Thursday, June 12, 2008

Friday's Starting Five

1. Ray Allen. The prohibitive favorite (in my mind) to be the Finals MVP had another big game last night as the Boston Celtics overcame a 24-point deficit to push the Los Angeles Lakers to the brink of elimination in the 2008 NBA Finals. Jesus Shuttlesworth scored 19 points (the same as Kobe), grabbed 9 boards, pocketed three steals, dished two assists and returned one shot to sender. In other words Ray had himself a ballgame. And, that play down the stretch, when he waved off Garnett (like his nemesis Kobe waved of Karl Malone so he could try to break down Jordan in the '98 All-Star Game) and then blew by The Boy Named Sasha and the entire population of Los Angeles county and got the ball to the rim? I didn't think he had it in him. I really didn't it. That play, that single moment, was the ballgame. And, Ray Allen won the moment, giving the Celtics a two-possession lead with less than one-shot-clock-length remaining. Done and done.

2. Eddie House. The House, The House, The House is on Fire. We Don't Need No Water, Let the MotherF%$ker Burn! Eddie validated Jeff Van Gundy's enthusiasm (he thinks it's very important that House spreads the floor and, unlike Rondo, forces the Lakers to defend all five players) for his court-time last night when he hit the go-ahead three-pointer for Boston with less than six minutes to play in the game. He played 25 minutes last night, mostly as combo guard charged equally with spreading the floor (too JVG's delight) and handling the ball, after playing only 91 minutes combined during the Celtics run through the postseason.

3. The Croatian National Football Team. Not since the days when Davor Suker was taking home Golden Boots from the World Cup and a young Croat-American surnamed Facini spent a high-school summer smoking his older sister's cigarettes while watching Days of Our Lives have the faithful fans of the football team hailing from the country that claims to have invented the necktie had such a glorious victory to celebrate! That previous victory, which propelled the checker-shirted Croats to a third place finish in the '98 World Cup, was over Germany. Just like yesterday's big surprise at Euro 08. Darijo Srna and Ivica Olic both got on the scorer's sheet with goals for the good guys (as the Germans, without explanation, are the "bad guys").

4. Austria. One of two host countries (along with Switzerland) for the Euro 2008 managed to keep hope alive by earning a draw with Poland thanks to an injury-time penalty. Their surprise goal at the death keeps the Austrian side from going the way of the other hosts, who have already been eliminated from contention. The Austrian draw combined with the German defeat means that Group B is still wide open. Or, at least it's not closed, yet. Next up for the Austrians is a matchup with a vengeful German squad. This is likely a two-teams-enter-one-team-advance affair with Germany heavily tipped for victory. Perhaps the home fans can spur the home team to victory?

5. Alexander Ovechkin. The precocious young Capitals' star took home the Hart Trophy, was awarded the NHL MVP. He was the first pucksmith to score 60+ goals in a single-season since Mario Lemieux pulled off the feat in 1996.

Benched. Kobe Bryant & Phil Jackson. If the Lakers do not manage a miracle comeback of their own in this best-of-seven NBA Finals against the Celtics then last night's loss will be a blot forever on the resumes of these two. All-Timers close games out. All-Timers don't blow historic leads (the Lakers 21-point bulge at the end of one quarter qualified for the record books before the Celtics redemption did) in must-win games. First of all, where was Kobe in the third quarter? He scored 4 points while his opponents whittled an 18-point lead down to a two-point margin. And, then, in the fourth he only made three field goals! And, secondly, Phil. Oh, Philsy. Remember in the first quarter? When Lamar Odom was dominating the game? Why couldn't you get him the ball in the second half? He scored only 2 points in the fourth quarter! How did you let Doc Rivers out maneuver you in the substitution department? He's Doc Rivers! And, you're supposed to be Phil Jackson. It seems like your not-calling-timeouts because-you're-going-to-let-your-teams-learn-to-play-through-it hubris has finally gotten the better of you. Last night you needed to grab this team by the shoulders and shake them until they woke up. But you couldn't do it. You couldn't even tell Kobe it was his time to take over. And, all he used to want to do is take over games. What happened to you two?

"A Boy Named Sasha"

(An oft-overlooked track from the Johnny Cash archives)

My papa left Slovenia when I was three
And he didn't leave much to ma and me
I was raised by Papa Smurf, Gepeto and Mufasa
Now, I don't blame him cause he run and hid
But the meanest thing that he ever did
Was before he left, he named me "Sasha."

Well, he must o' thought that is quite a joke
And it didn't help that he left us flat broke,
Depending on strangers, tu casa es mi casa?
Some folks would giggle and I'd get red
And some guy'd laugh but my defense'd get in his head,
I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sasha."

Well, I grew up tall and I grew up mean,
My hair got long and my shot got keen,
I'd roam from court to court to hide my shame.
But I made a vow to the Dream Team's stars
That I'd search the pick-up games and groupie bars
And kill that man who gave me that awful name.

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
From a worn-out Skybox card that my mother'd had,
And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye.
He was big and bent and greasy and old,
And I looked at him and my game went cold
And I said: "My name is 'Sasha!'!
I get picked last, after Mbenga from Kinshasa!
Now your gonna die!!"

Well, I faked hard right hit a jumper in his eyes
And he went down, he took the charge to my surprise,
He could flop with the best and he had the ref's ear.
But when the zebra turned around I put a 'bow in his teeth
And we crashed to the stands, Nicholson got out his seat
Kicking and a' gouging, rolling in sweat and the beer.

I tell ya, I've fought All-NBA men
But I really can't remember when,
He kicked like the Worm and had Stockton's guile.
I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss,
He went for his ball but I wrapped it up first,
He stood there lookin' at me and I saw him smile.

And he said: "Son, this league is rough
And if a ballers gonna make it, he's gotta be tough
And I knew the Zen Master wouldn't let me help ya along.
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you'd have to get tough or die
And it's the name that helped to make you strong."

He said: "Now you just played one hell of a game
And I know you hate me, and all the Lakers feel the same
To kill me now, or let me keep living as a dishwasher.
But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you "Sasha'"

I got all choked up and I let down my hair
And I called him my pa, and he called me his son,
And I came away with a different point of view.
And I think about him, now and then,
Every time I try and every time I win,
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him
Lamar or Pau! Anything but Sasha! I still hate that name!

Around the Internets

The bane of Buzz Bissinger's cranky LaRussa-loving existence delivers a stirring commencement speech, unasked for but potent, to the classes of 2008. It got me ready to conquer the world. Or, rather, it made feel not alone in being utterly conquered by it.

And, for those still in school or otherwise capable of enjoying the summer, PLAY (the super great sports magazine that occasionally shows up with the NY Times on Sunday) offers up a few kickass things to try and places to go this summer. I’m already psyched to go up to the Travers in Saratoga. Allegedly, Big Brown is running. Who’s in?

Even if the seedy horseman, racing form in hand and wet unlit cigarillo in mouth who used to run a place like Saratoga in the summer is an increasingly rare thing in this world, thefull-time hoops gambler is something rarer still.

Whether it’s Big Brown’s suspicious turn at the Belmont or Donaghy’s affect on NBA games it seems that there is corruption and disrepute everywhere. Except for the NFL, where the biceps of Ed Hoculi sweat justice.

Thursday's Starting Five

1. Portugal. Deco, the sexy Ronaldo (different from the fat Ronaldo) and co. have been playing the beautiful game at high level in the first round of the Euro 08 tournament being contested in Austria and Switzerland. The Portuguese powerhouse has won it's first two matches, becoming the first side to qualify for the next round. They are strong at the back (Carvalho) , creative in the middle (Deco and Moutinho) and terrifying up the wings and through to goal (Ronaldo).

2. Carlos Beltran. The soft-spoken and too often soft-hitting center fielder of the New York Metropolitans, by way of Puerto Rico, cracked a 13th inning walk-off home run last night to lift the Muts over the visiting Diamondbacks. Sounds Exciting. Right? Wrong. Even this team's highlights are depressing right now. After a sterling 8 frames of work by thus-far-underachieving-supposed-to-be ace-someday Mike Pelfrey, during which he outdueled actual ace Brandon Webb, the Mets handed the ball over to Billy Wagner with one man on and no out in the top of the ninth. The score was 3 to nil, Metsies (as Keith would say). The score was 3 to 3 by the time Wagner left the mound and my buzz (from several nice glasses of chianti with dinner) left me. Pelfrey didn't get the win he deserved. And, Wagner, formerly our most dependable player, blew another save. So, yeah, the Beltran homer was awesome but it won't be the lasting memory of the game. Which is weird and sad and sums up being a fan of this team right now.

3. Milton Bradley's Feelings. It was a big day for the inner thoughts, insecurities and emotions of the man leading the American League in batting average, raking at a .333 clip to this point in the season. Upon hearing a Kansas City Royals television announcer speak less than glowingly about him (there was a TV in the clubhouse) the Texas Rangers DH bolted for the home team's (the Rangers are on the road) broadcast booth to give this media fellow a piece of his mind and perhaps his fist. However, before Milton could confront the besmircher of his name he was himself confronted by his own team's General Manager, who proceeded to send Mr. Bradley back to his locker. Upon returning to the Rangers clubhouse, Bradley reportedly broke into tears and cried out, "I'm strong, but I'm not that strong" amongst other things. And then it got awkward.

4. Dan Uggla. Who plays more like Dan Ugly, as a certain novice heckler I know likes to say. Well, except for last night, when the second baseman for the Florida Marlins hit a walk-off grand salami to lead the Fins over the Phils in Miami. The blast was an absolute monster to left field. Uggla, likely an NL All-Star for the second straight year, led all second baseman last year in home runs (31), runs (113) and doubles (49). But, he's still got a funny name.

5. Gambling Scandals. Whether it's the infamous Black Sox scandal from the 1919 World Series or the impossible-to-believe point shaving incident with Tony from Western in Blue Chips, there is something wonderful, old-timey and larger than life about a full-on sports gambling scandal. And, it just seems awesome to me that we get to have one right now. To be honest, I haven't really had a chance to think too deeply about the significance of the Tim Donaghy referee-game-fixing brouhaha, but it feels like it's going to be a keeper. Like someday we're going to sit back and scrap-book this era. I can't wait until the Finals are over so we, as a basketball-watching public, can really dig into this. It's going to be FAN-tastic.

Benched. Games 1, 2 & 3 of the NBA Finals. They don't mean anything. Game 4 is all that matters. Everything hangs in the balance. The Celtics have woke up on the Left Coast for a few days now and should be acclimated. Paul Pierce should be over his home-town jitters and be ready to take it to the home-team. Unless of course he ends up in a wheelchair. Either way, this is the pivot point of the 2008 NBA Finals. If the Celtics win, they put a strangle-hold on the entire Los Angeles metropolitan area and have a realistic chance to win the Series in 5 games. Then Game 3 was an aberration, during which the Celtics almost won on an off-night. However, if they Lakers win then they have all the momentum and Boston hasn't won in close to a week. Then Kobe has likely been the best player for two night-games in a row, Odom and Gasol realized that you don't bring no ecto-kooler to an gin party (well, unless you're planning on drinking some fine ecto cocktails, but I digress) and the Lakers bench (led by the Boy Named Sasha) has become the strength everyone thought it would be before the Series began. Like I said, Game 4 is all that matters. Either way.