
“They had us on NBA TV a lot,” Millsap said. “I think it brought a little light to our series. As a basketball fan, it’s good to see. It makes it more interesting, more intriguing. It sucks I got to be in the middle of it. It’s not going to escape you. It’s better you embrace it.”
Upon reflection, Millsap would not reveal whether the “MMA” comment derived from emotional or strategic impulses. “I said it because I was in a chokehold on the ground,” Millsap said, breaking into laughter.
NBA coaches have long attempted to influence officials with words in the middle of a playoff series, a tactic utilized most famously by Pat Riley and Phil Jackson. In the Wizards-Hawks series, the coaches have stayed out of the fray.
“I’m always boring,” Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer explained.
Wizards Coach Scott Brooks joked that in Washington, press briefings have a different meaning. He also wondered, jokingly, whether any reporters wanted to challenge his fact.
“Millsap went to the line 12 times, all right?” Brooks said, smiling, knowingly mocking the practice of working the refs with an inaccurate statement. (Millsap shot eight free throws in Game 4.) “And he only averages six for the year.”
He paused to consider how he views news conferences, a task he performs daily for 82 games, differently in the postseason.
“You know, I speak from my heart,” Brooks said. “You ask me a question, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m not going to give you everything, because you can’t. There’s competitive reasoning why I can’t tell you why we do things. There have definitely been coaches that will coach through the media, that will say things to try to manipulate a series. But I don’t think it works.”
Given the Hawks’ recent prerogative for dullness and the Wizards’ struggles in Atlanta, the series may be devoid of verbal controversy for the remainder. But then this is the NBA playoffs, where participants wield microphones as tools. The quotes and messages may provide grist for discussion, but only the results on the court will ultimately matter.
“When you win,” Hawks center Dwight Howard said, “that’s the best way to shut people up.”
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