The road to a championship and the NBA wasn’t supposed to get bumpy this early.
Duke led East Carolina 41-23 in the second game of the preseason NIT. A night after battling back from a 17-point deficit to earn the right to face the Blue Devils, ECU again refused to go away.
Midway through the second half, freshman Jabari Parker saw the momentum shifting and the lead shrinking. Making matters worse, Duke was playing its second game in as many nights, an early test for a team relying on Parker and Rodney Hood, who were both playing in their fifth game at Duke.
The Pirates were giving the inexperienced Blue Devils a crash course in life at Duke.
“We’re going to see every team play us tough,” Hood said afterward.
Opponents will play Duke tough, and Duke will play them tired. As the second half wore on, Parker’s legs started to show the effects of back-to-back games. His shots began falling short. A dunk attempt early in the second half hit the front rim. So did a jumper, a free throw, and another jumper.
“We were struggling to get shots up,” Parker said, “and getting them to the rim.”
Parker’s exhaustion started to show in other ways. After getting whistled for a foul, his shoulders slumped, making the precocious freshman look even younger than his 18 years.
Parker rebounded a missed shot, but his layup attempt fell short, his third straight miss on a putback attempt in just over a minute of play.
As the teams ran to their benches for the under-12-minute timeout, Parker stood on the baseline where his errant layup had been batted out of bounds. He put his hands on his hips, and his chest heaved as he tried to move air.
Rodney Hood doubled back to get him moving toward the huddle, and as Parker began to walk, he rapped his fist against his Temple in an attempt to wake himself up.
“I kind of felt all right,” Parker said afterward. “I didn’t feel too fatigued, but there’s always room for improvement in my conditioning.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski painted a harsher picture. “We need to rest,” Coach K said after the game. “Our guys are dead.”
If there were any solutions to Duke’s dire situation, the coaching staff didn’t offer them at the under-12. The same five players walked back onto the court, heads down and brows furrowed, and watched things get even worse.
Quinn Cook drove the lane but left a floater short. ECU rebounded and sprinted down the court. Duke was still getting into defensive position when the Pirates hit a three pointer, cutting the lead to four.
After another missed layup and a free throw that hit the front rim, Josh Hairston entered the game to give Parker a rest.
Parker took a seat next to Tyler Thornton and gasped for air. He toweled sweat off his face and arms. Thornton leaned over and said something to the freshman superstar.
“I’m trying!” Parker said, his arms dangling at his sides in a picture of frustration. His legs were failing him, and a sport that usually comes so easy to him had somehow morphed into a war of attrition.
Parker signaled to a manager and received a cup of sports drink. Then he leaned forward and looked at the Duke assistants in surprise. Next to him, Thornton jumped up and trotted to the scorer’s table. Parker pulled himself to his feet and followed.
Sweat still dripped off his arms. His breathing was still heavy and desperate. Parker handed the unsipped cup to a manager and checked back into the game, 47 seconds after he left it. Play hadn’t stopped while he was out, so his real-time rest was also just 47 seconds.
More than 10 minutes remained. ECU would cut the lead to one point. The Pirates would have nine possessions with the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead.
“There (was) an incredible amount of game pressure,” Krzyzewski said. “You can cut it with a knife.”
Rasheed Sulaimon would reenter the game a few seconds later. It was Duke’s last substitution until Thornton fouled out with 1:27 left.
Exhausted and clinging to their lead, the five Blue Devils in the game were on an island. It was their game to win or lose.
“We have all been in situations where, for a moment, you’re not as confident about something that you normally do in a confident manner,” Krzyzewski said afterward, “and then you need to break through it.”
Coach K’s master class in team psychology—Toughness 101—was now in session.
Hood and Parker’s three teammates—Cook, Thornton, and Sulaimon—were graduates of the class, but they were also student teachers. Everyone on Duke knows that they’ll go as far as Hood and Parker take them. The kids needed to pass this pop quiz.
The veterans led by example. The two newcomers stood together during a timeout, toweling off sweat, while the three vets were dry and calm, watching Krzyzewski.
Thornton, Cook and Sulaimon all went onto the floor after loose balls.
The vets also led by communication. Krzyzewski and the coaching staff sat, silently, on the bench, observing, and waiting for the team to find its way. As the players left the floor for the two remaining media timeouts, they were met only by bench players, not by coaches and managers, as they had been earlier in the game. Krzyzewski and the assistants waited by the bench. Encouragement has it’s time and place, but this was neither.
“All the pressure was on us,” Hood said. “We were playing tight, and when we got to the huddle, Coach told us to quit it.”
The veterans picked up the teaching load. Cook and Thornton gave Hood the ball and shouted directions. The usually animated Cook gave calm instructions during huddles.
“We don’t quit,” Cook said afterward. “We could’ve laid down & let the (ECU zone defense) beat us, but we gutted it out. We got some key stops, and we stayed together. Teams like that grow up.”
And grow, they did. Hood joined his teammates on the floor, sprawling under the ECU basket to force a turnover, his third defensive stop in a four-minute stretch. Parker got big blocked shots on a pair of ECU possessions.
“That’s what big-time players do,” Hood said of Parker’s defensive stand. “They make winning plays.”
With just under five minutes left, Parker grabbed the ball and went coast-to-coast, finishing with an emphatic slam dunk.
“Jabari’s play full-court broke the ice for us. It was a statement play.”
The newcomers passed their first real test with flying colors. Parker and Hood were challenged, and they led the team to a win.
“We were passing it around the perimeter, and Jabari and I took it upon ourselves to get to the basket,” Hood said.
“Hood came through for us and gave us the lead, and we just rolled with him,” Parker said.
The blocks and the dunk will make the highlight film. They always do. However, the lesson Jabari Parker learned on shaky, tired legs, while his lungs burned for oxygen, will determine the championships and NBA success as much as his physical gifts.
The breakaway was pretty, but the break through that Coach K spoke of was crucial.
“Our guys were able to break through it while they were playing,” Krzyzewski said, “instead of talking about it after the game and congratulating East Carolina on a win. We could not have had a better opponent, a classier opponent, or a better game to build on than we did tonight.”
“We have a quote-unquote young team,” Cook said, “but you can’t practice that game experience.”