Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Ignorance Attacks: How My Grumbling Acceptance of The Heat Was Derailed By Their Fans.

It happened again. I was just about done shaking it off, and then: relapse. I was cool with the Heatles and the bandwagon and everything else, because ultimately, the team is a blast to watch on the court, and the NBA having a Yankees-type antagonist is a good thing. And then the fans did something stupid. Twice. After some excessive and profane heckling of Charles Barkley during game three of the Eastern Conference Finals prompted TNT to move their studio analyst crews' location, the crowd at American Airlines Arena once again serenaded Chuck with invective as he waited to begin his post-game broadcast. I couldn't quite make it out through my cruddy, old TV's cruddy, tiny speakers, but the chant sounded like "Chuck You Suck!" or something similar.

Now, I hate to play the obvious fiddle here, but I have to ask ... why?

Was it because Barkley called out LeBron after "The Decision" for what he perceived as a gutless move and an admission that LBJ didn't aspire to Greatness? Was it because he has maintained all year that he didn't think the Heat could succeed until they got some complimentary artillery around their three big guns? We the fans just letting Chuck know they feel vindicated that his assessment is apparently being proven wrong before our eyes?

Whatever the reason, this has to be one of the dumbest things I've ever seen a fanbase do. I stood outside of Fenway Park right after Boston won the 2007 World Series and listen to hordes of drunken Sox fans chant "Yankees Suck!" This was interesting because, obviously, that was not the opponent they'd just vanquished to claim the championship. It had nothing to do with anything, in fact. It was one of the silliest things I've ever witnessed. And it wasn't half as asinine as the Heat fans abusing Chuck.

Which, really, is a shame. Like I said, I'd just gotten over everything that transpired with this team. They were too fun to watch play to fan acrimonious flames over. I didn't care about LeBron's demoralization of Cleveland on national TV anymore. I didn't want to waste time belittling Chris Bosh. Heck, I've always liked D-Wade. Thinking back on how shaky these guys looked when the season started, it's been a fascinating experience to watch them struggle and stumble and ultimately find a balance. I even (mostly) stopped ragging on Miami's show-up-late-leave-early bandwagon fans. That's the nature of the town; no sense trying to change or demean it. Sure, they're terrible basketball fans, but tell me South Beach wouldn't throw an epic party and treat these guys like conquering heroes if the Heat won a ring or three. Tell me you wouldn't want to be there when THAT shindig went down.

Of course I wish it were different, that the Heat bringing home a title would mean something in a true basketball sense. I wish their fans were as intelligent and devoted as those in Boston or LA or New York. But I was also resigned to that not being the case, and ready, if not eager, to simply watch a good team play hoops. In other words, I'd reached the point where my philosophical basketball reservations about the Heat had been superseded by my visceral basketball enjoyment of their game. Until this nonsense started.

What those fans at the Triple A we doing wasn't only incredibly stupid, it was indefensible by every rooting bylaw I can think of. You think LBJ or Wade should've received MVP honors over Derrick Rose? By all means, give him the "Ov-Er-Ra-Ted!" treatment. Heckle your opponents all you want, WITHIN REASON. (I'm looking at you, jackass who provoked Joakim Noah the other night.) That's part of the fun of being at an NBA game. But yelling at a TV analyst because he holds certain opinions about one of your players and your team's roster in general? What, you think because your team is exceeding the expectations that most reasonable NBA people had for them this season, you have the right to shout them down now?

Let me tell you something, Miami: that kind of stuff is reserved for real basketball fans. See, I was fine with you people. You were who you were, fair enough. If you wanted to cheer of heckle at games, that's just part of being there. But when you call out one of the 35 greatest players of all time for his opinions, as if you knew better, you really ought to be able to back it up. The only reason you idiots thought Chuck was wrong was because you know nothing about basketball. If you did, you would have been worried about Chris Bosh being consistently productive. You would have been terrified about your lack of depth. You would NOT be telling Chuck "I Told You So", because if you knew anything about the game, you wouldn't have expected this. Nobody did.

The gloating is annoying, stupid, and you can't get away with it, South Beach, so knock it off. I just started to enjoy your team for what it was, warts and all. I would never have loved them, but now I have to go back to rooting spitefully, vehemently against them. All because you idiots don't know the difference between rooting and being self-satisfied, non-basketball-knowing, jerks.

Go Mavs!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Defense Of Who We Have Been

I live in Boston these days. For a lifelong basketball junkie, it's kind of like residing in Hoops Valhalla. The mere act of walking into The Garden and raising your eyes to those seventeen banners is awe-inspiring. As an added bonus, Springfield and the Basketball Hall Of Fame are a relatively short drive away. Bigger than the contents of the HOF and even those titles, however, is the beautiful lore and mythology of the characters who have defined the Celtics. The sheer hardwood lineage of this town is staggering. Auerbach, Russell, Cousy, Hondo, Cowens, Heinsohn, Bird, McHale, Chief, Walton. And more recently: Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Rondo. The list is virtually endless. And the fans here are incredible. They understand how fortunate they are to to be in this town, connected to this team. Moreover, they understand basketball. There is a genuine appreciation and love for the game here that transcends anything outside of perhaps fanatical Knicks fans. Which led to the following exchange I had the other night:

Boston Fan: "We had a tough end to the season, man."

Me: "Yeah, you guys did. So did we."

BF: "Who's 'we'?"

Me: "I'm a Hawks fan."

BF: "Oh, man. I'm sorry."

Me (indignant): "You're sorry?"

What ensued was basically good-natured ribbing. The guy gave me guff about a variety of things. Drafting Marvin Williams over CP3 and D-Will. The absurdity of the Joe Johnson contract. The fact that with this much talent, we really ought to be a better basketball team. He wasn't mean about it, you understand. Before the Allen and Garnett trades sparked that phenomenal 2008 championship run, Celtics fans suffered their fair share of indignities, poor front-office decisions, and sundry frustrations. Look at the shameful tanking during the Durant/Oden lottery season. As a fan, that had to be brutal to witness. The point is, this guy wasn't mocking me, he was commiserating. He understands. Nonetheless, at the end of the conversation, I found myself genuinely angry.

It's the endless litany of insults that the Hawks have to endure that really bothers me. I'm having trouble mentally dredging up who wrote it, but a little while back, someone voiced their thoughts about the special breed of contempt reserved for fringe contenders like Atlanta. Where the T-Wolves and Kings receive pity, teams like ours are subject to derision. Truth. And it doesn't end there.

A million little things add up that can make a guy downright bummed.

It's the running "Don't trust he Hawks" joke on Daily Dime Live. It's the laughter over the leveraging of the team's immediate future against that Johnson contract. It's the fact that it cost us far more than it should've to finally divest ourselves of Mike Bibby. It's the limbo of playoff berths with no real hope for a ring. To the rest of the league, this team has somehow metamorphosed into a joke. And that's not right. Maybe we deserve some flak for the questionable decisions and the failure to play cohesive, disciplined ball, but we don't deserve the reputation we're being saddled with. Not this team. Granted, we'll never be the Celtics or the Lakers, but we have our own proud history. To see it dismissed so cavalierly, to see our utter lack of cachet with hoops fans, kills me.

Fair warning: the following will be little more than an impassioned, itemized rant. Call it a feudal desire to defend my team's honor, but I had to get this off my chest. While we don't have claim to a single banner, we still have much to celebrate, and an impressive pedigree to remember. Despite what may be your perceptions, the Hawks are a franchise of immense dignity and prestige. Here's a quick reminder of the important figures who have ties to the Hawks organization. Mock us if you will, but show some respect for our significance in the storied history of this league.

1. Lenny Wilkens was an incredible basketball player, and went on to become the second-ever African American head coach in NBA history. He played, and later coached, for the Hawks. The man placed second to Wilt in the '67-'68 MVP ballot. He was a nine-time All-star. Behind Don Nelson, he's the second-winning-est coach in NBA history. And oh yeah, he's the only person to be listed on both the NBA's 50 Greatest Players and 10 Greatest Coaches rosters. And he earned his way onto both of those lists, at least in part, because of the Hawks.

2. Hubie Brown is one of the greatest and most beloved NBA commentators of all time. If you don't like listening to Hubie, there is something fundamentally wrong with how you choose to appreciated the game in its televised form. He won Coach of the Year honors with the Hawks in the 1977-1978 season, bringing a formerly lackluster franchise to a (then) miraculous .500 record.

3. To tie it back into the Celtics fan who instigated this, Doc Rivers, now regarded as one of the finest coaches in the league, played for the Hawks during the Dominique Wilkins heyday. I loved watching Doc as a floor general. He had such great court vision, such understated aplomb and unselfishness with the rock. He averaged a double-double in the 86-87 season, and generally made things gloriously fun for Hawks fans during his tenure there. Long before Doc became the leader of this most recent Celtics incarnation, he rocked the Omni with 'Nique. He was ours. Never forget it.

4. And speaking of 'Nique, how in the name of Dr. James Naismith was he left off the NBA's 50-at-50 team? The man was the greatest dunker in history. You can keep LBJ, Kobe, MJ, Dr. J, Blake Griffin, whoever. No one ignited a crowd or demoralized opponents like 'Nique when he threw one down. Sadly, he was saddled with the historical albatross of Magic Johnson. The great 'Nique-Bird playoff duels are forever eclipsed by what transpired between the Lakers and Celtics in all those '80s Finals. If Bird was Batman, then Magic was The Joker, the ultimate nemesis. 'Nique was always relegated to role of The Riddler. Still, he was a transcendent force in the league. A machine. Our very own potent scoring machine. How often is a fanbase gifted with that kind of talent? It's really not his fault that the Hawks couldn't put enough pieces around him. 'Nique. My man!!!

5. Old-Schoolers and transients. A quick rundown of other great men who wore the jersey or paced the sideline for the Hawks, no matter how briefly. (And yes, I realize, quite a few of these guys logged their minutes before the team settled in Atlanta, but they're part of the lineage nonetheless.): "Sweet Lou" Hudson, Bob Petit, Pistol Pete, Red Holzman, Cliff Hagan, Cotton Fitzsimmons, Spud Webb, Moses Malone (in his twilight, but still), Dikembe Mutombo and his finger wag, Stacey Augmon, Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Jason Terry. I know, I know, these guys are not, or were not during their Hawks tenures, "A List", but that's a lot of notable names and figures whose stories you care about if you love the NBA.

I recognize that we don't own and don't necessarily deserve the accolades and lofty reverence accorded the Lakers or Celtics, but I just wanted to make the point that this franchise has much to be proud of. Sorry for the rant, but aside from the occasional snide Walsh or Thomas comment, no one talks the kind of smack about the Knicks that they do about Atlanta, despite the fact that we've made they playoffs every year in recent memory, while NYC finally clawed their way back in after a decade-plus drought only to get swept by the C's. Just saying.

Show the Hawks a little respect. Is that so much to ask?

Friday, May 20, 2011

Lessons Left Unlearned

I got a pretty good chuckle this morning when I cracked open the ol' Facebook feed to find that quite a few friends and acquaintances back in the ATL are apparently going apoplectic over the (reported, then denied, but still probably pending) departure of the Thrashers. There are a myriad of reasons why this is hilarious.

First, I'm a native son of Atlanta, and since my friends are all in my age group, I'd like to remind them: THAT'S NOT OUR TEAM! Not the way the Braves, Falcons and Hawks are. For Pete's sake, the Thrashers didn't even exist until we were all in our mid-to-late teens. There's no deep and abiding home-team love at stake here. It's just not the case. We were born into a hockey-less town, and to a hockey-less town we shall return. And that's fine. Actually, it's better than fine. I have a long-standing philosophy about NHL teams in places like Atlanta: If your geographical coordinates do not facilitate little kids learning to skate outdoors on frozen ponds in the winter, you shouldn't have a franchise. (And no, the artificially created rink at Centennial Olympic Park does not count.)

If you're a real hockey fan who hails from the 404 or 770, you did, or ought to have done, your grieving at one of two previous junctures:

1. When our briefly resident IHL team, the Knights, moved to Quebec after four wonderful years. I loved going to Knights games as a kid. The old Omni (RIP) would be rockin', and I'd sit in the stands and think about how I was going to marry Manon Rheaume someday. Yes, our goalie was the first and only female to ever play high-level pro hockey. Not only was she pretty damn good in the net, she was a fox to boot. Sigh. Also, I once saw winger Stan Drulia rip off a hat trick in 96 seconds of game clock. Which, you know, was pretty a spectacular thing to witness live. Suffice it to say, the Knights were awesome. I miss them.


2. When the Flames left for Calgary in 1980. If you remember that, it means you were a conscious and informed hockey fan in 1980. In which case, you're old. Sorry.

Let's take a second and ruminate on the trend here. Flames? Couldn't sell enough tickets, went to Canada. Knights? Couldn't sell enough tickets, went to Canada. Thrashers? Almost assuredly going to Canada, because, SURPIRSE!!!, they can't sell enough tickets.

The Flames lasted 8 years in the ATL: 1972-1980. The Knights, 1992-1996. The Thrashers, 1997-present. That's 26 combined years for three separate franchises, less than 1/3 of the Boston Bruins' existence. Clearly, Atlanta can't sustain a hockey team. And you know why? Because it's Atlanta!!! This is Braves territory. This is where the biggest defining sports characteristic of a resident is whether they root for Georgia Tech or UGA. (Of course, no matter which it is, we all hate Florida, FSU, and 'Bama equally.) Hell, the Falcons and Hawks have well-documented trouble in drawing good crowds, even in the midst of decent playoff runs. And someone thought a place with no hockey history and like two ice rinks within 100 miles of town was a good place to set up shop? After that same idea blatantly failed before? Twice?

What Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon, Jr. were thinking when they brought ATL the Thrashers is up for debate, but whatever "logic" they were employing failed to take the past into account. If and when the team does move to Winnipeg, it won't be because they're is perpetually awful. It will be because Atlanta just ain't a hockey town. And we knew this already, because we learned it a long time ago and then learned it again. Plus, Winnipeg ought to have a team. All major Canadian cities should. Atlanta? Let's stick to baseball and football, which we all know and love. At least that way we can keep selling tickets.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Occasional Consonance: Twelve-tone Theory and the Cleveland Indians

In musical composition, there is a method called twelve-tone theory. The progenitor of the larger serialist movement, it was initially designed to push composition to its natural farthest point, removing the familiar contexts of key and tonality, and replacing them with a rigid mathematical system that utilizes all twelve notes in the western chromatic scale. The composer places the twelve notes in some order, either randomly or by design of a specific sequence or melody line. Once ordered, that sequence of notes becomes the top row in a 12 X 12 matrix generated based upon their order. When the matrix is complete, the composer may use any row or column (or half row or column) in its linear, retrograde, or inverted state to generate musical content, with the stipulation that the row must be completed before a new sequence may begin. This allows for compositional permutations, but within the limited parameters dictated by the twelve-tone matrix. Since every note in the chromatic scale is used, without reference to a set tonal center, the music produced by this method is jarring and disorienting (and often downright ugly to listen to), simply because our ears are not used to hearing the harmonic relationships it produces (we perceive them as dissonance) and the meandering nature of music which has no defined point of resolution.

However, if you listen to enough twelve-tone music (or atonal music in general), you not only begin to grow accustomed to the lack of focus, but your ears will start to discern moments in which the composition is briefly consonant, by virtue of two or more lines synchronizing in such a way that a temporary illusion of tonality is created. It's doesn't happen often, but it is there if you look for it. In college I was once assigned to write a twelve-tone waltz, and I accidentally created a matrix that, when used in the way I happened to use it, created a perfect-authentic cadence at the end. (This is the most consonant an expected conclusion/resolution to any composition. Basically, it's the musical equivalent of "... and they all lived happily ever after. The End.") It wasn't supposed to be that way; this stuff was designed with the expressed purpose of defying all the notions and rules of musical tonality and logic, but it happened. And you can hear plenty of examples of similar, if less-glaring, consonant happenstance in twelve-tone pieces if you listen hard enough.

Which is to say that if you muck around with enough random sequences and permutations, occasionally, something beautiful will be brought into existence, no matter how improbable or fleeting that beauty might be.

Which brings us to the formerly hapless Cleveland Indians.

For reasons that no one has yet been able to fully discern or satisfactorily explain, one of the league's most consistent doormats suddenly has the best record in baseball. Sure they play in the AL Central, arguably the league's shoddiest division. And yes, there's plenty of time left for them to flame out and finish under .500. Again. But at this point I think the term "fluke" no longer applies. Consider the Baltimore Orioles, who everyone was going gaga over for the first few weeks of the season after they charged out of the gate in stellar fashion. Now they're sitting at 19-22, in their familiar position of "bottom of the AL East." That was a fluke. The Tribe? They've been consistently beating up on people since opening day. Currently, they have a .650 winning percentage, which puts them on pace to win 105 games this year. 105 games! The Indians! How in the name of Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn is this happening?!?!?!?

Well, it really shouldn't be. For one thing, Cleveland's current roster is devoid of anything resembling a marquee player. Perpetually flagging attendance at Jacobs Field has necessitated that they trade those types in order to stay afloat over the years. I can't imagine the angst Tribe fans must have felt watching their two former Cy Young winners, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee, go on to great success with other organizations after Cleveland dealt them to cut salary costs. In seeking to maintain some semblance of a competitive team after such moves, the Indians' front office has essentially taken what it could get. Castoffs, strays, iffy prospects, and guys who wore out their welcomes or were little more than trade bait elsewhere. It's been roster assembly as a random sequence. A matrix of seemingly ineffective and dissonant pieces.

Manager Manny Acta has been somewhat unfairly charged with the task of forging all these (seemingly) statistically irrelevant guys into a relevant team. And mostly, in the past, said team has played as their public perceptions of talent would suggest. They've been battered and abused and laughingstocks and goats. And yet, slowly, through enough sequencing of events and changes, something great has emerged. The dissonance and atonality that has surrounded this organization for so long has taken a hiatus, and in its place we're now hearing the sweetest of harmonies. This 2011 Indians incarnation keeps grinding out wins without a single player whose baseball card you'd really be excited to have fall out of a pack of Tops. You know, if anyone still bought baseball cards. (Puts on crotchety old-guy voice) "Back when I was a kid ..." (I'm only 29, but I'm gonna make a great crotchety old guy. Just you wait.) If you want a closer perspective on just how improbable this team is, consider the following:

The Tribes' starting rotation is keyed by Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson, two guys you're likely unfamiliar with unless you live in Cleveland or are a total baseball nerd. And yet, their staff holds a perfectly respectable combined ERA of 3.56. The bullpen is similarly nondescript, but they're holding it down night in and night out. They don't blow leads, they stay out of jams, and they keep the mound and the scoreboard friendly for closer Chris Perez, who has racked up 10 saves this season and sports a 1.24 WHIP.

Conversely, the very definition of a "rag-tag assemblage" that is Cleveland's lineup is proving a dangerous and frustrating proposition for opposing pitchers. They have five starters batting .265 or better, with Travis Hafner and Asdrubal Cabrera as the offensive linchpins. "Who?" you ask. Exactly. But Hafner's .345 batting average and .958 OPS are sufficiently imposing, while Cabrera leads the team with 48 hits, 7 homers, and 27 RBI's. There aren't a ton of mashers here, but these guys just keep hitting and getting each other across the plate. It's "small ball" at its finest.

Dissonance. Atonality. The Indians have been through one of the most depressing stretches is recent baseball memory. Their evolving twelve-tone matrix of players has produced an extended period of grating, painful experiences. Finally, that disjointed randomization has produced a sonorous few measures of brilliance. The question now is: will they end the season in discord like so many compositions of twelve-tone creator Arnold Schoenberg, or with the perfect-authentic cadences of Mozart and Bach? Time will tell, but for the present I'd encourage Tribe fans to crank the speakers and enjoy the music.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Recap: Mavs-Thunder Western Conference FInals, Game 1

The crowd at American Airlines Arena got their money's worth last light. They were privileged to witness two transcendent scoring displays, a handful of "whoah" moments from the Dallas bench, and a win for the home team. The Mavs threw the first punch in this Western Conference Finals with their 121-112 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, riding a historically staggering performance from Dirk Nowitzki. For the big German, this was a night where a glance at the basic stat line: 48 pts., 6 boards, 4 dimes, and 4 blocks, doesn't even begin to describe what actually transpired on the floor. I can't actually decide which of these two nuggets is more impressive:

1. Dirk broke an NBA record by going a perfect 24-of-24 from the line, the most consecutive free throws ever in a single game, playoff or regular season.

2. He also went 12/15 from the field. That's a ridiculous 80% FG if you're scoring at home.

Dirk basically did whatsoever he chose last night while racking up those heady numbers. He got to the hoop, he posted up, and he put on a clinic with that patented fall-away on the right block. Scott Brooks threw half his roster at Nowitzki defensively (not an exaggeration), only to make an unpleasant discovery: every single player given that unenviable task came off the floor in bad foul trouble, while having failed to even remotely stem the tide of buckets Dirk was raining down on OKC. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison did as well as could be expected, playing in Dirk's grill and contesting every shot, and still had to grab some pine midway through the third quarter when they each picked up their 4th fouls. And they were the best of the Thunder's options. Every one else looked completely useless.

As in game 4 of the Mavs/Lakers series, Dirk got plenty of help from a stellar Dallas bench. Jason Terry shot 50% from the floor, including 4 of 8 treys en route to 24 points, and J.J. Barea picked up exactly where he left off in that game. The Mavs' tiny spark plug dropped 21 points, including a stretch of 12 straight, on a helpless Thunder D in just 16 minutes of playing time, barreling past defenders and tacking on a few key three-point bombs for good measure. (The stretch in the fourth quarter where Nate Robinson was checking him, or, more accurately, trying and failing to do so, was a hilarious few minutes of tiny-dude-on-tiny-dude violence.)

Lost in all the fervor over the Mavs in general and Dirk's monster game specifically was Kevin Durant's own Herculean performance of 40 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks. KD was solely responsible for keeping this one close down the stretch, and did a little bit of everything, including leading a few choice fast breaks and handling the ball in transition. Unfortunately, he got little help from anyone else. Russell Westbrook was a discombobulated mess, a mere shell of the player who rack up a triple double in game 7 against Memphis. Westbrook played atrociously disjointed basketball for the majority of the night, and his 20 point total belies the inefficiency he displayed in acquiring them (3/15 from the floor). He failed to handle well or get teammates decent looks, and was especially futile in pick-n-roll situations. Other than Durant, the Thunder's lone bright spot was Serge Ibaka, who feasted on the Mavs inside to the tune of 17 points.

This may sound odd, but I suspect the Thunder are actually feeling pretty good about this series after last night. It's highly unlikely that Russell Westbrook will submit another abysmal outing again, and for all the Mavs' firepower, the margin at the buzzer was only 9 points. Scott Brooks needs to accept that Dirk is essentially unguardable, and orient his defensive schemes to slowing everyone else down, and they'll cetainly need some better offensive production (I'm looking at you, James Harden.) Nonetheless, what could have been a massacre, and often felt like one, turned out to be more or less a to-the-wire affair after the Thunder climbed back from a 17-point deficit.

The fact that OKC kept this one so close, and kept digging in for a fight when things seemed insurmountable, means we're in for an epic series. Moreover, though they obviously don't guard each other normally, I also suspect we could be in for a rare treat along the lines of the great 'Nique/Bird playoff dueling shootouts from Dirk and Durant. You probably don't have a seatbelt on your couch or your favorite bar stool, but you might consider having one installed before game 2 tips on Thursday. You may well need it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cruel And Unusual Punishment

Vin Mazzaro made Major League Baseball history last night. The unsavory, humiliating kind. The kind that makes you the answer to trivia questions you'd rather not be associated with for the rest of eternity.

Some day, in the hazy future, some baseball writers and analysts will be sitting in a press box or having drinks at a bar, and, out of boredom or just for fun, they'll try to stump each other with obscure snippets of baseball knowledge. The quirky statistics and half-remembered names will flow like so much overpriced beer from the concessions stand. And eventually, someone could, if they so chose, present the following query to his or her comrades of diamond documentation:

"Who is the only pitcher since 1900 (the inception of baseball's "modern" era) to give up 14 earned runs in less than three innings' work?"

The answer is the Kansas City Royals' Vin Mazzaro, on May 16, 2011, against the Cleveland Indians, whose final line from last night's outing looked like this:

2 1/3 IP, 11 H, 14 ER, 3 BB, 2 K. Oh yeah, and it took him a staggering 77 pitches to record 7 total outs. This single outing elevated his season ERA from a modest 4.50 to a mind-bending 22.74. It also bumped his career ERA up by OVER A FULL POINT. One night of work, and the angel of pitching statistical death descends on a young man's career.

Just rereading that last paragraph made me call time, step out of the box, and take a second to reel my jaw back up from the floor. I mean, the guy failed as completely as is possible for a big league pitcher, and we didn't even know this was possible until last night. The only thing he didn't do was get tagged with the loss, which went to Royals' starter Kyle Davies, whose first-inning departure due to injury prompted Mazzaro's early bullpen appearance.

Pretty much immediately after he was pulled, Mazzaro was given marching orders. To Omaha, and the AAA Storm Chasers. After an outing of that dubious magnitude, it's a somewhat understandable decision by the Royals' organization, but ... really? They just acquired this guy! At age 25, he's still getting his seas legs under him, and shoving him back down the ladder over one appearance, no matter how horrendous, seems a little reactionary and extremist, no? He's a young guy that never demonstrated elite potential as a prospect, but was apparently considered enough of an asset to pick up. If the Royals genuinely believe that his mechanics or mentality or whatever need work, well, that's their call, but you get the feeling that one day without his best stuff (OK, that's admittedly an understatement) resulted in an instantaneous demotion, which doesn't seem totally fair.

And that brings us to the larger point: what in the name of Les McCrabb (the last guy to give up 14 earned runs in relief) was Mazzaro still doing out on the mound after things started going terribly, precipitously south? When was the last time you saw a reliever left to his own devices after giving up 3 or 4 runs? (I can't help but think of Tampa Bay staying with Dan Wheeler as the Red Sox staged one of the great postseason game comebacks we've ever witnessed in the 2008 ALCS, but you don't see this kind of thing often.) Usually, when it becomes readily apparent that a pitcher is floundering, especially a reliever, he gets yanked To the clubhouse with thee! Ruminate upon thy failures of today and we'll suss it all out in a side session sometime soon. Not so for Vin Mazzaro. For reasons known only to himself, Royals' manager Ned Yost elected to leave the kid out there even as things spiraled irrevocably out of control. Conventional wisdom took a sabbatical, and a young man's fate was altered as a result.

At what point does "trial by fire" become baseball sadism? Mazzaro was blatantly, obviously, conspicuously not up for it last night. Fair enough. We knew this early on in the proceedings. He retired four of the first six batters he faced, but after that, the Indians might as well have been hitting off a tee. It was exactly how you'd visualize one of Crash Davis' last lines directed at Nuke LaLoosh in "Bull Durham": "Listen, Nuke, these big league hitters are going to light you up like a pinball machine for a little while." The guy was getting tagged in every conceivable way. Repeatedly. At that point, doesn't logic dictate a pitching change? What, they had absolutely no other options in the Royals' bullpen? They couldn't have run one or four more guys out there to conduct damage control?

Apparently not. Mazzaro was inexplicably saddled with the unfair onus of completing a futile task despite a plethora of indicators that he wasn't the man for the job last night. The result was a pointedly unjust referendum on a career that was, if not exactly burgeoning, at least showing some signs of promise. No one can definitively say he was unfairly judged last night; the box score argues too strenuously to the contrary. But he should never have been left in the position to accumulate that box score in the first place.

Sadly, Vin Mazzaro will be immortalized as a statistical blip, an ignoble example, and an answer to a fluky trivia question, but the fault is not entirely his own. Every time he's reminded of this inglorious night in the future, he ought to curse Ned Yost, who patently failed to manage the game, and especially his bullpen, in any semblance of the word "correctly." Last night, a man's career arc may have been irrevocably altered for the worse by the stupidity of his superiors. The rest of us should be grateful that one bad day at the office (hopefully) does not hold similar implications.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Musings On A Rodeo

Despite what the title might suggest, this post has nothing to do with Chad Ochocinco's insane (and hilarious) attempt to ride a bull on Saturday night. While I commend the man's innovative PR stunt/lockout-savvy income grab, and the fact that he's always good for a laugh, if you saw the clip, there' not much more you can really say. No, this is about a revelation I had today. Buried among all the hype of the 2011 NBA Playoffs is a good story. Or, at least, a great character in search of a narrative. The phrase "hidden in plain sight" comes strongly to mind.

I am not talking about the Heat attempting to self-fulfill the prophecy they so stridently and indecorously announced before the season started. Nor the Bulls' youngest-ever MVP and the saga his team began living out in earnest Sunday in the House That Jordan Built. Nor those precocious young darlings of the league from OKC, and what may or may not be amiss with their point guard.

I'm talking about the most fascinating team, with the most compelling personality, left standing in these playoffs. I'm talking about the Dallas Mavericks.

"But," you're saying, "they're being talked about plenty!!! Didn't we just spend a million hours talking about that Mavs/Lakers series?" Yes. Yes we did. But you know what? We were talking about the Lakers the whole time. The sweep, the game four massacre, every ounce of rehashing and contemplation was fueled by L.A. What were the implications for the Lakers? What did Dirk and Kidd and Jet and Peja and Tyson do to the Lakers? And what about Kobe? Every article and podcast and TV recap was filled with analysis and invective leveled at the Purple and Gold and what they did wrong. It's understandable, to a degree. There was the shabby ending to Phil Jackson's final season to mourn, and his career to recount. There were questions about Kobe and his quest to match or surpass Jordan's ring total, and whether either will be possible going forward. With all of the delicious Laker-centric stories to hitch a journalistic wagon to, who could blame us for failing to take the Mavs on their own merits?

And we're doing the same thing with the upcoming Western Conference Finals. The tactical analysis is, by necessity, equally mindful of both the Thunder and the Mavs. But everything else is still centered around either OKC's struggles with the Westbrook/Durant dynamic, or confined to the banal and limited old/young cliche. We're still discounting Dallas on their own terms; still failing to place them in the role of the protagonist as we did with the Heat, Bulls, Thunder, Griz, Lakers, and Celtics. We have deprived them of an individualistic context, only discussing them in relative comparison to whatever other entities are convenient to our purposes. Things might be different if Mark Cuban weren't maintaining a strict radio silence with the media. His uncharacteristic (and wise) deviation from his usual outspoken/controversial routine has deprived us of a reliably volatile fuel to throw on the Mavs' flame of discussion. So we settle for cliched tidbits and inane "can they finally shake off the playoff ghosts?" drivel. Even when the discourse becomes wholly oriented towards Dallas, our compass still fails to find a decent jump point. I've been as guilty a party as any. Too much history and too many failures had blinded me to the essential nature of this 2010-2011 incarnation. One man in particular exemplifies my failures of perception.

"Dirk is soft." Isn't that how the line goes? A long while ago, we made a gigantic mistake. And then we failed to correct it. And failed again and again after that. We chose to perceive a man a certain way, because the postseason win-loss record demanded that it be so. And then the myth became self-perpetuating and grew, as the Mavs continued to exit early from the playoffs. We all figured that our initial perceptions were sound, that Dirk "wasn't a winner." I suppose it's an equation based more upon some vague perception of disappointment than on reality. The reality is 25-10. That's Dirk Nowitzki's playoff average for points and rebounds, an elite statistical posting worthy of any and all accolades we can bestow. And yet ...

The "soft" label remains. Since he has entered the league, Dirk's output has cropped him with the best of the best, and yet because of repeated playoff failures, we've continued to write him off. We did the same with Stockton and Barkley and everyone else who, for whatever reason, failed to take home The Hardware at season's end. Why did we do it? Because he's an easy target. The goofy looking German dude who also holds the unofficial title of "Least Graceful Elite Player You've Ever Seen." The silly, quasi-mullet haircuts and awkward fall-away jumper made it easy to dismiss him as something other than what he is: One Bad Motha. For years, we've classified him as someone who simply couldn't lead a team to success. A "best player" guy who couldn't cross over certain borderlines. The truth was much more simple: Dirk didn't have enough heavy artillery around him. Wyatt Earp would have been a dead man if he'd walked into the OK Corral without his brothers and Doc Holiday. Can't we say the same for Nowitzki? Now that he's finally got a supporting cast around him, maybe we can start expounding on his greatness as opposed to languishing in his past.

And that's not to mention the routes the rest of the team has taken to get here. Peja, the Jasons (Terry and Kidd), Tyson Chandler. This team has been through an awful lot to get where it is. It's been painstakingly constructed and tweaked over the past several seasons. They have a billing as "old", but what they are is a miscellaneous grouping assembled to complete a defined task. Whether or not they succeed, it's worth noting the various castoffs and also-rans that have combined to bring a franchise to this juncture. But it's Dirk around which they cohere. He's the catalyst, the combustion engine, the nuclear option. The guy is built to be an assassin. Not the smooth, compact archetype of an MJ or a Kobe, but a stone-cold killer/closer/sniper/LEADER nonetheless.

It's time to define the Mavericks for what they are. Not their labels, not their histories, but their identity as a collective unit. But moreover, it's time to define Dirk for what he is. He's not a loser. Or a failure. Or soft. He's just a damned amazing basketball player who finally has the complimentary pieces around him to make a run at the only thing still eluding him in an otherwise brilliant career. We can talk about any other stories that occur to us, and play the narrative angles howsoever we choose, but let's acknowledge that Dirk Nowitzki is on the precipice of doing something that we long ago decided he was incapable of.

Let's give the man that. At 13 years in the league, this might be his last rodeo, and here's hoping it's a good long ride.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Problems Fixed

OK, the "Stacking Chairs and Mopping Up Spilt Beer." post is fixed now. Please go read it. Thank you.


Apparently Blogger is nine kinds of stupid right now. Please ignore that last post until I can fix it to post correctly. Thank you.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Stacking Chairs and Mopping Up Spilt Beer."

It's become a tradition with me over the past decade or so to make an annual New Year's Eve playlist. You should know that I do this in an obsessive fashion; like, "High Fidelity" super-geek obsessive. I believe fervently that the art of the mix tape* is a subtle and delicate craft, and like all dedicated craftspeople, I take a single-minded pride in getting it right. The process takes hours. Deciding on what makes the cut. Listening to transitions between tracks over and over again, manipulating the order until the pacing and flow feels natural. It's a labor of love.

I have a few unimpeachable ground rules for this process:

1. The tape always starts with Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game." It's a perfect New Year's tune, and as the mellowest thing on what is intended to be a party mix, it sets the threshold low, so you can elevate tempo and rock'n'roll-ness from there.

2. After Joni bats leadoff, I try to confine things mostly to songs released in the previous year. An homage to all the great new bands and tunes and albums that have filtered across the landscape since the last time I constructed this mix.

3. Rule # 2 is broken at about 10 minutes to midnight. There are three closers who have the championship belts in their weight classes, and they're not likely to be K.O.'d anytime soon. At 11:50 PM, Billy Bragg's "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" kicks on. It's a great song, full of lament over the past and ambitious plans for the future, just perfect for the moment, really. After that finishes, I shut things down, allowing for everyone to get their champagne ready, watch the ball drop, and do the countdown thing. After everyone screams "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" and kisses whomever they're going to kiss, we launch immediately into Jimi Hendrix's version of "Auld Lang Syne" from the Fillmore concerts. Because it's awesome. That's followed by REM's "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)". Bit of a cliched selection, I know, but it's never out of style and everyone loves to drunkenly pretend they know all the words and shamelessly belt out the chorus.

Of those three closing tracks, "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" is probably my favorite. It's such a poignant, hopeful song. It's about change. It's about revolution. And that makes it perfect for a quotable tribute to this year's NBA playoffs. We've seen some truly unbelievable basketball these past few weeks. Really, it's been a joy to watch. But the theme that looms largest, the overarching story, is the generational power shift taking place before our eyes. The Spurs, Lakers, and Celtics are relinquishing their decade-long reign of dominance. The Thunder, Grizzlies, Bulls and (possibly) Knicks are ascending. The Mavericks are seeking redemption and redefinition. The Hawks, Blazers, Hornets, Magic, 76ers, Nuggets and Pacers submitted noble but ultimately futile efforts. And of course, as has been the case all year, all eyes are on the Miami Heat, whose future is unfolding as well as could be expected, but that team will be judged on a very simplistic basis: Title or bust. There's so much to take in, it's a good thing I have a fiver-verse epic to apply to the situation. (Did I "steal" the quotes gimmick from Bill Simmons? Kind of, I guess, but he tends to utilize awesome/iconic TV shows and movies. I prefer to roll with awesome/iconic songs. We're probably both better when we're in our wheelhouses.)

So, ladies and gents, please allow the great Billy Bragg to sum these playoffs team by team, using every line (in order) from one of the finest tunes ever penned.

"It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline"

For the San Antonio Spurs. They've had a decade-plus run just about as idyllic as is gets. 4 rings, stars, greatness; they continued to compete, and win, as the NBA went through myriad permutations and styles of play. The Admiral. Gregg Popovich. Manu. Tony Parker. And the greatest power forward in NBA history in Tim Duncan. They were always the consummate team, always classy, decorous, and gracious. The perfect example of team basketball at its finest, they valued defensive effort and the extra pass more highly than everyone else. It makes me a little sad to see them come down like this. In round 1, Memphis filled their highway up with gasoline, then struck a match. They just didn't have the juice, despite some of the most heroic late-game play in recent memory. A tip of the cap to my favorite team of the 2000s.

"Fidel Castro's brother spies a rich lady who's crying
Over luxury's disappointment so he walks over and he's trying

To sympathize with her but thinks that he should warn her

That the Third World is just around the corner"

For the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks. Carmelo's trade saga certainly qualified as "luxury's disappointment", as does NYC's ultimately settling for the ill-fitting pieces of STAT and 'Melo as opposed to LeBron. In the end, both teams got what they thought what they wanted. Unfortunately, the Third World was just around the corner, in the form of inglorious first-round exits. I sympathize with Denver for what they lost, and the Knicks fans for what they perceived to be an immediate ticket to a ring. In reality, both teams still have a lot of work to do before they can contend seriously. How this plays out will have to wait for another season or two, assuming we have a season at all next year.

"In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded

By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded

That Dr Robert Oppenheimer's optimism fell

At the first hurdle"

For the Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Philadelphia 76ers. Indy played the Bulls about as tough as could be expected, holding leads for every chunk of game clock except the ones that mattered. Their devoid-of-heavies cast played gritty defense and knocked down big shots only to collapse down the stretch. Philly came out of the gate strong in a few games as well, but couldn't withstand the onslaught of 'Bron and D-Wade when they got rolling. Portland had some throwback heroics from Brandon Roy, and they played as hard as they could, but the Mavs were simply better. The lower seeds always come into the postseason spouting the same predictable "we deserve to be here, we can play with these guys" spiel, but so often, as was the case for these two teams, optimism indeed fell at the first hurdle.

"In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of people stacking chairs
And mopping up spilt beer"

For the Boston Celtics. Despite Doc Rivers returning, and the "Big Three" still coming back next year, this did look like closing time in the C's late-aughts saloon. Management is stacking the bars tools, mopping up the beer, and pronouncing last rites over this team, as evidenced by the possibly premature, looking-towards-the-future Perkins trade. KG, The Truth, and Allen aren't getting any younger. It's probably time to start seriously contemplating a rebuilding process centered around Rajon Rondo.

"And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the fifteen fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer"

For the Atlanta Hawks. Fifteen fame-filled minutes are about all Atlanta's recent playoff runs have bought them. They're a cute also-ran; fringe contenders that no one actually perceives as a serious threat. Even last season, when people started talking about them as a potential fourth power in the Eastern Conference, their disjointed play and humiliating sweep at the hands of the Magic put that momentum to bed with a resounding thud. So much talent, so little coherence. They got two good things out of this year's run: revenge on the Magic, and the knowledge that Jeff Teague can play. Otherwise, things still look much like they have in years past.

"Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I'm looking for the Great Leap Forwards"

For the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets. Both teams had the best players in their respective first-round series. (Yes, I think CP3, at this point, is better than Kobe.) Both put up strong fights, but the lack of help from any semblance of supporting casts (David West's injury and Orlando's 3-point snipers failing to show up) meant early exits for both. The usual excuses. Now both teams are very much looking down the corridor, as their centerpieces approach free agency with little incentive to stay with their current organizations.

"Jumble sales are organized and pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there's still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you're waiting for the Great Leap Forwards"

For the Dallas Mavericks. Everyone thought their closing time happened in that dismal stretch from the '06 finals to the '07 playoff exit. But the Mavs are still hosting a party. Years, of "soft" reputations, early eliminations, and postseason ghosts are being eliminated before our eyes. After sleeping in with the sleepers for so long, Dirk and Co. couldn't look more activist-y these days. If they maintain their current level of play, their great leap forwards might very well end in some shiny new rings.

"One leap forwards, two leaps back
Will politics get me the sack?
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards
Here comes the future and you can't run from it
If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards"

For the Miami Heat. This lyric really should have bee their 2010-2011 slogan. After "The Decision" and that ludicrous welcome party/celebration/coronation before they'd won a single game together, the Heat were as close to a political sack with opposing fans as it's possible to get. But they embraced the hate and used the resulting conflagration of fans' ire and media criticism as a forge, emerging at the end of the season as a dangerous, solidified unit. (Granted they have no bench, no PG, and Joel Anthony protecting the rim, but still.) They have apparently become the future the league can't run from, and as long as their success continues, they don't care whose blacklist they're on.

"Well It's a mighty long way down rock 'n roll
From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole"**

For the Los Angeles Lakers. A translation of Mr. Bragg's British-ness here:

1. "Top of the Pops" was a long running BBC TV program in which they counted down that week's top-selling pop music singles, with live performances by a few of the top bands on the charts. If you made it on TOTP, you were big-time; you were number 1. Kind of like the Lakers these past two seasons.

2. "Drawing the dole": collecting unemployment, down on your luck.

I don't need to explain this further, right?

"If no one out there understands
Ya start your own revolution and ya cut out the middleman"

For the Memphis Grizzlies. All season, no one understood. Moreover, no one cared. Even people whose incomes derive from watching, analyzing, discussing, and writing about basketball for a living freely admitted their surprise when Memphis burned the best-in-the-West Spurs in round 1. The Griz didn't wait for us to take any notice. Fueled by their incredible Gasol/Z-Bo front court, a few key role players, and the Allen/Battier lock-down defensive combo, they started their own revolution. Here's to 'em.

"In a perfect world we'd all sing in tune

But this is reality so give me sooom"

For the Oklahoma City Thunder. This is apparently Russel Westbrook's mantra. The (perceived) growing acrimony between Russ and Kevin Durant seems to be a serious problem, and Westbrook's unwillingness to distribute the rock late in games has become something of a hot-button topic. The league's darlings and de facto anointed "next dynasty" are in the midst of a great playoff run that has been unfortunately beset by the issue of exactly whose team this is in the clutch. Between Russ and KD, whoever can adopt the above couplet's sentiment most forcefully may have a great bearing on OKC's future, not just this year, but down the line.

"So join the struggle while you may
The Revolution is just a t-shirt away"

For the Chicago Bulls. In Chi-town's case, the "t-shirt" in question is a good 2 guard. Derrick Rose is proving himself worthy of his youngest-ever MVP award, Carlos Boozer is playing much better over the past few games, and Chicago's suffocating D and great interior play are on full display. However, the Bulls aren't going to be adding to all those Jordan/Pippen-era banners in the rafters of the United Center until they have a true second offensive weapon, preferably a perimeter starter who can contribute some scoring and keep opposing defenses honest. With a passable bench and good role players, they're 95% there, but they need that t-shirt to put them over the top.

"Waiting for the Great Leap Forward, Whoah-Oh-Oh Woah-OOO-Oh Oh!!!"
(sung exuberantly and repeated until the song fades out.)

For the fans. I can't wait to see where all this goes over the next few years.

"Beam me up, Scottie!!!" (yes, that's actually in the song.)

For the end of this ridiculously self-indulgent post. Thank you, that is all.

*For you youngsters out there: the term "mix tape" has become common in the vernacular, but it derives from the fact that once upon a time, the only way to construct a mix of music was by using an actual cassette tape. These were rectangular pieces of plastic that contained a reel of magnetically imprinted tape which ... oh, never mind.

**This is also applicable to Antoine Walker's career.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Different Trains, Same Track

Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods should get together for drinks sometime soon. I'd guess they have an awful lot of common ground to fuel the discussion. The alpha dogs of sport share an understanding about the pressures and rewards of greatness that the rest of us can only guess at, and they no doubt relish trading war stories and recollections of triumph and laughing at us mere mortals. However, in the case of Kobe and Tiger, they have something specific to mull over together; a shared issue that goes beyond any of the obvious analogs we might draw. Here's what that issue is not:

It's not that they're both transcendent athletes on the decline. They are, but the reasons for that are vastly different. Kobe is simply wearing down. The human body degenerates over time, and that process is greatly accelerated for a man who has, over the course of his career, put a ridiculous amount of miles on his NBA odometer. Year after year of endless 82-game seasons, deep playoff runs, Team USA stints, and summers in the gym religiously adding tools to his game are finally taking their toll. His body simply cannot do what once it could. It's the end all athletes eventually share.

Willing but not able.

But he's still Kobe. He's not done being dangerous yet.

With Tiger, it's the antithesis of that tale. His regression is a purely mental thing. (As Bubba Watson recently had the guts to opine publicly.) All the swing doctoring and the putting woes are the result of his infidelities, that fateful Thanksgiving night, and the ensuing conflagration of personal crisis and media scrutiny. The inherent ability is still there, but the locked-in, laser focus and confidence we grew so accustomed to in the past are gone, or at least greatly reduced. Once that mental knife is dulled, it takes a hell of a whet stone to resharpen the blade.

Able but not willing.

But he's still Tiger. He's not done being dangerous yet.

It's also not about their pursuits of certain goals which would further their legacies and alter the way we view them historically. Jordan's rings. Nicklaus' Majors. That angle has been played to death. Rehashing it again would be as boring as an uncontested layup, as banal as a tap-in for par. It's there, but if they're putting back a few cold ones together, it's not what they should be discussing.

No, what Tiger and Kobe share most acutely right now has little to do with their intrinsic qualities as athletes. They're not what they once were, but they still pose sizable threats to opponents. "Not in his prime" does not automatically mean "not incredibly good anymore," just "slightly less incredibly good." And it has nothing to do with the implications of their respective statuses as compared to their greatest predecessors. At this moment, it's the perceptions of those who compete against them that are the pressing matter.

In chess, if you know the game, you can ascertain fairly quickly how skilled your opponent is. It's not just about their opening ten or so moves on the board. You watch the eyes, the body language. How deliberate and measured are they? How much time do they take to react? You synthesize everything you learn about the player, and in a short space of time, you know what you're up against. And if you determine that they're much better than you, that they're on another level, a funny thing happens to your own game. You start playing not to win, but (pardon the cliche) not to lose. Or worse, not to get your clock thoroughly cleaned. Moves you would have been confident in under different circumstances suddenly require second and third guesses. You're constantly worried they know something you don't, that everything you do is eliciting a secret grin in the back of their mind. Most of the time, you end up beating yourself, and all they have to do is sit back and wait to declare a checkmate.

That used to be anybody and everybody that had to go up against Tiger and Kobe. Those two used to a Bobby Fisher mental edge. If player X was coming down the back nine on Sunday with a four stroke lead and Tiger was in the pairing behind him, those four strokes seemed like nothing. Inevitably, the roar would go up, and player X would know: Tiger just did something incredible. He's making his move. And more likely than not, the leader would break. He'd sweat bullets and shank drives and push puts and fall apart. Just because Tiger was back there. Just because he existed. Same for Kobe. It didn't matter if the Lakers were down 15 or if the game was close, opposing fans and players and coaches held their breaths and waited. And Kobe hit a few big shots. And the other team's shoulders sagged a little bit. We can't beat this guy. He's got the angry-glare bulldog face going. He's in Mamba mode. The psychological ramifications were incredible to watch. Imagine the ability to demoralize, intimidate, and strike abject terror into the hearts of your foes just because you're YOU. How many victories have Kobe and Tiger racked up over the years, even if they weren't playing particularly well, just because the guys facing them were terrified of getting whupped, and that fear itself got them whupped? That's what's gone. That's what's missing. The skills have nothing to do with it.

You could see it at The Masters these past two years. Augusta National has been Tiger's course since he joined the tour. It's his sanctuary, his home-court advantage, his perfect battleground. And even there, nobody in the field was worried about him. He's still a great and immensely skilled golfer, but you didn't see guys stealing glances at the leader board on his account. If they had deer-in-headlights expressions, it was because it's The Masters and there's no higher-pressure situation in golf than being in the hunt in that tournament on a Sunday. It wasn't one man, wearing red, bearing down on them, inexorably and inevitably poised to snatch a green jacket from their hands at the last minute. It didn't matter that Tiger easily could have done that if a few more puts had dropped here or there; they didn't think or believe he could anymore, and that made all the difference.

Kobe's issues are more recent. Like, last week recent. If any team was a prime candidate to fall victim to the lore of the Black Mamba, it was the Dallas Mavericks. They already had a freighter's worth of playoff baggage, of early exits and phantoms and "soft" reputations. You'd think they'd have taken one look across the floor at Kobe Bean Bryant late in that first game, and quailed in fear. But the Mavs didn't care. They weren't buying it. It was written clearly on their faces. "Go on, let's see it. Close us out if you can." They weren't intimidated one bit. Hell, they weren't even an iota of nervous. And when the game clock hit zero after that game 4 beatdown on Sunday, the rest of the NBA knew it too. The league collectively turned into the trainer in Rocky IV. "SEE?!?!? HE'S NOT A MACHINE! HE'S A MAN!" The fear was simply gone.

Of all the things Kobe and Tiger have in common, that's the most recent and most important development. They used to be titans. Now, in the eyes of their opponents, they're mere mortals. Very, very talented mortals, but fallible and beatable nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Satellite Imaging.

It's been a staple in every CIA/spy-thriller movie for the past two decades. A higher-up walks into a room filled with people hunched over computer terminals. The worker bees are perusing their various screens, which presumably are dripping with important data. At some point, one of the analyst drones flags down The Boss:

"Sir, you're gonna want to see this."

The Boss approaches and, squinting, leans over the analyst's shoulder. The screen invariably displays some type of grainy video footage or satellite image.

"Ok," says The Boss. "Tell me what I'm looking at here."

The analyst launches into a diatribe about whatever distant recon outpost relayed the info, and a synopsis of whatever malicious intrigue the bad guys are plotting.

"My God," says The Boss, and hustles out of the room.

Cut to a shot of the computer screen frozen on a sinister image.

And ... scene.

Russell Westbrook's late-game performance (fourth quarter and all the subesquent madness) in last night's eventual triple-OT Thunder victory over the Griz is that frozen, sinister image. A great deal has been written about Westbrook's poor decision making since these playoffs began. There have been questions raised about whether his ego is proving corrosive to OKC's locker room. After all, these are the darlings of the league, the carefully-assembled, up-and-coming Brady Bunch of talent and chemistry. He's been lambasted because you simply can't play that way when you also have Kevin Durant on the floor; it's not a smart or efficient path to victory. Most nights, anyway. And he's been defended with a vigor equal to that of his detractors because Memphis' defenders, especially Tony Allen and Shane Battier, have done an outstanding job of denying Durant position and touches. After all, if your primary scoring option is being taken out of play that stringently, what can you do, right? Plus, at 22, he's still figuring it all out, and he's having to do so in the midst of a dogfight playoff series, so perhaps a little slack ought to be cut his way. As is often the case, both arguments carry good amounts of weight, and both have their flaws as well. That end (and the end and the end and the end after that) of the game? That was a different breed of perturbing tendencies.

When the Thunder made a run to get back into what looked like a Memphis blowout in the second and third quarters, Westbrook was driving the steamroller. As well he should have. After only three FG attempts in the opening frame, Russ apparently sized up the situation and decided he needed to be more assertive. It was the correct decision. The Thunder need Russ to contribute big for them to be successful, and with the game slipping precariously close to out of reach, it was an opportune moment for him to step up. So he dialed himself in and went to work, getting to the rack and the line over and over again. To be sure, there were some ill-advised shots littered throughout his performance, but he was the major catalyst in OKC's rally. And then came the damning fourth period.

Better writers than I have detailed Westbrook's poor (read: non-existent) passing down the stretch in game three. He was clearly trying to do too much, to be "The Man" when that role clearly ought to be filled by Durant. It was a terrible display of selfish basketball, and not the first time we've seen it from Russ. One wonders whether all the hype he garnered starting with his Team USA performance this past summer and continuing over the season simply ballooned his head to a toxic degree. (Actually, the wondering is pretty much done.) OKC coach Scott Brooks had assured the media that a team film session and conversation had settled the problem. Obviously, that wasn't the case. But this wasn't just about a refusal to distribute the rock to his teammates, and Durant in particular. I'm willing to partially exonerate that behavior if Memphis has the clamps on KD; especially on a night like last night, when Westbrook had done so much to get his team back in the game. Maybe he knew he was rolling and decided to call his own hot-handed number. Maybe he felt he'd earned the right to close it out. It wasn't necessarily the smartest way to go, but I can understand his having those sentiments.

Russ' problem last night wasn't staying in "hero mode." If he wanted it, well, it doesn't always have to be Durant closing down the stretch. (Though Westbrook could better serve his team by ensuring that happens a good bit more in the future than it has recently.) The problem was the stagnation and ... hesitation isn't the right word, but the something Russ was doing or, more accurately, not doing. Too often late in the game, the shot clock determined the play. Memphis was playing good D, but they were pretty clearly gassed. If Westbrook was going to keep the ball in his own hands, he needed to do something with it. It seemed like he just sat at the top of the key, possession after possession, dribbling. And dribbling. And looking around the floor ... and dribbling some more, while the seconds ticked inexorably down. It had to be terrifying for Thunder fans to watch as their team did pretty much nothing at all for chunks of clock. Was he waiting for plays that never materialized, or taking too long to gauge the situation, or just plain despondent? He certainly wasn't too tired, because he continued to make drives, successful ones, but only after the shot clock was inching towards zero. Part of this has to fall at Scott Brooks' feet, because he should have taken one look at how exhausted the Griz were and ordered his team to dive bomb them at the rim, but it's Russ' job on the floor to make things happen. The Thunder won, and Westbrook's 40 points were certainly impressive, but those passive, clock-eating trips down the floor were not something to jump for joy over. I believe Westbrook will be come a better, less-selfish passer. I believe OKC needed him last night to do what he did. I believe that he had earned the right to have the game in his hands in the crucial moments. But those aimless, desolate stretches of inaction were strange and unpleasant to witness. A gold farthing to anyone who can tell me what was going on there.

"OK, tell me what I'm looking at."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Riddle Me This ...

It was beautiful to behold. For one critical fourth quarter last night, the Atlanta Hawks put their egos, their iso's, and their normal dysfunction on the back burner. Joe Johnson and Al Horford moved well off-ball, thus spacing the floor and getting themselves and their teammates good shots. Jeff Teague did his finest impression of his opposing counterpart, barreling through the lane and spinning in a few superb layups. And in the most surprising development of the night, Josh Smith jettisoned his "J-Smoove" persona and just played "regular smooth." After a display of his usual ill-advised long jumpers for most of the game had the Phillips Arena crowd groaning in agony, Smith finally did what everyone from coaches to teammates to fans wish he'd do all the time: wreaked havoc in the paint. Smith's final line last night looked like something Tim Duncan might have thrown up in his postseason prime: 23 points, 16 boards, 8 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal, and a game-high plus-minus of +18. Good God. It was 12 minutes of marvelous, synchronized ball; five guys on the floor making the smart plays, the hustle plays, and the pretty, highlight-worthy plays too. It wasn't perfect, but it was really, really good. When the Hawks play this brand of basketball, they're not necessarily unstoppable, but they're a damned difficult team to beat.

... Which raises the question, where do these Hawks and that Josh Smith go for so much of the time? Are they chained up in the locker room, only released in moments of dire need? Are they floating on the bench, diaphanous ghosts that possess the players' bodies at intervals?

(I realize that I'm exhuming a dead horse to beat it further here, but it still baffles me too much to let it go.)

Personally, this team reminds me most closely of a recurring Saturday-morning cartoon shtick. You know the old gag where a character is contemplating two diametrically opposed courses of action, and the little cartoon angel and devil appear on either shoulder and have a pithy debate? That's the Hawks.

What's so interesting (and so frustrating) is that this goes way beyond any of the normal cliches associated with the sort of choppy play Atlanta has become known for. It's not about playing down to bad opponents and up to good ones; plenty of teams have that particular problem yet manage to overcome it. It doesn't appear to be about the kind of internal tensions and strife that imploded the Lakers this year, either. At least not in the overt, "wow something is really wrong there!" way. There have been a handful of snide comments or swaggering, self-defensive (and self-aggrandizing) remarks bandied about in post-game interviews, but overall, nothing significantly troubling. It's not even about apathy, or chemistry, or affectations.

And it's not about coaching. Not entirely, anyway. Like Mike Woodson before him, Larry Drew is trying to rein in a disparate collection of egos and finding it a difficult and largely unrewarding task, but he's not a bad coach, or at least not nearly as terrible as he's being made out by certain corners of the media. If the overwhelming evidence of game film and shooting percentages can't make Smith stop hoisting those shots, I don't think any psychological coaching tricks can. Nor can they make Joe Johnson pass more. When you give a player max money because he's exceptional at scoring buckets, you might want to brace yourself for him to try and do a lot of it. At a certain point, players' personalities are set, and that's all she wrote. You live with the good and the bad.

So it's not any of that. Not really. Those are the symptoms, they're not the actual disease.

What it is, is a team somehow playing very, very differently from a philosophical standpoint from night to night. There are drastic mental chasms separating this team from itself, like watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in high-intensity overdrive. If they were just the iso-Joe, shaky defense, J-Smoove bad-decisions, not-feeding-Horford-enough-in-the-post Hawks, well, that would stink, but it would be a concrete identity. Then the press, the fans, and everyone else would at least have something like this to hang their hats on:

"The Hawks are a team full of undisciplined gunners whose skills and athleticism are good for a playoff birth every year and maybe a little more, depending on the match-ups." Think of the razor-sharp clarity we'd have if that were the definitive book on this team. It's hardly superlative, but at least it's solid ground. And maybe more importantly, it's also a clearly-defined ceiling.

The thing is, then they go out and play like they did last night, and you just have to wonder. We saw a few similar games (or at least parts of games) scattered throughout the regular season. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, Atlanta would start making the extra pass, attacking and banging inside, and looking better even than just a well-comported, smart, unselfish team. For those magical little flashes, the Hawks looked downright title-contender imposing ... and then the following night (or half, or quarter, or possession) Joe would be in ball-stopper mode and Smith would be jacking up more ridiculous shots and we'd wonder if the whole thing was some crazy dream.

Last night was the first playoff evidence of the Hawks' full capabilities. In round 1, it felt like Atlanta got lucky with the Magic, both with match-ups and with Orlando's non-existent shooting. Then came the road win in game 1 of this Bulls series, which seemed more predicated on a bunch of improbable shots falling than on any particularly resplendent team play. Here, finally, was a glimpse for the rest of the NBA fandom into a completely different prism of Hawks basketball. My roommate, a casual fan who roots for the Celtics, watched the fourth quarter with me and was thoroughly impressed. I had to explain that we know better than to look for an encore in game 5, that to be a Hawks fan is to own a unique pathos that loosely translates: "It does not matter what we just witnessed. We have no compass at all. We don't know how or when, because the Hawks are a hellish dichotomy, but they probably will screw this up. They will be erratic and disjointed again down the line. It's inevitable." Last night, they were both the exception and the rule it proves or does not prove. It's maddening to contemplate.

Atlanta might win this series. In the playoffs, you'd be a fool to count on anything being definitive, no matter how obvious the premise may be. (See: Grizzlies : Round 1 and Lakers : Self-destruction.) But you'd also be a fool, if you've watched the Hawks this year, to think last night carried any implications other than a "2" in the win column for this series. For a team with so much talent and potential, the deadliest flaw is not poor decision making on the floor. It's a wavering non-identity that prohibits their decisions, good and bad, from having any personality or context.

Sadly, ultimately, the Atlanta Hawks are so protean as to be unrecognizable. Despite a handful of well-known stars on the roster, as a team, they might as well be faceless.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

All Things Must Pass. (A Eulogy for the Old Guard of the NBA Aughts.)

The thread has been running through these playoffs and gathering momentum since jump. The same question has been parsed in various forms over and over: is this the season for a tectonic shift in the NBA landscape? We've been waiting for the Thunder to make the leap for a few seasons now, and the Bulls have been on the radar ever since Derrick Rose's coming out party and their subsequent (and so-far disappointing) Carlos Boozer acquisition. The playoff-revelation Memphis Grizzlies chose to ignore an official media baptism in favor of a blindside self-declaration of legitimacy. And of course, the Heat are trying to make good on the "not one, not two, not three ..." proclamations of rings and glory that turned so many people's stomachs this past summer. Against those four challengers stood the Old Guard. Boston, L.A., San Antonio; the teams that have collectively owned the league for the past decade. All season we've been watching, waiting, and wondering: was their reign crumbling before our eyes, or worse, had it already dissipated?

Honestly, I wanted to ignore it. Much as I love the process of watching young teams find themselves, and seeing young stars like Durrant and Rose ascend towards their ceilings, I wasn't quite ready to bid adieu to the teams that defined my twenties as a basketball fan. Maybe I'm overly sentimental, or maybe I just didn't think the change was coming so soon or so completely. The storylines of the incumbents seemed to have too much left in the tank; noble final chapters still to be penned.

I was looking forward to ...

The beautiful symmetry of Phil Jackson possibly ending a storied career with a fourth three-peat.

The debates that would be sparked if Kobe pulled even with MJ in the rings department. (In my book, MJ owns greatest-ever status, always will, and that's that, but the arguments would be fun, right?)

The Celtics potentially grabbing one more title before they officially had to begin a rebuilding process around Rondo and possibly sans Doc.

The Duncan-era Spurs' improbable best-in-the-West record seemingly declaring them, if not ready and able, at least viable to hang one more banner in the rafters before they faded out.

It all seemed too compelling to simply evaporate. Given all of the incredible moments and fantastic games we've been gifted with in the 2011 playoffs, I don't want to sound like an ingrate, but this isn't what I wanted. I wanted grizzled veteran heroics and historic rivalries. I wanted to watch Kobe doin' work and Ray Allen adding new footnotes to his "clutch" resume. I wanted Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett to have one last day in the sun. I wanted Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson and Doc Rivers to work their usual coaching wizardry. I wanted Springsteen-style "last chance power drives" from these venerable franchises. I wanted Old School, damn it! The young 'uns could wait their turn for one more season ... right?

Apparently not.

San Antonio is already gone, victims of a Grizzlies team who showed not one iota of deference or fear towards the Spurs' 1-seed and championship pedigree. So much for them. That leaves Boston and Los Angeles. (And Dallas, I suppose, if we're drawing the lines purely based on age, but the Mavs are trying to shake their own myriad playoff ghosts. They don't enter into the veteran-squads-with-rings group I was so anxious to see ignite in hopes of furthering their legacies. With the Spurs at home, for me, at least, it's about the Celtics and Lakers and one more shot at a Finals showdown.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a mini-rant on the media's dramatic overreactions to the Bulls' and Lakers' game-one losses. At the time, it seemed absurd to be mashing the panic button so quickly, but a lot has changed since then. The Bulls acquitted themselves; the Lakers did not. L.A. didn't just look like the lesser team last night, they looked tired and beaten and uncommitted. The easiest fingers can be leveled at Pau Gasol, whose lack of any impact whatsoever in this postseason is arguably the most glaring issue for the Lakers. But those fingers are not lacking for other targets. Kobe Bryant's ankle is clearly bothering him, and even his formidable killer instincts aren't worth much when he's clanging ineffective shots and missing easy layups like he did last night. The other Lakers starters are playing sub-par basketball, and the bench isn't giving them any help at all. Last night, L.A. shot a poor 41 FG%, a dismal 55% from the charity stripe, and bricked 18 treys before finally knocking down a pair when the game had already been decided. Virtually every possession had a sloppy, blurred quality to it. I've seen amateur photographers toting cheap Polaroids who were better able to focus. And better able to execute, for that matter. At times, their shot selection and decision-making has looked every bit as atrocious as my beloved Atlanta Hawks do on their worst nights. That last sentence wasn't even a little bit hyperbolic.

And then, deserving of its own can of worms after game two, there's the question of the Lakers' defense.

Andrew Bynum freely admitted in his post-game interview that the team is suffering from "trust issues." As Bynum described it, they're not supporting each other, and they're clearly more concerned with individual frustrations than with playing team defense right now. How else do you explain last night? 6-foot tall Dallas reserve PG J.J. Barea repeatedly drove the lane with impunity against the league's most physically imposing front line and torched L.A. for 12 points and 4 dimes. Yeesh. And how about Tyson Chandler getting fed alley-oop jams with no resistance at all? When people like that are generating significant offense and making statement plays to kill L.A.'s momentum, it's not a good sign. We expected Dirk to be Dirk, and Jason Kidd and Jet Terry to shoulder the Mavs' offensive load in bursts, but nothing like this. Right now, Dallas owns the Lakers, and not just in that 2-0 win/loss column. Is this to be the ignoble end of the Kobe/Phil era? Have they crossed the same undefinable yet instantly recognizable meridian that the Spurs did in the last round?

Dallas is actually the older team if you tally the birth certificates, but the Lakers are the ones looking hangdog exhausted. It's probably the cumulative effect of too many playoff games they should have won but didn't over the past few years. Those unnecessary extra nights of work put an awful lot of miles on their odometer en route to three straight finals appearances, and it's finally catching up to them. But it's not just physical fatigue, it's a psychological disconnect. The Lakers looked less resolved and less coherent than we've ever seen them last night, and we didn't need Bynum's comments to confirm what could be plainly seen on the court: their hearts and heads aren't in this. Given their current demeanor, it seems unlikely that even the great Phil Jackson can right the Lakers' mental ship at this point. When asked how he planned to motivate his team as the series moves to Dallas, the Zen Master quipped that he planned to "have them flogged." The comment drew a hail of chuckles from the reporters, but Jackson wasn't smiling. After all, down 2-0, the way L.A. is playing is no laughing matter. We can't count them out just yet, but that three-peat is looking more and more like a diaphanous pipe dream with every disarrayed minute.

And then there's the enigma that is the Boston Celtics. Thus far, they've been battered by injuries, hampered by foolish emotional decisions, and flat out-played by the upstart Miami Heat. Something is seriously fractured within the emotional framework of this Celtics team. Those aren't just cracks in the veneer; they're much closer to outright abysses. We knew coming in that Boston didn't have the raw athleticism to keep up with LBJ and D-Wade, but the assumption was that they could counteract that deficiency by playing to their strengths. Rajon Rondo appeared to be back on his game after sweeping the Knicks. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett were supposed to provide offensive muscle. Most importantly, the C's vaunted hyperactive, hyper-intelligent team defense should have alleviated at least a little of the James/Wade/(sometimes) Bosh barrage. Through two games, they're just about oh-for-everything on that checklist. Here's the thing: the Celtics aren't that old. Not really. Rondo obviously is just hitting his prime. Paul Pierce is still a high-caliber player on both ends of the floor. Ray Allen will probably be curling off screens and knocking down jumpers for another 2-4 years. Kevin Garnett is still the defensive anchor and a weapon down low. They're a little long in the tooth, sure, but they're not mummified yet. So exactly what the heck is wrong in Beantown? Here's my semi-complete breakdown of Boston's complete breakdown:

Q: What's with the lack of ball movement?

A: Don't mistake this for a polite way of asking "what's wrong with Rondo?" Rondo is fine. I realize that his game one performance wasn't a exactly a gem, but he's tallied 28 points and 19 assists in total over the first two games, and he was really rolling in game two. The 8 turnovers and flagging assist numbers (as compared to his regular season numbers) can be largely be explained by Miami's tenacious D (no pun intended) and the Big Three's total lethargy. If you watched game two, you saw it. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen appeared rooted to the floor. They were making almost no effort to get to open spaces or adhere to sets. This complete departure from their usual game incited a disgust in the young PG that was clearly etched into his face and body language. I hate to drop a cliche bomb this insipid, but Boston just isn't playing Celtics Basketball right now.

Which leads us to ...

Q: Veteran savvy? Ubuntu? What? Wherefore?

A: It's a possibility that the Perkins trade had deeper and far more sinister reverberations than we could ever have imagined. The advanced metrics community has already proved that Perk's absence had a negligible on-court impact from a statistical perspective, but it may have triggered a mammoth collective pathos attack for the C's. Was it perceived as a betrayal by Danny Ainge? Did it cause, or contribute to, the regression and reversion we're witnessing now? I'm going to leave the ref's questionable decision-making out of it and say this: Paul Pierce knows better than to put himself in a position to get tossed as he was late in game one. I thought we were past this kind of ill-advised petulance with him. And speaking of things that were supposedly over and done with: down the stretch in game 2, the Big Three were huddled up by themselves, plotting and discussing whatever it is you plot and discuss when you're in danger of going down 0-2 ... and their floor general was nowhere to be seen. Haven't we read this script before? The one where the Big Three are icing Rondo out of the leadership mix? Did he become that much of a malcontent simply because he no longer had Perk to pal around with? Something is rotten in the state of Boston's locker room, and the decay is wreaking havoc on the C's title aspirations.

And finally ...

Q: Can Boston's D regain its commanding swagger and contain the Heat?

A: Not like this, they can't. James Jones likely won't shoot that lights-out again, but as for stopping 'Bron and Wade, they just don't have it in them. They're seemingly a step slow and a buck short on very rotation, and they can't seem to stop the bleeding. On paper, the margins of defeat don't look all that bad, but it's the look on their faces and the sag in their shoulders that tells the story. Can they hang with the Heat? Absolutely. But to beat them, you have to shut either James or Wade down at least quasi-comprehensively, and they haven't show any evidence of that capability. Even Chris Bosh is, to a degree, free to get his now. KG simply can't be everywhere at once. If he's helping on Wade or LBJ, he can't simultaneously contain Miami's third wheel. Boston has lost that spark. To paraphrase Apollo Creed (and Survivor), they no longer have the "Eye Of The Tiger."

In short, the luck (and heart, and composure, and execution) of the Irish is wearing rather thin. Like their rivals in Los Angeles, Boston appears to be in the middle or a precipitous decline, and they know all too well what a difficult task it will be to climb up again if they fall too far.

The nails aren't in their respective coffins just yet, but the rest of the league is grabbing hammers from their tool sheds.

Look, I'm not saying that I won't relish every moment of watching OKC ascend to elite status, or Memphis and Chicago becoming whatever they're destined to become, or an improbable Mavericks' redemption. (I won't relish the Heat if they achieve and sustain dominance, but I'll deeply enjoy the basketball part of it, at least.) I just wish those moments could have been put on hold until next year. I'm all for change and parity in the NBA, and it looks like we're poised to get a healthy dosage of both, provided we have a season in 2011-2012. Bring it on, and Godspeed, but this is shaping up to be an inglorious and melancholy death knell for the giants of the aughts, and I'd rather not be watching the last rites unfold in front of me in such a pathetic fashion.

Playoff basketball should be a joyous time, but it's hard to sing and dance when heroes are crumbling and their successors are already casket shopping. The bell tolls for thee, Old Guard.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Madding Crowd

I love the crazy pendulum that is sports media. It's hypnotic watching that thing swing back-and-forth in the grandfather clock of hyperbole. Hypnotic, and hilarious. Today the pundits are up in diatribe-y arms, proclaiming the Bulls and Lakers in trouble. Adjectives like disinterested and complacent are raining like so many Hawks and Mavs fourth-quarter jumpers last night. According to some folks, the favorites are already on the ropes.

Deep breath, people. Let's take a moment to consider what we're saying. One-game deficits are not exactly Everests of insurmountability. L.A. dropped game one at home to N'Awlins in the last round. Didn't seem to bother them too badly, did it? Granted, they're not up against the Mavs of years past. Something about Dallas' demeanor last night made me think that maybe, even if they'll never admit it, Dirk and company are a little too sick of all the "soft" rhetoric they've been saddled with over the years. They might have found the perfect combination of veteran composure and an out-sized chip to adorn their collective shoulder. But no one is focused on Dallas, or what the Mavs did right or wrong last night. The magnifying glass seems to be focused squarely on the Lakers.

"Look, Kobe can't close!"

"They made stupid decisions!"

"They didn't put up a fight late!"

"What the hell is wrong with Pau Gasol?!?!?"

It's not that those issues aren't pertinent. If the L.A. can't find any answers, they may indeed be in trouble. They did look despondent for long stretches last night, Pau truly hasn't been himself all playoffs, and that late-game foul on Dirk was inexcusably foolish. But here's the thing: they're still the Lakers; the two-time defending NBA champs. The savviest coach in the game is still in his elevated chair on their sideline. They still have the single most imposing defensive interior in the game. And, age and slightly-diminished capabilities aside, that's still Kobe Bean Bryant out there. Last night was more evidence of what has become something of a trademark for this team: they don't turn on the afterburners until it's absolutely necessary. Which might be seen as a dangerous and disturbing trend unless you remember that it hasn't yet steered them wrong. Until a postseason knockout proves otherwise, the Lakers have earned the right to reserve their extra gears for when they're truly needed. L.A. will be dusting those off for game 2.

And then there's the hoopla surrounding the Chicago Bulls. Concerns over last night's loss to Atlanta have rocketed to a fever pitch over the last fifteen hours. You know what happened last night? Chicago had a bad game, and the Hawks had a great one. The Bulls were sluggish out of the gate, and didn't show any signs of life until the third quarter when they took a brief lead. But to think that they choked the game away, or that doing so is endemic of larger problems, means you haven't watched a whole lot of basketball this season. You don't win 62 games by being lucky. You don't simultaneously have the COY and MVP by accident. And you don't steamroll your playoff opponent by 33 on their turf a scant month-and-a-half ago if you're incapable of dealing with them. Chicago didn't cough up that game last night; the Hawks overachieved to get a victory on a string of improbable fourth-quarter shots that just aren't going to fall like that again. Last night was maybe the fifth time all year that Atlanta has looked like an honest-to-God basketball team, and they've demonstrated repeatedly that coherence and consistency are their weakest suits. For the Bulls, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng finally showed signs of life last night, and Derrick Rose won't be that passive again, bum ankle or no. Not to mention the fact that Thibs won't let them come out that flat tomorrow night. Look for some heavy backlash on Wednesday before you try to strap a toe tag on Chicago.

While both favorites' games last night certainly didn't scream "TITLE CONTENDER!!!" from the rooftops, all of the people fretting and making jump-the-gun proclamations need to cool out. The Lakers are the defending champs, and the Bulls own the league's best record. To declare them in mortal peril after a game each in round 2? That's not just reactionary extremism, it's downright foolish. Entertaining as these debates and opinions may be, we need to stop swinging the pendulum, or at least slow it down a tad.