Monday, June 16, 2014

Just Play; or, the Work Is Its Own Reward

The Heat-Spurs series -- like the most recent Super Bowl -- turned out quite anticlimactic with San Antonio’s three straight blowouts to clinch.

Was certainly intriguing to watch the Spurs team handle the ball so flawlessly, and that crazy 19-for-21 start to Game 3 was simply stunning. It shouldn’t have seemed so surprising, really, given the Western Conference’s clear edge over the East throughout the year, but it still was kind of amazing to watch one team dominate the other so thoroughly on basketball’s biggest stage.

While recalling the previous four championship teams San Antonio has had since 1999, the victory also kind of reprised the 2004 Detroit Pistons insofar as the “team” concept as exemplified by the winners so obviously overrode all other narratives to become the story of the series. You might remember Detroit’s coach Larry Brown speaking of “winning the right way” a decade ago, alluding to the promotion of team over individual, and the Spurs obviously demonstrated something similar during their season and playoff run.

To a man so uniformly humble, the talk that came from the Spurs perhaps sounded a little at times like generic sports-speak. Still, one theme I found kind of interesting -- and with obvious connections to poker -- was the Spurs’ repeated insistence upon “just playing” and not worrying overly about results.

The guiding quote from coach Gregg Popovich from several years back insists “You don’t deserve anything. You just go play. You start thinking about what you deserve and what you don’t deserve and it just makes you soft. You just go play the game.”

In practice, such a principle translates into focusing on performing as well as possible and not fretting over outcomes, in particular not fooling oneself into thinking certain outcomes are “deserved.” In poker terms, we think of doing our best to “get it in good” -- i.e., with a favorable chance of being successful -- then not being overly affected by results, be they positive or negative.

Kevin Arnovitz focused on that theme last night in his post-series column for ESPN titled “The work speaks for itself,” speaking of “commitment to process” as an emblem for the Spurs, a formulation that sounds a lot like a different way of saying not to be “results oriented.”

Luck did play a role in this series -- though perhaps not as conspicuously as happened between the same two teams a year ago. But so did skill, with the Spurs playing their hand about as well as it could be played. And, as happens more often than not, the favorite came out on top.

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