Archive for May, 2015

How to enjoy the Conference Finals

May 23, 2015

This is what it’s all about.

Due to the frantic nature of the NBA playoffs, it’s easy to look away for a while and realize that you’ve sleepwalked your way to the Finals. The frequency with which the games are played makes it difficult to really appreciate and enjoy each individual performance, and I find myself viewing each series in a bit of a muddled haze. The one way I’ve found to enjoy single games more is to find things that jump out to me as special, interesting or enjoyable.

Lebron James:

I’m a far cry from being a LeBron James fan and have even been called a hater at times, but we are watching one of the most incredible playoff runs in the history of the league. The last few years in Miami, there were grumblings that Lebron got tired of carrying underwhelming teammates, so moving to Cleveland was based more on upgrading his teammates and less on going home. When the Cavs mortgaged the future for Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov, the grumblings got louder. James took got off to an underwhelming start before taking two weeks off in the middle of the season to rest. Once James came back, he starting putting up numbers like vintage Lebron, but it still seemed as though he would need Irving and Love to really carry through the playoffs. After injuries to Love and Irving, James is back to where he was his first time in Cleveland: surrounded by bums, ring chasers and role players who depend on his greatness to succeed. While Cleveland will get occasional flashes of brilliance from Smith and Dellavedova, at the end of the day, it’s been James who’s pushed them this far, hitting game sealing shots, guarding the other teams best player and putting up ridiculous numbers. (27 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists and a combined 3.5 steals/blocks per game)
I won’t engage in conversations comparing him to Jordan because I think they’re idiotic and I’m not unbiased enough to go through them, but if Cleveland makes the Finals, it will be the fifth straight season his teams have been there. That puts him right up there with some of the greatest of all time, and any conversation about the best players in league history has to include him. The true sign of a players greatness is how he elevates the play of himself and his teammates when it matters most, and James has gone above and beyond in that regard this year.

The Atlanta Hawks :  

These never happened- are we all cool with that?

The 1980’s Hawks made their name as an exciting team that didn’t play much defense, focused on highlights and individual achievement and rocked a Pac-Man-esque logo design that made the rare Vinn diagram of arcade goers and basketball fans drool with excitement. In the mid-1990’s, they did what a lot of teams and people did in the mid 90’s and made a questionable fashion decision, foregoing the traditional design for something that was meant to be cutting edge and cool, but really just looked stupid and overly complicated.
This season saw the return of my favorite court design, but luckily for basketball junkies and Hawks fans, not the selfish, no defense style that used to accompany the old logo. Nicknamed “Spurs East”, Atlanta zips the ball around from player to player, with no one player bogging down the offense or gunning for his own numbers. Granted, it is the NBA, and guys do want to put up stats for contract leverage, but it’s refreshing to watch this team when they’re really humming. It’s like the raptors hunting in the first Jurassic Park- always testing for weakness and ripping apart their prey with terrifying efficiency.
In basketball, the team with the best player normally wins a series, and with Korver out, Horford and Carroll limited with major injuries and LeBron in “Eff you” mode, the Hawks are definitely on the endangered species list. When they lose to the Cavs, the anti-analytic community will no doubt jump all over them, but losing to a better team shouldn’t take away from what they accomplished this year. They turned around a franchise with unselfish and highly entertaining basketball based on team-first concepts and I love them for that. They won’t be around for much longer, so you should make sure to enjoy them now.

Steph Curry (and his adorable daughter)

I’ll be honest, it’s taken me a long time to really embrace the Steph Curry experience. He annoyed me when he was at Davidson leading the Wildcats on NCAA Tournament runs (mostly because of bandwagon fans) and that carried over to his tenure with the Golden State Warriors. He didn’t seem to really care about playing defense or really even about the result; I knew I was wrong, but he just looked like a guy who wanted to be on SportsCenter. I’ve turned a complete 180 on both Curry and the ‘Dubs. They still dominate SportsCenter, I still get annoyed by all the attention his ball handling gets him,and I’m jealous of how much my fiance loves him, but his ability to take over a game out of nowhere and his level of performance under ridiculous defensive pressure has won me over. Now that I’ve bought in, I realize that I’ve missed out on some really fun viewing experiences and I feel kind of stupid for being a narrow-minded curmudgeon.

While the traditional stats (24 points and 8 assists per game) look good enough, a deeper look at Curry’s ’14-’15 season shows just how good he really is. The step-back threes and dribbling displays are incredible, but what made him the MVP is how Curry makes everyone around him significantly more of a threat. Defenses pay so much attention to him that it creates open looks from deep and at the rim when scrambling defenses are forced to shift and rotate after Curry bends them with his gravitational pull. Every Warriors rotation player shoots markedly better with Curry on the floor. Golden State’s offense falls from a 113.8 offensive rating (the best mark in the league) to 100.8 without him (the equivalent of the Denver Nuggets’ 23rd-ranked figure). While his defense isn’t where it could or should be, it’s  a far cry from where it was when he came into the league. With Curry off the floor, the ‘Dubs give up four points more per 100 possessions than with him on it. All that adds up to  -16.3 differential with him on the bench…. that’s insane. 

Luckily for me, it’s not too late to get my fair share of the Curry experience. The Warriors are ridiculously good, and despite my pick against them in the previous round, there’s no reason to think they’re close to done. Thanks to a ridiculous postseason, Curry is already on the verge of breaking Reggie Miller’s record for three-pointers in a single postseason, even though we’re not even to the Finals yet.A mere six years into his career, Curry has forced his way into the discussion regarding the best shooters of all time, and if you’re going to have a conversation about greatness, a player who can catch fire NBA Jam-style at any time belongs up there with anyone. 

The MVP Matchup:

Almost every NBA season and decade can be associated with individual player. With a few exceptions, you can look back and see who “owned” the era.The 1950’s were owned by George Mikan, Bill Pettit and Bob Cousy.  Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain took turns taking everyone’s lunch money in the 1960’s, Kareem Abdul Jabaar was the reluctant and surly face of the 1970’s and Bird and Magic took turns before the Detroit Pistons became the ridiculously ugly face of the NBA in the 1980’s.Even in the years he was retired, Michael Jordan was the undisputed face of the 1990’s and while there wasn’t a single dominant player of the 2000’s, Kobe, Shaq and Duncan did a pretty decent job of carrying the league. Lebron has been the face of the league, since his first Finals run, but a case of LeBron fatigue has dulled his shine a little bit, and the last couple years have seen the rise of the next generation. Last year, Kevin Durant tore up the league and made everyone cry with his MVP performance, and while we got screwed out of a repeat performance due to KD’s injury, we had two new and very different faces step up in his place. I already covered the MVP, Steph Curry, but the runner up for the trophy, the heavily bearded James Harden, was just as intriguing on a nightly basis.
While Curry is all smoothness and flash, Harden’s game is less visually stimulating, based on an idea of constant attacking and a dedication to an idea. The Houston Rockets are very famously an analytics based team that shoots nothing but three pointers and layups. The idea behind this is that three pointers are worth more (obviously) and layups lead to either easy shots of free throws. Old fashioned basketball meatheads may hate this idea, but James Harden definitely doesn’t. He was third in the league in three-point shots attempted and took a whopping 824 free throws- 150 more than the second place finisher and has gone from a sixth man in OKC, albeit an over qualified one, to the best shooting guard in the league.
They may make millions of dollars, but pro athletes, and NBA players specifically, are ridiculously proud guys who seem to always have a chip on their shoulder. Even if they hadn’t finished 1-2 in the MVP voting, I’d be excited for this match-up, but despite everything players may say, the awards matter to them, and the extra motivation for these two (Curry looking to prove he deserves it, Harden to prove he should have won it) is the perfect icing on the cake. After two games of the series, these guys have not disappointed. Curry continues to defy logic with his offensive brilliance (67 points and 11 three-pointers so far), and  Harden has been phenomenal (33 points, 11 boards, 9 assists and 3.5 steals per game) even with Dwight Howard at half strength and no real second offensive option. Both games have come down to the fourth quarter, and while I fully expect the Warriors to win the title, Houston can easily imagine themselves coming back in this series. If the sports gods are listening, can we please get a seven game series with these two? Thanks.

I’ll admit it, I’m still working my way through my Chicago Bulls related grief, but I’m getting closer to acceptance. There are still rough times, I’ll see the red in the Hawks court and get reminded of the United Center floor, but luckily, we get to watch the best batch of young talent in NBA history. It looks like we’re careening toward a Cavs/Warriors final, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal by any means. There are always surprises and more importantly, there are always things to see along the way. So sometime in the next week, put away the emo music, finish off the pint of Ben and Jerry’s, open up the shades and go back into the world. Just remember, the playoffs will be gone soon, and as they say, “you don’t know what you got til it’s gone.”

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The Agony of Defeat

May 21, 2015

The agony of defeat….

As fans, we all live for the thrill of victory: the shared buzz of happiness with our fellow fans, the over the top social media posts letting everyone know that our team is clearly the best and everyone else’s team is the worst thing ever and  even the excitement that comes from knowing the highlights will be replayed over and over the next day.  Unfortunately, only one team each year gets to experience the aforementioned thrill. For every other fan base, the season ultimately ends in the agony of defeat. Whether it’s when your team craps out in the playoffs or it’s on day one when you realize your team sucks, nearly everyone goes home on the losing end.
When the season starts and you know that your team is a complete dumpster fire, you can still find reasons to watch and things to cheer for. You can pick out young players, reclamation projects and individual games that interest you, or you can ‘hate watch’ and cheer for losses to get a higher draft pick. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about rooting for a bad team, whatever it takes for you to get through it as painlessly as possible is the right choice.
A much more difficult task is dealing with playoff defeat. The NBA Playoffs have a tendency to resemble a death march. The weak teams are picked off early and then it’s just a matter of seeing which teams can make the run to the finish line without succumbing to the pressure.  Like I said previously, only one team will come out as champion, with a couple more being legitimate contenders, but if your team made the playoffs, they’re technically in the running for the title so it’s tough to come to terms with their demise. It could be due to injury, bad luck, injuries or just not being good enough, but eventually, we all go through the 5 stages of sports grief. (more…)

Deep breath- Round 2 is here.

May 8, 2015

The first round of the NBA playoffs is all about endurance. Not just for the players, coaches and training staff who endured as many as 7 games in 2 weeks, but also for NBA fans themselves. The process of separating the basketball wheat from the chaff is painful at times and grinding at best. I’ve been a Bulls fan my whole life, and it took everything I had to watch games against the Milwaukee Bucks. By the time they finished off the young Bucks in game 6 with a 54(!!!!) point win, I had seen enough terrible passes, missed lay-ups and bricked jumpers to last a lifetime. You don’t watch sloppy basketball, you survive it.

The less than stellar quality of some of the first round matchups really brought to light how beautiful and sad the Spurs/Clippers matchup was. The biggest mistake I made in my NBA preview was discounting the Clippers’ chances. Thanks to the agreement the team has with Fox Sports San Diego, I’ve watched more Clippers games than any other team all season. I thought I had a read on them; they seemed like the type of team I wouldn’t trust in the playoffs- marvelously talented but as soft as the fancy toilet paper that doesn’t leave scraps on the bear’s butt in the commercial. After the most intense series I have ever watched, one which featured Blake Griffin eating Aaron Baynes’ soul, Tim Duncan turning back the clock to 1997 and a pro wrestling style display of mutual admiration, the Clips have earned my belated respect. After Chris Paul capped off a Willis Reed style gut check with a ridiculous one-legged floater that somehow dropped in, all I could think about was how wrong I was in misjudging them.

For the first time since the playoffs started, Thursday night had no games, which finally gave me a chance to take a deep breath and think about the other things I liked seeing in the 1st round and all the things I was looking forward to in the 2nd.
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Lovable Winners: How the Chicago Cubs went from a punchline to contenders.

May 6, 2015

It’s finally almost next year for Cubs fans.

 

I’m friends with a lot of Cubs fans. Not just one or two scattered throughout my life, but a significant chunk of my social circle. While they come from different backgrounds, they all always had one thing in common: they seemed to enjoy the pain and suffering brought on by their favorite team. This isn’t a secret or some type of revelation, the team is even known as the “Lovable Losers”. However, something strange is happening to the North Siders this year; their team is winning, often in dramatic fashion, and they’re actually enjoying it. (more…)

The good ole’ hockey game…

May 1, 2015

This could be a win or a loss- either way, overtime is brutal.

Unlike the rest of the Chicago sports franchises, I didn’t grow up being exposed to the Chicago Blackhawks. This was mostly due to the fact that I came of age as a sports fan right around the time they went through a 10 year stretch which featured a lot of bad hockey and 1 playoff butt kicking from the rival St. Louis Blues. It wasn’t until later when they drafted Patrick Kane and Johnathan Toews and they went from pitiful to young and feisty that I jumped in with both feet. (Or jumped on the band-wagon with both feet, however you want to say it.)  Everything about the sport appealed to me. It was fast, violent, loud and teamwork oriented. Similar to basketball, or to some extent, soccer, the best hockey teams operate as a cohesive unit. When you watch the best players in the game, they might dominate with possession of the puck, but what makes them truly great is how well they move without the puck and play off their teammates.  It’s very rare that a team succeeds while being carried by just one player who dominates possession. Granted, most of the best teams do have 1 or 2 superstars, but without the requisite role players, playoff absences and 1st round exits are all you have to look forward to.

Outside of the style of play, there’s still plenty to like. The players are known as some of the nicest in sports, some of the biggest personalities in sports are associated with hockey and hockey players are the best athletes in the world. Seriously, it’s a game that involves chasing a hard rubber disc at 20 miles per hour while zigzagging around other men who are trying to take your head off while trying to put said rubber disc into a net guarded by a man in gigantic pads. Meanwhile, this is all done on ice, skating backward, forward and sideways. Heck, even the refs are athletic.
But hands down, my favorite part of hockey is the same as most people: I love the NHL playoffs. Every possession seems more valuable than the one before it, and the intensity of the action is unlike anything else in sports. Fans pack stadiums, players grow beards and if games are tied, sudden death overtimes are played until someone scores. There is no shootout, no change in the rules and no TV timeouts. Just back and forth action until someone mercifully scores. Watching a playoff series isn’t about enjoyment, it’s about survival. (more…)