Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Finals Pick: Dreaming For Drama

Let's Get Predicting
Normally if I were faced with an NBA playoff series that has been this devoid of drama, I'd be carping about it, to be frank. There's not enough sports for my tastes around this time of the year, given that my tastes have gone away from baseball, and off-season NFL is just a cry for help... but the plain and simple of my life right now is that sports are only seen at the gym or at a bar, so there's that. My life is a rotation of sleep, work, gym for the weekdays, and the weekends just swap in other forms of work than the office. I'm lucky to keep my fantasy baseball team current, and watching hoop is more about timing than anything else.

So it's OK with me that we're going to see a 12-0 team face a 12-1 club, for the third straight year, with an interminable amount of time between the conference finals and the real ones. If it gives us enough time off to get Steve Kerr's back healthy and Kyrie Irving's ankles ok and Kevin Durant's knee as good as new, so much the better, really. What you really want to see after a post-season that's been eight weeks of Finals Already Please is a series that, unlike the Spurs losing Kawhi Leonard, goes off without asterisks and excuses.

And with that said, and my record in picking this spring a sparkling 12-2 (sounds more impressive than it is, since Picking Chalk could have gotten you in the same realm)... let's get into the nuts and bolts of the series.

The case for Golden State: Nearly won last year; only questionable officiating in suspending Draymond Green for Game Five and the performance of LeBron James' life kept them from repeating. Better in the starting five with Durant, of course, and now have more half court isolation options that work when things get super tight late. On the ball defense, especially at the three point arc, is the best in the Association. So is the home court crowd, and it might be the NBA's best hope for derailing the team when they move to San Francisco. PG Stephen Curry is playing the best ball of his last 16 months, and seems 100% healthy, if not as freakishly accurate from the arc; he might even be better now as a penetrator. C JaVale McGee gives them great energy moments off the bench, and many of the younger bench guys have been deadly, especially at home. If they aren't turning the ball over, they are scoring 30+ points per quarter, and they haven't been turning it over.

The case against: Warrior Fan doesn't want to hear this, and there isn't anything they can do about it, but they just haven't been tested very much for months and months now, some of which can relate to injury luck. Interim / Potentially Forever HC Mike Brown didn't exactly cover himself in glory the last time he was in the Finals, with James. The bench isn't as deadly as it used to be, with PG Shaun Livingston and SG Andre Iguodala in particular losing some effectiveness. SG Klay Thompson is still doing nice things on defense, but hasn't been nearly as good on offense; some clean looks that used to be automatic just haven't been, and it wouldn't shock me if it costs them dearly in the Finals. If you can beat them up on the boards and force turnovers, you can make them look mortal, and they can get bored with the lead. Green has loose cannon aspects, and can take himself out of a game; the Dubs can't win without him.

The case for Cleveland: James is the definitive player of this generation, and may be the best in the history of the game. He can win games with defense and passing even when his shot isn't falling, and when his shot is falling, it's absolutely unfair. His teammates get open looks all the time due to his gifts, and his decision making with the ball is among the best in the game. Irving gives them a great option in the half court especially, and when PF Kevin Love is making his shots and throwing long outlet passes, they go on big runs. SG JR Smith can carry the team for stretches, and bench gunner Kyle Korver seems to have found his niche and happy place with James. PG2 Deron Williams has also had a career rebirth in the past few months. Unlike every other team in the world, they have no fear of the Warriors.

The case against: HC Tyronn Lue is mostly a figurehead, and doesn't do a good job of conserving James by getting him off the floor when it would make sense. Defensively indifferent for long stretches, though not recently. When the 3s aren't falling, can look like they don't have any other ideas, and can be taken off the dribble, especially for Love and Irving. Don't have the deep paint scorers that can make the Warriors look bad, and also don't have home court.

The pick: I think everyone is just hoping for a long and dramatic series after the past few months of blowouts, and if this is short, it's just going to feel like a cheat... but honestly, it really could be. There's no guarantee this has to go long, especially if Cleveland steals home court and Brown panics, or if the Dubs come out like their usual house on fire and Thompson joins the party. That's now how you bet, of course, because the Association has shown more than enough ability to extend the Finals by any means necessary, but a single tweaked ankle could ruin things.

Having said all that... this Warrior team is better than last year's, and last year's was historic. Cleveland is just a little better; the Dubs are a lot, and Curry's much more himself this time around. But the biggest reason why the title goes back to the Bay Area this year is Durant. He's not as good as James, but the difference might not be drastic, and his 7-foot wingspan gives the Warriors a much better defensive presence than last year.

Warriors in six... though some part of me kind of wants to see them sweep and finish the playoffs at 16-0, just so we can maybe take Best Team Ever status away from franchises I can't stand. Besides, two less nights in the bar or gym is two less nights in the bar or gym...

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Spikes and Circuses

This is ok now, right?
So the No Fun League has decided that, after talking to ex-players who can still form sentences, that perhaps crapping all over post-touchdown emotions was, um, a poor idea. So now you get to use the ball as a prop, roll around on the ground, and celebrate with your teammates! Almost as if you were grown men with free will!

I hate to tell the powers that be how to do their gig, because some part of me would rather spend that time on acts of endlessly satisfying petty vandalism to their suits and cars... but, um, in the grand scheme of all that's wrong with pro football, the fact that you've been tightasses about spikes is about 50th on the list.

Here's a thought for matters of higher precedence: figure out what a catch actually is. Then explain it to the rest of us in ways that don't take an engineering degree or a background in interpretive dance. Then figure out what pass interference is, both on the offense and the defense. Then, miracle of miracles, call it consistently, whether it's on the road team, the home team, or the teams from New England and Dallas.

Got that taken care of? Great, now let's move on to the fact that you so underserve the market with an absurd amount of commercials, horrible games on nights that should never have football or or continents that don't have teams, and you don't relegate / promote to stagger games over the course of the year and create Real Drama at both the top and bottom of the standings. (The reason why you don't do this, of course, is that you are robber baron anti-capitalist thugs who secretly hate the free market, because the free market would take the utter and complete fish away from your table, and you wouldn't have a decade and a half of beating up on the Jets and Racial Slurs to prop up other franchises. You cowardly, cowardly tools. But I digress.)

Gotten rid of Terrible Night Football and the worst thing in the UK since Trump's last visit? Great, now let's move on to your broadcast crews, most of whom make decent people spit. I don't know anyone on the Earth who wants to hear a damned thing that Phil Simms says, and he might not even be the worst people working. (He probably is, but let's just avoid the wallow.) You routinely treat the audience as if it were as brain-dead as the ex-players, when in reality there's an enormous bucket of nerds who would happily stat out to all of the things they think about, especially if they've got a wager or six on the games.

Fixed all of that? Wow, you've had a busy day! Now you might want to move on to the rampant sexism and homophobia that permeates the place, the still-present racism that makes it unlikely for blacks to coach and spectacularly unlikely that they'd ever get the chance to own, the continuing thumb in the eye of decency that is the DC Team Name, the naked theft of teams from their markets...

Oh, but you don't actually want to fix any of that, do you, Roger? Because fixing any of that would take effort, and possibly money, and you are just looking for, well, empty gestures.

So by all means, spike the ball and dance, folks. It's the farthest the NFL is going to go to "fix" anything.

Because to them, nothing is really broken, or will ever be.

Must be nice to live in cocoon of money and privilege, right?

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Year When The NBA Regular Season Was More Fun Than The Playoffs

The Eater Of Hope
Tonight in San Antonio, Golden State ended any possibility that the Finals could be anything other than Cavs-Dubs in a ho-hum win over the Spurs. The home team actually led for brief moments in this game, which puts them in a relatively rare class of Dub playoff victims this year, and got a throwback game from 40 year-old Manu Ginobili, who can still ball, especially when his minutes are properly managed. But without downballot MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and his fragile ankles, the Spurs are something like -80 over 2.5 games, and there's no sign that trend is going to change, or that Leonard is going to return. If the series doesn't end on Monday, it will honestly be shocking. And having watched all of these games in public areas surrounded by Dub fans, I can tell you for a fact that they worried about the Spurs... not at all. You'd have thought Game 3 tonight was a February mid-week game, not Essential Win #11 on the road to 16.

At least the Spurs weren't run off their on court in a manner that made the second half pointless, the way the Cavs did the Celtics last night. TNT had hours to come up with comedy GIFs and did not disappoint, with my personal favorite being the Tom and Jerry paddling GIF where LeBron James spanked the Celtic leprechaun over and over and over again. It was the Celtics' 4th home loss of the year and one of the worst in their history, with star guard Isiah Thomas going down for the year, such as it is, with an injury. If Boston was seen as the lEast's best hope for dethroning the Cavs in the near term, such hopes are more or less DOA now, no matter what kind of bang they get from the #1 pick in the draft.

The Finals start on June 1, which is to say, in 11 days and 3 more crushing wins by the obvious finalists; these should wrap up by mid-week at the latest. And sure, those games will be epic and intense and likely feature the first match-up of 12-0 teams in NBA history... but that's not how the playoffs are supposed to work. We get 15 playoff series a year; 8 in the first round, 4 in the second, 2 in the third and 1 in the fourth... and honestly, there might be 3 this year (Celtics-Wizards, Jazz-Clippers, and Cavs-Dubs) that will be in the least bit memorable.

Compare that to the regular season, where we had 82 games of Russell Westbrook challenging Oscar Robertson, and James Harden maybe even having a better year than him. Thomas whipped the Celtics to the 1 seed. The Sixers had Joel Embiid for enough stretches of the season to be the most fun team in the league, mostly because he made them the best defensive units. The Wiz were strong in the second half and finally healthy in the back court. Miami almost made the playoffs after a terrible start. Utah had their best year since Stockton to Malone, and the Clips did their annual sucking in the fan base before getting hurt routine. Plus the Cavs and Dubs.

We're never going to get to a place where casual fans care more about the regular season than the playoffs; that would require a smaller playoff field and promotion / relegation.

But in terms of actually watching hoop with drama, games that didn't always have garbage time, and a general feeling that the whole thing was an unpleasant waste of time?

Well, the regular season was a better place for that.

And so long as the Cavs and Dubs are this much better than everyone else, it's not going to be the last time that happens, either...

Monday, May 15, 2017

The One Game Series

Today in Oakland, San Antonio started the Western Conference Finals like, well, how they ended the previous round. On fire, methodical, deadly with superior bigs, and just turning a dynamic offensive opponent into mush.

By the second quarter, they were doubling up the Warriors and holding a 25 point load. Oracle was dead, the announce team was pleading for some kind of run before the half to make the theoretical possible, and while things got a little better for the home team, it was still 20 at the break.

And then the series changed, and likely ended, with a turned ankle. The Spurs' downballot MVP candidate, Kawhi Leonard, who was having the best day of anyone on the court, landed awkwardly on a corner three, and had to leave the game. The Dubs picked up actual defensive intensity, and Stephen Curry joined Kevin Durant in the flow of the game. Draymond Green bounced back from his worst half of basketball in the playoffs. Slowly but surely, the lead eroded, until the Dubs finally took a lead late. And while it was still a one possession game at the close, and the home team never looked all that great or comfortable, it was still the result that everyone expected. Warriors 1, Spurs 0.

And I don't mean to put to much into this, because playoff hoop is all about putting too much into one game, but... it's hard to see the Spurs winning this series now, because this was so their game to have in Oracle. The Dubs were wildly out of pace and practice with court rust. Klay Thompson missed threes that I don't think he's ever missed. Durant and Curry looked utterly sympatico by the close of the game, and LaMarcus Aldridge has never been a good choice for go-to-guy, let alone go-to-guy because of injury. Sure, Patty Mills isn't likely to be this terrible again, and the Spurs are capable of bouncing back from any kind of early series loss, but there isn't going to be an easier game for them to get than this one.

As for the Dubs, they know they got away with a B game in this one, and that they've got major work to do to get back their air of inevitability after nearly getting punked in this one. But if Leonard's on the bench for any extended period of time, this series doesn't go five, let alone the Texas Way. The plus/minus from this game alone will tell you that, along with your own eyes.

Game Two is Tuesday, and Dub Nation will likely be a little late to start it, considering that national television is requiring a rush hour start time out here. Games cost an arm and a leg, so you'd think that people would just take the vacation day and be sure not to miss any of the game, but that's not how rich Bay Area people roll, honestly. Seven more wins for them, and you'll think the Bay Area took over the mantle of most hated fan base away from Boston...

But don't you believe it, because the real fan base -- who I observed in their natural habitat, which is to say in a strip mall sports bar less then five miles from the Orena, because that's where I'm living this week -- is still as bought in and leveraged out as always, because living out here means you just have to ignore income disparity as a survival skill. The fan base knows the Warriors are too good for them, and also know that the toothpaste is out of the tube for good, with the team leaving for SF in the near future. They won't lose anyone in the here and now because of it, but in the there and later?

Well, all eras end, and Curry and Thompson aren't the same players they were just a year ago, because the NBA is a meat grinder for, seemingly, everyone but LeBron James. Every team has a window, and the Dubs may have seen theirs stay open with the Game One comeback. Cavs-Dubs may seem and be inevitable, but for 2018 and so on? Not so much.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

NBA Conference Finals Picks

The case for Golden State: Home court, and will have three of the four best players on the court in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. As healthy as they've been all year, and with an 8-0 mark in the playoffs, probably playing their best ball. Durant gives them a bailout in half court sets when things get difficult, as if they didn't already have damn near unstoppable options in Curry and, when he's on his game, Klay Thompson. They are also getting some of the best ball of JaVale McGee's life, which gives them a safeguard if Green has foul issues. Bench has been much better lately, and the entire outfit has very high degrees of confidence and playoff experience. Extremely rested.

The case against: Losing head coach Steve Kerr for Mike Brown puts them at a disadvantage in the only place where they were already under the gun against the Spurs. Home court hasn't been as good as past years, because the faithful have become so used to domination. Green's histrionics aren't made better in the harsh glare of the playoff spotlight, and the backcourt has definitely slipped from their historic levels, particularly when it comes to percentages from distance. The eternal issue for this outfit is turnovers and indifferent play with a lead; both could come back to bite them in a game or two in this series. As good as Green and McGee have been, this team can be had against dominant big man offensive play. Might have rust in Game One from the long layoff.

The case for San Antonio: Utterly humiliated Houston, without their best player, on the road to close out the previous series. Could put a serious hurting on the Dubs with superior rebounding, especially if Pau Gasol turns back the clock for two weeks. LaMarcus Aldrigde is playing his career best ball, and Kawhi Leonard, especially if he's healthy, could (could) make Durant inefficient. This is definitely a team that's good enough to win a championship. Home court has been very good for them against the Warriors for many, many years. Have a winning record against the Dubs this year.

The case against: As good as the Spurs are, they just don't have top tier talent, especially in the backcourt. Losing Tony Parker to injury doesn't help, even if Parker isn't the player he used to be. There's a sense that their "A" game just isn't at the same level as other teams, and when they lose, they lose big. As good as Popovich is, at this level of the NBA playoffs, talent usually wins out... and the Spurs just aren't as talented.

The pick: If San Antonio is going to win this series, they are going to have to do it with a road win, and the layoff makes Game One their easiest target. It's far from impossible, and I honestly think that either of these teams will win the Finals. But home court and the Dubs margin for error are just too much to overcome. Warriors in six highly entertaining games.

The East: While we'd like to thank the Wizards and Celtics for providing some of the only entertaining hoop seen in the NBA in the past few months, it's all meaningless in the long run, especially with the Cavs (and LeBron James, who needs it the most) getting maximum rest.

The pick: Cavs in five.

Record to date: 10-1, need the Wizards to win Game 7 in Boston to go to 11-1.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sweep and Snooze, Fitfully

Dub Fan, Probably
So I'm back in the Bay Area for the first time in 11 years for work -- long story, not germane to sports, and also why post rate has gone down -- but it's put me back in the warm cocoon of the Bay Area. I can't tell you how great and powerful the weather is to make your day better and to make all of the shoddy real estate in the area tolerable, or how nice it is to be in a place where NPR is mainstream, rather than left wing...

But the purest moment of Bay Area Bubble? It's watching Warrior Fan in his native habitat.

You see, this is the only part of the country that thinks Kevin Durant is just the best, that Draymond Green is lovable, that Stephen Curry doesn't look kind of like a beautiful soul gone bestial with that weird little beard of his, that JaVale McGee isn't a career malcontent who is finally good now just to make the rest of the NBA gnash their teeth a little more in frustration. And so on. They aren't completely unaware that America rejoiced when Cleveland won last year, and thinks their beautiful hoop team are somehow the Monstars while also being the Globetrotters, but they forget about it easily enough.

It's also officially odd, I think, that the NBA playoff ratings are up this year, even with the paucity of close series. Everyone seems to be clearly aware that it's going to be Cavs-Dubs for the third time in a row, and that the Cavs have been playing possum for months now to conserve their energies... but that hasn't translated into folks tuning out of the games.

But what it creates, honestly? An utterly conflicted fan base. I don't have cable in my current living condition, which has meant that my game viewing has been in bars and gyms... and Dub Fan? Watches intently, but not with a great deal of passion, and wants to see his team as little as possible.

And honestly, do you blame them? The eight games of Blazers and Jazz have rarely been competitive, and Durant's knees and Curry's ankles and HC Steve Kerr's tragic back make every minute of every game a matter of Please Don't Get Hurt and End This Already. The Dub bench isn't as good as it was a year ago, and the entire year has been a waiting pattern for seeing what happens in June.

Which hardly seems like must-see TV, but the numbers say otherwise...

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