- Photo by Christopher Beck
- Austin Rivers, in action earlier this season
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—Spend any amount of time around a coach/manager, and you soon come to recognize their catchphrases. Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, whom I’ve probably interviewed 220 times, has “day to day,” and “he battled” and a few others. To reiterate the watchword is to press a sort of reset button, to get back to basics, to simplify: the coach is reminding himself (and his listeners) of his fundamental approach, his attitude, his way of working and perceiving. When I say this, I am me. Mantras.
Among Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s mantras is: “It’s what we do.” I think he’s said this three or four times this season in his postgame comments, almost interrupting himself to get it in there at certain moments. The “it” in that phrase can refer to a number of things, depending on the context. Last night, Krzyzewski summoned the phrase while talking about a sequence right near the end of the first half of Duke’s 91-73 trouncing of Wake Forest.
The actual events and their consequences were relatively unimportant in the overall picture of the game. Duke was trying for a 2-for-1 with about a minute left to play in the first half, and the thing you need to know about this is that Andre Dawkins had, to that point, made six consecutive three-pointers over a span of about seven minutes, making them from all over the floor, swishing them, bouncing them around the rim, shrugging MJ-style in insouciant glee, and scoring 18 straight Duke points—eighteen!—that basically ended the game before it was half over. Duke had a double-digit lead for the final 26 minutes of the game.
If you are looking for your quick-and-dirty storyline from last night’s game, that’s it: Dawkins, six straight three-balls, 21 first-half points. He didn’t score a single point in the second half, but he didn’t need to: Wake was so intent on shutting him down that they forgot about the other guys, and three of those other guys—Seth Curry (who had an excellent game), Ryan Kelly and Austin Rivers—scored at will. Those three plus Dawkins scored 69 of Duke’s first 73 points. The Plumli were a non-factor, basically, and for a change they didn’t need to be. Duke has a chance to tie its record for consecutive home wins (46) with its next game this Saturday, at home against Florida State.
But back to this 2-for-1 situation: So Tyler Thornton, who had eight assists last night (and it seemed like all of them were on passes to Dawkins), with Duke up 43-30 and about 53 seconds to play, apparently ignored whatever set he’d been told to run and made another quick pass to Dawkins. Dawkins wasn’t really set for his shot, but because he was feeling it, he hoisted yet another three-pointer—his 11th of the half—and missed badly. An airball, in fact, if I recall. The Demon Deacons grabbed the ball and ran out on the fast break, and Travis McKie schooled Dawkins on his way to a handsome layup that brought Wake Forest to within a respectable 11 points—and now it was Wake Forest that had the 2-for-1, because there were still 44 seconds on the clock.
So Krzyzewski called time out. And he was not happy. He started to scream at his players. Presumably he used his f-mantra a number of times. He was asked later about this moment: was he mad at Dawkins for the hasty shot?
“No,” he answered immediately, “I got on our point guard.” And after explaining the whole 2-for-1 plan, he added “Those are things I do—it’s what we do.”
But what was “it”?
“It” is the work, the detail, the intelligence, the practice, the preparedness. The other day, Krzyzewski gave an interview in which he talked about the athlete’s (indeed anyone’s) need to commit “intellectually” to his job in order to do it at the highest level. Tellingly, it wasn’t Dawkins he was mad at in this moment; after all, the kid had just made six straight threes, and you could hardly fault him for finding the ball in his hands and instinctively trying for a seventh. Note, too, that Krzyzewski didn’t say he was mad at “Tyler Thornton.” He blamed instead “our point guard,” an apparently anonymous functionary—anonymous because no name-brand Duke player would ever do something so thoughtless as what Thornton did in this moment. “Our point guard,” whoever he was, was not “we”: What “we” do, among other things, is run 2-for-1’s properly.
Another thing that “we” do, in the Duke world, is beat Wake Forest at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils came into the game with 12 straight W’s at home versus the Demon Deacons, and the Deacs aren’t all that good this year. They were coming off a 36-point loss—at home, no less—to North Carolina State. Just as last night’s game began, one of the Cameron Crazies behind me informed his friend that “No. 11 and No. 30 are their best players.” What he could almost just as well have said was, “No. 11 and No. 30 are their only players.” C. J. Harris and Travis McKie, who were No. 2 and No. 3 in scoring in the Atlantic Coast Conference coming into the game, average a combined 34.4 ppg, plus about 10 rebounds. Point guard Tony Chennault adds 10.6 points ppg, and last night dropped in 13. But this is basically a two-man operation.
(It was this same Crazie, by the way, I think, who uttered the line of the night. Late in the game, with reserves Michael Gbinije and Josh Hairston both in the lineup, Hairston was whistled for one of the five fouls he managed to commit, with his big bumptious body, in less than 10 minutes of action. Kid behind me, disgusted, says to his friend: “Gbinije has upside. Hairston has backside.” The Crazies have been a rather middling force this season—I have to say I was expecting a lot more wit and with-it-ness, and sheer decibels, too—but that was a humdinger!)
Duke is not a two-man operation. It’s not even a five-man operation; the story last night was, unfortunately (because tiresome), largely about how Austin Rivers didn’t start the game. A big deal was made of this, including by Austin Rivers himself. (“It was very emotional for me,” he said.) Apparently this was the first time he wasn’t in the starting lineup since he missed nursery school with chicken pox or something. I’m not really sure; I was standing near the back of a huge and shifting pack of media hyenas who egged Rivers on to talk about how it felt not to start for what must have been at least 10 minutes straight. The poor kid talked and talked and talked, although talking seemed to suit him just fine; he’s good at it; he even repeated himself whenever some new reporter with a microphone would join the throng and put to him a question he’d already been asked several times, and I could never quite get close enough to hear exactly how long it has been since he didn’t start a game. In any case, suffice it to say that Austin Rivers is accustomed to starting basketball games, and that it cut him to the quick when Krzyzewski told him that Quinn Cook and Dawkins would start alongside Curry, and that Austin would start alongside other players on the bench.
“Bench.” Ah, that’s another good word here, but not in an “it’s what we do” way. Not long after Krzyzewski’s postgame session began, following some at-ease-y’all jocular exordial kibitzing with one of his daughters, who was in the press room, the very first question came from a young reporter (maybe from the Duke newspaper?): “Coach, Austin was pretty frank and said that your decision to bench him made him mad and fueled him.”
There was going to be more to that question, but Krzyzewski cut the guy off. “You know, I don’t like the word ‘bench.’ I don’t know where that word comes from.” (
It got pretty quiet in there all of a sudden, and Krzyzewski allowed it to stay that way for an uncomfortable beat or two before elaborating: “‘Bench’ means he sat on the bench. To me he scored 20 points and played 32 minutes.” (That happened to be a team-high figure.) Then he decided to go ahead and let the reporter off the hook with this little piece of humorousness: “Everybody should be benched like that.” That accomplished, he got serious again. “It’s our look at trying to look at different lineups, different ways of doing this team.” You know: It’s what we do.
“Was Ryan benched?” Krzyzewski then added, again more pointedly (and rhetorically). He was referring to Ryan Kelly, who had also, like Rivers, not started the game but posted a 20-10 double-double in 27 efficient minutes, adding four assists.
“Eight of our guys have started,” Krzyzewski said. So it’s an eight-man operation, and that’s by necessity: Duke may not have a first-team All-ACC player on its roster this year; as a reminder of that, former Blue Devils Gerald Henderson (first-team All-ACC, 2008-09) and Corey Maggette (would have been, easily, had he not gone pro after his freshman year) were sitting right behind the Duke bench last night. This is a team of eight starters. “When one guy isn’t starting,” Krzyzewski said, “it doesn’t mean he’s awful. It means we’re looking at a little bit different thing or way of doing them game. And that’s just the way our team has to be.”
And then he said, “Okay?” And although there was nothing menacing or aggressive about that “okay,” it was unmistakeably: This line of questioning is permanently closed, counselor. Next witness.
All fine and good, and maybe in and of itself true: Yes, “that’s the way our team has to be.” No, “bench” isn’t accurate in describing what happened. However: Given that Rivers came into the game some minutes into it, and then played for most of the rest of it, the arrangement bears a little scrutiny. If he was going to play 32 minutes anyway, and if he’s the best player on your team—which he is—why not start him?
To send him a message, that’s why. Sure, “everybody should be benched like that.” Okay, “we’re looking at a little bit different thing.” But the only really meaningful different thing, in Rivers’s 32-minute, 20-point game, was that he didn’t start the game. The meaningfulness there—the “it” in this particular “it’s what we do”—is along the lines of, Don’t take this for granted, kid. Rivers was the No. 1 recruit in America last season; his father is a great former player and now head coach of the Boston Freaking Celtics. No matter. You gotta earn it, and Rivers hasn’t played well in three of his last four games, culminating in a four-point, zero-assist, one-rebound fail against Clemson on Sunday. “What we do” is not that. Come to think of it, this doesn’t seem like “a little bit different thing” at all, the way Krzyzewski designed it.
And it wasn’t a little bit different to Austin Rivers, either. And he was pissed. And he said so (his word, “pissed”). For a good long while. He made sure to say that he wasn’t pissed at Krzyzewski, whom he called a “genius.” But he didn’t quite seem to say he was pissed at himself, either. He was just pissed in general, pissed at a situation in that abstract way that only younger people are able to get pissed: It wasn’t Krzyzewski’s fault; and although Rivers allowed that he had “a couple of games in a row that I just wasn’t into it,” he wasn’t quite saying that it was his fault, either. There was just this not-starting circumstance, this apparently sourceless injustice, this rough and rude grievance, and as there was no one to blame for it, all he could do was use it as motivation, i.e., well played, Krzyzewski.
The best part was when Rivers said, “My Dad lost”—five games in a row, actually, although Rivers was specifically referring to the Celtics’ 97-88 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma City on Monday, apparently the same day Rivers was informed he wouldn’t be starting last night. “He called me,” you know, to talk about his Celtics losing to Kevin Durant and the Thunder, disappointed father to preternaturally confident and upbeat son. “I don’t want to hear about the Celtics,” he told his Dad. “I’m so pissed off.”
Quite a life some people get to lead.
“You have to show confidence in your guys,” Krzyzewski said. He was at that point talking about Seth Curry, whom he praised—Curry had a really good game, all the more impressive for being hampered early by foul trouble. He was a steadying presence early but scored only four first-half points. So when the second half started, Krzyzewski ran some plays for Curry right from the get-go, and Curry got four shots in just over two minutes. (He made three layups, and had a three-pointer rim out.)
So here was Krzyzewski, showing confidence in this one guy, Curry, but appearing to show no confidence in another, Rivers. There are different kinds of confidence, though, and in this case it’s perhaps helpful to imagine that Rivers’s problem may have been too much confidence. Certainly when he gets the ball, he’s usually liable to start juking and shaking, then to drive to the hoop and, often as not, it sometimes seems, force an ill-advised shot. Krzyzewski was showing Rivers the young blue-chip’s own confidence, and what he was showing him is that you can’t coast on it. Some tires perform better if you take a little air out of them.
So it was almost an uh-oh moment when Rivers banked in a ludicrous three-pointer with a little under 11 minutes to play (making it 71-49), falling on his can when he was bumped, although it wasn’t called. It was an uh-oh moment because “I thought I deserved one of those,” Rivers later said. As a guerdon for suffering the pain of a “benching”? It was just a lucky shot, that’s all—a bad shot, really. It had no karmic relationship to anything that preceded it, and it was no vindication or godly approval, even though Rivers invoked “the basketball gods” in describing it.
Later, another reporter brought up the Rivers-run-deep thing: “Austin talked about liking that process of being pushed by you.”
“Well,” Krzyzewski answered, with something close to a snort, and in the tone of a man who has all the money in a city of beggars, “he has no alternative.”
Rivers is right to call Krzyzewski a genius. What’s the old cliche? Never makes the same mistake twice? It’s more like, never does anything twice. Consistency of a certain logistical kind is mandatory—scheduling, discipline, order (the “it’s what we do” part)—but in the execution of the art, once the consistency is in place, variation and unpredictability are the marks of the genius. Have different kinds of confidence in your guys. Motivate by both propulsion and reversal. Single them out by name for praise; or depersonalize them as “our point guard.” Play guys off one another. Change the starting lineup. How do you think Austin Rivers feels, watching Andre Dawkins start in his place and go off for seven straight threes, electrifying Cameron? Entirely good?
There’s a wonderful anecdote in Gene Wojciechowski’s The Last Great Game, the Duke-Kentucky book that just came out. During the 1991-92 season, at the end of which Duke would win the national championship, the Blue Devils suffered an upset loss (at Wake Forest, wouldn’t you know). Duke could have clinched the ACC title that night, but they squandered a 10-point lead with less than six minutes to play. Krzyzewski was displeased, and told the team to show up for practice “taped up and dressed in practice uniforms”—at Wallace Wade Stadium, where the football team plays.
“Krzyzewski was going to run the Blue Devils to death,” the players assumed, in dread. They pictured punishing 220s, 440s, 880s until they were “ralphing in their shoes, gasping for breath.”
Instead, once they were assembled, Krzyzewski told each and every player, for the whole team to hear, “exactly why he was special and vital to the program. And then he took them across the street to Cameron, where cake and ice cream was [sic] waiting for the team in the film room. The players watched about 20 minutes of tape—all the time wondering when their coach was going to order them to the court for a full punishment scrimmage—before Krzyzewski turned the lights on and said, ‘All right, guys, see you tomorrow.’”
It gets to the point, in the eminence of a career, when such genius arises quite without such deliberation or design, and in small but satisfying ways. Two of those, last night, right near the end of Krzyzewski’s postgame press conference:
1) Quinn Cook played only five minutes Thursday. Why was that? He had been logging more minutes recently, averaging 19 per game over his last seven. Had he regressed? Was it just to give hot-shooting Dawkins more run? No. “He hurt his knee a little bit again. We gotta take a look at it. He did something at Clemson. He couldn’t do anything on Monday, and was a little ginger with it. Hopefully it’s not anything too serious.”
Ah, a little injury, then. Okay, that’s that.
But then, later, Cook himself tweets: “Sick as a dog man. Gotta get better.” And again, at 1:49 a.m.: “Up coughing n sneezing. #nobueno”
So, is it the knee? The flu? Both? If the knee, how bad, and is it really true that even though he tweaked it on Sunday, they still “gotta look at it”? Honestly, the answer isn’t important. What’s important is how Krzyzewski is veiling the answer—strategically speaking, you never reveal how injured a player is if you don’t have to—while appearing to answer it straightforwardly. Knee. Take a look. A little ginger. Not too serious.
2) Just after this little misdirection (if indeed that’s what it was; see what I mean?), Krzyzewski was asked whether he knew that Dawkins, after his seven-three-pointer first half, was well in range of the all-time Duke record for most threes in a game: nine, set by Shane Battier and later matched by J. J. Redick. And “do you care about that stuff?”
“No, I don’t care,” Krzyzewski quickly replied. “We can’t be playing for records. We gotta be: time, score—what’s going on?”
And then he added, grinning: “It’s not like Shane Battier texted me during halftime and said, ‘Don’t feed Dawkins.’”
Everybody laughed, because that was funny, but notice: Right after saying he didn’t care at all about records, including this one, Krzyzewski revealed, under the cover of a well-timed joke, that he knew quite well who held it.
The Florida State Seminoles, whom Krzyzewski called the ACC’s hottest team—they gave North Carolina a well-nigh historic 33-point drubbing on Sunday, and two days later squashed Maryland—come to Cameron to take on the Blue Devils tomorrow (!) at 4:00 p.m. Krzyzewski also said that FSU was “good, and they’re long, and they’re old.” He said that again—”old”—so as to differentiate the word from “mature,” which is subjective. The Seminoles are actually old, chronologically, and not only power forward Bernard James, whose time in the military prolonged his eligibility so that he will turn 27 in a few weeks. The whole front line is oldsters: Center Jon Kreft is 25, two others will turn 24 this year, and the roster also has a pair of graduate students (who happen to be younger than some of their aging undergrad teammates).
“We’re playing men on Saturday afternoon,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s no question about it.”
One final note, from the Wake Forest media guide. Head coach Jeff Bzdelik “is married to the former Nina Bernardzik.” Of course: what other potential spouse would be able to spell her new, married name?