"It's great for the league," Toronto coach Dwane Casey told reporters before last night's Raptors-Lakers game. "It sucks for us tonight."
"Yeah, I think the expectations are too high," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said beforehand. "But he'll probably meet ’em."
Because Mamba Mentality is immune to pressure. And injuries. And age. And all the other excuses other mortals fall back on.
If you see Kobe in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear. If you see Kobe in a fight with the Toronto Raptors, expect a religious awakening, with Kobe rising from the ashes in front of 20,000 Lakers fans who never doubted him.
That's obviously not what happened at Staples Center on Sunday, but first and foremost I'll remember Kobe's comeback game for how high everyone's expectations were. There's no better testament to Kobe than how excited everyone was to watch a guy who by any reasonable measure should not have been playing basketball eight months after rupturing his Achilles. We should've known this would be depressing, but somehow Kobe convinces everyone to abandon logic. This is his greatest superpower.
The Nets came into last night’s Toilet Bowl having allowed 107.5 points per 100 possessions, the very worst mark in the league. They outdid themselves against the struggling Knicks, allowing the equivalent of 130 points per 100 possessions in a game that began as something of a snark spectacle and gradually became a serious embarrassment for a team with absolutely no clue right now on either end of the floor.
The Knicks did nothing special, though they did come out in the second half clearly committed to running more motion-based plays and generally playing the kind of offense an NBA team should play. They ran a few Carmelo Anthony–Andrea Bargnani pick-and-pops, and they thrived whenever they posted Anthony up against the game but overmatched Alan Anderson. Anthony loves to catch the ball, face up in one-on-one situations, and take midrange jumpers off the bounce. That is glamorous, highlight stuff.
“A tie leaves one with a feeling of bewilderment,” wrote Patrick Daley on this week’s e-newsletter from Kettle of Fish, the Greenwich Village bar he’s owned since the ‘90s. “With Matt and Eddie leading the way, the lads bounced back from a depressing effort to put us in a position where we are in control of our own destiny.” Patrick’s newsletter, which is usually lengthy and peppered with this kind of Packerfied romanticism, was a glint of hope amid a mostly depressing season for the green-and-gold. A run that began with great promise — 5-2 through eight weeks, the two losses coming in close games to likely playoff teams — sputtered into a campaign plagued by injuries to pretty much every critical player, listless defense playing somewhere between two and two and a half quarters of football weekly, and a quarterback carousel that rifled through Plans B, C, and D with equal, stinging failure. I had a theory: Maybe some booze and Carmine’s-catered Thanksgiving food could dull the bitter taste of a seemingly lost season. Since I stayed in New York for Thanksgiving, I meant to test out this hypothesis and got on the C train to join my other family.
And I know it was just one regular-season NBA game, most of the East Coast was asleep, and it probably changes nothing for what we expect from either team. But as single games go, it was so much more fun than it should've been. Let's start from the beginning.
In retrospect, I should have seen the warning signs. The mission didn't seem difficult: Watch Belgium play among a mass of cheering, flag-waving, jersey-clad Belgians. I was going to be in Belgium, after all, which is in Europe, which means — rash generalization — people love soccer. But I saw more Los Angeles Lakers hats than pieces of Red Devils apparel during the three hours I spent wandering around downtown Brussels on Tuesday morning. There were more Brooklyn Nets logos, too. Which is to say I didn't see a single Belgian wearing anything even remotely resembling soccer paraphernalia. That was surprising, seeing as they had a game in less than 12 hours in the very same city.
Tomas Hertl's first goal of the evening sent Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist packing. After his second, he stole a happy glance up at his mom and girlfriend. The Sharks were dismantling the Rangers and it was starting to get late when the young Czech rookie scored again. Still, no one at the SAP Center (née HP Pavilion) minded even when it took arena crews a few extra minutes to corral all the hats and remove them from the ice. It was only the 19-year-old's third NHL game, after all, and who could resist that wide smile?
Those who stuck around were generously rewarded a few minutes later with Hertl's fourth goal. (Those who stuck around and weren't the New York Rangers, I should say.)
If Allen Iverson played hockey, he would have scored this goal. Steel yourselves, children's hockey coaches everywhere, to lose thousands of kid-hours going forward in the pursuit of this goal. The only thing more fun than seeing it was sitting next to Larry Brooks in the press box while he watched this goal.
"That's something I don't have in my bag," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said.
On Monday afternoon I was driving home from work when a friend from college sent me a text message: "You have to come to Cleveland this week."
This made no sense. If you're not from Cleveland, there's never a good reason to go to Cleveland. He called a few minutes later, but I missed it. Then he sent an e-mail explaining things. He had two tickets for me:
• One to the Indians' single-game playoff Wednesday night.
• One to the shockingly relevant Browns-Bills game on Thursday.
So I went to Cleveland this week. Because playoff baseball is great even if you don't like baseball, because the Browns turnaround is so ridiculous I had to see it in person, and mostly because my editors said yes. Why not?
We'll start with the Indians game. Or the bar before the Indians game.
On the first day of the government shutdown, the Washington Capitals arrived in Chicago, looking to bring a momentous occasion to a screeching halt. Though the organization has long since dropped the ’90s look — a jersey featuring the Capitol building and two crossed sticks — the Caps, backed by a scorching power-play unit, had every intention of playing spoiler. Not that Blackhawks fans are particularly adversarial with this altogether random opponent. When the second Stanley Cup banner in four years is raised to the United Center rafters, one assumes a storied rival would be on hand. But such is the new normal in a realigned NHL featuring more conference crossovers.
The last Blackhawks banner raising, in 2010, was soured by a 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, the team shoehorned into every ceremonial slot in Chicago since before I can remember — not that we had many before the Rocky Wirtz era. The 2010 home opener is something of a blur now, and Hawks fans sincerely hope the Wings enjoyed their sendoff to the Eastern Conference, courtesy of a floater from Brent Seabrook.
On Thursday night at the Nokia Theatre, there was an event called Kobe Up Close. The details: Jimmy Kimmel was going to interview Kobe Bryant for an hour, they were selling tickets for anywhere from $25 to $200, and all proceeds from the event would benefit the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation in partnership with Cedars-Sinai’s Sports Spectacular, supporting their work toward eliminating homelessness and providing preventative health services in underserved areas of Los Angeles. We found out about all this on Monday.
We had no idea what this event was, or what an hour-long interview with Kobe might bring, but when we heard this event was going down 100 feet from the Grantland office, Juliet Litman and I obviously had to get tickets and find out for ourselves. When we sat down in the theater, Juliet described it best: "I feel like we're in a megachurch, and the religion is Kobe Bryant."
There seems to be a bit of mythmaking or revisionism claiming that before the hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S.'s soccer identity was that of a counterattacking team. That the Americans were often outmanned, but they had a bit of speed so they'd let the opposition into their half, then hope to hit them on the break.
The country's most famous goal (1950 aside) was scored on the counter but, in reality, the USMNT would have been just as happy to have possession. In the last World Cup, the U.S. played four matches. In three of them they both outshot and had more possession than their opponent (England being the exception). Those aren't the stats of a side trying to sucker you into a counterpunch.
Round Rock is a small, quaint, central Texas town about half an hour north of Austin on I-35. Among plenty of Whataburgers and Dr Pepper advertisements, there’s Dell Diamond, home of the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express. It is the area's biggest attraction. While the experience of watching a game there is delightfully rife with all the charming bells and whistles characteristic of minor league baseball, some additional form of entertainment is necessary to supplement the rotating cast of no-names and kinda-names competing on the field. At Dell Diamond there's a different promotional event between every half-inning, including a hype crew that tosses T-shirts and stuffed baseballs into the stands. An especially long home run to right field runs the risk of hitting a rock climbing wall, landing in a bungee jump pit, or splashing into a swimming pool. Before the game begins, the PA announcer plays "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on a harmonica (UPDATE: this was actually a video of an elderly Stan Musial), and on the JumboTron a "rock"-themed pop culture montage features clips of Dwayne Johnson riling up a rabid wrestling crowd and Sean Connery welcoming Nicolas Cage to Alcatraz.
On Sunday night, they had Manny Ramirez, who was making his debut as a DH for the Express after spending the first part of 2013 in Taiwan with the EDA Rhinos of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. It's yet to be determined whether Ramirez's eccentricities are better suited for Taiwan or a conservative Texas suburb that named its baseball team after Nolan Ryan. While the team's faithful are enthusiastic at the opportunity to see one of baseball's biggest personalities play in such an intimate setting, it's going to be hard to top this as far as excitement goes.
In our nation’s sports-obsessed capital, the Congressional Baseball Game is a serious affair. The balls are hard, the throwing is overhand, and the practices begin months in advance. The game is played on a major league field, in a major league stadium (Nationals Park, 11 blocks due south of the U.S. Capitol), in front of thousands of spectators. And, of course, the game is played between the two parties that have grappled for dominance in this town (and country) since the days of Abraham Lincoln.
The Heat have talked openly about how facing three of the league’s top five defenses over the last three rounds has taken the fast-paced style out of their offense. Great defenses, with weeks to scout a single opponent, don’t fall for the whirring decoy actions all over the floor, or scramble themselves out of position, or forget for a second which shooters demand constant attention and which do not. Miami’s high-flying motion bogs down into stasis, both because the shot clock is dying, and because the Heat simply abandon it for simpler things in the face of a defense that renders the complex ineffective. Great defenses, the Heat will tell you, just take you out of your game for long stretches.
This Finals series is reminding us that the same is true on the other end — that a great offense, a relentlessly great offense, can take a defense out of its game. It can get in a defense’s head, forcing painful adjustments, lineup changes, fatal overthinking, and mental fatigue. The Spurs’ offense has imposed its will on this series, and they have the Heat reeling in ways no team has managed since the 2011 Mavericks. “Our defense tonight,” Shane Battier said after the game, “was unacceptable.”
And he’s right, in a way. Miami made mistakes we’d associate with an out-of-sorts team battling fatigue, frustration, and total bewilderment. In the second quarter, Mario Chalmers just stopped paying attention to his man, Danny Green, as Green trotted along the baseline and popped out the other side for a wide-open 3-pointer — at least the third or fourth such triple Green has hit in this series via that simple cut. About a minute later, Chris Bosh, worried about a possible pick-and-roll that hadn’t actually happened yet, just abandoned Tim Duncan to double-team Tony Parker — leaving a shocked Mike Miller to foul Duncan under the basket:
What do you do when you're completely exhausted? Me, I get cranky. My eyes redden, my skin sags, my temper shortens, and everything seems like a much bigger deal than it probably is. Small tasks become grand impositions. Minor snafus seem life-ruinous. Overheard conversations feel intolerable. I begin considering Joffrey Baratheon in a more sympathetic light.
As for the Chicago Backhawks' Andrew Shaw? Him, he drops F-bombs on national television. He sits down at a press conference behind the wrong placard, one that says “Jonathan Toews,” and he seems content not to care. (You can't say as much about Toews, who notices almost immediately and swaps the two name tags so that everything's where it should be.) And, when asked to walk everyone through the triple-overtime goal that he had scored for the 4-3 win against the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final on Wednesday night, Shaw can only explain, "Luck."
He wasn't being humble, just accurate. His game-winning goal was scored when Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival took a long shot from near the blue line that caromed first off Dave Bolland and then finally, fatefully off Shaw.
We forgot about it because of the scary things LeBron James did in the second half of Game 2 on Sunday, but Miami’s defense was strangely off for much of that win. They lost track of Danny Green on two 3-pointers, errors of miscommunication that resulted in shrugged shoulders, the kind of stuff championship teams leave behind in April. Kawhi Leonard took advantage of lazy or nonexistent boxouts on two offensive rebounds, and he back-cut a ball-watching LeBron late in the first quarter.
It recalled the listless Heat that allowed an offensively challenged Celtics team to ring up Spurs-level scoring numbers through the first five games of last season’s Eastern Conference finals. That team mostly cleaned things up after getting Chris Bosh back. This Heat team cleaned things up in Game 2 with one of the most devastating 15 minutes of basketball the league has ever seen.
Last night, they were awful defensively for the entire game. They can be bad defensively and get away with it against some teams. But this is the NBA Finals, against a brilliant and unselfish San Antonio team, and the Heat will lose just like this if they continue to make very basic NBA mistakes.