Sometimes, the obvious isn’t so obvious, particularly with the pressure that comes with knowing every shot you (don’t) make might end up costing you an NBA career, or at least the one you’re trying to carve out with the team you’re on (for now).
Such was the issue for R.J. Hunter, who found himself in danger of being waved so the Boston Celtics can get to the regular season roster limit of 15 by the second of November. Until Saturday’s preseason game against the New York Knicks, neither Hunter nor the other player most likely to be cut, James Young, had done much to separate themselves from the other. In fact, the more-likely presumptive ex-Celtic, Young, was actually shooting and rebounding better, quietly threatening to steal back the rights to that final roster spot from Hunter after treading water developmentally through his first two seasons in the league.
Then, completely unexpectedly, Hunter went off.
Erupting for 17 points off the bench in just 12 minutes, R.J. filled up the stat sheet, hitting six-of-eight from the field, including two threes, plus nailing three of four shots from the charity stripe generated from his newfound approach to the game.
What flipped the switch? Two things, according to Hunter - the realization his defensive lapses were getting in the way of his entire game, and by becoming aware of how his offense was choking because of his over-attention to shooting.
Likely sensing the door of opportunity was closing, R.J. started watching his game for clues to improve it:
RJ Hunter says that after watching film, he thought he was settling too often for jumpers. One reason why he took ball to the rack tonight.— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) October 16, 2016
Sometimes, the pressure to live up to a reputation can get in the way of doing your job. Hunter’s reputation as a shooter clouded his focus on his job, which, as an NBA player, includes a lot more than just jumpers. Hunter not only rediscovered he’s quite capable around the rim, he also threw in an assist and steal for good measure, and much of this grew out of shifting focus to defensive fundamentals.
Hunter’s attention to defense may have stemmed from his film sessions too, but it definitely impacted (apologies) by some very Draymond Green-like advice. Even more strange was the source of the advice, a one Danny Ainge, who has never been known for giving the colorful advice he reportedly offered to R.J. (though he did have a reputation for taking it):
RJ Hunter said Ainge told him to "sack-check somebody like it's the 80s" when he came in game. (Gross.) "Be physical was his msg, I think."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) October 16, 2016
Wherever the newfound focus on defense came from, it generated a complete game for Hunter - arguably his first such outing - and at a crucial moment, too. As noted by ESPN’s Chris Forsberg, R.J. credits this renewed defensive focus for the night’s lofty performance:
"[Defense has] been my main focus," Hunter said. "I think before I was coming in trying to figure out how to score, and now I’m just trying to figure out how I can help my team on the defensive end. I think that makes the offensive end a lot easier."
We may never know if R.J. actually used a “sack-check” to get an edge, but his return to fundamentals instead of beating his head against a wall until his shot falls returned dividends quickly. If James Young wants any hope of wearing green in November, he’d be wise to try a similar approach tonight against The Brooklyn Nets - it’s one of two shots left to him, with a rematch against the Knicks on Wednesday, the 19th being the other.
And if taking it to the paint and playing some gritty defense doesn’t work, he can always ask Danny what, exactly, a “sack-check” is:
RJ on "sack-check."— Adam Himmelsbach (@AdamHimmelsbach) October 16, 2016
"You’re gonna have to ask [Ainge] what it means but I think you can figure it out.That’s how they play in prison ball"
Photo courtesy of Al Bello/Getty Images
Follow Justin at @justinquinnn
Justin Quinn 10/17/2016 12:18:00 PM Tweet Edit