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Take Five: The Core of a Historically Bad Fantasy Baseball Team

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 6, 2009

mariah-fantasy

I participated in my first ever live auction baseball draft–an NL-only league set up by friends of friends–before the start of the baseball season, and boy, was it a thing of beauty. I’d done internet roto drafts before, but being a junkie for true geekdom, this was like going straight from passing around a joint to freebasing heroin–those suspenseful moments where you think you might be getting a steal on a backup corner infielder being essentially what I live for. This was also my first time in a fantasy league where real money was involved, so I didn’t want to take it lightly–I did my requisite reading, I created my tier systems, I learned about what prospects were on the ascent, and when draft day finally came, I felt I put together a pretty decent roster. I made a couple rookie mistakes, sure–I lowballed on a couple bargain players too early and ended up having a ridiculous amount of money left to spend all on Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez–but I thought it was a lineup that would stay competitive throughout the year.

Well, as the saying goes, you can’t win fantasy championships in your first month, but you sure can lose them. How bad are my boys, the Ontario Obscelences, doing a month into the season? Well, the league leader currently has 67.5 points, based on his high rankings in various offensive categories, and most of the other teams are lagging behind them in the 50s and 40s. I currently sit at 9th with a galling 20.5–a full 24 points behind the 8th place team, which is farther behind him than he is behind the first place team. I’m talking Detroit Lions bad, Los Angeles Clippers bad, Dallas Academy bad. It’s so dispiriting that I can’t even pretend to monitor the waiver wire in the hopes of catching untapped talent, or try to deal my players to other teams, without just laughing at myself for even trying to make a project out of these losers. I am officially the Isiah Thomas of Fantasy GMs.

How did it get this bad? Well, part of it is totally my fault, as I ended up getting stuck wtih snakebit players that I made low bids on and ended up getting stuck with–Josh Willingham (.143 BA, 1 HR), Juan Pierre (only one steal so far for my speed demon) and Chan Ho Park (8.57 ERA, 1.86 WHIP, 0 wins) all among them. But some of it I refuse to take full credit for, as a disturbingly high number of my upside guys just disappeared altogether–vanishing acts that even their biggest doubters couldn’t have predicted. And so, the five guys who can take primary credit for my team hitting the golf courses early this season:

  1. Geovany Soto (C), Cubs (.167 BA, 0 HR, 4 RBI) Getting two good catchers was important to me for my team, so I picked up Geo early on in the draft, and got Jesus Flores as a respectable backup some rounds later. Flores has done his part, putting up a decent .288 with 2 HRs and 11 RBI. Soto, however, got injured early on, and has limped his way to a sub-Mendoza batting average and not a single longball since. Last year’s rookie of the year hit .285 with 23 dingers and 86 RBI, excellent numbers for a backstop–so much so that Soto even got enough MVP votes to finish 13th in that race. This year, it’s starting to look like even among Cubbie catchers, career backup Koyie Hill might have been a wiser–and much, much cheeper–investment.
  2. Troy Tulowitzki (SS), Rockies (.213 BA, 3 HR, 7 RBI) I was positive that I got two incredible bargains out of the Rockies lineup when I landed Todd Helton for $2 and Troy Tulowitzki for $12, convinced both were due for huge bounceback years. After a slow start, Helton is making me look smart enough by hitting in the .330s, but after hitting three home runs in the first week or so, Tulo has disappeared for the second straight season, slinking lower and lower in the Colorado lineup and losing more and more playing time to Clint Barmes and Ian Stewart. Two seasons ago, this guy was drawing comparisons to Cal Ripken Jr. and leading the Rockies to the World Series as a rookie–what the fuck happened, Troy?? On the plus side, Tulo has swiped a pair of bases so far–which, disturbingly enough, currently makes him the steals leader on my lead-footed lineup.
  3. Edwin Encarnacion (3B), Reds (.127 BA, 1 HR, 6 RBI) Part of a more or less around-the-horn underwhelming Reds lineup thusfar, Encarnacion was the last of the semi-decent third-baseman available when I nabbed him for $11 with the 121st pick. I didn’t expect huge numbers, but I expected something a little bit more in line with the 26 HRs and 68 RBI that he put up last season than with these minimalist numbers. Luckily, Edwin put me out of misery by going on the DL early, allowing me to slot in homeboy Pedro Feliz in his place, who–like everyone on the Phils outside of Jimmy Rollins and our backup catchers–is putting up offensive numbers that are positively silly. Hard to imagine the double E supplanting him anytime soon.
  4. Lastings Milledge (OF), Nationals (.167 BA, 0 HR, 1 SB) Yeah, OK, so I was obviously taking a chance going for a troubled, raw youngster like The Edge, but hey, even Elijah Dukes is hitting .300-ish with four home runs, and those are steroid numbers compared to what Lastings has given me this season. Forget this being a breakout year, Milledge will be lucky if he can even break his way into the Nats’ starting lineup, what with their glut of outfielders and their increasing impatience with shenanigans. He’s currently toiling away at triple A, hopefully in time to at elast give me one player at the end of the year with double-digit steals–so pathetic is my team’s baserunning that I think Carl Crawford has swiped more bags in his last two games than my ENTIRE 14-MAN OFFENSIVE ROSTER has all season. I don’t even understand how that’s humanly possible.
  5. Milton Bradley (OF), Cubs (.130 BA, 2 HR, 2 RBI) I saved the worst for last here, of course. The knock on Milt has always been that he’s as offensively brilliant a player as there is in the game when he’s on the field, but he can never stay on the field for a whole season at a time. Well, at this point, him going down for the season might actually be a good thing for my team. He sucked for the first few weeks, went out for a while with a strained something or another, came back, and has sucked even more. And what’s really insulting is that Kosuke Fukudome–last year’s titanic disappointment, who wasn’t even supposed to be in the starting lineup this year–has looked to be one of the steals of the draft thusfar at $2, hitting .315 with four homers, 18 RBI and a few swipes. Next year, I think I’m just staying away from this fucking team altogether. I don’t even like ‘em that much.

If I ever see any of you guys on the street, you owe me a pretzel or something.

Posted in Clap Clap ClapClapClap, Take Five | 2 Comments »

Listeria: The Ten Most Underrated Aspects of the Bulls-Celtics Series

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 2, 2009

Bulls Celtics Basketball

Now that the Sixers have officially put me out of my misery with their humiliating game six home loss to an Orlando team playing without two of their starting five (three if you count Jameer Nelson, who’s been out all series), I can focus all of my NBA playoffs attention on the greatest post-season series of all-time, the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. I feel relatively safe calling it the greatest post-season series of all-time, despite my limited experience, because I don’t really see how a post-season series could be any better–and if it was possible, that mystery classic series would be so famous and beloved that I wouldn’t be able to watch two hours of NBA TV or ESPN Classic without being reminded of what a famous, beloved classic of a series it was. If you want to make a case that some other series was better because more was at stake or because the historical significance proved to be greater, fine, I can buy that–but if you’re trying to tell me that a more compelling, more evenly matched, more suspenseful series of seven games have been played by two teams, I need video proof. And a bigscreen high-definition TV to watch it on.

Think of it this way: Game one of this series went to overtime, featured crucial missed free throws from the super-clutch Paul Pierce that could’ve clinched the game, an unexpected hero in the form of the suddenly jump-shooting Tyrus Thomas, a triple-double performance from Rajon Rondo, and a playoff debut from Derrick Rose that was the best of its kind since Magic Johnson. Pretty good game, right? Probably a surefire top five game in your average post-season, no? OK, that might only be the fifth best game in this series–certainly no higher than fourth best, and we still have a game seven to come. Every game leaves me with my jaw open at a half-dozen different moments. The cast of characters–from stars, to supporting players, to twelvth men on the bench, to coaching staff–could not be stronger. The last game–Game Six–might very well be the best NBA game I’ve ever watched. In the two weeks this series has been going on, I feel like I’ve lived through a whole decade of Patriots-Colts, Yankees-Red Sox, or yes, Celtics-Lakers. And I’m not alone, either–Game Six pulled in over five million viewers, easily setting a record for cable ratings in a first-round series. And that was just Game Six.

So amazing is this series–so deep in content, history and action–that despite the endless coverage the Series has been getting from all corners (including from one Bill Simmons, who has written about as exhaustively about this series as is possible without breaking the internet), there are still elements that I feel are going underreported, underemphasized, and just generally underrated. Here they are, and I’m sure there are ten more that I’m not even thinking of:

10. The Return of “Sirius”. When I wrote this article a week ago, I didn’t even think about the possible resurgence the song might have as a result of this series. But sure enough, just as playoff basketball is back in Chicago, so is the Alan Parsons Project. In any of the games in Chicago thusfar, you get the feeling that the music guy and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf need to simultaneously turn keys to unlock the button that unleashes “Sirius,” because intros aside, it seems like it gets saved for the very tensest, most pivotal moment of the game. And as in the 90s, as soon as you hear that grumbling keyboard tone to start the song, and then the spectral guitar line comes in, you instantly go from “man, I hate having to sit through these 20-second time outs” to “YES!!! IT IS ON!! IT IS SO FUCKING ON!!! LET’S GO!! LEEEET’S GO!!!!!” If they had any sense in Boston, they’d play it there too, but they’re probably too busy fumbling around with their Dropkick Murphys CDs.

9. The Hinrich Miss. If Kirk Hinrich does not name his first born after Derrick Rose, he damn well better be sending him and his family the nicest fruitcakes in all of Chicago for every Christmas to come until they’re both well into their 100s. With less than a half-minute to go in the third OT of Game Six, and the Bulls up by one, in-bounder Lindsey Hunter somehow got an inbounds pass to Captain Kirk WIDE OPEN under the basket, for an easy layup to put the team up three and ensure that, worst-case scenario, the Celtics could only tie it up and set it into a fourth OT with their last possession of the game. Except that Hinrich whiffed on it–got nervous with Rondo swooping in for the block off the glass, perhaps, and put it up a little too quickly (I’m not entirely convinced that Rondo didn’t goaltend on it a little, to be honest, but it was close enough for an understandable no-call). If he misses that shot, and on the other end, Rondo converts for the go-ahead bucket, the Bulls lose the game and series, and Hinrich has to become Bill Buckner–or at the very least, Jackie Smith–in Chicago, right? It’s the kind of miss that could wreck an entire career.

Luckily for Hinrich (very, very luckily), Derrick Rose made the defensive play of the game at the other end with a block on Rondo’s fadeaway jumper, secured the rebound, and the game was essentially over, saving Hinrich from the pantheon of sports infamy. But man oh man, for those last few minutes, Hinrich probably sweated a bucket’s worth, worrying about the split-second’s worth of athletic clumsiness that might’ve ended up defining his entire career.

8. Poor Rockets Fans. Last night, the Houston Rockets beat the Portland Trailblazers 92-76, to win the series 4-2 and advance to the second round. This was, by all accounts, a very big deal–not just in that the franchise hadn’t gotten out of the first round since 1997, but also in that it represented a step forward for previous playoff flop Yao Ming, redemption for one-time league cancer Ron Artest, vindication for GM Daryl Morey and his innovative, Moneyball-esque style of team structuring, and a bitter, bitter pill for injured/star-crossed superstar Tracy McGrady. And yet, not only was this triumph completely and totally overshadowed by Bs/Cs Game Six, over half the game got skipped on national TV as the early game went for three overtimes and didn’t finish until about an hour and a half after it was supposed to. Now, imagine you’re a Rockets fan living out of state–you’ve waited OVER A DECADE for your team to get to that ever-elusive second round, and you don’t even get to watch it until you’re dropped in well into the third quarter, where the Rockets already had a firm hold on the game that was never threatened. “Oh, I guess we’re going to win. Great. What else is on?”

Not that I necessarily would’ve rather watched the Baby Blazers get shelled for four quarters than to see the unbelievably exciting conclusion of a classic game of a classic-er series, but if I was a Rockets fan—or hell, even if I was a Blazers fan–I’d be fucking livid. And what’s more, I can’t understand for the life of me why TNT continues to schedule the start times of its two playoff games two-and-a-half hours apart, when playoff basketball games NEVER finish that early–in fact, just two days earlier, Mavs fans were probably almost as angry to miss a healthy chunk of their series-clinching drubbing of the Spurs, although Game Five was only a single-OT, so at leas they got to the late game before halftime. Pull the first one up a half-hour, or push the second one back a half-hour, but do SOMETHING to at least allow the possibility that fans of the teams in game two will be able to watch the deciding games in their entirety.

7. Shot Celebrations. The Sports Guy’s done a fair deal of covering this, but I just don’t think it can be stressed enough on what a clinic these two teams are putting on in the various ways one can celebrate making a big play. The peacock-strutting and “threeball”-sign flashing of Brad Miller. The “Oh my lawdy, wah that shot purty” backstepping of Ray Allen. The chest-beating and gutteral wailing of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas. The crotch-grabbing of Ben Gordon. The (laughably unintimidating) mean mugging of Glenn “Big Bay” Davis. The “act like you’ve been there/shot it before” swagger of Paul Pierce (which was even supplanted by a HOLY SHIT AM I REALLY THIS GOOD banshee yawp towards the end of Game Six). Even the “Thank God this game is over because another five minutes and I will have a heart attack” relief of Doc Rivers. The only two not getting in on the fun? Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose–arguably the two centerpiece players of the entire bout. C’mon guys, you might be facing each other in series like this a half-dozen times over the next decade. Loosen up a little bit.

6. The Bulls Comeback in Game Six. None of the recaps of the game seem to address what I feel to be the incredulity of this, but the Bulls were down eight with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter of Game Six, and came back to tie the game and force OT. It might not sound that impressive now, but at the time, I was practically positive the game was over–fun series, sure, but bound to end a little prematurely. To make up an eight-point deficit in three minutes is fucking HARD to do. I’d wager that of the last twenty playoff games in which a team was up eight with three minutes to go, in maybe one of them does the team in the hole come back to tie or win the game–two, tops–and most of those games would be against teams that were a lot less fundamentally sound than the defending champs. For the Bulls to come back at that point, facing elimination…it’s practically historic. Yet, in this series, it barely even registers as a footnote.

In fact, I didn’t even remember this until rewatching that section of the game just now, but Rajon Rondo actually stepped to the line with under three to go and the chance to drain a couple and make the lead as big as ten–and he badly bricked both. I think if he hits even one of those, the game is absolutely out of reach, and the Bulls drop the game (which, lest we forget, they led by double-digits just a couple minutes earlier, before giving up AN 18-0 RUN to the Celtics to put them squarely in the driver’s seat) as well as the series, in front of their home crowd. It wasn’t right–this series simply had to have a Game Seven–and the basektball powers that be seemed to realize this, leading the Bulls on an incredible run to get them back in the game, and so subtly that no one even seemed to notice what an amazing thing they just witnessed.

5. The Ray Allen Double-Take. Sticking with Game Six, if you didn’t believe this series was getting orchestrated by a higher power–whether that be a God or a refereeing committee–observe the Ray Allen Double-Take. The Celtics were down three with a half-minute to go in the second overtime, when Ray-Ray got the ball on the wing, took one slow dribble as he drifted to the corner, and then hoisted the ball up so quickly that it seemed like he wanted the ball to go in the basket before defender Joakim Noah even realized he had shot it–and it went in. It was by far the most impressive of the 18 field goals (EIGHTEEN!!!) that Ray Allen would make that night, and I don’t think a single other player in the NBA right now could have made that shot. One problem, though–while performing his miracle, Jesus Shuttlesworth couldn’t quite get his left foot behind that three-point line, and despite the You Have Got to Be Kidding Me protestations of Rivers, M.D., the shot only counted for two.

No matter. A couple of drained free throws (by Brad Miller, who got unlimited opportunities to redeem himself for the crucial bricked FTs in Game Five, maybe the 17th-best subplot of the series thusfar) would make it a three-point game again, and Allen would get the ball back on the next possession, this time already behind the arc on the other wing. He got a screen from Pierce to get John Salmons off his back but still had Kirk Hinrich’s outstretched arm to deal with as he raised up. Caucasian, please–swish. Tie game, botched Bulls possession, we’re going to the third overtime. It was like the series was being directed by some Hollywood hotshot, and after Allen made his first impossible shot, the director yelled “CUT! Cut. Ray, babe, that was a great take, but I’m afraid your foot was on the line, so we’re going to have to make some free throws on the other end and thy try it again. Let’s do it from a different angle this time, yeah? OK, take two, action!” It was so perfect, so incredible that it had to have been fixed, except you’d have to be crazy to bank on Ray making either of those shots, let alone both. Except he’s Ray Allen, so maybe not. What. A. Series.

4. Thanks, Sacramento. On the morning of February 18th, 2009, the Sacramento Kings were a whopping 11-43, having lost an astounding 13 of their last 14 games. Two of the lone bright spots on this lottery-bound team were Brad Miller, who was having a typically solid year, and John Salmons, who was actually having by far the best year of his career in increased minutes and responsibility. Neither, however, was garnering the attention of anyone outside of the California capital, until that very morning, when the two players were traded to the Windy City for Drew Gooden, Andres Nocioni, and a couple of scrubs. The trade only got marginal attention for being the most exciting deal in what was a titanically underwhelming trade deadline (Remember Vince Carter to the Blazers? Shaquille O’Neal to the Cavs? Chris Bosh to just about anywhere? Probably not, since none of them, y’know, actually happened), especially because the deal that Bulls fans actually wanted, and which had the possibility to turn the franchise–something netting them the up-for-sale Amar’e Stoudemire from Phoenix–ended up falling through.

But against all (well, most) odds, the deal for these two third, maybe even fourth-tier players ended up having nearly the effect that everyone thought the STAT deal would. After a 24-30 start, the Bulls went 17-11 for the rest of the season on their way to the seventh seed in the playoffs, and now Miller and Salmons are two of the most important players in a post-season series that might–and likely, should–end up being better-remembered than whoever ends up playing in the finals. Without the two of them, this series probably doesn’t happen. And meanwhile, what about Drew Gooden? When he heard in February that he was getting traded out of Chicago, likely to get cut and end up signing with the perennially contending Spurs, do you think he would have guessed that he’d already be golfing just a week and a half into the post-season, while his West Side buds with the sub-.500 record got to be a part of history? It’s just crazy, the confluence of circumstances that led to this perfect storm of a series.

3. The Doppleganger Down South. With all the hubbub about this series, deserved though it may be, a similarly near-historic series in the Eastern Conference is getting unfortunately overshadowed–the Heat / Hawks series, which is also on its way to an epic game seven. Why haven’t you been hearing about this series? Well, because it’s been almost completely unwatchable. You remember Game Three of Bs/Cs–the only the Celtics won by more than 20, and which was never even close–in other words, the one non-classic in this series thusfar? That’s been EVERY game of the Hawks-Heat thusfar. Check out these final scores:

  1. Game One: Atlanta 90 – Miami 64 (Hawks by 36)
  2. Game Two: Miami 108 – Atlanta 93 (Heat by 15)
  3. Game Three: Miami 107 – Atlanta 78 (Heat by 29)
  4. Game Four: Atlanta 81 – Miami 71 (Hawks by 10)
  5. Game Five: Atlanta 106 – Miami 91 (Hawks by 15)
  6. Game Six: Miami 98 – Atlanta 72 (Heat by 26)

Not counting the game three aberration, no game in Bs/Cs has been decided by more than three points. In this series, no game has been decided by less than ten points. There have been no peaks, no valleys, no unceasing drama or unbearable tension. There have been no clutch threes, no critical missed free throws, no personal vendettas, no burgeoning rivalries, no one-on-one shootouts and no stunning comebacks. That team that’s up double digits at the end of the first quarter? That’s the team that’s going to win the game, and it’s not going to be close. So time to start flipping around for some House reruns or something.

In other words, in every way the Bs/Cs series has been good, this one has been bad. Except that, remarkably enough, it might be just as closely matched a series. These are two extraordinarily even teams. If they played each other 100 times, neither team would probably win more than 55 of those games. They’re both good–it’s just that they’re never both good at the same time, at least not when playing each other. I can’t even begin to explain how this happens, except that it appears to be a regular trait of the Hawks. If you’ll remember, the Celtics-Hawks series last year was somewhat similar–the Hawks would get absolutely bombed in Boston, looking like the Last Team In that they were, but then they’d come back home and be a completely different team, moving the ball, locking down on D, and generating highlights from all corners and everywhere in between. This series is the same way, but without even the home-field advantage to explain it–the Hawks have gotten crushed in Atlanta, and Miami has gotten shelled in A-Town. I do suspect that something about it must have to do with Josh Smith, the streakiest player in all of pro sports–when he’s on, he’s swatting shots all over the gym, he’s muscling into the paint for three-point plays, and he’s skywalking for alley-oops, and when he’s off, he’s chucking ghastly 20-footers, getting scorched by layup drivers and coughing the ball up in traffic.

Whatever the reason, it’s an utterly fascinating exercise in contrast, and if you haven’t been watching enough to embrace the stunning grotesque of this series, I don’t know if you’ll be able to truly understand just how gorgeously balletic–and mind-bogglingly unlikely--Bs/Cs has been.

2. Luol Deng. Yeah, Luol Deng. Remember him? Does anyone–even Chicago fans–remember him? Well, if not, let me refresh your memory. Luol Deng was the guy who was supposed to take the Bulls to where they are right now–to take them to the next level, to make them factors, contenders. He was the guy that was supposed to evolve into the team’s perennial all-star, the focal point of a youthful, athletic, exciting team. Lest we forget, at the beginning of the ’07-’08 season, the Bulls were projected to be one of the best teams in the East, coming hot off their first-round victory over the Heat (who, coincidentally enough, were also the returning champs at that point), and a whole lot of that was due to Deng, who had averaged career bests in points and rebounds that season (18/7), and stepped it up even further in the playoffs, going for 22 and 9. Everyone assumed he was a star in the making, the first real star that the Bulls had had since their glory days in the 90s.

Deng, however, did not follow the script. He took a step back in 2008, his stats limping slightly across the board. Expectations were still high coming into this season, but once again, the growth was just not there, and his stats sagged even further. Around the middle of the season, just a little while after Chicago made the trade for Miller and Salmons, he went down entirely with something called an anterior right tibial stress fracture. This probably should have been bad news, and the Bulls, then still squarely outside the playoff bubble, should probably have been freaking out about the injury, but hold up–turns out, them Bulls play kinda good now with Salmons and Miller in the rotation. So Deng’s nagging injury turns out to eventually be kind of a big deal, and he might be out the rest of the season, and maybe even the playoffs–if they actually make it there. But no one’s really panicking in the Windy City, and no one’s really banging down Vinny Del Negro’s door wondering when their starting forward is coming back to the lineup, as the team’s new seven-man rotation starts to look more and more like the core of something…something special, maybe.

Now it’s playoff time, the Bulls have the seventh seed, they’re firing on all cylinders and they’re giving the champs the fight of their life–they are, essentially, where everyone thought they should have been a year and a half ago. Except the guy that was supposed to be the reason why they were there, the guy who was pegged as the franchise player (and, of course, paid as one, signing for six years and up to $80 mil over the off-season)–not only is he not playing, not only is he not on the sidelines (not where anyone can see, anyway), but nobody seems to even remember that he was supposed to be there in the first place. As Kevin Garnett has his health speculated on, his absence decried, and his profanity-laced reactions to everything happening on the court shown every two minutes over the course of the series, I think I’ve heard Luol Deng’s name get mentioned maybe…twice? How does someone go from being the future of a franchise to barely even being an afterthought in a year and a half?

What will really be fascinating is to see what the Bulls do with him when he (presumably) comes back next season. What position does he play? Do they still try to build around him, or do they use him more as a role player? Does he even start? I have no idea where the Bulls go from here with Luol Deng, but five years and 60-some million says that they still better try to figure out something.

1. Kevin Garnett is Coming Back in Game 7. OK, this one has already gotten a fair bit of attention, but most people still seem doubtful of it actually happening–especially after Celtics GM Danny Ainge basically came out and said, “Kevin Garnett. Is Not. Playing. In This. Motherfucking. Game.” Well, let me tell you here and now–there’s no way KG sits this one out. He just can’t. And you know why? It’s not because the Celtics have been over-exaggerating his injury or healing period to keep him in their back pocket as a secret weapon–though that probably wouldn’t surprise me at this point. It’s not because he wants to be a part of motivational history, having grown up on stories of Willis Reed inspiring the Knicks to a brilliant Game 7 performance with his last-second return to the lineup from similar injury, though I’m sure the comparison is not lost on him. And it’s not because he’s such a warrior, such a firey, blood-spitting, flesh-chomping competitor that it would hurt his soul far too much to stand on the sidelines as his brothers-in-arms had to fight this last battle for him, and that Ainge, Rivers, and whoever else wanted a piece would have to physically tackle and restrain him to keep him from swapping his suit for his gym shorts during halftime–though all that might very well be the case.

No, the reason why Kevin Garnett will be in the lineup at some point in Game 7 is for one simple reason: It’s all there is left. Everything else in this series has already happened. On-court skirmishes? Check. Controversial ref calls? Check. Breakout performances? Check. Career redemptions? Check. Uncharacteristically brilliant plays? Check. Uncharacteristically stupid plays? Check. Heart-stopping, last-second, How The Hell Did He Make That buzzer-beaters? Check. Heart-stopping, last-second, How the Hell Did He Make That response buzzer-beaters? Check. Overtime games? Double Overtime games? Triple Overtime games? Check, check, check. OK, sure, the game could cobble together a mixture of all this stuff that’s already happened, change the cast and circumstances a little, and it’d all still be pretty cool. But there’s only one thing left to really set this game aside from the rest, to make it still shocking and amazing after all that’s already happened, to make it a true Game Seven–and that’s for Kevin Garnett to get his boney ass off the sidelines and into the low post.

And why am I so sure that this will happen? Well, has this series let us down yet? At every turn, when there could have been anti-climax–when the Bulls could’ve pulled away in the final minutes, when the Celtics could’ve gotten tired and packed it in, when Ben Gordon could’ve spent the whole fourth quarter clanging dumb jumpers, when Rajon Rondo could’ve gotten a little too agressive or Derrick Rose a little too creative, when Paul Pierce could’ve just taken over and left the Bulls in the dust–Bs/Cs has instead given us something more beautiful, more incredible then we ever could have hoped. So maybe we’re due for a letdown, maybe the series just doesn’t have that last miracle left in it–and if so, fair enough, and it’d probably be greedy to ask for more. But until I’m proven otherwise, I’m going to choose to believe that this series will get the capper that it deserves. And so, let me tell you–Kevin Garnett is going to walk through that door. You heard it here first.

See you guys at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Posted in Clap Clap ClapClapClap, Listeria | 4 Comments »

Clap Clap ClapClapClap: An Ode to Levance Fields

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 27, 2009

levance-fields

I doubt I’ll ever become as enamored with March Madness as most sports nuts out there. Oh, sure, I’ll fill out my brackets, based on a combination of baseless hunches, arbitrary geographical biases and (hopefully) self-fulfilling prophecies. And I’ll watch the games, at least until I can tell which team is obviously the better one and/or until it becomes clear that there’ll be no memorable last-second histrionics that I’ll want to bang my head against the wall for missing (like, say, the buzzer-beating game-tying three that Mario Chalmers hit against Memphis last year after I fell asleep with about five minutes to go). But generally speaking, a combination of not knowing enough about the teams, not being impressed with the level of play, and not having any sort of noteable rootng interest beyond those self-fulfilling prophecies, means that I’d almost always rather just flip to whatever NBA game is going on that night. The exception to this is when there’s a player in the tournament worth cheeing for, a wildcard so captivating that the rest of the drama becomes a mere subplot. Last year, that player was Stephen Curry. This year, it very well might be Levance Fields.

The two players, simply put, have absolutely nothing in common. Curry was an absolute marvel, a baby-faced assassin that seemed to be able to will his shots in from anywhere on the court, and put up 35-point games against the best defenses in the country just because it was his time. This year, despite his Davidson team missing the tournament for a variety of reasons, Curry still led the nation in scoring, was an early player of the year candidate, and ignited a nationwide debate over whether or not he’d ever be a pro-level player. No one will ever argue over the star pro potential of Levance Fields. Frankly, I’d find it somewhat remarkable if the Pitt point guard ever played a minute in the pros. What’s more, I’m not even all that sure he’s that great a college player–sure, he averages a Rondo-esque 10.6 points and 7.6 assists per game, but watcing the guy play, he never seems to make good decisions, and those that he does make seem a result of kismet or karma or just inevitability. Levance Fields does not seem like he should be a player of consequence in this tournament.

But I have never seen a player like Fields before in my life. And I mean that in a very literal sense–the dude just looks like no one else in sports. Basically, he’s a fat point guard, which seems a contradiction along the line of being a skinny linebacker, a midget center or a long-distance runner with a leg cramp. Not to mention the fact that he looks like a total stoner–droopy eyes, braided hair, hangdog demeanor. I mean, look at him up there–does he look like he should be acting as a floor general for a championship-contending team, or does he look like he should be choosing between combo meals at Wendy’s? I’ve been silently backing Pitt since I watched them unravel UConn earlier in the year, largely because I think DeJuan Blair is such an absolute beast (and find his crazed post-play infinitely more impressive than the mechanical efficiency of Hasheem Thabeet), but I think the incredulity of Fields’s presence was alway a subconscious factor. People say that Pitt never “win pretty,” and with a physial anomaly like Levance at the helm, that’s true in the very truest sense. And it is, perversely, a rather beautiful thing to watch.

Tonight’s game againt Xavier absolutely cemented my Fields obsession. For the third straight game, Pitt seemed dogged the entire game, grinding out what was either going to be an extremely disappointing loss or an only minorly encouraging victory. Down two with under a minute to go and the shot clock starting to run low, Fields pulled up for a top-of-the-arc three–a well-behind-the-arc top-of-the-arc three at that. I chortled as it went up–Fields had been bricking better looks from long range all game, and a wasted possession here likely meant the end of the game for Pitt. If Fields had put it up on a catch-and-shoot with the team down three and .6 seconds to go, I probably still would’ve thought “yikes, was that really the best play they could come up with?” Talking about the play after the game, Fields took credit for making a move to get enough separation to get the shot off, and I wanted to scream at the TV, “Of course you had enough separation to get the shot off! They’d have given it to you wide open if you had asked!” In fact, in the scouting report on Fields, it probably says in big caps with a circle around it, “TRICK INTO TAKING TOP-OF-THE-ARC DESPERATION THREES.”

Of course, it ended up going in, and then on the next play, Fields nabbed a loose ball and drove for a layup, all but sealing a Pitt victory. “GUTSY!” yelled Bill Raftery. “Can you imagine the courage?” (Never mind that had he missed, that almost certainly would’ve been a “WHAT…was Levance Fields thinking with that shot?” comment instead). “I never get tired of waching Levance take big shots,” quipped coach Jamie Nixon after the game (Never mind that had he missed, he would’ve needed a restraining order and numerous fire marshalls to keep himself from strangling Fields at the next timeout). For my money, the most accurate comment on the situaion came from Xavier coach Sean Miller: “I thought the shot that Levance Fields hit kinda says it all about [their] point guard,” Indeed, it’s unlikely you’ll see a play the rest of the tournament that better summarizes Levance–or Pitt on the whole, I suppose–than that one. Ugly, illogical, and downright stupifying, but somehow, so so right.

Here’s hoping that Fields and Pitt wins un-pretty all the way to Detroit. Even though I think I have them going down to UNC in the Final Four. Nuts, another lost bracket.

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Iguodala Pulls the Switcheroo on the Lakers

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 19, 2009

It hasn’t been the easiest year to be a Sixers fan. Not to say that the team is doing all that badly–as of writing they’re a mere game and a half out of fifth place in the East, and on pace to certainly at least better their 40-42 record from the season previous. In fact, they’re doing pretty damn well considering that their high-profile signing from the off-season failed to mesh with the team for the first quarter of the season and eventually went out for the whole season, arguably getting the team’s coach fired in the process. Prognosticators may have credited the Sixers as potentially being a third or fourth-seed-worthy team at season’s beginning, but from the way things started, and from how much worse things are going in Toronto and Detroit, we’ll definitely take it.

Rather, the reason this season has been such a trying one is the way this team has lost. They say that poker players remember bad beats far better than their big victories (and by they of course I mean Matt Damon in Rounders), and I think the same is true for most of sports fandom. I can barely remember the key wins this team has experienced this season, but the losses–the so-close, last-second, heartbreaking losses–burn in my mind with the brightest of flames. All teams suffer bad losses, sure–comes with the territory. But I remember watching a montage of the buzzer-beating and near buzzer-beating killers that the Sixers had suffered this year and thinking that if there were enough of these for them to put together a fucking montage of them in the first place, that’s probably not quite normal.

TJ Ford’s midrange jumper with six seconds left. Ray Allen’s three in the corner. The Brook Lopez dunk (after the Sixers missed their last 18 shots). The Dirk Nowitzki fadeaway (after the Sixers battled back from twelve down in the last two and a half minutes, the DAY AFTER the Eagles blew what could’ve been one of the all-time great post-season comebacks against the Cardinals). Oh, and of course, the Devin Harris half-court shot (which I still find completely mind-boggling–Devin used to be one of my favorite players in the league, now I can’t even look at him). Thank God I missed the Tony Parker prayer that sank them just before they went on their huge seven-game winning streak–if I had, I might not have had the heart to stick around long enough to watch the Sixers pull their season out of the gutter.

But then there was last night. Beginning a five-game road trip against the Lakers–arguably the best team in the league, and one which throttled Philly earlier in the year–I was thrilled enough when I saw them keep pace with the Lakers for three quarters after a dismal 11-2 start. When LA started to pull away at the end of the third, I figured it was fun while it lasted, and contented myself with a loss that at least wasn’t demoralizing. Even as the Sixers actually began to creep back in in the fourth quarter–thanks to that Godsend of an octagenarian, Donyell Marshall, who is useless 99% of the time but for some reason becomes utterly unstoppable from three when his team is down double digits in the fourth–I figured the combination of having the home crowd, the better interior rebounders and Kobe Bryant would be more than enough to keep the Sixers at bay. And when Kobe buried a long jumper over the outstretched arm of Andre Iguodala with seven seconds to go, I wasn’t even angry. I’d seen this movie before. Whatever.

I thought it was a three at first, more or less putting the game completely out of range, so my spirit was a little piqued by the fact that Kobe had his foot on the line, making it just a two point game. All right, I figured, this wasn’t completely over yet. I figured they’d have Iguodala drive to the basket and either lay it up and try to draw a foul, step back for a short jumper or kick out to the hot-handed Marshall for three. Seemed like they had decent odds. So here’s my reaction as the whistle blows and Andre Miller inbounds to Iggy with 6.7 seconds to go.

  • (0:06) Why is he taking it to half-court? What’s the point of doing that if he’s just going to drive it to the basket? He might not even have time for Donyell to put up his kick-out.
  • (0:05) Still dribbling. Guess he definitely plans on taking this to the hole himself.
  • (0:04) Um, still dribbling. Is there really time for all of this?
  • (0:03) Still dribbling? I guess he’s going to pull up mid-range…all right, I suppose he’s made that before once or twice.
  • (0:02) STILL DRIBBLING???? Wait. He’s not thinking about…? He’s not really gonna…Is he?
  • (0:01) Oh no.

If you haven’t seen the Sixers play this year–and since they’ve still yet to have a single nationally televised game not on NBA TV, that’s pretty understandable–you have to understand this: The Sixers are the worst three-point shooting team in the history of the NBA. Well, maybe not, but they’re certainly the worst in the league this season. For some perspective, the Cleveland Cavaliers have five regulars in their rotation that average 40% shooting or higher from long-distance, including Mo Williams, who shoots a staggering 44% from downtown. By contrast, the Sixers’ best three-point shooter (besides Marshall, who has played in not even a third of the team’s games, and Marreese Speights, who has shot five 3’s all season) is Thaddeus Young, hitting from downtown at a thudding 35% clip. That’s, uh, not good. Simply put, the Sixers do not have a rotation regular that can be relied upon to hit even a wide open look behind the arc with any regularity. Watching them against the Suns tonight, the Phoenix announcer sounded positively shocked when Willie Green even hit a long two. Willie Green is the starting 2 for the Sixers–you know, the shooting guard. When announcers are stunned about your 2-guard making an outside jumper–and with good reason, as Willie shoots only 42% from the field and a paltry 29% from deep–it probably says something about your team.

Iguodala, naturally, is no exception to this. He’d have to be considered one of the team’s best shooters, and is almost definitely the team’s best playmaker, but he still shoots under 30% from long range, and he’d had a miserable 0-6 start to the game from downtown. If you told the Lakers beforehand that the game was going to come down to Andre Iguodala shooting a top-of-the-arc three with Trevor Ariza, one of the team’s best defenders, guarding him–they’d probably have no problem staking their enitre season on going home happy. The only thing that can really be said to the credit of this playcall is that Iggy has actually shown a pretty big knack for hitting big shots–problem is, they’ve always been followed up by hitting bigger ones. His layup gave the Sixers a one-point lead against the Pacers before TJ Ford knocked his shot down. His tough fadeaway jumper put the Sixers up two before the Ray Allen three. His free throw even should’ve iced the game against the Nets before the Devin Harris miracle. So finally, without an opportunity for anyone to show him up, Iguodala decided he wanted a turn to provide the final dagger.

Indeed, his shot found the bottom of the net, and I couldn’t believe it. As a fan this season, I’d been on the receiving end of killers like this more times than I could stand. What was it supposed to feel like when it was your team doing it to the other guys? To see the other team with the confused “did that really just happen?” look on their face, their fans with the “wait, that’s it? We don’t get another shot at it?” stunned silence, their announcers with the disappointed, “well, whaddya gonna do?” acceptance…it was all so familiar, yet all so strange. I couldn’t even enjoy the moment at first–rather than fist-pumping or cheering or anything, I just shouted “WHAT????” so loud that my roommate heard me down the hall through two closed doors and asked if anything was wrong. “No, it’s just…something improbable just happened,” I explained to her.

No way in hell anything that happens in March Madness will touch this for me.

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Courtney Paris Putting Her Money Where Her Post-Game Is

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 12, 2009

courtney-paris

Ah, March Madness. Nothing like the third month of our new year to bring the drama, the intrigue, and of course, the ridiculous posturing that only college sports seem capable of providing. While most will undoubtedly be focused on the male side of the tournament–as far as I know, the practice of bracket pooling for the WNCAA’s is limited to the relatives of those involved and, uh, HGTV employees–perhaps the most intriguing  subplot of the tourney this year belongs to the ladies. Oklahoma Lady Sooners center / cinder block Courtney Paris is coming to the end of her historic college career, and she is feeling good about her team’s chances to go all the way this year. How good are we talking? Well, not only is Courtney willing to put her name on the line, she’s backing up it with a fair share of cash, promising to return her school scholarship funds (estimated at $64k) if her team does not take top honors. Sez Paris: “When you’re good enough and don’t do something, then you have to take accountability for that and that’s your own fault. We can win a national championship. If we don’t, I’ll feel like I didn’t earn my scholarship.”

We here at IITS have had our fill in recent times of athletes making guarantees that they do not deliver on, and I in fact have called for some sort of enforced accountability for this false prophecizing. So first and foremost, let me congratulate Miss Paris on taking the initiative to not only demonstrate just how certain she is of her prediction’s accuracy, but self-imposing the stakes should it not come to fruition. That’s not to say that I’m entirely satisfied by her promise, however–what I’d really like to see is an Oklahoma-invoiced payment time-table (all Paris has offered so far are vaguaries about “as long as it takes”), with the appropriate adjustments for interest and inflation, as well as a non-negotiable contract drafted by the NCAA board, stipulating that Paris will lose both her academic degree and her WNBA pro eligibility, and that all of Oklahoma’s wins will be retroactively forfeited (a la Chris Webber’s Michigan team), should payments not be received on time. You’ve taken the big first step towards the credibility restoration of our progonosticating athletic superstars, Courtney–now it’s time to take the full plunge.

In any event, this could all quickly turn very interesting. The Sooners are an excellent team, it seems–#3 in the country, with a 27-3 record, largely thanks to Courtney’s 16 points and 13 rebounds a game. I can’t say I’ve ever seen her or her team play, but her physique and stat line suggests a rough female middle ground between Shaquille O’Neal and David Lee (with an even more imperssive double-double streak–112 games!)–not a bad rock to anchor a potential championship team. However, there exists an extremely noteable roadblock in Paris and company’s path towards a title–that of the UConn Women Huskies juggernaut, a team whose dominance over the WNCAA field this year makes the ’07 Patriots seem like total amatuer hour by comparison. Not only have they gone undefeated, they’ve won their games by an average of over thirty points per game, no team ever even coming within ten of ‘em. Betting against them at this point seems like an only marginally better investment than putting $64k against the Harlem Globetrotters.

And in the meantime, what kind of pressure is Paris putting on the rest of her team? Let’s say Paris goes on an absolute tear in the tournament–25 points and 15 rebounds, a couple blocks and a 65% FG performance per game–and they get into the championship game. Now every time Rose Hammond blows a layup, or Carlee Roethlisberger (yes, like that Roethlisberger) gets called for a ticky-tack foul, or poor sophomore point Danielle Robinson darts a pass just past her teammate’s fingers, is Courtney gonna dart them a look like “you owe me $1500 for that one, bitch!” Imagine if they get within a bucket of the win, and someone bricks a wide-open three from the wing–is Paris still really going to take full financial responsibility for the loss? Even worse, imagine if that someone happens to be sister and teammate Ashley? How awkward is that going to make Thanksgiving for the Paris family? (Though at the very least, I suppose, Courtney would have a permanent ace up her sleeve when it comes to any sort of dispute with sis–“Aw c’mon Court, how come I’m the one who always has to make the late-night Dunkin Donuts run?” “Hey, unless you’re buying me $64,000 worth of Boston Kremes, Ash, I don’t even wanna hear it”).

At the very least, I might actually watch my first ever Women’s College Basketball game during my clsoe tracking of this developing story. There’s gonna be some absolutely amazing post-game interviews to come out of this, I predict.

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Listeria / Clap Clap ClapClapClap: The Top Ten Stories of All-Star Weekend

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 16, 2009

Only shooting stars break the mold

asg

Last year, I was visiting a friend of mine at Vassar for almost the entirety of All-Star Weekend, consequently, I missed everything but the game itself, which was slightly underwhelming. Determined not to let that happen again, and with new DV-R in tow, I watched just about everything that could possibly have to do with the weekend this year, as well as a half-dozen old all-star games and about as many old slam dunk contests on NBA TV. Because after all, who needs Valentine’s Day when you can watch Jason Kapono going for a Three-Point Threepeat? With that in mind, my ten favorite subplots of a very entertaining weekend of basketball and basketball-affiliated product:

1o. Terrell Owens: The Michael Jordan of the All-Star/Celebrity Game. Man am I glad I remembered to tape this freak show–a fascinating mix of decades-past-their-prime stars, WNBA players, second-tier celebrities and Harlem Globetrotters. In between Michael Rappaport hacking everyone in sight, Chris Tucker hoisting up ten-feet-wide airball threes, and Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins rimming dunks and blowing easy layups, the one legitimately impressive sight of the evening was TO, who somehow seems far more natural as a baller than as a receiver. On his way to a second consecutive All-Star/Celebrity Game MVP, he hit a three, showed a surprisingly fluid mid-range game, and even skied for an alley-oop throwdown from ‘Nique. It was surprisingly fun to watch–although I was getting legitimately peeved at those fucking showboating Globetrotters, wishing they’d just take the game a little more seriously.

9. The Non-Folly of Youth. What’s with all the dour-looking young’ns these days? I thought the kids were supposed to be all about egos and trash-talking and giddy excitement–most of these guys don’t even look like they have a pulse. Bulls rook Derrick Rose was absolutley stunning in his grace as he picked up apart the course at the Skills challenge, but he executed the whole thing as if it was some Phys Ed exam that he wished he had the foresight to skip out on while he had the chance. OJ Mayo hit some pretty impressive shots in the HORSE(/GEICO) game, but did so with absolutely no enthusiasm and only the very minimum of swagger. Throughout the Rookie / Sophomore game, Michael Beasley’s old-fashioned me-first, ball-hogging was almost a breath of fresh air, a rare example of bonafide immaturity in a land of premature middle-agedom. C’mon guys–I know there’s pressure not to act like idiots and all, but the fogies shouldn’t be allowed to have all of the fun.

8. The Return of LeBrick James. Nothing fills my heart with pure bilious joy as much as seeing The King get dethroned, however temporarily, and his performance in the All-Star Game was pretty unexemplary. Not that his stat line (8-19 for 20, a couple rebounds and assists) was all that horrific, but all of his Big Moments–namely, his Big Dunk Attempts–fell stupifyingly flat. For a man whose every move appears to be calculated down to sub-atomic levels, it was pretty something to see LeBron throw backboard alley-oops to himself that he could barely even catch, let alone finish–Bron-Bron doesn’t always do everything right, but it’s pretty fucking rare to see him do something so wrong. If this was his audition tape for the 2010 Slam Dunk Contest (which he undercut the final showdown this year like A-Rod interrupting Game Four of the ’07 World Series by announcing his intentions to play in) the NBA might just say “No thanks, we’re sticking with Brandon Bass and Jason Thompson.” Well, maybe not, but you know.

7. “Hey Terry, maybe you should make other plans this weekend…” I can’t help but think of the kids at the Gas n Sip in Say Anything, bemoaning the way Diane dispatched Lloyd–“She broke up with you in your car?? That’s, like, your sanctuary!” The termination of Terry Porter as leader of the increasingly depressing Phoenix Suns (I started re-reading Seven Seconds or Less to wash the taste of the last month out of my mouth) was likely inevitable and very possibly a good thing, as Alvin Gentry sounds determined to get back to the SSOL era–though who knows if that’s even possible this late in the game. But I feel like even his biggest detractors would have to admit that it’s pretty fucking cold to be dismissed in the weekend that your team’s city is hosting All-Star Weekend–like not getting invited to a party going two doors down wear you can hear the music and see the people going in and out, but know that everyone’s hoping that you stay away just the same. Props to Shaq for semi-calling out Sun brass for the classlessness of the move–though, to be fair, I suppose trading Amare while he was repping their team in the All-Star Game would’ve been even tackier.

6. Nate Robinson: God Among Midgets. A megafan of Nate’s since his forty-point game against the Blazers last year (which I keep mentioning in the hopes that someone else will remember this and confirm that it was in fact the weirdest thing ever), I had high hopes for his ability to bring the noise and/or the funk in the slam-dunk contest against heavy favorite D-12 this year. A couple of his early dunks were not terribly outstanding–few of the candidates’ were, truthfully, though Dwight’s 12-footer was at least pretty creative–but man, did Mightiest Mouse bring out the theatrical in that second round, rocking the all-green Knicks uni with matching sneakers, providing the kryptonite to Howard’s Superman (and yes, I did need Reggie Miller and his endless “LEX LUTHOR IS IN THE BUILDING!!!!” cries to explain that to me). And while he needed a lot of good sportsmanship and a little ducking from the seven-footer to perform his now-trademark dunk of skying over the big man, it was pretty fucking amazing that he got as close as he did. I’m pulling for you next year, Lex. (I personally prefer Krypto-Nate, though–guess we’ll leave this one up to Clyde Frazier and Mike Breen).

5. The Unceasing Anonymity of Joe Johnson. At this point, Joe Johnson seems positively destined to go down in history to be the best player of his generation to leave no legacy whatsoever. Now a three-time all-star, and a consensus pick for the most underrated player in the league (thus making him slightly overrated, naturally), Joe has nonetheless been cursed with an unassuming name, an unremarkable visage, a style with no immediately identifiable trademarks, and teams neither extraordinary or awful enough to make much of an impression (aside from his limited time with the D’Antoni Suns, for whom he was still sidelined with injury during their most definitive hour). It seemed like Joe’s career might finally have been making the next step, with the Hawks’ hot start and his consistent All-Star respect (including inclusion in the HORSE/GEICO game this year). But the Hawks have started to cool, and Joe failed to make an impression again this All-Star weekend, getting clowned in HORSE and going 0-4 to be the only All-Star left scorless in the main event. Sorry, Joe–ex-Hawks Glenn Robinson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim probably understand, at least.

4. JABBAWOCKEEZ. I sent a text message to friend of IITS Kyle “K-Mac” McFarren on Friday to the effect of “Who the fuck are those dancing mime dudes?” Forgive me, America, for I did not watch America’s Best Dance Crew, and was thus unfamiliar with the masked prancers who appeared in those weird Gatorade commercials, apparently placing them on the same level of excellence and dominance as Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. But thanks to the All-Star Game, I now know to identify them as JabbaWockeeZ, apparently the hottest dance crew since Omarion and Marques Houston hung up their sneakers a half-decade ago. Not only did they accompany the all-star introductions with their choreographed bits, they also can now claim Shaquille O’Neal as an honorary member, as the Big Cactus came out wearing their mask and appeared in the middle of the cipher for a couple minutes of surprisingly fluid popping and locking, now referring to himself as “The Big JABBAWOCKEE.” Can’t say that I saw this coming, but then again, I wouldn’t have picked Kevin Rudolff’s “Let it Rock” to become the new “Eye of the Tiger” either.

3. A.I.: SAMPSON’D. I’m blown away after only watching the guy for about a year and a half, I can’t even imagine what it must feel like for fans that have been watching this guy since his Georgetown days. Responding to pressure from his kids and their mother, Allen Iverson took the ASW as an opportunity to lop off his trademark braids, echoing a similar step taken by then-teammate Carmelo Anthony at the beginning of the season. With AI doing it, though, it really feels like the end of an era–Iverson was sort of the last man standing from the Dreadlocked Age, with Latrell Spreewell out of the game and Jermaine O’Neal, Rasheed Wallace and then ‘Melo all Undoing the ‘Do. It’s sad to see AI give up his roots, but it certainly seems like the time had come. Will it help out his play in Detroit? Well, you gotta try something, I guess…

2. The Kevin Durant Debutant Ball. Possibly the biggest star of the whole weekend was already done playing by Saturday at sundown. There’s no question that the most indelible impression made by anyone these last three days was made by Kevin Durant, the second year player denied an All-Star berth despite a 26 ppg average (hey, when you have a slot to give David West for being injured and getting open shots from Chris Paul, you gotta give it to him), who took out his frustrations on the Rookie-Sophomore game, where he scored 46 points for the Sophs, crushing the previous record for the game of 36. And if that wasn’t enough, he engineered a brilliant come-from-behind victory–albeit one mostly centered around his ability to make simple corner threes–in the HORSE/GEICO competition, earning an early G-E-I-C, but catching fire and torching his two opponents before they could hang that final O on him. If you weren’t on the watch for any Thunder game you can find on your satellite dial–and really, there’s been no team more fun to watch since the new year–you really gotta be now. This might be the last ASG in a decade to be Durantless.

1. Feel the Love. Apparently, the weekend colliding with Valentine’s Day wasn’t a coincidence after all–there was such an outpouring of love and general positive vibrations this weekend that it’s remarkable that Kenny Smith and Doug Collins didn’t start making out during one of their broadcasts. It’s not just the Dreadlock Era that ended this weekend, it’s the Age of Bad Feelings–with a star nucleus of Kobe, LeBron, Dwight, D-Wade and CP3 (all friends from Beijing and all largely agreeable fellows) now effectively being the embassadors of the league, the NBA’s long-feared “image problem” has gone the way of Steve Francis. There’s no Jail Blazers to be found in these festivities, no Ron Artest, no JO or J-Ho or other such unsavories. The closest thing to an early-00s scowler to be found in these proceedings is Amare, who felt distinctly like an outsider for the game, like a bad kid forced to spend detention in a Youth Group meeting. Perfectly symbolizing the NBA’s new DAISY Age were the co-MVPs, Shaq and Kobe, whose reconciliation–seeming at least semi-genuine this time–appeared to close the books on one of the great Age of Bad Feelings stories, a bitter, venomous rivalry that simply has no place among the modern-day league’s central ideals of maturity, team play and civic responsibility. To put it simply, it’s not cool to be a badass in the NBA anymore. May you live in interesting times, IITS readers…

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Livebloggin': Game Five of the World Series (Pt. 2 of ?)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 29, 2008

If this is it, please let me know


After sitting through what could most accurately be described as an inauspicious Sixers season opener (rebounded and d’d fairly well, but that’s about it, and Brand didn’t anchor the team so much as just sort of weigh them down), it’s good to remember that one of my city’s other sports teams is still potentially three innings away from a World Championship. This week has been maybe the most surreal I’ve experienced in my brief tenure as a sports fan–baseball is drawn out enough as it is, without having to spend two days in between innings contemplating pitching match-ups, momentum swings and possible dramatic storylines (like how if the Phillies somehow ended up losing after this, it would have to mark the blackest moment in the city’s sports history, right? Yikes, maybe I did choose to follow Philly at just the right time)

That said, I still like our chances a pretty good deal tonight–good though David Price has been, I’m not convinced he can handle four scoreless innings by his lonesome, and as long as we don’t have to resort to Durbin at some point, I trust our bullpen guys fairly implicitly. And ultimately, this might be a good thing for baseball–this was gearing up to be a fairly anonymous Series, and at least this mishap has given the match a little personality. Of course, it’s a much better story if the Rays win tonight, so let’s hope things don’t get too interesting. In any event, it’s going to be hard for me to resist flipping intermittently to the Spurs-Suns season opener (watching Game Five of the ’05 Western Conference Finals on NBA TV today reminded me just how easily this is my favorite rivalry in pro sports), so forgive an interjection or two from that game.

Anyway, opening pitch approaches. Can Lidge keep history on his side? Can Cholly outmanouever Maddon after 48 hours of labbing behind the both? Who gets to be the hero tonight? Should be one for the ages, no matter what.

8:38: Geoff Jenkins announced as the pinch-hitter for Hamels. I don’t like it–yeah, maybe he matches up better, but I don’t think he’s actually come through in any important capacity since the summer, and I’d be shocked if he broke that streak tonight. But with an unstable Balfour on the mound and a record-enthusiastic Philly crowd behind him, I’ll be willing to suspend disbelief for a couple of pitches.

8:42: HOLY FUCKING SHIT GEOFF JENKINS. A leadoff double over the head of BJ Upton that looked like almost as much of a bomb as Stairs’s NLCS clocker. Jenkins, you fucking prince. Charlie Manuel, you fucking genius.

8:43: Rollins bunts Jenkins over, and the dreaded RISP cloud moves back over Citizens Bank Park for Jayson Werth. Can he put bat to ball and get Not-Favre 90 feet over?

8:45: Somehow, yes. Werth works his patented “Runner on Third With Less Than Two Outs Pop-Up” magic, but with the infield playing in to nail Jenkins at the plate, Aki fails to pull a Rollins and make the backwards shallow-outfield catch. Jenkins scores, Werth safe at first, so long Grant Balfour.

8:49: Earlier today, I realized how much I missed those “Where Amazing Happens” NBA commercials. A few hours later, I wondered how the hell I was ever going to an endure an entire season’s worth of them again.

8:50: J.P. Howell in for Balfour. So much for Price going the distance, although McCarver & Buck helpfully point out that doing so would necessitate the Rays’ having to hit for him too soon. Doesn’t matter, since Utley goes down on three pitches to Howell, causing me to wonder if the Phils aren’t instilling the “hurry-up offense” they so often do once they get a league in big games, seemingly uninterested in providing further offense at the risk of unnecessarily delaying victory.

8:54: Howard pops up, inning over. Down to Madson, Romero and Lidge nail down a glorious anti-climax.

8:57: Hey, forgot that Hamels can still win this thing! A record-setting 5-0, just another reason why winning tonight might not be the worst idea (Reason #1: Not stretching this thing to the very end of the month getting in the way of my Halloween plans).

8:59: Madson freezes Navarro, and we officially start the Outs to Go countdown. (8)

8:59: Uhh, scratch that, as Rocco Baldelli somehow fights off a high and inside fastball…INTO THE LEFT-FIELD STANDS??? I don’t know how that mitochondrial motherfucker managed that one, but we got ourselves another tie game, and Hamels loses his shot at a historic 5-0. Goddamn it.

9:02: Bartlett singles and gets bunted up. Madson out, Romero in, and the chances that we can finish this game without resorting to Condrey or Durbin start to dwindle past the point of comfort. Would it maybe not be the worst idea to let the well-rested Myers come out of the bullpen if necessary, and have Moyer and either Blanton or a three-days’-rest Hamels pitch the potential Games 6 and 7? Well, given the fact that he always gives up two runs in his first inning, maybe it wouldn’t be so advisable. But soon it might be time for a little out-of-the-box thinking.

9:07: Another game-saving play from Utley, who gloves a hot grounder from Aki, realizes he has no play at first, and has the presence of mind to fake the throw, hold on to the ball, and gun down the overzealous Bartlett heading for home. Said it before, say it again–whatta crew.

9:11: PAT. THE. BAT. Burrell comes inches away from a game-breaking homer but manages a lead-off double anyway (anyone else would’ve gone to third or possibly home on the ricochet, but whatever). Sometimes, 1-14 just looks so much better than 0-13. Incidentally, where was that Battle of the Bullpens we were promised?

9:19: Vic advances the pinch-running Bruntlett to third, and then Feliz knocks in Bruntlett with a shot up the middle. Looks like all the momentum the Rays were supposed to get from the days off and from Hamels being out of the game has yet to properly transfer to their bullpen. Still, I guess we should see if ours’ll start holding up before I start gloating too unapologetically.

9:22: Ruiz forcefully grounds out, and then in a move that he damn well better justify with his pitching next inning, Romero is not lifted for a pinch-hitter, and grounds out somewhat less forcefully. In any event, time to start the Outs to Go countdown again (7, 6).

9:25: With every new season, the gap between between 24 and an 80s Schwarzeneggar movie closes a little bit. Not that I’m complaining, mind you–I’m especially looking forward to Jack’s climact knife fight with Bennett in the season finale.

9:28: Crawford singles up the middle, but as has somehow become his trademark this World Series, Upton grounds into a double play (5, 4). Why does this guy seem so fast when he’s stealing second or rounding third (even winning America free tacos in the process), but becomes positively Burrell-esque when running out potential DPs? This has got to be the most frustrating thing in the world if you’re a Tampa fan (and yes, I think we’re going to have to get used to the phrase “Tampa fan” in the years to come, no matter what happens here tonight).

9:32: Pena lifts one into left a little too far for comfort, but it lands in healthy playability for Bruntlett (3). No matter what, the Phils are going to have the lead going into the ninth, with Lidge on the mound to turn the lights out for the 49th and last time this season. Are we getting excited yet? Inversely, can we possibly picture a more terrifying Worst Case Scenario if the Phils don’t pull this out? Actually, let’s stick to the excitement part for now.

9:35: And heeeeere comes David Price. The more I hear about this guy and the more I see him pitch, the more I’m convinced that he’s the baseball Tim Duncan. He sorta looks like him, facial hair aside, they both were #1 picks that were thrust amidst huge hype into extremely high-pressure post-season situations their first years and they both look to be the franchise players for a potentially dynastic team. But most importantly, neither look like they feel anything except fear, adrenaline and sullenness, their perpetually hagdog expressions looking jarringly ill-fitting for such a championship-calliber player and leader. Maybe next year Price grows a goatee, dates a reality TV star and does a Sprite commercial, but more likely I think he chills at home with his phone on silent, wondering why everyone always wants to talk to him so much.

9:39: Rollins flies out and Werth strikes out. Hard not to question Maddon for not putting his No-Longer-Particularly-Secret Weapon in the game as soon as they were lucky enough to tie it against Madson, no?

9:43: Utley walks and steals second, and for the first and last time in history, Howard continues to get pitched to For Fear of Eric Bruntlett on deck. Of course, Howard justifies their decision by whiffing.

9:45: BRAD LIDGE TIME. Goddamn this blog for making it too confusing for me to figure out how to write that in the humongous, screen-shattering size it deserves. CAN YOU FEEL IT PHILADELPHIA?????

9:50: Eva Almighty pops up, and boy is it starting to feel real. Sorry for the shitty series, MLB, but I think we just needed to get this one out of the way. They can’t all be evenly-matched epics like Boston-Colorado and St. Louis-Detroit, I guess. (3)

9:52: Uh-oh, broken bat bloop single for Navarro. Lidge never did do things the easy way. Fernando Perez pinch-runs for Navarro in a way that is in absolutely no fashion reminiscent of Dave Roberts in 2004…right?

9:54: Perez steals second. Fuck. Fuck. FUCK. Zobrist and Hinske, Brad. You’ve done it all year. Do it one more fucking time, please.

9:55: Zobrist lines a beauty to right, that somehow manages to stay up long enough for Werth to get glove on it (1). Holy shit is that a little too close for comfort. And as we always knew it would, the World Series comes down to 2003 Rookie of the Year Eric Hinske. Can he provide the big-game support for the Rays that he did for the Red Sox last year? I’m cuing up the McFadden and Whitehead, just incase.

9:56, 23 seconds: Foul grounder to first, strike one.

9:56, 48 seconds: Hinske can’t check his swing, strike two. Hope you’ve been practicing your McGraw leap, Brad-Brad.

9:57, 20 seconds: Lidge slider, Hinske swings, and

AIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN’T NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO STOPPIN’ USSSS NOWWWWWWWWWWWWWW

WE’RE ON THE MOVE

10:50: About an hour, a ridiculous amount of texting and IMing, six shots of tequilla and a whole lot of Hall & Oates and Gamble and Huff later, the incredulity of the situation has started to strike me somewhat. The Phillies have won the 2008 World Series….how about that? No weaknesses came back to haunt the team, no brutal ironies surfaced to sap the team of its life and enthusiasm, no holes opened up in the middle of the earth under CBP to swallow the team whole. And as soon as Lidge got that third strike on Hinske, I completely forgot all about all the rain delays, as I imagine the entire world will within the next 24 hours. This will not go down as one of the great moments in sports history. This will go down as very potentially the great moment in Philadelphia sports history. Holy shit am I lucky to have started following this team when I did.

And once again, they did it all as a team. There are no goats on this team. Pedro Feliz and Eric Bruntlett were not exactly on the shortlist of the team’s prospective post-season homers, but Feliz got the game-winning hit, and Bruntlett got the game winning run. My boy Moyer got shelled in his first two series outings, but he redeemed it all with his Game 3 performance, and now fans are chanting his name as he gets interviewed by Peter Gammons. Hell, even Mitch Williams, the guy who give Philly fans ulcers whenever his name was mentioned for a decade and a half, got to throw out an opening pitch. Lidge got the save, Hamels got the MVP, and Phils fans got ammo over Mets fans for years and years to come (IITS friend Andrew Weber on the occasion: “I am not even talking about this. This is too depressing. This is it for six months.”) It’s unreal that it’s as uncomplicated as it all is.

It’s a better story if Tampa Bay wins, sure. But the early-90s Braves needed to lose before they could win, too, and it’s the Braves that turned out to be the team of the 90s, while the Twins were pretty much never heard from again. I don’t cry any tears for the Rays–it would’ve been amazing if they won, sure, but they’ll only get better, and they’ll have their chances soon enough. The Phils, on the other hand–this was their year, and they might not have another. Burrell and Moyer might be on their way out, while Howard, Utley, Rollins and Victorino are not nearly as young as you might think for a group that hasn’t even been playing together for a half-decade. It was a year where just about everything that could’ve gone right did–some minor dips in production, but no major injuries and no major catastrophes, and a post-season where the team did not lose a single game at home. For a team who has had a notoriously tempestuous relationship with its fans, this last month was a gift that should buy them credit for years and years of heartbreak to come.

So will it be another hundred seasons before the next Philly championship? Maybe, but maybe not. I’m hoping this could be the break in city psychology that Boston got with those first couple Pats championships, opening the floodgates for an oncoming period of prosperity and dominance. And if not, well, it’ll take a whole lot to start complaining again. This was as special a season as they come, and the memories–Victorino’s 9th-inning assist against the Braves to save Lidge’s save streak, Howard’s incredible long-balling September to get the Phils back in the playoff hunt, Rollins and Utley’s amazing double play against the Nats to seal the division, Myers’ huge walk-draw against CC to help chase the best pitcher in baseball out of the NLDS, Stairs’ incredible 8th-inning blast against the Dodgers to help seal the NLDS, and Lidge’s strike-out of Hinske and the ensuing pile on as the Phils won their first World in a quarter-century–will last my whole life.

Shine a light, Philadelphia.

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap / Listeria: My Ten Most Outlandish Predictions for the ’08-’09 NBA Season

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 29, 2008

Knew it all along


Well, supposedly we’ll be getting back to baseball sometime this month, but in the meantime, we do have an NBA season starting up which I’m just as excited for. And while everyone rushes to predict another Lakers/Celtics finals–and barring a miracle season where everything goes right for the Rockets, frankly, it’s hard to find fault with that line of reasoning–I’m more interested in the things we don’t really see coming. Last season the Bulls and Knicks were predicted by many to make the playoffs while the Hornets and Sixers were not, and the Lakers were expected to merely creep into a #7 or #8 seed. Even though it seems like so much this season is already pre-determined, there are going to be little outliers like this, and I’m gonna try to call ‘em. I’ll be lucky if I get three of ‘em right, but hey, at least those two’ll be on record.

10. Against all odds, the addition of James Posey will not automatically make the New Orleans Hornets a championship team. OK, started off with an easy one. But I still don’t get why anyone would think this signing is that big a deal–either the loss for the Celtics or the gain for the Hornets. Yeah, Posey was a big part of two of the last three championship teams, and he adds a lot in the defense and leadership departments, but he’s also just a backup in his 30s that averaged less than seven ppg in the playoffs last year when all was said and done. Tony Allen and Eddie House can combine to cover his role on the C’s without much difficulty, and the Hornets need a whole lot more backing up  Chandler, West and Paul to get over that hump in the West.

9. For the first time in his career, Kobe Bryant will miss 20 games in the regular season.
The ankle tweak he got in that pre-season game against the raptors seems something of a portent–between that, the pinky, a full ’08 season and a very busy summer, as well as Kobe now entering his 30s, it just seems like it’s about time for him to start missing chunks of season every now and then. Luckily, the Lakers are now strong enough without him that they can probably just bump Odom back into the starting lineup and play at least .500 ball in his absence, sacrificing no more than a seed slot or two in the process. And honestly, if Kobe stays healthy all season, it’s hard to imagine how this isn’t a 70-win team.

8. The Washington Wizards will miss the playoffs. This one hurts me a little, because I love this team and few things would make me happier than to see them finally get through the Cavs and go on the deep post-season run they’ve been unfairly denied since their Big Three was assembled. But with Agent Zero already missing half the season, Jamison bound to go down for pieces at some point (and unlikely to match last year’s career season anyway), Thomas and Heywood back to fighting over the center slot, and no particularly promising young’ns in the pipeline, all the Tough Juice in the world might not be enough to get them in the picture in what I expect to be a much more competitive East.

7. Dwight Howard officially becomes the most overrated player in the NBA. There’s no question he’s one of the fantasy and Sportscenter elites at this point, but now in his fifth season in the NBA, this is the year where we ceased to be wowed by D-12’s Superman antics and start to wonder when he’s going to emerge as a true leader on a championship-level team. Stat lines aside, he’s looked out of his depth whenever he’s had to face up to real competition, be they the Pistons of last year’s playoffs or the better international teams of this summer’s olympics. He’s still crazy young–not even a year older than me, scarily enough–but on an Orlando team that got worse if anything over the summer, he’s going to have to start maturing sooner rather than later. And I think this is the year where we realize how long he still has to go.

6. All the big men coming back from big injuries–Brand, Oden, (Jermaine) O’Neal, Bynum–will have statistically disappointing seasons. None of these guys are going to be the franchise saviors that many of their fans want or expect. I doubt any will average more than a 15 and 8, and Bynum and Oden especially might be well under that. However, in all cases, I think their respective teams still get a huge boost from their mere presence and threat of greater production–especially in the case of O’Neal, whose effect on Bosh in Toronto will be tremendous. I think Bosh becomes one of the league’s elite this year anyway, but with O’Neal around to take care of some of the dirty work inside and allow Bosh to stray from the post and be the versatile threat he can be, it’ll have the galvanizing effect that the other O’Neal’s arrival had on Amare in Phoenix last year. The Blazers is the one team that worries me–based on their play tonight especially, it’s hard not to think of them as the Cleveland Browns of the NBA this year.

5. Speaking of Oden–neither he, Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley wins Rookie of the Year. It’s being looked at as a three-horse race, but Beasley’s superficial contributions are going to be slightly underwhelming (especially compared to the whirling dervish that will be D-Wade this season), you’re not going to get much more out of Rose yet than  11/8 lines like he had against the Bucks tonight, and who knows how much of the season Oden is even going to be around for. My money would either be on Russell Westbrook, who despite formidable competition from Earl Watson should be able to grab the not-Sonics’ starting point position and have fun running with Kevin Durant in front of an appreciative OKC fanbase, or Eric Gordon, who could shoot the lights out on a gloriously dysfunctional Clipper team. Maybe those goofy Lopez twins’ll split it, who knows.

4. The Denver Nuggets will be this year’s New York Knicks. How in the hell did this team make the playoffs in the West last year? Oh yeah, that’s right–they have maybe two of the ten best players in the league. Still, it’s hard to remember that when you see what a hot mess the Nugs are on the whole, especially now that they’ve traded away their one decent defender without even getting scraps in return. The breakdown in D, the incompatability of the key pieces, the bad attitude, the coach whose players wouldn’t listen to him if he told them to tie their shoes…remind you of anyone? The only question that remains is how fans at the Pepsi Center decide what syllables to stress to make “Fi-re George Karl!” sound catchy. Oh, and also…

3. Allen Iverson swings a team’s playoff fortunes by getting traded midseason. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It won’t take the Thuggets long to realize how disastrous ’08-’09 is going to be for them, and the next logical step will be to deal the aging Iverson, whose 20 mil coming off the books will go a long way towards rebuilding around Melo and J.R. Smith, the two pieces of that team worth holding on to. Meanwhile, AI is still a potent enough offensive force to make a bubble team playoff-bound, or a playoff team championship bound. Personally, I’m hoping the Pistons end up taking him–that team needs to get broken up but badly, and shuffling around their lineup to include Iverson will either sink ‘em or make ‘em the legitimate unstoppable force they’ve always believed themselves to be.

2. The Suns finally beat the Spurs in the playoffs. Or if they don’t beat them directly, they at least get on further than San Antonio does. Basic pattern recognition says that the Spurs should be a championship team this year–’03, ’05, ’07, ’09–but basic logic says that they’ll take an unequivocal step backwards, with Manu already missing the first trimester, and everyone but Tony getting another step slower. Meanwhile, the Suns are still one of the most talent-loaded teams in the NBA, and though they might be even older, they’ll finally be learning to play Spurs-style ball a little under Terry Porter, and they’ve still got two of the league’s best twenty-somethings in Amare and the underrated and under-utilized Boris Diaw. Shaq won’t be a difference maker, but he’ll learn to get in the way less, and I have to believe Nash has one more great season left in him. It’s a stretch, but in a West where a lot of once-mighty teams will be struggling, I think the Suns will remain the strongest of the old guard.

1. The New York Knicks make the playoffs. I’m not even going to try to justify this one. Just remember me when it actually happens next May.

Posted in Clap Clap ClapClapClap, Listeria | 2 Comments »

Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Getting Pumped for the ’08-’09 Knicks

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 20, 2008

Where Every Win Over Thirty Is a Blessing Happens

By just about any estimation, the Philadelphia 76ers are going to be one of the most compelling teams to follow in the NBA next season. After putting up one of the best post all-star break records in the league during what just about everyone, seemingly including the team themesleves, had deemed to be a rebuilding year, the Sixers quickly emerged as one of the most exciting young teams around. Then, they really got to work in the off-season, shoring up the lineup with key role players and backups (Theo Ratliff, Kareem Rush, Donyell Marshall), locking down team cornerstones Andre Iguodala and Louis Williams to multi-year contracts, and bringing in a promising young big with draft pick Mareese Speights, and most notably (and controversially), adding the a-list post presence the team had so badly lacked with the landing of free agent Elton Brand. Even if it doesn’t result in the title run fans are hoping for–and it probably won’t–it’s going to be a fun, fun year for Sixers fans.

Yet it’s the return of a team that was, in the estimation of some, “The Worst Team in the History of Professional Sports,” that has me really fascinated. The New York Knicks had an ’07-’08 season for the history books, one of such horrific dysfunction, embarrassing clumsiness and just generally bad vibes that it’s hard to remember that record-wise, there were actually four other teams that had as bad or worse a regular-season. But if you weren’t emotionally invested in the team, as I certainly wasn’t, the games toward the end of the season–the ones after any pretensions the team had of ascending from b-ball purgatory had long since been dashed–took on a kind of perversely thrilling madcap quality, a “lunatics taking over the asylum” sort of charm. On any given night, you’d never know what bizarre, inexplicable sight you’d be confronted with, whether it be the supremely graceless Zach Randolph attempting a three-pointer, the 3’7″, 85 lb. Nate Robinson skying for a dunk and then pounding his chest like KG, or  the wheezing Eddy Curry having a stroke right while attempting to box out. For fans of the sport, especially those without a conscience, it was some must-watch shit.

So, what to do with a team that can’t defend, can’t pass, and in some cases, can barely even jog? Why, bring in Mike D’Antoni, architect of the high-flying, freewheeling Phoenix Suns, of course! With the Suns, D’Antoni had four seasons of 50+ win, playoff-bound basketball, and captured the hearts of a nation with the team’s visceral, intelligent, and positively liberal form of fast-breaking hoops. But after the third playoff exit in four years at the hands of the lockdown, grind-out San Antonio Spurs, D’Antoni was scapegoated for the team’s failure, saying that his loose, offensive-minded style would never win a championship. Understandably, the announcement of D’Antoni’s arrival in New York was met with much scowling and confusion, especially with a somewhat less financially lucrative but far more stylistically logical offer of the Bulls’ head coaching position still on the table.

But the more I think about it, the more glad I am that D’Antoni went in the direction he did. There was no way the Knicks were going to be the Celtics or the Pistons this year–trying to turn them into that fundamentally sound, defensively oriented Eastern Conference-style team would’ve been as laughable
as the Texas Rangers trying to retool in ’09 with a focus on defense and pitching. So failing that, what do the Knicks possibly have to lose by handing the keys to D’Antoni and saying “Floor it”? Worst case scenario, the ‘Bockers are an anarchic mess, which would still be at least one step up from last season because it would at least seem like they were doing it intentionally this year. Best case scenario, you could get some of the wildest, most positively frenetic hoops you’re likely to see this decade–basketball to make the ’06 Suns look like the bruising Knick teams of the 90s by comparison.

For despite all their failings, the Knicks do have one thing on their side (and that’s good, because it might be the only thing)–unpredictability. Things in New York have been in such a state of flux the last few years that pretty much everyone on the team is still an unknown quantity. For all we know, Wilson Chandler could be a more deadly sharp-shooter than Raja Bell. David Lee could win a rebounding title.  Nate Robinson could be as formidable a fourth-quarter presence as Kobe Bryant. Danilo Gallinari could be as fundamentally sound a player as his idol, Tayshaun Prince. Chris Duhon could be the second coming of that guy who led the Piston championship teams of two decades ago. Or, they could all be talentless scrubs that’d have difficulty fighting for the 12th man position on an actual contender. You just don’t know.

Really, though, is there anything the Knicks could do this season that would be considered surprising? OK, yeah, maybe one–win. But while I’d be hard pressed to argue that it wouldn’t take a small miracle for them to be playoff-bound in a tightening Eastern conference, watching the team play in the pre-season has been nothing but encouraging. All the games I’ve seen thusfar have been high-scoring, high-octane affairs, replete with endless fast breaks, improbable dunks (yes, including a couple from The Mouse That Roared himself) and threes raining from the skies like Lil’ Wayne top 40 hits. And as the Knick announcers are always quick to point out, the K-Men seem to be legitimately enjoying playing again under D’Antoni’s borderline-irresponsible system, like a group of middle school bullies that suddely take interest in science class when they learn that they can dissect frogs and make things explode.

So either we get a team that makes a New York Rangers game look lethargic, or we get another unmitigated disaster. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World Series

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 16, 2008

People all over the world

I know I’ve been egregious with the Judaism references in this blog recently, especially considering the lack of attention I pay to my religion most of the year (not to mention the fact that I apparently misused the term “goy” in one of my previous entries–whoops), but when thinking of the Phillies this season, I keep going back to the dayenu prayer we learned in Hebrew School, a Passover standard. Dayenu, roughly translated, means “It would have been enough,” and the prayer consists of listing the tremendous things that God did for the Jewish people during their eventual exodus from slavery in Egypt, concluding that if he had done just that one thing, it would have been enough. As the Phillies fought their way back into the NL East Race, won the division, shelled the best pitcher in baseball, won the DS, achieved one of the most unexpected late-game comeback wins in recent playoff memory, and now claimed the NL Pennant as their own, at each step, I told myself that it would be enough. But the team kept exceeding my expectations, and now here they stand, four wins away from giving Philadelphia its first major championship in two and a half decades.

The real story of this particular series, for myself and most of the fans I’ve heard from, is how just about everyone on the team contributed to the win in some prominent, key fashion. The big heroes are obvious–Shane Victorino, who only hit .222 but had six RBIs (including four in Game Two) and had the catch of the post-season by robbing Casey Blake of a potential game-tier in the same game, Chase Utley, who not only hit over .350 with a big dinger in Game One, but had huge line-drive grabs in both Games Four and Five, Brad Lidge for shutting down the ninth inning in all four wins, and of course, NLCS MVP Cole Hamels, who pitched 14 innings of three-run ball, winning both the series opener and closer. But you also can’t overlook J-Roll’s stadium-killing opening home run tonight, Ryan Madson’s solid sixth to eighth-inning work throughout, Greg Dobbs’s rally-starting hits in Game Two and even Carlos fucking Ruiz’s rally-continuing hits in Game Four. Maybe it’s not quite all 25 guys–my beloved Jamie Moyer couldn’t make it through two innings of his start in Game Three, and So Taguchi continues to be So Useless, but when even Matt Stairs is hitting game-winning longballs, you know something special is probably happening.

The game itself tonight was so unsuspenseful that I had almost stopped paying attention by Lights Out time in the ninth. Once J-Roll hit that opening blast, it seemed only a matter of time before this thing was put to bed for good, and when Dodger shortstop Rafael Furcal suddenly turned into ’83-era Steve Sax in the fifth, you knew that L.A. was on the ropes. The anti-climax of Game Five is fairly appropriate, given the anti-climax that this series has probably been for all the league–MLB wanted Manny, Derek and Nomar to head back to Boston so bad that you’d think no one remembered that two ideal major finals never happen in the same year, and we already had the Celtics and Lakers once this year. But I don’t think anyone could begrudge the Phils for their party-crashing–seems like most major-market sports fans realize that 25 years is a pretty long time for a city to be titleless. Phils-Rays doesn’t exactly have the right angles, but some years, breathing life into morbiund cities and franchises should be a good enough Series angle in itself. Plus, with franchise cornerstones like Rollins, Howard, Utley, Hamels and Victorino leading the way, even Met fans seem to acknowledge that the Phils are generally a pretty OK group of guys.

I don’t have much of a prevailing memory from the 1993 playoffs, when I was a seven-year-old kid for whom sports was pretty much the whole world. I remember the heartbreak that would forever be associated with the name Mitch Williams, and I remember thinking that the SkyDome looked kind of pretty (especially compared to the Vet), but that’s about it–I’ve had to read up recently to learn about the Kim Batiste extra inning game-winner in the NLCS, or Schilling’s precedent-setting staff-ace dominance throughout the post-season, or the 15-14 heartbreaker the Phils ended up losing in Game 3 (which there’s nearly an entire article on in ESPN Magazine this week, incredibly). It sounds great, but it’s clearly the Phils team of a different generation. For Philly sports fans my age–and especially for the ones who, unlike me, came of age through the fifteen years of suffering between then and now–this’ll be the team that they’ll eventually define their fandom by. And they’ll be thrilled to do so.

If the pennant was as far as they went…well, dayenu. But hey, they’ve come this far–maybe they’ll be able to part the Red Sea this time, too. Bring it on, AL.

Posted in Clap Clap ClapClapClap | 1 Comment »

 
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