‘It’s like there’s a national celebration’: Life on the other side of a poster dunkon April 26, 2022 at 1:01 pm

JAYLEN BROWN SPLIT a pair of Dallas Mavericks defenders at the top of the key, took one more dribble, two full-speed steps after the gather and was ready for takeoff from just outside the restricted area.

It was late in the second quarter inside Boston’s TD Garden, and the paint had just turned into Brown’s private green runway. The Celtics’ star swingman, though, had company in front of the rim.

Maxi Kleber, the Mavs’ 6-foot-10 defensive-minded center/power forward who rose to challenge the 6-foot-6 Brown, was willing to risk winding up on the wrong end of a viral poster dunk by one of the league’s most explosive leapers.

Did he ever.

Brown detonated on Kleber with a vicious tomahawk to thrill a Sunday afternoon national TV audience and sellout crowd, including legend Kevin Garnett, who slapped fives with Brown from his baseline seat to celebrate the moment.

Seconds later, the Celtics’ official account tweeted, “OH MY GOODNESS JAYLEN BROWN” with a video of the play that has garnered more than two million views. The NBA’s Twitter account, with its nearly 37 million followers, posted clips of replays from three different angles. It wasn’t long before Brown and Kleber, a relatively anonymous player, were trending — in large part due to a flood of tweets mocking Kleber’s epically failed contest.

Social feeds that night certainly weren’t filled with commentary about Kleber’s contributions to the Mavs’ comeback win: 13 rebounds and three blocks off the bench.

Kleber has been in this precarious position before. The last time he caught the attention of casual fans, it was in Dallas’ 2021 playoff opener, when Kleber unsuccessfully attempted to stop LA Clippers star Kawhi Leonard from finishing on a fast break.

Leonard flexed after throwing down a ferocious dunk. Kleber landed on his backside.

Leonard and teammates Paul George and Marcus Morris Sr. punctuated the play by glaring and shouting in Kleber’s direction, an image immortalized on social media. (It even showed up months later in the groundbreaking of the new Clippers arena site — on the back of the hoodie Leonard wore to the event.)

By the way, the Mavericks won that game, too.

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Such is life as an NBA rim protector in the social media age. That, however, won’t stop Kleber and some of the premier paint defenders from meeting the league’s best dunkers in mid-air. Especially in the 2022 NBA playoffs, when the high stakes for the Mavericks and others far outweigh any flak received from the harsh spotlight of social media.

“You know every once in a while it will happen, but you can’t stop playing your game just because something goes viral,” said Kleber, who rarely logs on to his social media accounts during the season. “Whenever there’s a highlight, people get tagged, there will be comments and this and that.

“But this internet world is not the real world.”

RUDY GOBERT’S STATURE and status, among other factors, make his failed dunk contests especially appealing fodder for social media content.

The Utah Jazz center is a 7-foot-1, 258-pound mountain who has earned three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. He’s established himself as a historically elite rim protector, so it’s understandable that a foe dunking on Gobert tends to go viral in a way his defensive dominance often does not.

“I used to get pissed off,” Gobert said. “Now, I kind of embrace it, you know what I mean? I know that I can do 10 good things and it’s not going to be showcased, and the one mistake that I make is.

“Sometimes it’s just like, ‘Oh, there you go. They’re going to celebrate this one for sure. It’s been two months since I’ve been dunked on, but they’re definitely going to celebrate this one.’ I just laugh about it, and I laugh when I see how they celebrate it.

There’s a narrative. As soon as I get dunked on or crossed over, it’s like there’s a national celebration. It’s an honor.”

An example of the highlight culture that has frustrated Gobert occurred on Feb. 12, 2020. The conversation that night focused on one play: Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo muscling Gobert on a drive and finishing with a powerful two-handed dunk over him.

Gobert’s dominant performance the rest of the game — 16 points, 20 rebounds, two blocks, plus-25 in a convincing Utah win — hardly merited a mention.

“That dunk was blowing up,” Adebayo said with a shrug, “but we lost.” Adebayo, who finished fourth in this year’s Defensive Player of the Year award right behind Gobert, can relate. Adebayo just happens — to borrow and paraphrase an old Russell Westbrook quote — to be blessed with the ability not to give a darn.

“You have a lot of dudes who are freak athletes. Why would you not think somebody is going to get dunked on?” Adebayo said. “It’s a mentality that I have. I respect dudes who try to go block everything.

“We’re responsible for a lot of things on that court, and protecting the rim is one of them. Yeah, you might have got dunked on, but it’s still two points at the end of the day. It’s not like it was a 10-point play. Now, it’s going to be history because of the way social media works.”

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Gobert has expressed concerns about how large social media accounts amplifying his mistakes can shape perception of his game. He actively posts on Twitter and Instagram but has worked to prevent social media from affecting his psyche: He doesn’t check social media reaction in the locker room immediately after games and no longer taps the like button on posts that criticize him.

“I used to always say I used that as motivation, and it’s true, but you also give people the energy that you should maybe give somewhere else or give to yourself,” Gobert said. “The most important thing for myself and the other players is that you don’t get discouraged or fazed by what happens on social media.”

However, that’s not the most aggravating aspect of social media for a lot of big men caught on the wrong end of a highlight. It’s the flood of fan comments in their mentions.

“We bust our ass every day in these gyms,” Adebayo said, “and you’ve got some dude on Twitter saying this and that about your game. Yeah, we take offense to that.

“I don’t look at it because I know what it can do to some people’s mentals. I’m strong-minded, but you see something crazy on Twitter and it’s just highly disrespectful, and as a man, you’re bound to respond.”

MILES BRIDGES WAS the lone defender on a 2-on-1 fast break. It was overtime on Oct. 25 against the visiting Celtics, who were up by three points before Jayson Tatum threw his eighth and final assist of the night.

Add another clip to Brown’s highlight reel.

play0:28

Jaylen Brown rocks the rim with powerful slam dunk

Brown beat Bridges off the floor, launching and punching the ball through the hoop with one hand for the dagger in Boston’s second win of the season.

After the game, Bridges saw social media questioning why he went up with Brown. He explained that split-second decision.

There are certainly occasions when players make so-called business decisions, opting not to try to contest a dunk attempt to avoid any potential embarrassment. There are situations when those decisions are considered appropriate, such as when a defender would be too late to have any realistic hope of preventing a dunk, or if a contest would likely risk injuring the offensive player.

But it’s a practice that is generally frowned upon by the NBA’s premier rim protectors. “I’m not in that business,” Adebayo said.

Bridges, who possesses touch-the-top-of-the-backboard level hops, has been on the other side plenty of times. The most memorable moment probably came at the expense of Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela in April 2021.

After catching the ball on the left wing, Bridges beat his man off the dribble to the middle of the floor before taking off from the dotted line. As Bridges launched, Capela leaped, too, with his arms extended straight up. But Capela was too late and too low, as Bridges cocked back the ball and almost ripped off the rim with his right hand.

“Yeah, I got caught,” Capela said. “He jumped, and I never thought he would dunk it, because he jumped from far. And then, boof.

“When he made it, I heard this noise. Then I realized, ‘Oh, s—.’ I knew after the game it would be all over the place.”

The dunk was so emphatic that the official NBA account tweeted the video of it twice that day. On Instagram, Bridges posted a picture of the moment just before the dunk that generated more than 173,000 likes.

The potential dunk of the year gave the Hornets a five-point lead with 3:47 remaining. Easily, and seemingly immediately, forgotten? Capela had 20 points and 15 rebounds, keying a late comeback without injured star guard Trae Young. The victory had major playoff-seeding implications weeks before the Hawks’ embarked on their magical run to the Eastern Conference finals.

“Well, that’s part of the business, I guess,” said Capela, who received constant notifications of the dunk every time he checked his phone. “I hope the NBA is going to make more money off of it. I’m sure they made a lot of fans off of that one.

“That’s what I signed up for.”

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