by Adam Sobsey
I assume that the vast majority of you reading this saw the game. Extremes tell their own story. As Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski summed up, the Wolfpack thoroughly outplayed Duke for 29 minutes, and Duke thoroughly outplayed the Wolfpack for 11. Really all of the things that needed to be said, that you'd expect to be said, someone said. Ryan Kelly: "We can't keep doing this." North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried: The story of the game was his team's foul trouble, which hamstrung them throughout the second half on both ends of the floor. Krzyzewski, contrarily: "I don't think it had anything to do with foul trouble." Kelly: these flat first-half performances are "one of the things that's holding us back from being great." Krzyzewski: "It was one of the more amazing games I've ever been a part of."
And also, weirdly, in its own way, not amazing at all. It was actually quite clear to me that Duke was going to win this game long before momentum became so gravitational that Duke could do nothing but win. It was at the 8:14 mark of the second half, when Seth Curry—who had what Krzyzewski called a "heroic" game, scoring 26 points on what appeared to be an ankle sprain in the game's first minute—hit his second layup in a 30-second span, two of his 21 second-half points. That made the score 63-54, N.C. State, and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called his second timeout in less than two minutes.
The reasons why Duke's win was, at that moment, assured, plus 1,500 additional words, follow.
1) Duke had previously reeled off 11 straight points to trim a 20-point Wolfpack lead (at the 11:33 mark) all the way down to nine. But after Curry's first layup initially got the margin into single digits, State broke through Duke's fullcourt trap and Lorenzo Brown finished with an easy layup to push the lead back to 11, 63-52. That's the kind of little switch-flicker that can radically change a game, as it momentarily silenced the Cameron fans. So when Curry scored again just a few seconds later—on another one-on-one layup, as if to assert that he could just do this all night—he kept Duke's pursuit engine running.
2) That Krzyzewski then called his second timeout indicated that he knew how to break up the rest of the game into pieces, thereby appearing to elongate it. His team had given him an 11-point run, and he no longer needed to rely on magic or momentum. He saw how he could win, and rather than letting "emotion" take over the game and leave it up to his young, erratic team to ride its own current, he seized the energy and began to compress it.
3) I went a-tweeting during the timeout: "If you were just now tuning in," I chirped, "what would you think of #duke's chances?" Neil Morris, who covers the Wolfpack for Triangle Offense—and he's gonna need a really big bandage to cover them today—replied, "75 percent." In other words, the break gave us time to see just how benign the score looked from a casual, through-a-Duke-blue-glass-darkly perspective: more than eight minutes left to play, and Duke down nine at home? It's in reach. And let's say that you also saw just this one stat: Duke had shot 31 percent from the floor to that point, and that rate included Curry's two rapid-fire layups. Would you not imagine that Duke had to start shooting better? Duke is the Atlantic Coast Conference's best-shooting team.
4) The Cameron Crazies had never, not once, doubted that their team would win. They were noisy when it was 11-2, N.C. State. They were noisy when it was 31-14, and when Lorenzo Brown scored the first points of the second half to give the Wolfpack an 18-point lead. Even with Duke trailing 61-45 with 10:27 left, a student fan behind me said, without a trace of irony, "It's only 16!"
It was easy to assume that the Crazies were simply brainwashed. Were they not watching what was actually happening out there? The Wolfpack were embarrassing their team, and their team was embarrassing itself. Yet, had you never seen the score of the game but only heard the ambient Cameron audio track, you'd have assumed Duke was winning, or at least in it, the whole way. (In fact, the Blue Devils took their first lead with 2:26 left to play.) Krzyzewski never cued or berated the crowd, as he has done at other times this season. They inspired themselves, and what little boost they needed was provided by just the right motivator, of the sort that has been oddly absent all year: an actual player. Ironically, it was one who is ineligible to play: redshirted freshman Marshall Plumlee. The youngest of the three Plumli waved his long, long arms and exhorted the fans at key moments when there were brief lulls.
This was the Cameron that is advertised: almost pathologically certain that their team will win regardless of the facts at hand. You have to operate under great delusion in order to excel at sports. As Krzyzewski put it later, "our fans and our players were one," i.e. collectively they allowed themselves to believe that Duke would win even when the probability of that outcome was tiny. I went to hear the legendary Fishbone play at Motorco on Tuesday night—which I could devote several thousand more words to, if someone was foolish enough to allow me—and it was a little like Cameron on Thursday: funky, odds-defying, profane, agile, sweaty bodies flying, alternately comical and vicious and sloppy and tight, moshing (the two teams committed 45 fouls), and you left with your ears ringing.
But not magical, and neither was Fishbone, which in fact used a precision attack in its two hours or so of music. No—there was really no magic in this game, despite the unlikeliness of the Blue Devils' comeback. There was a moment when Duke got its foothold—that 11-point run to trim the deficit to nine points—and then there was the emergence, minutes later, of a suddenly very obvious outcome. No one in the media room after the game really seemed all that surprised—not even Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried, wearily rubbing his face with his hands as though he'd just gotten a slap he saw coming. (But when he said, "We're gonna bounce back," his eyes were downcast, and focused on nothing.)
Curry's second layup and the subsequent timeout is the only moment I'm going to bother rehashing in any detail. The very voluble Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it."
A few things worth noting, however. (What, you really thought I'd stop there?) Over the last nine minutes of the game, Curry and Austin Rivers took 11 of Duke's final 13 shots, and one of the other two was a Mason Plumlee putback after an offensive rebound by Ryan Kelly of a Rivers miss. It was like watching two jazz musicians trade solos: Curry dribble-drive and layup: Rivers jab-step, shoulder-shake, pump-fake, blow-by; Curry three-pointer; Rivers three-pointer. Duke ran the kind of offense that coaches usually hate: basically, give the ball to one of those guys and let him freestyle. Duke had two assists in the game's final 10 minutes, one by Curry, and the other by Rivers (to Curry). The Wolfpack's perimeter defenders simply could not stop them; and, as Gottfried noted, repeatedly, their foul trouble made them tentative. The Blue Devils recognized and exploited the disadvantages. Duke abandoned systems, itineraries and habits in favor of a scramble, and it worked. It isn't sustainable over a whole game, let alone a season, but this was not a whole game.
That is to say, it was bits and pieces of game. The first eight and a half minutes of the second half were all Wolfpack, and it was noteworthy that Krzyzewski chose not to bail out his team with a momentum-stopping timeout. It was as if he didn't want to waste his time trying to rescue an obviously flat-lining squad (and maybe he was too disgusted with them to want to talk to them in a huddle). He did install a full-court press, and that helped some: not only did it cause a turnover, but as Kelly noted, beating it also made N.C. State a little tired when they got frontcourt, and they took some poor shots.
And when Krzyzewski finally saw signs of life, he pounced. If you want to know what masterful coaching is, look no further than what he did last night. Krzyzewski did the opposite of what you might expect. He didn't, as I said, ride the tide and hope for the best, he broke the game down into segments. He took the flow out of it, and not only reset his team after each mini-run, he completely took N.C. State out of any kind of fluid up-and-down rhythm, which had propelled them to their big lead. As Krzyzewski was making the game more comfortable for his team, by touching base with them every couple of minutes, he was simultaneously making it unpleasantly choppy for his opponent, which had to retreat to its sideline constantly and reassess its shrinking lead.
"They [the Blue Devils] came out of timeouts really, really well," Krzyzewski later said. That was not the footnote commentary it might seem: Every couple of minutes, Krzyzewski reoriented his team, refocused it. He built their comeback in levels, and let his players achieve awareness, with each timeout, of how much closer they had just gotten.
A fairly important part of this game: three-point marksman Scott Wood, N.C. State's leading scorer (13.4 ppg), was held to just 10 points on 1-7 shooting. Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins are due credit for keeping him from getting open looks, indeed from really even getting the ball very often. This was a good tag team for the Blue Devils, because they applied two different styles of coverage to Wood, so he could never develop a strategy on offense: Thornton is a classic pest defender—harrass, harrass, harrass—who worked to be in Wood's face whenever Wood had the ball; Dawkins closed out on him quickly after screens, and Krzyzewski could explain how Dawkins was able to do that: "Andre should know those routes; Andre runs those routes."
More surprisingly, Wood missed three of his 10 free throw attempts. A 70 percent clip is not at all bad—the entire Duke team shoots right about there—but consider this: Wood had missed three of his previous 59 attempts. He is one of the best free throw shooters in the nation, as close to automatic as it gets. He was fouled attempting an off-balance three-pointer with the Wolfpack down by five points and about one minute left to play. Wood made only two of three free throws, though, which left N.C. State trailing 76-73, needing to get a stop and then, probably, having to set up another three-pointer. They got the stop—Curry missed a jumper—but because Duke knew that N.C. State had to have a three-ball, they keyed in on Wood, who never got the ball again, and Lorenzo Brown was forced to take a difficult, awkward shot with just a few seconds left. He missed, sealing the win for the Blue Devils. Had Wood made all three of his free throws, the Wolfpack would have had a far more diverse set of options in their final possession. Was he rattled? Impossible to say, but when a guy who virtually can't miss goes 7-10, you get suspicious.
Before the game, and then during a timeout early in the second half, the Cameron video board showed the now famous replay of Rivers' now famous three-pointer that beat North Carolina a little over a week ago. (The media saw it again at halftime, when the ACC Network, which broadcast last night's game, tabbed it as the ACC Play of the Week.) The Duke crowd has gone absolutely bonkers every time they've seen this clip, as they did against Maryland last Saturday, as well.
After Duke beat the Terrapins, Krzyzewski talked about teaching his team how to "overcome a big event" such as the stunning, last-second victory over UNC. Yet the footage has been inserted into Duke's "hype" video, the one that is shown immediately before the game starts by way of whipping the crowd into a meringue of frenzy. That's "overcoming a big event"? Showing the thing over and over and over again?
I was going to deride that sort of magical thinking, which struck me as complacent, nostalgic, self-congratulatory and believing one's own hype—especially given that Duke keeps coming out flat at home anyway (Miami, Maryland, N.C. State)—but after they rallied again last night (and remember, they nearly did so against the Hurricanes two weeks ago), maybe the best thing to do is to play the hell out of that video every damn day until 2016, when Marshall Plumlee graduates. Maybe that's what this Duke team is: 30 minutes of sloppy, 10 minutes of super. Maybe they thrive on just this kind of drama, this kind of improbability and pyromania.
Even Krzyzewski slipped up a little bit: It was a three-pointer by Rivers that gave Duke its first lead in last night's game, 37 1/2 minutes after it started. "It's kind of a similar shot," Krzyzewski said (although in many ways it really was not at all), and he didn't elaborate and didn't need to: we all knew what shot he meant. He hasn't overcome the big event either. But how many times can this lucky penny be rubbed before its shine wears off and its value is spent? Maybe enough to buy these maddening, mercurial, often ingenious, always resilient Blue Devils enough time to go from good to great by March. Or, maybe, they simply have an inexhaustible supply of miracles. Time, what little remains, will tell. The regular season is down to five games.
At one point in his postgame comments, Krzyzewski responded to a why-the-poor-spells question by pointedly defending his team's overall success this season, reminding anxious reporters that "we're 22-4; we've been in the top five in the RPI all year." That longer view of things got him talking about the cumulative fatigue that tends to visit teams as the season wears on. But in the context of recent events, it sounded more like he was talking about Duke's uncanny way of courting and often cheating death on a game-by-game basis. "Some teams just hit a wall," Krzyzewski said. "We haven't hit a wall. We may run into one, but we find a door."
And when they find it, they escape with victory.
Duke's next two games are on the road. On Sunday, the Blue Devils travel to Boston College, one of the ACC's worst teams. The 8-18 Eagles have lost eight of their last nine games and haven't scored more than 65 points in any of them. Their No. 226 Ken Pomeroy ranking is lower than North Carolina Central University (!). Worriers and doomsayers might point out that BC's lone win in those nine games was over Florida State. It's clear, however, that this is an insouciant, what-me-worry bunch of Blue Devils who laugh in the face of doom and sink three-point daggers into its heart.
Moreover, it's also clear that Florida State isn't perhaps quite as good as we all might have thought they were after they stunned Duke at Cameron (apparently, Duke's charms don't work at home against teams from Florida). The loss to Boston College ended an improbable seven-game winning streak—improbable because the Seminoles have some major deficiencies—and since then, Florida State has survived Miami and Virginia Tech, both in Tallahassee, by a total of six points, and they needed to find a last-gasp door of their own in order to escape the Hokies. Guess who they play next? North Carolina State, in Raleigh. Guess who they play after that? The Duke Blue Devils.