Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Brief And Obvious Point About Sports Dynasties, Or How The Patriots Make Me Want To Stop Watching The NFL

When you read the history of baseball, and see all of those Yankee titles piled up in the 1950s, you might miss an obvious point about the decade: it wasn't a good one for the sport. Attendance declined, teams had to move to new cities (some of them fairly haphazardly), and other sports picked up margin, never to relinquish it. If you watched American League baseball in that time, and weren't a Yankee fan, you probably watched less baseball at the end of the decade than you did at the start.

We'll pivot to basketball. The Celtic dynasty of the '60s is something that stunted the NBA's growth for decades, with most of the league turning into Flyover Country between Boston and LA. Sure, other teams popped in from time to time, but the sport didn't really catch on at a national level until transcendent individual talents took command, and even now, building a great team takes longer than any other sport, and requires a superhuman amount of fortune at the draft. Not only do you have to win lotteries, you also need to win them in the right year, then hit on long shot picks for the supplemental players, and then keep everyone healthy. The Association is good now and getting better, but most of that is because it draws on six continents of talent in an unquestioned top league, unlike every other team sport on the planet that isn't soccer. The point: dynasties don't help.

Now, football. Tonight in New England, the Patriots punched their ticket to their I Don't Care How Many Super Bowl appearance, and if you know anyone who was excited to see the game and doesn't have Patriot merchandise in their closet, you are lying. It was the 8th out of 10 NFL playoff games this year that provided zero drama or fourth quarter interest, and it felt about as important as a squash match in the WWE. My Twitter feed was more concerned with Tom Brady's oversized jacket and nasal cleaning practices than any particular play, because that's just how damned deadly dull the game was.

Is there any way to blame the league or New England for this? Probably not, other than I have no idea why teams turn to idiots and butterfingers when they go into that yard. It would also be nice if the refs called fumbles, well, fumbles, or took issue with the rampant OPI on bubble screens, hands to the face and holding on offensive line plays, DPI on their secondary, and so on. I honestly lost count on the penalties that weren't penalties, and stopped caring in the second quarter of this game, and while New England didn't need any of that crap to win, it's still just, well, dispiriting.

But what I can tell you is that, well, I care a hell of a lot less about football now than I used to, and New England is a big reason why. I don't like this team or their fans, and I feel stupid for caring about a sport where they win all the damned time, honestly. The worst year to be a Patriot Fan in the past 15 years would be the best year to be a fan for half of the franchises in the league, and it doesn't matter that they do it with different guys or whatever. I watch sports to not think about things that are far more important and frequently far more depressing, so when sports are equally or more depressing than what I'm trying to escape from, it's just, well, the worst.

Oh, and hearing from the analysts about how historic and majestic and amazing all of this is, when it's the same damned thing, pretty much every year?

Not making my decision to care about football any better, honestly.

So, congrats to the Patriots. Go, Falcons. I'll watch the Super Bowl because I'm a lifer, and have a Not The Patriots team to root for that doesn't sicken me.

But the next 7+ months of No Football?

I'm going to enjoy that.

More than the NFL this year, at least...

Top 10 NFL Conference Championship Ad Questions

Furry Lover
10) Is Century 21 losing a lot of sales to robots?

9) Does anyone look at that sad collection of Burger King gristle and think "meal"?

8) Is the best use of the Internet of Things really to tell me when my milk is going to go bad?

7) Does anyone else notice that the people in the Infinity ads seem to be living in a mansion with an absurd amount of space and amenities?

6) If I eat chicken from Popeye's as a male, will it turn my voice to a more feminine register, and if so, how does that help to sell chicken?

5) What do end of life issues have to do with Care Auto Insurance?

4) If you are drinking fast food coffee, can you really win the day, assuming your day doesn't involve some kind of bathroom contest?

3) Do I really need to know the name of the guy who plays the miniature spokesman for Dr. Pepper?

2) Isn't the more realistic case of Order Envy a half hour later, when the people who didn't go to Taco Bell avoid crippling diarrhea?

1) Can't Hermione just use her witch powers to solve the Beast's problem?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I Am Robert Covington's Juju

Ro Co Ju Ju
I don't mean to make this blog entirely about my basketball laundry, the ever loving Sixers, honest and for true. But right now, they are just about the most compelling team in the Association, because they keep winning games in ways that they have never done before, and in quantities that seem entirely out of keeping with their standing.

In microcosm, consider tonight's bizarre escape win at home, which I got to see from the top row in the corner of the arena, because the club is just selling tickets like mad right now, and when my friend and I decided to take in the game, we thought we'd just sit in cheap seats and avoid ticket surcharges, because we're old people who have better things to spend money on then, well, ourselves.

Philly didn't play a particularly good game tonight. They shot 36 for 92 from the field with 18 turnovers, and missed 7 of 16 free throws. Rookie center and down-ballot MVP candidate (honest, I think he's somewhere in the 8 to 10 range right now; check out the Sixers' stats with and without him on the floor, especially on defense) Joel Embiid only played 22 minutes due to precautions following a few tumbles, manifesting in a knee contusion that caused the fan base to say their usual prayers whenever the big goof hits the floor. Which is often, because he knows no limits or fear, because the fan base takes care of that for him. Only three guys were in double figures tonight, and the bench shot 7 for 36 (!). Nothing about this game from a numbers standpoint says a win, and yet, well, they won.

How? Robert Covington, again. Portland went up 91-87 with under a minute to play on a couple of Mason Plumlee free throws. Philly's Gerald Henderson, part of the bench brick squad, missed a corner three with a heave that was in no danger of drawing iron. Dario Saric, providing utility despite his own 1 for 12 night, got the board and tipped it out to Covington, who had to fire from 25 to beat the clock. Swish. Just found money luck, the kind of thing that never happens to teams like the Sixers in the past so many years, but seem to be happening a lot now. One point game, Portland timeout with 38.2 left.

Well, Portland still had Damian Lillard, who ended the night with 30 points, and is just the kind of stone cold closer that ends games like this. His back court mate, the very good CJ McCollum, missed a step back from the corner, but the little point guard got the board and took the foul from Henderson to go put the game on a 3-point lead. Lillard hits at near 90% from the line and is clutch as hell, so he was going to make both and turn the game into a heave and pray for overtime situation... but, um, he missed the second. Ersan Ilyasova grabbed the board, and following recent positive historical patterns, Sixers coach Brett Brown didn't call a timeout, preferring to let his players run and try to create in chaos.

Which resulted in a flat-out no-conscious three from Covington from 28 feet away off a TJ McConnell feed with 4.5 seconds left. When Covington let it fly, I said, out loud because there was time enough as the rainbow arced, "Bob, you've got to be kidding me." Boom goes the Rocomite. Sixers led by 1 with 4.5 seconds left, and the crowd is just delirious with I can't believe what I just saw. From a guy who is shooting less than 30% from the arc this year, and just 36.5% overall, and has gotten to just over 5K minutes in his NBA life because he's a defensive ace and willing to work for the NBA equivalent of top ramen, This Is Cray Cray.

Well, um, OK... but the Blazers still have Lillard, and any kind of score with 4.5 seconds left is a heart-breaking loss, rather than a complete escape. Portland also got to the line 28 times in this game, so it's not as if the refs weren't willing to be the story at the close. So that's when the Blazers chose to... inbound the ball to Plumlee, 4 of 14 from the field in this one, to run a screen and go with Alllen Crabbe (a scintillating 1 of 3 for 4 points in 25 minutes), which wound up resulting in a contested piece by Plumlee of Yeah, That's Much Less Worrisome Than Lillard, with Nerlens Noel doing his raptor arms routine to help it go awry. It stayed out, ball game, let's all sing the Clap Your Hands Everybody theme song and raise your cat in the air, and the laundry now has 15 wins for the year, or five more than all of last year.

Oh, and just five games out of the 8th spot now, with increasing evidence that .500 basketball will most assuredly get you there. And sure, the 8th spot just makes you LeBron James' latest speed bag, but at least we'd get to see Embiid on a national stage for Extra Hoop.

As startling as this win was, it was also Damned Lucky, as you might have guessed from the rundown above. The team plays in Atlanta tomorrow without Embiid due to the usual precautionary rest in back to back games, and Atlanta is as hot as they are, and have turned them into putty for the better part of a decade now. I don't give them more than a chance in 20, honestly, of turning this three game winning streak into a four banger.

But next Tuesday, at home against a Clipper team that should be without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? That's another point of Good Luck for a team that seems to have new access to an account of the stuff that's been untouched for years. There's another back to back right after that one with the revenge-minded Bucks in Milwauee, again without Embiid, and then a Friday night game against the terrifying but recently mortal Rockets. This was a game they absolutely had to have to keep the momentum and playoff dream alive, but it's still hard to see how they do more than tread water for the next week.

Until you see finishes like this one, where a 30% brickmaster rains down two game-changing and highly contested threes in 34 seconds, and we're all singing like fools.

There really isn't any more fun season in sports than the Unexpectedly Good one, and the past month has been nothing but that. It's not even a situation where we're ruining anything for the team's long-term success, because the club holds Laker and King pick swaps that make winning on your own damn terms completely OK.

Oh, and RoCo? That's two straight games with me in the house where you hit a last-second game-winner. Send me tickets, friend. Your future earnings will thank me.

Friday, January 20, 2017

NFL Conference Game Picks: End Of Bandwagon

NE Bandwagon, Soon
Last week in the NFL playoffs, we had a Saturday of chalk, then a Sunday where the league finally gave us games that were worth watching. The expectation is that now that we're to the Final Four, both games will be fascinating and exceptional, but the history tells us that what usually happens is one classic, and one blowout.

Which isn't quite how I want to see this weekend, but ignoring history is usually a bad way to spend your money. Especially in football prognostication. Feel free, however, to ignore my less than stellar history at picking games. I mean, if we're going to start paying attention to track records, we might not have a guy occupying the most powerful job in the history of the world who was such a stone chump that he couldn't make money running casinos. And where's the fun in that?

And with that... on to the picks!

* * * * *

Green Bay at ATLANTA (-5)

How to lose a playoff game despite having talent advantages at something like 18 out of 22 starting positions...

a) Put the early play calling on pinpoint execution from your game manager rookie QB who is making his first playoff start, rather than your best-in-class offensive line and rested RB

b) Fail to come up with innovative or unpredictable blitz packages to supplement your lacking pass rush against a QB that's literally carving you to bits, and only has real trouble when faced with immediate pressure

c) Throw away the game with last minute clock management that makes Andy Reid look like a Super Genius (why call time out when you can clock it? you're going to need that timeout to ice the kicker before you lose!), and

d) Fail to cover a crossing route with literally seconds left in regulation, giving said QB all of the chance he needed to make a miracle save against an overtime where you would have had all of the momentum.

Mind you, I'm not bitter that Dallas blew the home game that they worked all year to achieve; it was, actually, a laff riot of the highest possible order, and will be on the short roll of reasons why Cowboys HC Jason Garrett will be unemployed in 12 months, and not successful at the What Were They Thinking final HC job he gets from some desperate AFC outfit later. (After Dallas fails to make the playoffs next year, because free agency is coming for that O-line, and QB Dak Prescott and RB Zeke Elliott aren't getting through their sophomore years unscathed.) But I digress.

The point is that as good as Rodgers is playing right now, the Pack are damned lucky to be here, and the reasons why they are lucky are obvious. The secondary is battered, the defensive line only gets push for so long before they get worn out, and the offense can't take pressure off Rodgers to be perfect, because the running game is supplemental at best. Without a full-speed Jordy Nelson at WR1, the secondary guys have to catch pretty much everything, and while they did that last week in Dallas, counting on it again is unwise.

There's also this: Atlanta has a real live sack monster in Vic Beasley Jr, with 15.5 on the year, and Dallas didn't, once DE Randy Gregory went ham on the drugs again. Those dozen-odd plays where Rodgers dances around like he's three seconds into the future, and breaks the back of the defense? Well, he's still going to have some of those, but not so many as to author 30+ points. And 30+ points is going to be absolutely necessary in a dome setting, against an Atlanta offense that is hitting on all cylinders, and has the patience and intelligence to call actual running plays in the red zone.

I'd like this to be a 34-31 classic, back and forth, amazing game, and that's really the only kind of game that Green Bay can win. But the more likely event is that Rodgers finally doesn't play at an A++ level, the Packer WRs don't make enough plays, and the Falcons get a turnover or two and get more than one score ahead in a game where they rarely even face a difficult third down. It's been a hell of a ride for Green Bay, but there's only so far you can go when you are this dependent on one guy, and don't even have a great coach to help him. (Oh, and thank heavens that Rodgers already has a ring, otherwise he'd be getting nothing but Dan Marino comps by now.)

Falcons 38, Packers 27

PITTSBURGH (+6) at New England

I get why the public is all over the Pats; they've been a blue-chip betting prospect all year at home, and normally when they stumble around a bit in one game, they bring it hard for the next. They also have that famous 1.5 day edge in prep time, motivation from Antonio Brown's desire to corner the market in social media slut shaming, and Brady / Belichick, the Palpatine and Vader of the NFL. Pittsburgh also has had severe issues on scoring well in road games, and the defense has had any number of That Doesn't Look Good moments.

But when you watched the actual games last week, rather than just the final scores, you saw a Patriot team that, had they been facing an actual QB instead of a tall carny and object lesson of why you shouldn't pay too much for a guy that his old team wouldn't extend for, they really could have been in trouble. The offense just isn't as terrifying without TE Rob Gronkowski, especially since the WRs just don't get the same kind of separation down field. The RBs are functional, but Dion Lewis will put it on the carpet, LeGarrette Blount can't do much in the passing game, and James White only works in a handful of sets. The OL is better than the unit that nearly got Brady killed last year in their end in Denver, but not so much. The STs aren't getting scores in back to back weeks. And while the defense has kept teams from scoring all year, they've also done it with suspect secondary numbers and the usual AFC LEast cupcake schedule. I think this is a good Patriots team, not a great one.

As for Pittsburgh... well, the number of games where they've had Brown, LeVeon Bell and Ben Roethlisberger all pulling on the oars at the same time is a fairly small subset, and all of those guys are making this game. The defense is playing its best ball of the year now, which is to say, at the only time of the year that matters. K Chris Boswell was aces to get them here, and I don't think they've played their best game yet. Put them in a neutral setting, and this line is a lot closer. And here's the very dirty secret of Foxborough's fans: they are the most spoiled SOBs on the planet, and when things turn on them, they go away. Fast. Steeler Fan travels, too.

So I like Pittsburgh to not just cover this spread, but to shock the world and just plain win the game. Look for Brown to win his matchup against CB Malcolm Butler with penalties early and separation late, Roethlisberger to move the sticks with all manner of Other Guys, and Bell to close the deal with some of his own magic, which is the football equivalent of when the Harlem Globetrotters just spin the ball in front of their opponents, then blow by them. I have no idea why that works for him and only him, but man alive, does it work. And it's going to be beautiful.

Steelers 31, Patriots 27

Last week: 2-2

Playoffs: 5-3

Season: 120-143-5

Career: 879-888-54

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The best defensive team in the NBA

Block Party
Tonight in South Philly, the Sixers were trying to beat Toronto, pretty much the clear second-best team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors had won the last 14 games in the series, mostly because they have one of the best five backcourts in the NBA, and for the past five years, the Sixers have employed a collection of circus animals to play guard.

Having led most of the night, we knew how this game was going to end. Toronto would get Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan heated up, the Sixers would turn it over at the offensive end, the refs wouldn't bail them out, and we'd all console ourselves with how hard they tried, and how they were getting closer to getting over the hump.

And then Dario Saric happened.

Dario is the Sixers' second-best rookie so far this year, which is to say, he's a guy that no one is paying much attention to. He started off the year well, hit the rookie wall when his Euro levels of conditioning failed him, and has picked it up recently. But he's 6'-9", has 3-point range, some handle, and cares about defense. He's growing on us, honestly.

Normal Powell tried to get to the rim off a pass, and Saric pretty much ate it; straight up, startling athleticism, just a great play. The ball went to the corner, was retrieved by the Raps, and the Raps' Jared Sullinger, a big that's taller than Saric, took it to the rack and tried to dunk it. Saric pretty much ate that, too, as the crowd erupted in a way that it hasn't, really, in the better part of a decade. Joel Embiid leaped off the bench, the Sixers' descended on Saric en masse like he had just hit a walk-off home run, and suddenly, winning this game seemed much more likely, because it was possible that Toronto, and everyone else who played the Sixers, might never score again.

By the way, that all happened with eight minutes left in the game.

Fast forward to 35 seconds left. The Sixers are holding a four point lead. Lowry is outside of the three-point line, and he's covered by Robert Covington, the Sixers' best wing defender... and RoCo is on him like paint, eventually blocking (!) a 28-foot (!) three point attempt. Lowry collects the loose ball and drives the lane, only to encounter Embiid, who stuffs him at the 6-foot line, collects the ball, and also the foul from Lowry. Just an astounding collection of stops, all in rapid succession, against one of the league's best, who was having a good night to boot. (Oh, and by the way? Embiid had the flu, and still had 20-9-2 in 26 minutes, which is his 10th straight game with 20+ points. Dude is that good.)

with the win, the Sixers move to 14-26, still a half dozen games out of the 8th spot in the East and the chance to get some national TV attention while losing to the Cavaliers, but all of that is really besides the point. They might get there, especially if Ben Simmons really does make his debut after the All-Star Break, and gives them a boost a point guard. (TJ McConnell is totally adorable and the team has been winning with him recently, but he's really not the long-term answer as a starter.)

No, what's important is that this has become a startlingly good defensive team, which is the reason why they are now 7-3 in their last 10. (Even more impressive, it's 7 of their last 8 when Embiid is in the lineup.) Covington is one of the NBA's leaders in steals and deflections, Nerlens Noel has always been a stopper, Embiid can do it all, and as we saw tonight, Saric is joining in the fun. They kept Toronto to 39.5% from the floor tonight, and won despite a -13 margin in turnovers. For a team that used to have absolutely no margin for error, well, now they have one.

Next up is Friday at home against Portland, a game that they'll really need to win, because Embiid won't be around for the Saturday night loss in Atlanta. The week after gives them a Clipper team without Chris Paul or Blake Griffin at home, then another game without Embiid in Milwaukee. Unless they win a game without their stud center, the playoff drive probably is going to be on hold until Simmons returns...

But again, beyond the point. This is now one of the best defensive teams in the Association, and as Memphis has shown for most of the last decade, that's an exotic enough thing to win more games than you might think.

And when you stuff guys all over the floor?

Fun as hell to watch, too.

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