Saturday, January 28, 2017
It seems ludicrous now, but at the time, Nowitzki and the Mavs had a something of a playoff monkey on their backs. "He's too soft." "They can't ever win the games that matter," etc, etc. After years as one of the best players in the game working with a top-echelon head coach in Rick Carlisle and usually a decent supporting cast, popular opinion had preemptively put Dirk in the Barkley/Ewing drawer of the NBA history file cabinet: all-time great player, never crossed that last Rubicon to get a 'Chip.
Then the playoffs started, and everything fell into place. The Mavs easily dispatched an undermanned Blazers team in Round 1. (Though we did get The Brandon Roy Game, one of my favorite moments of all time as a basketball fan.) They obliterated the Lakers in a sweep, and headed to the Western Conference Finals to face the Thunder.
And hey, let's take a second to contemplate the favors Memphis did for the Mavs in those playoffs: First, they pulled off an incredible upset of the Spurs in Round 1 so Dallas wouldn't have to face them later. I will never forget Z-Bo standing on the court after it was over, soaking in the love of an arena and a city that had finally given him an NBA home. Then, Grit'N'Grind spent seven games bludgeoning the Thunder within an inch of their lives, giving Dallas an exhausted, beaten-down opponent to go against for a shot at the finals. I mean, damn did the Griz do Dirk and co. a few solids there.
The Mavs were on a genuine lightning-in-a-bottle run, the kind that comes around for a team rarely if ever. Before the Dallas-OKC series tipped, it felt like something was creeping into their collective ethos; an all-consuming realization and resolve: "We'd better finish this. We'd better get this shit done now." Because when were they getting a shot like this ever again? Would the the match-ups break this fortuitously next time? Would this core of players even be around next year? (Spoiler alert: no, and NEVER EVER ask a Mavs fan how they feel about the way their front office handled things after that season if you value your eardrums.) Maybe most importantly, would they ever again have the benefit of J.J. Barea playing outside his damn mind for an entire postseason? (Again: no.)
Anyway, Dallas took care of the Thunder in five games and headed to the NBA Finals to face the first edition of The Heatles. It was almost too perfect. Miami had beaten the Mavs in their only other Finals appearance, which you may better remember as The Great Officiating Debacle Of 2006. The talent disparity was comical. Dirk is a transcendent player and he had some outstanding running mates, but the Heat should have overwhelmed them with sheer versatility and speed. Instead, Dallas finished their magical run with a 4-2 series victory, culminating in an exodus of Heat fans leaving the arena before Game Six was done, a delirious and joyful Dirk hoisting the trophy, and a very drunk Mark Cuban appearing on TV shortly thereafter to declare of Mavs supporters flooding the Triple A: "Our fans punked the shit outta their fans!"
This Falcons season kind of has that feel to it. Here they are headed to their second championship shot ever, just like the 2011 Mavs. Like that team, they lost their first one. (Though, there was no shady officiating in that game, just the fact that we had Chris Chandler at quarterback and Denver had John F****** Elway.) Like Dallas and Dirk, Atlanta and Matt Ryan also have that "can't win when it counts" label hanging around their necks. They've had a similar spate of luck, too. After going 15-1 the preceding season, Carolina was a trash fire this year, opening the door to the NFC South. The Birds caught a Seattle team with no Earl Thomas and whose offensive line was basically pasteboard and duct tape in the divisional round of the playoffs. They drew a banged-up Packers team in the NFC Championship Game and torched them like the Mavs torched OKC. And now they have to go toe-to-toe with the Pats.
Atlanta's offense has been unstoppable this season; a history-making death machine destroying everything in their path. By the numbers, they're nearly identical to the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams. But do you remember who the Brady/Belichick Patriots beat to win their first Super Bowl? Yeah, that Rams team. Bill Belichick is an asshole, but he's also the greatest tactician in NFL history, and if anyone can find a way to undermine the Falcons' offensive dynamism, it's him. On the other side of the ball, Atlanta's defense has come a long way this year, but asking them to stop Tom Brady (even without Gronk) is a damned tall order. But we have to. The offense has to hum and growl like a muscle car with an open throttle, as it has all year. The defense has to be the fast, chaotic entity it has become. No one can slip up, no one can falter. Because the Patriots have proven over and over that they will absolutely murder you for even your tiniest mistake. Because look:
Will we be this healthy again next playoffs? Will we be this lucky? Will whoever comes in as OC after Kyle Shanahan takes the 49s gig sequence plays and utilize personnel as brilliantly? "Probably not" to the first two questions and "not a chance in hell" to the third.
So this is the shot. This is moment. Dallas showed us all how this works in 2011. Jesus, I hope Dan Quinn's an NBA fan.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
By mutual agreement, only one thing escaped the great purge: Our respective collections of commemorative stadium drink cups. For Ags, this means truckloads from every athletic venue on UNC's campus and a bunch of Orioles swag. For me, it's mostly Braves cups from the 1991 worst-to-first team all the way up through 1998, and a handful from some other baseball stadiums I've visited. There's also one from the old Omni that a: has the home schedules for both the Hawks and my (beloved and dearly departed) IHL Atlanta Knights and b: you can't even drink out of anymore because there is a huge crack in the bottom but I'm keeping it anyway. And there's the one pictured above, from the Georgia Dome's first season in 1992.
Over the last 24 years, The Dome has been a fixture in Atlanta, that distinctive geodesic roof as essential to the skyline as the Peachtree Plaza. And mostly, it has been a home for misery and mediocrity. In honor of tonight's final game in the building, SportsCenter ran a special Top 10 dedicated to moments in the Georgia Dome. It was ... not pretty, if you're a fan of sports in the Peach State. There were highlights from the Final Fours the Dome has hosted. There was Kerri Strug sticking the one-foot vault landing in the 1996 Olympics. There was a Wrestlemania clip. And then, there were highlights of bad things happening to our teams. There was Neon Deion, beloved former Falcon and Brave, returning in a 49ers jersey and taking one to the house against us. There was the 2012 NFC Championship Game collapse the Falcons suffered (also against San Francisco, who may very well pull off a hat trick of pain if they steal Falcons offensive guru Kyle Shanahan away after the season is over. Damn you, Niners.) There were the Bulldogs, coming up five yards short against 'Bama in the SEC Championship game. (Which, yes, it's a divided state and I know Tech fans delighted in this, but I'm just talking about teams within the geographic confines of our borders.) Watching all of this in rapid succession was awful. Not only were they replaying some of our lowest moments as fans, there wasn't one damn happy memory to balance it out.
Then tonight happened. I spent the game drinking out of that cup in the picture up top. I drank the last of the bourbon out of it. I drank a few beers out of it. I'm drinking very cheap red wine out of it as I write this. It seemed appropriate to celebrate the Dome's last game with a relic from its first. And the Falcons. My lord. I think it's fair to say no one saw that coming. The offense has been historically brilliant all year, just staggering in their excellence and consistency. The defense has evolved, even after losing Desmond Trufant, into something of a respectable unit. And what they just did to a smokin' hot Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers was phenomenal beyond words. The most terrifying QB in the NFL, a superhuman demigod running an offense that had obliterated everything in their path and had Jordy Nelson back, and Atlanta shut that mess down. Just absolutely destroyed the Packers on both sides of the ball. A complete, utter, gleeful ass kicking. Abd it still never felt safe until the clock finally hit zeros.
I won't speak for all Falcons fans, but even after pitching a shutout on defense and blowing the doors off on the other side of the ball, I went into halftime remembering 2012. And everything else this franchise has been through. I have dear friends and some family members who are Packers fans, and I have friends who root for different teams altogether, and all of them were texting me or messaging me about midway through the third quarter that it was over. I didn't buy it. Intrinsic fear and doubt, honed over decades of futility, are tough to shake. But in the end, we DESTROYED the Packers, just completely torched them, whistle to whistle.
The Dome has housed nearly everything over its existence. Concerts, soccer, the Olympics, even the Hawks while they transitioned from the Omni to Philips Arena. But mostly, that distinctive, memorable roof has rested over the Falcons, in all their myriad failures and brief successes. (For all of our historical inepititude, never forget that this building birthed the Dirty Bird '98 season and some legitimately insane Vick performances and the Matty Ice era.)
Tonight was the last of it, at least where sports are concerned. There are a handful of concerts scheduled to take place before the lights go out and the concourses are silent and The Dome ceases to be a place people go to experience memorable events. But damn if we didn't send it out in style. The demolition is scheduled for sometime later this year, but that doesn't matter right now. The Falcons already gave the Georgia Dome its perfect ending: they burned that motherfucker down.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Sorting Hat: "So, you've recently won another playoff game against an extremely talented Cowboys team, on the road and without your favorite safety-valve receiver. Such a daring, thrilling victory bespeaks courage, bravery, and the willingness to battle to achieve your goals. Probably a Gryff--"
Rodgers: "Look, I'm more than just crunch-time guts, OK, guy?"
Sorting Hat: "My mistake, let's see ... what else? AH, played for one team your entire career thus far, constantly making your teammates better, loyal, the engine and soul of your team ... A Hufflepu--"
Rodgers: "You know, I think that doesn't really capture my full, complex nature, either."
Sorting Hat: "You're right, of course. Hmmmm ... a ruthless competitor, cunning, ambitious. How could I have missed it?!?!? You're a Slyth---"
Rodgers: "Oh come on, don't lump me in with those assholes."
Sorting Hat: "OK, OK, fine. What else about you ... WAIT HOLY CRAP YOU JUST DREW THAT JORDAN COOK PLAY THAT SET UP THE WINNING FIELD GOAL UP IN THE DIRT? LIKE, LITERALLY IN THE HUDDLE?!?!?! Such brilliant planning! Such intelligence and creativity! Why didn't I see it before????"
Rodgers: "Look, can we wrap this up? I have to go break down some film for next week."
Sorting Hat: "Ahem, yes. As I was saying, Ravencl--"
Sorting Hat: "Nope? You can't nope out of that, pal. It's the last house left."
Rodgers: "Yeah, but I am everything you've said all at once. I'm courageous and ruthless and loyal and brilliant. I'm all of that. I'm not trying to brag, it's just true."
Sorting Hat: "I see your point. Well, if I can't put you in a house, I'm not really sure what to do here."
Rodgers (taking off his robes, and walking towards the doors): "It's OK. I already used all my quills and parchment for the whole semester diagramming every possible way to dismantle the Falcons, so I couldn't take any notes in class anyway. I should probably just go. Can someone do me a solid and apparate me back to Green Bay? No? Can I borrow the cabinet thingy in the Room of Requirement and at least get back to that creepy shop in Diagon Alley? I can book a flight home from London."
Dumbledore: "So, what exactly just happened there?"
Sorting Hat: "He was too good at everything to put him in a single house. Sorry, I just had no idea what to do with they guy. Which, by the by, maybe we stop making houses so defined by specific traits that would obviously make people of certain dispositions want to choose one over the others? There's gotta be a better way to do this, right?"
Dumbledore: "You may be right, I shall consider it. Still, I hate losing such a promising talent as that boy."
Sorting Hat: "Don't worry about it. Did you see that Hail Mary to end the first half of the Detroit game? That guy is definitely a fucking wizard."
Sunday, January 1, 2017
I mention all of this to give you some context; yesterday contained a fairly respectable crop of "WAIT, THAT HAPPENED?!?!" sports moments. It's important to me that you know what I'm stacking everything up against before I say this: the absolute most stupefying, jaw-dropping-ly absurd occurrence yesterday was what Clemson did to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. This game should have been a compelling, deeply enjoyable matchup between two very different teams, almost diametrically opposed, even. Clemson was one of the most experienced teams across the board this season, and hyper-dynamic on both sides of the ball. By contrast, OSU (J.T. Barrett aside) were one of the nation's youngest squads and made the playoff by doing typical B1G things: crushing you slowly and with great precision on defense and mostly chewing you up 3 yards at a time on offense. The 2016 Buckeyes averaged 39.5 points a game and only gave up 12.75. Sure, some of that was padded-out totals against inferior competition, but OSU also triumphed over a really good Wisconsin squad and beat the brakes off of both Oklahoma and Nebraska. Their only loss was an exceedingly fluky game against eventual B1G champs Penn State who are headed to what should be a really fun Rose Bowl against USC. Oh yeah, and they won The Game thanks to The Spot. (Michigan fans are STILL Zapruder-ing that thing, btw.)
Point is, even in what was supposed to be a too-young-too-soon-kinda-rebuilding year, Urban Meyer's team was really damn good. Sooooooo, about yesterday: Clemson 31, OSU 0. Zero. Donut hole. Nada. They ain't score one damn point, y'all. This was the most vicious hammering Urban Meyer has ever taken as a head coach, the first shutout of his career, and one of the worst beatings of Ohio State's entire 126-year existence as a football program.
And Clemson did that while playing ... eh, they played pretty well offensively, but they weren't perfect. Deshaun Watson threw 2 picks and only averaged 7.2 YPA. No individual Tigers runner or receiver cracked 100 yards on the day, and outside of some nice Andy Teasdall punts, the special teams didn't get much of anything cooking, either. Which tells you exactly how brutal and fast and mean and suffocating Clemson's defense was yesterday, because the team-stat disparities are hilarious:
Clemson: 24 1st downs, 470 total yards, 35:51 time of possession.
OSU: 9 1st downs, 215 total yards, 24:09 time of possession.
That's a wholesale demolition against the second-best college coach of his generation. Problem for Clemson is, now they have to face the best.
It looked like Washington might make things interesting for about half a quarter in the Georgia Dome yesterday, but then Bama and The Process shut that mess down with their usual mundane finality. Watching the Saban-era Tide, and particularly this year's iteration, is watching a riding mower cut through weeds. It's doing the thing it was built for, and it will leave a perfectly manicured yard in its wake, but it's not a particularly compelling viewing experience. The problem with a Tide that just keeps Rolling, facelessly sweeping through valley after valley, is that nothing seems to really slow it down or cause it to change course.
Last year, Clemson came as close as any team to doing something about it.
The 2016 National Championship game was one of the most incredible things I've watched in a lifetime of college football. The Tigers gave Bama all it wanted and then some. Watson was electric, the defense was ferocious, and perhaps most incredibly, Clemson forced the implacable, unwavering Saban machine to play the game THEIR way. Alabama had to run a decent chunk of their offense doing the spread-tempo stuff Nick Saban abhors just to keep up. Hell, they even pulled out an onside kick, which is the sort of trickery usually reserved for lesser, mortal teams who are not coached by diminutive sociopaths and whose two-deep is not stocked like a damn bomb shelter of four- and five-star talent. The fourth quarter was basically one extended montage of jaw-dropping excellence from both teams. It ended 45-40 Bama, but it was obvious they were happy to get off the field and away from the jet-engine turbine Dabo Swinney hath wrought in Death Valley.
Next Monday, we get Round 2. Clemson is a year older and more experienced and probably about as angry and excited for this rematch as it is possible for a team to be. They won't have a chip on their shoulder so much as a Costco-sized crate of Doritos. Bama is, well, Bama.
The Tigers brought a B-to-B+ game into University of Phoenix Stadium and absolutely wiped the floor with the Buckeyes. They'll need an A-game performance in Tampa, but if they show up with it, we're going to get a game every bit as amazing as last year's. Take us out, Bart Scott: