Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Lonesome Crowded West



A week ago, the NBA playoffs started, and it looked like the Cavs, indifferent to the point of absurdity since the All Star Break, were in real trouble. LeBron James was looking old and tired, the team wasn't bringing any heat on defense, and they weren't even the #1 seed.

A week later... they are the only team to sweep, Boston is in a 2-2 dogfight that's actually kind of miraculous, considering that the road team has won every game, and there next opponent (Milwaukee or Toronto) is going to have two, if not three, more games in front of them in a first round bloodbath. Even the Wiz, probably the best looking team in the East in the last two months, blew game 3 in Atlanta, and could be going deeper.

But all of that seems trivial compared to what's going on out West, where the finalist was expected to come out and roll the lEastern team, because the Western team always should.

Here, we've got the Warriors up 3-0... but only after a huge comeback, and with Kevin Durant having injury issues, and Steve Kerr maybe not even being well enough to coach again, um, ever. (Back surgery is a terrible thing, people.) On the off chance that you think that head coaches don't matter, um, change your mind on that, because the guy in that seat if Kerr can't go is Mike Brown now, and Mike Brown nearly kept James from making the Finals not so long ago. Any coach that can keep prime James out of the Finals is, honestly, a force that hasn't been seen in the NBA, well, ever.

But the West was supposed to be more than the Dubs, yes? Well, the Spurs are 2-2 with the ever-tenacious Grizzlies. Utah is 2-2 with the Clips in a series where it seems like both teams are going to shed themselves of all positive elements by the close. (The Clips have lost Blake Griffin Yet Again, while the Jazz have been dodging food poisoning for Gordon Hayward and a troublesome knee for Rudy Gobert.) Houston is up 3-1 on OKC, but only because OKC was too dumb for words in fouling decisions in today's Game 4. They should close it out in five, but that's a Mike D'Antoni team, and Mike's teams in the playoffs are never to be trusted.

So we're a week into the playoffs, and the good news? Six out of eight series are in serious doubt, and the actual games have been as compelling as ever.

The bad news?

Well, I don't know about you, but one of these years, there's going to be a Finals without James. And as a guy who respects the hell out of him, but has almost never rooted for his laundry?

Not really the bold and novel narrative you might hope for...

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rusell Westbrook: The New Iverson

Rage On
Last night in Game 2 in Houston, the visiting Thunder were playing a dramatically better game than the opener, and held a 12-point lead in the third quarter. Houston Rockets PG and MVP candidate James Harden couldn't put it in the ocean, the Thunder were closing out on three-point shooters like they were hungry dogs, and the Rockets couldn't get boards or transition looks against the bigger and burlier road team. It looked like playoff basketball, and Mike D'Antoni teams have a long and storied history of coming up small there, along with the usual prejudice against offense-first squads. The crowd was restless and nervous, and Russell Westbrook was the best basketball player in the world.

Then he took his rest, as he generally does because head coach Billy Donovan knows how to manage his resources, and the Rockets perked up immediately. A few threes went in, the crowd smelled blood in the water, and Westbrook lit angrily into his teammates and pleaded with his coach to let him back in. The lead was cut to manageable by the end of the third, and some part of me thought, "I've seen this movie before, and it doesn't end well for Iver... err, Westbrook."

There really isn't that much similarity between the two men, honestly. Iverson was an undersized shooting guard in an undersized point guard's body, and while he created an untold amount of offense in transition and from creating easy rebound opportunities for teammates from opponent double teams, he never put up similar assist or rebound numbers to Westbrook, and didn't have the same off the charts explosion and finishing ability. You could also, in his era of no zone defense, punish him in the post, the way that Mark Jackson did in multiple series losses to the Pacers. What AI had over Westbrook, in spades, was the ability to handle monster minutes and not have it effect his late play.

But there is one key similarity between the two men, and that's this: they are both trying to win basketball games, against the best players in the world, with wildly inadequate rosters... that actually get closer than you'd expect, because they have been built around their flawed but fantastic talents.

OKC without Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka should be a 40-win 8th seed and easy first round out. Stephen Adams is a good 2-way player, but he's turnover-prone in the block and has limited range. Viktor Oladipo is an athletic 2-guard, but his handle and shot are too suspect for routine starring minutes. Enes Kanter is a good post bench scorer, but indifferent at defense. Taj Gibson tries hard and is tolerable, but is best seen as solid bench. And that's, well, about it. Trying to win a playoff series with these guys in the loaded West should be impossible, and probably is.


But that didn't stop Westbrook, like AI before him, from lashing himself to the mast and charging into the fray. It got them to a 6th seed and a lead in last night's game, but with Westbrook pressed into extra minutes and no one else in his laundry willing or able to step up and make shots, the Thunder were doomed. To the stat sheet eye, he's an unconscionable gunner; to the actual game eye, he's trying to will these guys beyond their means, especially in the half-court. More tellingly, by the end of the game last night, he was spent beyond measure, and got to endure any amount of idiot takes about how Durant's better. (He might be, because Durant's 7 feet tall and can stop people at the rim, but that's beyond the point.) At the end of the night, Westbrook had a 50+ point triple double. But Harden and the Rockets had the win and the 2-0 series lead.

I suspect OKC might win a game in this series, because the Rockets can look bad when the jumpers aren't falling, and Harden isn't going to go to the line a couple of dozen times on the road, the way he did tonight. The NBA's predilection toward long series, suspicious officiating and complacent Game 3 road work is powerful, and Houston isn't filled with lockdown playoff veterans. But the road steal that they needed was last night, and you really got the sense that Westbrook knew it by the close.

One against five might make for great television, and a staple of karate movies. But it doesn't work in the NBA, and it certainly doesn't work four times out of five.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Meaning In Life

What's It All Mean
Today during the Golden State vs. Portland game, the ESPN crew, as it does with disturbing frequency, went into matters of Not Game. In this case, the tragic passing of Isiah Thomas's sister in a car accident yesterday, and how Boston's star guard was going to play despite his heavy heart.

To which color analyst Jeff van Gundy, in his usual role as Guy Who Knows Everything and has Higher Priorities Than You, said "Who cares?"

He wasn't trying to be disrespectful of what Thomas was going through, just that we shouldn't care about a game when such More Important Things were going on.

And, well, um, screw you, Jeff van Gundy.

We have no idea what's going through Thomas' mind during this time of grief. From watching him in tonight's tight Bulls-Celtics game, I suspect there was distraction during his bench minutes, but when he was on the floor, muscle memory took over. Chicago won behind a great fourth quarter from Jimmy Butler, and because Boston plays tight games all the time and so be it.

But what's really telling here is that in trying to be supportive, Van Gundy was as reductive and reactionary as anyone who wants to just tell Thomas to suck it up and play. Grief is personal, and private, and unique and unpredictable. It hits you in waves, sneaks up on you in odd moments, and isn't something you can really speak to if you aren't going through it.

Except, of course, when you are employed by ESPN, and are paid to speak about anything and everything, without regard to human decency or societal mores.

When you are employed by ESPN, you just go and go and go, with a hot take on everything, because that's what fits their terrible, terrible business model.

Here's what you should say about Thomas and his condition: as little as possible. Respect that the audience for Game is an audience for Game, and does not need, nor even appreciate, your efforts to make it about anything else.

We don't need you to tell us what's more important than all of that, really. We've made the choice to turn on the game, rather than go do yard work or parenting or emotional labor or cleaning or walking the dog or sleeping or any of the billion of other activities that we could be doing instead.

All of which might have more Meaning, because Meaning is where you find it.

And what you should be doing is to respect that choice, and COVER THE GODDAMNED GAME.

Because that is doing your job. You know, what Thomas did by playing today.

Honestly, why is this so hard for them to understand?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

NBA FIrst Round Playoff Picks

Boston v Chicago - Boston in five.
Cleveland vs Indiana - Cleveland in six.
Toronto vs Milwaukee - Toronto in six.
Washington vs Atlanta - Washington in five.
Golden State vs Portland - Golden State in five.
San Antonio vs Memphis - San Antonio in five.
Houston vs Oklahoma City - Houston in five.
Los Angeles vs Utah - Utah in six.

No time for details or defending the picks. Enjoy the games, everyone.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Most Important People In Baseball

The Best There Ever Was
Something struck me the other day, as I was driving back from yet another road trip in my full-on hustle to chase bucks between gigs (yes, why the postings here have gotten few and far between)...

Baseball *is* better on the radio, but only if the radio broadcast team is extraordinarily skilled.

Baseball on the radio just lets you do whatever else you need to do, honestly. Driving for hours, working in the yard, puttering in the work shop or any of the other myriad number of household tasks... all can be done to the fullest of your attention with the soft background of a ballpark where no one is really doing anything of importance, and yet, it doesn't feel exclusionary.

Basketball isn't *bad* on the radio, but if an athlete does something amazing -- and that tends to happen more than a few times a game -- you're cursing yourself for not having it on a screen. In baseball, a fastball strikeout looks a lot like any other fastball strikeout, and a home run looks a lot like other home runs; the outcome matters more than the actual event, and you can pretty much see it in your mind's eye, if you care to. Football on the radio just doesn't work at all, because the actual event is simply a rare event, and you care too much about the event to ever have it be in the background; every game is a de facto playoff event, and playoff events are just not background material.

Which brings us to what has happened to the Philadelphia Phillies in my lifetime, which is pretty much what has happened to any number of franchises. They've gone from legendary broadcasters with stylized performances to, well, jocks. And jock wannabees.

Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn were the voices of my childhood, and they were so good, you'd tune in to games during lost seasons just, well, to hear them. They didn't talk any more than they had to, and their moments of droll humor -- usually in relation to poor umpire performance, because they didn't have the modern illness of talking about things that were Not Game -- were devastatingly effective, because they were so rare and well-timed.

Kalas had a classic announcer voice, the kind that you could just imagine saying ordinary sentences for high hilarity, and when he was excited about something, it was infectious. Whitey Ashburn was just decent and droll and lovable, and much more prone to honest assessments of despair, which is to say that he was the true voice of the fan in a town where torture seems like a birthright. They mixed beautifully, and you felt like they were family, and not just family, but beloved family; the uncles you never got enough of, who made coming to the dinner table worthwhile. They worked the innings that you remembered, and I fully expect to spend the rest of my days, when I listen to Phillies games, missing them.

But part of why I miss them is that the current guys are, well, just meh. Tom McCarthy seems happy to be there and knowledgeable about the product, but he's just a guy, honestly; nothing memorable about him. Larry Anderson is the lead color guy and the living definition of why Funny Jocks aren't actually Funny, and he frankly irritates me with tired cynicism, because you are covering a game, you mook; mark out for it a little. Both guys avoid undue homerism and are professionals, so it's not a painful experience to listen to them, like you get with a lot of the regional broadcasts that you might catch on the MLB Network, but it's a long way down from legendary.

Baseball is the longest season and the most game, and my work situation may involve more exposure to games on the radio this year than I'd hope for, frankly. McCarthy and Anderson may grow on me; they aren't terrible human beings, and are clearly doing the best they can. But they aren't special, and baseball on the radio can be special. It's never easy to accept a lesser product.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Fantasy Sports Are The Worst

Punish, Sir, Punish
Not going to beat around the bush; it's a bad time for me. We're between gigs with no warning or even strong cause, getting the next one may or may not be pending and always takes a wildly longer time then you'd prefer, and keeping a positive attitude during all of that is, um, A Challenge. I spend about 100 hours a week doing work outside the home for a small percentage of my previous salary, and there's no medical benefits. This has been going on for about two months.

There are other issues at work here as well, but that's besides the point for this. Instead, we're going to talk fantasy basketball playoffs.

I know NBA hoop. It's pretty much all I've been watching, because working crazy hours usually involves passing out in front of the television for me when I am home, and changing the channel just seems kind of pointless. And in the midst of this waking nightmare, I've had one thing that has gone right: my fantasy basketball team.

I went all-in on Russell Westbrook this year; that's, um, worked out, with one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. I pursued a stars and scrubs strategy where every single guy that I went hard after (Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Goran Dragic and Blake Griffin) has played well over his career norms. I've surfed waiver wires to load up on under the radar multi-category guys who have logged more minutes than at any other points in their career (James Johnson, TJ Warren). I've stayed alert on injury news to grab next man up opportunities (Willie Cauley-Stein in Sacramento for Boogie Cousins, Tim Hardaway Jr in Atlanta for Kyle Korver). I've massaged my roster to make sure that I had maximum coverage for weekly success. It's been a great year.

This week, I've played against the third place team. I had a games advantage. If I were playing the other two teams on the other side of the bracket, I'd have won handily. With just one game left on the roster, my opponent needed a career game from an undersized rookie point guard to have any chance at all, and even if he got that, I had a guy in that game, too.

You know what happens next, right?

My guy (Warren) misses the game with flu-like symptoms. The PG (Tyler Ulis, from the Phoenix Suns; may he burn in hell for all eternity) faced a Houston Rockets team that had a half dozen guys out with injury and apathy issues, as Houston is pretty much locked into the third spot in the playoffs. Ulis is a 40% shooter for the year. Tonight, he shot 14 for 20. Ulis might be five inches taller than I am, and is facing a guy (Patrick Beverly) that's in the NBA for his defense. That's how little Houston has given a damn about this game.

Oh, and I've gotten to see every single second of it, because I'm fighting off a cold that's kept me from working today, and NBA TV has the game on as a special treat.

Final outcome? We tied in the playoff, thanks to one final make from Ulis. The playoff tie breaker appears to be the regular game matchups, which he won... 8 wins to 7, having tied once.

I'm out at least $120 from this, and maybe as much as $360.

From a single make from a rookie having the best game of his life, in a game that no one cared about.

Just. Freaking. Wonderful.

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