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Justin time: Previewing the first round of the NBA playoffs

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Kemba Walker

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

The Warriors broke the Bulls’ seemingly unbreakable record, the 76ers avoided matching their own seemingly unbreakable record and Kobe got to take 50 shots in a game. With another exciting regular season in the books, let’s look ahead to what should be a thrilling two-month playoff journey. Unless, of course, it’s interrupted by the pride and joy of the Canadian pop scene.

The matchup: No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. No. 8 Detroit (44-38)

Offensive rating: Cavaliers 108.1 (4th), Pistons 103.3 (14th)

Defensive rating: Cavaliers 102.3 (10th), Pistons 103.4 (13th)

Net rating: Cavaliers 5.6 (4th), Pistons -0.2 (16th)

STATS primer: The Pistons rely on their starting five A LOT. The league’s most-used quintet this season (915 minutes) came from the Motor City, which is amazing considering that group hasn’t been together since Ersan Ilyasova was traded to Orlando on Feb. 16. Enter Tobias Harris, who joined Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond for 462 minutes over the last 25 games to rank second behind Minnesota’s starters since the All-Star break. A ludicrous 74.3 percent of Detroit’s points come from its starting unit, the largest figure in the NBA and just ahead of … Cleveland’s 73.1.

Can the Pistons win? Probably not. They did beat the Cavs three out of four this season, though one of those came without Kyrie Irving and another came Wednesday night as Jordan McRae took 29 shots and Joel Anthony played 25 minutes. The Pistons are one of a few teams that can hang with the Cavs on the boards, as their 52.1 rebound percentage was a tick above Cleveland’s for second best in the league. The Cavs are at their best when Tristan Thompson is grabbing alley-oops off the pick-and-roll and crashing the offensive glass to create extra possessions, but he’s been marginalized against Detroit. In Thompson’s 74 minutes in the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s an extremely small sample but the worst Cleveland has fared with Thompson on the floor against anyone in the East.

BAI (Bieber Affected Index): 10: Justin Bieber has a concert at Quicken Loans Arena scheduled for April 26 – the same date as a potential Game 5 – so if the Cavs can’t sweep, the teenage girl population of Northeast Ohio may be set for a mutiny.

The pick: Bieber gets bumped, which upsets Drake, creating additional hostility for a potential Cavs-Raptors conference finals. Cavs in 5


The matchup: No. 2 Toronto (56-26) vs. No. 7 Indiana (45-37)

Offensive rating: Raptors 107.0 (5th), Pacers 102.4 (23rd)

Defensive rating: Raptors 102.7 (11th), Pacers 100.2 (3rd)

Net rating: Raptors 4.3 (6th), Pacers 2.2(11th)

STATS primer: The Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division titles and have a grand total of three playoff wins to show for the first two. Can Toronto finally win just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since Vince Carter could jump? It’s hard to look at the numbers and see a title contender here, but the Raptors can make some noise in the East.  DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be the big addition, but the former Hawks forward only played 26 games, and Toronto’s jump from a nice regular-season team in a bad division to a legit power boiled down to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting to another level. Lowry’s average rose from 17.8 points to 21.2 as his 3-point shooting hit a career-high 38.8 percent, while his VORP of 6.3 is ahead of Kawhi Leonard’s and Chris Paul’s. No player in the league scored more points per game on drives than DeRozan (8.7), who also drew 166 fouls when bolting toward the rim – just five behind league leader James Harden.

Can the Pacers win? Maybe. Only the Suns allowed opponents to shoot better from 3 than the Raptors (37.3 percent), and Paul George, George Hill and C.J. Miles are all capable of going off from beyond the arc. A league-high 48.9 percent of the Raptors’ field goals are unassisted, and while letting Lowry and DeRozan penetrate and create worked in the regular season, relying on refs to call contact consistently in the playoffs is a dangerous line to toe. It did work against Indiana during the season. Toronto won three of four and got to the line at least 38 times in each victory, ultimately hitting the stripe 51 more times than the Pacers.

BAI: 4.5. Biebs isn’t set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse until June 25, which is after the Finals, but a two-night stop in Toronto in mid-May could provide trouble in the conference finals. In the meantime, there are other issues. Mumford and Sons has already moved a concert scheduled for the same night as Game 4 in Indianapolis to April 24, with lead singer Marcus Mumford politely claiming “it was not your fault, but mine.” That’s not all. The Who are set to play at the Air Canada Centre on the same night as Game 5, so a retirement tour that makes Kobe Bryant’s seem expeditious will be pushed back a night.

The pick: George and Miles shoot the Pacers to a pair of wins, but the Raptors embrace their musical guests and decide not to get fooled again. Raptors in 6


The matchup: No. 3 Miami (48-34) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (48-34)

Offensive rating: Heat 104.2 (12th), Hornets (105.1, 9th)

Defensive rating: Heat 101.5 (7th), Hornets (101.8, 9th)

Net rating: Heat 2.6 (10th), Hornets 3.3 (8th)

STATS primer: We’ve entered the 48-34 portion of the proceedings with the Battle for Josh McRoberts’ Soul. The East’s middle four playoff teams all finished with the same record, and the way things shook out gives us a rematch of the last time the Hornets – who are 0 for 8 in playoff games since 2002 – were in the postseason. Things figure to be much more competitive this time in a series that Vegas considers the toughest first-round matchup to call. Charlotte was the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season (31.8 percent) on the eighth-fewest attempts. Now it’s the eighth best (36.2 percent) while jacking up more 3s than everyone but Houston, Golden State and Cleveland. Kemba Walker is no longer a sub-40 percent shooter who can’t make a 3, Nicolas Batum averaged a 14-6-5 on fewer than 13 shots a game (Draymond Green this season is the only other player to do that in the past 10) and Marvin Williams reinvented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter who’s actually willing to rebound and play defense. The Heat don’t take 3s (18 per game, 28th) and rarely make them (33.6 percent, 27th), but shoot better in the restricted area than anyone in the league (65.3 percent).

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win?: Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing like a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts – though the parts, as we detailed above, are pretty solid – while Miami is still heavily reliant on the offensive brilliance of Dwyane Wade and the game-changing interior presence of Hassan Whiteside. This is probably not a series for Al Jefferson even though the 12-year vet has shown flashes of his former self off the bench since returning from knee surgery. The Hornets were outscored by 12 points in the 49 minutes he played against Miami but were a plus-20 when he wasn’t around. How’s this for a starting point? In the 60 minutes Batum, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller shared the floor against the Heat – easily the most of any Charlotte foursome – the Hornets were a plus-38. That’s significant. Stick Courtney Lee or Jeremy Lamb out there to check Wade and Whiteside might be hanging around the rim with nothing to do. For Miami to win, it actually might matter more how its young guys – Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson – perform as opposed to the veterans.

BAI: 1. The pride of London, Ontario, isn’t set to hit South Beach until early July and Charlotte was not deemed a worthy enough stop by His Biebness. Heat fans will have to make a tough call prior to Game 3, though: Watch their team play in Charlotte or attend something called “Miami Bash,” which features such acts as Alex Sensation, Ken-Y, De La Ghetto and Jacob Forever. D Wade or Jacob Forever? Now that’s a Decision.

The pick: Those touting playoff experience will favor the Heat, but many of these Hornets have been there before. If Chris Bosh were healthy, this might go the other way, but Charlotte gets the slight edge. Hornets in 6


The matchup: No. 4 Atlanta (48-34) vs. No. 5 Boston (48-34)

Offensive rating: Hawks 103.0 (18th), Celtics 103.9 (13th)

Defensive rating: Hawks 98.8 (2nd), Celtics 100.9 (4th)

Net rating: Hawks 4.1 (7th), Celtics 3.0 (9th)

STATS primer: On paper this might be the most interesting first-round matchup between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, but on the court Atlanta exposed the otherwise brilliant, swarming system employed by Brad Stevens. The Hawks put up 110.4 points per 100 possessions in winning the final three meetings and Boston had no answers for Paul Millsap. One of the league’s best defenders was a nightmare at the other end for the Celtics, averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks in three games the Hawks won by a combined 43 points. Atlanta’s Spursian ball movement and Kyle Korver’s amazing accuracy were the big stories when it won 60 games last season, but the defense was good then and better than anyone this side of San Antonio’s in this one. Most of the Hawks’ best lineups come without Jeff Teague on the floor – they’re better defensively with Dennis Schroder – but what’s lurking behind either point guard allows for some leeway in non-pick-and-roll situations. It’s safe to say Isaiah Thomas will be able to break down either to some extent, but the Celtics are going to need more than their point guard running at an optimal level to beat Atlanta. This feels like a series Evan Turner could swing, but he could just as easily put Boston out of it as he could help it go the distance.

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win? These are two of the league’s eight fastest teams in terms of pace, but getting up and down the floor did nothing to favor the Celtics against the Hawks this season. The three Atlanta wins featured 106, 105 and 105 possessions while Boston’s lone victory back in December was a 97-possession slog they pulled out even with Avery Bradley sidelined. The Celtics are going to have to do a bulk of their work from outside the paint, as Atlanta is the best team in the league defending the restricted area (56.7 percent). Only the Lakers shot worse on catch-and-shoot 3s than Boston’s 34.6 percent, so that’s not going to be easy. Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder each attempt five 3s a game, but none is what you’d call a knock-down shooter.

BAI: 3. Add Boston to the list of cities Bieber could infect invade in later rounds, as he’s due for May 10 and 11 stops at TD Garden. Atlanta got its two shows out of the way on the last two days of the regular season, which is a total baller move by a team that knew it would be playing important games in late April and May. Or … that’s just how the “Purpose World Tour” worked out geographically. The Bruins conveniently missed the playoffs and the Thrashers haven’t been a thing for five years, so these arenas are wide open.

The pick: The Celtics are fun to watch, make the most of their talent level and are about to add a top-five draft pick courtesy of the Nets’ stupidity. But for now, this is a tough matchup. Boston probably beats either of the other 48-34 teams, but not this one. Hawks in 6


Halftime! Here’s a picture of Bieber pretending like he knows who Mark Wahlberg is.

Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


The matchup: No. 1 Golden State (73-9) vs. No. 8 Houston (41-41)

Offensive rating: Warriors 112.5 (1st), Rockets 105.5 (8th)

Defensive rating: Warriors 100.9 (6th), Rockets 105.6 (20th)

Net rating: Warriors 11.6 (2nd), Rockets -0.2 (15th)

STATS primer: Yes, it’s a Western Conference finals rematch in Round 1 that features the league’s top two scorers, the two teams who fire up the most 3-pointers and two teams who were each coached by two men this season. That’s about where the similarities end. The Warriors are much better than last season’s title winner and the Rockets are much, much worse. Golden State was missing Steve Kerr as he recovered from back surgery while Houston waited only 11 games before showing Kevin McHale the door and never quite looked like they were on the same page for the next 71. What were once an assortment of enticing options around James Harden now looks like a rotating cast of question marks centered by none other than Dwight Howard, who barely took six shots a game over the final month of the season amid reports his teammates were freezing him out. So yeah, it’s hard to look at the Rockets and get excited about the fact that they took nearly as many corner 3s (799) as mid-range 2s (899).

Can the Rockets win? Wellllll….

BAI: 0. Beebs hit Oracle Arena on March 18 and the Toyota Center on April 9. Coincidence that Golden State went 39-2 at home and the Rockets haven’t lost at home since (they’ve played two games)? Yes. Actually, that’s not even a coincidence. Let’s move on.

The pick: Harden has a huge first half in Game 3 – think like 30 points – and the Rockets lead by double digits at the break. But they won’t win that, or any other game, in this series. Warriors in 4

The matchup:
No. 2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. No. 7 Memphis (42-40)

Offensive rating: Spurs 108.4 (3rd), Grizzlies 102.6 (22nd)

Defensive rating: Spurs 96.6 (1st), Grizzlies 105.4 (19th)

Net rating: Spurs 11.8 (1st), Grizzlies -2.9 (22nd)

STATS primer: Poor Memphis. The Grizzlies have played almost an entire NFL 53-man roster worth of players this season thanks to an injured list that looks like Jack Bauer’s body count, and they almost built such an insurmountable lead for the No. 5 seed when healthy that it looked like they’d get a somewhat reasonable matchup with the Clippers in Round 1. But their 3-14 tailspin ultimately dropped them to seventh and a matchup with a team that, in many ways, is BETTER than the one that won 73 games. No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, but Jordan Farmar played in the Finals six years ago! Heck, Chris Andersen was there two years ago! And Vince Carter? Well, he’s no stranger to playing basketball! JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, Raheem McCullough, Jarell Martin and Bryce Cotton? Four of those five guys are real! Dave Joerger has done an amazing job keeping this M.A.S.H. unit together at all, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to beat the Clippers. Or the Thunder. They probably wouldn’t beat a few non-playoff teams in a seven-game series right now. Yet, we have to ask…

Can the Grizzlies win? Ummmmm

BAI: -10. These are the only two playoff teams whose arenas will not be graced with JB’s presence. Therefore, this series means nothing.

The pick: Gregg Popovich gives Boban Marjanovic at least 25 minutes in at least one of these games. At some point, Pop trots out what will forever be known as “The Molasses Lineup” of Boban, Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, but that unit still goes on a 13-2 run. Spurs in 3. OK fine, 4


The matchup: No. 3 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. No. 6 Dallas (42-40)

Offensive rating: Thunder 109.9 (2nd), Mavericks 104.8 (10th)

Defensive rating: Thunder 103.0 (12th), Mavericks 104.3 (16th)

Net rating: Thunder 6.9 (3rd), Mavericks (14th)

STATS primer: The Thunder would certainly have preferred a matchup with the Grizzlies, but it’s not like the Mavericks should have them questioning whether they’ll survive to see the Spurs in Round 2. Oklahoma City swept four meetings with Dallas this season, twice winning by three points and twice cruising. That’s probably about what it should expect here, but the Mavericks can at least look to the sidelines for an edge. Rick Carlisle’s club gave the eventual champion Spurs their toughest test in the first round two years ago, and he’ll come into this series with a plan of how to contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The odds are long, of course, that it will work. The Thunder have made a living crashing the offensive glass this season, with a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage that’s easily the NBA’s best and a 54.7 total percentage that’s also far and away atop the league. The Mavericks are 26th overall at 48.5, and those numbers have bared themselves out head-to-head. Oklahoma City outrebounded Dallas 194-152 in the four meetings, with their 58 offensive rebounds leading to 72 second-chance points. Enes Kanter, a defensive liability in many ways, has helped the Thunder grab 42.3 percent of available offensive boards in the 80 minutes he’s played against Dallas.

Can the Mavericks win? It’s fairly amazing Dallas is even in the playoffs. There are game when J.J. Barea is their best offensive player, or at least the one most capable of creating his own shot. But he’s slowed by a groin injury and he’s not exactly been a positive presence overall to begin with considering the Mavs have allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break when he’s played. There’s enough offense elsewhere for Dallas to be able to hang in most games, but Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams aren’t likely to all have it going at the same time. This is where the absence of Chandler Parsons kills, and he lit up the Thunder in three separate Mavs wins a year ago. It comes down to this, particularly given Oklahoma City’s rebounding edge – Zaza Pachulia has to stay on the floor, and has to control the boards when he is.

BAI: 0. Bieber made all the tweens swoon at Dallas’ American Airlines Center on April 10 and wasn’t invited to Oklahoma City. Amy Schumer played Chesapeake Energy Center on Friday, the eve of the series opener. Perhaps a sign of Trainwrecks to come?

The pick: Dirk has one of those vintage Dirk games where the fadeaways are falling, Matthews gets hot from deep and the Mavs steal a game in Dallas before going out quietly to allow the Stars use of the arena to continue their Stanley Cup playoff run. Thunder in 5

The matchup:
No. 4 LA Clippers (52-29) vs. No. 5 Portland (44-38)

Offensive rating: Clippers 106.5 (6th), Trail Blazers 106.1 (7th)

Defensive rating: Clippers 100.9 (5th), Trail Blazers 105.6 (21st)

Net rating: Clippers 5.5 (5th), Trail Blazers 0.6 (13th)

STATS primer: Terry Stott’s team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum and somehow managed to win only seven fewer games, so if you’re wondering why he might win Coach of the Year, look no further. CJ McCollum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoff loss to Memphis and became a 20-point scorer in more extended minutes, also showing that he could thrive as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters (41.7 percent) in a bigger role. Beyond him and Damian Lillard, who took a step toward superstardom now that the show is officially his, it’s tough to find a reason why these Blazers finished as high as they did. The rest of the rotation is mostly full of spare parts, and there’s no consistent secondary scorer to rely on. That’s a problem when they’re going up against a backcourt that’s at least similar offensively in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and can get points from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford just as easily. There’s no answer for Griffin or DeAndre Jordan now that LaMarcus Aldridge is a Spur.

Can the Blazers win? Portland was starting Noah Vonleh at the four from about mid-November to mid-March before Stotts inserted Mo Harkless in his place, and that move has paid dividends. The Blazers have outscored teams by 13.3 points per 100 possessions since Harkless became a starter and they’ve been outscored by 8.3 with him off the floor. Harkless, McCollum, Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have posted a 16.0 net rating in that stretch, giving Portland a five-man starting unit it can feel good about, and the Clippers’ bench isn’t exactly great. The question will be if the Blazers can find a scoring option when the second units are on the floor.

BAI: 0. Bieber paid his respects to both the Moda Center and Staples Center in March. The Clippers have to share Staples with the Kings – and definitely, definitely not the Lakers – while the biggest thing happening in Portland besides the Blazers is something called the Pentatonix World Tour. I’ve been assured that’s an a capella group, so one more pitch perfect prediction and we’ll get out of here.

The pick: The Blazers are too good offensively and the Clippers too inconsistent for this to be a short series. The Lillard-Paul matchup alone should make this arguably the most entertaining first-round series, even if it doesn’t quite go the distance. Close enough. Clippers in 6


Lost in Translation: A List of Devastating Defeats

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Does this man look happy to you? I didn't think so. (AP)

Does this man look happy to you? I didn’t think so. (AP)

I give myself 60 minutes.

That’s it. One hour.

Thirty-six hundred seconds to think about what I just witnessed, overanalyzing every missed shot, every turnover, every bad substitution, every foul ball that should have been fair, every wide open receiver the quarterback didn’t see, every penalty that could have been called.

When you’re young, watching one of your favorite teams lose is devastating. You think they blew their only chance, that they’ll never come so close again, that your world is crumbling because you don’t know sports are nothing more than a distraction – a really, really great distraction – and you live and die a little with every big game.

Maybe it’s the same when you’re older. You think they blew their last chance, that they’ll never come so close again. Red Sox fans went through went through a Halley’s Comet-plus-10-year drought without a championship. Cubs fans are on their 27th presidential term without a World Series winner. There are now TEENAGERS born in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ first year of existence who are wondering if their team will ever as much as hold a lead in a playoff game.

No one ever runs down the hard parts of being a fan when you become one. You don’t recognize sports disappointment exists until it rises up and socks you in the face like an Evgeni Malkin slap shot. Unless you were a fan of the 1960s Celtics, the UCLA basketball teams of the 60s and 70s or the Lakers in the 80s, your season is ending in disappointment far more often than not.

This all comes to mind because of last night’s fantastic, pulse-pounding Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

As a Cavs fan, but more specifically as a human being, I was rooting for San Antonio to not only close out Miami, but to do it in the most devastating way possible. So much so that it felt like the Spurs were MY team. I’m over LeBron James pulling the rip-cord on Cleveland by now, but that doesn’t make me feel any less anguish when the Heat win.

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night's Spurs collapse. (AP)

Even Eva shed a tear for Tony after last night’s Spurs collapse. (AP)

I’ve always had a thorough appreciation of San Antonio. Tim Duncan is without peer among power forwards in NBA history. Gregg Popovich is among the top 10 coaches  the league has ever seen and Tony Parker belong in the same breath among point guards. The Spurs, with those guys in charge, had Game 6 in the freaking bag. They recovered from a blown 13-point lead and were up five with 28 seconds left. But Popovich’s decision to remove Duncan – a man who has appeared on the NBA’s all-defensive team FOURTEEN TIMES in his career and averages the seventh-most defensive rebounds per game EVER – cost San Antonio two critical rebounds and led to two second-chance 3-pointers for Miami. The substitution game bit Popovich again in overtime, when he failed to use his final timeout with eight seconds left to get Parker, also off the floor for defensive purposes, back in. Manu Ginobili decided to take matters into his own hands, further dropping trou on one of the worst games he’s ever played by wildly driving into the lane and losing the ball, ensuring there’d be a Game 7.

He probably got fouled, but only after he’d blatantly traveled. No complaints. This one was on Popovich, who always makes the right moves, the Argentine, who had played one of the best games of his life two days earlier, Parker, who missed 17 shots, and Duncan, who had 25 points in his brilliant first half but just five in the second half and overtime.

I’m not going to pretend that loss hurt me as much as it did an actual Spurs fan, who even if Thursday’s decisive game goes poorly can sit back and reminisce about any of their four championships in the past 15 years. But it still stung. The odds are heavily against them in Game 7 – road teams are 3-14 in decisive NBA Finals games – and this may be the last realistic shot for Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili together. It also would provide further validation to the Heat and perhaps increase the likelihood that James stays when he can become a free agent next summer.

The Spurs sounded like they couldn’t get off the mat after the game. Ginobili said he was “devastated.” But that’s the reaction that comes from the immediacy of a game that was one rebound or free throw from being over. Duncan said Wednesday the players aired their grievances during a late postgame meal, and like the veteran bunch they are, the Spurs sounded poised to recover.

It probably took them all of 60 minutes.


I can’t say for certain each of the games on the following list of difficult defeats only took me 60 minutes to get over. I’m still reeling from one of them.

This list is unique to me, and even someone who roots for the exact same set of teams might make a different one. It depends on how old you are, where you were, who you were with and what you were expecting. I’m sure a few of these games will ring a bell, even if they didn’t stick with you as long as they stuck with me. There are two Super Bowl losses, one of which I attended, that don’t even make this top 10 list, so either I’ve seen my share of sports devastation since 1990 (we’re arbitrarily starting this list from games I at least have a solid memory of) or I just really, really like to complain.

Maybe a little bit of both.

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston's 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

Brad Marchand scores one of Boston’s 317 first-period goals from Game 3. (AP)

10. 2013 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 3 – Bruins 2, Penguins 1 (2OT)

This one is all of two weeks old, but it still sneaks onto the list. The Penguins were favored to get to the Stanley Cup finals heading into this series against Boston, but were outscored 9-1 at home in Games 1 and 2. This was their chance to make it a series and perhaps turn the tide, which can tend to happen for the winner and loser of a multiple overtime game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pittsburgh was arguably the better team in regulation and had numerous chances throughout the first overtime, but Patrice Bergeron ended any hopes of this series becoming a lengthy battle with his goal 15:19 into the second OT. This makes the cut due to the high quality of play in Game 3, the nearly 100 minutes of hockey that took place and the fact that it was essentially the epitaph to a Penguins season that failed to live up to the ever-so-lofty standards they set for themselves.

Manu Ginobili Scale of Devastation Score (out of 10): 3.5

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

Penguins goalie and first-class media darling Tom Barrasso reacts to Florida fans littering the ice with vermin.

9. 1996 NHL Eastern Conference finals Game 7 – Panthers 3, Penguins 1

Pittsburgh was an offensive machine led by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, averaging 4.4 goals a game and scoring EIGHTY more than anyone in the Eastern Conference. Lemieux and Jagr combined for 310 points on what was the NHL’s last great offensive team. The Penguins score 362 times that regular season, and no one has scored more than 313 in an 82-game season since. This was just as much about who they were playing than the end result. Florida was in only its third year in the league and was in the playoffs for the first time. Pittsburgh went 32-9 at home during the regular season but was just 5-5 on its own ice in the playoffs, culminating with this Game 7 loss that remains the Panthers’ last postseason series victory 17 years later. Florida went on to get swept in the Stanley Cup finals rather than setting up what would have been a fascinating offensive showcase between the Penguins and Avalanche. Instead, this was Pittsburgh’s last great chance with Lemieux and Jagr at their peaks, but it went by the wayside to a team that threw rubber rats on the ice to celebrate goals.


I'm sure you're a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I'm still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

I’m sure you’re a nice guy, Dan Nystrom, but I’m still not sending you a Christmas card. (University of Minnesota)

8. 1999 NCAA Football Week 11 – Minnesota 24, Penn State 23

Penn State was the preseason No. 2 in the nation behind Florida State, and after starting 9-0 it seemed to be destined for a national championship showdown with the also-undefeated Seminoles. The Nittany Lions were led by an outstanding defense that would feature two of the top three picks in the 2000 NFL draft (Courtney Brown, LaVar Arrington), and I just so happened to be in attendance for this one, nine months before I’d begin my freshman year in Happy Valley. So, naturally, Penn State let this mediocre Minnesota team hang around until well into the second half, though it seemed like it would survive when Travis Forney’s 44-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter put the Nittany Lions up 23-21. Penn State even got the ball back with under five minutes to go but played conservatively, choosing to ride its top-ranked defense to victory. Except it never happened. Minnesota got the ball at its own 20 with 1:50 to go and marched 65 yards, completing a 4th-down Hail Mary and eventually kicking a 32-yard field goal as time expired. That started a downward spiral that included four losing seasons in five years – three of which I was, of course, in college to witness – and Penn State has never truly been the power it once was since. Oh, and far more significantly than this game, the architect of that great Penn State defense turned out to be using his position of power to sexually abuse children. Other than that, just another loss.


The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

The Heinz Field end zone tackled Troy Brown, or he may very well still be running. (Getty Images)

7. 2001 AFC Championship game – Patriots 24, Steelers 17

The Steelers were once again the class of the AFC in the regular season, going 13-3, outscoring opponents by a conference-best 140 points and featuring what was by far the NFL’s top-ranked defense. They were at home for their fourth conference championship game in eight seasons, two of which they had lost and the third of which they came within a whisker of losing as a 12-point favorite. Pittsburgh was favored by 10 in this one, but the oddsmakers forgot to weigh a few key factors – the Steelers’ dreadful special teams and the presence of Kordell Stewart. New England got on the board late in the first quarter via a Troy Brown 80-yard punt return touchdown and Pittsburgh never recovered, with an Antwan Harris blocked field goal TD return midway through the third putting the Pats up 21-3. The Steelers got within 21-17 but Stewart threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions and Drew Bledsoe – filling in for some injured rookie named Tom Brady – helped New England hold on. Stewart started five more games the following season before mercifully earning his ticket out of town, and Brady and the Patriots went on to win three Super Bowls in four years – again beating the Steelers at home for the AFC championship after the 2004 season. You may be starting to notice a preponderance of New England-related heartbreak on this list, but don’t worry – there’s more to come.


Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

Be sure to say hi to David Volek the next time he assists you at Radio Shack. (Getty Images)

6. 1993 NHL Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 – Islanders 4, Penguins 3 (OT)

The third and final entry involving the Penguins on this list, it’s debatable whether to put this higher or lower. On one hand, Pittsburgh had won the past two Stanley Cups, so bowing out of the playoffs and failing to three-peat (trademark: Pat Riley!) is hardly something to be ashamed of. On the other hand, this was EASILY the best of those three early 90s Penguins clubs. They’d set an NHL record with 17 straight wins, Lemieux had 160 points despite missing 22 games while being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the team had THREE 48-goal scorers. One of those, Kevin Stevens, went down with a nasty injury following a collision with the Islanders’ Rich Pilon early in Game 7, and New York built a 3-1 lead midway through the third period. The Penguins scored twice in the final four minutes to force overtime, though, and seemed to have all the momentum in the world heading into the locker room. But little-known winger David Volek scored his second goal of the game 5:16 into OT, ending Pittsburgh’s pseudo-dynasty and breaking the heart of 10-year-old me. Volek, in his fifth year in the NHL, scored twice more in the Islanders’ conference finals loss and had five more goals the following season before never playing again. The remainder of the Penguins’ Lemieux-Jagr years ended in playoff disappointment – one of which we covered earlier.


Sniffle. (AP)

Sniffle. (AP)

5. 2009 NBA Eastern Conference finals Game 4 – Magic 116, Cavaliers 114 (OT)

I probably could have gone with Game 1 as well in a series that seemed like a mere formality for James and the 66-win Cavs before they went head-to-head with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in the finals. That matchup never came to fruition, though, as Dwight Howard thoroughly dominated Cleveland’s empty interior, the Magic shot lights-out from 3-point range and the lack of a second offensive option weighed heavily in the Cavaliers’ collapse. Cleveland built a 16-point first-quarter lead in Game 1 before falling 107-106 and almost went down 2-0 before James’ miraculous 3-pointer at the buzzer saved it in Game 2. Orlando won Game 3 by 10, but this was the one the Cavs had to have to make it a series. Cleveland led by eight at the half but faltered down the stretch, losing in overtime despite 44 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists from James. The Cavs won Game 5 in Cleveland but never led in a 13-point loss in Game 6, ending the franchise’s best season in history as the writing on the wall began to appear that James’ next season in Cleveland could be his last. We’ll get to that, though.


Mario Manningham celebrates. I'm pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

Mario Manningham celebrates. I’m pretty sure I threw things. (The Michigan Daily)

4. 2005 NCAA Football Week 7 – Michigan 27, Penn State 25

This seems a bit early in the season for a college football loss to register as devastating, but just a week earlier, the Nittany Lions seemed to announce their return to college football prominence. They’d beaten sixth-ranked Ohio State in a raucous 17-10 home victory under the lights that literally left the stadium shaking, and next week had to make a trip to Ann Arbor to face a Michigan team they’d lost to six straight times. The Wolverines kept Penn State’s powerful offense off the board entirely until the final 10 seconds of the third quarter, and led 10-3 heading into what became a surreal final 15 minutes. Three touchdowns were traded in a 2:24 span early in the fourth before Garrett Rivas’ 47-yard field goal put Michigan ahead 21-18 with 3:45 left. Like he seemed to do so many times that year, quarterback Michael Robinson led Penn State back, taking his team 81 yards in 13 plays and scoring on a 3-yard run with 53 seconds left to grab a 25-21 lead. Unranked but hardly untalented, Michigan fought back, getting an outstanding kick return from Steve Breaston and going 53 yards from there, scoring with no time remaining on a strike from Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Penn State finished third in the BCS standings, behind USC and Texas. Had it held on at Michigan, it’s unclear whether the Nittany Lions would have spoiled the Trojans and Longhorns’ classic of a national title game. What they would have most certainly done was jump-start the conversation for a playoff, as that would have marked two years in a row with three major conference teams unbeaten in the regular season.


Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

Stan Humphries was the definition of an average quarterback. The Steelers followed through on their plan to make him above average. (Sports Illustrated)

3. 1994 AFC Championship game – Chargers 17, Steelers 13

The Steelers’ days of Super Bowl glory all happened prior to my arrival on this Earth, so one could understand my excitement as they tore through the AFC with a 12-4 record, the conference’s top seed and bounced the hated Browns for a third time with a 29-9 divisional round victory. It was time to sit back, relax and watch Pittsburgh pound the heavy underdog Chargers in the Steel City’s first AFC title game in 15 years. You, of course, know where this is headed. Up 13-3 in the third quarter, the Steelers allowed someone named Alfred Pupunu to break lose for a 43-yard touchdown catch on their vaunted defense, the same magical distance covered by Tony Martin on a TD reception with 5:13 to go in the fourth. Down 17-13, Neil O’Donnell led the Steelers down the field with time running short, but his fourth-down pass to Barry Foster fell incomplete in the end zone and 12-year-old me got my first serious lesson in taking a game for granted. The Chargers went on to get absolutely annihilated by San Francisco in the Super Bowl, while the Steelers made it to the big game next year. But this is the loss that set the tone that defined Bill Cowher’s career on the Pittsburgh sidelines. Five conference championships were played on the shores of the Allegheny in Cowher’s tenure and the Steelers won but one of those.


Dammit LeBron, I just can't quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

Dammit LeBron, I just can’t quit you. But you can quit me. (Washington Post)

2. 2010 NBA Eastern Conference semifinals Games 5/6 – Celtics 4, Cavaliers 2

The only spot on this list I felt had to be occupied by two games instead of one to tell the complete story. The Cavaliers bounced back from their ouster to Orlando to win 61 games even with James’ free agency the only story the media was interested in talking about for seven straight months. Cleveland was up 2-1 in the series when Boston won Game 4 at home, but that wasn’t unexpected. The series was shifting back to Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavs were 39-7. Sure, they’d lost Game 2 at home by 18 points in a complete and utter no-show, but that certainly wouldn’t happen again. Or would it? Cleveland led 29-21 early in the second quarter before the wheels began to fall off and the RV it was driving careened into the side of a mountain, spritzing gasoline on the city below before igniting in flames. The Celtics outscored the Cavs 99-59 over the final 34 minutes, James finished with 14 points on 3 of 14 shooting in arguably the worst performance of his life and seemed disinterested at the boos rained down in the arena he’d turned into a sold-out, opened-ended Broadway show. The series wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Cleveland played better back in Boston for Game 6, but James’ triple-double nearly became a quadruple-double due to his nine turnovers. His headband came off – hi there, Game 6 of the 2013 Finals! – and as he walked down the tunnel of the TD Garden and ripped off his wine and gold uniform, there was an overwhelming sense that jersey was never going back on. He was off into the night, beginning a two-month process of toying with the entire league’s emotions, and on that sticky July evening when the decision came down, the Cavaliers entered an abyss from which they’ve yet to emerge. There have been worse losses, but this one wasn’t about the end of a singular season. It was the end of an era, the end of a dynasty that never got going and the beginning of James being branded a traitor. James has come up short in playoff games before and since, but never has a player of his caliber delivered the absolute shit sandwich that he submitted in Game 5.


The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

The exact moment my childhood innocence was lost. Thanks, Sid.

1. 1992 National League Championship series Game 7 – Braves 3, Pirates 2

A moment that, quite frankly, the Pirates have yet to recover from, and I think one that any Pittsburgh fan still feels whenever he or she watches any team, anywhere, suffer a particularly gut-wrenching loss. It was the playful impetus for my Twitter handle, but there was nothing funny about what happened in the 9th inning at Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium during the hour 9-year-old me spent sobbing, disconsolate, on the couch as my parents wandered by and wondered when I’d get over it. For those unfamiliar, the Pirates were in their third straight NLCS, having fallen short in the previous two. They lost to these same Braves a year earlier in seven games, scoring a grand total of zero runs in the final two. This was the last hurrah as the team had been constructed, with Bobby Bonilla already gone to the New York Mets via free agency and Barry Bonds – then a skinny, speedy, twig of a man – and former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek headed out of town as well. This time it was the Pirates rallying to force a Game 7, scoring 20 total runs in winning the fifth and sixth games after falling down 3-1. Drabek pitched eight spotless innings in Game 7 and manager Jim Leyland decided to let him start the ninth rather than go to a bullpen that was shaky during the regular season and downright bad in the series against the Braves. Drabek ran into trouble, loading the bases with no outs via a double, an error and a walk, and Leyland brought in closer Stan Belinda. Atlanta cut the lead in half with Ron Gant’s sacrifice fly, Damon Berryhill walked to again load the bases but Brian Hunter popped out. Needing only one out to make it to their first World Series in 13 years, the Pirates saw Atlanta send pinch hitter Francisco Cabrera to the plate. Cabrera had 10 at-bats during the regular season and was a non-prospect approaching journeyman status, but he cemented his legacy in Braves history and Pirates nightmares by lacing a single into shallow left field. David Justice scored the tying run and former Pirate Sid Bream – carrying not a piano but an entire orchestra on his balky back – stumbled around third and slid into home, just under Mike LaValliere’s tag. The throw from Bonds in left wasn’t great, and that was his last act in Pittsburgh before ballooning up via illegal means and becoming baseball’s all-time home run king. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since. If ever a singular moment became the defining fork in the road for a franchise, it was Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS. Pittsburgh’s baseball club has been a laughingstock since, underspending, overdrafting and failing to properly evaluate talent from the top down. There are losses, and then there’s THIS loss.

Give me 60 years and I won’t forget it.

MGSODS: 11 out of 10