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Exploring the Unwritten Curriculum of the NBA Playoffs

The postseason comes with its own set of acknowledged rules and lessons. This is the secret understanding behind a Steven Adams mega-screen, or a LeBron elimination game.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When you are a teacher, there’s a regular curriculum that you’re supposed to teach and know, and then there’s an unwritten curriculum that you’re supposed to abide by and understand. The regular curriculum is given to teachers by the school district. It’s this long, intimidating packet that lists everything you’re responsible for teaching the kids during the school year. It has a timeline attached to it to keep you on track, and so it’s like “Week 1: Structure of Atoms” and “Week 9: Phases of the Moon” and “Week 31: Symbiotic Relationships in an Ecosystem” and things like that. It’s all very official and very concrete. This is a piece of the one I used to work from in Houston:

The unwritten curriculum is a different thing, though. It was started by teachers and exists only among teachers. There’s no actual list of all its parts; there are only conversations that happen in hallways and teacher lounges and after-work happy hours where an older teacher explains it to a younger teacher. Sometimes it’s teacher-oriented stuff (“Always make sure you’re super-strict during the first week of school because it’s easier to get nicer to the students than it is to get meaner”), and sometimes it’s student-based stuff (“If a kid ends a grading period with a 68 or a 69, then just bump them up to a 70”), and sometimes it’s advice for dealing with administrators (“Treat a discipline meeting with your principal like you’re being interrogated by the cops: Don’t say anything without representation there”). All in all, it’s a thing that helps teachers deal with the mental stress of being an educator.

[A quick note: If you’ve ever failed a class with a 68 or a 69, I want you to know that prior to you finding that out, your teachers all gathered together and laughed about how much they didn’t like you and how they weren’t giving you the grade bump.]

Turns out there’s a very similar thing that happens in the NBA as it transitions from the regular season to the playoffs. Things change, people change, rules change; everything mutates just enough to make for a more intense, more electric environment. That’s what this article looks at: the most important parts of the unwritten curriculum of the NBA playoffs.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

NBA.8.1A: The player will not allow easy buckets.

This is maybe the most well-known piece of the unwritten curriculum of the NBA playoffs. You just don’t let anyone get an easy bucket, because every bucket is so important. Entire NBA careers have been built by players who, despite having been good at little else, understood this pillar implicitly.

Look at someone like, say, Kendrick Perkins. For his career, he averaged 5.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game and shot less than 60 percent from the free throw line. AND STILL, he not only played 12 seasons in the league, he was instrumental in the Celtics winning the 2008 championship, all because if you tried a layup during a playoff game while he was on the court, he’d hit you on the side of the head with a folding chair.

[Side note: I hope that at some point during the playoffs, Zaza Pachulia mauls someone at the rim and everyone starts calling him “The Georgian Kendrick Perkins.” I just really want for that to happen.]

NBA.8.1B: The player will not offer to help an opposing player up off the floor.

My favorite thing is when the player who falls down forgets about this rule and so he reaches his hand up for his opponent to help him and the opponent just walks past him like he didn’t see him. It’s the same thing I do when I get home from work and my 4-year-old comes running up to me and asks me to pick him up. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to being an NBA player.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

NBA.8.1.C: The player will understand that shit gets rough.

The most playoffs-y moment of the playoffs so far happened during Game 1 of the Rockets-Thunder series. It was early in the third quarter and the game was still close (64–59, Rockets) and Russell Westbrook was bringing the ball up the court. Patrick Beverley, Westbrook’s no. 1 antagonist in the league, pressured him the entire length of the court, and so Steven Adams, a refrigerator with a ponytail, decided to momentarily free Westbrook of Beverley’s shackles. He jogged into their eventual line of travel. Westbrook saw Adams and realized that Beverley didn’t and so he sped up, which made Beverley speed up, and it was just total destruction from there.

Beverley, now in a near sprint, smashed into Mt. Adams, who leaned into the collision to make it extra nasty. Beverley crumpled like UFC fighters do after they get kicked in the head, and the Thunder just kept on about their business, no foul having been called.

Now, it would’ve been 100 percent acceptable for Beverley to just be like, “You know what? I retire from basketball” after a hit like that. But that’s not what he did. He got up, inserted himself back into the action, and then hit back-to-back LOL 3s that helped push the game out of reach. And after he hit the second one, he stood there and posed for a good 20 seconds because the Thunder had called timeout. He went nuts, the crowd went nuts, the announcers went nuts, everyone went nuts. It was a perfect moment for Beverley, who is a perfect for the playoffs: a role player who becomes wildly important because he is absolutely fine when things get about 20 percent rougher than most players are comfortable with.

NBA.8.2C: The player will not expect to play a bunch if he is not in his coach’s Top 8.

NBA.8.2D: The player will wear all black to games in which the opposing team can be eliminated.

This one is unofficially referred to now as “The John Wall rule,” after he talked the Wizards into wearing all-black to a regular-season game against the Celtics, whom he hates.

I am desperately hoping we somehow get a Washington-Boston series during the playoffs this year, if only to see how Wall one-ups the all-black regular-season funeral game. I hope he persuades all the players on the Wizards to show up in, like, maybe full-body tight black outfits like ninjas, or maybe he talks them into dressing up like prison guards and then when the media asks him why he says something like, “Because we’re about to lock these bitches up.” That’s my greatest dream.

(The best version of a team doing the funeral game thing was when the Knicks did it during the 2013 playoffs. They were hoping to close out a weaker, lesser team in the Celtics in five in New York, and so they showed up in all black, but then lost the game. They eventually won the series, then went on to lose to a lower-seeded Pacers team the next round. They haven’t been back to the playoffs since.)

NBA.8.3A: The player(s) will allow for everything to turn to mush in the worst, most heartbreaking fashion.

This is a Clippers-specific item. (I can’t believe the Clippers made it exactly one game into the playoffs before losing in an unbelievable fashion, and let me tell you something: Joe Johnson, who is 200 years old, hitting a running, falling-sideways, over-two-defenders prayer at the buzzer is absolutely “unbelievable fashion.”)

NBA.8.3B: Absent absolute immobility, the player will always play.

A gathering of heroes, truly. Remember Isiah Thomas’s Sprained-Ankle Game? Kobe’s Sprained-Ankle Game? MJ’s Flu Game? Dirk’s Flu-Like-Symptoms Game? Rondo’s Dislocated-Elbow Game? Derek Fisher’s Daughter-Just-Got-Surgery Game? Willis Reed’s “Broken Leg” Game? Vince Carter’s Graduation Game? Bernard King’s Multiple-Injuries Game? George Mikan’s Cast Game? Isaiah Thomas’s Broken-Heart Game?*

*This was so devastating to watch unfold Sunday. I honestly was overwhelmed with the strength Isaiah displayed. There was that part early in the game where he dropped a 27-footer and the Garden went yo-yo and the Bulls called a timeout and Avery Bradley jogged over and gave Isaiah a hug while he stood there and it was just like, “Goddamn. This is all so unbelievable.”

NBA.8.4B: The player will perpetrate the belief that nobody believes in them or their team.

NBA.8.4.C: The player will perpetrate the belief that everybody hates their team.

These two are the least interesting of all of the parts of the unwritten curriculum. I mean, it’s just like, come on. You know why nobody believes in your team? Because you’re the Hawks, you know what I’m saying? You know why everybody hates your team? Because you have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and Kevin Durant and you’re just destroying everyone. It’s part of it. THAT SAID, these are also the two most consistent parts of the unwritten curriculum. Somebody somewhere will express them eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

NBA.8.4.D: The player will always let Iman Shumpert shoot.

NBA.8.4.E: The player will always let Andre Roberson shoot.

NBA.8.4.F: The player will never let Klay Thompson shoot.

NBA.8.4.G: The player will never let James Harden go left.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

NBA.8.5.A The player(s) will not fuck with LeBron James.

The plainest example: Stanley Johnson said he was in LeBron’s head and then LeBron knocked his Pistons out of the 2016 playoffs.

The meanest example: Joakim Noah called LeBron a bitch on television and then LeBron knocked his Bulls out of the 2015 playoffs.

The best example: After Game 4 of the Finals last year, a win that put the Warriors up 3–1 on the Cavs, Klay Thompson made fun of LeBron James for getting mad at Draymond Green. “I guess his feelings just got hurt,” Thompson told the media during his press conference when they asked him about LeBron and Draymond getting into a minor confrontation. When it was brought up to LeBron, he just laughed it off. Then he showed up for Game 5 and hung a 41–16–7 line on the Warriors, then put up 41–8–11–4 in Game 6, then a championship-winning 27–11–11 in Game 7.

The second-oddest example: Lance Stephenson blew in LeBron’s ear and then LeBron knocked his Pacers out of the 2014 playoffs.

The oddest example: DeShawn Stevenson tried to talk down on LeBron, then LeBron said responding to him would be like Jay Z responding to Soulja Boy, then Soulja Boy showed up to Game 3 of a playoff series between DeShawn’s Wizards and LeBron’s Cavs, then LeBron knocked DeShawn’s Wizards out of the 2008 playoffs.

NBA.8.6.A: The player will always pretend to shut down social media.

Two things here: (1) Sometimes I think a bunch about how different the NBA would’ve been back during the ’80s and ’90s if players had Twitter and Instagram and so on. I just really feel like Jordan would’ve gotten off some fire tweets during a few of those title runs. (2) I get the intention behind doing this, but am I really supposed to believe that a player who says he’s going dark on social media is really not on there sneaking around in the shadows on off days?

NBA.8.6B: Understand that legacies are carved into the granite walls of NBA lore during the playoffs.

Oh, hello, Giannis. Good to see you. I’m so glad you’re here.

(I think a big part of the reason people are so drawn to Giannis is that watching him play basketball feels a lot like watching the scene in the movie where a superhero is figuring out his powers. Some players — guys like John Wall or LeBron or Steph — you can watch them do something incredible and you can see the shadow of all of the work that went into whatever specific move they just did. With Giannis, though, he’s just like, “Wait. I CAN CLIMB UP WALLS?!” It’s very charming and astounding.)

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

NBA.8.7A: The player will be way worse than he is during the regular season.

This is a Kyle Lowry–specific one, and I’m so sad about that. As I write this, Lowry is tied with Jamal Crawford for the worst playoffs shooting percentage among all active players with at least 500 attempts (37.9 percent), and also tied for second-worst from 3 during the playoffs among all active players with at least 200 attempts. He’s a lightning bolt during the regular season (over 46 percent from the field, over 41 from 3), and a … wait for it … waaaaaait … it’s gonna be good … hold on … almost there … nearly there … here it is: a frightening dolt during the playoffs.

Get well soon, Kyle.

An earlier version of this story misstated the year that Lance Stephenson blew in LeBron James’s ear. It was 2014, not 2012. Also, Soulja Boy attended Game 3 of the 2008 series between the Wizards and Cavs, not Game 1 of a 2006 matchup.