Early in his career, Jamal Crawford would set up for corner three-pointers directly in front of the opponent’s bench and find himself distracted. Now the sixth-most prolific shooter in NBA history, the younger Crawford realized that the presence of the other team was getting in his head.
Oh, no, it wasn’t their trash talk that was bothering him. It was his own.
“It affected me,” Crawford admitted with a laugh. “(I would) think about what I’m going to say if I make it.”
That, in a nutshell, describes one of the most enjoyable dynamic in the entire NBA: one that typically hides in plain sight. No major sport brings active participants so close to resting opponents with such frequency. Every player shooting in front of an opponent’s bench knows he’ll be yelled at, and most shooters will turn around to gloat if the shot goes in.
I spoke to six different players who frequently shoot corner threes for this story, and none of the six would admit to ever being distracted by something an opponent said. Crawford has honed his approach and dropped the trash talk, but he still loves when opponents try it.
“I laugh at it inside,” Crawford told SB Nation. “Because I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to make it so I can turn around and look at ‘em.’”
Crawford is describing The Look.
This is a phenomenon that is hardly new but is increasingly popular.
Give Stephen Curry credit for that. He has the most famous example of The Look in the past few seasons, when he gave a sit-down-and-shut-up look to the entire Kings bench while his shot was still in the air.
For proof that The Look has caught on, here’s an example of De’Aaron Fox — who shot 25 percent on threes in college — doing it.
The Look is ingrained into shooters, a quick-but-vicious stare at the other team’s bench, before they have to sprint back on defense. It’ll sometimes be directed at one specific player if he’s especially vocal. Thunder center Steven Adams said that this frequently happens to Andre Roberson, a known bench yeller.
“They make it, and they’ll turn and look directly at him,” Adams said. “It’s just one of those things where it’s just like, ‘Damn! Shit!’”
Bucks guard Jason Terry remembered a time when an opponent took it too far and actually grabbed his jersey. The referee missed it and instant replay didn’t exist, so it went unpunished.
That hardly ever happens, however. More often, according to the shooters interviewed for this story, aggressive bench ‘defense’ is a motivator. Terry remembered one example from the 2008 playoffs involving Peja Stojakovic.
“Stojakovic hit one in the corner on us, and we were all standing up,” said Terry, then with the Dallas Mavericks. “I swear I could have touched him. That close. Did not affect him whatsoever. And it actually did the opposite. He was pumped up.”
Players believe that some shooters can be spooked — “some guys get scared, some guys come up short, even airball,” Terry said — even if they themselves can’t be. In their mind, they make shots against stifling on-court defense, and some yelling won’t change that.
“You’ll be so locked into making a shot that you can’t really hear the crowd,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said. “Most of the time, I can’t even hear it.”
Rozier remembers one corner three he hit earlier this year against New York, jabbing twice and rising up over Enes Kanter. After hitting the shot, he made sure to give the Knicks bench The Look.
“Just talking shit, just having fun,” Rozier said.
Ninety-nine percent of these interactions happen without anyone ever noticing, but something like Curry’s will occasionally rise above it.
Another example happened in Game 3 of the 2013 NBA Finals, when Miami Heat forward Juwan Howard and then-assistant coach David Fizdale were caught screaming in Danny Green’s ear during Game 2 from three feet away.
It didn’t work.
News sites wrote about the play. At Dime Magazine, it was even asked if this should be banned: “So the obvious question is: Should NBA benches be allowed to do this?”
That won’t happen, and no player suggested that it should. Even shooters who believe that screaming from the sideline will motivate their opponents join in. It’s a rare moment when benched players can feel like they’re doing something to help their teammates on the court.
That’s especially true when nobody on the court is trying to guard the shot. For Adams, that’s the only time that he plays bench defense.
“If he’s wide open, if there’s a fault in the defense, then I’m the last resort,” Adams said.
Not everyone participates in these corner distractions. Mavericks center Salah Mejri doesn’t believe that it works, but his main reason for not standing up to yell is more practical.
“It’s hard for me to get up,” Mejri said. “I always put the heat on my knees.”
All this brings us to the question: Does it actually work?
One team employee in an NBA analytics department told me that he has never heard of such data being tracked and that it would be difficult to do so because the ‘home’ and ‘away’ bench varies by arena and team. Plus, we’re looking for a trend. That would require several seasons’ worth of data, at minimum.
But it doesn’t really matter what the stats say. It won’t prevent benches from playing ‘defense,’ even if it means they fall victim to The Look.
“It feels like it’s helping,” Rozier said. “It’s something that you just do.”