Thursday, May 31, 2012

Green Rondo a la Whoah.

Apologies for the brief absence, it's been a crazy week.  Before I get into last night's hoops, allow me one quick thought on the draft lottery: SHENANIGANS AND HOODWINKERY!!!  Just kidding.  Sort of.  That is all.  Now, let's talk about that Celtics/Heat game, and one Rajon Pierre Rondo.

Contrary to a popular axiom, the winners do not actually write the history books.  They're too busy enjoying the spoils of victory or seeking new conquests to bother with jotting down how great they were for posterity.  That task usually falls to the scribes, camped on their cozy sidelines from whence they can document what occurred.  Well, what they remember as having occurred.  In the immediacy of aftermath, there's not much of a difference between the two. The tales hew pretty close to reality for quite a while.  But then the years roll by and history gets just hazy enough that we can tweak it a little.  Then a little more, and so on.  And because everyone likes to read and hear about glorious triumphs and victory in the face of long odds, the stories become more and more about the winners the farther we get from the moment of the event.  The losers, no matter how ferociously and commendably they may have battled, are ultimately consigned to the realm of those people who got beat by those other, superior people, howsoever "superior" was defined in the contest in question.  

Ralph Branca, after all, was a three-time All Star and a hell of a fine pitcher; now he's remembered almost exclusively as the guy who gave up Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round The World."  More pertinent to this post: when the NBA playoffs roll around each year, people invariably reminisce about Jordan's Flu Game or Willis Reed's miraculous return to the Madison Square Garden parquet, but few are wont to recall Isiah Thomas raining jumpers on a busted ankle in game 6 of the '88 Finals, because the Pistons ultimately came up short.  Even looking at last year's postseason: I vividly remember Chris Paul throwing up a 27-15-13 against L.A., Brandon Roy's single-handed explosion with zero spring left in his knees, and Dirk being Dirk in pretty much every game.  It takes far more effort and the aid of the internet to recall Kevin Durant's 40-8-5-2 (blocks) outburst, or Manu Ginobili's crazy half-court heave and even more patently absurd falling-out-of-bounds trey to keep the Spurs on life support.  Even the most heroic of losing efforts is quick to fade.

Which brings us to last night and why I wanted to write this post.  The Celtics lost to the Miami Heat to go down 0-2 in the series.  Decades from now, the box score will show that Paul Pierce fouled out in the 4th quarter, that Ray Allen was not himself, and that Kevin Garnett played OK for a guy as tired as he must be.  It will show that LeBron and D-Wade did pretty much what you'd expect them to do, and that Mario Chalmers (seriously?) and Udonis Haslem (?!?!SERIOUSLY?!?!) were relatively incredible.  And it will show that Rajon Rondo put up one of the most incredible lines ever recorded in a basketball game.  But hardly anyone looks at box scores from the Eastern Conference Finals of years gone by.  Especially when The Future will remember this season for the lockout, the Clippers becoming relevant, Derrick Rose going down in the opening game of the playoffs, and the seemingly inevitable showdown between the Heat and one of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled.  (Barring something truly crazy happening, the 2012 Spurs are going to win the title, and will go down in history with the '96 Bulls, '86 Celtics, and '77 Blazers as near-flawless juggernauts.)  And since what Rondo did last night is likely to become a footnote to all of that, let's take a moment to crystallize it in our minds.         

Moving from left to right across the box score:

Minutes played: 53.  I'll say that again.  Fifty.  Three.  Minutes.  That would be, you know, all of them available in last night's game.  Rondo was on the floor for every tick of the game clock from the opening tip through the conclusion of overtime.  No breathers other than timeouts and halftime.  No space to recover, mentally or physically, from the unrelenting, rhythmic hammer that is playoff basketball.  What with the remarkably depleted Celtics bench, his team needed him, so he played and played and played.  (Since he plays for Boston, I feel I can make the "no rest for thaaa wiiickkkkeedddddd, kid!" joke without too much remorse.)  I mean, we think a complete game is something special for a starting pitcher, and they're only playing for half of it.  What Rondo did last night was beyond the bounds of normal.  NBA nerds crack a lot of jokes about his aesthetic resemblance to an alien, but this really was something only Rondo or a non-carbon-based life form could have pulled off.

FG: 16-24.  That's 66.666%  "Well, the devil went down to South Beach ..."  While quite a few of his drive-the-lane-ball-fake-behind-the-back-and-make-an-improbable-finsih moves contributed to that insane percentage, Rondo also knocked down a barrage of perimeter jumpers.  Seriously, this is Rajon Rondo we're talking about, here. The phrase "perimeter jumpers" has heretofore only been used in conjunction with his name in sentences like: "Sag off him on defense and force him to take perimeter jumpers."  Yet Rondo calmly drained shot after shot from well outside his perceived range of efficacy.  The man simply shot the lights out.  Possibly all the lights on the Eastern Seaboard from American Airlines Arena to the Tobin Bridge.  Which brings us to ...

3 PT FG: 2-2.  With under twenty seconds left in overtime, with the game and the Celtics' hopes dwindling by the instant, Rondo calmly buried a pair of consecutive treys, the second from way, way, way downtown.  (The official game log has it at 28 feet.)  Rondo is a career 24.1% from deep.  So last night was either a remarkable, magical fluke, or Rondo has added an element to his skill set that will make him absolutely terrifying in the future.

FT: 10-12.  Rondo has been a mediocre freebie shooter for his entire NBA tenure.  He shot 59.7% at the stripe in the regular season.  Yet he's at 73.7% for the postseason and was absolutely dialed in last night.  Again, this is either a massive statistical blip or a signal that Rondo has added new facets to his already unique and fantastic game.

Rebounds: 8.  Sure, he's a triple-double factory, but that doesn't make his rebounds last night any less impressive.  In a twist for Rondo, who is usually a (relative for a PG) force on the offensive glass, all 8 of his boards came on defense.  Still, the fact that a diminutive 6'1" point guard pulled down 8 rebounds with LBJ and co. around to battle him is quasi-insane.

Assists: 10.  Chris Paul may be the best point guard in basketball.  Ricky Rubio may be the most imaginative.  Ohter than Rondo, I'm not sure anybody else in the NBA could make you pause and say "ten dimes, huh? that's a little on the low side."  Which is what ten assists for Rondo feels like.  Still, he made sure he got the ball to the right guys in the right spots.  Well, if Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were healthy, they would have been the right spots.  The shots simply weren't falling.

Steals: 3.  TO's: 3.  Rondo is a phenomenal defensive player, so the three steals seems about right.  In a vacuum, 3 turnovers spread over 53 minutes of clock seems pretty benign, but they all came at critical junctures that altered the course and momentum of the game.  Hey, it wouldn't be Rondo if he weren't making the odd tactically loony choice in the midst of his brilliance, right?

Points: 44.  Yeah, earlier categories addressed some facets of how this was achieved, but take a second to wrap your mind around the totality of that number.  44.  That's two buckets shy of LeBron's "48 Special."  Rondo scored effusively and with authority, including every C's point in OT.  Excepting his brief moments of utter fatigue in the midst of an incredible night, he was simply unstoppable.

Last night, Rajon Rondo submitted a performance for the ages.  He completely dominated every aspect of the game, towering (metaphorically) over everyone else on the court with an all-out, all-game, all-heart, 53-minute-long detonation of excellence.  It wasn't enough.  Not for the win, anyway.  Hopefully, it should be enough to remember, even as history seeks to do its work of obfuscating and shortchanging the vanquished.  To paraphrase and mangle Tom Petty: "Baby, even the losers, get their well-deserved historical props sometimes."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Joys of Philly Soul Reborn.

Things change.  It's nice, really.  Tradition for its own sake is rarely sustainable or even desirable.  There was a time when the Dutch were a prominent world power.  When the concept of human flight was nothing but whimsical fancy.  When you had no way to watch your favorite shows if you weren't near a TV when they were originally broadcast.  Time marches on.  In with the new, and the new shall come faster than can be processed!!!  Also, though, things cycle around on varying timescales of recurrence.  Dynasties rise and reign and recede back into the vagaries of history ... and rise again.  The slow, stilted revolutions of the world continue.

Mostly, the forward movement is a sign of progress that we're grateful for, while the cycles are signifiers of lessons we haven't quite learned yet.  Mostly, but not always.  There was an interview with Bitch Vig ages ago, maybe 'round about 1996, talking about how Nirvana came along and shattered the artifice and hollow vessels that had come to populate the pop landscape by the end of the 80s.  Vig posited that roughly every 10 years or so, a band or musical movement emerges that distills rock'n'roll back to its purest form and dispenses with the preceding decade's inventory of crappy music.  I can't remember exactly what he said, but to paraphrase: "Someone has to come along every once in a while and break it back down to the basics; remind the world that a power trio with a loud guitar is all you need to make great records.  (Though she's drawing much more on Aretha than Chuck Berry, Adele has this back-to-the-old-school vibe on lock, and is mercifully delivering us from all that is evil Bieber.  #sweetsoultmusic.)  Sometimes the wheel coming back around is a blessing.  The familiar can be refreshing, an infusion and reminder of something half-forgotten that becomes deliciously vibrant upon rediscovery.     

Which is why it's been so strange and gratifying watching the Philadelphia 76ers this season.  I'm not any fan of Philly sports, mind you.  After the Braves spent the mid-90s battling the biker-gang scuzzbucket Phillies of Kruk and Dykstra, I find it hard to muster up anything other than a healthy disdain for the City of "Brotherly (Unless You're an Opposing Team, Fan, or Santa Claus) Love."  

For all their ballyhooed sports history, of which there is undeniably a truckload, Philly teams outside of the Sixers have a notable dearth in the iconography department relative to the longevity of their existence.  Think about it for a second.  The Flyers are part of the Original Six, the Phillies have been around since 1887, and the Eagles since 1931.  Yet the list of true non-basketball All Timers associated primarily with Philadelphia goes: Schmidt, Lajoie, Mack, Clarke, Lindros, Van Brocklin, Vermeil, Jaws, Rocket, McNabb, Balboa ... and that's it, really.  Excluding active players who are on there way to HOF's, of course, but still.  The list of non-basketball iconic moments is even shorter.  Aside from the Phillies' World Series titles and Vick's decimation of the Redskins a few seasons back, I'm hard-pressed to come up with any spectacular memories.  Doesn't that seem something of a paucity, given how many collective seasons these teams have logged?  You could argue for maybe a half dozen others to be on that roster, but you'd be pushing the bounds of "legendary" in doing so.  Three of the four Philly franchises are underachievers in manufacturing greatness.

The Sixers are different.  Their story is the story Wilt, Dr. J, Moses, Barkley, and Iverson. And, to a (slightly) lesser degree, Toney, Cheeks, Dawkins, and Ramsay.  They are old-school ABA remnants and Fo' Fo' Fo'.  They are a walking, breathing rolodex/tapestry of professional basketball's history.  They've had thoroughly enjoyable hip hop songs written in their honor.  As such, it always feels a little off when they're slogging through a protracted down period.  It happens to all franchises, of course, but with certain teams it strikes a discordant, warbling note when they have runs of failure.  Even if you don't root for them, you have to acknowledge that the NBA is a more fulfilling, more enjoyable experience when the 76ers are playing successful basketball.  Good hoops in Philly makes for a good hoops atmosphere everywhere else.  And so it warms my heart to watch them play their asses off and rekindle an original basketball rivalry with the Celtics in these playoffs. 

But this is also an oddly constructed team; they are not your daddy's Philly hoops.  Unlike previous iterations, the Sixers group that has forced Boston to a game seven in the Eastern Conference Semis doesn't have a supreme alpha dog around which to cohere.  They're an assemblage of promised-savoirs-fallen-short, castoffs, glue guys, and talented spare parts that have no business being in this position.  Yet they've managed, through an alchemy of extremely generous luck and not knowing any better, to stage a deep playoff run and an assault on everyone's preconceptions.  Iggy, Jrue, Evan, Thad, Lavoy, Meeks, Elton, LOOOUUUUUU, and Spence Hawes have become a sort of Nuggets East, shifting the onus of production and leadership around as circumstances and the hot hand dictate.  Doug Collins seems to have a knack for getting the right people on the floor at the right moment and harnessing them for maximum efficacy, even as the precepts of the league scream that you can't win without a superstar-centered rubric.

While the rest of the teams left in the playoffs rely on some variation of the "Big Three" formula, Philly relies on an exuberant brand of duct tape to patch their holes and reenforce their strengths.  They go with "whatever works" because it's all they have, and it's also damned effective.  This team doesn't have anywhere near the prestige of its predecessors, and probably doesn't have a prayer of making the NBA Finals, but they're legitimately in the mix for the first time since A.I. was in his viciously phenomenal prime.  Yes, Chicago became a paper tiger the moment Derrick Rose's ACL turned him into a DNP: Ow!!! for an indefinite period of time.  Yes, Boston is hobbled beyond belief.  It's still incredible that the Sixers are a game from the ECF given that their postseason leader stats look like this: Points and Assists: Jrue Holiday, 15.9, 4.8.  Rebounds: Evan Turner, 7.5.  Not exactly imposing tallies, right?  How can you win in the playoffs without a perimeter player capable of dropping 25 a night or a big man giving you a 15-10 on a consistent basis?  Apparently, by scraping just enough from everyone to get it done.  It hasn't always been pretty, but their "who's got this one?" strategy has Philly averaging 86.6 PPG this postseason, which is not exactly a hallmark of offensive brilliance, but still rates as an accomplishment against the defensive brick walls of the Bulls and C's.  

This team could care less who comes off the bench, who gets minutes and touches, and who gets the rock in the clutch.  No one takes them seriously, but that's part of what allows them to function.  They're outgunned, they know it, and so they play simply to keep the game going, unhinged and joyful and the devil take the hindmost on the break.  In this regard, Philly's style resembles nothing quite so much a highly-refined brand of pick-up ball.  They're not the most organized, well-oiled offensive machine, but there's a charm and verve that accompanies their recklessness. 

The ride will probably end tonight.  Even a depleted Celtics squad should be able to take a game 7 at home and move on to the ECF.  But it's been nice seeing Philly play relevant hoops again.  The Sixers probably need to acquire a legitimate Name before they can climb the next rung on the ladder, but in the mean time, it's been great to watch them scrap with giants without flinching.  They don't have the brightest stars, but they still make an interesting and lovely constellation.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Why I Can't Root For The Thunder With A Clean Conscience Anymore.

There was a brief moment Saturday night, just as the halftime buzzer sounded, when the air went out of the room.  Russell Westbrook skidded along the Staples Center floor, legs in unnatural akimbo, and collapsed.  "If Russ is seriously injured," I thought, "the Thunder's title aspirations are shot."  This was a somewhat objective assessment of the situation.  Since the Hawks got bounced, I don't have a horse in this playoffs race anymore.

Except I kind of do.  My reaction to Westbrook lying on the court included no small amount of actual trepidation, because I really, really like the Thunder.

As fascinating as the other remaining teams' narratives are, I'm more or less done with everyone else from an attachment point of view.  The Lakers and Clippers are finished.  The Celtics and Spurs are playing phenomenal basketball, but they've already enjoyed considerable success with their respective nuclei.  I would certainly love to watch that combination in the finals, but I'm not sentimental enough to desperately long for one last hurrah from any of them.  The Pacers and Sixers are fascinating and enjoyable to watch, but they have time, assuming the prime assets of both squads elect to stay in the coming years, to develop and cohere before real expectations are thrust upon their shoulders.  Miami is a science experiment whose results will have interesting ramifications for how we view future teams and how front offices construct their rosters, but they're too far down the path of mechanical assemblage/dysfunction to engender any real affection.

Which leaves OKC and their infectiously loveable brand of hoops.  We've spent the past few years waiting for this team to blossom into the legitimate contenders they've now become.  We've watched them accumulate the necessary and appropriate players to fill the gaps around the heavy ammunition.  We've witnessed the Durant/Westbrook tandem, so widely rumored to be a divided and unworkable pairing, evolve into a thing of power, grace, and balance.  And of course, we have seen James Harden transmute himself into an unequivocal force of nature, accepting his "bench" role with not only a commitment to the team mentality, but an incomparable relish and flare.

This is an easy team to cheer for; an easy team to adore.  The have an identifiable group personality and an engagingly individualized cast of characters.  Outside of the Hawks, they are my favorite NBA team by a considerable margin.  But lately, I've been questioning that tertiary rooting interest.  A triptych of thoughtful and affecting articles has appeared online recently that have raised a fair amount of doubt in me as to the ethical "rightness" of rooting for OKC.  In chronological order:      

May 3: A heartbreaking, first-person account detailing the demise of professional basketball in Seattle appears on Deadspin.  Jeremy Repanich recounts the manner in which Clay Bennett hijacked the Sonics franchise and took them to OKC.  It's a narrative that will wrench your guts out if you allow it to do so, even as Repanich acknowledges that Bennett, despite his initially duplicitous sentiments, ultimately did a lot of good for the franchise.  

May 11: Brian Phillips posts a lovely open letter to Seattle on Grantland about the convoluted nature of being an Oklahoma City Thunder fan.  He acknowledges the guilt of enjoying a team that was wantonly pilfered from another city.  He also pens the case for his and every other Oklahoman's absolution under the fairly irrefutable "Holy crap our fly-over city has a real pro sports franchise and they're actually good!!!" defense.

May 12th: Beckley Mason responds to Phillips' post on Hoopspeak.  This is at once a still-raw, jangling nerve reflex to the sad events of the Soncis' departure and a flat rejection of Phillips' apologia.  Essentially: "I appreciate the sentiment, but eff you, Oklahoma.  When your team is snatched away for the greener pastures of a bigger market, you'll know how this feels, but don't presume to shower us with pointless, hollow empathy in the interim."

Bereavement, it seems, cannot be easily put aside. The question as NBA fans is what, if anything, we owe to the bereaved?

The Thunder have been the darlings of the NBA for quite some time now.  We love the team and how brilliantly Sam Presti has built them.  We've all just been waiting for their ascendancy, and that appears to have arrived.  As basketball fans, the whole narrative is so enticing, so filled with wonderful characters and sweeping pictures.  And it doesn't hurt that they play with fervor and dynamism and the exuberance of youth, either.  Problem is: we tend to forget that this storybook we're enjoying was printed on paper made from a rare and lovely tree with deep roots that was chainsawed down without a thought or care by one greedy-ass and duplicitous lumberjack.  

The tenets of "liberated fandom" not withstanding, enjoying the Thunder guilt-free seems at least a little shady.  (I should note that I am a fantastic hypocrite, since both the Braves and Hawks resided elsewhere before becoming Atlanta teams.  In my defense, this happened about 15 years before I was born, so I grew up with "my" teams without realizing until later that they hadn't always been there.)  Shouldn't we feel some remorse about this?  Shouldn't we abstain from buying in when the price was the destruction of the franchise that gave us The Glove and Shawn Kemp and The X-Man and some of the coolest jerseys ever?  There's a reason that Zombie Sonics picture at the top of this post exists, though it's unclear who's more walking dead, the new team or the city they abandoned. 

Those in Oklahoma should probably try not to be too smug about The Thunder if they're in the company of Seattle folks, but they can and should root for their team.  That's what fans do, after all.  As for me, I'm trying pretty hard to temper my enthusiasm for OKC.  I'll enjoy the aesthetics of their play on the court, but I'm striving to do so with an appropriately somber attitude.  The Soncis were from their mother's womb untimely ripped.  I'm not sure if it was Howard Shultz or Clay Bennet in the role of Lady Macbeth, but it seems safe to say neither of them ever felt guilty enough to wash their hands repeatedly while hysterically mumbling "out, out, damned spot."  Shame on them for that.  Either way, Seattle ended up as Banquo's ghost. From now on, whenever I watch the Thunder, I'll also hold a candlelight vigil for them. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

All Growed Up Over Night: Brandon Beachy is the Braves' Salvation.

I'm loathe to start off this post with a cliche this trite, but here goes: appearances can be deceiving.  Given that the Braves are currently tied for the 3rd-best record in baseball, maybe I'm just picking nits here, but there's a pretty glaring flaw in the shiny gem that has been Atlanta's 2012 campaign thus far.  For a team that has maintained a reputation for strong pitching over the past two decades, the dirty secret about the Braves this season is that their starting rotation is phenomenally average.  On paper this probably shouldn't be the case, but reality has an annoying way of superseding "on paper" with vicious finality.  (Ask any 2011 Philadelphia Eagles fan about this.)

Just look at Atlanta's starters, and the actuality of their performance compared to what they're theoretically capable of.  Veteran Tim Hudson's ERA is pushing 4 as he tries to recover from surgery and rediscover his rhythm on the mound.  Touted young arms Tommy Hanson and Randall Delgado aren't exactly pitching poorly, they're simply not fulfilling their considerable potential.  Former ace Jair Jurrjens is back in the minors with his delivery a shambles, and if JJ has fallen completely apart, Mike Minor's construct is one Jenga block away from a similar disaster.  Sure, the bats have been mighty and the bullpen is certifiably filthy, but the guys on the mound for the 1st inning have been a shaky proposition all season.  So, you know, thank heaven for Brandon Beachy.

(Cue beam of radiant light and choir of angels.)

The undrafted 25-year-old sophomore logged his first complete game last night: a five-hit shutout masterpiece that seemed a culmination of sorts.  Beachy had two semi-related knocks on him coming into this year: a chronic inability to pitch deep into games and a propensity for nibbling too often on the edges of the strike zone.  All it took was a concerted effort in the off season to rectify those issues.  At 6'3" and 215 lbs, Beachy's got the build to be a true hoss, he just had to figure out how to utilize it.  As for the nibbling, he's managed to mostly fall out-of-love with the temptress of the strikeout, who had him in thrall for much of his rookie season.  He's figured out that pitching to contact is a fine way to get outs as long as you set up the hitters correctly.  This is also keeping his pitch counts down, contributing to increased endurance on the mound. 

No one would accuse Beachy of having electric stuff, but he doesn't really need it.  He's got a good arsenal and, more importantly, hits his spots with precision on nearly every pitch.  His low-90s fastball tends to have a decent cut to it, he's got a pinpoint curve, and an effective slider.  His changeup is a thing of terrifying beauty.  When he's mixing the right gumbo with those pitches (read: pretty much all the time this season), he's a monster for opposing bats.  Watching him on the mound last night, looking for all the world like he was born to be there despite having played 3rd base for much of his baseball life, he had the air of a man in complete control.  The batters came and went with nary a hitch.  Even in his one semi-jam during the top of the 5th, Beachy just took a breath and calmly extricated himself from the trouble via that devilish changeup.

Now, playing paint-by-numbers for a moment, exactly how good is this kid who's keeping the Braves' rotation afloat?  Well, statistically speaking: out-freaking-standing.

He's sporting a 5-1 record and a league-leading 1.33 ERA.  His WHIP is a stellar 0.89.  He's allowed precisely one home run in 54 innings of work this year, and he's generating a 1.10 GB/FB rate.  We can expect some regression towards the mean here, of course.  Unless the baseball gods are feeling particularly generous, I doubt that .214 BABIP is going to hang around, and his 3.81 xFIP and 3.86 SIERA forecast a little less rosily than his current pace.  Nonetheless, Beachy right now looks like one of the best in the game, and if he keeps plastering the zone with artistry like he has so far this year, that's going to become a truism instead of mere hopeful projection. 

Yes, Huddy is still getting back into the groove.  Yes, JJ is a train wreck.  Yes, Minor needs to settle that fidgety and unnatural delivery down.  Yes, we need better performances from Hanson and Delgado.  But while we wait for the rest of the rotation to recalibrate themselves, let us give thanks for Brandon Beachy.  He may not quite be the second coming of Greg Maddux, but so far this season, and pardon me here for the awful pun, he's definitely in the ballpark.  For now, that's plenty good enough.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In The Offing? Run Differential, The Rangers, and The Cardinals.

I have to confess that I haven't fully immersed myself in the 2012 MLB season quite yet.  This is per the usual, as too much of my life goes into the NBA playoffs to give baseball the care and attention it deserves until someone has been handed the Larry O'brien Trophy.  This isn't to say that I have no idea what's transpired since Opening Day, just that I'm not as acutely aware of the minutiae as I will be once basketball is over.  It's a tall order getting fully acquainted with all the wonderful tics and blips that comprise 162 games, and I'm just not up to it until then.  So, outside of keeping close tabs on the Braves, I don't know much beyond the cliff's notes:

  • Boston is imploding somewhat sooner than last year.
  • Yu Darvish is no joke.  Neither is Bryce Harper.
  • Josh Hamilton and Matt Kemp are hitting the almighty crap out of the ball.
  • Albert Pujols is not.  
  • Related note: the Angels aren't nearly the team we I thought they'd be.
  • Until further notice, Baltimore is apparently pretty good at baseball again. 

That's about all I've got so far, which is a pretty fair but extremely crude thumbnail sketch.  Safe to say, I've been largely ignorant of non-Braves-related data and goings-on.  Until last night, when the Braves pregame radio guys dropped a statistic before our game against the Cardinals that caused the closest thing I've ever felt to a literal boggling of the mind: did you know that St. Louis is +73 in run differential?  Plus.  Seventy.  Three.  That's not a statistical outlier, that's a freaking data point on a different graph altogether.  Granted, the Cards' schedule thus far has not been what anyone would call arduous, (the Marlins, Pirates, Brewers, Cubs, Reds, Astros, and Diamondbacks have comprised every game except for last night's loss to Atlanta), but still.  The next closest under St. Louis are the Dodgers with a + 27.  That's 37% of what the Cards have accomplished, which is just ridiculous.

Of course, there's one team that has actually exceeded that insane mark so far this season: the Texas Rangers at + 75.  Unsurprisingly, both clubs are leading their divisions, and are first (Texas, .667) and fourth (St. Louis, .625) in winning percentage.  (Since 2nd and 3rd are the Dodgers and Orioles, I say we wait until at least the All-Star Break before saying the Cards aren't a de facto second.)  Run differential is far from a perfect statistic, obviously.  Its failure to account for the fact that a blowout can have huge ramifications on this particular stat while only affecting a single game in the W/L column is an issue.  But since last year's World Series participants are so egregiously far off the curve from everyone else, I decided to poke around a little and see if we might be heading for a rematch.

What I found is that in more-or-less every offensive category, the Rangers and Cardinals are #'s 1 and 2 in some order.  This runs the gamut from basic stuff like runs (192 and 181, respectively) and batting average (.294, .287) to more advanced stats like wOBA (.360, .363) and team WAR (10.1, 12.5)  We can probably expect an incremental bit of backslide in some or all of these categories, since both teams also have the highest BABIP's in the league (.324, .330), but basically their offensive production owns MLB.

Next I took a look at pitching, to see if that offensive output would be sufficiently buttressed.  The Rangers are 3rd in WHIP and 4th in ERA.  The Cards are 2nd in both categories.  Texas has an xFIP of 3.60 and St. Louis' is 3.40.  So, you know, they're looking pretty solid on the mound too.

It's rare for a team to make it back to the World Series, much less both of the preceding year's teams.  (For Texas, this year would be a third consecutive appearance.)  The probability is that, over the course of the season, injuries and flukes and the capriciousness of the game will spin a different outcome than a rematch.  But the numbers say it's more likely this year than most.  Whoever scores the most runs wins the game, and when you're outscoring your opponents at the patently absurd clip the Rangers and Cardinals are, it's easy to think history might repeat itself.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Flu Made Who?

I'm a little pressed for time today, so I thought I'd do something brief and purely for fun.  (Note: this will be neither instructive nor edifying in any way.)

Among the many instantly-identifiable Jordan moments over the years, The Flu Game (game 5 against the Jazz in the 1997 Finals) looms sufficiently large within the mythology.  Given Kobe Bryant's obsessive quest to approximate or surpass every single facet of MJ's career (minus the baseball hiatus, thank god), last night felt almost ... I mean, I don't want to say "manufactured", but ... well, it was funny that Kobe got really ill before a critical playoff game.  Not to say he wasn't sick, mind you; Kobe looked like hell last night.  It's just vaguely hilarious that he now has his own "Flu Game."  Anyway, here, for you enjoyment, are their respective lines from the nights when Kobe and Jordan were deathly ill but had to lace 'em up and hit the court all the same. 

Kobe: 37 min, 13/23 FG, 1/4 3FG, 4/4 FT,  4 AST, 2 REB, 1 STL, 0 BLK, 31 PTS.

MJ:    44 min, 13/27 FG, 2/5 3FG, 10/12 FT, 5 AST, 7 REB, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 38 PTS.

Oh, and the Bulls won against the Malone/Stockton Jazz.  The Lakers got outplayed by Corey Brewer, Kenneth Faried, and Ty Lawson. 

Kobe is the second-greatest shooting guard of all time.  Now he has the second-greatest Flu Game of all time to prove it.  Happy Friday.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Backs Against The Wall.

I remember with perfect clarity the first time I stepped into the arena proper within the TD Garden.  That the Celtics were not my team was immaterial at that moment.  As a lifelong NBA basketball fanatic, suddenly the "Celtic Mystique", that threadbare and nondescript phrase, made a lot of sense.  You raise your eyes to those seventeen championship banners and that litany of retired jerseys.  Then you lower them and gaze at that parquet floor, transported to its present location in order to preserve the surface upon which the sneakers of generations of basketball titans trod and squeaked.  You share all of this with the pregame crowd jostling around, reeking of beer and high-wattage excitement; the understanding that the place holds a specialness is transmuted through instant osmosis.  It's the feel of the thing that counts.  Sure, the ghosts are there, even if they had to follow the parquet across town to make it.  But the ghosts aren't the point.

Older Boston natives will undoubtedly scoff at the preceding paragraph.  They sat in the original, non-air-conditioned, sightline-obstructed Boston Garden, and I'm sure they'll regard an outsider's reverence of the new incarnation with disdain.  (As they regard pretty much everything about outsiders.)  Nonetheless, I was there and I know what I saw and felt.  Maybe TD Garden ain't THE Boston Garden, but it is most definitely the metaphysical heir thereof.

All of which is to say: I know exactly what my beloved Hawks are up against tonight.  They have to contend with Kevin Garnett's vicious intensity and Paul Pierce's essential Truth-iness.  They're dealing with Ray Allen's pristine jumper and Rajon Rondo's all-around ingenuity.  They're certainly pitting a heavily over-matched Larry Drew against Doc Rivers.  And, tired as it sounds, they're up against that "Celtic Mystique."

It's not a figment or fabrication, either.  It isn't magic or voodoo or ephemeral haze.  When I said earlier that the ghosts aren't the point, what I meant is this: the "Celtic Mystique" isn't the last whiff of Red Auerbach's cigar, it's the crowd.  They define, in the lexicon of passion and fervor, that long-vaunted aura of invincibility.  Whatever crowd happens to fill the seats in the TD Garden, just like the crowds in the old Garden, carries with it a specific emotional resonance.  They are single-minded and obsessed, and they are legion.  I have been in that building for a playoff game, and I can tell you as a neutral observer that it's a minefield for the opposition.  There's a symbiosis between the crowd and the team, a reciprocal fulfillment of shared hopes that hums and quakes over the course of a game.  The only function of the folks in the stands is to demoralize those wearing the visitors' uniforms and elevate the guys in green and white.  For the duration of the clock, every Celtic is a god, every foe is a devil, and every ref is vilified or sainted depending on how his whistle blows.  That sort of ubiquitous and unrelenting psychosis can wreak havoc on the interlopers.

The Hawks have two things going for them tonight.  First, the core of this team has been in that building, under very similar circumstances, before.  On the losing side of the effort, but still.  Second, and more importantly, they have their anchor back.  Al Horford is the beacon, the nucleus around which the erratic and disparate natures of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson and all the rest can revolve without total dissolution.  His reemergence last game was a reminder of what this team was intended to look like before injuries decimated the frontcourt, and that image is somewhat wonderful.  I've been watching the game as I type this (I beg your pardon for the late finish to this post), and the second quarter is just underway with the Hawks up 28-25.  I can only hope the lead will ultimately hold.  I can only hope the TD Garden Crowd, the heart and guts and true curators of the Celtic Mystique, won't fulfill their traditional roll tonight.

Tonight, with our backs against the wall, I hope the Hawks can close their ears to the deafening roars of history and mythology and sheer Bostonian dickheadedness.  To diffuse the Celtic Mystique, we must shut it out.  We must be deaf, and we must also play a masterpiece of a game.

Come on Hawks, let's go Beethoven on their ass.    

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Talkin' Cole Hamels Bean-Ball Blues.

When you get down to brass tacks (or brass-bound misguided idealism, depending on your view of the matter) what Cole Hamels' plunking of Bryce Harper illustrated is this: Cole Hamels is insane.  Or, at the very least, he's extremely confused about the definitions of terms like "old-school" and "tradition."  In a mostly nonsensical monologue during a post-game interview, here's what Hamels had to say:

"I was trying to hit him.  I'm not going to deny it.  It's something I grew up watching. That's what happened.  So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people get away from it.  I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything because that's the way baseball is.  But I think unfortunately the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.  It's just, 'Welcome to the big leagues.'"
Certainly, beaning guys is a part of the game.  You can argue about its merits or "classiness" or whatever, but it's been woven into baseball's fabric since time immemorial and it ain't going anywhere anytime soon.  So it's not the act I find indecipherable, but the context.  What was the motivation behind Hamels drilling a rookie he's never faced before, and had no prior grudge with?  Let's slog through that paragraph of marvelous incoherence above and try and suss it out, shall we?

"I was trying to hit him.  I'm not going to deny it."    

There is a vast amount of poor judgement that goes into stating this explicitly to a cluster of people armed with cameras, microphones, and notepads but, uh ... bonus points for honesty, I guess?  I presume that at some point you've met Bud Selig, right Cole?  You know how obsessively invested he is in preserving the Saintly, Blessed, Old-Fashioned, Poetic, not-at-all-like-those-violence-mongers-in-the-NFL-or-hip-hoppers-in-the-NBA, All-American image of Major League Baseball?  Well, this here is the sort of thing that's essentially guaranteed to draw his ire.  Everybody knows people get plunked from time to time in retaliation for whatever minor offense or slight.  No one ever comes out and states it baldly like that, though.  So while that 5-game suspension will have no tangible ramifications for you or the Phillies, you're not the sharpest of the five tools.

"It's something I grew up watching.  That's what happened.  So I'm just trying to continue the old baseball because I think some people get away from it."

What I'm truly and honestly confused about is what iteration of baseball Cole Hamels apparently thinks he "grew up watching" that gave him that impression.  You plunk people if the opposing pitcher plunked one of your guys, or if a batter showed you up by being a tad too demonstrative the last time he homered off you.  Neither of which applies in this instance, so far as I'm aware.  Then again, Cole Hamels is a veteran major league ballplayer and a World Series MVP, so the odds are substantial that he's somewhat better versed in the unwritten rules of the game than I am.  Cole, why don't you tell us exactly which of baseball's "old-school" tenets Bryce Harper violated. 

"I remember when I was a rookie, the strike zone was really, really small and you didn't say anything.  That's the way baseball is."

That's an almost total non sequitur unless Hamels was giving a poorly-elucidated example, completely unrelated to Bryce Harper, of "the old baseball" that has been "gotten away from."  If that's the case, his complaint was apparently regarding one of two things:

A. That the strike zone, in general, has expanded since he entered the league.  I don't see why he'd be lamenting that fact.  Expanded strike zones are beneficial to pitchers, after all.

B. That back then, pitchers weren't allowed to carp at umps about the strike zone as much as they do today.  Again, I'm not sure how this is detrimental to Hamels or the game.

"But I think unfortunately the league is protecting certain players and making it not that old-school, prestigious way of baseball.  It's just, 'Welcome to the big leagues.'"

Ahhhh, now we're getting somewhere.  I think.  Hamels appears to have a very tenuous grasp upon either reality or verbal self-expression, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say it's the latter.  The implication seems to be that Bryce Harper is being "protected" by the league.   Harper is a young phenom who through his brief career in The Show has essentially lived up to his hype, and is therefore being accorded the ink and Sports Center highlights that are generally granted such athletes.  He is also more than a little effusive and cocky in his demeanor; a little "uppity" for a rookie, if you will.

Is that the transgression?  Does Cole think Bryce Harper's media love-in is unjustified given his blink-of-an-eye temporal footprint in the game?  In that case, I think he meant the league is "promoting," not "protecting" certain players.  But the vocabulary miscue isn't really the issue.

If he's saying that Harper is getting preferential treatment because the league needs young stars to market and the Nats need a savior, well, maybe he's correct in that assessment.  However, I don't recall Ken Griffey, Jr. or A-Rod getting drilled in the back just for being ballyhooed, hyper-talented rookies.  If he's ticked off because he finds Harper's particular brand of swagger offensive, he needs to look in the mirror and remind himself that Bro-on-Bro violence is never cool. 

And that "Welcome to the big leagues" tag at the end, isn't that much more an NFL/NHL mentality?  Rookies go through hazing in all sports; all professions, really.  But the inflicting of unnecessarily harsh pain and crowing about it afterwards is what defensive backs do to rookie NFL receivers and NHL enforcers do to flashy wing players.  I've seen plenty of hurlers brush a rookie back with a little chin music just to make a point, but I seriously can't recall straight beaning as an accepted facet of baseball unless the pitcher has been specifically provoked, cocky rookie at the plate or no.  

Whatever Hamels' "reasoning," he's certainly stirred the pot now.  These division mates will see each other plenty over the course of the season, and we're likely in for a low-grade arms race of avenging perceived damages now.  Cole Hamels needs to chill.  Whatever his conception of baseball's "tradition" might entail, beaning rookies simply because they're getting more headlines than you probably shouldn't be a part of it.

Especially when those rookies will retaliate by swiping home from under his nose.  

Sunday, May 6, 2012

An Utterly Random NBA Playoffs Top 10 List

I don't know about you, but I feel like the 2012 NBA Playoffs are lacking more than a little elan.  At first I thought I was just acting spoiled, a petulance stemming from the embarrassment of riches lavished upon us by last year's heady Round 1.  Nope.  On reflection it turns out that, Grizzlies/Clippers aside, this year's opening series have been woefully devoid of intrigue or fun or even any particularly good basketball.  The overall malaise that has accompanied this past week has put me in mind of nothing quite so much as physics.

This is not to address the parabolic trajectory described by Ray Allen's jumper or to mean that the playoffs feel cold, clinical, and scientific this year.  (Though both could be discussed, I suppose.)  What I'm talking about is the thing every kid learns in middle school science class, usually illustrated by holding a tennis ball on top of a desk and then dropping it: the difference between potential and kinetic energy.

On a macro level, it's the perfect descriptor of every series besides the aforementioned Clips/Griz matchup.  All that beautiful potential that, for various and sundry reasons, has failed to be converted into anything compelling and dynamic.  The tennis ball is stuck, frustratingly, maddeningly stuck, on top of the desk.

On a micro level, the potential/kinetic energy difference applies to any number of critical story arcs and players.  To belabor the analogy for just a bit longer, take Derrick Rose.  Eight days ago, he was NBA's foremost personification of kinetic energy.  Now, one detonated ACL later, he's unable to harness any of that energy.  He's neutralized, stranded in a potential state.  Now apply that to the litany of other injuries we've seen so far.  You see where I'm going with this, right?  I don't want to have to exhume the dead horse to beat it again.  Point is: The playoffs have mostly been godawful dull so far, so I've taken solace by immersing myself in the little things that make basketball fun to watch even when the games are terribly inconsequential or just plain terrible.  Here, to help me (and you) with the Bland Playoff Blues is a no-particular-order-and-definitely-extemporaneous Top 10 list of brightly flashing instants, minor personages, and other arcana that have made round one marginally more bearable.

1. Jrue Holiday's smile.   I don't know if you've noticed, but whenever anything good happens for Philly or he does something cool, Jrue's grill goes incandescent.  At 21, he's an NBA young'un anyway, but when he lights up with that huge, gleeful grin, he looks about twelve.  Or like a twelve-year-old looks when he gets a new bike for Christmas or possibly a pony, anyway.  When he drained his second trey in a minute during the 4th quarter today, he turned an unleashed that Cheshire-Cat goodness on Elton Brand, and it was the most sincerely happy thing I've maybe ever seen.  Jrue Holiday is awesome.

2. J.R. Smith's "this is how you punk your opponent's entire front line with a monster jam" clinic.  All due respect to Blake Griffin, but this was the dunk of the year.  Posterizing dudes is cool an whatnot, but when there's no one there to actually posterize because you just blew by two defenders and faked a third out of his kicks with the most insane double-clutch ever, that is artistry, my friends.

3. Paul Pierce's insane night/Tebowing at midcourt.  He did this to my beloved Hawks, which sucked, but I can't even be all that mad at The Truth.  This was one of those games where the phrase "you can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" doesn't even apply because ... well, because the Hawks hadn't a prayer of containing Pierce.  He was categorically uncontainable, which is probably why he felt saucy enough to emphasize that point with a good, old-fashioned Tebowing.  Annoying, sure, but when you toss up a 36-14-4 on a night your team absolutely needs you to bring that kind of production in order to win, you may invoke, utilize, and/or revive any dopey meme you wish.  Well played, Paul Pierce.  Well played.

4. The genius on the Indiana Pacers' training staff who decided to affix a "please do not hit" warning label to the fire extinguisher in the hallway leading to their locker room.  That was some absolutely inspired comedy, right there.  What did you learn, Amar'e

5. I've been watching Knicks/Heat as I'm typing this.  'Melo just dropped 41 points, 6 boards, 4 dimes, and a steal on Miami to force a game five.  It was magnificent.

6.  Zach Harper.  You're scratching your head right now trying to figure out if he's some obscure Nugget's bench player or Jazz assistant coach, aren't you?  Well: Zach is a tremendous basketball blogger and, more importantly for the purposes of this entry, he also runs the Daily Dime Live chats for ESPN.   DDL is, for lack of a better word, a sort of extended family.  For those of us with a marrow-deep affinity for NBA basketball, it's a virtually-based communion.  It's hoops nerds generally having a wonderful time watching games, cracking jokes, and sharing the sort of memes that only come to exist when a bunch of enthusiastic loonies get together in the name of fun and snark.  Zach is the grand poobah, moderator, setter of humorous emotional tenor, gently scolding parent, and general facilitator of this awesomeness.  Holla at me DDL, I'll be there later.  Doing laps, of course.  KLOE!!!

7.  Ivan Johnson.  I don't think I should have to explain that.

8.  Clippers/Grizzlies: Game One.  The most overtly ridiculous rally in playoff history involved Reggie Evans briefly morphing into Scottie Pippen, Nick Young plumbing the utmost depths of his Swaggy P-ness, and Chris Paul being the most perfectly amplified version of himself.  That fourth quarter was twelve minutes of undiluted, unrelenting glory (unless you're a Griz fan).  Just a gem of a game.  Thanks for that one, playoffs.

9.  JaVale McGee!!!  Sure, he spent a hefty portion of the season as the NBA's unofficial poster boy for ineptitude, but he's playing remarkably effective and coherent basketball in Denver.  Love it when the endearingly vexing quirky kids make good.

10.  I saw someone wearing one of these the other day.  However you feel about the Thunder, (and I love watching them play hoops.  Fear the beard!) you have to admit this thing is awesome.  I want one.

Happy playoffs.  Here's to a better Round 2.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


In the interest of full disclosure: I hate the Yankees.  In fact, that hatred is so smoldering and omnipresent that I mean it in two different senses of the word "hate."  There's the general, "everyone who doesn't have Gotham roots and thinks the team, their outsized payroll, and their fans are an obnoxious (and just plain noxious for that matter) blight upon the rest of the sporting world" hate.  There's also the hyper-specific, "you beat humiliated the Braves in the 1996 and 1999 World Series and I will despise you for it for the rest of eternity" hate.  The point is, I truly, deeply loathe those pinstripe-clad abominations.  So just know that when I say this, I mean it with all sincerity:

It's a damn shame about Mo.

He said he'll be back next season.  I don't know if it's possible.  I don't know if a 42-year-old, even one as phenomenally durable as this man has been, can make the full recovery necessary to return to form after an ACL injury.  Those insidious buggers have been making the rounds recently.  First Derrick Rose, then Iman Shumpert, and now The Great Mariano.  Ligaments, as it turns out, have an agenda to ruin everyone's fun this week.

If # 42 once again dons those iconic pinstripes somewhere down the line, if he can still push off the rubber in his accustomed manner, then we can probably look forward to a few more quality seasons.  Even if his age matches his jersey number, Rivera is among the best-conditioned athletes in baseball, and I certainly wouldn't lay any timber against his return.  While the hue and cry has gone up from the uninformed about what a star closer was doing shagging fly balls during BP, it's long been a claim of Those Who Done Seen It that Mo could have been one of the best defensive center fielders of his generation if he weren't such a brilliant pitcher.  The chance to snatch baseballs out of the sky during those pregame times was, I am sure, cathartic and exhilarating for a player who might not see the field at all that night depending on the situation.  Unfortunately for Rivera, it proved a costly avocation the other night in Kansas City. 

That one man with one pitch excelled so completely for so long is a marvel.  That cutter, that inscrutable, nigh-un-hittable cutter, has been the single most dominant pitch in baseball since 1996.  We can argue all livelong day about the statistical viability of the "closer" role and how and if specific pitchers ought to be utilized in that capacity, but Mo Rivera and that pitch made about as convincing a case in the affirmative as is possible.  He was so good that when he gave up a run or even a hit, it seemed anomalous.  When your only job is to shut down your opponent's last remaining threats on a nightly basis, and you select "Enter Sandman" as your heraldry music and it works for you like a tailored suit, well, you're a freaking boss.  You simply had to love watching the dude work.  Unless it was against your team; then you were just scared s***less.

So, assorted jerks of Yankeedom, you have my condolences.  You lost a class guy this week.  I hope you get him back.  I hope he's not done.  I'd like to see that cutter in action a few more times.  Not against the Braves, mind you, but still.    

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Junior Seau, CTE, and Football's Obligation To Reinvent Itself.

Can we skip the recriminations for a moment?  If the NFL has willfully ignored evidence, dragged its feat, or engaged in cover-ups out of a misguided need for self-preservation, that will surely come out in one of the many class-action law suits currently filed by former players.  The courts will hear the cases, and damages will be paid.  Hopefully, to the extent that they can make reparations, the NFL will do its utmost without combat or complaint.  What (allegedly) happened as regards the league's reactions to mounting medical evidence linking Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy to football was reprehensible, but soap-boxing about it now surely won't change a damned thing.  The question is: where do we go from here?  Because I don't think any reasonable person can ignore any longer the litany of tragedies mounting at Roger Goodell's door. 

Junior Seau was found dead yesterday.  San Diego police are investigating the case as a suicide.  It doesn't take an enormous cognitive leap to put the increasingly disturbing pieces of this puzzle together.  Dave Duerson.  Ray Easterling.  We don't yet have access to the medical examiner's report, obviously, but I'll bet anything that when they autopsy Seau's brain, they're going to find the abnormally high buildup of tau protein consistent with CTE.*  We have to consider the scales sufficiently tipped at this point, right?  Attention must be paid.  And we can start with this: fines, suspensions, and other penalties handed out by the league for hard hits or bounty systems or what have you are entirely, pathetically insufficient to address the problem. 

*A list of CTE-related symptoms, per Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and, eventually, progressive dementia.  Sounds like a perfect cocktail of things that might cause someone to take their own life, doesn't it?  (If you scroll to the very bottom of the page in that above link, there's a jump to a PDF of the BUCSTE's comprehensive review of athlete-related CTE cases.  Admittedly, I didn't really comprehend most of the medical terminology, but suffice it to say: CTE sounds truly awful; it makes the most outlandish things you've ever seen on an episode of "House" look like a common cold.)

A few years ago, as the correlation between CTE and football was becoming more pronounced, equipment manufacturer Riddell, in conjunction with medical researchers investigating CTE, created HITS (Helmet Impact Telemetry System).  These are essentially normal football helmets equipped with a network of sensors that relay data on the force and concentration of impact.  A study conducted with those sensors found that many players sustained concussion-level impacts of 90 to 100g's, the equivalent of running head-first into a brick wall at 20 miles per hour.  (Though not every impact was at that level, each player AVERAGED 650 impacts per season.)  This study wasn't done on NFL players, by the way.  It wasn't even done on an elite college program.  High schoolers were the ones causing the damage.  If 17-year-old kids are capable of inflicting that magnitude of trauma, imagine what a 325-pounder with a sub-4.8 forty time can do.  You don't need a medical degree to understand the ramifications, just a basic grasp of physics.  Mass x Acceleration = Force.  You have a surfeit of all three in an NFL game.

And the concussions aren't even close to the entire story.  The increasingly apparent reality is that the big, vicious hits the league has been so public about eliminating from the NFL are a part, but by no means all, of the issue here.  Neuropathological findings show that repeated sub-concussive impacts can be every bit as detrimental to the human brain as a concussion-inducing, helmet-to-helmet hit. 

These lower-level impacts can't be regulated through rule changes or alleviated with safer equipment, either.  They are the type of thing sustained routinely on every play by linemen smashing into each other.  Snap after snap, season after season, brains are experiencing these impacts throughout the perfectly normal course of perfectly normal games.  CTE, in other words, is not a rare, anomalous condition brought about by involvement in a handful of overly-brutal plays over a career.  It is, and pardon the unfortunate accuracy of the phrase, the cost of doing business in the NFL.

I am not going to moralize about society's collective need to experience vicarious violence or how or why that feeds the several-billion-dollar industry that is the NFL.  I believe our love of football is more an occupation of negative space than anything else.  After all, something has to be our "National Pastime."  Basketball is "too black" for much of what is still a latently racist America.  Baseball never really recovered from the strike year and PEDs, and is "too slow" for the hyperspeed consumption age we now inhabit.  Hockey was never in the running.  The NFL seized upon the fast-waning appeal of baseball's sepia-toned nostalgia, increased televised football's production value by a rather large factorial, and stepped into the premier slot of America's entertainment affections.  I think the violence inherent in the game is a tertiary element, not the main draw, and I don't want to hear about our baser, barbaric natures or however the armchair sociology crowd is parsing this.  Even if they're right, It's simply not important right now.

I will, however, preach a little in an apologetic (and, I confess, totally hypocritical) fashion about something else.  I love football.  We all do.  And we don't want to see it change.  Shameful though that sentiment may be in light of everything we know about what it does to the players, we still feel that way because we've watched this game for the entirety of our lives.  But that's not important anymore, either.  How many more brains need to be autopsied?  How many more ex-players need to be found with self-inflicted gunshot wounds?  In the wake of Junior Seau's death, as has happened in the past, the NFL might trot out some league-appointed medical experts to say something along the lines of "there is as yet no definitive evidence linking CTE to football and blah blah blah etc."  While they may technically be sorta-kinda-right as regards the definition of empirical scientific proof, if those people are doctors, they will at least violate the spirit of the Hippocratic Oath with such claims.  Only a fool (or a well-compensated mouthpiece) could stand up and deny this stuff with a straight face anymore.

I know the NFL probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  Plenty of people will still watch the games no matter how often we see the awful consequences played out.  I am ashamed to say that I will probably be among them.  (Of course, we haven't even touched on what all this might mean for college football, but that's for another day).  The point is that we need to start a serious, all-encompassing reevaluation of how football is played at all levels.  I'm all for trying to salvage some iteration of the sport, and I believe there are enough smart, creative people out there to make that possible.  In any case the league will make infinite changes before they abandon the game altogether.  There's far too much money at stake.  But let's stop pretending that moving the kickoff lines, fining rough hits, and engineering new safety equipment is going to fix the problem.  We can still have football, but some fundamental aspects of the game need to be altered. 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  Continuing to allow exceptionally large, ridiculously fast, impossibly strong men to run into one another at high velocity and ignoring or "wishing away" the damage done to their brains in the process falls pretty neatly into that category.  We can love football, but we need to be open to any and all necessary rule changes to ameliorate the ravages of CTE.  Otherwise we're a society full of wackjobs.  Otherwise, we are insane.  We may be slow on the uptake and resistant to change, especially where football is concerned, but I have to hope we're better than that.  

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


When Derrick Rose crumpled to the floor on Saturday and took Chicago's title aspirations with him to the locker room (from whence neither would return intact), my first thought was that the road to the Eastern Conference Finals had just been rendered easier for the Hawks.  My second thought was: "those poor bastards."  If you follow sports with any devotion at all, you had no small amount of empathy for what every Bulls fan felt in that instant.  We've all been there.  Injuries can change the entire complexion of a season with vicious finality, and few things will sucker punch a fan base like witnessing the immediate decimation of hope.    It's a sickening, dizzying feeling when you can see everything you thought you knew evaporating in the blink of an eye.  Season: done.  Do not pass go.

Along with all other Hawks fans, I went through this when Al Horford went down with a torn pectoral early in the season.  Without our steadiest on-court presence and defensive anchor, it seemed like the season was pretty much shot.  Improbably, even after losing Zaza Pachulia depleted their entire supply of quality bigs, the Hawks continued playing above-average basketball most nights and eked out home-court advantage for the opening playoff series with Boston.  I figured that was about as far as we were taking this ride, and picked the C's in seven in my round one preview.  Then we took game one.  With Ray Allen's ankles acting their (advanced) age and Rondo getting a DNP: "I stupidly chest-bumped a ref and got myself suspended, thus forcing my team to start Avery Bradley and Mickael Pietrus as the back court in a playoff game," there was suddenly the very real possibility that we could win game 2 and head to TD Garden up 2-0.  Nobody's kidding themselves that we could knock off The Heat in a series, but getting to the Eastern Conference Finals seemed feasible.  Rondo aside, the Hawks are decidedly younger and faster than Boston, and with the compressed season having exhausted the league more than usual, it was possible that we could trump a superior team by just running them out of the gym. 

You have to understand how much that would mean to Hawks fans.  Boston-Atlanta is not a rivalry, per se.  Certainly no Celtics fan would acknowledge it as such.  But the C's are always the team standing in our way come playoff time; they are the authors of our misfortune.  (Or co-writers, I suppose.  We're pretty good at scripting our own basketball disasters in Atlanta.)  A brief history:

In 1986, an electrifying Hawks team featuring the diminutive (and totally awesome) Spud Webb and the massive (and totally awesome) Dominique Wilkins (and point-guarded by Doc Rivers of all people) made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  Atlanta was delirious.  The Falcons were awful, the Braves stunk, the Flames had left for Canada in '80, but here, finally, was a modicum of sports success for one of our teams.  Then we ran into the perfectly-attenuated basketball machine that was the '86 Celtics.  Bird, McHale, Chief, DJ, Walton.  They absolutely took us apart, magnanimously allowing us a solitary victory in one of the most lopsided playoff drubbings of all time en route to the title.  It was a stylized execution, and not even 'Nique's most thunderous jams could mitigate the humiliation and futility of it all. 

In 1988, we met Boston again in the Eastern Semis.  To say we acquitted ourselves better in this one would be an egregious understatement.   We pushed the C's all seven games in a truly spectacular series that became an instant classic.  Game seven is immortalized in the NBA canon simply as "The Bird/'Nique duel."  I still remember sitting on the couch with my dad watching that game in total awe, enraptured by the heights of excellence to which those two guys pushed each other.  Seriously, click the link.  That was a phenomenal game.  Which, you know, we lost.  It is positively soul-crushing to watch your team play that well and still come up short.  Stupid Celtics.  Stupid Bird.  


(Insert long gap where neither Boston or Atlanta were any good at professional basketball.)


2008.  The Hawks snuck into the eighth seed on the strength of a promising young core (Horford, J-Smoove, and Joe Johnson) that became the nucleus of our current iteration.  The newly reconstructed and revitalized Celtics, a 66-win juggernaut of a team, regarded this as a perfunctory exercise at best; a mere formality.  Atlanta showed them differently.  We scrapped and clawed and gave Boston all they wanted for seven games.  Joe Johnson shot the lights out.  Josh Smith did Josh Smith things.  Zaza Pachulia endeared himself to KG and the Garden crowd.  (Not really at all.)  Truthfully, it may have been the greatest totally-inconsequential-in-hindsight series ever played.  And, of course, we lost.  Again

It always goes that way with us and Boston.  Which is why I wouldn't care if we got swept in the second round it we could, just this once, beat the Celtics in a playoff series.  I don't think that's too much to ask from the sports gods, right? ... Right?

Last night wasn't much of a surprise.  Anyone who is even tangentially familiar with the Hawks will tell you that we have a horrible tendency to play mediocre basketball when we think we ought to win a game without too much trouble.  (See: getting smacked down, at home, by a Raptors team starting three guys on 10-day contracts.  God, that game was awful.)  True to form, we came out flat and stayed that way for most of Game 2.  Also, when Paul Pierce is at his utmost Truth-iness like he was last night, there's just not much you can do.  Number 34 smoked us, pure and simple.  The loss I can handle.  Or could have, if not for that sickening, dizzying feeling I was talking about earlier. 

I wasn't expecting to feel that way again this year.  We've already had more than our fair share of injuries this season, thank you very much.  So when the first inklings started filtering into my brain, I did my best to ignore it.  Josh Smith was clearly not 100% last night.  Hell, he hasn't been for much of the season, but he's soldiered through because there were stretches this year when he was our only reliable offensive weapon and we needed him.  As he dragged a bad left knee around through much of the fourth quarter, I started to worry.  Without Smoove, it would be categorically impossible to advance past Boston.  But if we could just get through the game and give him a few days' rest, it might be alright.  And right about then, that damnable feeling crept up behind me and every other Hawks fan with a neat length of lead pipe and started laying to.  With a shade under five minutes left on the clock, Josh Smith collided with Kevin Garnett, and was promptly taken to the locker room for the remainder of the game.  On the replay, you could clearly see that left knee giving out on impact.  Not much, just a tic, but it was moving in a way that normal knees do not. 

The official word from the Hawks today is that J-Smoove has a sprained left knee, but no serious structural damage.  He is questionable for Game 3.  If we lose that game, I'm 99.9999% positive we will lose the series.  Even if he can go, a less-than-healthy Josh Smith is a worrisome proposition. The man's entire game is predicated on explosiveness and preternatural athleticism.  If that knee prevents him from flying around the court in his accustomed manner, he will become a very ordinary basketball player, and possibly something less.  And the Hawks cannot win with that version of Josh Smith on the floor.  We need the high-velocity, high-altitude monster that put up 16 points, 12 boards, and 5 dimes last night before that ill-fated fourth quarter.  Otherwise, we don't have a prayer. 

So I'm pouring one out for you tonight, Chicago.  (Pounds chest in solidarity.)  Smoove may not be quite the same caliber as D-Rose, but our outlook is equally bleak without him.  If we see you in round 2, let's hug it out before we try to knock each other off.  After all, when our teams get snake-bitten like this, we all deserve a little sympathy.