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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The NHL Playoff Primer: Part I – Western Conference

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Kings captain Dustin Brown with the Stanley Cup (Reuters)

Kings captain Dustin Brown with the Stanley Cup (Reuters)

If the NBA playoffs are Lincoln, a slow burn for two and a half hours that you feel like you should sit through for the historical significance, the NHL playoffs are Argo. Sure, you’re looking at many unfamiliar faces for the entire running length – even Ben Affleck is hardly the Chuckie Sullivan we’re used to – but from the get-go the dripping tension and urgent atmosphere have you on the edge of your seat.

After a rough start, the NBA playoffs have had their moments. Stephen Curry is a must-watch legend in the making and has Golden State on the cusp of a pretty big upset, Grizzlies-Clippers seems destined to go 7 and the triple-overtime Game 4 of Bulls-Nets provided enough drama to qualify as a classic in this or any other season.

But while the intensity is ratcheted up once the NBA’s postseason begins, the NHL’s is truly a second season entirely different than what we spent the first 82 – or in this case 48 – games witnessing. Every faceoff seems vital, every goal seems to bring a permanent shift in momentum and every series realistically could go either way. An eight seed won the Stanley Cup last season by giving up 30 GOALS IN 20 GAMES. There have been at least two upsets by seed in the first round of every iteration of the playoffs since the 2004-05 lockout. This isn’t the NCAA tournament, it’s better. If it required four wins in seven games to pull an upset in March Madness, Cinderella wouldn’t exist. In the NHL, she gets around more than Elisha Cuthbert.

This lockout-shortened slate makes it even likelier than usual that upsets are on the horizon, but there are still two serious heavyweights heading in. Chicago didn’t lose in regulation for exactly half of the season, while Pittsburgh didn’t lose in the entire month of March and went one 53-day stretch while dropping only two games. Had they been able to keep up their points pace for a regular 82-game schedule, the Blackhawks and Penguins would have finished tied for first and fourth, respectively, among the NHL’s best regular-season records in the last 35 years.

Are they on a collision course to play for the Stanley Cup? Probably not. Since the NHL began seeding one through eight in each conference in 1994, the top seeds have met in the final once.

So what surprises are in store in the first round this year? Let’s start out with the Western Conference, which features the three series that begin tonight. Tomorrow, the East.

Corey Crawford

Corey Crawford

No.1 Chicago vs. No. 8 Minnesota

Odds of an upset: 15 percent

The Blackhawks will win if: It continues to win battles at even strength. Though Pittsburgh led the league with 165 goals, Chicago had the NHL’s most in non-power play situations (119). It’s a good thing, too, because the Blackhawks have been abysmal with the man advantage. They’re 6 for 49 (12.2 percent) on the power play since St. Patrick’s Day, though they’ve only given up two shorthanded goals in that stretch.

The Wild will win if: Chicago’s goaltending becomes an issue. The Blackhawks allowed by far the fewest goals in the regular season, but half of their goaltending tandem is in doubt for the first round. Ray Emery likely won’t play in the first two games, leaving Corey Crawford – who did his reputation no favors with a rough performance in last season’s first-round exit against Phoenix – with only AHL journeyman Henrik Karlsson as his backup. Minnesota also needs Zach Parise to be the $98 million man it paid him to be in July, and his three goals and minus-9 rating in April are not good signs he’s ready to be that. Additionally, the Wild won’t have Jason Pominville for at least Game 1 after getting four goals and five assists in 10 games from their newest acquisition.

The pick: Blackhawks in 5

Johan Franzen (AP)

Johan Franzen (AP)

No. 2 Anaheim vs. No. 7 Detroit

Odds of an upset: 55 percent

The Ducks will win if: Their offense doesn’t disappear. Anaheim was fourth in the league in goals per game through March 21st, but was fourth from the bottom in their final 19 contests. Depth was important to the Ducks when they were scoring, and that may decide this series. Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf should get theirs, but Anaheim needs Kyle Palmieri, Teemu Selanne and Andrew Cogliano to chip in as well. It should be noted that the Ducks’ final-40-percent-of-the-season drought began with back-to-back home losses to the Red Wings in which they totaled two goals.

The Red Wings will win if: Johan Franzen does his thing. The Mule had eight goals in his final eight games to help Detroit extend its NHL-record string of consecutive playoff appearances to 22, and he’ll be counted upon to get in front of Jonas Hiller or Viktor Fasth and wreak havoc again. But after scoring 31 goals and putting up 59 points in 51 playoff games from 2008-10, Franzen has just one goal in his last 10 postseason contests. Even if Franzen struggles, Detroit could win a low-scoring series. Jimmy Howard is 7-1-1 with a .949 save percentage in his last nine games against Anaheim.

The pick: Red Wings in 6

Cory Schneider (PNG)

Cory Schneider (PNG)

No. 3 Vancouver vs. No. 6 San Jose

Odds of an upset: 50 percent

The Canucks will win if: Cory Schneider is healthy. After seizing the starting job from Roberto Luongo, Schneider turned in an outstanding season even with the four-time All-Star looking over his shoulder. He’s back at practice after missing Vancouver’s final two regular season games and pronounced himself good to go for Wednesday’s Game 1. Considering Schneider was 11-3-1 with a 1.77 goals-against average at home this season, the Canucks better hope he’s telling the truth. Vancouver won eight of its last nine on home ice, and it will need to stay dominant at Rogers Arena considering …

The Sharks will win if: They can pick up a win in Vancouver. San Jose was 17-2-5 at HP Pavilion, so it should feel pretty good about its chances to defend its home ice. Problem is, the Sharks were brutal on the road, going 8-14-2 and converting just 10.4 percent of their power-play chances in the last 20 games. Not surprisingly, San Jose was held to two goals or fewer in 14 of its last 20 on the road. Joe Pavelski, third on the team with 16 goals, scored only three times outside of San Jose. And one more worrisome stat for good measure: Antti Niemi is 1-7-0 with a 2.96 GAA in his last eight postseason road games. Home ice isn’t usually a big deal in the NHL playoffs, but it will be in this series.

The pick: Sharks in 6

Brian Elliott (Getty Images)

Brian Elliott (Getty Images)

No. 4 St. Louis vs. No. 5 Los Angeles

Odds of an upset: 45 percent

The Blues will win if: Brian Elliott continues to turn in his payments on time to the higher power who suddenly made him a badass goaltender. Mostly lousy with Ottawa and Colorado in his first three NHL seasons, Elliott had the best single-season save percentage in NHL history in 2011-12. But he was terrible in the Blues’ second-round loss to the Kings and was bad enough in the first half of 2013 that he earned a trip to the minors. Elliott has returned with a vengeance in April, though, and St. Louis suddenly looks like a Stanley Cup contender because of it. He’s given up a total of 15 goals in 12 starts this month, so it’s safe to say Good Elliott has returned. The Blues don’t score a ton of goals, but the return of T.J. Oshie, who underwent surgery on a stress fracture in his ankle two weeks ago, should be a big boost. Oshie had 20 points in 30 games.

The Kings will win if: Conn Smythe Jonathan Quick returns. Quick was the utterly brilliant reason Los Angeles didn’t just win the Cup last year but also obliterated everyone along the way. He had a 1.41 GAA in the playoffs, but didn’t even look like the best goaltender named Jonathan on his own team for stretches this season. He’s been better over the last third of the season, posting a 2.15 GAA since St. Patrick’s Day. The difference between the Blues and Kings is that Los Angeles can survive without phenomenal goaltending thanks to a group of skilled forwards with experience scoring deep into the playoffs. It’s less certain if the largely anonymous Blues can say the same. If St. Louis allows even TWO goals, it’s 11-17-1.

The pick: Kings in 7

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Coming Out of the Shadows

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Jason Collins (USA Today)

Jason Collins (USA Today)

The first active player in a major American professional sports league to come out was never going to be a Bryce Harper, Aaron Rodgers, Kevin Durant or Sidney Crosby. It was never going to be an athlete who had so much invested in his career, a perennial superstar who was either at the beginning or peak of his powers.

It was always going to be someone like Jason Collins. And for now, that’s perfectly fine.

Collins is the courageous individual who on Monday announced to the world that he’s gay, following in the footsteps of the likes of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, John Amaechi, Greg Louganis and more recently Seimone Augustus, Robbie Rogers and Brittney Griner. The circumstances aren’t quite the same, though. King, Navratilova and Louganis were participating in individual sports and didn’t have to worry about any friction between teammates, which particularly would have been relevant considering all three announced their sexuality in the much less tolerant and more turbulent 1980s. Augustus and Griner, while stars in the game of women’s basketball, can take solace in the fact that the WNBA has openly embraced a fan base that includes a large percentage of homosexuals. Amaechi’s announcement came four years after he retired and Rogers’ was a part-retirement, part-coming-out blog post earlier this year – though he’s since thought of returning to soccer.

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Brittney Griner (Getty Images)

Collins is a relative nobody in NBA circles. I consider myself someone who follows the league as close as anyone and had zero clue that he played 32 games for Boston this season before being traded to Washington in late February. He’s played more than 14,000 minutes in his career. Of the other 677 players who can say that, only one – Charles Jones – has scored fewer points. Collins spent 383 minutes on the floor this season and took 29 shots. Carmelo Anthony has attempted that many per game in about one-tenth the playing time so far in the playoffs.

But Monday’s announcement wasn’t about points, blocks or rebounds. It was about stepping forward to be a trail blazer for others. Collins is 34, has made more than $32 million dollars for being a nearly 7-foot tall foul machine who is capable of setting a good pick, is secure financially and can finally be secure personally. He’s a free agent this summer who won’t cry foul if he’s not offered a contract. If he isn’t, it’s because talent evaluators don’t think he can be one of the 12 best players on an NBA team, not because he’s gay.

“I’ve never sought the spotlight. Though I’m coming out to the world, I intend to guard my privacy. I’m making this blanket statement in part to keep rumors and misunderstandings at bay. I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand. And I hope teammates will remember that I’ve never been an in-your-face kind of guy. All you need to know is that I’m single. I see no need to delve into specifics.” – Jason Collins in Sports Illustrated, 4/29/13

The thought here is that he’ll wind up on someone’s bench for one more season, coming in occasionally to grab a key rebound or foul Dwight Howard six times. He’ll be the same good teammate that he’s always been and be an eloquent advocate for gay rights, not a sideshow who is more of a media distraction than his talent warrants (“see Tebow, Timothy”).

Collins didn’t open the door to more tolerance and understanding of homosexuality in professional sports today. It was already cracked thanks to the names who bravely spoke up before him, but he gave it an awfully noticeable nudge. Someday, not long from now, an athlete with a bit more talent who’s in the prime of his career will make the same announcement. After that, a star rookie or second-year player will do the same.

Eventually, a team will draft a player knowing he’s openly gay. Except you won’t hear about it, because by then it will matter just as little as what color suit he’s wearing on his way to shake the commissioner’s hand.

Then, we’ll know that Collins didn’t just keep opening the door.

He broke it down.

The NBA Playoffs Entertainment Index: Retroactive Part II

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Tim Duncan

Tim Duncan

The opening weekend of the NBA playoffs was definitely not a good omen for an exciting postseason. The home team won all eight games, and after Saturday’s first two contests were decided by a total of nine points, the remaining six over the next 27 hours were decided by an average of 19.8.

The last time a road team failed to win a Game 1 in the first round? The especially horrific 2004 playoffs, which featured a total of 39 games in the opening round – just seven above the minimum. That postseason was known for the star-less Pistons winning the title, an Eastern Conference finals series that never saw anyone score more than 85 points and a 36-46 Celtics team that started Jiri Welsch, Walter McCarty, Mark Blount and Chucky Atkins. So this iteration has a lot to live up to.

Rather than doing a straight preview of the remaining four series we didn’t cover Saturday – that would be silly! – let’s take a look back and a look ahead.

Carmelo Anthony (New York Daily News)

Carmelo Anthony (New York Daily News)

4.) No. 2 New York vs. No. 7 Boston

The good: Game 1 was close throughout, with the final score – an 82-75 New York victory – also serving as the Knicks’ largest lead. Boston was ahead for some chunks of this one, and actually led by seven late in the third quarter before scoring a total of eight points in the final 13:20.

The bad: The Celtics had 20 turnovers and got four points from their bench, including zero in 30 combined minutes from Jason Terry and Jordan Crawford. Crawford actually didn’t attempt a shot in his nearly 11 minutes of action, which is thought to be a first in his basketball existence. Another lifeless performance from Terry and Crawford will cause this reaction from Celtics fans.

What’s next: Carmelo Anthony had 36 points in the opener but the Knicks got three total points from 60 percent of their starting lineup (the Chris Copeland, Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert troika). Doc Rivers needs to decide if he wants to risk sending an extra defender at ‘Melo, but that’s a risky strategy considering the Knicks will happily take advantage to find the open man and add to their NBA-record total of 3-point attempts. I wouldn’t consider Game 2 a must-win for Boston necessarily, since it’ll have a pretty sizable home-court advantage in games 3 and 4, but the Celtics certainly need to show they’re capable of playing better half-court offense. Getting some offensive rebounds would help. In three games against the Knicks since Rajon Rondo went down, New York has outscored Boston 51-24 on second-chance points.

James Harden (Getty Images)

James Harden (Getty Images)

3.) No. 1 Oklahoma City vs. No. 8 Houston

The good: This never figured to be a particularly lengthy series because of the talent and experience disparities between the two teams, but it at least seemed like it’d be entertaining for the five or so games we’d see. The Rockets played well for most of the first half on Sunday, bouncing back from an early 13-2 deficit to wind up even at 40 midway through the second quarter. They were down 50-45 with two minutes left in the half but allowed Oklahoma City to score the next 10 points, and that was that.

The bad: The Rockets got little from anyone other than James Harden, and even Harden missed 13 of his 19 shots and only got to the free-throw line seven times. Oklahoma City shot 60 percent after the first quarter, and Houston simply doesn’t have the perimeter defenders to contain dribble penetration against Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson or your neighbor’s son on his tricycle.

What’s next: The Rockets and Thunder have played four games this season. In three losses, Houston was 8 for 21, 8 for 30 and 8 for 36 from 3-point range. In the win, it was 15 for 33. The Rockets’ strategy isn’t going to change. They’re going to continue to want Harden to get into the paint, get to the line and/or kick it to Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Carlos Delfino for corner 3s. It’ll work at some point, but probably not until game 3 or 4 in Houston. The Thunder can yawn their way through this series without much of a sweat.

Chris Paul

Chris Paul

2.) No. 4 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No. 5 Memphis

The good: When the Clippers are rolling – and that means Chris Paul dictating offensively, Jamal Crawford creating off the dribble, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan controlling the glass and getting putback points and Eric Bledsoe disrupting opposing guards on the perimeter – they’re pretty tough to beat. Paul, Crawford and Bledsoe were at their best in Game 1, and Bledsoe even added 17 points – 7 for 7 from the field – six rebounds and four assists in 17 minutes. Throw in the ghost of Chauncey Billups scoring 14 points and Matt Barnes and Caron Butler combining for 23 and this game wasn’t close.

The bad: Pretty much everything Memphis did, but most notably Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph combining for six boards as the Grizzlies were outrebounded 47-23. That obviously can’t happen again, but Bledsoe’s wildly productive game and every Clippers perimeter player contributing double digits won’t happen again either.

What’s next: Though I thought this would be a 7-game series from the outset, it strikes me as the rare matchup where home-court isn’t that essential. The Clippers proved that last year when they beat Memphis on the road in Game 7 of the first round, and they won at FedEx Forum twice this season while the Grizzlies won at Staples Center once. For that reason, Monday’s Game 2 is monumental to Memphis. It can’t go home and feel confident that it’s getting a sweep in games 3 and 4, and if it plays anything like it did Saturday it might not have any confidence left. Gasol and Randolph simply have to outperform Griffin and Jordan for Memphis to win and Mike Conley needs to at least not get embarrassed by Paul. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Conley has only made a third of his shots in five games against the Clippers this season. This team is not built to overcome early deficits, and Jerryd Bayless isn’t going to score 19 points in every game.

Andre Miller (AP)

Andre Miller (AP)

1.) No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Golden State

The good: This was the best game of the weekend by far, with Stephen Curry’s ridiculous fall-away 3-pointer to tie the score with 14 seconds left getting trumped by a 126-year-old Andre Miller blowing past Draymond Green for the game-winning layup. With Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson needing to check Ty Lawson, this series is set up for Miller to dominate, and he had a game-high 28 points in Game 1. On the plus side for the Warriors, they hung tough despite shooting only 41 percent and had a 55-45 edge on the glass. On the minus side …

The bad: David Lee suffered a torn hip flexor and is done for the playoffs. So there goes much of that rebounding edge. Not bad enough, you say? Denver rebounding machine Kenneth Faried, who missed Game 1 with an ankle injury, is getting better and could play in Game 2. So one elite rebounder out for Golden State, one in for Denver and still zero idea how to deal with the savvy Miller.

What’s next: Mark Jackson will make sure Miller doesn’t turn his half-court defense into the Washington Generals in Game 2 but it’ll come at a cost: Ty Lawson might be due for a 30-point, 9-assist performance. Golden State doesn’t defend on a level good enough to keep up with Denver – or usually the UConn women’s basketball team – so it’s going to have to exploit the Nuggets in transition and from behind the 3-point line. This is a series where it’s entirely conceivable the home team never loses, so another defeat in Game 2 doesn’t mean Golden State should panic. But having to play Festus Ezili and Green more with Lee out might be a good reason to start waving the white flag.

The NBA Playoffs Entertainment Index: Part I

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Larry O'Brien Trophy (NBA)

Larry O’Brien Trophy (NBA)

Ahh, the NBA playoffs are upon us. Or, as I like to call them, the best five months of the year.

Sure, the 16-team tournament that decides who gets to walk away with a trophy named after a man who used to be the Postmaster General of the United States SEEMS like it takes forever. It seems like it’s full of mismatches, series that are too often decided by home-court advantage and games that run nearly as long as an average NFL contest.

And all of those things are true. But that still doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paying attention.

You know how people like to sit down and make a list of pros and cons when faced with a major life decision? I’m only talking about the really significant choices – where to go to college, whether to take a new job offer, whether to get two 6-piece or three 4-piece chicken nuggets at Wendy’s or whether to stay in a promising but flawed relationship.

Promising but flawed also happens to be a great way to describe this NBA season. There were a lot of pluses. LeBron James had one of the greatest seasons the league has ever seen. Kevin Durant continued to grow into a transcendent offensive superstar without even attempting the most shots on his own team.  The Rockets and Knicks proved that teams that rely largely on 3-pointers can be dangerous postseason opponents. (Full disclosure: I wrote the previously linked-to article.) David Stern announced his retirement.

Not everything was a rosy as the outgoing commissioner would have liked, though. The Eastern Conference was as competitive as sending a mid-1980s Whitney Houston into modern day American Idol would be. A team that went 6-15 over its final 21 games made the playoffs and never even had to sweat. Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum never played in 2012-13 due to injuries, Kevin Love missed three-quarters of the season, Rajon Rondo missed more than half and Kobe Bryant may never play again. And for the second time in three years, the fate of the Sacramento Kings is up in the air, meaning either a city that’s had a team for 28 years is about to lose it or a city that unjustly had its team taken away five years ago is being set up for disappointment.

With all that news ranging from highly depressing to extremely exciting, it’s time to take a look at the first-round matchups in similar fashion. We’ll start with a series that should require parental approval and work our way up to the ones Kim Jong-Un won’t want to miss a minute of.

Josh Smith (Getty Images)

Josh Smith (Getty Images)

8.) No. 6 Atlanta vs. No. 3 Indiana

The good: No one will watch this, so that will spawn fewer copycats.

The bad: The Hawks of the past six years are a fascinating study of how not to run an NBA franchise. They’ve never been higher than 18th in attendance in that stretch despite playing in the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. They’ve continually had a roster of similar underachievers until finally letting Joe Johnson walk last summer, though he gracefully passed the baton of being a statistically solid black hole to Josh Smith. They’ve still not been bad enough to be a lottery team in that half-decade, and three times have made it to the second round of the playoffs – where they’ve won a total of two games. They’re also boring to watch, not ranking in the top 12 in terms of points per game offensively or defensively. And finally, they often just don’t show up. Thirteen of their 19 losses since February have come by double digits. The Pacers, meanwhile, hit a late rut, dropping five of their final six games. All-Star Paul George’s drought has lasted even longer, as he’s shot under 40 percent since the beginning of March. NBA TV may pass on this series, but late word has Nat Geo Wild being very interested.

The X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. Roy is quite a force when he’s dialed in, but when he’s not he’s of little use offensively, spends too much time on the Pacers’ bench in foul trouble and seems better off holding out for a role as Jerry’s replacement on Parks and Rec. Hibbert’s totals in two losses to Atlanta this season: 9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks. In two wins: 29 points, 21 rebounds, 6 blocks.

The pick: Indiana in 6

Deron Williams (AP)

Deron Williams (AP)

7.) No. 4 Brooklyn vs. No. 5 Chicago

The good: This should be a tight series. The Bulls and Nets played four times and three of those meeting were decided by six points or fewer. Chicago is among the league’s top five teams in defensive efficiency and the Nets have looked like a far better offense over the past month, averaging nearly 104 points in their last 18 games. Deron Williams has again been playing like a franchise point guard after a disastrous, injury-plagued first half. Another link, another shameless plug.

The bad: The Bulls beat the Nets three times, but they’ve been a mediocre team over the past two-and-a-half months while Tom Thibodeau has dealt with a roster full of injuries. They’re 17-20 since the beginning of February, and it’s been tough to know what they’re going to get each night from a cast of role players designed specifically to fit in around Derrick Rose. Carlos Boozer has been fairly consistent, but he’s largely a face-the-basket jump shooter. They have little inside game without …

The X-Factor: Joakim Noah has missed 12 of the Bulls’ last 15 games with plantar fasciitis, an injury that apparently isn’t getting better and could limit him or even keep him out of the series. Noah isn’t a major offensive threat inside by any stretch, but he gets his share of points on second-chance buckets. He can also help control the glass against Reggie Evans and the largely rebound-allergic Brook Lopez, but without Noah the Bulls will be starting Nazr Muhammad and hoping Taj Gibson can rescue them. Unless Rose and Noah miraculously recover, Chicago is going to have big problems in crunch time.

The pick: Brooklyn in 7

Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks)

Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks)

“I’m real confident. I’m sure everybody is writing us off but but I see us winning the series in six.” – Jennings

6.) No. 1 Miami vs. No. 8 Milwaukee

The good: The last eight games between the Heat and Bucks, you ask? They actually won four apiece, providing the NBA with a mystery greater than ABC’s decision to conceive of and air “Splash.” Brandon Jennings can get hot, as he’s averaged nearly 24 points against Miami this season. So can Monta Ellis, who’s scored at least 30 points nine times. Problem is, he’s also been held to single digits eight times – and, wouldn’t you know it, three of those were against the Heat. Ellis totaled 38 points in four meetings, shooting 30.2 percent. He can’t do much worse in this series, and the numbers will be easy to compare side-by-side since he’ll be playing exactly four games before entering unrestricted free agency and meeting no shot he doesn’t like elsewhere.

The bad: Brandon, Brandon, Brandon. Jennings, who’s also a free agent heading toward an egregiously ridiculous contract, just had to do it. On Thursday he predicted the Bucks would win the series in six games, which probably prompted Erik Spoelstra to put down his Sudoku book for 30 seconds and jot down that little quote on Miami’s white board. Look, no comment from an opposing player is going to make the difference between winning and losing a seven-game series. But the chance to catch Miami sleeping in one of those first two games probably just went out the window.

The X-Factor: The Heat’s team bus. If it shows up prior to tip-off each game, Miami wins.

The pick: Heat in 4

Steve Nash and Tony Parker (San Antonio Express-News)

Steve Nash and Tony Parker (San Antonio Express-News)

5.) No. 2 San Antonio vs. No. 7 Los Angeles Lakers

The good: Spurs? Lakers? Oh, they’ve only won nine of the last 14 NBA championships and are meeting in the first round. LA won its last five games to not only make the playoffs but avoid opening with Oklahoma City, which might have been so ugly the NBA would have called it in three games. The Lakers are 20-8 since the All-Star break and Dwight Howard has looked more like Dwight Howard, averaging 18.4 points, 13.6 rebounds and occasionally proving that he can still, in fact, jump.

The bad: Where to begin? A certain Mr. Kobe Bryant won’t be playing until next winter – hopefully – due to a torn Achilles, turning this series from as compelling as it gets to one that’s really in the middle of the pack in terms of first-round intrigue. The Lakers are relying heavily on Steve Blake as a source of offense, they’re giving Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison major minutes and even with Kobe were an atrocious defensive team despite Howard’s presence in the paint. But that’s OK – a hobbled Steve Nash is back! The Lakers aren’t the only ones dealing with injuries. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker might not be 100 percent, and San Antonio looked like the NBA’s oldest team down the stretch, dropping seven of 10. Gregg Popovich has been known to tank a game or two along the way to get his team some rest, but six of those stretch-run losses were to Miami, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Denver, the Lakers and Golden State – the same teams the Spurs will have to go through to sniff a title. Maybe Ginobili and Parker will be just fine, but even if they are, is San Antonio capable of flipping a switch suddenly?

The X-Factor: Parker. If he’s anywhere near 100 percent, he’ll carve up Nash and Blake or whomever else Mike D’Antoni throws at him. If he’s not, this could go seven games.

The pick: Spurs in 5

We’ll be back later with previews of the four most entertaining playoff series, three of which start today. Due to some Chicago-area flooding adding to this week’s already lofty status as the worst week ever, Checking the Score’s postseason preview got pushed back a bit. But fear not! Predictions for the remainder of Round 1 follow so I can still look like an idiot when I’m wrong!

Boston-New York: Knicks in 6

Houston-Oklahoma City: Thunder in 5

Memphis-Los Angeles Clippers: Grizzlies in 7

Golden State-Denver: Nuggets in 6

Degrees of Difficulty

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Police officers responding in Boston (Reuters)

Police officers responding in Boston after Monday’s bombings. (Reuters)

I arrived in the doctor’s office Monday afternoon and took a seat in the waiting room with four other people, none of whom had their heads craned in the direction of the large, muted TV near the entry way.

It was 2:30 central time, meaning the office had a difficult call of picking between the Mount Rushmore of mid-afternoon programming – Judge Judy, Steve Harvey, Judge Mathis or The Bill Cunningham Show. And one of those is almost certainly what had been showing on that 42-inch LED set when it happened.

Forty minutes earlier, two bombs went off near the Boston Marathon finish line. The national news stations were still in the process of trying to piece together what happened, but the images we’d see in the immediate aftermath and as the day progressed were truly awful. The oldest annual marathon in the world, one that’s been around for 116 years and held on what’s an absolutely sacred day in Boston, had seemingly been terrorized.

No one else in that doctor’s office seemed to care, as all four other patients had their eyes locked on their phones or a magazine. After five minutes of trying to process what I’d been seeing, they called my name so I could wait in another small room after a nurse took my blood pressure.

“Apparently a bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon,” I said in a quizzical, helpless tone as she led me down the hall. “Crazy,” she responded dismissively, the way you’d react if someone told you their dog had diarrhea when they took him for a walk that morning.

We’re a nation that’s obsessed with statistics. Heck, I work at a company called STATS. We need everything to be quickly quantified so we can process its place in our lives, be it a sporting event, a political race or an unspeakable tragedy.

When the events of September 11th unfolded and in the days and weeks after, we were constantly reminded it was the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. We know that two planes hit the World Trade Center towers at 8:46 and 9:03 a.m. EST, another hit the Pentagon at 9:37 and that United Flight 93 went down in southwestern Pennsylvania at 10:03 after a passenger revolt. We later learned that 2,996 people lost their lives that morning that America was forever changed.

As Boston and the rest of the nation were trying to make some sense of what happened yesterday, the New York Post – hardly a bastion of journalistic ethics but still the seventh-most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. – reported that there were 12 fatalities in the Boston bombings. No other outlet reported more than three, which was officially the number that stood as of this afternoon.

The Post seems to have finally backtracked, now claiming in this story that identifies two of the victims that “at least three people” were killed. It’s always better to be accurate than first, something that especially holds true when dealing with a senseless tragedy yet has essentially gone out the window with the rise of Twitter and a thirst for networks to beat their competitors.

A woman walks along a Boston sidewalk. (Boston Globe)

A woman walks along a Boston sidewalk Monday afternoon. (Boston Globe)

As I sat in that waiting room, staring at the TV and wondering what just happened, the ambivalence of the other patients said it all. While it was clear that something very bad had occurred, it also appeared that whatever happened was over, that there was no further threat and that a fairly small number of people, 1,000 miles away, were affected.

Somehow I don’t think the reaction in that doctor’s office would have been the same during 9/11, as it became evident that more than just a handful of innocent people had lost their lives. But whether it’s three people or 3,000 shouldn’t be the tool we use to measure catastrophe.

Like pregnancy, there are no degrees of tragedy. The thankfully low number of fatalities to come out of such a horrific event certainly doesn’t make it any easier on Bill Richard, who on Monday lost his 8-year-old son Martin while his wife, Denise, suffered a brain injury and his 6-year-old daughter Jane lost her leg.

Maybe we’ve just seen too many of these events in recent years. Maybe we’ve become numb. Maybe we’ve accepted that whether it’s a movie theater in Aurora, an elementary school in Newtown or the finish line on Boylston Street, senseless things are beyond our control.

We shouldn’t.

Taking Stock of Survivor: Caramoan

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CBS

CBS

Like your grandmother’s lasagna or your first trip to Amsterdam, a good season of Survivor brings a lot of initial confusion and skepticism before slowly revealing the right amount of interesting ingredients and layering enough excitement and wild twists to turn into something you may soon find yourself craving.

Anything with a cast of 20 people can be overwhelming at first, but unlike a show like Game of Thrones – where even the showrunners probably can’t name all the characters – or The Wire – which with each new season essentially introduced a new group of key cast members – you go into a season of Survivor knowing you don’t have to bother learning about the flotsam that isn’t of interest and gets little screen time. They’ll be gone in a matter of weeks.

With exactly 10 of the 20 cast members remaining on the current Survivor: Caramoan – Fans vs. Favorites season, and the two tribes having merged a week ago, now’s a pretty good time to take stock of what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and what’s to come prior to the May 12 finale. It’s hardly too late to jump on board – the midway point is generally where things start to get particularly interesting – and with alliances fluid from week to week and often from minute to minute, a knowledge of the season’s backstory isn’t really necessary.

But here’s one anyway.

Survivor host Jeff Probst (CBS)

Survivor host Jeff Probst (CBS)

WHAT’S WORKED: Having a pair of easy-to-dislike douchebags. Reynold and Eddie, two twenty-somethings who think they’re god’s gift to women, aligned from the beginning with who they felt to be the most attractive ladies on the island. Shockingly, that didn’t work, and they’ve since realized every female they’ve aligned themselves with has punched her ticket home. The best part is that despite their outwardly fratty, bros-before-hoes demeanor, they’re detestable in such different ways. Eddie lacks the intelligence to formulate his own strategy, so he aligned himself with his fellow super, super good-looking buddy. His mistake was that Reynold, while confident in nearly everything he does, is nothing more than a smarmy windbag who couldn’t organize a raid of his own refrigerator let alone a shift in tribal alliances.

WHAT HASN’T WORKED: Casting three people who may be mentally unstable. There are off-putting parts of many reality TV shows – every minute of Teen Mom, Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, The Real Housewives of Anywhere on Earth, My Strange Addiction, My 600-Pound Life, Joe Millionaire, anything involving Honey Boo Boo, Bridalplasty and Temptation Island come to mind – but Survivor has generally felt a step above the dregs of voyeurism. Unfortunately, it nearly crossed the line in this installment by casting Shamar, an Iraq war veteran with some rage/laziness issues who was clearly dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and – for a second time(!) – Brandon Hantz, who’s almost certainly bipolar – something CBS probably should have known since it also happened in his FIRST TIME on the show. Hantz’s tirade that included emptying his tribe’s rice and beans in the sand out of spite and then threatening to attack Phillip – No. 3 on this list, who we’ll address separately – resulted in the first elimination without going to tribal council in the show’s history. Bravo, CBS. Cast as many controversial figures as you want, but please keep the mentally unfit members off the show.

WHAT’S WORKED: Cochran. Every time the surname-sporting, 130-pound soaking wet law student who appeared previously on Survivor: South Pacific has been on screen has been the highlight of that particular show. Underutilized in that first season, Cochran has become the unquestioned star of Survivor: Caramoan, showing an incredibly apt approach for breaking down the game while providing enough highlight one-liners to make Yogi Berra blush. After learning his tribe would get to repel down a waterfall upon winning a reward challenge this week: “I barely leave my apartment … I barely leave Twitter.

WHAT HASN’T WORKED: Hidden Immunity Idols everywhere. I’m fine with having one somewhere on each tribe’s beach at the start of the game. What I’m not fine with is these things appearing again after they’re played. There should be 2 HIIs to begin with, and if they’re played, they shouldn’t be put back into circulation. Also, hiding them in the crevice of the largest tree on the island seems to have turned a bit predictable.

So who’s going to win? It’s incredibly tough to say considering the best combination of physical strength, a strategic approach and likeability (Malcolm) nearly went home Wednesday night and seems to be on the wrong side of the numbers game. As discussed on this outstanding podcast with Chuck Klosterman and host Jeff Probst, Survivor tends to be a game that rewards the middle class, those who can chip in, not raise a ruckus and fly slightly under the radar. Here’s who remains, along with an estimate of their chances to hear Probst declare them the sole survivor a month from now while wearing his best rugged, double-breast pocketed shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

In no particular order:

SHERRI: (16/1): This fast-food franchisee seemed to be emerging as a potential threat prior to the tribes merging due to her ability to handle some big personalities, and she recognized that with more favorites left than fans, she could wind up being lost in the shuffle. She’s aligned with Phillip, Andrea, Brenda, Dawn, Erik and Cochran, but as the lone fan among that group it may only be a matter of time until she leaves. She’s of little threat to win individual immunity challenges.

ANDREA (6/1): Andrea was portrayed as little more than a pretty face on Survivor: Redemption Island, yet flew under the radar enough to make it to the final five. It didn’t look like much had changed in Caramoan until this week’s episode, when she took it upon herself to 1) flirt with Eddie to get intel from what looked to be an Eddie-Reynold-Malcolm-Michael alliance, and 2) engineer the ouster of Michael while planting enough seeds of doubt to make it look like Malcolm was going home. That caused a concerned Reynold to hands over his Hidden Immunity Idol to Malcom, flushing that out (at least until it inevitably reappears in a tree trunk). She’s a threat to win any sort of endurance challenge, as evidenced by her near-miss in the water this week.

PHILLIP (25/1): Phillip can’t go home fast enough for my taste or the other nine remaining cast members. But this delusional “former FBI agent” who continually refers to himself as “The Specialist” has, by being completely insufferable and annoying, positioned himself to go deep in the game. Everyone recognizes that he’s not a legitimate threat, and since he seems to think he’s the puppeteer who’s calling the shots, it makes sense to keep him around. For nearly anyone who remains, taking Phillip to the final two – where nine jury members determine their fate – is the best way to win, since NO ONE will vote for Phillip there. He’s a moderate threat to win challenges as long as it doesn’t involve running or moving of any kind.

DAWN (20/1): Dawn made it halfway through the game on Survivor: South Pacific before being booted, and nothing about her seemed to cry “favorite,” since, as far as I can tell, she was memorable in no way. Yet here she is, last week pushing Andrea to follow through in the attempt to send Malcolm home, so she clearly has a strategic bone in there someone when she’s not fighting back tears for being away from her “six amazing children.” If the previews for next week’s episode are any indication, though, it looks like Downer Dawn makes a return – which may make her ouster somewhat inevitable. She’s of little threat to win any challenge.

John Cochran (CBS)

John Cochran (CBS)

COCHRAN (7/1): Is it weird to call Cochran America’s sweetheart? For the nearly 10 million people that watch Survivor each week, it’s quickly becoming true. Cochran hasn’t exactly flown under the radar – he won an immunity challenge last week – and seems to be legitimately strategizing in camp each week, but here’s his problem: he may be TOO well-liked. Going to the finals with Cochran would be like being nominated in the same Oscar category as Jennifer Lawrence. All eyes would be on him, and no one would vote against him.

ERIK (10/1): America’s favorite ice cream scoop made it to the final five on Survivor: Micronesia, showing a least a little more personality than in the edit of the current season, which has made him as dull as America’s favorite ice cream flavor. He’s readily admitted he has little interest in playing the game, but drifting along and being borderline invisible – if what the viewer sees is actually accurate – isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He’s also wiry and athletic enough to win a challenge down the stretch to keep himself in the game.

BRENDA (8/1): The female version of Erik, who you wouldn’t have even known existed up until she so dominated the holding-your-breath challenge in this week’s episode that Eddie had to swim over to either tell her she won or pronounce her dead. I didn’t see Brenda on Survivor: Nicaragua, and I don’t believe she’s had one on-air confessional this season, so it’s fairly impossible to guess how far she might make it. She’s doing a great job floating around thus far, though, and is a serious threat to win another endurance challenge. UPDATE: Brenda did have to speak prior to going on the show a second time.

Malcolm Freberg (CBS)

Malcolm Freberg (CBS)

MALCOLM (15/1): One of the best survivors to ever play the game, Malcolm is also participating in his second straight season after finishing fourth on Survivor: Philippines. He managed to escape a nearly impossible situation in that season, making it as far as he did after his original tribe had the game’s first four people voted out, and he has his work cut out for him here. Malcolm has tried to make bold moves the past two weeks only to see two perceived allies get the axe, and now he’s left with the Brothers Douchebag and little else on his side. What he does have going for him is a HII that no one knows about and the ability to go on a run in challenges – he won two late last season when he likely otherwise would have gone home, and almost certainly would have won had he not slipped in the final challenge.

EDDIE (3,000/1): The less intelligent half of the Caramoan bromance, Eddie really has an uphill climb. He’s trying to flirt his way into an alliance with Andrea, but even attempting to come off as the hot, vulnerable fireman didn’t seem to work. Andrea’s no dummy, and any sort of acceptance of Eddie’s advances from this point forward surely will only be a strategic move. Eddie may have wised up a bit since the beginning, when his sole purpose on the island seemed to be getting into Hope’s pants. He only had a week to make that happen, though, as the hottest person on the island (Eddie’s words) only made it to Day 7, tragically ending the shallowest romance in Survivor history.

Eddie Fox and Reynold Toepfer (CBS)

Eddie Fox and Reynold Toepfer (CBS)

REYNOLD (35/1): Reynold may not win $1 million playing Survivor, but he has a great future as a contestant on America’s Next Top Snake Oil Salesman. His future in this game, though, isn’t very promising. He could have at least made a deeper run had he not given up his HII to Malcolm in a tribal council panic last week, but now that’s out the window.  I suspect he’ll try to pull Erik, Phillip and Cochran into some sort of all-male alliance in a final move of panic, but that’s bound to go over about as well as Corrine’s attempt at a power play two weeks ago. He is a threat to win challenges, but it’s going to take quite a run to get to the final three.

So who makes the final three at this point? I’ll go with Andrea, Erik and Phillip. At this point, though, the only people that would surprise me to see live on that Los Angeles soundstage are Eddie and Reynold.

College Basketball Has An Officiating Problem

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Trey Burke blocking Peyton Siva (Sports Illustrated)

Trey Burke blocking Peyton Siva. (Sports Illustrated)

Monday night’s NCAA championship game was wonderful in the way that college basketball games rarely are any more. The pace was quick, a pair of unlikely heroes emerged in the first half, and the nation’s most efficient defensive team beat the most efficient offensive team by simply being better on offense. Other than Wolverines coach John Beilein’s odd gaffe of not knowing his team’s foul situation toward the end of the game, Michigan and Louisville staged a classic that was compelling from start to finish, featuring everything you could reasonably ask for on the sport’s biggest stage.

Everything except for competent officiating.

Every NCAA tournament has its defining moments, which is why CBS treats us to a montage of memories you may have heard of long after Jim Nantz is done presenting the championship hardware with a wider grin than Michigan’s Spike Albrecht’s when he found out Kate Upton was within 20 feet of him.

Forget that Spike was back to reality Wednesday morning.

Wow, major digression. Aside from Spike trying to seriously outkick his coverage, what I’ll remember more than anything from the 2013 tournament is Trey Burke’s clean chasedown block of Louisville’s Peyton Siva on what appeared to be an uncontested layup. Instead, it was called a foul on Burke.

Forget that Burke, the AP national player of the year and a likely top-10 pick in the NBA draft, was quick enough to get back and athletic enough to get up to pin the ball against the glass. Forget that, trailing by three with five minutes remaining, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s recovery of the shot would have given Michigan a chance to tie the score in transition. Forget that Siva made the free throws and the Wolverines would never get closer than four the rest of the way.

I’m not here to rail on the refs for what clearly looked to be a clean block, but that play was a microcosm of what officiating in college basketball has turned into – a jogging, breathing contradiction that’s unable to do much of anything consistently right from game to game, from conference to conference.

Tim Floyd

Current UTEP coach Tim Floyd arguing with an official. (JMR_Photography)

There’s nothing easy about officiating a game between 18- to 22-year-olds with world class athleticism, but – wouldn’t you know it? – the NCAA doesn’t set these officials up for success. As ESPN’s outstanding college hoops analyst Jay Bilas notes, there’s no single person or body truly in charge of officiating, meaning the sport’s refs are essentially independent contractors beholden to no one and everyone (conferences, players, coaches, the NCAA’s director of officiating) at the same time.

As this outstanding Deadspin piece by Columbia journalism student Mike Bebernes tells us, “what is a foul on Monday might not be a foul on Thursday,” according to one veteran ref. That’s a problem. If the goal in baseball is to eventually find a uniform strike zone so that we don’t see stuff like Monday’s absurd game-ending, called third strike in Texas happen – and trust me, it’s coming – then the goal for NCAA basketball should be the same. The ability of the players on the court is supposed to be the variable that defines success, not a definition of a foul that’s different from conference to conference depending on the three zebras the NCAA randomly assigns to officiate that game. In a sport where five individual fouls equals disqualification and seven team fouls send an opponent to the line for the remainder of a half, it’s even more critical.

Take the block/charge call for example. Other than perhaps offensive holding in college football and the NFL, which could legitimately be called on every play, there might not be a tougher call to get right in all of sports. Two years ago, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel implemented the restricted-area arc – already used in the NBA – underneath the basket in an attempt to help officials make more consistent calls. Draw contact inside that area and it’s a block, but if a defender has his feet set outside the circle upon contact, it’s a charge. Ten months ago, that same panel tried to take it a step further by shoring up the definition. I’m anxiously awaiting the refs’ response when the giant tortoise sent to deliver these messages finally arrives.

This is not to say officiating in the NBA is some sort of shining example of righteousness by any stretch, because you could talk to anyone who watches pro basketball regularly and wind up listening to them rant for three hours about the many problems with officials at that level. But at least I usually know what I’m getting with NBA refs. Superstars are going to get the benefit of the doubt, rookies are going to get whistled for ticky-tack fouls and the home team is probably going to get an extra call or two in its favor over the course of a game.

College games aren’t nearly as predictable, and in many ways, that hurts the product. If you’re not convinced, check out what Bilas had to say four days after Kentucky defeated Kansas in the 2012 national championship game, from the article linked previously.

“There are far too many charges awarded to help defenders, and most of the charge/block calls you see are simply wrongly decided by officials. It is out of control, and I have not heard any coaches disagree with that assertion. The charge call has become a major problem in college basketball, and it needs to be addressed with all deliberate speed.

“Through statistics, metrics and my lying eyes, it has become clear to me that college basketball is at its lowest point in the past 30 years. And I believe the manner in which the game is officiated is the primary culprit for the decline in the game’s quality.”

What can be done? At least as far as the block/charge dilemma, how about looking internationally? FIBA attempts to combat floppers in the painted area by issuing a warning upon the first flop and then slapping the offender with a technical foul the second time. That would certainly cause guys like Wisconsin charge-magnet and potential future white rapper Mike Bruesewitz to think twice before flopping, and Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol love the idea – so why not?

Three well-played, entertaining games in a tournament largely devoid of high-quality performances took place at the Final Four in Atlanta. Though there were missed calls throughout that we tend to forget about, each was defined in the end by what appeared to be a critical mistake. In Wichita State-Louisville, it was the lightning quick held ball with six seconds left that deprived the Shockers of their last chance to hit a game-tying 3. In Syracuse-Michigan, it was the Orange’s Brandon Triche being called for a highly questionable charge with 19 seconds left that fouled him out rather than giving him a chance to hit the tying free throws.

I already mentioned Burke’s highlight-reel block that was called the other way. For a play that, had it turned the tide, had a chance to be this tournament’s One Shining Moment, we’re instead left doing the one thing the men in stripes are supposed to want fans to avoid.

Talking about them.