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Thursday January 13, 2011 4:02 PM

This Bud's For You

Chase Budinger coming on strong after extended early season slump

West Medlin
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - It must be hard being an NBA sharpshooter.

No, not lamenting the hardships of being paid millions of dollars to play the best sport in the world. But rather the inevitable inconsistencies a shooter in the NBA must accept as part of the game – specifically, how to deal with the streakiness of outside shooting.

It sounds like quite the roller coaster ride. One game, you’re hot and unbeatable. The next, you’re cold and not nearly the same player. “To be a shooter you have to deal with slumps,” says Brett Gunning, the Rockets Director of Player Development. “I think all shooters go through stretches like this.” Aside from a stockpile of antacids, how do you stomach it?

Following the conclusion of Wednesday’s shootaround, the media, as is their custom, strolled down the ramp toward the Toyota Center practice court to conduct their daily interviews. When they arrived, the team was still in the process of winding down practice.

On a side basket, Chase Budinger was locked in while practicing jump shots with Gunning. Chase knocked down shot after shot with apparent ease, occasionally chatting with Gunning in between jumpers. Three things came to mind as he finished his shooting session: 1) his easy demeanor; 2) his smooth mechanics; 3) the swishing sound which punctuated each perfect jumper. He shot with unmistakable confidence – a feeling well earned and warranted and his recent play, beginning in late December, shows that the confidence is warranted.

Over the last nine games Budinger has connected on 61 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. He’s shot the ball fearlessly and been rewarded for it. It’s probably fair to say that he’s playing with the quintessential “shooter’s mentality:” keep shooting until you miss, and even when those errant shots inevitably occur, keep shooting some more.

But Budinger’s 3-point shooting homage to the movie Man on Fire has only just recently been released. Prior to his long-range extravaganza, the show was more of the horror variety. For the first two months of the season, Budinger found himself inexplicably mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career – a fact that only serves to make his current scorching streak even more impressive.

He struggled right out of the gate, battled an ankle injury, and continued to miss shots he’d typically drain in his sleep. The rim seemed to shrink. His confidence was adversely affected. And as the misses piled up, his certainty in the “shoot first, ask questions later” mantra took a hit.

“It was a frustrating time for me because I know I’m a good shooter,” Budinger says now, while reflecting upon his slump. “Missing all those shots at the beginning of the season, I think it became more mental than anything after a while.”

“I just had to get my confidence back.”

It was only a matter of time. After all, Budinger shot nearly 37 percent from long range during his rookie season. But as his struggles extended from November to December, those numbers provided less and less consolation. Eventually, all shooters need to see the ball go through the net. And the more shots Budinger saw clanging off the rim, the harder it became to keep the faith.

“It’s tough. I couldn’t really explain it myself. In practice I would be knocking down shots, and I’d go into games, and they were just missing. It was very frustrating,” he said. “With me, missing all those shots, percentages going down, that really hurt my confidence. That was one thing I needed to get back before anything else.”

While the cold streak began to take its toll on Budinger’s psyche, the coaches’ confidence in the second-year forward never wavered. Their message: just keep shooting. Budinger says one such conversation with Head Coach Rick Adelman was particularly helpful in his quest to regain some of his shooting swagger.

“[He] pulled me aside after practice, asked me how I was doing, and he just explained that this happens with players. Even the greatest shooters would go through slumps. And the best way to get through it is to keep working hard, keep getting your extra shots up. Keep shooting the ball and don’t let it affect how you play. I think his little talk with me gave me a confidence boost.”

Expertly buoyed, Budinger went back to work – harder and, more importantly, smarter than ever before.

“The only way out of a slump is work. You’ve got to put the work in,” says Gunning. “Through work you build inner confidence.”

“Confidence comes from knowing that you put [in] hour after hour after hour [of work]. So when you’re out there in the game, about to take a shot, what’s going through your mind is – ‘I’ve taken this shot thousands of times. It’s going to go in.’”

Budinger embraced the challenge and began watching film of himself to improve his technique while also making sure to get in as many extra shots as possible. And in late December, his off-the-court effort started producing on-the-court results. Once again, the shots started to fall and in the blink of an eye Budinger emerged as one of the team’s hottest 3-point shooters.

“I think half of this league is about [the] confidence within any player,” says the California native. “Once I got the confidence back, I started making shots.”

“It was kind of funny because [Coach Adelman] told me; you can’t really explain it when you do get out of a slump. All of a sudden it just happens and you totally forget about the slump you had. I think that’s what is going on right now – where I’m going out there and just shooting the ball.”

With both Budinger’s confidence and shooting stroke back, the Rockets once more have the instant offense weapon off the bench they anticipated unleashing upon the league at the start of the season. And even in a losing effort against Oklahoma City, Budinger showed the impact he can make when playing with confidence. Limited by foul trouble and just four minutes of playing time through three quarters, Budinger started the fourth and quickly scored the team’s first seven points of the frame. But much more than that, he played assertively and helped energize a Rockets team that was on its heels after a tough third quarter.

It was the type of performance we likely would not have seen from Budinger earlier in the season. “During the little slump I don’t think I would have responded like I did tonight,” he said afterward. “It just shows a little maturity in myself. I definitely feel stronger. You go through a tough stretch or tough slump and you’re able to get out of it, and that really shows a lot about that character of you as a person.”

Gunning agrees with his pupil’s assessment and even takes it a step further, focusing on the big picture and long term benefit this experience will have on Budinger: “For the rest of his career, he will be able to look back and say ‘I don’t care how bad it gets. I’m just going to keep working and keep believing in myself and I’ll make it out of it.’”

Such is life as an NBA sharpshooter. No one ever said it would be easy. But when the shots are falling and it's one swish after another, nothing could ever be sweeter.

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