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The NBA Playoffs Need More Situational Rudeness

Terry Rozier’s last-second 3-pointer was one of the most amazing moments of the first round so far. It also offered an important sports lesson in the benefits of completely humiliating your opponent.

Terry Rozier’s stepback jumper Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday afternoon, Terry Rozier hit a 3-pointer that should have given the Celtics a win in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Bucks. But he was too modest, so it will be remembered as a footnote.

With the score tied at 96 and the shot clock turned off in regulation, Rozier decided the game was in his hands. He drove on Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe, and here is what happened.

4.5 seconds remaining: Rozier hits a flat-footed Bledsoe with a vicious left-to-right crossover. Caught unaware, Bledsoe sprints toward the bucket in hopes of preventing Rozier from driving for a game-winning layup.

3.8 seconds remaining: After seeing Bledsoe break toward the hoop, Rozier reverses direction, stepping back to a spot behind the 3-point arc.

3.3 seconds remaining: Bledsoe realizes that Rozier is not driving and slams on the brakes, halting his hoop-ward momentum.

3.1 seconds remaining: Bledsoe takes a miniature step toward Rozier and lifts his hand slightly.

2.9 seconds remaining: Bledsoe drops his hand and slumps his body. He has given up completely and prepares to watch Rozier’s shot go in. Normally, players who have been crossed up try to regain their dignity, and make an effort to get back into defensive position. Bledsoe, however, just accepts that his dignity is gone.

2.6 seconds remaining: Rozier jumps to shoot.

2.4 seconds remaining: Bledsoe probably thinks about how it’s April 15, which would normally mean that he needs to file his taxes by midnight. He doesn’t need to given that it’s the weekend, though, so he makes a mental note to deal with it later.

2.3 seconds remaining: Rozier releases the shot.

1.8 seconds remaining: Bledsoe watches the basket, wondering whether Rozier’s shot will go in. “Wow,” he must think. “I’m at an NBA game, so close to the action. People pay a lot of money for courtside seats, and I’m closer than them! Lucky me!”

0.5 seconds remaining: Rozier’s shot goes in.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has received a ton of praise for his inventive and effective late-game half-court sets, but nothing he drew up could have been as devastating as asking Rozier to go to work on Bledsoe. After Rozier completed two basic moves, Bledsoe looked like he’d just run a dizzy bat race. It was as if he typed “guard Terry Rozier” into the default iPhone Apple Maps app instead of downloading Waze. Bledsoe’s job was equal parts simple (guard one player!) and critical (if he fails, the Bucks lose!), and Rozier pantsed him. It was one of the most humiliating moves I’ve ever seen on a game-winning shot.

Only it wasn’t a game-winning shot. Because in that remaining half-second, Bucks forward Khris Middleton somehow managed to catch and shoot a 35-footer, tying the game and sending it to overtime.

The Celtics went on to win 113-107, but Rozier could have ended the game in regulation. Last month James Harden crossed up the Clippers’ Wesley Johnson—just left the poor dude hopelessly writhing on the ground—and instead of instantly shooting, he chose to take his time and stare down Johnson. In Harden’s case, he was soaking in the moment, ensuring that his stepback would be one for the ages. But in Rozier’s case, staring down Bledsoe would have done more than just further humiliate his opponent. It would have sealed Boston a victory. His shot would have gone in at the buzzer, and Middleton never would’ve been able to respond.

So why didn’t Rozier do this? Maybe he felt he was in rhythm; maybe he felt that there was no time for gloating in such a high-leverage situation. But it wouldn’t have been gloating. It would have been Situational Rudeness.

Situational Rudeness is when a player performs an action that would generally be considered showboating, but actually serves a practical purpose within the flow of a game. As it turns out, sports frequently incentivize athletes humiliating their opponents, even if these types of actions are widely discouraged and written off as selfish.

Sometimes, celebrating is a bad thing. Take this play, for example.

Lance Stephenson of the Pacers blocked Dwight Howard of the Hornets and chose to stare down Howard in triumph. But he hadn’t triumphed yet: The block ricocheted off the backboard and directly to Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who got an uncontested dunk because Lance was flexing his muscles at Dwight, whose muscles are objectively larger.

Stephenson misapplied his rudeness. From a young age, basketball players are taught that blocking the ball out of bounds is unwise. Yes, it looks cool to wind up and volleyball-swat the ball out of play, but doing so inherently gives possession to the opposing team. It is wiser, fun-haters say, to block shots delicately, giving one’s own team the chance to retain possession. In a situation like Stephenson’s, though, in which the opponent has numbers on a fast break, blocking the ball out of bounds is preferable. Sometimes, it is smart to make an opponent feel powerless and small by ruthlessly whacking the ball into the furthest reaches of the earth. Take this LeBron James chase-down block on the Pacers’ Thaddeus Young in last year’s playoffs.

On countless occasions, James has chased down opponents and blocked the ball off the backboard to keep it in play. It’s his most iconic moment! But on this play, doing so probably would have given Indiana’s C.J. Miles a clean layup. So James employed Situational Rudeness and spiked the ball to some lucky fan sitting in the 47th row of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not only did he make Young feel worthless, but he also prevented an offensive rebound!

Or consider Allen Iverson stepping over Tyronn Lue in Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, one of the most disrespectful moments in NBA history.

This also served a purpose: If a point guard is lying on the floor, unable to stand, that guard isn’t going to be able to advance the ball up court until the other team’s defense is set. In staring into Lue’s eyes and letting the world know that the Laker was unfit to lick his Reeboks, Iverson was really being a defensive-minded, team-first player who was preventing his opponent from getting off a quick shot.

If a soccer player scores a goal late in a game to give his team the lead, it’s his duty to milk the clock by celebrating for as long as the official allows. Sure, the official adds stoppage time at the end of each half, but that’s an inexact science, and I feel like there isn’t a 1-to-1 ratio of time wasted to time added. Likewise, if a football player is well ahead of the opposing defenders en route to scoring a touchdown with relatively little time left, he should run back and forth along the 1-yard line until the defense comes close to catching him. (Note: This primarily applies in Madden. There are a lot of very rude Madden players on YouTube.)

An athlete’s top priority should be to help the team win, not to protect the feelings of an opponent. And while it’s frowned upon to always seek out opportunities to disgrace the competition, doing so every once in a while can prove beneficial to the ultimate goal of winning. When the time for Situational Rudeness arises, players must break free of the pesky bonds of sportsmanship and stunt on their opponents, until their enemies vanishes in a blaze of sheer embarrassment. Stunt hard, stunt viciously, stunt until you can stunt no more. It’s for the sake of the team.