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.
Three hours before his third game in the majors, Yasiel Puig, the 22-year-old Cuban defector whose feats of superhuman strength have made him the talk of baseball, stood at his locker and answered questions from a small group of reporters. A pretty, impeccably dressed woman stood by his side — the interpreter assigned by the Dodgers PR staff to deal with all the new media requests for the Dodgers' new right fielder. Puig answered questions in Spanish and for the most part seemed to be enjoying the attention. At some point, a reporter asked Puig if he felt that Double-A ball had been beneath him. After hearing the translation, Puig closed his eyes, shook his head, and laughed. He was already learning to avoid questions. A few minutes later, after much ribbing from teammate Hanley Ramirez, Puig was asked if he enjoyed hitting leadoff. With a wry smile, Puig said, "I just want to go out there and play the game …" The rookie's boilerplate received high marks from Ramirez, who announced to the reporters, "There you go!"
Puig is a dead ringer for a young Floyd Patterson if he had decided to shave his Jheri curl down into a Mohawk. Like all great athletes, Puig's body almost looks like it has been spliced together from Olympian parts. If you ever stand next to Dwight Howard, you'll swear that he's just a skinny tall guy with a pair of Hulk shoulders stapled on. Puig, who stands about 6-foot-3, is broad, trim, and chiseled. He wears the baggiest pants this side of Manny Ramirez’s muumuu, which conceal a pair of thick, powerful legs. But a lot of baseball players could be described in this way — I’m pretty sure some overcaffeinated Dodgers beat writer back in 1993 used the same words to describe Raul Mondesi. Puig’s freakishness comes from his massive forearms, which look like they've been cut by a particularly optimistic German wood-carver. As Puig practiced his boilerplate with the reporters, I considered hiking up my pant leg to see if his forearms were bigger than my calves.
You should always walk to this ballpark. Even if you live in the suburbs, and you drive to the games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, you should park downtown and walk to the ballpark. You should cross over one of the yellow iron bridges that span the Allegheny, one of the city’s three famous rivers. Myself? I prefer the Rachel Carson Bridge, because it gives you a longer walk along the breezy riverbank on the first hot weekend of the year. And then you come up a little rise, and you get tossed into a festival of sound and joy — and, yes, beer, of several dozen different types and flavors — along Federal Street. On Friday night, I went to the ballpark without ever going to the ballgame, and that was a good thing, too. A band called Sound of Soul was rocking the street, closing out a set with “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” — “Make my funk the P-Funk!,” which is as it should be. People spun and danced as they came off the bridge, which is also as it should be. You should walk to this ballpark, always, because coming to this ballpark is altogether a way of being part of a greater community, of being fully in the world. That’s how it feels to me, anyway.
"What if Arvind finishes third again? How would he handle that?" I asked Arvind Mahankali's parents while we waited for their son to return from one of the competition's two computer-based tests. Srinivas Mahankali is a software engineer, and his wife, Bhavani, is a physician.
"We will tell him he's accomplished everything he needed to accomplish here, educationally and socially, and that we're proud of him," Srinivas told me.
"Do you think that'll be enough?"
"We will have to keep telling him," said Bhavani.
When I first saw Arvind Mahankali on Wednesday in the Maryland Ballroom, he was in his usual pose — shoulders hunched, glasses perched low on his nose, an expression on his face that was either studious or politely bored. More than 200 spellers surrounded him onstage, but he had already survived the preliminaries and was waiting for the field to be whittled down to 41 semifinalists.
The night before, he sat before a test computer, put on a pair of headphones, and spelled 12 words — some as easy as "twinge" and some as difficult as "Ouagadougou" (the capital of the African nation Burkina Faso). Since there are too many spellers to eliminate onstage, this test would help determine who advanced to the semifinals. (A second test a night later would serve the same purpose in determining the finalists.) For the first time in bee history, Arvind and the others also had to define 14 words. Arvind was one of just three spellers in the entire field to register a perfect score.
The fans inside United Center were the very last to know. They were on their feet (most up off their feet, really) hollering and high-fiving in their Kane and Chelios and novelty Griswold jerseys, finally releasing all the tension that had gripped them throughout Wednesday's Game 7 between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings. Chicago's Niklas Hjalmarsson had just scored to break a 1-1 tie with 1:49 to play, and now "Chelsea Dagger" was DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-da-da-DA-ing over the PA system, and life was pretty great.
Viewers watching at home found out almost immediately that the goal was being disallowed. In the press box, partially deafened by the goal horns, we struggled to make sense of the little things that didn't seem quite right — the refs were huddling, Chicago captain Jonathan Toews seemed angrier than usual, and no one was skating toward center ice. But most of the fans were too busy celebrating to really notice — like some scene from a dark comedy in which a happy, waving, unsuspecting dude doesn't realize he's about to get taken out by a bus. (Actually, that dude could be Hjalmarsson himself: "I was probably looking like a fool celebrating in the middle of the ice," he later said.)
Let’s set aside all the nonsense for a second — the outrageously bad blown 24-second call on the Pacers, the laughable officiating, the obsession with flopping that distracts from a beautiful game, and all the rest of the ancillary crap. In the big picture, the Pacers have split four games with a team that had entered the series 45-3 in its prior 48 games. And they've done it for two reasons:
1. Indiana’s offense, which ranged from bad to mediocre all season, has sliced apart Miami at a rate of 111.3 points per 100 possessions — a mark that would have led the league in the regular season, and more than 10 points better than the Pacers managed in either of their first two series. The Pacers finished the season 19th in points per possession. Miami finished seventh in points allowed per possession.
This is normally a place for serious basketball analysis — mulling X's and O's, rotation choices, and Lionel Hollins's fantastic wardrobe. But let me step back for a second and say how cool it was watching San Antonio walk off the court, having clinched a return to the Finals after six years away. Tim Duncan shared a long embrace at midcourt with Manu Ginobili, who did so many crazy, brilliant, and disastrous Manu Ginobili things in this game that I lost count. Ginobili bounced off of Duncan and hugged another Spurs staffer almost as aggressively — with a hard chest-bump, a fist to the back, and a stern growl. It was a hug that said, "Fuck yeah, we did that!"
I am not a person easily charmed by sporting events anymore. T-shirt cannons, and “game presentations,” and dance teams, and the endless insistence that the Greatest Hip-Hop Hits of the 1990s That Contain No F-Bombs have something to do with anything athletic have left me as jaded as Charles Barkley at a gentleman’s club. If it’s not the very strange idea that corporate interests have in what will interest The Kids, then it’s the insistence that, before every game, we have to put on some sort of militarized patriotic pageant that would have had John Wayne breaking into a chorus of "The Internationale." (I’m serious. Go to the Super Bowl sometime if you want to learn where the North Koreans got most of their ideas concerning public spectacle.) Not long ago, I went to a very ordinary early-season baseball game at Turner Field in Atlanta. The scoreboard looked like the big wall at the Caesars Palace sportsbook in Vegas. There was so much flash and dash going on in all corners of my peripheral field of vision that, by the third inning, I thought I was having a stroke. I am not yet grumpster enough to claim that all this electronic digital filigree has ruined the games, per se. LeBron James, after all, would still be the wonder that is LeBron James if he played basketball onstage with Cirque du Soleil. But so much energy is being thrown into otherwise entertaining me that I wind up walking out of most games exhausted with the effort it takes to pretend that I am being entertained. I believe in being polite that way.
On Thursday night, Barry Derr was reminded in stark metaphorical terms of his place in the entertainment pecking order. Thousands had come to downtown Los Angeles to see the big matchup: Candice versus Kree on American Idol. Barry and a few dissidents had come for Kings versus Sharks, a second-round NHL playoff game. The idols were greeted by a wide red carpet outside the Nokia Theatre, where teleprompters spit out inane questions (“What’s going on down there on the red carpet?”), and entertainment correspondents wore heavy makeup. The Kings had a deejay playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” Someone had strung up balloons. “If you’re born in L.A.,” Barry said, “you gotta fight to see a hockey game.”
You could forgive Kings fans for feeling like members of an out-of-the-way cult. This is partly because their team plays at Staples Center, which is nestled in a vast entertainment complex called L.A. Live and is just steps from the Nokia Theatre. L.A. Live is a place where TV shows are filmed so they can be shown to the West Coast on tape delay. It is also a favored site of movie premieres and VIP visits. Thus, a Kings fan leaving Staples often finds himself encountering Twilight fans who have bivouacked for the premiere, or emissaries from the South Korean presidential delegation. The two groups stare at one another as in a first-contact moment on Star Trek.
This this was not a fun, attractive, or well-played NBA game. The Pacers, turnover-prone all season and barely able to handle the ball without George Hill, committed 19 turnovers and seemed to be on the verge of losing the ball on every possession. The Knicks committed 30 fouls, about 10 more than the average team commits in a game, and at one point in the third quarter, I think every player had at least four fouls. It was truly awful. There were so many low points that the entire game transformed during some third-quarter nadir into a 48-minute-long low point.
It happened around the 4:45 mark of the third quarter, where my meticulous notes about X's and O's and crowd tomfoolery abruptly stop and transition into a single harrowing sentence: “I have no idea what is going on right now.”
Well, what can I tell you? Some nights, you just show up in the wrong arena. Up in Boston, the Bruins came roaring back to win a Game 7 on Monday night because the Toronto Maple Leafs picked the wrong night to stop sniffing glue or something. Meanwhile, here in Washington, his team already trailing 3-0 and with all of 13 seconds elapsed in the third period, John Erskine of the Capitals surrendered a chocolate éclair of a turnover along the left boards. Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers accepted the gratuity and went sailing in to lift a backhand past Caps goalie Braden Holtby. At which point, Verizon Center became the quietest hockey arena in America. I am not kidding about this. There was more energy in the former Hartford Civic Center at ten o’clock Monday night than there was in this joint, and Pucky the Whale was livelier than the entire Washington bench. Meanwhile, on the TV, the Capitals broadcast crew ominously began using the phrase “played their hearts out this season” a lot, and opined that the Capitals defensive corps would be even stronger next year with a full training camp under their belts. All that was missing from the wake were weeping old ladies and a spray of flowers from the local Elks.
The juice went out of the place long before the 5-0 final closed the book on the first-round series and sent the Rangers along to an Original Six–a-palooza against the Bruins. Both Washington and New York looked tight and jittery at the beginning of the game, and no player more so than Holtby, who had the devil’s own time controlling rebounds and, at one point, completely lost control of the puck behind his own net. The comparison between the two goalies was striking, as we shall see. But whereas the Rangers managed to get beyond the early shakes, the Capitals never seemed to get fully organized, or entirely into the game.
Playoff time in Toronto and Ottawa used to mean the Battle of Ontario. That was the creative nickname slapped onto the rivalry between the two teams who faced each other four years out of five from 2000 to 2004. Fans of either team don’t need to be reminded how that went: The Leafs won all four series, in increasingly cruel fashion.
This season marks the first time since 2004 that both teams are in the NHL playoffs, although this time they are not facing each other. This week, I dropped by Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place and Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to take in a pair of Game 4s.