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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why we watch Duke beat UNC-G by 27 points: Notes from the first act of a movie

Posted by on Tue, Dec 20, 2011 at 8:40 AM

Tyler Thornton looks for the open man against UNC-G.
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—There’s a moment in every basketball game when the game is won or lost, and for Duke and UNC-Greensboro, year after year, that moment happens when the game is scheduled. Duke wins. Quinn Cook shines with 14 points and good defense in 18 minutes; the Plumlees grab 13 boards apiece; Duke hits 10 threes; and the final score reads 90-63. There’s a bit of drama here and there, with Duke trailing for most of the first half—at Cameron!—and embarrassing alley-oop dunks by the visitors and blown defensive assignments in transition that Coach K later said he hadn’t seen a Duke team make since “I can’t even remember the last time.” And: “Whoa.”

It’s one of those games on the schedule that only a mother could love, or a college basketball junkie, or the true blue Duke fan. For the college ball junkie, the little moments almost make it worth it. Seth Curry pumping his fist without irony after an easy jumper in pre-game warmup, because he wants that breakout game so badly; the labored breathing of UNC-G guard Korey Van Dussen during the Star Spangled Banner because dude is so pumped up. A buttery eight-pass sequence 11 minutes in that ends in an effortless Mason Plumlee layup; 28-year-old Wes Miller—named interim head coach of UNC-G one week ago—walking out to the foul line during a timeout and gazing around lovingly at the gym where he broke Blue Devil hearts not long ago as a Tar Heel guard; Austin Rivers talking to himself on defense like a crazy old man; Andre Dawkins exhorting the crowd from his best defensive stance as Duke spurts ahead by 15 in the second half.

Yet even the true Duke fan barely cares about all that, because the true fan is never watching just a game. True fans watch seasons, and each season is a movie, and each game is a scene, and the five-month story arc has a clear beginning, middle and end, the classic three-act structure of Aristotle and Hollywood filled with character and crises that end either with Duke’s tragic death in the NCAA tournament or its happy marriage to a national championship trophy. Each season’s movie is a sequel to the many movies before it, and scenes like the game UNC-G and Duke played Monday night get cut from the final edit or mixed into montage.

What the fan wants to know about a game like this is what it reveals about character, and what secret foreshadowing lie deep within a weird and sloppy blowout. That’s what first acts are about, and with the start of the ACC on Jan. 7, the first act of the 2011-12 Duke movie will come coming to a close. Here’s what the Duke-UNC-G game revealed about the characters of:

1) Seth Curry. Curry wanted a big game. He needed one. Over the last four games, he’d shot 9-29 with 12 turnovers, 12 fouls and very few trips to the foul line. On the opening tip, he boxed his man out for 15 feet off the jump ball. A minute later he lunged for a steal, his first of four. The big game loomed! But he was trying too hard. He forced shots, drove into traffic, had zero assists, turned the ball over four times. It’s like the part of “wicked shooting guard with a famous dad” that Seth Curry played well last year was suddenly handed to someone else. He’s not sure what his new part is called. Maybe no one is. As of Monday night, he was driving into traffic and fouling and firing up sub-par shots trying to figure it out.

Austin Rivers transitions a shot versus UNC-G.
2) Austin Rivers. Now starring as the WSGWAFD, in his post-game interview Rivers called Duke “the right place to transition my game.” Interesting. “I’m kinda used to already playing college basketball now,” explained Rivers. “It just kinda comes easy to me now…I think I’m comfortable.” He looks sort of comfortable, although he also looks strange. He moves like a necky cheetah with long arms and a limp. When he has the ball, he can gallop in short spurts past any nearby human, and yet without it, and on defense, he can look strangely slow. On a number of occasions, Monday night, Rivers did his thing where he uses the ball like a hypnotist’s watch, mesmerizing his defender one way and sluicing the other. Twice he took big contact near the rim and landed hard on the floor, rubbing his back and making ow-shapes with his mouth. His two 3-pointers were both daggers: one a long-range bomb with 3:32 left in the first half to push the lead to 5, and the other a minute later to go up 11, where the half would eventually end. Rivers talks to himself on defense and after he misses free throws and after calls he finds perplexing, which are still numerous. He talks to himself like someone whose life has long resembled a reality show, if not in drama, then at least that sense of always being watched.

3) Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook. They are separate people, for now. Thornton started, but he was having a fouling kind of night. He showed he can still hit the big shot, though, with this modest version being a first half 3-pointer from the corner to put Duke up for good. And even on an off-night, he has something of the statesman about him, that Greater D.C. confidence and toughness other leadership guys have brought to Duke from the nation’s capital: Billy King, Nate James, Nolan Smith. “I’m not knocking anyone else’s area,” explains Thornton, “but you can tell the difference between [AAU] teams from our area and teams from other areas.” He’s talking about defense, for one thing, and the schools of hard knocks and merciless competition. “My first varsity game in high school,” Thornton remembers, “I played against Chris Wright [before he attended Georgetown] and he gave me 43 points.” And it was defense—and the confidence that comes with it—that kept Quinn Cook in this game for his best performance of the year. “That’s been my downfall since I’ve been here [at Duke] is working on my defense,” said Cook, “and I’ve been putting in extra time and it paid off.” The key: “just my motivation.” That’s what Coach K likes to hear, and if what we’re learning about the characters of this D.C. point guard duo holds, we may see them loosely platooned together going forward.

4) Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. They are very tall. They don’t pass well from high post to low post. Kelly looked overcaffeinated. They seemed a little sleepy, as if the smallness of so many people on the court was a little tiring. Their characters remained solid if a little unknowable and underdeveloped. Mason has that real live jump hook now, and doesn’t foul anymore. But he’s quiet, although in the second half he started setting up shop on the block and calling for the ball. He knows he’s the man, and his teammates do too, but everyone seems to forget sometimes. Why is that? Just because he isn’t from D.C.?

The first act is almost over. If the Thornton-Cook can bring the confidence and toughness; if Rivers can fight off the never-ending camera in his head; if Curry can find his flow, then Duke’s guards may give this team a chance to move beyond the “flashes of greatness” Andre Dawkins describes on the court. “We have the potential to be a really good team,” says Dawkins, who looked ridiculously relaxed off and on the court, where his jumpers—and one sexy floater in the lane—touched the net only out of courtesy. He’s a veteran now. He knows what’s coming, and that some magic alchemy is still required for this team to come together. It was Dawkins, after all, who put together some great December games last year, only to struggle in February and March. He knows that this sequel’s second act is about to begin, filled with heroic tests of character, and that in the final edit, the UNC-G game will go missing or sampled for the glimpses it revealed in a still-forming team headed for either varying degrees of tragedy or maybe, somehow, impossibly, a miraculous marriage once again.

Eric Martin is a writer living in Durham. His most recent novel, Donald, co-written with Stephen Elliott, was published by McSweeney’s in February.

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Now starring as the Wicked Shooting Guard With a Famous Dad, in his post-game interview Austin Rivers called Duke "the right place to transition my game."

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