Thursday, May 27, 2010

I'm As Surprised As You Are

According to Football Outsiders' game charters, here are the NFL linebackers with the best tackle rates in 2010($):

Player Team BTkl Tkl BT Rate

Brandon Siler San Diego Chargers 1 52 1.9%

Keith Brooking Dallas Cowboys 2 75 2.6%

Stephen Nicholas Atlanta Falcons 2 65 3.0%

James Harrison Pittsburgh Steelers 2 60 3.2%

Mike Peterson Atlanta Falcons 3 82 3.2%

Karlos Dansby Arizona Cardinals 3 89 3.3%

Paul Posluszny Buffalo Bills 3 88 3.3%

Patrick Willis San Francisco 49ers 4 114 3.4%

Justin Durant Jacksonville Jaguars 3 81 3.5%

Nick Barnett Green Bay Packers 3 82 3.7%

Keith Brooking? There must be some sort of mistake. Or maybe the stat doesn't take into account making a tackle eight yards past the line of scrimmage? Can't FO come up with a stat for "foolish decision in zone coverage that allowed a tight end to get open on third and forever?" Questions galore.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

One Thought on Improving the World Cup

In doing my World Cup draft, a couple problems with the format of the tournament have come up. One is that it is an advantage for a second-tier team in a group to play the group favorite on the last match-day. For instance, Slovenia has an advantage in Group C because they play England last. Let's say that England has won the group after two wins in their first two games and then sends out a second-choice side for the last match. Slovenia can then get a point to secure its place in the second round by facing a significantly weaker England side than the one that the U.S. saw in the opener.

A second problem is that the bottom half of the draw is much stronger than the top half. If anything goes wrong for Brazil in their group, they could end up finishing second and playing co-favorite Spain in the Round of 16. Brazil could have to face a Spain-Italy-Argentina gauntlet to make the final, whereas the teams in the top half of the bracket have an easier road.

So here's a simple suggestion: seed the teams from 1-16 after the group stage based on points and goal difference. That will increase the likelihood that the favorites will miss one another until the quarters and semis, which is when the big games should take place. More importantly, it means that the top teams will play hard for all three group games. Finally, it increases the likelihood of a 10-1 massacre and who doesn't like that? Are you telling me that you wouldn't be interested in seeing how many goals Spain can put past Honduras? No? Then you're probably also one of those clowns who doesn't like margin-of-victory in computer polls because "what about the children!?!" F*** you, imaginary adversary!

Five World Cup Thoughts

We're two-and-a-half weeks away! Hide the women and children. (Speaking of which, my wife happily pointed out that all of the games will be during the day, so I'll be watching them at night after she goes to bed. When I pointed out that there are games on the weekends, she was less than pleased. Then again, I watched all of Dancing with the Stars this season, so I'm loaded with ammo.)

1. Argentina is the most interesting team in the tournament and might be the most interesting World Cup team of all time. The race of the Ballon D'Or right now is between Leo Messi and Diego Milito, both of whom play for Argentina. However, Milito might not make it into the side because if Argentina's depth at the position. There is no team in the world that is as deep at a position as Argentina is at the striker spot between Messi on the right and Di Maria on the left: Milito, Higuain, and Tevez, all of whom had great seasons against top competition. And best of all, Argentina have a madman making the decision. A guy who ran over a photographer and then showed his remorse by saying "What an asshole you are! How can you put your leg there where it can get run over, man?" Frankly, I can't wait to see what happens. This will be like Kate Gosselin being made Chairman of the Federal Reserve, only without the worldwide economic meltdown as a result.

2. I participated in a World Cup draft with some friends and I was struck by the fact that there is a broad consensus as to the hierarchy of the teams. Every time I was thinking that two or three teams were the next logical picks, those two or three teams would be the next ones off the board. When I got excited that we were three picks away and Portugal, Serbia, and Paraguay on the board, all three got taken in rapid succession. Other than the USA going ridiculously early (9th pick!), the draft went exactly as one would expect.

3. I'm disappointed that Brazil isn't on the same side of the bracket as Serbia. Brazil are the odds-on favorites, but they struggle mightily against defensive teams that go not expose themselves to the counterattack. Brazil are not good at breaking down an opponent that is waiting for them and that is doubly true with Kaka out of sorts. Serbia sets up as the perfect team to upset them, but they could not meet until the final. Serbia could end up playing England in the Round of 16, which would be a tricky tie for the English.

4. It's hard to look toward the second round after the performance of the Nats' backline last night, but the uncertainty surrounding the German camp is good news for the U.S. because the Germans are a likely second round opponent. Michael Ballack scored the winner against the US eight years ago, but he is out of the tournament. Germany's strikers had poor seasons for their club teams this year and there is controversy hanging over their camp because the in-form non-auslander striker in the Bundesliga - Kevin Kuranyi - has been left at home. Finally, the Germans have no idea who is going to be between the sticks after years and years of top-notch keepers from Maier to Schumacher to Illgner to Kahn to Lehmann. (And yes, I did that off the top of my head. German keepers are like Italian central defenders, Brazilian playmakers, and English penalty goats: you never forget them.) Germany do have a good crop of young players coming up and two in-form players who should be the backbone of a good team - Bastian Schweinsteiger and Phillip Lahm - but they are not vintage and it's within the realm of possibility that the Nats could beat them if we sort out our oil spill of a back four.

5. A lot of the time, success and failure at the World Cup is decided by having the guts to make a bold decision. For instance, imagine that Spain are 0-0 with Portugal in a Round of 16 game with ten minutes remaining in extra time. Vicente del Bosque's captain is his goalkeeper, Iker Casillas. However, Casillas's back-up is Pepe Reina, a noted expert at stopping penalties. The smart move would be to bring Reina on, assuming that Spain has not used all three subs. (And yes, I know that Casillas got Spain past Italy in penalties two years ago. Reina is still a better penalty stopper.) Does del Bosque pull off his captain? If England are looking narrow and congested in the midfield, will Fabio Capello have the guts to bench either Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard? How wedded will Marcelo Lippi be to his 2006 players in light of the fact that Italy's young players are, in many cases, better models? We've already seen one instance of the bold, but right decision not being made: France could have fired Raymond Domenech and hired Laurent Blanc instead of simply making Blanc the coach in waiting. Domenech has the confidence of absolutely no one, whereas Blanc has proved his worth at Bordeaux and is a hugely respected figure because of his role on France's '98 World Cup-winning side. France essentially sacrificed the tournament by leaving a fool in charge.

Just Like Old Times

Since this is the last season in which I will get to gripe about Bobby Cox's tactical decisions, I need to get my licks in. Bobby has managed the last two games as if the Braves are nine games up in September as opposed to scuffling around .500 in May. When I looked at Sunday's lineup, my first thought was that Bobby was trying to insult the Pirates, maybe as a last thumb in the eye of our opponents in the '91 and '92 NLCSs. No Chipper, no McCann, no Heyward, no Hinske. The lineup included Brett Cleven, as well as Melky (.299 OBP), Yunel (.272 OBP), and McLouth (.316 OBP). I understand giving one or two guys the day off for a day game after a long night game, but the lineup resembled what I would expect from Mark Richt in the fourth quarter of a game against Tennessee-Chattanooga. Eric Hinske is f***ing torrid; why is he sitting on the bench under any circumstances? Sure enough, Hinske got one plate appearance, hit a game-tying homer, and the Braves lost in extra innings.

Then last night, the Braves were down 3-2 in the 8th against the Marlins with the top of the order around the corner in the 9th. What in G-d's name was Jesse Chavez doing in the game? It was a miracle of the first order that Chavez made it through the seventh without allowing a run. What are the odds that a reliever with a 7+ ERA is going to throw a second scoreless inning? We sent Craig Kimbrel to the minors because he wasn't getting enough work, but we keep sending Chavez to the hill? Was Rick Luecken not available?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thoughts on the Champions League Final

I guess you could say that I'm not over Barca losing to Inter.

When I put this jersey on, I was reminded that UEFA gives special patches to clubs that win the Champions League/European Cup four times. If not for Yaya Toure's "handball," the Blaugrana would be going for number four this afternoon. As is, I'm already thinking about how their short passing game will play on the dreadful Wembley pitch at this time next year.

This is my first Champions League Final with English announcers. I love Martin Tyler, but part of me misses Derek Rae, who did an outstanding job. Andy Gray over Tommy Smyth? Not a contest. Gray's voice reminds me of afternoons playing FIFA '97 with my friend JT in law school. We never stopped being amused by Gray saying "that was a great save for so many reasons."

30 minutes in and these two teams are cancelling one another out. With two superb tactical managers who have had weeks to prepare, I shouldn't be shocked. Inter are forcing Robben wide as opposed to cutting in onto his left foot and he hasn't put in a really good cross yet. He has been Bayern's sole source of offense.

And there's the opener for Inter, exposing Bayern's suspect centerbacks. You don't win your first two knock-out ties 4-4 with good centerbacks. Milito won a long ball from the back to Sneijder with Demichelis on his back, then broke for goal, leaving the Argentine in his dust. Sneijder then had a simple pass back to Milito. Basic route one. Drogba and Lampard pulled the same goal off dozens of times for Mourinho (or so it seemed). If Demichelis is starting for Argentina this summer, then the Albiceleste are doomed.

Milito then set up Sneijder for a great chance that he shot at the Butt. Inter are ripping Bayern in the middle. Van Buyten and Demichelis are no match for Sneijder and Milito. Mourinho has figured out how to isolate his best players on Bayern's worst. My Teutonophile friend Victor insists that Bayern was better when Demichelis was hurt, Badstuber was at centerback, and Contento was at leftback. [Update: I subsequently listened to the World Football Daily interview with Kris Voakes and he made the same point, so the Italians had apparently also figured out Bayern's best back four. Too bad Van Gaal couldn't do the same.]

I don't know how I feel about a threesome of Curt Menefee, Bruce Arena, and Eric Wynalda as the studio team. On the one hand, they don't know much about these teams or players, with the exception of Wynalda. On the other hand, maybe Fox is trying to sell this game to a broad audience? That can't be bad, right? Aw, who am I kidding? If ESPN figured out that European footie needs to be covered with an English accent, then Fox should learn the same. I'll be very interested to know what rating this game gets.

Bayern had their best chance right off the kick-off for the second half, but Muller shot the ball at Julio Cesar's legs. I like the youngster, but he seems a little Dirk Kujt-ish to me. Or maybe Eidur Gudjohnsen?

And that's that. Having already embarrassed Demichelis, Milito turns his attention to Van Buyten, absolutely skinning the Belgian on the world's biggest stage. Barca scored their killer goal to go up 2-0 in minute 70 last year; now, Inter has done the same. Trebles all around! And speaking of trebles, this is the second straight for Samuel Eto'o. That said, Eto'o has been rather peripheral for Inter in the second half of the season, giving way to Milito as the goal scorer. On the one hand, this shows that Guardiola and Beguiristain were correct in viewing Eto'o as less that a great finisher. On the other hand, Eto'o willingness to sublimate himself to the team's needs by doing the donkey work on the right side shows that his attitude is better than Barca thought.

Man, Mourinho's teams know how to kill a game off. Bayern looks like they are totally beaten.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Baseball, Bloody Hell

A colleague and I took a good client to the Braves game yesterday afternoon. Because my work and family demands are pretty significant these days, this was my first Braves game of the season. (I only made it to one last year, as well.) We were late getting down to the Ted, and the Braves were already down 8-1 when we arrived. The three of us had a great time sitting in the sun and yapping, but the game was not going well. Every time the Braves threatened to rally, they hit into a double play and further squashed their chances. By the top of the ninth, the client suggested that we bail on the game and I put up zero resistance.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

This is one of the f***ed up things about sports. I've been to hundreds of baseball games in my life and I'll probably go to hundreds more. This was almost certainly my one chance to see: (1) a seven-run rally by my team in the ninth; and/or (2) a walk-off grand slam. I pissed it away by leaving early. Now, I'll never leave a baseball game early, which means my family and I will suffer through humdrum final innings of 7-2 snoozers because of the tiny chance that something amazing will happen. Sports sucks us in with the improbable, but we have to sit through vast quantities of the probable to be around when a journeyman hits a grand slam to beat a division leader.

One other observation on the Braves: as someone who first saw Chipper at the Diamond in Richmond in 1993, it's sad to watch him right now. I hope that he's just in a David Ortiz slump and he'll shake out of it, but I worry. My thinking over the past few weeks has been that he would be a good #2 hitter because his OBP remains strong, but if pitchers figure out that the Emperor has no clothes, the walks will dry up.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"F***ing Barbaric."

That was the term that Pep Guardiola used several weeks ago to describe the amount of points that Barcelona and Real Madrid were on pace to accumulate in La Liga. Sure enough, the Blaugrana finished with 99 points, a Spanish record by some margin, three better than their hated rivals from the capital. Barca have now won La Liga twice in a row and four out of six. Not bad for Guardiola's sophomore slump.

I'll admit to having been a little nervous for this match. Valladolid were a scant 60 points behind Barca in the table, but they had been playing well under Javier Clemente and they were playing for their lives. In terms of pure motivation, it probably matters more to a player to avoid being relegated than it does to win a title. Also, Barca were without Xavi and Iniesta, which raised the concern that the team would lack a passer in the middle of the pitch to break down a massed defense.

The Blaugrana shared my nervousness, because they played poorly for the first ten minutes. Victor Valdes did his best to quell the voices of his supporters who claim that he should be starting for Spain in place of Iker Casillas by mishandling a ball played back to his feet. As a result, Manucho had a chance to shoot at an open net, only to be foiled by Carles Puyol dashing back into the picture to block the shot. Valladolid then created a couple half chances before Barca took the game by the throat around the ten minute mark. It took 28 minutes for the breakthrough, but it came from Pedro whacking a cross into the middle and the ball bounding into the net off of a hapless central defender. Maybe there's a reason why Valladolid were in the relegation zone in Jornada 38? Pedro then added a second from a feed from Leo Messi and the rout was on. Messi scored twice in the second half to match Ronaldo's epic haul from the 1996-97 season (the season in which I became a Barca fan).

For me, the man of the match was Yaya Toure. Toure provided the spark in the midfield, setting up both Messi goals. He's the best defensive player of the midfielders, he is versatile enough to play central defense (such as in the 2009 Champions League Final), and he's got the dribbling ability and speed to beat a defender and get into the box. It's rare for me to think that Pep Guardiola is making a mistake, but I think he underrates Toure. The rumor is that Toure is headed to Arsenal, probably as a makeweight in a deal to bring Cesc back home. Arsenal fans should be pleased by this prospect. They have players who can approximate what Cesc does, maybe not exactly, but close enough. They haven't had a player like Toure since Viera. Their central defense will suddenly look a lot better with a proper screen. As for Barca, they can get by with Busquets as the anchor player, but I still prefer Toure in a match where defensive solidity is at a premium (like another trip to play Inter in the San Siro, perhaps).

All told, this has been a very good season for Barcelona. It was disappointing to miss the chance to repeat as Champions League winners, but winning La Liga with a record haul of points and a record goal difference (+74 in 38 matches) does nicely as a consolation. Moreover, denying Real Madrid a trophy after Los Blancos spent 250M Euros in the summer is pleasing on a number of levels. (Poor Real. They lost La Liga to Barca without scoring a goal against the Blaugrana in 180 minutes and they had to watch Atletico celebrate a European title, albeit one that Real fans consider to be beneath them.) Barca got terrific seasons from the usual suspects - Messi, Xavi, Pique, and Puyol all come to mind - and they got unexpected contributions from Pedro and (at the end of the season) Bojan, two attackers from La Masia. It's hard to pick out disappointments, other than the two major summer signings. Hopefully, I'll be saying something different next summer about David Villa.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Three Quick Thoughts on the Cavs' Demise

1. Josef Stalin was a murderous bastard, even by a dictator's standards, but he could be counted on for the occasional pithy quote. At some point shortly after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, when the Wehrmacht was rolling over the Soviet Union like a knife through butter, he looked at the members of his inner circle and said "Lenin left us a good thing and we've f***ed it up." I have to imagine that Danny Ferry and Mike Brown were saying something along those lines to one another on the plane back to Cleveland last night. The Cavs were bestowed with the good fortune of winning the lottery when the clear #1 choice was a player (and a local, to boot) who has turned out to be one of the best players of all time, at least at his age. Seven years later, the best that Ferry can do for him is to give him a clueless coach and a rotation that includes a bunch of spare parts. I complain about the Yankees winning titles without having to show management skill because they can simply buy the best free agents; the Cavs winning a title with this collection would have been similar, as it would have been the result of nothing more than good fortune with lottery balls.

2. Question for Adrian Wojnarowski and every other two-bit columnist who is complaining that LeBron isn't like Magic, Larry, or Michael: who on LeBron's roster is his DJ, Parish, McHale, Kareem, Worthy, or Pippen. If I squint very hard, I can see Varejao being a poor man's Rodman or Grant. If we were picking teams based on the players available last night, LeBron is the first pick and then the next five picks are all Celtics. LeBron is going to be blamed unfairly for the failings of everyone around him. If he decamps for Chicago or New York, the Cavs' management and the supporting cast they assembled will be the reason why. (This may be wishful thinking on my part, but after being let down by weak teammates for two straight years, isn't LeBron less likely to go to play for the Knicks, who have nothing? Even if Lebron goes with Joe Johnson or Bosh, you're still looking at a two-man team that is capped out.

2a. I'll admit that LeBron was crap in Game Five and strangely uneven last night. However, if we're apportioning blame for the fact that the Cavs didn't win a title in LeBron's year seven, I'm not starting with the guy who had a triple double last night.

2b. LeBron is also being blamed unfairly because the Cavs were "upset" by the Celtics, but the series was only an upset because the Celtics mailed in the second half of the season, whereas LeBron played hard and got his team the #1 seed. So hey, let's reward the scrappy Celtics for finally caring!

3. What's with the "Cleveland Sports Disasters" montages that ESPN has been running on a loop. If I'm sick of them and I have no feelings for Cleveland, then how to actual Clevelanders feel about having their noses rubbed in their futility? Yes, we don't need to be reminded that the Browns lost AFC Championship Games to the Broncos in dramatic fashion. It's one thing for ESPN to push sports memes relentlessly; it's another to be the Marquis de Sade in doing so.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Still Unlucky

Last August, I lamented that the Braves were underperforming their expected won-loss record. With their runs scored and runs allowed, they should have had more wins. 2009 was a continuation of an extended trend, as the Braves had consistently underperformed relative to their expected record since 2006.

Sure enough, we're six weeks into the 2010 season and the Braves are two games under .500, but with their run differential, they should be two games over. Normally, I wouldn't care about about a two-game disparity, but coming on the heels of four straight "unlucky" seasons, this is a a problem. I'm at a loss to come up with an explanation, so I need some help. The bullpen is normally the first explanation for a team underperforming its expected record, but the pen was good last year and it has been good this year. Here is the best I can come up with:

1. The Braves are not good at situational hitting, so they struggle to eke a run across when they really need one.

2. The Braves are slow, so they can't manufacture a run in a close game.

3. Bobby isn't a good tactical manager at the end of a close game.

4. Karma is punishing us for 1991-2005.

5. ???

Suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Claudio Caniggia is on Line Four

[Full marks to me for the pun in the title that about three of you got.]

I fully support Bill Simmons coming into the light and becoming a footie fan. The fact that he is doing so for most of the same reasons that I love the sport (although unlike Bill, I played and watched from a young age because my parents are British Empire emigres and because I was less bad at it than other sports) is especially nice. As he progresses from being a casual fan into obsession like his buddy Marc Stein, he'll learn not to make statements like this:

As a scoreless second half creeped into the 80s, he was muttering to himself and yelling helplessly at the television. Tottenham was controlling the flow and getting more scoring chances; in soccer, karmically, that eventually translates to a goal. (Note: That's different from playoff hockey, where one team can dominate an overtime for 15-16 minutes and the Hockey Gods decide, "Wouldn't it be funny if the other team scored on some garbage goal?" The Soccer Gods aren't nearly as cruel.) Throw in Man City's urgency to score, as well as its inevitable sub of an extra striker in the last 10-12 minutes, and Steiny Mo was becoming increasingly resigned to his fate. Tottenham finally scored on a defensive lapse and a hard rebound headed in by Crouch -- karma again, since he had just missed by a hair on about 25 chances in the game. Ten minutes later, we had a 1-0 final. Yet another heartbreak for Man City.

Bill, not only are footie fans familiar with the concept of a team dominating a match and then losing, but there is a term for it: smash-and-grab. The Platonic ideal for the smash-and-grab is the first example listed in that Guardian article: the Italia '90 round of 16 match between Brazil and Argentina in which Brazil created all the pressure for 80 minutes, then got beaten on one Maradona counter that caused unmitigated panic in the Selecao's rearguard.

My favorite aspect of the highlight is Caniggia's look of utter shock after scoring, as if to say "this wasn't part of the plan at all! We were supposed to win in penalties after a goalless 120 minutes!" Because of their performance at the 1990 World Cup, I hated Argentina for years, although their slick side at Germany '06 changed my mind.

There's another smash-and-grab not mentioned in the Guardian's article that is near and dear to my heart:

At some point, I need to create a tag for all of the posts in which I have invented reasons to include that clip.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Happy Thoughts

I took my three-year old Sam to his first Hawks game on Saturday. The 5 p.m. start time worked with his nap schedule and a friend at work was not using his tickets, so away we went. Thank goodness that Sam was my companion because otherwise, I would have had to dwell on the fact that the Hawks couldn't be bothered to try. In a do-or-die game. In the conference semi-finals. Against a division rival.

If I would have been 100% focused on the game, then I would have been bothered by Joe Johnson going three for 15 from the floor. Or Josh Smith standing in the corner with his head in the clouds while Matt Barnes rebounded his own miss, paused, realized that no one was guarding him, and then sashayed to the hoop for a lay-up. Or the Hawks openly ignoring Mike Woodson during timeouts. There's only so much caring that I can do when the Hawks are down ten at the end of one quarter and 19 at the end of two. Instead, Sam and I paid attention to the important things, like Harry the Hawk's movement through the arena. Or the use of the Sesame Street theme during musical chairs. Or playing peek-a-boo with our rally towels. ("Now You Know" takes on a whole different meaning after a performance like that.) We played catch with a basketball in the team store at halftime. And after the game, Sam was enthralled by a horse pulling a carriage next to Centennial Olympic Park. I suppose it's a metaphor for modern sports that a three-year old and his dad can have a great time at a game while tuning out what was going on on the court.

As for the Hawks, we all need to take a breather, let this series come to its inevitably ugly conclusion, and then evaluate where this team can go. I've never been a Mike Woodson hater. Despite the fact that his teams have never shown much organization on offense, it's hard to argue with the consistent improvement on an annual basis. If I'm big on favoring conclusions based on the big sample size as opposed to the small one, then I can't conclude that Woodson is a bad coach when the Hawks won 53 games this year (the fifth highest total in franchise history). However, it sure looks to me like the team has tuned him out. Woodson said this week that he can't coach effort, which to me is a damning admission. Maybe Woodson isn't to blame for the limp effort that the Hawks have put forward in this series, but he is the easiest piece to change in an attempt to get more effort from these players in the future.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Hollinger v. Bradley

John Hollinger has the Clubber Lang prediction for the Hawks against the Magic:

I'm trying to come up with a statistical indicator to favor Atlanta, and I'm drawing a blank. Orlando has home-court advantage, led the NBA in point differential and crushed Charlotte in four games in the first round despite having "Foul On You" nailed to the bench for all but 26.5 minutes a game. Meanwhile, the Hawks did little to encourage supporters by struggling past an injury-depleted Milwaukee squad in Round 1.

Moreover, the head-to-head history over the past two years is pretty one-sided. Atlanta won at Orlando on opening day of the 2008-09 season by 14 points, but since then it has been all Orlando. The Magic have won six of the past seven games, including wins by 17, 18, 32 and 34. Atlanta's only win in that span was by two points at the buzzer.

As a result, all 10 of our experts have the Magic winning, and only Chad Ford has the series going the distance. The glass-barely-wet view for Atlantans is that at least they aren't down 1-0 yet, unlike the Jazz and Celtics. I would strongly suggest the Hawks win the opener Tuesday, especially since that's probably their best shot to steal one given the rust Orlando should have from an eight-day layoff.

And Hollinger makes this point in the context of an article in which he describes the fact that teams with the homecourt advantage have a terrific record in the second round of the playoffs. So, with pretty much every factor pointing to a Magic victory, Mark Bradley is predicting glory:

My first inclination was to take Magic in six, but something about this matchup leads me to think it’ll go the distance. And where would the weight of expectation in such a Game 7 fall? Not on the Hawks.

The Milwaukee series was strange: The Hawks went from too loose to too tight to almost gone. But they made it through, and they see real opportunity in Round 2. So do I. Hawks in seven.

Bradley, who normally has a good sense for basketball match-ups, does not make a compelling case. His argument is that the Hawks can defend Dwight Howard without doubling him because Al Horford is an above-average big man. However, Bradley completely misses why Howard is a great player. Howard has a negligible offensive game. The Magic didn't have the second-best record in the NBA because of Howard's 18.3 points per game; they had it because they are the best defensive team in basketball and Howard's shot-blocking and rebounding are the largest reason why. Horford's skill is not going to prevent Howard from owning the glass or stopping the Hawks from scoring in the lane. Moreover, Orlando's success at shooting the three doesn't come only from opponents doubling Howard in the post, as evidenced by Howard's meager 1.8 assists per game and his reputation as a poor passer. Orlando gets open threes because they run a good offense, they have multiple threats, and they have a point guard who can find shooters. Who thinks that Mike Bibby can keep Jameer Nelson out of the lane? Right.

If Horford's presence gave the Hawks a match-up advantage against the Magic, then why have our friends in Orlando owned us for the past two seasons? Methinks Bradley is succumbing to his tendency to be too positive about the local teams. The Hawks' appearance in the Eastern Finals is going to go right next to the Braves' 2008 division title and Georgia's 2008 national title on the mantelpiece.

Two other thoughts on the local professional basketball collective:

1. With LeBron looking gimpy and the Lakers looking old, the stakes for the Hawks have gone up if they can somehow win this series. An upset over the Magic and "why not us?" will be a legitimate sentiment.

2. I still feel conflicted on the Hawks' rally against the Bucks. I'll freely admit that I gave them little chance to stave off elimination last Friday night. Instead, the team responded with two comfortable wins. The Hawks showed some serious backbone in coming back from what looked like a season-crushing loss in Game Five. Full marks to the team for doing so. On the other hand, if they were capable of beating the Bucks with such ease, then how the hell did they allow themselves to be pushed to the brink in the first place? Did Milwaukee come back to earth and give the Hawks the space to rise from the grave? Is this team capable of being great when they focus, thus making their wandering eye the reason why they aren't a true title contender?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Fool on the Hill, Part Deux

Unlike John Feinstein, Austin Murphy doesn't confuse the dog and the tail. From his piece in this week's Sports Illustrated on the impending conference shakeup:


Having heard Swarbrick repeatedly insist that the Irish could never join the Big Ten unless its partner, the Big East, was reduced to a smoking ruin, Delany decides to oblige them. In addition to coaxing Missouri and Nebraska to the altar, the Big Ten cherry-picks Pitt and Rutgers. With the Big East tottering on the verge of extinction, Notre Dame has no choice but to become the 16th member of the Big Ten. Fielding Yost and Jesse Harper perform simultaneous barrel rolls in their graves.

Not above shopping at a fire sale, the ACC gobbles up Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia, forming the nation's second 16-team superconference, thus meeting SEC commissioner Slive's threshold for significant paradigm shift.

His hand forced, Slive wins a bidding war with the Pac-10 for Texas, which has no interest in remaining in the suddenly second-tier Big 12. To ease the Longhorns' transition, Slive invites along Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, forcing the Big 12 to reconstitute itself with a dog's breakfast of remainders from the WAC and the Mountain West.

Emboldened by their new power, the remaining superconferences—the self-described Gang of Five—vote to jettison the NCAA and form their own league. Suddenly redundant and unfunded, that now sclerotic body dies a slow death, like the "withering away of the state" in Marxist doctrine. The Gang continues to work with the BCS, after wresting one key concession: From this point on, the national championship will be decided by a plus-one national championship game.

Doesn't that seem a little more likely than the NCAA forcing its most powerful members to make a move that they have resisted for decades?