Minute Basketball: The Princess Bride

  
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We love stories. Drink them like we drink water when we wake up hungover. 

They’re the reason Tyrion volunteered Bran to be king in Game of Thrones. They’re so much fun that stacking them often makes for the best narratives. Don Quixote is maybe the best and first concept of stacking stories: a man who reads so many knight stories that he thinks himself a knight goes on ridiculous hallucinatory quests, then has that story published (in real life and as a plot point in the actual novel) and believes his resulting fame as proof that he’s a famous knight. Or the Grand Budapest Hotel -- a girl visiting the grave of a man who wrote a book, whose author recites on camera, which is told as a story over dinner, which is the narration of the movie itself. The episode Frame of Mind in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was eventually repurposed into Inception: the concept of layered story-telling made literal into dreams within dreams.

Or, The Princess Bride. There’s no better story, layered or otherwise. A book falsely pretending to be an abridged version of a non-existent other book by a fictional author, then made into a movie by the author, and read -- abridged further -- by a grandfather to his sick grandson. The Princess Bride the movie is about as cult classic as cult classic gets. It’s never achieved the fame of Game of Thrones, Don Quixote, or Inception, but it’s about as perfect as Cary Elwes’ bone structure. It also predicted that everyone would be wearing masks in the future.

At this point, you may be saying, hold it, hold it. Are you trying to trick me? What is this? Where’s the sports? I would reply, don’t rush me son. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles. Got any money? (Just kidding, we all know there’s no money in this game, not even in Patreon.)

Regardless, here’s the connection, as you wish: stories are supposed to be what we love about the NBA.

The NBA is supposed to be full of stories within stories. This past week saw a number of games worthy of holding the A1 slot for a season. James Harden made his return to Houston for the first time since being traded to the Brooklyn Nets. But with 25 percent capacity for fans, and neither Kevin Durant nor Christian Wood, the game lacked both its full complement of star power and the crackling tension inherent to stars returning to their former home as opponents. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray faced each other in the battle for the title of Best Canadian Player. Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo combined for 72 points in the battle for the title of Most Athletic Player. At least we have MVP Joel Embiid to keep us warm at night, chilled though we are by the pervasive and insidious ref talk.

All of that was just this past week. Inconceivable! Yet none of the games carry the weight that the NBA promises. That’s life now. Weightless, uprooted. Hollow, in the NBA and real life. At least we have movies. Let’s attach as much weight as we can to the league. Let’s write some of the stories ourselves.

This week in Minute Basketball: The Princess Bride.

Zatzman 

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik

As much coworkers as friends, Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik are the ultimate trio in film history. Forget Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Gone are the Dude, Walter, and Donny. Don’t even mention Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo (okay, mention them a little.) But in the three hired to kidnap Princess Buttercup, The Princess Bride stands apart. Vizzini, (played by Wallace Shawn, is a genius fit to render Plato and Socrates morons. Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, is a fencing master as dedicated to politeness as he is to revenge. Fezzik, played by Andre the Giant, is kind and straightforward and enormously strong. 

In Mike Budenholzer, Jrue Holiday, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks employ the NBA’s version of The Princess Bride trio.

Budenholzer is as like to Vizzini as a brilliant NBA coach can be. Clever yet rigid, he seems to shout ‘inconceivable’ every year while the playoff losses keep on conceivin’. He would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. He’s not a great fool, so rather than letting Antetokounmpo play 40 minutes plus in the playoffs, he handicaps his own team in the process of being clever. Left with the clear inability to choose neither the goblet in front of him nor the goblet in front of his opponent, Budenholzer is seemingly just stalling. 

The master swordsman Inigo Montoya waited to kill the Man in Black, but he helped up the cliff, gave him time to rest, and complimented him throughout the entire fight. The master defender Jrue Holiday’s high school teammates used to plead with him to score when scouts came to watch him play. As far as I can tell without knowing the man, Holiday is as kind and genuine as a human can be. He and his wife Lauren consistently donate millions to non-profits and black-owned businesses. Yet he’s a killer on the court, with the fluidity and agility on defense of a man who only pretends to fight left-handed for satisfaction. He used to warm up in high school by sinking left-handed 3s.

And Antetokounmpo is simply the most athletic human to have ever graced the NBA. He is a colossus, this great legendary thing. He hasn't been defended by just one person for so long. He’s been specializing in groups. Battling gangs for local charities, that kind of thing. He’s loveable and direct. Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. He is Fezzik.

With the three, the Bucks are probably better than they have ever been. (Khris Middleton, who is half Miracle Max and half Yellin, certainly doesn’t hurt, either.) For all the jokes, Budenholzer has never been a bad coach, far from it. The Bucks have drifted through stretches of the season playing like a .500 team crawling through the fire swamp (mostly aligning with stretches where Holiday hasn’t been healthy), but that’s probably a good thing for a Bucks team that has been epically dominant for multiple regular seasons in a row. It’s sometimes necessary to shake things up and face some adversity before consequences start to matter. 

Vizzini, Inigo Montoya, and Fezzik failed to achieve their admittedly villainous quest of murdering the Princess Bride and framing Guilder. But when Westley replaces Vizzini, they achieve great heights in storming a castle, rescuing a princess, and escaping on four beautiful white horses. The Bucks are committed to Budenholzer. But perhaps if things go awry, The Princess Bride contains their roadmap to success.

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Folk

A Battle of Wits

My favourite scene of the movie. Vizzini’s arrogance and flourish really make the scene what it is, and his lines are by far the most memorable, but the link between this and basketball lies with Westley. The ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ agrees to a battle where he can not lose, because either choice leaves him immune to the dangers of what might otherwise ruin someone else. To me, this is the equivalent of James Harden’s patented read/action floater lob. 

“You’re that smart?”

“Let me put it this way: Have you heard of Beal? Curry? Lavine?”

“Yes.”

“Volume Scorers.”

Defenders can spend as much time trying to read James Harden’s body language while trying to discern whether or not the floater or the lob is coming. Some players elevate less on the lob. Some position their weak-hand differently. There’s always a sign to tell what the player has committed to, and a path to take out of the treacherous 2-on-1 situation. Only Harden isn’t ever caught in between, because he’ll always take what’s available. 

“INCONCEIVABLE”

High level defenders like Draymond Green and Jakob Poeltl, mid-level defenders like Nikola Vucevic and Serge Ibaka, bad defenders of course - no one wins the split-second battle of wits against James Harden. And believe it or not, limiting Harden to two options when he’s mid-air is already a win of sorts. Perimeter defenders are in a much more difficult position, because the options Harden has off the bounce are almost infinite. The battle of wits between Harden and the big man typically comes after a guard has already lost theirs at the point of attack. It’s not that there’s no room for error. It’s that there’s no room for victory. 

“FOR THE BUCKET? TO THE DEATH? I ACCEPT!”

“Good, then contest the shot.”

Since finding his rhythm with the Nets, Harden has been leaving many dead bodies in his wake. The close finish against the Spurs where Aldridge and Poeltl didn’t stand a chance, but 5-man units couldn’t come together to figure it out either. 15 of Brooklyn’s 27 points in the 4th quarter, 100-percent shooting in overtime, and an ever present danger that throws any NBA defense into a panic attack. 

Harden is breaking teams down in all the ways we’ve come to admire from him, but he’s doing it with a little bit more selflessness and heaps more creativity. This Nets offense isn’t as regimented or heliocentric as the Rockets, and it’s providing viewers with the opportunity to watch a more diverse set of Harden’s interpretations of NBA defenses. Some of the passes he’s making throughout the game are mind melting for their ability to bend defenses well past their breaking point. So manipulative that it lends itself to not only the Nets advantage, but Harden’s amusement. Passes of the “I know something you don’t know. I am not left-handed”. It’s absurd.  

This is open court mastery. Harden knows there’s no one to pressure him on-ball and the defense is playing him for the pass. An extra flick of the wrist and the ball bounces up to his head, signaling to Dejounte Murray that a pass with some heat on it is coming - and Murray suspects it’s headed to the streaking Brown. Murray points to the space he’s going to leave vacant so he can drop back and cover Brown, and Harris (one of the NBA’s best shooters) waltzes into a rhythm 3-pointer. All because Harden hung his dribble to see how the defense would react. 

It’s hard to overstate how impressive Harden’s 15-assist, 0-turnover performance was. Especially when you consider the types of passes he makes could never be considered risk-averse. Harden continues to risk it all as a playmaker, and he’s rewarded with a brand of basketball that he really seems to enjoy, and some wins to go along with it. 

Winning battles, enjoying himself, and servicing his Nets teammates with the shots they prefer and the tagline: “as you wish”.