Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Unforeseen Drama at Duke’s Midnight Madness

Austin Rivers smolders. The Duke freshman, son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and the top-rated shooting guard in his class, is perpetually trying to prove something. It’s a demeanor borrowed straight from the school of overt masculinity. Each play is a battleground on which his manhood is at stake, and each reaction is meant to affirm an inner toughness. When things go wrong, he twists his face into a bitter scowl, shakes his head, and lets the world know he’s been the victim of injustice. When things go right, his head bobs defiantly and the scowl transforms into a thin grin of conquest. Unlike his counterparts in the NBA, he’s still young enough that it all feels like a mannerism rather than something inherent. It may be less phony than aspirational, but the hard swagger is a long way from legitimate. It’s simply a boy’s way of acting like a man. As of this moment, there is no joy or humor in his game.

Seth Curry flows. Like his father, Dell, and his brother, Stephen, the Duke junior has the dispassionate bearing of a sniper. His head and eyes are in constant motion, surveying everything, but it’s rare to see him react. The face remains placid, even after moments of triumph or failure. He’ll break into the occasional easy smile, but only in the brief lulls between periods of high tension. His eyes have a removed, almost mystic softness, making his tenacity easy to miss. This is the same faraway glance the larger college basketball world first encountered when his brother led Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008.

Seth Curry and Austin Rivers were on opposite sides for the Blue-White scrimmage in Friday’s “Countdown to Craziness” at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The game, like every feature of every Midnight Madness event around the country, was meant as an exhibition. But it wasn’t treated as one.

In fact, there’s not much of an exhibitionist quality around Coach K’s program, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that both teams came out playing prototypical “Duke Basketball” — constant offensive movement, pressure defense, and an intensity befitting a January ACC game. The coaches, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski, diagrammed plays and called timeouts at crucial moments. The players shouted and cheered and pumped their fists and swore. This was not Syracuse, where on Friday the defenders stepped politely aside to allow alley-oops and acrobatic dunks. This was not Kansas, where coach Bill Self came out on a motorcycle, or North Carolina, where Roy Williams danced and the players performed a sketch in Zubaz pants. In Durham, regardless of how things have lightened up over the past two years, stoicism is still the rule.

Still, the seriousness of the players came as a surprise. Was it healthy competition, driving the team to embrace every moment on court as a chance to improve? Was it the light clashing of a few personalities whose desire to win overpowered a casual atmosphere? Was there a faint undercurrent of calculation, or even dislike, between the veteran guards on one side and the freshmen on the other? These are questions whose answers won’t become apparent for months, but whatever dynamic was at work Friday night gave fans an unexpectedly compelling scrimmage to start the season.

Rivers broke through before the others. Playing for the White team, he elicited the first real buzz of the game midway through the half with a 3-pointer directly in Curry’s face. Two possessions later, he faked a drive and hit a beautiful step-back 3 on Andre Dawkins. The shot gave his team a 24-8 lead, and prompted the students to start the first “Aust-in Riv-ers!” chant of the year. It gained in volume, but was cut off when Curry hit a fadeaway baseline jumper on the next possession. Still, the first half belonged to the freshman. It was a fitting follow-up to his reception in the player introductions — a roar from the Cameron Crazies that dwarfed anything they gave his teammates.

Quietly, amid Rivers’ theatrics, Curry kept the Blue team in the game. The steadiness was reminiscent of his performance last February against Carolina, when in the midst of Kyle Singler’s disappearing act, Curry filled the void and scored 18 second-half points to help erase a 14-point halftime deficit. Along with Nolan Smith, he led Duke to a win that looked all but improbable. But as he exhorted his teammates Friday, in the face of an onslaught from Rivers and freshman point guard Quinn Cook, it was difficult to tell which game he valued more.

At halftime, Rivers and Curry were the two best players on the court. Their lines:

Rivers: 13 points, 4-7 shooting, 2-2 from the line, 2 boards, 2 turnovers
Curry: 12 points, 4-5 shooting, 3-4 from the line, 2 boards, 1 turnover

The great worry for Duke fans, and something that’s already become a concern for the general basketball-watching public, is Rivers’ attitude. It’s difficult to tell where his sullen intensity crosses over into arrogance and unhelpful anger. Bill Raftery tiptoed around the subject on Friday. “It’s all about becoming a member of a team,” he said in regard to Rivers. “That’s part of the process, too.” He hastened to clarify that he didn’t mean Rivers wasn’t a team player, but the anxiety was unmistakable. Later, play-by-play man Lou Canelis quoted Coach K on the subject:

“He talked about how someone like Austin Rivers needs to learn that this isn’t football,” said Canelis. “That after you make a play on the offensive end, immediately you’ve got to be ready on the defensive end or you lose the basketball. Too many guys look up at the scoreboard, they look at the crowd, they lose focus.”

“And also look at a ref,” Raftery added, “or look at your teammate who didn’t do what you thought he was going to do. Coach K is fond of saying, ‘next play.’ Basketball is reaction. Continued reaction.”

Nevertheless, the White team took a 33-20 lead into the half. With the excellence of Rivers, Cook, and Miles Plumlee, and the fact that halves were abbreviated at 12 minutes, the lead seemed safe. But if there was a desire among fans and announcers and maybe Coach K himself to see Rivers learn a lesson — to be humbled for the good of his future — they were about to get what they wanted.

The first four minutes of the second half were an exercise in stasis, as White slightly widened the lead to 15 points at 44-29. Curry continued to keep his team within remote striking distance, breaking a half-court trap to spot Dawkins in 3-point range, whipping a pass inside for a Marshall Plumlee layup, and converting two free throws after burning past Quinn Cook on a drive. Meanwhile, Rivers dropped a catchable pass from Miles Plumlee and missed a jumper.

With eight minutes remaining, the lesson of the upperclassmen began in earnest. On a baseline drive by Rivers, Dawkins put his body into the freshman and reacted to a slight touch of the forearm by sprawling backward, careening out of bounds. His acting job won an offensive foul, Rivers’ second turnover of the half, and Curry pointed at Dawkins to recognize the savvy maneuver. A sense of experience, of a deeper knowledge, began to emerge. And if basketball is continued reaction, Rivers failed by letting his focus slip. He shook his head, disgusted, and gave Dawkins a disdainful lip curl when the junior ran by him on the other end. The look that says: Please, you ain’t shit.

After a timeout, Curry nodded his head at Rivers and said something. His face, typically, didn’t change, so the significance was impossible to read. But it was clipped and brief, the way you’d talk to an opponent. His team trailed, 44-33. On Blue’s next possession, Curry took a hard step to the right and reversed to the left wing, where he received a pass and buried a deep 3. The lead was back to single digits. The next time down the floor, he put a slight hesitation move on Cook and burned him again (as a side note, the ease with which he beat Cook all night casts serious doubt on the idea that the freshman will gradually assume the starting point guard role), this time swishing a jumper in the lane to bring the lead to seven.

Rivers, attempting to stop the momentum, scored his only point of the half after drawing a foul. On the next possession, he traveled. Another gorgeous interior pass from Curry to Josh Hairston resulted in two foul shots that brought the lead to five with five minutes remaining.

Then, in the game’s defining sequence, Rivers threw a pass that Quinn Cook couldn’t handle, Curry came off a hedge screen to bury a long 3, and Rivers collided with Hairston on a reckless drive. When the referee called the charge, Hairston beat his chest and hit a baseline jumper on the other end to tie the game at 46. In less than four minutes, the 15-point lead was gone.

Two trips later, Curry awed the crowd with the best play of the game. On a miss by Ryan Kelly, he led the break at a sprint, meeting no opposition until Thornton stepped up near the 3-point line. Curry dipped his shoulder to the right, drawing Thornton in, and then executed a sweeping crossover back to the left. If Thornton was off balance, Curry’s next move left him flat-footed; with a slight backward lean and a flick of his head, a split-second hesitation that carried implications of reversing direction or rising to shoot, Curry froze Thornton to the spot. He continued to the lane unimpeded and finished the sequence with a tear-drop floater over Kelly — 50-48, Blue.

And then, with the pressure at its peak, the Rivers attitude resurfaced. At 52-51, he drove into the lane, seeking to reclaim the lead for White. He missed his running layup after an ambiguous amount of contact and waited for a whistle that wouldn’t blow. Curry led the ensuing fast break. Rivers jogged after him at half speed, and while Curry found Alex Murphy on a cut to the basket, Rivers was several steps behind, complaining to the referee with the play still in progress. Murphy got fouled and hit both shots, extending the lead to three.

Rivers missed a 3, Curry came up with two big steals, hit two foul shots with 10 seconds remaining to give Blue the final three-point lead and watched Rivers miss a step-back bomb as time expired. Blue had the 56-53 win, thanks to two very disparate performances. Here’s how the best players from the first half fared in the second:

Rivers: 1 point, 0-4 shooting, 1-2 from the line, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 4 turnovers
Curry: 16 points, 4-8 shooting, 6-6 from the line, 2 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 assists, 1 turnover

As Curry made his way back to the bench, his face betrayed nothing until Dawkins, full of his usual fire, greeted him near the sideline. Sensing the mutual satisfaction, exhibition or not, Curry shouted as the two embraced, looking for all the world like they’d just won more than an intrasquad scrimmage. It lasted just a second, and then it was back to the easy grin.

According to Coach K, the trip to China and Dubai taught Austin Rivers about the rigors of college basketball; the importance of staying within an offensive system and maintaining focus on defense. Friday, Seth Curry showed him firsthand that it takes relaxation to thrive under pressure, and that a desperate sheen of confidence can be debilitating. Whether Rivers heeds these lessons, and whether he can set aside his ego and keep his personality quirks on the safe side of detrimental, will largely dictate the success of Duke’s season. It’s going to be a fascinating year in Durham.

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