Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thunder - Warriors Game 7: What A Wonderful War

After War, Hugs
It's over, folks, and I miss it already.

Here's the thing about pro hoop: the best team almost always wins in a 7 game series. There are upsets, sure, because sometimes circumstances change from injury or developing talent, but there are too many shots taken, too many plays made, for statistical quirkery to rule the day. Single games, sure. That's why the NCAA tournament is fun.

The Warriors were down 3-1 in this series for absolute cause. They were hammered on the boards. They didn't have runs unless they were making 3-pointers over 7-footers with absurd wingspans and quicks. Their bench, which routinely turns good teams into hamburger, was hit or miss for most of the series. Their vaunted Death Lineup from going small was getting crushed, and there was no obvious coaching move to make to change the way things were going.

They won anyway.

I'm still trying to figure out how.

Part of it was that the Thunder, as good as they are, are just flawed. Hero Ball rules the day, and as good as Russell Westbrook is, his gifts are spent collecting 2s in an era where 3s rule the day. He was also 28 for 76 in the last 3 games, which is, um, not good on all kinds of levels.

In tonight's game, the Thunder guards couldn't get it done, but still kept shooting. Kevin Durant might have spent his last game in the laundry as a decoy, and while some of that has to be the work of Andre Iguodala, the man just didn't get enough shots. HC Billy Donovan got away from C Stephen Adams after Curry made a couple of ridiculously hard makes from the arc on switches, as if anyone else (Dion Waiters?) was doing any better on him from out there.

One play in particular, from this game, summed up the series to me. OKC was up in the second quarter. Thompson missed his first six shots. The Dub offense was as bad as it has looked all year. And then Westbrook missed a 3, an absurd try airball. OKC lost a little drive on defense on the next possession, allowing Thompson to get open for his first 3-point make. And instead of pushing the lead out to realms that would have made for real doubt and discomfort, or for Donovan to think about swapping in benchies to keep his horses fresh for the finish, they had to keep pushing on the gas pedal to try to keep the lead.

In the second half, the Thunder started to see the second chance points go away, mostly because they stopped giving Adams minutes. Curry and Thompson made insane looks from the arc. When Shaun Livingston got to the rim on a transition dunk, with the Thunder not getting back and then taking a weak effort foul at the rim, it looked over. The Warriors started getting contributions from deep benchies like Anderson Vareajo. And short of a late flurry by Durant, aided and abetted by a defensive effort that showed how they can force turnovers almost at will, it was.

If OKC and GSW swapped coaches, I think OKC wins this series. If OKC makes a number of looks at the rim that were well within their wheelhouse, it's close enough to make the Dub turnover issues give us a game that might have been decided in the final minute; we didn't really get one of those, despite the series being so good otherwise.

But at the end of it all, the Dubs are the better team... because, as simple as it seems, Curry and Thompson just made so many 3s (30 in the last 2 games), that they had to be.

I only hope that the Finals are half as good as this series.

See you Thursday.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Warriors - Thunder Game Six: Five Points About Excellence

OKC After Klay Thompson
I'm on vacation and was lucky just to see this game, let alone write about it. So it's the next morning and I'm not going to say anything you probably haven't already thought or considered, but here goes anyway.

> Klay Thompson won this game. Sure, Stephen Curry's late work was essential, Andre Iguodala was the biggest reason why the Thunder's offense became a train wreck late, Steve Kerr did good work in getting around pitfalls, and the entire team pretty much played their "A" game in winning what is, at the moment, a season-saving Game Six on the road. But none of that matters without Thompson, because they aren't even in the frame without their shooting guard.

In the third quarter, when the Thunder kept either scoring with Russell Westbrook's drives or putbacks off the misses, Thompson ate into their lead with 3s instead of 2s. You could see it eat into the Thunder's confidence, with Kevin Durant trying too much, the crowd getting spooked, and the Warriors slowly turning around, player by player. Thompson did all of that. He's the Warrior player who has adapted the most to the Thunder athleticism and length, the one who has tried the most on Westbrook because Curry just isn't up to it right now, the one who kept Game 4 from being a blowout as well.

> Kevin Durant cost his team the game. From questionable shots with a lot of volume to turnovers in transition chances that he normally buries, Durant just wanted this too much, and didn't involve his teammates. It almost didn't matter, because his teammates are playing that well, and Durant brought his full power to defense, so much so that he was still a guy that OKC has to have on the floor. But if bench players play better at home, stars might play worse. I don't think Durant played like this out of bad intention, but wow, what a time to revert to the form that kept your team in the mid '50s on wins, with a lot of fourth quarter fails.

> Golden State is getting smarter. Kerr knows he's got to mix, match and pray with his bigs, rather than just going small and avoiding the problem. Curry is going for contact on his drives to get OKC's bigs into foul trouble, and staying back for rebounds that are all kinds of necessary. Iguodala's locked in on defense, after struggling earlier in the series. It's been an amazing series for growth and transformation, and for GSW's ability to overcome limitations.

> OKC can win Game 7. Sure, they've had their hearts ripped out in this game, but they are still healthy, still have the best overall team, still have the bigs that have made their offense easier when they move, and still have two guys -- Westbrook and Durant -- who can score in any situation, and make the game so much easier for their teammates. They only lost tonight because Thompson was historically great.

But, well, the home team wins 85% of Game Sevens. The Warriors have won two straight elimination games, and will have the Association's most front-running crowd behind them. And the Thunder aren't at their best when dealing with adversity, because Durant and Westbrook are good enough to take over games, and undisciplined enough to fail to realize that teams beat teams, not stars.

> This was one of the five best games I've ever seen. From the jump, it was intense. OKC's runs never looked definitive, and GSW almost never had them, because OKC kept scoring with putbacks. All of the coaching decisions mattered. The game analysts -- Marv Albert and Chris Webber -- were outstanding. I don't remember a single officiating moment that made me wince. Incredible plays had me running around an empty hotel room like a dog who is scared of vacuum cleaners in a vacuum cleaner factory. I kept TNT on all night, and kept waking up to the game replay.

It was just that good.

It was just that much fun to watch.

And Game Seven might even be better.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

FTT Off-Topic: The Super And Always Close Presidential Race

Chad Me
Not sports, but also not long, so read or don't. 

Back when the American Presidency was misleading the public into broad support of a war of choice, there were two groups with a vested interest in making Al Qaida look as powerful, popular and terrifying as possible. The first was the American Government, and the second was Al Qaida. No one was ever going to call those guys a minor threat or something we could handle with the current resources, because that would mean no more money, or extraordinary measures, and their eventual deaths and defeat would be, well, meaningless. Which leads to a more than exceptional amount of suspicion over how potent those guys ever were, and if they got their big terror project done without help. (Note: I am not looking to discuss the merits of any conspiracy theory here; just the conditions by which such theories flourish.)

Now, let's pivot to the presidential aspirations and chances of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, depending on which you find more terrifying. (We're going to ignore Bernie Sanders here, because when the guy who is on the wrong end of the 13 million to 10 million aggregate vote wants to talk about how the system is rigged and he should win anyway, we are into the realm of Losing Arguments, and need to move on.)

I am certain that, no matter what polling might say, or what either candidate says, we are going into a 5+ month "news" story of how this is too close to call, tightening in these key battleground states, and so on, and so on. 

Because there is absolutely no media entity that profits from a blowout race. There's also no candidate that would ever admit to being on either side of the blowout, because it would lead to less donations, and more casual voters not showing up on Election Day and hurting their down-market allied races. There's no one in this whole compromised process that gets paid for telling you that it's a blowout.

Imagine, if you will, if the same rules applied for sports. Every game would go down to the last minute, every referee decision would be seen through the filter of fix, and you'd never bet on it again. Or financial news, where the Dow goes up every day, except for that one day a month where it corrects back to reality and destroys people's lives. And so on.

So enjoy the upcoming race, folks. It's going to be a close one. And will never be anything but close ever again...

Warriors - Thunder Game Four: This Series Is Over

Turning away from the game highlights...

So OKC won by 20 again tonight, the first time all season that the Warriors have lost back to back games, but honestly... anyone that's seen these past two games has seen enough. Golden State is done. Over. Finished. Dead team walking, with their only good minutes coming when the Thunder are disinterested, or Klay Thompson, the only Warrior with a pulse tonight, is playing out of his mind.

And normally, this really wouldn't depress me all that much. I appreciate the Warriors from an aesthetic point, and have been rooting for them as my second laundry for years now, but I don't live and die with them. I also love seeing Kevin Durant return to his rightful place as one of the very best players in the game, appreciate the unabashed fire and athleticism that Russell Westbrook brings to the court, get sneaky fun out of Stephen Adams' pantomime villain work, and so on, and so on. Dion Waiters has done full career recovery in the last month, and Dion went to my school. Watching Durant and Westbrook move the ball and benefit from actually competent coaching warms the heart; it shows that a 55-win team with self-inflicted wounds can just catch fire, get healthy, and play killing hoop. They worked the Spurs, they are working the Dubs, and if form holds, they'll have their chance with the Cavs soon enough; no one would be able to say they haven't earned the kudos. You have to think this run is going to get Durant to stay in OKC in the off-season, and that's also awesome, if only because it will keep him away from all of the usual NBA suspect towns. (Though some part of me wouldn't mind seeing him in the lEast, just so LeBron James has to try a little more often.)

Rather, it's this... I wait all year for playoff hoop, and it's freaking blowouts, where one of the two teams seems to save up all of their injuries and ineffectiveness for the worst week of the year?

I want to celebrate OKC here, but I can't help but feel that they are getting the Warriors' "D" game, too. Stephen Curry hasn't been playing at his usual speed with the dribble, can't hit for a decent rate from the floor, and is even missing free throws. He looks several steps slow, as if the knee is back to breaking, or the ankles are off, or, well, something. He's been exposed on defense even worse than offense, and if he was just another guy, you'd wonder why the Warriors were starting him over Shaun Livingston. (Who isn't doing much on offense either, but at least has size enough to defend.)

Curry's not even the worst Dub right now. Draymond Green's plus/minus in the past two games is unspeakable, and it's also been earned; bad turnovers, easy misses at the rim, bad misses from three, not getting it done on defense, and on, and on. The brief Warrior runs tonight came when he was off the floor, and with Curry off his game, they desperately need him to make passes, not turnovers.

Can this series become a series? Normally I'd say yes; this is a 73-win team that just needs to win 3 games in a row, two of them on their home court. But from watching the games up to now, where the Thunder won without playing well in Game One, lost Game Two when they didn't care much, and blew the Warriors out whenever they cared to in Games 3 and 4... well, no.

Maybe they spit the bit in Game Five, with a heaping helping of Ref Help to get a slightly longer series... but right now, the Thunder might have the four best players on the floor, and every time the Warriors go with their supposedly optimal small ball lineup, it's a thrashing. Short of a Curry return to form and miracle carry for three games, this is over... and with no more than a few minutes where both teams actually were playing well.

So congrats to the Thunder, with one caveat... if you turn into your regular seasons selves in the Finals, and make yet another playoff series unwatchable, and make me pine for the Pistons-Spurs finals?

Well, if that happens, then I *do* hope Durant leaves.

Because, dammit, I only get so many playoff games a year.

And y'all have been turning them into Drama Free Downers...

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Cavs-Raptors Game Four: Coaches Matter

Open Mouth, Insert Hook
Up until tonight's game, the 12th that the Cavs have played in the 2016 NBA playoffs, I wasn't sure they had actually faced a good team. Toronto had gotten here through a home crowd, through two middling and injured opponents, with barely more than a .500 record. PG Kyle Lowry, a down-ballot MVP pick for his best in conference work during the regular season, was playing terrible basketball after injury, with a visible crisis of confidence. C Jonas Valanciunas, necessary or so it seemed for his ability to provide interior scoring to balance the 3-ball attack, hasn't played in weeks due to injury. And with the Cavs hitting a historic number of threes, and indulging in ball movement that has been among the best of any James Gang team, the Cavs went 10-0 to start the playoffs and looked to be on cruise control for the Finals.

Even after Game 3, where the Raptors strung together a win thanks to a historic effort from going to be rich and disappoint some team terribly C Bismack Biyombo, it seemed like the only difference that was going to make would be to make the Cavs clinch at home in Game 5. Surely Game 4 would see the Cavs set the world to rights; it is, after all, what James has done his whole career.

And then the Raps went up big in the first half, with Lowry playing out of his mind, pushing the lead to 19 by intermission.

Which didn't hold, of course. PG Kyrie Irving heated up in the third. The threes started falling. The lead went away, bit by bit. In the fourth, Cleveland hit every shot they took for the first eight (!) minutes. Toronto kept pace, but we've all seen this movie before. James would close. It's what he does.

But, and here's the thing... James never came off the floor in the second half. Rookie HC Tyronn Lue never gave him a break, even in the quarter wrap-around that maximizes bench time, even with Irving getting to Full Flame On, and not really needing much help for much of the second half. James wound up logging 46 minutes, and eventually, the Cavs wilted with him, with JR Smith taking and missing the have to have shots late. Lowry never wilted, DeMar DeRozan was about as efficient as a mid-range guy could be, and Biyombo collected another 14 boards and 3 blocks. Tie series.

Can the Raps keep the magic moving in Game 5? Really unlikely, as they haven't exactly overwhelmed with their bench either, and getting 67 points from 43 shots from the starting guards isn't likely to continue. There's a reason why everyone thought his series was going to be a Cleveland sweep, and even if the Toronto crowd is James' Kryptonite, the Cavs only have to hold serve at home to make the Finals.

But what this game showed, and the fact that there's even a chance still to keep the Cavs out of the Finals, is how not having a real coach is doing James no favors in his attempt to end the half century of Cleveland Sadness. This Cavs team is too deep -- hell, they got good minutes out of Richard Jefferson tonight, and Timofey Mozgov is a DNP-CD these days, after starting in the Finals last year -- to make James go monster minutes to get a road win. Lue's got a winning hand here, but he's playing it very, very badly.

Which doesn't exactly speak well to Cleveland's chances. Either in the next 2-3 games, or the 4 to 7 to follow.

The Draymond Green Foul, Or The Power Of The Junk

Not a good subject for an image search
So today in the NBA, the most viewed crotch shot this side of a screwy WWE finish played out with Golden State PF Draymond Green getting his flagrant 1 upgraded to a flagrant 2 with a $25K fine... but Green avoids suspension, at least for now. (He's racked up enough sin moments that his next flagrant will come with a one game suspension.)

A few thoughts about this:

1) If I'm Thunder HC Billy Donovan, I make it a not small part of my game plan in Game Four to try to bait Green into further ref attention. Send a benchie out to flop at him, tell C Stephen Adams (not exactly inexperienced at irritating the opposition) there's a bonus in it for him, make sure bigger stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook know that Green and his hothead nature is on the white board. Add this to the howling rage that the OKC crowd will likely bring to the fore every time he touches the ball, and there's a very good chance that the Thunder can go for the kill in five. In the NBA playoffs, you close as soon as you can, because every game is its own world, and choking the life out of a team needs to happen every chance you can take it. (And if you need any convincing on that, consider the Cavs now having to play at least six games against Toronto, with 46 minutes of LeBron James doing everything he can tonight to try to avoid that.)

2) The flailing move that Green did before the injury is something he's done literally dozens of times this season, which really cuts down on the idea that there was intent to this. So was the context of the game, in that it wasn't a runaway when it happened. Compare and contrast this with the final moments of the Cavs-Raptors Game 3, and you get why the NBA didn't go for suspension. Correctly. If they wanted to toss him out of the earlier game, it wouldn't have changed anything. OKC was playing it's A game, GSW was throwing an D, and Green was an F. Moving on.

3) In case you've thought that the society has changed dramatically from moments of Male Privilege... um, we just spent 24 hours of video looking at a nut shot. A nut shot that seems to have taken the full measure of sanity from all kinds of people on Twitter and the World Wide Lemur... as if taking the shot there, as bad and wince-tastic as it is, is any worse that getting spiked in the knees, or having your ankle rolled.

Here's how "bad" that hit was... Adams played. The rest of the game. Played pretty well, too, unlike Green, who might have had his worst game of the year. I get that we're dealing with taboos here and no one wants to see something like that, let alone for it to become a common occurrence. But FFS, people, it's as if no one ever got hit there before, or that one of the top 10 players in the NBA is now going to be defined by this single moment.

It's not. He's better than that. The series would have been changed, fairly irrevocably, by taking Green out of the mix for Game Four. If the series goes long enough, and there are great games later, no one's really going to remember this.

And seeing if he can bounce back in that setting, with all of Oklahoma howling for his head?

Is going to be *fascinating*...

Monday, May 23, 2016

Warriors - Thunder Game 3: Stepping On My Hoop

En Flagrante Defooto
In the second quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, the road Warriors had managed to get back to equilibrium with the home Thunder. Despite the roaring start and back to not very good nature of Harrison Barnes, and the now routine early foul trouble for secret problem Andrew Bogut, the Dub benchies had done the job, and I was settling down for a good hour-plus of pharma grade hoop.

Which is when the Thunder started making every shot, and the Dubs started taking quick ones and not defending, and before the half could end, the lead was 25. OKC didn't play to lose in the third quarter, because that's really not who they are suddenly, and the lead went to 40 before indifference and blown dunks from the deep benchies made the final slightly less lopsided than the actual game. OKC 133, GSW 105. As bad a score as a hoop addict could take, honestly. Dammit, people, I need good games here. Very, very badly.

Your highlight reel this morning will be filled with Draymond Green (inadvertently?) kicking Stephen Adams in the little monkeys (again) for a Flagrant One call, which seemed to precipitate the killing Thunder run, but unless getting singled out for booing every time he touches the ball really threw Green, the play really didn't have that much impact on the game. Rather, it was the complete collapse of the Warrior starters in the second, who missed a lot of attempts they normally make, and then didn't get back on defense at all. For a team that is no worse than a top 10 outfit in the league at defense to go with the preternatural offense, it was a shocking collapse, and we're going to spend the next 48 hours trying to figure out if this was Just One Of Those Games or something far more terminal.

If you want to go for the sky is falling in Oaktown, this was the game for you. Klay Thompson couldn't put it in the ocean. Stephen Curry was tentative. Green seemed rattled all night long, and will probably have to duck a day of suspension discussion. (Which would be, well, kind of nuts because players flail their legs all the time without this level of unluck, and might even serve to fire up the Dubs, especially as HC Steve Kerr is playing the "I'm shocked it was even a flagrant" post-game conference card.) No bench player did much. Short of some early threes from Andre Iguodala, I can't think of a Dub that played very well in this one, and if you bring your D game to a road playoff tilt, you are going to lose. Do it against a team that seems to be putting it all together for the first time all year, and you are going to get rolled.

From an OKC standpoint, they've now gone 6-2 in their last 8 against the two teams that treated the NBA like a speed bag all year, and their confidence has to be off the charts. Kevin Durant was the best player in the world again tonight, Serge Ibaka joined him with elite level rim protection, the benchies and D-and-3 guys played as if this was Rucker Park in terms of not feeling the pressure, and the crowd out-roared every other arena in the Association. They won going away with Russell Westbrook not even hitting a good percentage. And while all of that is fine and good, and I'm completely cool with Peak Durant making an appearance -- honestly, no seven footer should have those handles, or that level of flexibility at the rim on both ends -- I can't help but feel cheated by this series so far.

Game One was slop, with OKC just having the lead late when both teams went to brickery. Game Two was fun for the Curry explosion, but the fourth was drama-free, and it just felt like the Thunder were OK with not winning both road games. This game was garbage time for more than it was close, and dammit, we're already maybe more than halfway done, and we haven't really had a great game yet. And I need great games from this series, because we've only got from eight to fifteen basketball games from now until Halloween. That's not enough hoop left for drama free blowouts. And if OKC finished the job, we also might have way too much aid and comfort for the Things Were Better In My Day fogies, who will feel like the Dubs' temerity in ending the Bulls' record is causing Bad Juju in the playoffs.

To which I say, with all sincerity and charity... go soak your head. Honestly. You really had that much of a problem with a team making you pay attention to the regular season? I get that Green can be kind of annoying, but are you really ready to declare the Dubs a heel squad that you are rooting against just because lots of people like them now?

And this, finally, to the Warriors and Thunder: can you guys arrange to both show up for the same game for the rest of the series? I feel like we're missing a whale of a series due to scheduling problems.

That will, hopefully, be worked out by Tuesday night...

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Seventy Stubbers

First things first... I write a corporate consulting blog which rarely, if ever, touches on sports. Mostly because it's about marketing and advertising, and drumming up consulting clients by sharing content and tips. So if you want to see a cleaned up and pro version of how I feel about the team becoming the first, most brazen and cheapest whore in the NBA shanty town, go here. 

Now, the less, um, cleaned up version.

I didn't want to think about this, but whatever piece of garbage that the ownership wanted to give up to NPR invaded my drive time trip home to justify this latest insult. He compared ads on jerseys to going from a rotary phone to a cell phone. No, seriously. Because when you make something worse, but it's new, that's innovative. He talked about how he's seen sports all over the world (oh, you mean in leagues that are inferior to the NBA?), and everyone just accepted ads on jerseys there... as if those teams also don't have RELEGATION PLEASE GOD GIVE ME RELEGATION IN MY LIFETIME I'LL NEVER DO ANOTHER BAD THING EVER AGAIN IF YOU JUST GIVE ME THE HOPE THAT SOME RICH PRICK OWNER GETS THROWN OUT OF A LEAGUE ON HIS GOLD PLATED ASS...

Um, sorry. Needed to take a walk there.

You see, teams in other leagues kind of HAVE to do things like put ads on their jerseys to, you know, SURVIVE. Like Little League teams, for one. The Stubbers (no reason to call them the Sixers any more, they sold that brand) aren't in that place. They are in the best basketball league in the world (well, kind of), and they share national television revenue and merch sales and tickets sales and so on, and so on. If we all lock arms and don't enter the building, not a single one of us, for the 41 regular season games and out that the laundry will play next year, the team will still exist. Maybe with more logos on their jerseys, or bigger ones, since StubHub won't be so happy with the terms of their deal, or in another city that likes it without lube. Regardless, the team will exist.

But so long as we're conflating and lying to make another $5 million a year for those ivory back scratchers (it's not as if the Stubbers spend money on players, or on ticket price or cable television rights rollbacks), just keep digging the hole, you clueless slash and burners. You ran off the only GM in the past 10 years that had a better plan than lose after lucrative first round playoff games to LeBron James. You spent the last season selling the building out as live nostalgia events in front of the second-worst team in NBA history. And now you've made the freaking jersey itself an object of ridicule, while tacitly admitting that the adulterated laundry is inferior -- because the shirt your fans (I'm sure you still have some, in the same way that domestic abusers frequently get laid) can buy...


Oh, and congrats on getting the first overall pick, and the inevitable injury, woe and ruin that will result to the poor stiff, or to the bad trade package that you get for the guy, because after 3 years of rank hoop, the big payoff to a 30 to 40 win road to nowhere franchise will seem so sweet.

Finally, this.

Can't we just admit out loud that the NBA runs this franchise now, and will use it as a failed state / testing lab for whatever asshat idea it doesn't want to risk on a real team?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Thunder-Warriors Game One: OKC Steals Ugly

Someone Stepped On My Hoop
Part of the fun of a seven game series is how little games can resemble each other, from contest to contest. It's rare that things start with 100% intensity or proficiency, especially when teams have had time off, and that was in clear evidence tonight. Neither team played all that well down the stretch, the refs blew a clear travel to help close the door on the home team late, and OKC has negated the home-court advantage, while winning three straight road games against teams that went something like 80-3 at home this year. Crazy, and We've Got Drama. Dirty heroin hoop, cut with a baking soda fourth quarter, but we're taking it just the same.

What I found telling about the game wasn't that Stephen Curry was great middle and middling late, that Klay Thompson wasn't able to keep up the pace after a great first half, or that the Dub bench didn't give them the same lift in the second half that they did in the early going. (And that's a very troubling trend for them, given that the Blazers led a lot of their series, and Portland isn't as good as the Thunder.)

No, what was more telling was that the Thunder got worked when they went big with Enes Kanter and Stephen Adams on the court at the same time... but HC Billy Donovan stuck to his guns and got back in the game when PG Russell Westbrook finally started hitting some shots. The NBA has been filled with teams that have thought they'd bully the Dubs, but went away from it when it stoped working... but not Donovan and the Thunder. And it led to OKC getting the offensive boards they needed to prolong and slow down the game.

Now, it's pretty unlikely that this move is going to work all series long. OKC routinely puts people on the floor that the Dubs don't have to guard, and the season-long bench issues aren't likely to just reverse because OKC is finally healthy now. In the fourth quarter tonight, you saw Hero Ball and Kevin Durant missing a lot, and any number of opportunities for the Dubs to step up and win. Neither team really played their "A" game for more than brief stretches tonight -- most notably, a sequence in the second quarter, where Draymond Green had a great blocked shot and posed, then Serge Ibaka blocked an even more impressive one and posed better -- but that doesn't usually happen in Game One anyway.

I'm just hoping that this was the worst game of the series, and that we get six more of them, because, um, yeah. I waited all year for this Warrior team to have to dig deeper, and for the Thunder to finally get their act together, and both may be happening. So long as it takes weeks to decide, I'm good.

Finally, this. There's a terrible old cliche of how the series doesn't begin until the home team loses, and you can thank Phil Jackson for that moment of idiocy. But there's a gram of truth in the kilo of flotsam, and watching Kerr adjust could be pretty interesting. See you all again on Wednesday.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

FTT Off-Topic: The Side Project

It's What Happens
Not sports, enjoy or not.

In case you've been wondering why the sports blog posting rate is off the usual levels, three points.

1) Web publishing revenue being what it is, um, yeah. Click on more ads, buy more T-shirts, and rewind the history of sports blogs to give me a controlling interest in Bleacher Report ten years ago. I'm still amazed that worked. Oh well.

2) Baseball, ehh, baseball. I keep trying to watch, and keep falling asleep. The fact that my fantasy laundry can't keep an ERA under 5, and my real-life laundry is a zombie franchise until they get their stadium situation dealt with, not helping. Maybe more later in the year.

3) There's Music Afoot. Twenty years ago (yeah, I'm old), I had a rock band that played a few hundred gigs and did four different studio projects. Many of the principals involved in that seem to want to get together and Do Something. So there's been songwriting (yeah, I'm as surprised as you), a lot of web work to archive all of the stuff we did back then, and Planning. You can keep up on the progress of that at this here Web site.

Anyway, go check  out that site. Play some YouTube tracks. Tell us we suck, or that we're great, or that it reminds you of some band that's going to make me wince, because despite the fact that the band didn't make it, I'm still a snob. Or not; it's your call. Back to sports when events warrant.

NBA Predictions: Conference Finals

LeBron's Rode to the Finals
Oklahoma City vs GOLDEN STATE

The case for the Thunder:
Might just have needed to be healthy, which they finally are, to be this good. Closed out the Spurs with prejudice, who were the second best team in the Association this year, with two wins on the road. Spent much of the Spurs series with rebounding dominance by going big with Cs Stephen Adams and Enes Kanter, and if they can get the game to slowdown and bigs, might have a tactical advantage. F Kevin Durant is playing like no less than the third best player in the world right now, and G Russell Westbrook is in the top 10. Different role players stepped up in the Spurs series, with G Dion Waiters looking startlingly useful, and they've got a great home court. Durant can win games by himself, and so can Westbrook. As the Spurs series showed, they have another gear and ceiling that most teams do not.

The case against:
While it hasn't been a recent problem, the bench can be a mess. Westbrook ping pongs between doing too much and doing too little. The bigs are either foul-prone (Adams) or weak on defense (Kanter). HC Billy Donovan has been great recently, but wasn't for most of the year. Three-point shooting and turnover control can be suspect, and neither can be to stay with the Dubs. When it goes badly for them, it goes badly with speed. Have been either trucked or had their hearts ripped out by the Dubs in regular season games that both teams played at full strength, and with full intent.

The case for Golden State: Best team in the Association in the regular season, and have only lost twice in the playoffs, both times without PG and unanimous MVP Stephen Curry. As the last two games of the Portland series shows, um, Curry's back. PF Draymond Green does everything, and has also been an absolute beast on interior defense. SG Klay Thompson, so long as Curry is around, is capable of carrying the load for vast stretches of the game, and is also a lockdown defender. The bench is back to full strength with Curry's return, with PG2 Shaun Livingston in particular doing great work in posting up smaller opponents. C Andrew Bogut gives them interior defense and passing, and when fifth wheel SF Harrison Barnes or swingman Andre Iguodala is connecting, there's just too many options for an opponent to defend. HC Steve Kerr is fearless in his rotations, and prone to using players like Festus Ezeli or Marresse Speights to perfect effect. Home crowd is a little spoiled now and worries more than cheers, but still goes easily to deafening.

The case against: Can be turnover-prone, especially when they are trying to go from lead to killshot. When you have shooters like this, sometimes they take bad shots any way, and long rebounds make any team a transition team, and suspect on defense. Best lineup is the small lineup, which might get them into trouble with OKC's 2 bigs approach. Curry could have issues with the raw athleticism of Russell Westbrook, especially if Westbrook brings the A game on defense. OKC's got advantages with the big men here, and Durant can own anyone, even Green.

The pick: OKC is the best team the Dubs have faced this year, and they just rolled the team that everyone thought would fight the Dubs for the WC Championship. It's going to be a hell of a series, but I think the Dubs get it done in six.

Toronto vs CLEVELAND

The case for the Raptors:
Resounding Game 7 win against the Heat gives them Mo Mentum. No one outside of their immediate fan base, and probably not even them, think they have any chance here, so they should come in with relatively no pressure. Home crowd is astoundingly loud and positive, to the point of wet nursing poor free throw shooters over misses. Reacted well to the loss of C Jonas Valanciunas, with Gs DeMar DeRozan and especially Kyle Lowry stepping up their game. C Bismarck Biyombo is playing great energy / role player hoop, and the bench is giving them unexpected contributions. As bad as they can look in half court sets where ball movement is stagnant and the guards just hoist it late in the clock, they rebound well and control tempo, two critical points for staying within sight range of a James Gang. Did get to the second seed in the lEast.

The case against: Much of that win total came against the always humorous Atlantic Division, where many of worst NBA teams reside. DeRozan and Lowry take a startling number of the shots, whether that's working or not. Ball movement is the worst of any team still alive in the playoffs. Don't have any of the best three players in this series, which is no way to win in the playoffs. Have no defensive one on one answer for any of Cleveland's top players. Losing Valanciunas will take away one of the few places where you can attack the Cavs on defense. Biyombo can't keep up this level of play.

The case for Cleveland: Only undefeated team left in this year's tournament. Deadly in transition, capable of some of the best defense in the NBA when inspired. Everyone knows and accepts their role, and the ball moves as well as any team LeBron James has ever been on. Shooting an unsustainable and insane percentage from deep, but what's lost in that is that all of the looks have been wildly open, and will likely be again in this series.

The case against: HC Tyronn Lue is new to the job and might overplay his hand. The shooters might finally start missing. You can have them defensively in several one to one matchups. And maybe they come in with rust, or get taken out of their game by the over the top Raptor faithful.

The pick: The lEast is a cakewalk to the Finals every year for James, and this year in particular is a walk in the park against a team that's just 8-6 in the post-season, and is living without a center. It's going to be the Cavs in four.

Record so far: 8-4

The Mid-Air Shoe: The Eagles And Sam Bradford

Tick, Tick, Tick
So this week saw the end of the relentlessly ineffective Sam Bradford holdout to force a trade. Mostly because the meager number of teams where a trade might make sense all make forceful moves in the draft to avoid, well, trading for Sam Bradford. It's all been a very tumultuous couple of weeks in Eagles Nation.

But what happens next is, well, inevitable: Bradford loses the gig to #2 pick Carson Wentz, because the game is fixed. Bradford could play out of his mind this year; it won't matter, because he's older, already expensive, and the owner of an eight miles of bad road health record. The Eagles could be a surprise contender (don't worry, they won't be), and he's still losing the gig. Unless the kid is terrible in pre-season, the fan base is going to want to turn the page to the new guy as soon as possible, because staying with the stopgap is never satisfying. Oh, and by the way, Bradford is the last and most visible reminder of the Nero Kelly Era that's still on the roster, and by the time the season starts, you won't be able to find a single person in the fan base who will admit to ever liking Nero. (Unless, of course, the Niners somehow contend, and don't worry, they won't.) The fact that he threw a 2-week trade me spaz fit will also never be forgotten, especially if he ever turtles up to avoid a hit, or Wentz says a single mean word about him.

Now, I get why the Eagles don't want to start Wentz right away. He's coming from an absurdly under-powered playing situation to the world's most difficult football league, and throwing him in the deep end could scar or stunt his development. There's enough talent on the roster, and they play in such a godawful division, that getting the home playoff game and likely first round loss that is the NFC lEast's lot in life.

But the Eagles already *have* a QB on the roster that can serve as a perfectly functional stopgap: Chase Daniel, who they signed for a suspicious amount of money to be QB2, and an unconscionable amount for QB3. And when I say this, most of the people in the fan base will wonder why I'm giving so much rope to an undersized Detmer-esque back-up who is mostly here because he's new HC Doug Pederson's Kansas City / West Coast Offense binkie.

However, Daniel backed up Drew Brees in New Orleans, and always looked fine in the pre-season there. He did the same in KC. He's got a tolerable health record. He can move a bit, and the arm doesn't seem worse than ordinary. We may not ever learn if he can avoid turnovers under pressure, or win you an important road game, because he'll likely never get the chance to show it. And with an amazing contract for a job where he might never see the field, he's also likely to be in town for as long as anyone on the roster, because owner Jeff Lurie isn't short-leashing this coach for fear of losing his reputation as a smart and/or patient man.

Which leads us to these strong and unknowable questions... just how little did the Browns value Bradford, that the Eagles couldn't put him in the package that lead to the #2 pick? And how much did Nero overpay to get him in the first place?

FTT Off-Topic: Cape Madness

I've Got A Secret Dumbness
Not sports, ignore or don't.

This past weekend, while dealing with the laundry and the other blogs (there are two now, one about marketing, the other about how my old band might be reforming to make music), I fired up Netflix and "Jessica Jones." This is a Marvel piece that's been critically acclaimed as something of a revolutionary superhero show, and it's got a lot going for it. Krysten Ritter's a great actress, especially when she's in her wheelhouse of troubled antihero, as she is here. David Tennant has tons of fans from his "Doctor Who" days, and I can see why. He's got a frequently great role in this as the antagonist. We get Clarke Peters from "The Wire" playing an aging detective, and that's never a bad thing. Carrie Anne-Moss is on board, and I'll never not love her from her time as Trinity in "The Matrix." (We'll all just ignore the sequels now, and you should too.) There's lots here that you haven't seen before, from hard to watch plot turns, inspired plotting, good acting, reasonable action and great atmospherics. It's made with care, and...

Then the season turns sidewise and it becomes just another cape show, where the hero has whatever powers are needed, the antagonist makes obvious mistakes, and you wonder where the writers of the early part of the season went, and who they got to close things up.

I suppose it's my fault, really, for getting sucked into a superhero show. I realize this puts me squarely out of the mainstream and deep into creeping codgerdom, but the genre just bores the bejeezus out of me now. "Jones" avoids most of the conventions of the genre, sure, but at the core of things, this is basically an updated "Buffy The Vampire Slayer", only with more of a real veneer. The fact that it could be, and frequently is, more... just makes it a fascinating but ultimately frustrating mess.

One that, I'm sure, will continue and replicate others, because we've seemingly lost the ability to tell a procedural now without the intellectual quick grass of a super-powered protagonist. Fox is the serial addict on this, between "Lucifer" and "Sleepy Hollow", but you can go upper-crust with your cozy, too; just fire up BBC or PBS and watch "Sherlock." It says something telling, I think, that we have to tell stories now on the margins, about people with writ large issues, rather than anything ordinary. Procedurals from two generations ago were everyman characters. One generation ago, operators of special tech. This generation? Magic... and not just magic, but frequently *victims* of magic, who rarely, if ever, feel good about using their powers. Only antagonists get to delight in their identity, or seem to fully and completely choose it. Oh, and gritty. Gotta be gritty.

Except, and this is telling... that the most successful R movie ever, especially in terms of profit, is "Deadpool"... which is, to say, a man remarkably devoid of angst, self-doubt, mopery, victimhood.

Of course, what we'll actually get is just capes who curse more, or have more violence, or just break fourth wall. Because that's new.

Honestly, can't you people ever step away from the comfort food and try something without the side of whipped cream?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stephen Curry Did This To Paul Allen

Eat It, Paul Allen  
What a game.

Portland played pretty much an A game tonight; a little scared when the Warriors made their run, and they were victimized by the terrible officiating that was the only threat to this game being an all-time classic. They got off to a great start, made big plays from their back court, made all sorts of insane threes... but the Warriors had Stephen Curry.

Playing for the first time in weeks, coming off ankle and knee injuries, looking like his 40-year-old self... but we was still contributing with assists and scores off penetration, and starting to heat up late. He made us all forget a ridiculously good game from Draymond Green. He made us all forget everything else in this game, honestly. He made the perfect pass to Harrison Barnes for the tying three. He had to take major minutes due to an addled ejection of mild-mannered Shaun Livingston from idiotic refs. He missed at the buzzer. And then the overtime came.

Just the best overtime I've ever seen from a single player.

If you missed it, go find a feed. Honestly. Burn it into the DVR and keep it for the summer months when there is only baseball and meaningless football. Try to watch the shake and bake and take and make threes for which the only reaction is glee and laughter.

I never thought I'd enjoy a basketball player more than 2000-2001 Allen Iverson. He played for my favorite laundry, he played as if his life depended on every point, and he willed teams to win.

But, um, Curry is better. Iverson was the MVP, but he was never the best basketball player on the planet. Curry is. Was last year, is this year, and if there is a just and loving God, he'll stay healthy for the rest of these playoffs, and give us more moments like this one.

He just ruined Paul Allen's day. On national television, with a GIF that we can put on Paul Allen's tombstone, and Paul Allen made me unemployed for no damned good reason at all when I had a six-month-old baby. Eat it, Paul Allen. Eat it cold, eat it on national television, eat it all the way to meme status. This is my Iverson stepping on Tyronn Lue moment, without the following four games of heartbreak.

Curry's played one basketball game in three weeks. He got 40 tonight. Against a world-class defensive effort, in a hostile gym, with 2.5 quarters of rust.

I have to somehow go to sleep now, and get up for work in four hours.

Worth it. So, so, so worth it.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Modest Proposal For ABC/ESPN's NBA Announcers

3 Little Asshats Are We
Tonight in Portland, the Blazers beat the Warriors in a pretty great game. Damian Lillard went off again, Al-Farouq Aminu couldn't miss, the entire Blazer roster seemed to get hot in most of the last three quarters, and the crowd was into it from the start. On the Warriors side, Draymond Green played out of his mind and made 8 3s, Klay Thompson had some good moments, Shawn Livingston had a dunk that should never happen from your point guard, and the road team ran into serious and immediate foul trouble for center Andrew Bogut. There was no end of ways to spin the game; that the Warriors were running out of margin from the absence of Stephen Curry, that head coach Steve Kerr was losing patience with F Harrison Barnes, that Thompson was either trying too much or getting worn down by having to guard Lillard, and so on, and so on.

It was an entertaining game, not a blowout. There was very little in the way of dead time, or intentional fouling, or long replay reviews. There was no issues with the court that required the announce team to cover dead time. What we had was, if not pharma grade hoop, at least, really good stuff. Involving a historically great team, on prime time, that draws big ratings, because people want to watch them. The win pulled the series to 2-1, with a lot on the line in Game 4.

Here, instead, is what the ABC/ESPN crew decided to talk about. And this is just a partial list. And I'm not making any of this up.

> What happened on this day a long time ago, because it impacted Mark Jackson personally, when a teammate did something good.

> The colleges that Portland's starting back court went to, because, um, they weren't very big schools, and people stay up nights wondering about such things.

> Whether this was the best back court ever to come from small colleges. (They aren't. This was also discussed.)

> The injury status of a player who was not playing in the game... WHILE THE ACTUAL GAME WAS GOING ON. Not during a timeout, during actual game.

> What their mothers thought about what the level of officiating oversight should be during a playoff game, as opposed to a regular season game. Again, during live game action.

> The name of the Portland arena, and how it should be about a team from 40 years ago.

> How good that team from 40 years ago was, and who was on that team. Again, of course, DURING ACTUAL GAME.

> Why Lillard is best understood for the character he plays on a series of commercials, where he is, no, seriously, a rapping baby.

> What Portland's roster would be like if Portland's roster was more like the team it was last year, and how that would be even better than this year's team, even though last year's team was worse.

> Whether or not we could go back in time to make Lillard an All-Star. Because there's no better purpose for time travel.

> Why the Blazer offense only really works when Lillard is on fire, even though they really only went into overdrive when the ball was shared, and everyone started making threes.

And, well, I'm sure there was more, but there's only so many times you can write down and dwell on the stuff that's just absolutely infuriating until you give up.

A basketball game telecast is up to 2.5 hours.

Actual game play is 48 minutes of live clock.

There are 2-3 days between games to discuss all of the Not Game that your diseased little hearts desire. Which should attract a whole wonderful audience of people who enjoy Not Game.

Me, personally? I'm here for Actual Game. I have zero -- no, sorry, less than zero -- interest in Not Game that is propagated by the ABC/ESPN crew, because they are utter and complete jackasses who keep stepping on my game with the baking soda that is their Not Game.

I wait all year for the NBA Playoffs, for pure, uncut Game. For Game that matters, for Game with consequences, for Game with art and stakes and memory and everyone all-in, because that is just the goddamned best.

So, I'm begging. I'm pleading.

Not to ABC/ESPN, but to any number of people in this great armed land of ours, who shoot people with guns for all sorts of reasons, but few of them as useful as this.

Someone, please, secretly take people near and dear to the ABC/ESPN announcers hostage, and threaten to do terrible things to them the next time they veer into Not Game.

Or, failing that, start a Kickstarter that attaches them all to powerful electrodes that hit them, like Milgram subjects, every time they need to go down the goddamned rabbit hole of Not Game during Game.

After you've managed to do this, please get in touch, and gladly accept all of the money I have.

Yes, I'm kidding, by which I mean I've never been more serious about anything in my life.

Thank you, God bless, and when you attach those electrodes?

Use your imagination.

Then, attach more.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Maximum Cleveland

King Me
So tonight in Game 2 of their second round series against Atlanta, the Cavs went full confetti bucket, nearly doubling up at the half and setting a new NBA record for made three pointers. It's rare to see the majority of an NBA game turn into garbage time, let alone a playoff turn in the second round, but that's just how hot the Cavs were. Also, just how badly Atlanta matches up with them. When JR Smith is making hands in the face shots from 27 feet and beyond, and the misses are just bouncing back to you for lay ups, you are going to blow a team out. Especially at home, when you are the better team to start.

This is the kind of game (see Spurs v Thunder Game One, or Warriors v Blazers Game One) that either get teams into false senses of security / bounce-back games later, or just signal the arrival of dominance. And as the Cavs are now 6-0 in the post-season, have worked the Hawks like a speed bag for years, and seem to be putting more and more distance between them and their opponents with each succeeding game, we have to start considering the latter possibility.

It's not just their lackluster competition... but yeah, you are forgiven for thinking it is just that. Detroit is the modern embodiment of a team that doesn't win in the playoffs, from the weak free-throw shooting dominant big to the benchies that can't make open threes but try real hard. Atlanta is the kind of star-free team that never play better in the playoffs than they do in the regular season, and LeBron James looks at them the way a hungry man looks at an all you can eat buffet.

But when you watch actual game, you see more than James doing his usual early round beatdowns against the lEast. Kevin Love finally looks right in this laundry. Kyrie Irving is a long way past the injuries. Tristan Thompson is able to do just what he does best, which is pound the glass and defend with full throat. Matthew Dellevadova still looks like hot garbage, but good plays keep resulting during his minutes. And then there's Smith.

At this point in his career, we all know what you get from Smith; the biggest wild card in the NBA. There are no bad shots for him when he's on, and no good shots when he's off. If you need him to play well to win games, you are going home, but if he's just a nice to have off the bench? You can suddenly find yourself, as in tonight's game, looking at absolute blowout margins, because there's no benchie in the NBA capable of just taking over the game like he can.

Oh, and one final point about this... I don't harbor any illusion that Tyronn Lue is any kind of NBA coaching savant, or that he has to be to win with this roster against these opponents. There's every chance that if he goes against Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich, that he gets worked badly.

But what he does have going for him is strong buy-in from the Cavs in the here and now. When a James team is getting all cylinders firing on defense, you get a team that's putting James in transition, and that's unstoppable. It also limits the amount of stand around hero ball that they commit, and stand around hero ball is just about the only way this team gets bad on offense. By stressing tempo and simply Not Being David Blatt, Lue is far more effective, even if just in the short run, than you might expect.

I still don't think they are good enough to win the Finals, but I'm beginning to warm to the idea that the Finals may actually be, well, the Finals. Especially if Miami and Toronto go long -- there's not much chance the Hawks are making a fight of it -- or if the Heat suffer an injury, because every time Hassan Whiteside hits the floor, it's terrible. Usually rest doesn't matter in the Finals due to the crazed amounts of time off, but remember last year's series, where James had his team up early, before the Dubs went small and beat him down into paste. That was without Irving and Love, and with Smith getting starter minutes, rather than bench.

And if they keep hitting threes like they did tonight?

That Finals might go really long.

And really, really great.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Blazers Take Their Best Shot. The Warriors Cover The Spread.

If you were only to go off the final score in tonight's Game 2 win in Oakland for the home team, you'd think this was just another game for the best team in the Association, even without their MVP point guard. Which is why you really need to watch the games, even if you live on the East Coast and will spend the next day in your office circling the coffee machine, because, um, 1am and beyond.

For three quarters, the Blazers played their A+ game. They got out to a big early lead with the guys that you don't expect to hit big shots on the road, well, hitting big shots on the road. The Dubs closed behind the old-school height and mid-range game of Shawn Livingston, but couldn't get over the hump, because Portland kept countering with makes from the corners, controlling their turnover issues, and in the third, riding star PG and Oakland native Damian Lillard to a double digit lead. All night long, the Blazers kept getting friendly rolls on the rims, drawing fouls to stop runs, standing up when the crowd got loud, and in general, doing everything road teams do to steal a game. Especially with Stephen Curry out, taking advantage of the Warriors' sudden lack of margin was just essential.

Then the fourth quarter started. Warriors HC Steve Kerr, frustrated all night by the refs and his team's inability to maintain runs, went to reserve C Festus Ezeli, who D'd up and converted short makes off penetration. SG Klay Thompson finally got loose and got a few makes, and Lillard ran out of magic. With PF Draymond Green providing Rasheed Wallace levels of clowning and explosions -- honestly, the man told the opposing team to call a time out when the run finally got to a tied game -- the Dubs got the lead, then built it with a quickness at the close. Ball game, maybe the series, and just at killing speed. The signature moment was, to me, Green scoring off an inbounds and dunking like he was on a jungle gym. See it above.

I'm not sure what more the Blazers can do, other than be at home and relax, because no one expects them to win more than a game in this series. Maybe Curry comes back rusty, or Lillard can score against him without spending all of his energy before the close. Maybe CJ McCollum can turn things around in front of the home folks.

But this really felt like the Blazers' best game, and that what they really need -- Mason Plumlee to win his matchup against the Warrior bigs, or at least, not get destroyed -- isn't going to happen.

Because the Dubs are a lot more than Curry. Especially when Green is driving.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Picks: Joy In Repetition

We're knee-deep into the second straight week of Prince mourning, and I'm not sure when it's going to end, honestly. It's been way too long for me to listen to most of his tracks, just because he's not exactly indicative of most of my Pandora feed, and I never got around to duplicating the tapes with CDs and iPod tracks. His stance against the Internet also meant you weren't going to discover him in a random YouTube moment. So now that he's gone, and the lawyers seem less quick about taking everything down, I'm just playing him all the time, and trying to get past the grief. It's not really working so far. Give me another month or six.

Anyway... everyone knows what is going to happen in the lEast; the Cavs advance and LeBron James appears in yet another Finals. But that doesn't mean the hoop hasn't been very watchable, with nearly all of the first round match ups being clearly more fun to watch than the West. Who cares if they don't really matter in the title chase? As the best musician of his lifetime said, there's joy in repetition. Even on the tracks no one remembers.

And with that.. on to the picks!

Atlanta vs CLEVELAND

The case for the Hawks:
Can play at a very high level, especially when hitting from the arc. Balanced offense with good passing bigs. No one expects them to win his round, and they do have significant playoff experience, so it's really not outside of the realm of possibility that they just play free and easy and get deep. PGs Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder are fearless and tenacious, and could exploit the Cavs on defense. Like any team that hits a lot of threes, can explode on you.

The case against: Just not good at defense, especially in the back court and bench. Home crowd among the worst in the Association. Playing against the best all-around player in the world, and he's rested, healthy and at home. As with all balanced star-less teams, struggle when elite athletic teams turn up the juice on defense.

The case for the Cavs: Have the best three players on the court, which is almost always enough to win a series. At home, rested, and just loaded for bear. Don't panic when things get tight. LeBron James in the open court is the defining force of his generation. PF Kevin Love finally looks right in this lineup, and also seems like he's earned James and Irving's trust.

The case against: Are basically operating without a coach thanks to James throwing David Blatt under the bus. Aren't deep, and the bench players (Matthew Dellevadova and JR Smith) can brick them out of games. Bigs are erratic, and team lacks intensity, because they pretty much know that games before May don't really matter very much when you have James.

The pick: Cavs in five. I'm not sure if this is really a great LeBron James team, but they are healthy and firing on all cylinders right now, and have rest, home court and the best three players on the court. It's not going to take long.

MIAMI vs Toronto

The case for the Heat:
Just a different and better team with Joe Johnson in, and Chris Bosh out. PG Goran Dragic and C Hassan Whiteside in particular have improved in Bosh's absence. SG Dwyane Wade is playing his best ball in years, and while he isn't the athletic freak that he used to be, is just cagey as hell. SF Luol Deng is made for playoff hoop. Bench is deep and defensive, and they might have just beat a better team than the one they are playing in this series.

The case against: As seen in the Hornets series, don't defend the arc nearly well enough to hang with good shooting teams. Dragic can be exploited defensively, and Whiteside is foul and insanity-prone. Club has been snake-bit by injuries many times in recent years, which could easily crop up again, especially if the series goes long. Dependent now on young bench guys, who tend not to show up in road games, and they don't have home court in this round. If Bosh comes back, could be as much a hindrance as help.

The case for the Raptors: Balanced team with surprising athleticism. Might start playing with their hands off their throats, now that they've finally won a series. Hands down, best home crowd in the NBA. Focused enough on pump fakes and mid-range game to get some of the Miami bigs in foul trouble, which is going to be critical. When Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are on their game, can push past any team in the conference. Went 3-1 against the Heat in the regular season.

The case against: Barely escaped Game 7, with offensive sets that were just horrifying, which speaks to terrible coaching. Won't get the benefit of suspect officiating in a series with Wade. Don't have anyone inside that can compete with Whiteside, and the Heat can pound you inside. Long history of coming up small in the playoffs.

The pick: Heat in six. Which gives us the James v. Wade battle to go to the Finals that the world wants, even without the referee conspiracy theories that always crop up when Wade's drawing whistles.

Picks so far: 6-2.

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