Friday, May 29, 2009

The NBA Playoffs: Where Tragedy Happens

“Show Me a Hero And I’ll Write You A Tragedy”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

There are 30 franchises in the NBA, 30 in the Major Leagues, 30 in the NHL and 32 teams playing in the NFL. That gives us 122 professional sports teams in this country’s four major sports. Each team has proud veteran players, talented young prospects, struggling journeymen and a legion of loyal fans. Each organization has one goal: a championship. 118 of those teams have failed or will fail in 2009. They will not win a championship. Some will lose small battles with such regularity that their larger failure — not winning a title — will mostly go unnoticed. Others will achieve many miniature milestones and seem perilously close to glory before coming up short. Sort of like the 18-1 Patriots in 2008. Or the Dallas Mavericks in 2007, who steamrolled through the regular season only to be shocked by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs.

Each brand of inadequacy tells a different story and falls into a different genre. The rollicking journey of the Matt Millen-era Detroit Lions is a farce. The heartwarming account of the Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling-led 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks is a romantic comedy. And the taught tale of near misses and squandered opportunity of the 1990s New York Knicks is a tragedy.
Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing is one of the 50 greatest players to tread the boards in an NBA game. He owns nearly every career record in Knicks franchise history. He has two gold medals and an NCAA championship. He has a degree from Georgetown University. He has amassed millions of dollars playing a game that he didn’t learn until middle school. Yet, he is considered a failure by some.

Many retired sports heroes find themselves draped in melancholy rather than championship banners. Their greatest victories always in semifinals and quarterfinal rounds and informed by the season-ending loss lurking just over the horizon. Their defining moments are defeats. These men are tragic figures. Their prodigious talents and Herculean efforts undone by their own incurable flaws or by circumstances that were beyond their control. Or by John Starks’s scene-stealing 2-or-18 monologue in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals. Increasingly encased in ice due to injury and enveloped by a reputation as a guy who couldn’t win the big game, Ewing’s suffering was performed nightly at Madison Square Garden for 15 years. His suffering was for our sake. It was meant to give us pleasure, even though we often ended up suffering right alongside the Big Fella.

For Aristotle, a tragedy had to be concerned with the deeds of great men. Greek tragedies featured kings and persons of divine or royal heritage. It was believed that only the suffering of someone so great could bring catharsis to a mass audience. Some modern tragedians attempted to place the common man at the center of a tragedy. In today’s royal-less world, though, professional athletes are commoners become kings. Perhaps most notably, the 24-year-old Adonis from Akron dubbed "King James" of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The dramas of professional athletes — televised by ESPN, TNT and allegedly VS with a pomp and circumstance befitting monarchs — compose today’s tragic canon. The elegiac accountings of the Boston Red Sox pre-2004 championship drought have replaced King Lear for two generations of Americans as the standard for woe. Entire cities rise and fall with their respective sports franchises just as they once did with their potentates. Local economies are propped up by playoff runs and civic pride is buoyed by banners in the rafters. To watch the fans celebrating the Cavs Game 5 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night in Cleveland was surely to witness a mass catharsis. Those Midwesterners were purified by what the Lebronaliers accomplished last night in Cleveland. And, just as completely, they will be devastated if their team is eliminated by the Orlando Magic in Game 6 or 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The feelings of sorrow and angst would be extreme in Cuyahoga County. Past defeats would mingle with future ones in the minds of many.

Likewise, a season-ending defeat for any of the other three teams still competing for the NBA championship would be just as devastating. For the first time in a long time, each of the semifinalists for the Larry O’Brien trophy has a legitimate claim to being the Association's top team. There will be no moral victories this season. No one is happy just to be here. There will be just one happy ending. Three teams and three cities will feel the weight of this loss as heavily as Atlas feels the weight of this world on his shoulders. Television cameras will beam pictures of three sets of tearful fans and despondent hoopsters around the country. Loss will be felt keenly by three cities, who will incorporate the defeats into their self images. It will become a part of who they are. It will become a part of the story that they tell about their lives and the life of their city.

With this in mind, I have paired the Cavaliers, Magic, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets with the piece of tragic literature that best exemplifies the way they are likely to lose and the particular way in which they got to this point. Check back over the next few days as I break down, character by player, the ways in which each of these teams is an uncanny simulacrum for these tragic tales.*

The Cleveland Cavaliers
Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller









The Orlando Magic
Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles





The Los Angeles Lakers
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare








The Denver Nuggets
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand


*Yes, I know that there is an argument to make that the final scene of Cyrano keeps it from being a tragedy. I disagree. Cyrano never got the girl. He never got over his feelings of inadequacy and never saw himself for the swashbuckling ladies’ man that he could have been. Even if Roxanne puts together the pieces, it is only after Cyrano is nearly dead and after dusk has fallen - meaning that she couldn't see his face. It is sad. And a tragedy. For the sake of the Nuggets write-up you’re just going to have to go along with me. Or not.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Eight is the Second Magic Number

Knicks Land Eighth Pick in 2009 NBA Draft

In nuclear physics - the field of physics that studies the building blocks and interaction of atomic nuclei - the number 8 is considered the second magic number. Contradicting the doctrine of De La Soul, the first magic number is 2 as opposed to 3. A number is considered magical if it denotes an amount of nucleons (either protons or neutrons) that are arranged into complete shells within the atomic nucleus. As of 2007, the numbers most widely considered magical were 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82 and 126.

Somewhere in the wilds of Secaucus, N.J., in a room dubbed the "NBA Entertainment Studio," it was determined through the bouncing of ping pong balls that the New York Knicks will select eighth in the 2009 NBA draft. This is the slot in the draft order that the Knicks were most likely to get. Mathematically. Given that they had the eighth-worst record in the NBA last season. And, since math and physics are like cousins, I think, then it is possible that there is something positive (not in an electrical charge sense, obviously) about having such a magical spot in the order. Perhaps it will work out.

ESPN.com's Chad Ford has the Knicks selecting Davidson combo guard Stephen Curry, even though he ranks UCLA point guard Jrue Holiday as the eighth best player available. All the talk about town for months has been about Curry. Now is when everything gets interesting.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday's Starting Five

1. The Houston Rockets. Dylan Thomas would have been a Rockets fan if he were still alive and sober enough to tune his television. As would Captain Kirk (as depicted in the reboot of Star Trek) if he were real and had found himself worm-holed back to 2009. With the unlikely Felix-and-Oscar tandem of Shane Battier and Ron Artest leading the way, the Rockets have not admitted defeat in a seemingly impossible situation - playing without the club's top two players against the league's most talent-rich roster - and have not gone gentle into their seemingly inevitable good night. Trailing, 3-games-to-2, and assured of moral victory, the Rockets won Game 6 in convincing fashion in a bid to achieve actual victory, as well. Kobe Bryant was not pleased. Neither was the die-hard Lakers fan who lives with me. Houston played with verve and vision from the opening tip and stormed to a 21-3 advantage. From there, they held off the comeback bid that came (this time) in the second half. The Rockets withstood the charge. I didn't think they would. I'm pretty sure that Phil Jackson didn't think so either. But they did. The odds are long that the Rockets will make good in Game 7 in Los Angeles but this team has taught us all a few things. About themselves. And about the Lakers. I'll be rooting for them. Quietly, though, so as to not upset the Lakers fan I'll likely be watching the game with.

2. Dwight Howard. Perhaps inspired by their WWOD benching from earlier in the week, the Magic forced a Game 7 by winning last night in Orlando. Howard, in particular, needed a big performance in his team's do-or-die Game 6 in order to quiet his critics and back up of his own criticism. A few days ago, he joined Shaq in publicly calling out Stan Van Gundy's endgame coaching techniques. Superman demanded the ball. He wanted to show off those post moves that he may or may not actually possess. And that may or may not have been passed down to him by Patrick Ewing. Last night, D12 got the ball. He got it from teammates and scored to the tune of 23 points. He got it when it was caroming off the backboard or rim to the tune of 22 rebounds. 10 of those rebounds were at the offensive end. On defense, he blocked three shots and altered several more. It was a complete 20/20 performance. And there shall be a Game 7.

3. Rajon Rondo. Yes. I know. His team lost last night to the Magic. And, said loss does not bode well for his team's defense of the 2008 NBA championship. But, this was not for lack of trying by Rondo. The not-so-secretly cutthroat point guard out of Kentucky paced his team in points (19), rebounds 16), assists (6) and steals (4). He dropped in a 9-footer to pull the Celtics even with just under four minutes to play. The Magic, however, would outscore Boston 8-0 to close out the game.

4. Detroit Red Wings. They play hockey. And, have earned the right to continue doing so in a meaningful manner for the next fortnight. Congratulations.

5. Cal Ripken, Jr. The exemplar of consistency and dependability in baseball was, for a long time, Ripken. In 1995, he set that record for the most consecutive games played. He kept on keeping on even after he got too old to play shortstop and too old to be playing every day. Eventually, in 1998, he voluntarily pulled his name from the lineup. The Maryland-born Ripken had played in 2,632 straight games for the Baltimore Orioles. He had grown up and grown old before our very eyes. He had notched more than 3,000 hits and 400 home runs. He played in 19 All-Star Games. During his final appearance at the Midsummer Classic, in 2001, there was a touching moment when Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez swapped infield spots with Ripken to allow him to play shortstop one last time. It was touted as a classy passing-the-torch moment for both players and even commemorated in this priced-to-own commemorative photo available at MLB.com for a paltry $599.99. I find myself enjoying this image today because Ripken has publicly questioned A-Rod's motives for taking steroids and has informed the wider world that he's going to personally get to the bottom of the situation. It seems safe to say that this photo is no longer hanging up in Cal's rec room.

Sixth Man. DMX. The man from Yonkers who brought you "Get At Me Dog" and "Keep Your Shit the Hardest" was released from an Arizona prison yesterday. I'm not totally sure which of his exploits landed him in the penitentiary, but I do know that his stay was extended thanks to a food dispute with a guard.

Benched. Syracuse Graduate School Admissions Department. You let in Greg Paulus? Seriously? I know he (sort of) went to Duke as an undergrad but in today's climate, when so many out-of-work folks are looking to graduate school as a safety net, you gave a coveted spot to a college basketball player hoping to try his hand at college football?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday's Starting Five

1. Malcolm Gladwell. Despite his credibility with the pointy-headed PhD and tweed jacket set, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers frequently weighs in on the sporting life. His latest article in The New Yorker examines the best strategies employed by Davids when squaring off with Goliaths. His answer? The full-court press. Essentially Gladwell posits that superior effort and a willingness to disregard convention/custom offers an underdog it's best chance to beat superior talent. To explore this notion, he sits down with hoops coach Rick Pitino. There's a lot more to it than this but it's a great read. Also worth checking out is Gladwell's conversation with ESPN's Bill Simmons. The pair exchange emails about everything from Inliers, a possible sequel to Outliers, to whether Jason Kidd would be eligible to play for the All-Time White All-Stars in a hypothetical basketball match against the All-Time Black All-Stars. After all, J.J. Barea isn't going to defend Magic Johnson.

2. Sid the Kid. Is he? Or isn't he? He was. But maybe he's not any more. The book on 21-year-old Sidney Crosby was that he didn't have the charisma to be the superstar in the NHL. He wasn't supposed to have the fire, the arrogance or the stage presence to play at his best when everything was on the line. Well, it's time to re-write the book. The Kid netted two goals and added an assists as the Pittsburgh Penguins topped the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. In the first Game 7 of his career, Crosby bested Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to advance.

3. The Denver Nuggets. The second-best looking team in the 2009 NBA playoffs, has punched their ticket to the Western Conference Finals after brushing aside the Dallas Mavericks, 4-1 in the best-of-seven series. Carmelo Anthony looks like the player that we all thought he could be when he was sharing magazine cover space with Lebron a few years ago. Chauncey Billups looks just as poised as ever did when he helped the Pistons to an upset win over the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. Kenyon Martin seems every bit as explosive and douchy as he was in his pre-microfracture prime with the Nets. As of now, my best-case Finals features 'Melo and LBJ battling for seven games.

4. Charles Barkley. This week he's called on Jason Kidd to retire and repeatedly picked the Denver Nuggets to win the NBA championship. Which means, that after all his personal travails, the Chuckster is back and calling them like he sees them as part of TNT's studio crew. He's saying things that sound a little crazy. Until ten minutes later, when you totally agree.

5. The Oranges of Wrath. Displaying talent of a subtler shade than the color of their shirts, the Oranges of Wrath inauspiciously debuted last night in the WORD Bookstore Hoops League. Trailing (approximately) 9-0 after one quarter and losing (definitively) by a more lopsided score, the OW are nonetheless a team to watch. The mix of moxie and misanthropy (and "elbows" according to one unnecessarily surly opponent) displayed shows that they have the potential to really develop into something special as the season matures. Like the Beavers of Beacon Town High School in Teen Wolf, the Oranges of Wrath seem destined to parlay an early-season blowout loss into late-season glory. By way of werewolves. Needless to say, this team's end-of-season party will certainly feature one keg of beer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wednesday's Starting Five

1. The Los Angeles Lakers. After a patriarchal undressing on Mother's Day, the Lakers regained control of their second round playoffs series with the Houston Rockets. Basketball's most talented (but not most insatiable) club rolled over the Yao-less Rockets in Game 5, taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Kobe - playing shockingly like a superstar - paced the winning side with 26 points. He went for 12 in the first quarter as Lakers jumped out to an 11-point lead. They never looked back from there - playing with the sort of purpose and determination that, while commonplace for Cleveland and Denver - has been a rarity for Phil Jackson's squad. The purple and gold team entered the fourth quarter with a 40 point lead. They maintained that margin right through to the final buzzer.

2. Carlos Beltran. With all due respect to Albert Pujols, Beltran is the best player in the National League right now. He makes playing center field at the expansive Citi Field look so easy that you don't always notice that what he is doing is so hard. And, at the plate, he is locked in. He carried the Metropolitans to their eighth win in nine games. With his club trailing the Braves by a run entering the ninth on Tuesday night, Beltran led off the frame with a double to left. The Metsies were alive. After David Wright popped out, Fernando Tatis was hit by a pitch. Beltran moved over to second. But with the bottom of the order coming up. It seemed that the distance from second to home plate was a mile if it was a foot. So, Beltran took off for third. Sliding in just before (or after, depending on which replay angle you watch) Larry Jones' tag. Safe! Luis Castillo, against my prediction, was able to loft a ball deep enough to the outfield for Beltran to tag up and come home with the tying run. One out later, we were all treated to some free baseball. In the bottom of the tenth, Beltran strode to the dish with the bases full of runners. There were two outs and the Braves pitcher had walked two straight after allowing Jose Reyes to start the rally with a two-out double. Patiently, Beltran waited. With a full count, he barely flinched as the fourth ball popped the catcher's mitt low and away. It was close. Close enough that most players surely would have either attempted to foul it off or just pounded it into the ground for a frustrating out. Beltran didn't. The calm confidence that is often mistaken for apathetic arrogance enabled him to trot down to first as Jose Reyes bounded home with the winning run.

3. Roy Halladay. The doctor was in last night at Yankee Stadium. Doc Halladay went the distance in defeating the Yankees and his former teammate A.J. Burnett. It was the 41st complete game of his career and his first of the 2009 campaign. The righty from Denver allowed five hits and one run over the nine frames that he tossed. The Blue Jays won, 5-1.

4. Ryan Zimmerman. More than the home run or the no-hitter, the hitting streak is the most baseball-ish of achievements. Because it's about the grind. It's about repitition and consistency. Like baseball. It's about playing each day. In the cold. In the heat. In front of sell-out crowds at Fenway Park. And in front of dozens of disinterested spectators at Nationals Park. That's why Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak will never lose its luster. Well, unless Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman catches him. With his two singles against the Giants on Tuesday night, Zimmerman has extended his hitting streak to 30 games.

5. Anaheim Ducks. After riding a season-ending hot streak into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Ducks continue to cause trouble for the NHL's elite teams. With a win in Game 6, Anaheim has forced the heavily favored Detroit Redwings into a win-or-home pairs skate later this week. These are the same Ducks that previously ousted the President's Cup-winning San Jose Sharks (the President's Cup is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points). The pluckiness of this underdog side almost makes me forgive the franchise from moving away from the color scheme and designs of its namesake series of films.

Sixth Man. Stephon Marbury.
And, coming off the bench in Thursday's Starting Five is the pride of Coney Island and purveyor of affordable footwear. After playing in round 1 of the playoffs with the fear that he used to instill in opponents at the Garden (and I don't mean Madison Square, I mean the asphalt court on Coney Island), Steph got his groove back. And put the Celtics on course for the Eastern Conference Finals. I barely watched this game because A) Beltran and the Mets were staging a comeback in Queens; B) For whatever reason, this series just hasn't captured my attention the way that others have. C) Whenever I would pop over to TNT to check the score, it looked like the Magic were cruising to a 8 to 12 point victory. But then a 12-point outburst from the outcast from Ocean Parkway (also known as the bane near Brighton Beach) woke up the defending champs. His early fourth quarter explosion energized his teammates and turned the tide of the game. Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy referred to Marbury as "the key to game" in his postgame comments.

Benched. The Orlando Magic. The were so close. There are those who say that Game 1 is the most important game of the seven-game series. Others who speak up on behalf of Game 2. And even a healthy crowd of Game 3 partisans out there. For me? It's all about Game 4. Someone is winning 2-1 at that point. And the swing from 3-1 to 2-2 is, for my money, the most dramatic. The Magic entered Game 4 of their playoff series with the defending champion Celtics leading 2-games-to-1. They had the Eastern Conference Finals in their sights. And they let it get away in Game 4. And, then in Game 5 they watched as a double-digit fourth quarter lead evaporated. From a 2-games-to-1 lead to a 3-games-to-2 deficit in two easy steps.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tuesday's Starting Five

1. Dirk Nowitzki. Last night, he played like the guy that nearly, almost carried his team to the 2005 NBA title. Although it won't last long, the Mavericks staved off elimination on Monday night at home thanks to an inspired performance by the finest hoopster the mean streets of Wurzburg have ever produced. The Mavs' leader played aggressively (no three point shots and nearly 20 free throw attempts) and went at the rim. He scored 19 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter. He was poised and seemed, for the first time in the series, unfazed by the physicality of Kenyon Martin and the rest of the Nuggets front court. Perhaps because recent events have reminded him that he's not so soft himself, having slept with women more dangerous than K-Mart.

2. The Cleveland Lebronaliers. And, they're through to the Eastern Conference Finals. That was easy. Eight playoff games. All wins. Most of them not even tightly contested. I can't really remember a team since the early 2000s Lakers that outclassed opponents by such a degree in the early goings of the playoffs. They are the team to beat right now in the East. And, seemingly, in all the land. Lebron James is the most valuable player in the National Basketball Association. In every sense. He scores (32.9 in the playoffs). He passes (6.8 assists per game). He rebounds (9.8 rebounds per game). He defends (2 steals per game). He leads the cheers on the sideline when Mo Williams wins a jump ball (once). And, I even discovered the other night that he's got a cocktail named after him: The Lebron Bomb.

3. The Chicago Blackhawks. While the Detroit Redwings are enmeshed in the downy softness of the upstart eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducklings, the Blackhawks somehow became the "team to beat" in the Western Conference. I put that phrase in quotes because I don't entirely believe it. It's sort of like the "importance of Andrew Bynum." I know that people talk about both things and that there is some empirical evidence that those espousing such theories can marshall. But I'm not entirely sold. Although, I'm closer to buying what the Blackhawks are selling. They knocked off Vancouver in six games and are resting up while their dance partner in the Western Conference Finals emerges from a scrum. In hockey, I always believe in rest over rust. Which means that I don't entirely disbelieve in Chicago. Which is an endorsement of Wayne Campbelll's favorite squad. I think. Game on.

4. Derek Lowe. One of just three pitchers to have a 20-win season and a 40-save season on their resume and the only hurler in Big League history to notch the victory in the clinching games of the division series, league championship series and World Series, the groundball machine outdueled Johan Santana on Monday night in Queens. Or, more accurately, he defeated the Mets. I mean, Santana didn't allow an earned run - to lower his NL-leading ERA to 0.78 - which makes it hard to say that he was outdueled. He did still lose to Lowe, who scattered five hits over six and two-thirds innings at Citi Field. Lowe surrendered two runs to the Metropolitans. Who in turn gifted five runs to the Braves. Lowe is 5-1 on the year, has a win over Johan and certainly looks to have been a wiser offseason acquisition than Oliver Perez.

5. Newcastle United. The proper football covered in this space is usually concerns the Champions League or the top clubs in Europe. Which means that Newcastle hasn't gotten many mentions. But with Barca not sewing up La Liga at the weekend, the most exciting result belongs to the Magpies. Thanks to scores from two second-half substitutes, Newcastle topped Middlesborough and likely avoided relegation from top-flight English football. And relegation is when the bottom three finishers in the English Premiership are dropped down to a lower league at the completion of the season and replaced by the top three teams in that league. The aforementioned Middlesbrough, Hull City, and West Bromwich Albion are currently in the drop zone. This tradition makes the season's conclusion exiting at both ends of the league table.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Monday Mudita

Monday's Starting Five

1. The Big Baby. The barrel-chested big man from LSU saved the Celtics from certain elimination. Right after he almost pushed them over the edge. Which was shortly after he appeared to have saved them the first time. All in all, it was a wild final minute for Glen Davis in Game 4 of the second round series between the Celtics and the Magic. He nailed a 15-footer with 32 seconds to play to nose his team out in front by one point, 93-92. But then he fouled Rashard Lewis with 17 seconds remaining. And, after Lewis sank both free throws to edge Orlando ahead, 94-3, the Big Baby dropped a 20-footer in as time expired to give Boston the crucial Game 4 win. The best-of-seven series is even at two games apiece.

2. Aaron Brooks. The Houston Rockets second-year point guard is hard-charging after the former New Orleans Saints QB to become the first "Aaron Brooks" that turns up when you search for that name on Wikipedia. He's not quite over the top yet, but after yesterday he's got to be darn close. During his high school days, Brooks faced off against Adam Morrison in the Washington state finals. He scored 38. Morrison scored 37. Brooks won. While playing at the University of Oregon, Brooks knocked down a game-winner against top-ranked UCLA. He led his side to a Pac-10 tournament title. Before he got them to a Regional Final in the NCAAs. He can play. And he's got a track record of rising to big moments. Yesterday was no exception. With the Rockets reeling from the news that Yao Ming was lost for the remainder of the postseason with a broken foot, Brooks came up bigger than seven feet and six inches. Brooks scored a career-high 34 points in Houston's shocking Game 4 demolition of Los Angeles. He netted 17 in the third quarter and single-handedly quashed the LA comeback that everyone assumed was coming after Shane Battier's three-point shooting had sparked Houston to a large first half advantage. Brooks never let up and his team is dead-even rather at 2-2, rather than Yao-less and in an insurmountable 1-3 hole.

3. Cito Gaston. If I was running the Toronto Blue Jays organization there is one thing for certain that I would know about my franchise. And, this solitary piece of information would likely enable me to keep my job forever. The fact? When Cito Gaston is the manager, this club wins. This is the guy that helmed the club to back-to-back world championships in the early 1990s and then was returned to his post prior to this season. The Toronto franchise has reached the postseason five times since its inception in 1977. Gaston managed three of those clubs. The Jays have captured two pennants and two World Series crowns. Those all belong to Gaston. After finishing last season in fourth place in the AL East, the Jays are currently in first. Because Gaston is in the dugout. It's actually pretty simple. Oh, the guy also isn't shy with his less-than-stellar opinion about Roger Clemens. Which makes him even more likable in my book blog.

4. Stephen Curry. The most electrifying player two NCAA hoops tournaments ago is allegedly heading to the New York Knicks, if the Knickerbockers ends up with the No. 8 pick, in the draft (which is what their eight-worst-in-the-league record should net them). The scoring guard would seem suited for Mike D'Antoni's run-n-gun offense and would give the Knicks a true shooter for the first time since Allan Houston was in his prime. Which was a while ago. All bets and back-room promises are off, though, if the Knicks get lucky on draft night as the Bulls did last year and are able to hop a few of the worse-off clubs in the Association. Because the Knicks wouldn't take him, I think, with a top five pick. I'm sure it also doesn't hurt Curry's draft stock that he is tight with LBJ, who had his boys at Nike print up a bunch of those "Witness" shirts during Davidson's 2008 tourney run.

5. The Metropolitans. It's been more than a week since they lost a baseball game. I was there in Philly that day. And what a loss it was. But since Sean Green walked in the winning run in the 10th against the Phillies, the Mets have rolled off seven straight wins. They've climbed over .500 and into first place. Although it's worth bearing in mind that the three most recent wins came against the lowly Pirates, you can't ignore that the first four came off the Braves and Phillies.

Sixth Monster. Monty. He's back. The return of sea monsters is quickly becoming as synonymous with summer as the music of the local ice cream truck.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wednesday's Starting Five

1. Lebron James. The first quarter of last night's Hawks at Lebronaliers game showcased why Lebron James is the 2008-2009 NBA MVP. And why Kobe Bryant is not. While Kobe's johnny-come-lately faux selflessness often consists of him reigning himself in during the "meaningless" early stages of a game, LBJ comes out with chalk flying and guns blazing. He doesn't force his teammates to take shots in the first quarter. He challenges them to keep pace with him. And, that is leadership. It's also how you win playoff games against good teams. LBJ opened the scoring in last night's second round series-opening game against the Hawks with a dunk. He went on to score 16 of his team's 25 first-quarter points. He scored 34 points through three quarters as CLE built a 16-point bulge heading into the final quarter. The King didn't even need to attempt a shot in the fourth as Cleveland cruised to a 99-72 victory.

2. Carmelo Anthony. His relative anonymity might have something to do with his address in Denver. It might have something to do with his previous hair style. Whatever the season, Anthony doesn't get the credit he deserves. Leading 1-0 in their series with the Mavs, the Nuggets held a three-point lead heading into the fourth quarter of Game 2. When sneakers squeaked their first fourth quarter squeaks on the hardwood, this game was still up for grabs. And that's precisely when the No. 3 pick in the heralded 2003 draft class grabbed it. Of the first 13 points scored by either team in the fourth quarter, 'Melo had nine of them. Two each were scored by a teammate and an opponent. Thanks to Anthony, the Nuggets' lead had ballooned to 12 points in less than four minutes. And the game was won shortly thereafter.

3. The Boston Red Sox. Last weekend they swept the Yankees at Fenway. This week they swept them in the new Yankee Stadium. Next week? The Sox plan on taking three of the three from the pinstripers on the moon. Sitting at 17-10, they have the second-best record in the American League (behind the Toronto Blue Jays). The starting rotation has 12 of the team's 17 wins and Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis and Mike Lowell each has a +.300 batting average and more than 20 RBI.

4. Manchester United. The Red Devils defeated Arsenal yesterday to advance to the UEFA Champions League Final for the second straight season. They built upon their 1-0 lead from the first leg and won the two-game affair with relative ease, given the class of the opposition. It was a heartbreaking defeat for Arsene Wenger's young gunners. And even gave an Arsenal supporter cause to hang himself. United will meet the winner of today's Chelsea/Barcelona contest in the UCL Final.

5. The Los Angeles Dodgers. Last night's 3-1 victory over Diamondbacks in Chavez Ravine ran the Dodgers home record to 12-0. This ties the 1911 Detroit Tigers for the best home start in Big League history. Those Tigers had a guy named Ty Cobb. These Dodgers have a guy named Manny Ramirez. Both are polarizing figures. And both are among the greatest to ever play this bat and ball game. Sporting a Big League-best 20-8 record, LA already has a 5.5 game lead in the NL West and looks likely to steamroll their way to the division crown. In spite of the time zones, it's getting late early out west.

Benched. Brett Favre. Seriously? This guy's retirements are less dependable than my promises to post on this website each day. I think that we, collectively as football fans, gave this guy the benefit of the doubt when last season began. We blamed the Packers management for much of the offseason weirdness. And tried to pretend that he was coming back because of his love for the game rather than to prove a point to his old boss. Even non-Jets fans got behind his return. We all tried to believe that he hadn't been reduced to another pitchman for mediocre blue jeans. But, ultimately he let us all down (although the Jets did a good job of getting our hopes up in the first half of the season). And then he retired again. As a Jets fan, I didn't even want him back after the way last season ended. Not because I didn't think he was as capable as Kellen Clemens or Bret Ratliff - the Jets other options at the time. I didn't want him back because he's clearly just playing for himself. And that doesn't work in the long run. At some point in a winning season, players must dig deeper than is comfortable and/or be willing to sacrifice some of their ego for the sake of their teammates and fans. Brett Favre no longer seems capable of those things. He's playing for himself. When thinking of him as just another a middle-aged member of the American work force, I applaud his willingness to keep accepting pay checks as long as they're being offered. When I think of him dominating the airwaves of ESPN and sports radio and being under center for my football team, I just want him to go away. And not go to Minnesota, where he is rumored to be headed to play next season. Favre's myopic me-first view of the NFL has even worn thin on the some of the folks at Sports Illustrated.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tuesday's Starting Five

1. Carlos Beltran. With characteristic calm (like check-for-a-pulse calm), Beltran is hitting an even .400 for the down-and-up Metropolitans. He effortlessly covers the expansive outfield at Citi Field with the nonchalance of a cat stretching on a window sill. His off-the-charts athleticism makes the game so easy for him. And occasionally that can be a bad thing. Like last week, when he, also nonchalantly, opted not to slide into home plate and was promptly called out on a play that may have cost his team a win. But then last night he crushed two home runs to carry his team over the hated Braves. He is a Hall of Famer wrapped in a catatonic.

2.Yao Ming. Not only did Yao get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs, but he helped them to a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven second round series with the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers. All thoughts that the Rockets were satisfied just to have the first-round monkey off their backs were dissipated by the sight of a bloodied Shane Battier gesticulating wildly and yelling at officials in the first half of this game. The Biggest Man had 28 points, 10 boards and one seemingly serious knee injury. But unlike Paul Pierce, who let himself be wheeled back to the locker room without being seriously hurt, Yao barely let himself be talked into heading into the tunnel and never reached the training table for further treatment or x-rays. He made his own prognosis and he returned to the floor shortly.

3. The Orlando Magic. With Dwight Howard sort-of-almost becoming a smiling villain thanks to his suspension-worthy elbow in the Magic's Round 1 series with the 76ers and the way in which the Garnett-less Celtics well-examined vulnerability was further exposed by the Bulls, Orlando is sort-of-almost the heavy in this pairing. In true sort-of-almost favorite fashion, they took Game 1 in Boston. And, it didn't seem strange or surprising. It seemed matter of fact.

4. Zack Greinke. To paraphrase the cover of the most recent Sports Illustrated, this dude has been classified as Section-8 but has now landed himself in a class all his own. He went the distance last night for his sixth win, shutting out the White Sox at the refurbished Kauffman Stadium in Kanas City. He struck out 10 to bring his season tally up to 54 K's. He allowed zero runs to lower his ERA to a startling 0.40. And, he didn't walk a batter. The 25-year-old righty joined Fernando Valenzuela and Walter Johnson as the only pitchers to open up a season 6-0 with an ERA 0.40 or better. Johnson is one of the greatest hurlers in the history of the game and Valenzuela won the Cy Young Award, the Rookie of the Year Award and a world championship in 1981 when he had a similarly hot start.

5. Ron Artest. Speaking of guys we thought were crazy but who played well last night, Artest's hot start - he scored or assisted on each of his team's first five made field goals - gave the Rockets the confidence they needed to hang tough against Kobe and the Lakers in the waning moments of Game 1. And, most importantly, he sported a Anthony Masonesque engraving in his hair. The well-coiffed Artest finished with 21 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, two personal fouls (one each in third and fourth quarters and none used on Kobe Bryant) and a team-high +19 in the +/- category.

Sixth Man. Mike Skinner (also known as The Streets)


Benched. The Los Angeles Lakers Dominance. And Kobe's habit of being passive early just so that he can seem like more of a hero when he takes over late.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Monday's Starting Five

1. Pete Seeger. Born in 1919, Seeger has been there and overcome that. In the words of Bruce Springsteen, he is "the stealth dagger through the heart of our country's illusions about itself" and the guy who "sings all the verses, all the time—especially the ones we'd like to leave out of our history as a people." Seeger came of age during the Great Depression, championed workers' rights in his youth, served in World War II, brought the banjo and Woody Guthrie to a new generation, connected the singers of Union songs to the singers of Civil Rights songs, and taught the rest of us the words. In the 1950s, he refused to name names when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to plead the fifth amendment when asked about his political beliefs and affiliations (Seeger had been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party until the realities of Stalin's iron-fisted rule were exposed). He later stood against the Vietnam War and stood up for the environment, which is why he founded the Clearwater organization dedicated to cleaning up the Hudson River. On Sunday, Seeger's 90th birthday, there was a charity concert held by Clearwater at Madison Square Garden. Or there was a birthday party masquerading as a charity concert (although the money really did go to charity). The proceedings included Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, Tom Morrello (of Rage Against the Machine), Ben Harper, Joan "F&%KING" Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris, Ani DiFranco, Warren Haynes, Steve Earle, Taj Mahal, Richie Havens, Bela Fleck, Oscar the Grouch (for reals) and two dozen more performers. And they were all there for Pete, an original and inimitable legend whose place in American cultural history is really undersold. Especially on sports blogs.

2. Carl Crawford. There was a time, not too distant from this day, when Crawford was the top pick in many fantasy baseball drafts. Back before Hanley Ramirez was also playing ball in Florida, back when Crawford was the guy with wheels and power. He hit .301 in 2005 with 15 triples, 15 home runs and 46 steals.Yesterday, in a rematch of the 2008 ALCS, he looked like that guy. Crawford stole a MLB record-tying six bases while going 4 for 4 from the plate. He scored two runs and drove in another. He also drew a walk.


3. The Denver Nuggets. With record-setting ease, they dispatched Chris Paul and the Hornets. Perhaps no team has flown more under the radar this season than Denver. And, it's not for lack of star power. This team has lottery pick talent in four of five starting spots. They have one of the most gifted scorers in the game and they've got a point guard who has previously been named NBA Finals MVP. And, they had the second best record in the Western Conference this season. In the opening game of their second round set with the Mavs they won going away, 109-95. In part because of the dominance of the Lakers and in part because no one really trusts Carmelo Anthony in a big spot, this team hasn't been given nearly the credit it deserves. Aside from the Lebronaliers, they have been the most consistently dominant team thus far in the postseason.

4. The Atlanta Hawks. Last year's Chicago Bulls are an entrant in this year's second round. By taking out Dwyane Wade and company in an all-South matchup the Hawks have earned the right to face off with the Lebronaliers starting this week. It's likely a death sentence but this club has now improved in successive seasons. Last year they squeaked into the playoffs. This year they won a first round series. And, next year? Well, they'll be hard pressed to make the leap into the penthouse echelon in the East (Cleveland, Boston) but they may be able to join Orlando in the upper echelon. As long as the rift between Coach Mike Woodson and Josh Smith doesn't break the team apart in the offseason.

5. Barcelona FC. Even with a safe-ish looking lead in the standings, "El Classico" is never a game to be taken lightly. And, clearly Barcelona didn't take Sunday's clash with rival Real Madrid lightly. The Catalans thrashed Real, 6-2. And, they did it in the Spanish capitol even after falling behind in the fourteenth minute. Thierry Henry equalized shortly thereafter and the visitors demolished their hosts and crushed their title hopes. Henry finished the game with two goals and Lionel Messi netted a brace of his own as the rout was on. Barca is now seven points clear of Madrid with just four matches left to play in the La Liga season. They can now focus solely on the Champions League.