The Top of the World!

June 18, 2008

“This is a dream come true, and I’m going to cherish this forever.”–Captain Clutch.

Beautiful.

That’s the first word that comes to mind in summing up both the Boston Celtics’ game 6 NBA Championship clincher and the season as a whole.  Boston refused to believe the alpha dog theory that has hung in the air like His Airness since MJ established himself as unbeatable.  The best team won last night.  The best player lost.

Crisp passing, dependable defensive rotations, unselfish decisionmaking, accountability: the 2008 Boston bunch personified the definition of Celtic Basketball.

While the Celtics handed in a quintessential performance, Kobe and Krew submitted a virtuoso white flag waving no show.  After a hot start from profundity, Kobe cooled off, and his Laker teammates gave him no reason to believe passing them the ball would result in anything but missed opportunities.  Instead, aided by dominant Boston defense, Kobe missed shots.  The most prolific active scorer in the entire Association ended his season with 22 points on 22 shots, and averaged 25.7 points per game on .405 shooting for the series–by far his worst numbers of the postseason, and this after owning the superior Western Conference.

Meanwhile, Kobe’s counterparts, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, perfectly played their pivotal roles.  Each scored plenty, and in his own unique way.  Pierce from the line, in the paint, and when the moment called for it, from deep; Allen on fantastic finishes at the rim and raining jumpers that seemed to fall from the heavens.  A point somewhat lost during all the proclamations of “sacrificing” personal stats is this relationship.  Allen and Pierce used to play the same position, and put up similar numbers, but their differences allowed the Celtics a chance at resurgence.

Pierce is a physical beast, country strong.  He maneuvers by defenders almost at will, always awkwardly and at his pace.  He can rebound and score from the post.  And he’s a bit of a wild child, who has matured just in the nick of time.

The man known as Jesus has borderline OCD.  Literally.  He’s meticulous to a fault; but that fault leads to the purest stroke the world of basketball may have ever seen.  He can run the point in a pinch, and prefers the perimeter.

The combination of these two, along with the ever-aquiescent offensive game of The Big Ticket, formed the foundation of an 82-win squad.  Pierce seamlessly slid down the from the shooting guard slot to small forward, and he and Allen responded to Garnett’s dogged defensive determination.

Add a dose of Big Game James Posey and sharpshooting Eddie House, a Cousy wannabe at the point, a physical warrior at the pivot, some scrappy bench players who scoff at adversity, a bit of Ubuntu from Doc Rivers, and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive brilliance, and it would be, in theory, perfect. 

As the rout of a formidable opponent from the NBA’s dominant conference displayed in game 6, it was.

Turn a group of misfits that netted just 24 wins a year ago into an all-time great team capable of raising banner 17?

As KG shouted at the top of his lungs, having just informed legend Bill Russell he wouldn’t be taking up the eleven-time champion’s offer of a championship ring as a gift, “Anything’s possible!”

Light one up from heaven, Red.


From Euphoria to Phew

June 9, 2008

There might be fewer than five games left in the season for the Lakers after this man (apparently/hopefully) has learned to harness his team’s tremendous potential.

For the first three quarters of game 2 on Sunday night, basketball perfection had been acheived. The commitment to team defense, fearsome rebounding, crisp ball movement, and intelligent play that the Celtics exhibited throughout the first three quarters of the season, had returned to the Garden. Thoughts of winning it all well before game 6 or 7 in Boston sometime next week had crept into the minds of fans and players alike–and then the Lakers, themselves a snoozing giant, delivered the best team in the NBA a wake-up call.

Better yet, a slap to the face.

The Lakers put up an incredible 41 fourth-quarter points on the league’s best defense. And Kobe Bryant, who can’t even comprehend the meaning of the word “no,” led the way. The petulant posterboy displayed everything he brings to the table. Streaky shooting, a dominant personality (as seen in showing up teammates and referees–although the officials deserved it), and an impact on the game felt even when up 22 points with 12 measly minutes remaining.

But before we get to the awakening of KB24 and what it means for the (hopefully) now wide-awake Parquet Posse, let’s address the initial 3600 seconds of game 2.

Doc Rivers was nearly spotless. He’s learned how to coach a team with no legitimate weakness, to the point where watching his substitutions and timeouts no longer leads to potential aneurysms. Sam Cassell needs not step on the court, as a perfectly acceptable replacement for the alien warrior waits not sitting on the bench but leading the reserve Celtics a la Cedric Maxwell: Eddie House, the very man Cassell has replaced in the rotation. Otherwise, Doc outcoached Phil Jackson. Think about that.

Leon Powe played meaningful minutes. And dominated. The national media demonstrated its disbelief via the words of Mike Breen, ABC announcer, who called The Show’s performance the game of his life. Not so.

Leon is a talented, but undersized power forward. Given a couple more inches he would have found himself selected in the lottery two years ago. Instead, fortune fell upon the Celtics, who managed to acquire the rebounding, scoring, and charge-taking inspiration for meager portions.

Paul Pierce carried the offense in the first half and late when necessary. Kevin Garnett made up for a slow shooting start by picking up the slack that a less-than-stellar night from Kendrick Perkins on the boards required. Ray Allen gave Kobe fits early on and fired away from deep, demonstrating his deft touch from the corner three. Put simply, the Boston Three Party did what it should do.

Rajon Rondo lived up to expectations. Lofty expectations, the kind the Green Giant, Tommy Heinsohn, placed upon him as a rookie. Maybe Rajon hasn’t reached Cousy comparisons just yet, but an 8:1 assist to turnover ratio ain’t bad. Add 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block to his 16 assists and 4 points and you’ve got yourself the true point guard this year’s version of Gang Green requires.

P.J. Brown once again stepped up off the bench for Perk, and James Posey continued his solid season of defense, rebounding, and lethal long-range daggers.

In short, the Celtics were 75% perfect.

Now, on to the other 25%.

The Celtics doubtlessly lost their focus after 36 minutes of beautiful Boston basketball. The Lakers, on the other hand, finally decided to show up. L.A. appeared listless for most of the game, with only an efficient first half from Pau Gasol and a late burst from Kobe and friends in the fourth to contradict the rest of their night’s work. The Lake Show looked like a collection of talent, rather than a team, and a collection that hadn’t yet learned to mesh against a squadron willing to take a charge or play chest-to-chest defense.

But, after a phenomenal fourth quarter from the Lakers, each city can take solace in what it saw from the two best teams in basketball.

The Lakers are not done. It’s always nice to know you’re not D.O.A. when heading home for your season’s final three games in front of season ticket holders.

Conversely, remembering that your opponent is worthy never hurts before flying coast to coast for three games at the Staples Center.

So, it’s now up to each team to prove which part of Sunday night’s game was the anomaly. The majority of the game, or the freak final period?

Down two games to none against the best team the NBA has to offer, Phil Jackson better convince his team that the 7 mediocre quarters his squad put forth in Boston were the outliers, otherwise Red Auerbach will remain alone above the man who made Michael MJ.


An Innings Jump Update

May 8, 2008

 

For those of you who conspire to the Pitch and Innings Counts Are Hogwash Theory, here’s a quick update on Cleveland Indians aces Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia.

Last season, in the process of finishing with the best record in baseball and nearly reaching the World Series, LeBron’s second favorite team rode its two best starters hard.  And I mean hard.

Sabathia, on his way to winning the Cy Young over stiff competition, threw 48.1 more innings than the previous year, and 31 innings more than his career high, set five seasons prior.  In fact, Sabathia hadn’t topped 200 since his career-high 210 innings in 2002.  And we’re talking pre-postseason numbers here.  Forget the 15.1 gassed innings he threw to the tune of an 8.80 ERA against the best the AL East had to offer in the playoffs.

His co-ace and failed closer turned dominant starter, Fausto Carmona, made Sabathia’s incredible 48.1 inch vertical leap seem routine, even for a man with a listed weight of 290 pounds.

Carmona unleashed enough darting sinkers and killer off-speed deliveries in 2007 to post a sexy 3.06 ERA in 215 Major League innings at a mere 23 years of age.  Factor in additional postseason pitches and the young Dominican becomes a prime candidate for regression and injury in 2008 and beyond.  Before his initial callup last season Carmona’s career had followed a sound progression.  From 2003-2005, Fausto’s innings climbed by an average of slightly under 10 per year, up to 173.2 the season before he was summoned to help the big club.  Unfortunately, here’s where the planned faltered.  Had Carmona entered the starting rotation and thrown 185-190 innings in 2006, he could have reasonably thrown the 215 he unfurled at unfortunate hitters in 2007.  But, when the bullpen self-destructed two years ago, Carmona was thrust into the roll of closer, which set back his eventual rise to acedom and helped David Ortiz add to his ever-growing mystique.

The result was a tally of only 102.1 innings in 2006, meaning last year Carmona leapt an astounding 112.2 frames from his previous season, and 41.1 over his career high.  Again, none of this even takes into consideration the tremendous stress of pitching in October–when he pitched allowed 13 hits, 12 walks, and 12 earned runs in notching only 45 outs.

Consequently, both cornerstones of the Indians’ title chances are struggling. 

Sabathia’s issues can’t be ignored, and might cost him heaps of millions of dollars in free agency this winter.  The lefty of lofty largesse has a 7.51 ERA, a 1.77 WHIP, and 37 strikeouts versus 18 bases on balls in 38.1 innings.  Not quite the guy with a 5.65 K/BB ratio the year before.

Carmona’s struggles are less easily picked up by the untrained eye.  In 39.2 innings he’s permitted 40 hits and 31 walks, compared with only 15 punchouts.  Last year he notched a 2.25 K/BB ratio to go with his dominant 3.28 ground ball to fly ball ratio.  This year he’s still forcing hitters to pound the ball into the ground, with an exceptional 3.71 rating, but his solid 2.95 ERA hinders more on luck than his performance.  Carmona has given up only one homerun in 2008, an absurdly low total given an opponents batting average of .276.  When lady luck leaves Carmona, his low ERA will do the same.  An opponents on-base percentage of .408 does not bode well.

 

 

Likely comeback player of the year Cliff Lee could be the next to feel the wrath of an overwhelming innings leap on the shores of Lake Eerie.

There’s always a chance that Carmona convinces his lady to stay with him for the remainder of the year, or that Sabathia “makes adjustments” and regains his 2007 form, but most likely we’re looking at a lost season for the Indians’ two best starters, and probably the team, which sits at two games under .500 in early May.  All this after World Series prognostications from many during Spring Training.  Fortunately for Cleveland, Cliff Lee has returned to Lake-side, and with him brought his rotationmates some relief, but after throwing only 145.1 three-out-sessions of his own last season, the cycle in Cleveland might just be turning itself over.


The Rays ARE Contenders

May 1, 2008

Despite now being D-less, the Rays are off to a hot start.

The Tampa {(Bay) Devil} Rays are currently allowing 4.0 runs per game!

This should be headline news because it’s quite a change from recent, and past, and the team’s entire, history.  Last season the Rays gave up a breathtaking 5.8 each contest.  Those nearly two runs a game the Rays have netted themselves have converted an MLB-worst .407 winning percentage into a nice .571 mark heading into the weekend’s matchup with the first place Red Sox, who rest just one half game ahead of these pesky sea creatures from the south.

While most will call Tampa’s early start a fluke, the team is not playing significantly above its collective head.  Last season the Bay Bashers scored 4.8 runs per game; they’re plating 4.8 thus far in 2008.  Furthermore, TB’s early season production shouldn’t drop significantly with Carl Crawford and Carlos Peña underperforming even their lowest expectations and the failure up the middle of Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura, as well as the imminent return of the promising Rocco Bald…well, nevermind on the last one.  While Eric Hinske will surely tail off, he remains the lone Ray performing above his ability offensively.  The difference has clearly been the pitching–and there’s no fluke here either.

I guess it’s not so bad being a Rays fan after all.

The pen has been excellent, which is likely to change considering the nature of its make-up (mostly above-average vets pitching out of their minds), but excellent should merely fade toward quality.  The starting rotation has been mostly solid, highlighted by James Shields’ 2.54 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 39 innings pitched and Edwin Jackson’s surprising 3.86 ERA in 30.1 innings.  This is a staff sure to face some growing pains–that’s what happens when James Shields is your rotation’s elder statesman at only 26. 

But, while regression can be expected from individual starters, there is reason to believe collective regression will not occur.  Scott Kazmir is set to make his first start of the season this weekend against Boston, whom he has routinely baffled, Matt Garza has missed signicant time and underperformed when on the mound, and a slew of pitching prospects continue to develop their repertoires in the minors (Jake McGee, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, David Price, et al).  

This year’s version of the AL East’s perennial doormat is fully capable of staying in the hunt until September, most likely ending the season between 80-85 victories and finishing third in the division.  But with the struggles in New York and Toronto, along with the inevitable fall from grace in Baltimore, Tampa could even sneak as high as second, finishing in the top half of baseball’s richest division for the first time in the team’s history.

Couple Tampa’s current success with impending arrivals of young talent the Mickey Mouse Club would envy (including the number one overall pick in the draft this summer), a stylish new ballpark on the horizon, and pillars entrenched at first, third, left, and center, and you’ve got yourself quite a future.  Now if they could only get this name business straightened out.


Something’s Brewin’ on Causeway

April 24, 2008

The face of the next-gen Big Bad Bruins.

After the shock of turning the young face of the franchise, Joe Thornton, into three role players, of which only Marco Sturm remains, gloom encompassed Causeway Street for quite some time.  With the recent conclusion of the 2007-2008 season, one that saw Bruins beat writers pen more Trials and Tribulations than Lupe Fiasco, it appears gray skies have lifted with the arrival of Spring.

The team displayed unwavering grit in the face of perhaps more adversity than any other franchise in the NHL this season, and battled the top-seeded Canadiens to the brink in round one.  And there’s more good news to come.

What do Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Phil Kessel, Petteri Nokelainen, Vladimir Sobotka, Tukkaa Rask, and Mark Stuart all have in common?  Each is 22-years-old or younger.

Throw in Chuck Kobasew (26), Andrew Alberts (26) and Dennis Wideman (25) and you have a starting netminder, three defensemen, and six forwards already contributing for the big club to build a promising team around.

But, it gets better.

Next we have the prime-of-their-lives captaincy troika of Zdeno Chara (31), Marc Savard (30), and Sturm (29).  And legitimate number one netminder Tim Thomas for one more year.

Total it up and you’ve got both goaltending positions filled, four quality defensemen, and eight potential point producing forwards.  The Bruins also have Andrew Ference, Shane Hnidy, Glen Murray, Manny Fernandez, Peter Schaefer, and P.J. Axelsson to use or lose, and with some creative moves from GM Peter Chiarelli the B’s could turn cap space into someone capable of putting them over the top–think Marian Hossa.

There’s plenty still to be done before next year’s roster truly takes shape, but it appears the gray skies we’ve grown accustomed to over the past few season have morphed into a clear, starry night.  With jovial Jumbo Joe gone and militant Cam Neely-wannabe Milian Lucic on the scene, the Big Bad Bruins might just be back.


Youthful Sox Fun to Watch

April 24, 2008

The ladies like watching young studs like Jacoby Ellsbury too.

Although Tim Wakefield is both a valuable commodity and a respected veteran, I have to admit, I loathe watching his starts. When I go to Sox games, I pray (actually I merely hope whole-heartedly, since I doubt there’s a God out there with the assigned task of monitoring sports fans’ every desire) that I get someone else’s start–watching Wake is almost as bad as watching Daisuke on one of his bad days.

My issue with the Nation’s elder statesman (I don’t support using the term “Nation” but it was such a nice phrase I couldn’t pass it up) is boredom. Honestly, while his knuckleball is probably the single most unique pitch in baseball, it’s not overly interesting. Next time I want to see someone throw low-70s fastballs and most pitches in the 60s I’ll watch a tape of myself.

All this bemoaning another man making a living has a point, one I’m just now getting around to. The Red Sox have become the developmental machine GM Theo Epstein envisioned when he took over the front office a handful of years ago.

Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Craig Hansen, Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jed Lowrie, Brandon Moss, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia have been prominently featured thus far in 2008. That’s a whopping eleven homegrown products, and it doesn’t even factor in Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, both MLB virgins before coming to Titletown, or Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett, whom Boston acquired by sending a small squadron of talented youngsters down to Miami during Epstein’s brief hiatus as a gorilla.

Furthmore, several potential impact players bide their time in the minors as you read, such as next year’s likely Tek replacement/new caddy, George Kottaras, a couple more intriguing arms in Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard, and middle of the order bat of the future Lars Anderson. Within a few years the team could boast upwards of 15 or more original Sox on its 25 man roster–quite a change from the group of primarily mercenary mashers/mound-mystifiers of 2004.

Does it really matter who gets the job done so long as it gets done? Not so much, but at least for me, it’ll be a lot more entertaining watching insiders perform their perfuntory physical tasks with electric fastballs and blazing speed over wily old men whose fastballs I could hit.

Viva la juventud!


And the Winner Is…

April 17, 2008

There are four 2008 NBA MVP candidates in most people’s eyes.  I would venture to say there’s a fifth, Amare Stoudamire, but since he’ll get no votes you needn’t worry about his fantastic feats out in Phoenix.

The MVP ballot will be explained ad nauseum until no one cares for longer than anyone wants to hear or read about, so I’m just going to keep it simple.  Here’s my top five, based partially on stats but mostly just on feel since that’s how everyone else does it anyways.

5. Amare Stoudamire–He’s improved his numbers dramatically after moving to the four, which is noteworthy because he was already an incredible player.

4. Kobe Bryant–His ironman act has to count for something, and unlike Amare, he can play defense too.

3. LeBron James–The King is the best talent in basketball, and perhaps sports.  His team is terrible and this hurts him, but otherwise he would be number one.

2. Kevin Garnett–Defensive metrics show he’s off the charts–undeniably the best defensive player in the game–and his season has been about so much more.  Unfortunately, he missed 11 games (well, perhaps fortunately for Celtics fans, since he got some rest) and that’s going to cost him the award.  Had he not been injured I expect he would have finished the season with 80 games played and a couple more minutes per game, and about a 26.50 PER–which coupled with his defense would have made him my top dawg (to steal a line from Chris Talanian).

1. Chris Paul–He wins thanks to pilfering hands, carrying his team like only LeBron can do otherwise, and the second best offensive stats in the game.  Oh, and saving basketball in New Orleans was cool, too bad he doesn’t own the Sonics too.