Tuesday, May 27, 2008
What's more, Atlanta continues to get this done with a rotation of Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine, Jair Jurrjens (whose name I no longer have to look up to spell correctly), Jorge Campillo and Jo-Jo Reyes. It ain't what you thought it'd be on Opening Day, but right now it's enough.
So the task at hand moves ever forward to the next day, as it always does in baseball. This week is as good of an opportunity you're going to get to prove you can win on the road - a six game swing through Milwaukee and then Cincinnati, the two bottom teams in the NL Central. And they'll need to keep it up, because on the tail end is a four game homestand with the Marlins followed by three with the Phillies. All told, the Braves will play 21 games in 20 days during this stretch barring any rainouts, with no days off between May 19 and the next one on June 9.
51 games into the season, here's a look at the numbers:
Tim Hudson - 11 starts, 7-3, 2.97 ERA
Jair Jurrjens - 11 starts, 5-3, 2.86
Tom Glavine - 9 starts, 2-2, 4.76
John Smoltz - 5 starts, 3-2, 2.00
Jo-Jo Reyes - 5 starts, 2-2, 5.84
Chuck James - 5 starts, 2-3, 8.22
Jorge Campillo - 2 starts, 1-0, 0.86
Jeff Bennett - 40.1 innings, 0-2, 3.57, 1 save
Blaine Boyer - 29.2 innings, 1-3, 3.94, 1 save
Manny Acosta - 25.2 innings, 3-1, 2.81, 3 saves
Will Ohman - 20.1 innings, 1-0, 3.10, 1 save
Chris Resop - 18.1 innings, 0-1, 5.89
Team Pitching - 3.61 ERA (2nd in NL), 196 runs allowed (1st in NL), 8 saves (last in NL), 41 HR allowed (4th in NL)
C Brian McCann - .333, 9 HR, 32 RBI
1B Mark Teixeira - .267, 5 HR, 31 RBI
2B Kelly Johnson - .297, 5 HR, 22 RBI
3B Chipper Jones - .416, 12 HR, 35 RBI
SS Yunel Escobar - .310, 4 HR, 22 RBI
LF Matt Diaz - .248, 2 HR, 14 RBI
CF Mark Kotsay - .294, 4 HR, 21 RBI
RF Jeff Francoeur - .262, 5 HR, 32 RBI
Team Batting - .283 (2nd in NL), 46 HR, 246 total runs (4.8 per game)
You can make arguments that the Braves will ultimately come up short again in the playoff chase. But if you want to be optimistic like I do, there's a lot out there - the still insane 2-12 record in one run games, the road woes that could get better, and the soon and probable arrival of John Smoltz, Rafael Soriano and Mike Gonzalez to the Atlanta bullpen, which has performed tremendously in makeshift fashion since losing Soriano to the DL and Peter Moylan for the season. The Braves have strong upside in a division that appears to be wide open - no one believes in the Fish, the Mets are imploding right now (though that could certainly change) and the Phillies and Braves are both five over .500.
This road swing can be a nice change of pace in getting that away record up, and good teams should go on the road against lesser competition and perform well. The Braves still have plenty of doubters top to bottom, but this week and beyond are more and more chances to prove them wrong and keep up the long push towards October.
Monday, May 26, 2008
One of the great things about my generation, the kids who grew up in the 80s, is that we got in on the ground floor of the video game industry. That industry has grown so much in the last 25 years that a few weeks ago, Grand Theft Auto IV made $310 million in its first 24 hours. By comparison, the fastest-selling theatrical release of all-time is Spider-Man 3, which made a paltry $60 million on its first day. The last installment of the Harry Potter series made $220 million in its first 24 hours. New entries in modern classic video game series like GTA and Halo have the potential to be the most lucrative entertainment format in the world.
Lots of those copies were probably bought by teenagers and parents of younger children - which raises a whole different set of questions when it comes to Grand Theft Auto - whose first experience with video games came on a PlayStation 2. And it's hard to go back - for example, I know several people who really enjoyed 2001's Final Fantasy X on the PS2, but when I recommended that they go back and play Final Fantasy VI (Super Nintendo, 1994) or even Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation, 1997), both of which are widely considered to be among the greatest video games of all time and unquestionably the two best in the Final Fantasy series, a large percentage of them scoffed at the notion simply because of the inferior graphics.
(VI on top, X on the bottom)
The older I get, and the more it becomes apparent that video games are clearly not a fad, but a multi-million dollar forefront industry that offers interaction that books and movies cannot and something that is without a doubt here to stay, the more I continue to be thankful that I can remember unwrapping a Nintendo Entertainment System and a boatload of games (thanks grandma), wrapped in aluminum foil, back in 1986.
I can't remember much about Intellivision or Atari before that, though we had them in our household as well. But I do remember going up the street to my friend's house in first grade and seeing Super Mario Bros, and then begging my parents to jump on board.
It's a unique perspective we have, because it makes you appreciate everything. I remember how much cooler Mega Man 2 was than the original. Whenever someone younger than me talks about "the most anticipated video game of all time", I tell them they have no idea what it was like to go see The Wizard just to get a glimpse at Super Mario Bros 3. Kids today who are on Madden Nation can't possibly appreciate Tecmo Bowl, which means they really couldn't appreciate Tecmo Super Bowl, which might be the most progressive sports game of all time. The lineage from 10 Yard Fight runs through Tecmo Bowl, Tecmo Super Bowl, Madden 92, Bill Walsh College Football, and to all the NCAAs and Maddens we enjoy today. There's a reason that while I'm waiting for the July 15 release of NCAA Football 09 on my XBOX 360, I find myself biding time playing Tecmo Bowl on the Wii's Virtual Console.
You've come a long way, baby.
And so I would argue that no greater progressive leap is found from system to system, generation to generation, than the one between Nintendo and Super Nintendo (and the Sega Genesis). Because sure, Super Mario 64 looks a whole lot better than Super Mario World. But the difference there isn't as great as it was from Mario 3 to Mario World. And it is mainly for this reason that the old SNES is still my favorite video game system of all time.
The Genesis got a head start, though it took almost two years between the Genesis' release and the arrival of Sonic the Hedgehog, which made you pay attention; the same way I remember going to my friend's house and seeing Mario for the first time, I remember that Putt-Putt Golf and Games had a couple of Genesises (that might be a new word there), and my friends and I all had our birthday parties there just to get the chance to spend a few minutes with Sonic and Lakers vs. Celtics and the NBA Playoffs. It was the appeal of that particular game that made me want one, and so we got one. But by this time, my parents were getting worried that I was spending too much time playing video games, and apparently I was writing about them a lot in school, so they enacted the "weekends only" rule, and also refused to buy a SNES when it was released later that same year, because we already had a Genesis. Glad to see their efforts to curb my video game writing and enthusiasm worked.
So for me, Super Nintendo became the Holy Grail. My friends had one, but my parents would not relent. So while I developed an attachment to games like Streets of Rage on the Genesis, my best memories were still of Mario, and most of all, The Legend of Zelda.
Where the appeal of Mario is that almost everyone will pick it up and find some level of enjoyment, the Zelda franchise is a different animal. From the beginning with its first incarnation back on the NES in 1987 (in America), it required patience and thought on a level that Mario did not. And those hallmarks have only gotten stronger through time. It's not for everybody, but it was for me.
So with the release of a new next generation Zelda game imminent in the year following the SNES launch, I had to be able to play it. We lived in Knoxville, but my grandparents lived in Memphis. And it's to their credit that I have such a deep love for video games, though I'm not sure if they'd be honored or horrified by that. What I do know is that good grandparents spoil their grandchildren, and so I'm pretty sure that I had 100+ NES games thanks to them. So we went back to the well in the summer of 1992 - my grandparents have a huge farm that's still my favorite spot on earth, and when my sisters and I were growing up we'd spend weeks and weeks down there during summer vacation. In 1992, we started going to Blockbuster and renting a SNES for the duration of my visits. And it was via these means that I was able to get my hands on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
Again, the gap between 8 and 16 bit was more noticable than any other generational difference. Take a look at the original Zelda, and then go play Link to the Past. Point being: if you loved the original NES games, Link to the Past was like you had died and gone straight to heaven. Depth and storyline and gameplay and soundtrack and graphics and all of the above. If you asked me to pick my favorite video games ever, and then asked me the even more difficult question of the greatest video games ever made, Link to the Past is going to be in the top three on either list. There was just nothing like it, or the experience, at the time.
Again, Zelda isn't for everyone. It's what I'd call an adventure game that toes the line of a role-playing game. And as strong as the SNES was for individual titles like Super Mario World and Link to the Past, what it did for RPGs changed the industry.
Ask any RPG fan what his or her favorite game is, and they're either going to say Final Fantasy VII, or something on the SNES. FFVII changed everything in a different way that I'm sure we'll get to one of these days, because I still believe that it's the greatest video game ever made and a definitive watershed in the industry. But a lot of people love that game because it was something new to them. Everyone else fell in love with the genre years earlier.
You might find a few people who played the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games on the NES and will tell you they loved them back then. Among the 100+ NES games I owned were both Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, but I never really got deep into them. For one, they required even more patience than Zelda, and as I was nine years old when I played Final Fantasy, I just don't think I had it in me. But more than that, it was still an eight bit game, and so there was no story.
I mean, there was a story - light warriors save the world, all that jazz - but there was zero character development. I could deal with this in Zelda because as an elementary school child, I could still walk around with a sword and some bombs and do some damage. But when you're reduced to text based "Fight - Magic - Item - Run" options and there's no real story or character there to save it...it didn't do it for me.
Because of this, and the SNES-in-Memphis issues, I skipped Final Fantasy IV (II in the US) when it was released in 1991. If I had given it a chance, this story might be different. But instead, I didn't give RPGs another try for a long, long time. No FFIV meant no FFVI (III in the US) when it was released in 1994. By this time, I'd won the battle of the SNES - my parents were going to make me switch schools in seventh grade, and the bargaining chip to get me to agree was moving the SNES to Knoxville. After four days at the new school, they decided to let me return to Alcoa. That's what we call a win-win-win situation.
But the weekends only rule was still in effect, which would've hurt my chances with any RPGs anyway. So I stayed the course with games like Street Fighter II that you could enjoy in small doses. And I kept up with things - in the pre-internet days, Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly were must-have publications. And so it was in one of those that I started seeing these advertisements for a new game, in 1995.
Anyone who knows and loves this game has a story that goes with it. EarthBound may not be the greatest video game ever made, but it is definitely my favorite. And so this is mine.
Actually, there were two games being promoted at that time. One was EarthBound, which seemed quirky and interesting to me. The SNES was still making the treck to Memphis in the summertime, and my grandparents were still taking me to Blockbuster, where for two weeks every year I sampled about a dozen SNES games in short bursts. Which also would've been bad for RPG play. For whatever reason, I skipped over EarthBound at Blockbuster when it was released that summer.
The other one was Chrono Trigger.
Somehow, Chrono Trigger managed to sell itself like Zelda - and we hadn't seen one of those on the SNES in four years - while disguising the fact that it was really an RPG, which would've turned me off. I saw the picture on the box of this redheaded guy and a sword on fire jumping at some creature, and I had seen the graphics and a cryptic advertisement in Nintendo Power or EGM about time, and it really sold me. My birthday is in October, and so that year I got Chrono Trigger.
Some other day, we'll come back and do it justice. But Chrono Trigger opened the world of RPG back up for me. I remember being mad the first time I got in a fight in the game and saw that old familiar "Attack - Magic - Item - Run" box pop up. But then, thanks to the graphics and the already involved story by the time you fight at the festival, I stayed invested. The random encounters were on screen, and even though it seemed a little boring to push "Attack", the animations were so good and better than anything I'd ever seen, it kept me entertained. By the time I got to the courtroom scene just a few hours in, I was absolutely hooked. And the rest, like we said, is for another day.
As video games continue to rise in popularity, you can see RPG elements in games outside the genre. Because the driving point behind any format of entertainment always comes down to story. And as technology improved over time, the ability to tell a good story and one you could interact with has done likewise. You can take some of the best RPGs of all time and put their stories up against novels and films, and they will stand the test of time. New era games, most recently BioShock, combine the best of RPG elements and modern technology to create better and better experiences. But it all started with the SNES.
When the summer of 96 rolled around, I was 14 years old and had enough patience to deal with RPGs, even though they weren't all going to be Chrono Trigger. But when I headed back down to Memphis that year, and found myself at Blockbuster again, I was open to new ideas.
And so I came across EarthBound again. In that giant box with the player's guide (though not at Blockbuster, of course). And so I decided to give it a try.
It's surprising what can draw you into games, the little things that you remember. I remember the music that plays while you're naming your characters, and how cool I thought it was. Can't even tell you why - it was unique - but I really liked it.
The main characters are kids - Ness is supposed to be 13, I think - and being 14 myself in that summer of 96, I liked the way it presented that aspect. It's also a modern setting - all other RPGs at this time were still dungeons and dragons, but EarthBound was set in modern culture, with baseball bats instead of swords, while still capturing magic and powers and a chance to save the world. EarthBound is unique.
It almost lost me right away - the first encounter I got in and the battle screen pops up, I see that all those cool animations I loved about Chrono Trigger aren't going to be present in this one: I can't see Ness hit somebody with a baseball bat, and even the magic spell animations are pretty lame (I say to myself at the time). Then it almost loses me with sheer degree of difficulty - an early boss with with Frank was incredibly tough, especially when you don't know to dig through trashcans to find extra hamburgers to give you life (yeah, it's that sort of game).
But I push through, and just the way it looks keeps growing on me. This game has charm, in look and feel, in soundtrack and especially in story. It doesn't ring of epic the way Chrono Trigger or Link to the Past do from the very beginning, but instead, it rings of fun.
I keep going until eventually I reach a particularly difficult section called Peaceful Rest Valley. You're still plodding along by yourself as Ness at this point, enemies are getting cruel with status ailments the way they always do in RPGs, and I'm struggling to stay alive. There's no map and I keep walking in circles and dying. And then, I run into this:
And get so mad with the ridiculous nature of this game, that it goes back to Blockbuster and I go back to Knoxville.
A year passes. And for some reason, I can't get this game out of my head. I keep trying to figure out why there's a pencil-shaped iron statue there, and what I missed to not be able to get past it (which was, of course, go back to Twoson). The look and feel of the game stays with me. And just as importantly, I don't fall in love with any other RPGs during that year - I still stay away from Final Fantasy and just to back to playing Mortal Kombat with my friends.
But when summer 97 rolls around, I can't wait to get back to Memphis to give it another go. It came around at the perfect time in my life - I'd start working the next summer and lose the sense of total freedom and no responsibilities that kids always take for granted with summer vacation. When I got back in the game and got past the statue, I found that the sense of fun and charm I had about this game would only continue to grow, and that it would also grow into something epic.
Beyond that pencil statue are a village of cultists who want to paint the world blue, a zombie-infested town that takes the game on the brilliant turn of shifting the entire scene from Ness and Paula in Threed to Jeff in Winters, another shift later that introduces Poo - because if I was a karate master, I'd want to be named Poo - Fourside and Moonside, and a billion other things that grow on and with you as the game progresses. The game builds upon itself without ever taking itself too seriously, and without ever losing its identity or its sense of just pure fun. It's a game where you save the world and have more fun doing it than anywhere else.
EarthBound is not for everybody. I think today some people make the mistake of thinking that it is and then wondering why people don't get it. The road is narrow. But for those who do love and appreciate it, everybody has a favorite something when it comes to this game. Everybody has a story. For me, the game transcended the moment I had to put the controller down and wait three minutes. EarthBound broke down the wall between the game and the player with things like this - later asking me, you know, the one holding the controller, to input my name. Years later, at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 when the game turns upside down and really plays a clever trick on you, it felt vaguely familiar because EarthBound had already mastered the wink and the nod that yes, it knows it's a video game, and it's okay with that.
It was also okay with fart jokes, which at 14 (and yes, at 26) I enjoyed. The same way that the courtroom scene in Chrono Trigger (and the more famous opera house scene in Final Fantasy VI) took you out of your routine and made you feel like you were a part of a bigger world in this game, sitting down at a club and watching The Runaway Five in EarthBound gave a similar experience. Going back and playing through the game again as an adult, the humor in the game is both elementary and very smart. It's just a very unique total package.
In between all that is a chase for Pokey, who's on an opposite journey than Ness and the good guys. And EarthBound includes a great detail that we always love about great movies and video games - when you're really enjoying it and you think it's about to end, you find that there's in fact much more there. After collecting the final piece of the melody you need and expecting to then take on the game's true villain, Giygas, the game first transports you Magicant, a level in Ness's subconscious, then returns you to Onett where the game began for more enjoyable fighting before you take the final journey to meet Giygas. The game keeps giving.
And then there's Giygas, who pulls off a rare feat in video games: he's never seen nor heard from directly until you finally come "face to face" with him/it at the end, but still manages to inspire terror. As a 15 year old kid playing this game, hearing Pokey talk about turning off the Devil's Machine and revealing the true form of Giygas scared the crap out of me the first time I went through it. Pokey provides all the personality of the villain, but Giygas provides the real fear.
The final battle is also very unique and satisfying. The fight with Pokey just before also includes some of my favorite music in all of video games, and then facing Giygas and finally beating him is one of my favorite memories from playing any video game. The extended, "this'll go on as long as you want it to" ending just caps the whole experience. At the time, I thought EarthBound was one of the most unique and most enjoyable video games I'd ever played.
After beating it, we took the game back to Blockbuster, and then went right next door to Wal-Mart, and I bought it.
Since then, I've played thru and beaten EarthBound from start to finish more than any other game. First on the dying SNES, and later on various emmulators. And every single time, I find something new and I enjoy it more, which I'm not sure I can say for any other RPG. It goes beyond replay value - this game is ingrained in my childhood and has become ingrained in my life. It doesn't get old and it keeps getting better. This game is just special. And the thing is, for all the explaining and the stories and everything...you really just have to play it to understand.
And so it comes to this today - I want to tell other people about this game and give them the chance to experience it. And one of the greatest selling points of the Wii is the Virtual Console, that allows you to go back and download old NES/SNES/Genesis/N64 games and play them again.
But 18 months after the Wii's release, EarthBound still hasn't found its way to the Virtual Console. Which should really come as no surprise based on Nintendo's history with the EarthBound/Mother (the series' name in Japan) community.
There's an original Mother that was released in Japan on the NES equivalent, was translated into English but never released in America. Mother 2 became EarthBound in 1995. A sequel was planned back in 1996 but eventually scrapped after a long and torturous history for the Nintendo 64. It was then reborn for the Game Boy Advance and released in Japan two years ago. And in the last two years, Nintnedo has made no move to bring it to the rest of the world.
There's more than a decade of waiting involved here. Carrying the torch during that time has been Starmen.net, a site I've checked at least weekly for the last decade and daily since Mother 3 was announced, waiting every day with hope of either Mother 3 in America, or at least EarthBound on the Virtual Console. 10+ years of waiting for a sequel has created the strongest and most proactive "cult" video game fanbase in existence - the folks at Starmen have launched several innovative campaigns to get Nintendo's attention and bring some love our way, but thus far, no dice. There's recently been hope, as EarthBound was rated by the ESRB for what should be an impending Virtual Console release, but Mondays keep coming and going and still no EarthBound in the weekly VC update.
The only glimmer of hope has actually been the much more popular Super Smash Bros. series, which has seen Ness as a playable character in all three installments, and recently saw Mother 3's Lucas in the Wii incarnation, as well as a stage from Mother 3. If you've ever played SSB: Brawl and wondered who those two kids are...that's EarthBound. And still...we wait.
But if there's one thing positive about the waiting, it's that I think it's actually made the EarthBound/Mother community both stronger, and it's made us all love and appreciate EarthBound even more.
There’s a certain percentage of the video game community who already knows about EarthBound’s plight, but I still think there are countless others who’ve never played or even heard of it, who would enjoy it. In 2008, EarthBound is arguably most famous for the struggle between Nintendo and its fans, moreso than the game itself. And maybe in some twisted way, the long struggle would be the best thing that ever happened to EarthBound, if it’s eventually released on the Virtual Console to an entirely new audience. If a community is willing to hold out this long, there must be something to it right? Its fans will certainly do everything imaginable and then some to ensure it reaches the masses - which is in very small part one of the aims of this post in the first place.
This game is special and fun, and today I consider it not one of, but the most unique and most enjoyable video game I've ever played. Next week is the 13th anniversary of the game's US release, which will be another day that EarthBound fans try to find a reason that this will be the week we finally see some light from Nintendo. We'll see. But no matter what, EarthBound stands on its own merit no matter what Nintendo does. This game stinks. And you should definitely check it out.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
It'll be here before you know it...but in the meantime, ESPN.com wrapped up their BCS at 10 feature this week, including a great story from Chris Low on how the BCS has affected the SEC. In that piece, he picks the Top 10 players, games, teams and moments from the BCS era in the SEC, which is another one of those lists that evokes strong nostalgia and emotions.
Chris Low's picks:
1. Darren McFadden RB Arkansas
2. Glenn Dorsey DT LSU
3. Champ Bailey DB Georgia
4. Tim Tebow QB Florida
5. Jevon Kearse DE/LB Florida
6. Al Wilson LB Tennessee
7. Eli Manning QB Ole Miss
8. Shaun Alexander RB Alabama
9. Cadillac Williams RB Auburn
10. David Pollack DE Georgia
1. 2007 - Arkansas 50 LSU 48 (3 OT)
2. 1999 - Alabama 40 Florida 39 (OT)
3. 2006 - Florida 17 South Carolina 16
4. 2002 - LSU 33 Kentucky 30
5. 1998 - Tennessee 20 Florida 17 (OT)
6. 2005 - West Virginia 38 Georgia 35 (Sugar Bowl)
7. 1999 - Michigan 35 Alabama 34 (Orange Bowl)
8. 2002 - Georgia 24 Auburn 21
9. 2007 - Tennessee 52 Kentucky 50 (4 OT)
10. 2003 - LSU 17 Ole Miss 14
1. 2004 Auburn
2. 1998 Tennessee
3. 2003 LSU
4. 2006 Florida
5. 2007 LSU
6. 2002 Georgia
7. 2007 Georgia
8. 2001 Tennessee
9. 2001 Florida
10. 2006 LSU
1. 2003 - Slyvester Croom becomes SEC's first black head coach
2. 1998 - Roy Kramer creates the BCS
3. 2004 - Undefeated Auburn left out of title game
4. 1998 - Clint Stoerner stumbles and fumbles against #1 Tennessee
5. 2005 - Steve Spurrier returns at South Carolina
6. 2007 - Nick Saban returns at Alabama
7. 2002 - Alabama placed on probation, blames Phillip Fulmer
8. 2007 - Tim Tebow wins the Heisman Trophy
9. 2001 - Georgia beats Tennessee with a hobnailed boot
10. 2005 - LSU goes 11-2 in wake of Hurricane Katrina
Meanwhile, on the home front...former Alcoa High School star and Florida State transfer Brandon Warren was admitted to the University of Tennessee and will begin classes during the summer sessions. The next and biggest step is for Warren to earn a waiver from the NCAA to gain eligibility - he was not released from his scholarship at Florida State. If he's granted a waiver, he can start practice in August and get on the field this season. If not, he'll have to wait until 2009. The Vols had good luck recently getting instant eligibility from Tyler Smith, who had a similar situation in dealing with an ailing parent, but circumstances were easier because Iowa did release him.
It will be difficult for Warren to both get the waiver, and then to jump into the mix at tight end and see any meaningful action right away. However, I continue to stand by my opinion as the former play by play announcer for Alcoa High School, having watched this kid throughout his high school career, that once Warren gets in and gets accustomed to the system, he can be a difference maker for Tennessee.
Detroit, what?! - Part One
LeBron James - and I'm sure he stole it from someone else - liked to say that the playoffs don't really start until the road team wins a game. So I'm glad after those first sixteen warm ups, the Celtics can finally start taking things seriously tonight in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Boston lost Game 2 in surprising fashion, giving up triple digits to the Pistons and failing to play defense at the same level as their sudden offensive outburst from each of the Big Three. So as the series shifts, it's going to become incredibly important to win one of the next two games - going back to Boston down 3-1 and hoping it suddenly all comes together isn't a position anybody wants to be in. The C's have never really looked good on the road, even in the games that were close. The Celtics need to come out hot and show they can go step for step with these Pistons for the duration of the series. Which might be a little bit easier tonight in Auburn Hills, because further south tonight...
Detroit, what?! - Part Two
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals begins at Joe Louis Arena...thirty minutes before Game 3 in the Pistons/Celtics series begins at The Palace. And while if you're living in the city and were worried about getting tickets to one of these events, it might be good for you, if you're a serious Pistons and Red Wings fan, this is a bittersweet evening. Of course, it'll turn into a great story if both teams win. And hey, I'm sure there are good seats still available for that Tigers/Twins showdown at Comerica.
But for the rest of us...even though I'll only go there during the Celtics/Pistons commercials tonight, this is a real chance for hockey to make a dent in the national sports conscience. The sport had us there in the early 90s, peaking with the epic New York Rangers/Vancouver Canucks seven game finals in 1994. The Rangers win would be the first in what's become a fourteen year/thirteen team (remember the lockout? that's right, you've forgotten even why you've forgotten about hockey) run of American teams winning the Cup. Back in 94, Canadian teams had won 8 of the last 10 cups, a run broken only by Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins in 91/92, but hockey's run during that time featured dominant teams and players from Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers, some dominant Montreal teams, and guys like Lemieux and Mark Messier.
Here's a good example: here are the starters from the 1994 NHL All-Star Game, let's see how many names you recognize: Chris Chelios, Paul Coffey, Pavel Bure, Brett Hull, Wayne Gretzky, Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, Ray Borque, Eric Lindros, Alexander Mogilny. Raise your hand if you went 10 for 10.
Now, here are the starters from this season's NHL All-Star Game: Zdeno Chara, Andrei Markov, Vincent Lecavalier, Daniel Alfredsson, Ilya Kovalchuk, Dion Phaneuf, Nicklas Lidstrom, Jarome Iginla, Pavel Datsyuk, Rick Nash. I recognize three of those names and call tell you that Iginla plays for Calgary. That's it.
The biggest name there, of course, is missing: Sidney Crosby was injured during the All-Star Game and did not play. But it's his Pittsburgh Penguins who are in the Stanley Cup Finals, which is the best news the NHL has seen in a long time.
After the Rangers won in 94, the NHL had a run of both bad luck and bad decisions. A lockout shortened the following season in 1995, which killed mainstream fan appeal. Then, a string of four straight sweeps in the Stanley Cup Finals - starting with the New Jersey Devils and the zone trap that took a lot of offense out of the game, and followed up with three years of "whoever wins Colorado-Detroit in the Western Conference Finals will win the Cup". Still, during those years, I remember being big in the Colorado camp, for reasons we'll get into momentarily.
Hockey was still popular in the Dallas Stars/Buffalo Sabres "in the crease" finals in 1999, and carried that appeal through probably 2001 in a seven game Colorado/New Jersey finals. But from there, things started slowly going downhill. The last four seasons, the Stanley Cup Champions have been the Tampa Bay Lightning, followed by the lockout, followed by the Carolina Hurricanes, followed by the Anaheim Ducks. And even though all three of those series had the USA vs. Canada factor, the total lack of name recognition for those teams didn't make it happen.
But now...with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for Pittsburgh, and with arguably the most recongized team in all of American hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, lined up on the other side...the NHL has a real chance to be marketable and good. What they really need now is for both Crosby to explode, and for the series to go 6 or 7 games. After the first two games on Versus, Games 3-7 (if necessary) will be shown on NBC in primetime. Hockey has a real chance here.
And here's the best part - for me, it's easy: I'm pulling for Pittsburgh. Why? Because even though I couldn't tell you anyone off the top of my head who plays for Detroit (after looking, I see that Lidstrom is the captain and Chris Chelios is on the roster, and Chris Osgood is the goalie, I know all those guys)...my memories of Detroit are from those Colorado/Detroit wars in the late 90s/early 00s. And the reason I picked Colorado then?
...this is going to sound really stupid and childish, but it's absolutely true: Detroit was full of Russians. And Russians are supposed to be the bad guys. Not because I'm racist or xenophobic. Because that's the way guys in their mid-20s today were raised back then. When Detroit had that Red Army lineup of Larionov, Fetisov, Koslov, Konstantinov (thanks Wikipedia), and Sergei Federov (thanks Will's memory), and then they started winning...how could you not see how this happens? They even had other guys like Steve Yzerman, who, if you don't know his first name, could easily be confused as another Russian. Look, I'm just being honest, and that's just the way it was.
And so today, I don't know how many Russians the Red Wings have, but it doesn't matter - they're still the bad guys. It's so bad in my mind, if Detroit played a team from Canada, I might just cheer for the Canadiens.
But it's good for the NHL that I care, no matter how screwed up the reasons. So yeah, let's go Pens! And maybe, just maybe, America will have a good reason to care about hockey again. Because anyone who remembers those early 90s years and owned a Sega Genesis, deep down, still misses it. We need it back. Here's our chance.
That 11-1 drubbing from the D-Backs yesterday kinda taints it, but...
The Braves swept the Mets earlier this week in a four game series, not even really being threatened in three of the four contests. Atlanta is now 26-22, and has gone 7-4 thus far on the big 14 game stretch against four contenders, with three left to play this weekend against Arizona. Chipper Jones is hitting .415, and opened today's contest with a single off Randy Johnson in a game that's currently airing on Fox.
What's still fascinating to me is how some people can still be underrating the Braves. I read in someone's power rankings last week that it was amazing the Braves were even hovering around .500, which I guess I can understand from their road woes (6-16) and the rampant injuries to the pitching staff. But then today on Fox, when I hear someone talk about how runs scored vs. runs against is one of the truest measures of a team, obviously...then I continue to question how you can discount Atlanta. The Braves are +50 in that category, still behind only the Chicago Cubs and their foes this weekend from Arizona. We've said it for three weeks, but once again - if the Braves could've won just half of their one run games, they'd be the best team in the National League.
Baseball continues to be an everyday sport with plenty of reason for hope, both if you're the Florida Marlins at a stunning 27-20, or if you're the sub-.500 Yankees, or even still for teams like 20-28 Detroit, with still months and months of calendar space available to get it together. But that doesn't mean we don't celebrate the present as well - between Chipper and the record being what it is despite the pitching situation, the Braves continue to be right there at the front of the NL pack. They're right where they need to be on Memorial Day Weekend.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
(Keep in mind: these are the team ratings, not the team rankings (like #17 Tennessee in Athlon), nor the player ratings (like "Tim Tebow is a 99 overall"). I would assume those will be released in the future before the release date, however...)
NCAA09 Team Ratings
Georgia (99 OFF - 99 DEF)
Ohio State (99 OFF - 99 DEF)
Oklahoma (99 OFF - 94 DEF)
Florida (96 OFF - 94 DEF)
Florida State (92 OFF - 99 DEF) (LOL! EA's trying to sell more copies)
Missouri (96 OFF - 92 DEF)
USC (90 OFF - 99 DEF)
LSU (88 OFF - 96 DEF)
Penn State (88 OFF - 94 DEF)
Clemson (90 OFF - 92 DEF)
South Carolina (86 OFF - 92 DEF)
Tennessee (88 OFF - 92 DEF)
Texas (88 OFF - 92 DEF)
Wisconsin (92 OFF - 89 DEF)
Arizona State (88 OFF - 87 DEF)
Miami (83 OFF - 92 DEF) (once again, let's sell some copies...)
Texas Tech (92 OFF - 85 DEF)
Alabama (88 OFF - 82 DEF)
Arizona (86 OFF - 82 DEF)
Auburn (83 OFF - 87 DEF)
Cincinnati (81 OFF - 89 DEF)
Michigan (81 OFF - 89 DEF)
Ole Miss (86 OFF - 87 DEF) (WHAT?!)
Purdue (86 OFF - 82 DEF)
Virginia Tech (79 OFF - 89 DEF)
West Virginia (90 OFF - 80 DEF)
Okay, so as stated these aren't the team rankings - you won't see Ole Miss in the Top 25 - but these are actually a better measure of which teams are better than others, because like The Matrix, it's a system built on rules, and players are only as good as they're rated on this game. So while FSU and Miami fans get to continue to enjoy online success they don't deserve, other teams (Illinois is an 81, Oklahoma State and South Florida at 79, Boston College at 77...with Duke) are apparently getting the real shaft. Which is what happens every year...but still.
Either way...you can check out all the rankings at the above line on a handy .xls spreadsheet. My mind absolutely has to go back to thinking about the Celtics now or I'll lose the healthy balance I've enjoyed for the last six weeks. Enjoy.
1. 2001 Miami
2. 2004 USC
3. 1999 Florida State
4. 2005 Texas
5. 2000 Oklahoma
6. 1998 Tennessee
7. 2003 LSU
8. 2006 Florida
9. 2002 Ohio State
10. 2007 LSU
SportsNation rankings (with 16,000 votes as of this morning)
1. 2004 USC
2. 2001 Miami
3. 2005 Texas
4. 2000 Oklahoma
5. 2003 LSU
6. 2006 Florida
7. 2002 Ohio State
8. 1999 Florida State
9. 1998 Tennessee
10. 2007 LSU
It's no surprise that you find 98 Tennessee and 99 Florida State so far down on the fan voting list, because lots of people who voted in this thing were just kids when they won their titles 10 years ago.
I think there's clear separation when looking at these teams - that 07 LSU has to go at the bottom because they're the only team here with two losses (though both in triple overtime, agreed). Likewise, I think the next two teams have to be 03 LSU and 06 Florida, because they each lost once.
Among the remaining seven teams, the general perception seems to be that four of them were truly great teams, and the other three got lucky. And while there's more than luck involved if you go undefeated, I do understand the logic.
If it were me, I'd put 07 LSU at the bottom, followed by 06 Florida and then 03 LSU at #8, giving them the advantage simply because 06 Florida won so many games by the skin of their teeth. And at the top, I think there's clear separation between 01 Miami, 04 USC and 05 Texas, and then everyone else. Those three - especially the first two, and then Texas gets to tag along because of Vince Young and that epic Rose Bowl - will be remembered as the truly, truly great teams of this decade.
Meanwhile...I can't put 1999 Florida State ahead of 1998 Tennessee. With or without Chris Weinke, lined up against each other I have no reason to believe that the outcome would be any different than it was when the Vols faced the rough equivalent of that FSU team in the Fiesta Bowl.
It's an easier call to dismiss the Buckeyes, playing in a soft Big 10 and still needing lots of end of game breaks. You forget 00 Oklahoma more easily because it's further removed, and those Buckeyes had the memorable title game with Miami. But that Oklahoma team did blast some good teams in the regular season before putting the lockdown on Florida State in the title game. I think 98 Tennessee and 00 Oklahoma are very close...but I'd still give a slight edge to the Vols for having slightly more offensive firepower. Don't throw OU's numbers at me, we play in the SEC.
So I'd have the 98 Vols at #4 on this list - which is much more reasonable than you probably thought I was going to be, which is why I must bring up the fact that I think if you lined the 98 Vols up against 01 Miami or 04 USC, the x-factor about the 98 Vols would still carry over - but on paper, you just can't go against those two teams. However, I do think people can tend to underrate the 98 Vols; keep in mind, of the SEC's 4 BCS National Champions in the first ten years, the 98 Vols are the only ones to go undefeated.
While you can see it play out on Sundays to a degree, 2001 Miami vs. 2004 USC would be a treat. However, I have to give the edge to Miami - their defense (Ed Reed and Phillip Buchanon in probably the best secondary in the history of modern college football, along with a ton of other Sunday guys) is just better than what USC put out there, with an even dream matchup on offense (Ken Dorsey/Clinton Portis/Andre Johnson/Jeremy Shockey vs. Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush/Steve Smith).
1. 2001 Miami
2. 2004 USC
3. 2005 Texas
4. 1998 Tennessee
5. 2000 Oklahoma
6. 1999 Florida State
7. 2002 Ohio State
8. 2003 LSU
9. 2006 Florida
10. 2007 LSU
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
"You want to see it open just as well as I."
Even with the Celtics taking their playoff run to the distance thus far, I still feel the pull in the back of my mind to turn my full attention to fall Saturdays. In the meantime, you can check out Tony Barnhart's incredibly informative Mr. College Football blog from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website. Among the nuggets of wisdom on there is talk of ESPN GameDay heading to Atlanta for the season opening Alabama vs. Clemson neutral site battle in the Georgia Dome, which, according to Barnhart, is back open for business following the March tornadoes. It's really a disappointing August 30 schedule compared to opening Saturdays from years past, but the biggest game of the day should actually be another neutral siter, Missouri and Illinois in St. Louis. Expect the GameDay crew at one of those two sites. Also from Barnhart is talk to have David Cutcliffe's Duke Blue Devils take on the Tide in a similar game in the Georgia Dome in 2010.
"He's got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom..."
There is no rest for Bruce Pearl.
VolQuest.com is reporting that Tennessee has emerged as one of four finalists for Nigeria's Emmanuel Negedu, a 6'6 225 wingman who's been playing his high school ball in New Hampshire (who knew). Negedu was rated as the #41 overall player in the Rivals 2008 ranking, and signed a letter of intent to play for Arizona. However, the report today is that he's been granted a release from that letter, and that he's now considering four schools: Georgia Tech, Indiana, Tiger High...and yes, Bruce Pearl's Big Orange. The departure of Ramar Smith and Duke Crews could soon be "solved" ("Solutioned?" That should be a word. Paging Bert Bertelkamp: "Did you see that Bob? He Solutioned him!") with Bobby Maze and now Negedu. Negedu's parents are making their first ever trip to the United States to see him graduate high school, and so hopefully Brucie (sorry, been playing Grand Theft Auto) will have a chance to get in good with the fam, and bring home another stellar recruit. Stay tuned...
"Don't worry, this is kid's play."
The Celtics didn't exactly make it look easy tonight, as I kept looking at the scoreboard and then doing a double take, stunned we weren't up more because it felt like they were playing so well. But it was certainly enough, including an excellent close out 4th quarter performance and more signs that when this team is firing on all cylinders, they really might be the best team in the league. Behind a strong performance from Kevin Garnett, and another great all around basketball night from Paul Pierce, the Celtics show no signs of slowing down or fatigue, beating the Pistons to take a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. And while no Celtics fans will breathe easy until the C's win one on the road...tonight was a very good start. Michael Wilbon said it was the most impressive Boston had been since the Game 7 destruction of the Hawks in round one, and he might be right. More of that would be a great thing.
"In this sort of race, there's no silver medal for finishing second."
Meanwhile, the Lakers and Spurs get set to roll starting tomorrow night, which means a conference final game on television every single night for at least the next week. This may not be what TNT fully wanted, even though they got the Lakers...but San Antonio is just flat out stubborn. First they take out Shaquille O'Neal and Phoenix, the best storyline to go against LA. Then they flirt with elimination for a solid week before flipping that championship switch to beat New Orleans, bumping off America's Team and the potential MVP showdown between Kobe and Chris Paul. However, for me, it still rings true that to be the man, you've gotta beat the man. And so it seems natural and really right that the Lakers have to go through San Antonio to get to the Finals.
In their last regular season meeting, the Lakers absolutely destroyed San Antonio, playing with Gasol against them for the first time. But while it may not be as sexy as Kobe vs. Shaq or Kobe vs. Chris Paul, the Kobe vs. Duncan matchup will have more to do with the outcome than any of the others. Because it comes down to this: can San Antonio do a better job stopping Kobe than the Lakers can do stopping Duncan?
The Spurs have the experience top to bottom, and Greg Popovich is on the short list of guys who are even in a coaching matchup with Phil Jackson. The Lakers have some playoff experience as well between Kobe and Derek Fisher...but in the aforementioned matchup, I like San Antonio's chances of slowing down Kobe with Bowen and Ginobili better than I like Gasol and Odom's chances of slowing down Duncan - Gasol especially can be a scoring machine, but you question that more against Duncan, and he'll really have to step up his own defense to put the brakes on Timmy's big game potential.
But then again, gut beats head all the time on this blog...and while Boston still needs three more wins to get there, and while having the chance to end the San Antonio run would be great too...I want the Lakers. So yep, we'll give a wink and a nod and go with LAKERS IN SIX.
"It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage."
Tom Glavine took the mound in game one of a doubleheader between the Braves and Mets today. It started rough, as Glavine struggled to get out of the first inning. But from there, #47 strapped it on and retired the last 17 batters he faced. Mets fans who kept expecting him to rip open that jersey to reveal a tomahawk underneath in his final start last season had to really enjoy it today, as he absolutely shut down NYM, and then the surprising Braves bullpen finished the job.
Even with Smoltz still questionable and Mike Hampton more of a myth every day, the Braves keep finding a way. There's talk that Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz may all retire together at the end of this season, and if that's the case, the years have been pretty good...but there's still good mileage left to be had out there. Atlanta got what they needed from Glavine this afternoon, then backed it up with the second career MLB start from 29 year old Jorge Campillo, who followed the good work from earlier in the day with six scoreless innings of his own, as the Braves won the nightcap as well to move to 24-21 and second place in the NL East, a game and a half behind those pesky Marlins. Hopefully, there's plenty more mileage left in Glavine and Smoltz for Atlanta for the remainder of this season.
"Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory."
This year's WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony featured two memorable performances, one from The Rock and one we'll get to in a minute. Unfortunately for you and me, USA cut the ceremony down to the hour they had alloted for television, so the only way to see the entire event was to buy the WrestleMania XXIV DVD when it came out today. So that's exactly what I did.
Seeing The Rock do his thing again brings back memories, no doubt. Rock is one of the few, few examples of a guy who leaves on top, and really the only one I can think of who does so of his own choice instead of by injury. No matter how many times people call him a sell out, you can't deny his charisma. The Rock is money.
So when I see and hear him teasing the fans who are chanting "ONE MORE MATCH!", when he's teasing Stone Cold Steve Austin, who is an injury casualty...see, I don't want to wonder. I don't want to hope. WWE doesn't need Rock to survive...but just one appearance, just one match, just one interview is worth any sum of money.
But in his own quest for his own fortune and glory, it seems like he's playing wrestling fans. I think he respect for the business that comes through in the Hall of Fame segment is genuine...but I also know that in the trailer for Get Smart, he's not called "The Rock" one time. He's Dwayne Johnson. He's done enough in movies and been gone enough from wrestling long enough - and those two things are of equal importance for establishing yourself in Hollywood, I'd say - to where he's just no longer The Rock. And to him, as the movies keep coming in, and with them the dollars...would there ever be anything worth it enough to him to put on the tights one more time? Because see, I just don't think so. And time is a factor, because you don't want to see Rock-E in "ONE MORE MATCH!" in 10 years when his star has fallen along with his body. Right now, he could get in the ring with anybody and you'd buy it. But what's most likely is that those days are all behind us. WrestleMania 25 is 10 months away, and I'd say that's your best and only shot. But don't hold your breath.
"It belongs in a museum!"
And then there's Ric Flair.
The WrestleMania XXIV DVD is worth it just for Flair's last match on tape, which I feel like I'll be glad to have 50 years from now. And because it's Flair, you really buy that it's his last match, and that the ending was so perfect you wouldn't dare taint it (note: we're cutting off the Indiana Jones allusions here). Like I said, USA cut the Hall of Fame stuff down to an hour, but on DVD right now I'm watching the fourth full minute of Flair's standing ovation and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Maybe one day Rock-E will go on this list, but they just don't make them like Flair anymore. I saw him on TV during Game 7 of the Hornets/Spurs - which speaks to his commitment, sticking with the team that used to be in Flair Country in Charlotte - and it was just so good to see him. I don't want to see him wrestle again, but I don't want him to disappear completely either. Wrestling needs Flair, even pushing 60. Honestly, part of me is worried about a Bear Bryant scenario, since most wrestlers don't make it past 45 anyway. But Ric Flair - even for a guy like me, who came to wrestling in 1997, late in Flair's game - is, as people much more knowledgeable than me have spent the last few months saying, irreplaceable.
Watching him run through all the other superstars you know and love and say such personal things about them, about his family, about his life...there's no one, not Hogan, not anyone, who could pull this off the way Flair has. He deserves every minute of it. And hopefully, on camera he's neither gone nor forgotten.
Monday, May 19, 2008
The history here is best defined by Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals, one of the most memorable seven game affairs in NBA Playoff history, and another one of those "home team wins every game" deals. The lineups from that era are still etched in stone in the memories of not just Celtics/Pistons fans, but basketball fans in general: DJ, Ainge, Bird, McHale and Parish against Isaiah, Dumars, Dantley, Rodman, and Laimbeer. The Celtics dominated the Eastern Conference in the early and mid 80s, winning the title in 1981 and then going to the Finals four straight years from 1984-1987. But by 87, the Pistons had emerged as a real threat to the Celtics. They came up just short thanks to "and now there's a steal by Bird!" in Game 5, and the Adrian Dantley-Vinnie Johnson headbutt of doom in Game 7. But the following year, the Pistons gained unlikely revenge winning the conference finals in six, including taking two games in Boston in what's probably Larry Bird's worst playoff series of his career. That set up the first of three straight Pistons trips to the Finals, and Bird would soon be out of the league with injury.
What makes it even more exciting was the level of violence in those series - especially in 1987, where Bird and Laimbeer were ejected for fighting in Game 3, and then Parish received the first playoff suspension in NBA history for straight up punching Laimbeer in Game 5. Johnny Most, the legendary Celtics play by play man, had this to say live after the Laimbeer/Bird incident in Game 3:
"And there is a violent, violent knockdown by Laimbeer, and Bird just crashes! The yellow, gutless way they do things here! They have been called a dirty ballclub, and I can see why! This is a typical, typical display, a disgusting display by Rodman, Laimbeer, and Isaiah Thomas!"
You can see the Game 3 incident starting at the 0:45 mark here:
...and the classic end of Game 5 here:
Now, of course, this was 21 years ago and it means nothing on paper today. But the history is there. And when you combine it with what is on the court today, you have the potential for greatness.
They may not be the Bad Boys, but these Pistons will trot an equally impressive lineup onto the floor: Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess. And so while you won't see LeBron this time around, you will see what is without a doubt the best starting five in the NBA. Detroit has been to the Eastern Conference Finals six years in a row now, and there's a reason. Even this season, with the East much improved, they sported the second best record in the NBA behind Boston.
In three meetings this year, first the Pistons went into Boston and became the first team to win there, 87-85 on December 19, behind 12 4th quarter points from Billups, including two free throws with 0.1 left to win it. Boston returned the favor in Detroit (see, we can win there) in a 92-85 win that was the arrival of Big Baby Davis, who scored 20 points to lead the C's. In the rubber match, Boston won 90-78 at home to take the season series, behind 31 points from KG and a stunning 20 rebounds from Kendrick Perkins.
Look, based on what we've seen, you should expect seven. But for Boston, they can't have all these irregularities. Pierce isn't going to score 41 every night, no doubt, but against this lineup and this experience, the Celtics absolutely need Rondo, Ray Allen, and somebody in the paint to show up every single game. A two man effort will probably get you swept.
Boston will be tired, but confident. And confidence is so incredibly important. Detroit will be poised...but poise didn't get them past LeBron last year. So maybe the Pistons are more ready this time around and the Celtics don't have the firepower. But what I also expect is that you'll get a Game 7 atmosphere every time out in this one. You may not see fistfights...but you will see high energy and drama.
That being said...I'm sticking with Boston. Home court advantage is worth more than gas these days, and that'll certainly help. And yeah, I still want to see Boston go into Detroit and win one, and if the C's lose Game 1 or 2 it could be very damaging to a potentially fragile team. But Boston keeps finding a way at home, and that's been enough so far. Two good things, but I think Boston keeps rising to the occasion and keeps finding a way to play better as they play deeper. More drama to this already great NBA season, which you'll see again tonight in New Orleans...but I'll take CELTICS IN SEVEN.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Saturday, May 17, 2008
And while we're here...look, I love Garnett. I love almost everything about him. But it absolutely boggles me as to how he can be so intense, so focused, so obsessed with winning at times...and yet in the clutch, he can be indecisive at best.
There was a point last night in the final minutes of the game - and granted, he had swished an 18 footer a few moments before hand - where the Celtics penetrated and then the ball got kicked back around to Garnett, who got the ball at the top of the circle. Standing in his way was Delonte West - the point guard, who's 6'4" 180lbs and a step out of position - and then Joe Smith was trapped all the way under the basket, locked up with Kendrick Perkins. It was the kind of hole a running back dreams about. It was the kind of hole where LeBron, Kobe, and the majority of the guys in your rec league see it open up and then explode to the hole. It's the kind of opening where, if I could dunk, my eyes would light up. And when it happened, I stood up out of my chair and said "oh DUNK THAT!"...
...and instead, we got a hesitation dribble or two and then an awkward five footer that rimmed out.
A few minutes later, he got the ball in the paint again, and again hesitated, and this time got called for traveling. And maybe he did and maybe he didn't, and maybe Paul Pierce should've never been called for that charge on LeBron James (though an astute observation by Dan Shulman, that 50/50 block/charge calls all depend on the referee's viewpoint from where he's standing, and from where the ref was it looked like a charge because Pierce was apparently block the view of both of LeBron's feet moving). And maybe the Garden crowd will continue to inspire and carry the Celtics to victory.
But the larger point is, and this has been true since Game 3 in Atlanta - the Celtics have no killer instinct. They can't go for the throat because Garnett won't, Ray Allen is ice cold and Paul Pierce, for reasons unknown, hasn't seen the ball or a meaningful shot in a crucial situation in the final minute of a game in the playoffs this season.
What's so maddening about this whole thing is, not only is it out of nowhere after a 66-16 regular season, but you expect the Celtics to be able to finish teams off or at least make big plays down the stretch because you've seen it before. The knock on Garnett is that it's not there, and so maybe I'll have to keep throwing my hat when I see him turn down a chance to dunk on the other team's point guard. But there's got to be somebody on this team with the intestinal fortitude to want the ball with the game on the line and then make it happen.
Don't think it's possible? Ray Allen used to be that guy before he turned into a cold spot up shooter who can't play defense (it's tough love today, kids). I realize this was seven years ago, but you talk about wanting the ball and making it happen? Witness Allen dunking on Tracy McGrady to tie the game with three seconds left in the 2001 Playoffs:
(I was watching this live, and when he did that I remember saying "That's the greatest dunk in NBA history." It's not, I know, but it was one of those thunderous moments that the Celtics are so in need of today.)
You know what this Celtics team really needs? Antoine Walker.
Not the 2008 model, but the 02-03 version. Yeah, he took some bad shots. But he wasn't afraid. He would look for the ball and make it happen in crunch time. And in the huddle, he took command. It was him calling out the whole team in Game 3 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals when they were down 27 to the Nets that sparked that whole comeback.
And he rubbed off on Paul Pierce, who's the only strain of continuity Celtic fans have (something all sports fans really need). He made Pierce mean. Not the sort of mean that throws up a gang sign when rookie Al Horford of the 8 seed Hawks runs his mouth off at you at the end of Game 3. The sort of mean that would've gone for 40 points in Game 4. Witness the 1:59 mark of this clip from the 2003 Playoffs, at the end of the third quarter against Al Harrington (or watch the whole thing if you're a Celtics fan feeling nostalgic about when Boston played with an edge):
I know Allen and Pierce aren't as young as they used to be, and Ray Allen really doesn't dunk at all anymore...but Pierce showed throughout the regular season (and last year too, when the C's were awful and he still showed up) that he can still be the man. But in the absence of 'Toine and in the presence of KG, Pierce looks like the guy who got transferred to another department and he's not the top gun anymore. Right now, what Boston needs is for Pierce to take control.
Actually, what'd really be nice is for Ray Allen to warm up, because that honestly would solve a lot of problems. But in the middle of all of this is Doc Rivers, who should've been fired after last year. He can blame the refs for Game 6, he can blame whomever for whatever, but if things go south tomorrow, there will be lots of questions and few answers.
People will make all of these points again and say "they need a go-to guy." Sorry, the roster isn't going to get any better than this. And when you're 66-16, you don't need a better roster. A coach in the NBA is almost an oxymoron at times, but one thing he should be able to do is figure out the above problems - when there's nobody who's willing to step up and make it happen down the stretch, he needs to address that problem, designate and design to make it happen from the top down. Instead, he blames the refs and says little to nothing negative about Pierce, Garnett or Allen. If the Celtics lose tomorrow, Doc Rivers should be fired on a cumulative effort basis. They'll say you can't fire the coach of the team with the NBA's best record. I'll say you can't extend the contract of a man who loses 18 straight games, but since we've already proved ourselves wrong once, we might as well go ahead and make it twice.
Maybe Rajon Rondo will continue to play Jeckell at home. Maybe Allen heats up. Maybe the Celtics continue to smother LeBron and prevent one of these defining moments from happening at their expense in their building. Maybe the Garden crowd is enough - and although I'm all for entertaining, based on the evidence at hand I don't see LBJ going for 40 and I also don't see the Celtics all of a sudden figuring it out and then playing like it. I see Boston grinding and the home crowd carrying them to an ugly win of less than 10 points with a score somewhere in the low 80s. That's the way it's been done so far in Boston in this series, no reason think that formula goes out the window just because there's a 7 after the "Game" this time around.
But you know what the biggest crime here is? This is the first time Boston's been this deep into the playoffs in five years, and if they win tomorrow it'll be their first time in the Conference Finals in six years, and only the second time since 1987. For people like me, it's only the second time as an adult Celtic fan that we're getting to see this, and the first time Boston's ever been this good in our adult lives. And no one - not us, and not the players - no one is having any fun.
Even if Boston wins tomorrow, the pressure is getting heavier and heavier. Detroit is an even matchup even without any pressure. But instead of going into this series and enjoying ourselves, this season, and an old-school Boston-Detroit showdown - just four wins away from a potential Celtics-Lakers Finals - everything is a struggle.
It's a familiar animal - Tennessee just played this game last fall, looking incredibly human and at times simply terrible while courting a championship that they would eventually win. The difference is, the Vols weren't supposed to be the best team in the SEC, and they also weren't an overnight "success" story like the Celtics this season. And as Bill Simmons and others have pointed out in the last month, we see the new Big Three talking about championships and greatness and we see KG in that Gatorade commercial and we start taking things for granted...and these guys are talking about winning, and none of them have ever really done it before, including Doc Rivers. This is supposed to be the time where they earn the right to talk about it, and instead we all took it for granted along the way, and now not only are we not enjoying it, we're 48 minutes away from it being over.
So let's hope we can have some fun on Sunday. And then let's hope that somehow, that carries over to Detroit. That despite the weight of all this struggle, that Boston still has home court advantage and is still good enough to win it all. The obstacles in the way are not insurmountable, and if the Celtics get it together they might start playing like they remember that they're the ones who are supposed to be insurmountable.
But one way or another, winning cures anything. So once again, as we go to Game 7, pretty or ugly, Big Three or Rondo, LeBron for 50 or LeBron for 15...win. Survive. Advance. And maybe, just maybe, the Ghosts of Celtic Past will show up to carry it forward one more day.
Friday, May 16, 2008
BCS Championship - Florida (SEC) vs. Ohio State (Big 10)
Sugar - Georgia (at-large) vs. Virginia Tech (at-large)
Orange - Clemson (ACC) vs. Texas Tech (at-large)
Fiesta - Missouri (Big 12) vs. West Virginia (Big East)
Rose - USC (Pac-10) vs. Wisconsin (at-large)
OTHER SEC BOWLS
Capital One - Auburn vs. Penn State
Cotton - Tennessee vs. Oklahoma
Outback - LSU vs. Michigan
Chick-fil-A - South Carolina vs. Boston College
Independence - Arkansas vs. Nebraska
Music City - Alabama vs. Wake Forest
Liberty - Mississippi State vs. Tulsa
Here's a good question, two weeks into May: would you be satisfied with this if you're a Vol fan? These projections more or less imply Vol losses to Florida and Georgia, as most of the nation is projecting, and maybe another one along the way. In what we saw last year is an increasingly competitive landscape, would 9-3/10-2 and a January 1 date in Dallas fall on the right side of the line?
The thing that kept the masses at bay last year was the chase for Atlanta, which the Vols were able to stay in and then win despite carrying three losses on the Third Saturday in October. If the Vols have the same record but are removed from championship implications, the hammer will come down much harder. And sure, it's hard to pick out exactly how you'd feel about 10-2 because you don't know who or how the 2 will pan out. Nor the 10. But on paper, I'd say these projections are about right, and like anything else, there's room on both sides for movement.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
I get home and turn on the TV to find the Braves up 8-0 (in a game they would hold on to win 8-6 to even their series with Philly, after falling to 1-11 in one run games last night). And I figure it's too much of a good thing, because when I turn it over to the Celtics and Cavs in the second quarter, LeBron James has come to life and the Cavs are padding a seven point lead.
The crowd is quiet and the lead keeps building. I'm cooking dinner and watching in between with the volume turned up so I can hear it in the kitchen, but at one point Cleveland goes up 14, and all of a sudden it's getting very real, and Boston fans are feeling all sorts of combinations of angry, dismayed, and that tangible sense of impending doom. I get mad and retreat to the kitchen for what I think will be the remainder of the first half.
Then, while cooking, I hear "Rajon Rondo, for THREE!" And then a few moments later, I hear it again. The second time, it startles me so much that I'm pretty sure I gave myself a third degree burn from the skillet on my index finger. But I step into the living room in time to see the proof in replay: Rondo hit two threes, the Celtics close the first half on a 14-3 run, and we've got some fight in us yet.
Boston spends the second half responding to LBJ's 23 first half points by finally employing the "no layups" rule - I'm convinced that PJ Brown is on the team specifically to enforce it - and took out Delonte West, Anderson Varejao and LeBron on multiple occasions, making them earn it at the line and ensuring that there will be no posters on sale after Game 5 (LBJ did, to his credit, put in a couple of great layups despite the heavy contact in the first half).
Cleveland got to the line 41 times, but only shot 68% - a percentage that dips to 60% if you take away LeBron's 11 for 13 - and it was instead Kevin Garnett who put in the thunderous dunk(s) in the 4th quarter to keep Boston at a safe and healthy distance. Add to that some other inspired moments, including an uplifiting performance from Big Baby Davis. It wasn't perfect, but the Celtics get it done 96-89, and move to a 3-2 lead in this series going to Cleveland on Friday night.
LeBron finally woke up, true - 35 points in 45 minutes - and this was the worst defensive performance in the Garden (edit: I know it's not the real Garden, but I keep thinking if I keep calling it that some of the magic will seep through) by the Celtics thus far in the playoffs. But on the other end, performances were encouraging.
Kevin Garnett assumed more command of things, with a very healthy line of 26 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, 3 blocks and no turnovers. Paul Pierce wasn't what I'd call hot, but he did what he needs to do - 29 points and got to the rim and the free throw line (11 of 13, equaling LeBron). This is the Pierce we need and remember from the '02 Playoffs and from the '08 regular season. Ray Allen went 4 of 11 and that might count for his best performance of the series, if only because he made a key offensive rebound in the game's final minute.
And as Bill Simmons I'm sure was thrilled to watch, Sam Cassell played only 5 minutes and Rajon Rondo stole the show, getting 42 minutes and responding with 20 points, 13 assists and one turnover. If there's one player who defines Boston's playoff run thus far, it's Rondo - in Boston's seven home playoff games and seven home playoff wins, Rondo averages 13 points on 51% shooting, with 8 assists per game. In Boston's five road playoff games and five road playoff losses, Rondo averages only 10 points on 39% shooting and 5 assists per game. On the road he can look lost. At home, he's been a critical element in inducing runs with his passing and his shots in surprising fashion, and tonight Boston doesn't win without him.
So for Cleveland, while LeBron's performance has to be encouraging and Delonte West has played inspired basketball all series against his former team...the worry shifts back over to their side. The Cavs had the Celtics right where they wanted them for about twenty minutes tonight, that this would be the game they would steal in Boston and then wrap it up Friday night at home. But then they let it get away, lost it in the third quarter and couldn't get it back. Even if Boston can't win Friday night in Cleveland, the Celtics know they're coming home Sunday. Hopefully, Boston plays loose in a good way on Friday, not conceding because they don't believe they can win on the road and taking a Game 7 win for granted, but not with a real road complex either. Cleveland will feel the elimination game pressure Friday, then the "can we win in Boston?" pressure Sunday if they pass the first test. So while I'm not overly excited about championship potential, especially while Detroit and Chauncey Billups just keep resting, I do feel better about Boston's odds in the immediate present.
(And by the way, and Avery Johnson - who hopefully finds a coaching role, but if not I'd listen to him over most as an analyst, if only for that voice - made part of this point at halftime, but if you're Cleveland when do you pull the plug on Ben Wallace? He's just there...but it's like he's not even there at all. Tonight: 27 minutes, 4 points, 4 rebounds, 1 block. He hasn't pulled in double figure rebounds in any game this series and is averaging 3 points per game against Boston. He was supposed to be the centerpiece of that trade, and before that the final piece for the Baby Bulls, and he's just disappeared. And maybe it's poor taste to make fun of him for being listed on the injury report before Game 3 as "Questionable: Allergies" after his dizzy spell in Game 2. But I'm doing it anyway. This is the Playoffs. You don't help the other team's guy up off the floor, and I make fun of your "injury".)
Here's what I know: Boston needs to win Friday. Detroit just made the Eastern Conference Finals for the sixth straight year with a roster full of guys who've been to the Finals twice and have a ring from 2004. Whoever comes out of the West will be deadly in four different ways depending on who it is. The last place Boston needs to be trying to figure it out is in the NBA's Final Four. You absolutely do not want to carry this "can't win on the road" business into Detroit, who's certainly good enough to win in Boston and will present an even bigger challenge than the pretend one in Atlanta and the real one in Cleveland. If you win Friday, we move on to the conference finals and don't have to answer eight billion questions about why we can't win on the road. If you lose on Friday, you roll the dice again with Game 7, and then even if you win, the all important confidence will be smaller against a Detroit team that's full of it right now. Don't wait. Carpe diem. Win on Friday.
And I'm not going to lie - right now I'm watching the Lakers take on the Jazz, who've stolen the Titans' powder blues and look just as ridiculous in them. No professional sports team should ever wear that color. Do you think it's coincidence that the Kansas City Royals never win anything these days? You might as well just wear pink like a big boy. Crikey.
Anyway...I'm watching the Lakers, and despite all of Boston's problems...in the same way I'm glad it's Detroit up next, I want the Lakers. New Orleans might be the most fun team to watch in the NBA in my opinion and Chris Paul would destroy the Celtics. San Antonio is the dynasty that I'd love to knock off. And Utah, even wearing those unis, is very very good too. But I want the Lakers. Both teams are in dogfihts right now. But here's hoping both teams hold up their end of the bargain. That way the NBA can stop sweating that Detroit-Utah Finals, and we can all get what we really want.
First thing's first - win Friday.