'The Zone,' According to Past and Present NBA Superstars

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2014

'The Zone,' According to Past and Present NBA Superstars

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    For NBA players in the midst of a scorching streak or red-hot single-game performance, being in "the zone" is a very real thing.

    Never mind that the latest research is only lukewarm on the concept of the hot hand.

    All that matters is guys like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant firmly believe the zone exists. They've used that belief to put up career-best scoring efforts within the past month. Armed with plenty of inherent skill and just a dash of irrational confidence, they've treated fans to some of the most entertaining outbursts in recent memory.

    We all saw Anthony go off for 62 points. And it's been impossible to ignore Durant's nearly month-long string of games with at least 30 points.

    Seeing is one thing, but how does it feel to be so locked in?

    We've gathered the postgame comments KD, 'Melo and a handful of other stars offered in the aftermath of some of the league's most memorable performances in an effort to answer that very question.

    As it turns out, the zone feels a little different to everyone. Let's investigate.

Carmelo Anthony: Out of Body

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    David Dow/Getty Images

    Anthony lit up the Charlotte Bobcats for a career-high 62 points on Jan. 24. It was the most points anyone had ever scored in Madison Square Garden and will likely represent the peak of a New York Knicks season that has been all valleys to this point.

    But as brightly as 'Melo shone in that blowout win, his postgame comments didn't do much to shed light on what it feels like to be in the zone.

    Per Zach Schonbrun of The New York Times, Anthony said: "The focus that I had, I felt like it was going to be a good night. Did I think it was going to be a 62-point night? No. But I felt like it was going to be a good night."

    Apparently, Anthony was able to vaguely foresee his big night in advance.

    He continued: 

    Guys was asking me what was wrong. It wasn’t anything wrong. There was just some reason I had that feeling. I was just locked in. There’s only a small group of people that knows what that zone feels like. Tonight, I was one of them.

    It bears mentioning that 'Melo's demeanor was especially focused once the buckets started to pile up. He didn't smile, talked very little and seemed to be in a nearly trance-like state. He didn't give us much insight into how he felt, but his demeanor spoke volumes.

    Mentally, Anthony was someplace else during his 62-point outburst. It's no wonder he wasn't able to explain his feelings. What happened on Jan. 24 was as much like an out-of-body experience as anything else.

"That's When It Gets Bad"

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    Jalen Rose, giving the people what they want.
    Jalen Rose, giving the people what they want.Noah Graham/Getty Images

    We'll start the treatment of Kobe Bryant's 81-point explosion with some commentary by former teammate Lamar Odom.

    When Bryant was in the midst of what would become the second-highest single-game scoring total in NBA history, Odom noticed a familiar sign: Bryant had gone silent.

    Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), Odom said: "He was ticked off."

    When asked what Bryant was saying during his incredible surge, Odom told reporters: "Nothing. That's when it's bad."

    Bad for the Toronto Raptors, that's for sure.

    Bryant told the AP

    That was something that just happened. It's tough to explain. It's just one of those things. It really hasn't, like, set in for me. It's about the `W,' that's why I turned it on. It turned into something special. To sit here and say I grasp what happened, that would be lying.

    If we've learned anything so far, it's that superstars who suddenly go quiet pose an immediate threat to whatever unlucky opponent happens to be nearby. Whatever the zone is, it's clearly not a place for a friendly chat.

Fueled by Revenge

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    This is going to shock you, but Michael Jordan's ultimate "in the zone" game was fueled largely by a desire to take vengeance on an imagined enemy.

    As we now know, Jordan had the unique ability to create doubters when there were only fearful opponents. When MJ was at the absolute apex of his athletic skill, there wasn't an opponent or fanbase crazy enough to challenge him.

    Still, he imagined detractors anyway.

    Jordan told NBA.com that his 69-point binge against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1990 was motivated by a desire to stick it to Cavs fans who hated him: "For some reason, Cleveland has always been a place where I have risen to excel, mainly because the fans truly don't like me there."

    You'll note in the clip that Jordan was happily jawing with Mark Price, evidence thatunlike Bryant and Anthony"His Airness" was happy to chew the fat with those he was eviscerating.

Shrug It Off

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    Sometimes, words can't explain "the zone."

    Maybe that's why Jordan resorted to a simple gesture after burying six triples in the first half of Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.

    That famous "I don't know what to tell you, fellas; I'm really good" shrug is now a go-to move for any player who can't articulate exactly why he's playing so well but would like to communicate his satisfaction somehow.

    Michael Lee of The Washington Post tweeted this after Martell Webster got his stroke going from long distance last season: "Martell Webster just gave the Michael Jordan shrug after hitting his 7th 3. #wizards have first 30-pt game of the season."

    It seems the more we analyze "the shrug," the more it stands as sound evidence that there's no real way to explain "the zone" verbally. 

    Let's keep trying anyway.

Kobe Goes Streaking

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    CHRIS CARLSON/Associated Press

    Bryant's familiarity with the zone isn't confined to his 81-point night.

    Back in 2003, Bryant set an NBA record that still stands today—he buried 12 three-pointers in a single game. More incredible still, he drilled nine in a row without a misfiring.

    After the game, Bryant told the Associated Press (via ESPN):

    It's hard to describe. You just feel so confident. You get your feet set and get a good look at the basket—it's going in. Even the ones I missed I thought were going in."

    I never thought I would have a game like this, though. I made the first one, I said, 'Let me see if I can make two.' I made the second one, I said, 'Let me see if I can make three.' I made the third one, I said, 'I've got a rhythm going.'

    Donyell Marshall would tie the record two years later, but Bryant's string of nine straight triples without a miss in one game remains unequaled.

    It probably bears mentioning that Bryant's entire approach during the mid-2000s wasn't all that different from the way he described his efforts in this game: Shoot as much as possible, and watch the records pile up.

An Angry Zone

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    Durant is much more visibly demonstrative on the floor than the nearly comatose duo of Bryant and Anthony. But he's not a smiling assassin like Jordan, either.

    Instead, he's a barking, chest-thumping menace. When Durant really gets going, he scores like he's angry.

    You can see that in his career-high effort above. And you'd better take a good look the next time he goes off because by the time the buzzer sounds, it's all cliches and humility for KD.

    After his 54-point night against the Warriors on Jan. 17, Durant told ESPN (via Ben Golliver of Yahoo! Sports):

    I made a few shots, and I felt good. My teammates were throwing me the ball with two or three guys on me, and I still tried to make a play. Those guys sacrificed their bodies setting screens for me, to get me open, it’s my job to finish for them. I saw the bench jump up every time I hit a shot, that’s one of the best feelings.

    Not much of an explanation there.

    To get a clearer picture of what Durant is feeling when he's on fire, we'd have to get inside his head during a game. And based on how terrifying he looks when he's at his teeth-gnashing best, I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to snoop around in there.

Nobody Talks About the Zone in a Loss

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    Ron Turenne/Getty Images

    LeBron James notched a career-high 56 points in a 105-98 loss to the Raptors way back in 2005. In just his second NBA season, LBJ became the youngest player to ever log at least 50 points in a contest.

    But after the game, he wasn't happy.

    Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), James said: 

    I probably played the best game of my life, but it means nothing when it comes with a loss. I don't care about individual stats, especially when you lose. I was disappointed to have as good a game as I had and still come out with a loss. It's a good achievement, but I'd rather set it with a win. 

    Like many players in this media-savvy generation, James enters interviews armed with a full arsenal of carefully chosen words and handy cliches.

    But knowing what we know about him now, it seems this game could have marked a turning point in his career. After all, James hasn't since exceeded the 56 points he totaled against the Raptors that night, and he has instead opted for better shot selection and a more team-oriented offensive approach.

    We may not have learned much about the zone from James' career night, but we might have gotten some insight into why he's become the kind of player he is today.

Sometimes, You Have to Force It

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    PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

    Based solely on the results, nobody has ever been more dialed in than Wilt Chamberlain was when he dropped a cool 100 points on the Knicks on March 2, 1962.

    So, maybe we should pay special attention to how he described his historic effort.

    In Terry Pluto's Tall Tales (via InsideHoops.com), Chamberlain said: 

    To me, the 100-point game was inevitable that season. I was averaging 50 points. I had 78 in a game [three months earlier]. In high school, I once scored 90 [in 32 minutes] and shot 36-for-41. I always scored a lot, so I figured that 100 would come. But I certainly did not decide to go for it that night in Hershey. Even by halftime, I had 41, and it wasn't that big of a deal. I had scored 40 in a half before.

    Even if Chamberlain didn't want to reach the milestone, his teammates kept feeding him the ball. And as the crowd sensed something special was happening, the big man got caught up in the moment. He deliberately went for the century mark, a decision he regretted afterward, per Pluto:

    The 100-point game will never be as important to me as it is to some other people. That's because I'm embarrassed by it. After I got into the 80s, I pushed for 100, and it destroyed the game because I took shots that I normally never would. I was not real fluid. I mean, 63 shots? You take that many shots on the playground and no one ever wants you on their team again.

    This marks our first (and only) description of being in the zone that involves regret.

    Truly, being in the zone is a different experience for everyone.