John McGrath

John McGrath: Blocks are nice, but Huskies need to capitalize on them

University of Washington forward Malik Dime (10) blocks a shot by Yale guard Anthony Dallier (1) during the Huskies’ 98-90 loss Sunday to the Bulldogs.
University of Washington forward Malik Dime (10) blocks a shot by Yale guard Anthony Dallier (1) during the Huskies’ 98-90 loss Sunday to the Bulldogs. jbessex@gateline.com

As the first half of the Washington-Yale basketball game was drawing to a close last Sunday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the Huskies’ Matisse Thybulle blocked a shot. A moment later, fellow forward Sam Timmins did the same thing.

A pair of blocked shots in the same Yale possession underscored the sheer athletic advantage Washington’s “Swat Team” enjoyed. Except it wasn’t really enjoyed.

Six seconds after the 6-foot-10 Timmins batted the ball away, Yale’s Blake Reynolds converted a three-point jump shot that gave the Bulldogs a 49-25 lead.

Washington had the size and the sizzle to finish with a 15-0 shot-blocking edge on the stat sheet, but Yale won the game, 98-90.

Such a disparity finds me wondering: Is the blocked shot as overrated a statistic as, say, time of possession in football, or won-loss pitching records in baseball? When a basketball team owns a 15-0 advantage in a specific phase of the game and still loses by eight points, it suggests the very definition of a worthless stat.

About this I’m certain: the blocked shot is an incomplete stat. Sometimes a block can cause a momentum swing, which is a good thing. Sometimes a block can alter a shooter’s rhythm on subsequent attempts, which is another good thing.

But sometimes, as was the case Sunday, a blocked shot does nothing more than give the home crowd a chance to scream “wow!” The ball is rejected into the stands with the force of a cannonball — a video board replay awaits — but the offense still has the ball.

Nine of Washington’s 15 blocks resulted in sustained possessions for Yale, whose players were less inclined to mope about the embarrassment of watching their shot batted away than I once was. (Competing in an intramural league against Division I football players, who found stuffing the set shots of measly guards to be an amusing wintertime diversion, was a worse college experience than Econ 101 exams at 7:40 a.m)

A shot blocked emphatically is the equivalent of a PGA star’s tee shot off the driver on a par-5. The gallery raves — somebody shouts “You Da Man!” — but when the din dies down, what’s next? A bunker to the left, water to the right, that’s what’s next. If the hazards aren’t negotiated with accuracy, the big hit that dazzled suddenly is very ancient history.

The Huskies are loaded with big-hitting shot-blockers, such as 6-9 senior center Malik Dime. Thanks to his 7-5 wingspan, he rejected six shots in the season opener, as did Thybulle, an impressively versatile 6-5 sophomore.

Two Huskies combined for 12 of 15 blocks, nobody from Yale had any blocks, and you know how the score turned out. Afterward, UW coach Lorenzo Romar was asked about the curious numbers on the stat sheet.

“I don’t think we say, ‘We blocked 15 shots, let’s not do that again,’” Romar answered. “We got a ton of deflections, guys were very active. But we didn’t end up with the ball.”

Romar might want to find some film clips of the great Bill Russell and show them to his rangy, bounce-off-the-floor-with-gusto team that surrendered 98 points to an Ivy League opponent incapable of bouncing off the floor.

When Russell blocked a shot on defense, it typically led to a fast break on offense. He wasn’t vying for a Top 10 highlight clip replayed on ESPN’s SportsCenter — Russell retired a decade before ESPN was conceived — and, in any case, he couldn’t have cared less about the ferocity of his rejections.

Russell regarded the blocked shot in terms of “How will this help us?” Deflecting the ball to a teammate, and going full speed the other way, helped the 1960s Celtics become an NBA dynasty.

Russell’s shot-blocking skill, more about finesse than power, resulted in four-point swings: two denied by the block, and two gained in the fast break transition.

Talents the caliber of Bill Russell are born, oh, about every 50 years, so let’s keep it real for the Huskies. But about Russell’s all-for-one, one-for-all mentality on a basketball court? That’s doable.

Block shots with the idea of creating a routine turnover instead of an ESPN highlight. Block shots with the assurance less is often preferable to more, unless it involves studying for an Econ 101 exam at 7:40 a.m.

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