That the opening game of the Grizzlies-Blazers series ended up being dominated by the work of a slick, cold-blooded midrange jumpshooter makes sense. Probably all of us expected that to happen at least a few times in the series, anyway. Probably most of us expected that player to be Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers and a demon from midrange. But, nah. It was Beno Udrih.
The highlights are wonderful, just for the sight of the veteran role player with the cowlicked ‘do—seriously, he looks precisely like what you think of if you imagine a journeyman middleweight fighter with a titanium chin and brows that spurt blood if you just look at them rudely—absolutely carving up a Western Conference contender’s defense—in a playoff game!—with the balls-out aggression of a scoring champ. The transition bucket at around the one-minute mark of the above video is art: Udrih uses his eyes and a little hesitation dribble to get C.J. McCollum leaning the wrong way in anticipation of a screen, blows by him with a crossover, and then dekes Aldridge with a positively vicious inside-out dribble to create a sliver of space for a layup. Hey, that’s a Tony Parker bucket!
Look at Aldridge, one of the game’s smarter and nimbler frontcourt defenders: he doesn’t freeze, or trip over his feet, or torque his spinal cord into the rafters the way an average big man would if a guard hit him with that move at full speed; he pivots, moves his feet, reacts exactly the way he’s supposed to. For naught. He might as well have sat down and watched. Once Udrih got by McCollum and saw Aldridge approaching with his hips turned toward the sideline, he had the drop on him, and the play was over.
That one play neatly captures Udrih’s impact on the overall game: he attacked, and attacked, and the Blazers never figured out what to do with him. In the last 1:47 of the first quarter, he hit four—four! fucking four!—midrange jumpers in quick succession, a crazy flurry of sudden aggression that seemed to catch everyone completely by surprise, from the ecstatic Memphis crowd and delighted broadcast crew to the poor, flat-footed Blazers. You could see the confusion, bordering on affronted outrage, just written all over Portland’s faces: Who in the damn hell is this het-up li’l Slovenian and why in the damn hell is he taking all of these long twos? They’d gotten off to a disjointed, rickety start to begin with, but from the moment Udrih launched his one-man campaign of conscience-free aggression, they went into full-on oh-shit-what-do-we-do-now mode, and never quite got back out of it.
This attacking mindset, and his particular focus on taking every midrange shot he can get, is at the heart of Udrih’s game, and has been throughout a 10-year NBA career in which he’s mostly practiced his oddball trade on the periphery of national attention. He won a championship in 2005 with the Spurs, but it was as a sparsely-used rookie backup to Tony Parker; after three seasons of spot duty in San Antonio, he left for a succession of NBA backwaters whose coaches looked at him and saw—by dint of his handle and complexion and the vogue for creative playmaking point guards—an unselfish distributor he just plain isn’t. Beno Udrih wants to score on your ass, and he wants to make you pay for leaving the midrange open, and that’s just who he is.
And now, as an appropriately grizzled veteran in Memphis (a team whose fusty disdain for the three-point shot surpasses even the ass-backward Washington Wizards among playoff participants), he’s finally landed on a team that is both A) good, and B) philosophically oldfangled enough to value what he does, so that now he’s peddling this hilariously contrarian stuff in big, playoff moments. If his I-don’t-give-a-fuck midrange gunning exploits a gap in modern defenses geared to take away threes and layups, it also just short-circuits opponents’ brains: Wait, dammit, econometric basketball wisdom says these shots are inefficient, and therefore immoral! How dare you take and make so many of them? The five Udrih made last night accounted for only half of his 20 points and a piddly tenth of the Grizzlies’ total, but each one felt like a kill-shot—like he was defying some law of the universe, and thus might decide to defy some others if he had to. It made Memphis seem unbeatable, and both teams played like they thought so.
It’s a nice reminder: that any shot is a good shot when you can drain it with robotic consistency; that basketball is a game played by a glorious diversity of real, actual human beings; and that even a predictable outcome—the home team with the better record winning a game—can be the result of some delightfully strange, pleasantly surprising shit. It might also be terrible news for the Portland Trail Blazers.
Photo via AP