What sends a stronger message: a punch to the face or a stare down after a poster dunk? Fighting is barbaric, but I love watching athletes taunt each other. Staring into the eyes—the very soul—of a man just after humiliating them on television is more powerful than any punch that was ever thrown.
6) Jayson Tatum dunks on Al Horford
Tatum wanted this one so badly that he tried to drive at Horford twice on the same possession. It’s rare that a Celtic would seek revenge on a former teammate these days with all the ceremonious “welcome back” receptions in the past few seasons, not only for Isaiah Thomas, but also guys like Kelly Olynyk and Evan Turner. A revenge dunk was warranted, however, after Horford left town for more the money. Horford had missed the first reunion game in Boston in early December. Two months later, Tatum let him have it in a 21-point blowout in front of a national television audience.
5) Marcus Smart pulls a Steph Curry in front of injured Steph Curry
Trying to pull off somebody’s signature move on them on the court isn’t as disrespectful as it is a show of sportsmanship, like Allen Iverson crossing up MJ. Moments like this don’t happen without mutual respect for one another.
Pulling off somebody’s move in front of them when they’re injured and unable to retaliate is downright disrespectful, which is why plays like this solidify Marcus Smart as a national hero.
4) Jaylen Brown dunks on LeBron James
The dismissive hand wave while still having a hand on the rim is all you need to see here. Calling technical fouls on plays like this is incredibly cheap, but I’d be disappointed if this one wasn’t called. Having a tangible consequence for taunting LeBron and doing it anyway is a much stronger statement.
Jaylen and Jayson have both improved so much this year that all I can ask for is they approach every drive to the rim as if an All-Star is waiting to challenge them.
3) Brad Wanamaker taunting Joel Embiid
I love the intertwined layers to this. Joel Embiid hustles to catch up to Wanamaker before ultimately taking his eyes off the ball at the last possible moment. Meanwhile, Brad Wanamaker is accelerating to distance himself from Embiid, only to slow down just before the dunk. Wanamaker follows up with a stare down, but only because Embiid contested the shot just barely enough to make it look like Wanamaker threw down on him.
It’s also pretty amusing to me when role players get under the skin of All-Stars, like Marcus Morris reminding Embiid which team was up 3-0 in the series.
2) Smart steps over Trae Young
The Iverson-over-Ty-Lue step over is one of the most influential sports moments of my lifetime. And when era-defining plays like that happen, one can only dream that their favorite player might one day re-enact it in similar circumstances. A regular season game against the Hawks doesn’t quite have the same gravity as a Finals game against the Lakers, but you know what? It’s close enough. And in these trying times, it’s more than close enough for me.
1) Jayson Tatum casually shoots over Hassan Whiteside
Tatum saw Whiteside on the switch and knew it was time to eat pic.twitter.com/2lnzjb13rG— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 26, 2020
The way Tatum lets the ball bounce before pulling up for the shot is extremely disrespectful in the best way. It’s the most non-confrontational method to communicate that he’s not even slightly worried about Whiteside trying to stop him and for good reason. Whiteside is a dreadful defender.
Tatum’s shot gets the #1 spot because pretending your defender doesn’t exist is easily more disrespectful than taunting them directly. Smart stepping over Young is a similar act, but still requires knowing where Young is sitting in order to step over him. It’s a small difference, but these things matter.
As the league gears up to play games without fans in attendance, we might get to hear what players say to each other when the game gets chippy, depending on how the broadcasts are set up. Remember those withering Michael Jordan sound bites in The Last Dance? I’m hopeful that the mics could pick up some spicy trash talk with no crowd noise to drown it out, but I think the possibility of piped-in crowd noise is specifically designed to address this.
I also wonder if the absence of a crowd takes the intensity of the games down a few notches and creates more of a pick-up game type of atmosphere with casual trash talk, but less bench celebrations. There’s an undeniable relationship between players and fans--good or bad--that is a big part of the game. We’re headed into uncharted territory, but there’s still some good basketball to be played either way.