In case you were busy learning hard lessons about hubris and foosball but mostly hubris, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Tuukka Rask had a shutout and Daniel Paille had his second goal in as many games as the Boston Bruins seized a 2-1 advantage in the Stanley Cup final with a 2-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks. Ageless right winger Jaromir Jagr, who was held scoreless again but had a critical assist in his team's win, said after the game, "I can't believe I'm here trying to win my first Stanley Cup in 21 years. I could have had children after my last Stanley Cup win who would be almost old enough to drink." Jagr then narrowed his eyes and said, "No, seriously, given how that night went almost 21 years ago, I could have had children after my last Stanley Cup win who would be almost old enough to drink. Let's say the Cup has a lot of volume, I was 19, and if we do win this, there are some mistakes that Lord Stanley and I will not repeat."
Max Scherzer struck out 10 and improved to 10-0 as the Detroit Tigers beat the Baltimore Orioles, 5-1. "But am I an ace?" a concerned Scherzer asked after the game. "Please tell me! Am I an ace on a staff with a pair of aces, or the best no. 2 in the game? Or am I an ace in the making who still has something to prove? Do I need to escape Justin Verlander's shadow, or do we make each other better by pitching back-to-back? Won't someone please debate these designations and render a verdict based on a meaningless quote from my manager?" Detroit manager Jim Leyland then added, "He's at the top of his game pretty much," which pretty much settled the ace question once and for all.
Earlier today the Denver Nuggets announced that head coach George Karl, reportedly seeking a contract extension, would part ways with the team with one year left on his deal.
There are at least three big themes that have followed Karl through his career:
1. Innovation and stylistic flexibility.
2. Teams that have generally been better on offense than on defense, save for those glorious 1990s Sonics, which enjoyed a two-way balance Karl’s teams have since struggled to achieve.
3. Playoff disappointments. Karl’s Sonics made the Finals in 1996, but the the 1993-94 version became the first no. 1 seed to lose in the first round, and his Nuggets advanced past that first round just once in his nine seasons — despite making the playoffs every season. To pin all that on Karl is unfair and ignores context. Denver had a better regular-season record than its opponent in exactly one of those eight first-round losses — this season’s crusher against the Splash Brothers. Four of those seven first-round losses came against the Tim Duncan Spurs and Kobe Lakers — teams that hogged the NBA Finals for much of Karl’s tenure. (Denver had home-court advantage against Utah in the 2010 playoffs, but the teams had identical records, and Karl missed the series while undergoing cancer treatment; Adrian Dantley coached the team.)
In case you were out living your own sports dreams by eating pretzels like Jason Alexander circa '94, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
The Los Angeles Kings once again showed that Staples Center is a fortress, extending their unbeaten home playoff record with a 3-1 win over the Blackhawks to narrow Chicago's Western Conference finals lead to 2-1. "Man, it's harder to win there than it is at a Staples," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said after the game. "I mean, you go in, and the prices are way higher than you'd find online, but it's like, I need index cards today and where the hell else can you get index cards? Then you end up wandering down an aisle and remembering that your wife told you the router was on the fritz, so you go to pick up a new one, but all the models are weird and overpriced. Then you get up to the counter, and boom, Jonathan Quick rejects your credit card. So you go to shoplift some highlighters. Which, and trust me on this one, only makes things worse."
Oklahoma avenged its defeat in last year's Women's College World Series by completing its sweep of the Tennessee Volunteers with a 4-0 series-clinching win. Oklahoma became the first WCWS champion to finish first in the nation in ERA and scoring, putting it in the conversation about the greatest women's college softball teams of all time. Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops differed in his assessment, however, saying, "Last year's model was definitely better; it's always better when you make it to the finals and lose. Builds character. Shows true greatness."
Popular consensus holds that when looking to fill a head coaching vacancy, hiring a coach with prior NBA head coaching experience is the smart, safe move. Congratulations, NBA team! You’ve chosen an “experienced, veteran coach” who “knows the league” and “has seen everything!” You’re ready to take on the world. Funny story: That’s basically a bunch of bullshit.
Gregg Popovich, who took over as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996, is the longest-tenured head coach in the NBA. Because he’s thought of as such an experienced old hand now, it’s easy to forget he was a first-timer when he installed himself as head coach 17 seasons ago. (Popovich was hired as the team’s general manager and vice-president of basketball operations in 1994. He replaced Bob Hill as head coach in December 1996 after firing Hill 18 games into the season.) In today’s NBA, that makes him something of a rarity.
Starting with the hiring of Popovich, there have been 150 full-time head coaching hires (meaning ones that weren’t interim coaches being given the full-time job, à la Mike Woodson in New York or Frank Vogel in Indiana) made by NBA teams prior to this season. Of those 150 openings, 90 were filled by “retreads,” those who had previously been an NBA head coach.
“Retread” carries negative connotations, so most teams sell the “experienced” angle I referenced earlier. When your favorite team hires someone who has been a head coach elsewhere, you can set the over/under for combined uses of “been there before,” “winning culture,” and “proven record of success” at the introductory press conference at somewhere around 73.5.
The long game in the NBA is fickle. Luck intertwines with talent to determine long-term success in a 30-team league in which having at least one of the top 20 players (and preferably one of the top 10) is required for championship contention. The luck + talent + decision-making equation tilted against two local lightning rods on Tuesday, one coach and one GM. Some words on each:
The Clippers Decline to Offer Vinny Del Negro, and Del Negro’s Hair, a New Contract
Del Negro is by some measures the most successful coach in the sad history of the Clippers, but 56 wins and back-to-back playoff appearances were not enough to earn a new contract — not after the Clips dropped four straight games, each more dispiriting than the last, to a very good Memphis team in the first round. It’s hard to evaluate this decision without first acknowledging four realities so basic they are almost boring:
• Del Negro would still have this job if Chris Paul wanted him to have it.
• Del Negro may well still have this job had Blake Griffin not suffered a serious ankle injury between Games 4 and 5 of the Clippers’ first-round series against the Grizzlies.
• With Del Negro out, and probably unlikely to get one of the head-coaching jobs currently open (or soon to come open), there is a vacancy atop the “Best Coach at Screaming at Opposing Shooters and Stamping His Feet” rankings. Del Negro really redefined this skill. He was like a sixth defender on some possessions, and if you edited out the basketball game happening around him, he’d have looked at times like an adult going through a child’s tantrum. Lawrence Frank was a solid no. 2, but he’s also out of a job for now. The door is wide-open, Erik Spoelstra.
• Del Negro might still have this job if the Clippers played defense in the second half of the season, and in the playoffs, as they did over the first 30 games. The Clippers finished ninth in points allowed per possession, but they ranked just 21st from February 1 through the end of the season, and the slowpoke Grizzlies absolutely sliced them up in the playoffs. The Clippers were bad defensively almost the whole season when the Blake Griffin–DeAndre Jordan duo shared the back line, and they just never showed enough growth or systemic coherence on that end. The Clippers’ bench was mostly very good defensively, and both Griffin and Jordan showed fits of progress — Jordan protecting the rim and defending the post, Griffin using his speed to disrupt pick-and-rolls far from the hoop.
Do you guys remember the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs? They’re still in the playoffs, I swear! That Heat-Bucks series was actually this season. I know — it seems like it might have been Miami’s first-round series last season, but it really was just a week ago the Heat wrapped up the most predictable sweep of this season’s first round.
The biggest story out of Miami since then has been Shane Battier’s decision to grow something like a Fu Manchu mustache. They may have also scheduled some exhibitions against the Generals, just to stay fresh. The Spurs have presumably been on a wine-tasting tour with Gregg Popovich, and rumor has it franchise higher-ups forced Pop to undergo a media-training refresher after he was strangely polite to sideline reporters during the Spurs’ first-round whitewashing of the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
In case you were busy dusting off the old Maypole a few days early so you can really get your Maypole dancing where you want it in time for May Day, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday:
Denver kept its playoff hopes alive with a chippy 107-100 win over the Golden State Warriors. Both Warriors coach Mark Jackson and guard Stephen Curry complained about the Nuggets' physical play, and forward Kenneth Faried was singled out for a few illegal screens committed in the first quarter. "Is it illegal to commit an illegal screen?" Faried asked after the game. "Is jabbing a smaller man in the chest with your elbow, just to make him think all of a sudden, against the rules of basketball? Is it?" When told that it was, Faried responded, "Oh, it is? Really? Oh, man, I had no idea. I'll clean that up in the next one. My bad, Steph."
If the Los Angeles Kings are going to defend their Stanley Cup crown, they'll have to do better than their 2-1 opening-game defeat to the St. Louis Blues. Kings goalie and noted hockey satirist Jonathan Quick, whose careless giveaway led to the winning goal in overtime, said after the game, "I was caught in reverie, devising a modest proposal whereby the people of St. Louis might avoid the blues: They could eat their young. And then I thought maybe I could just let them score. And before the thought was even finished in my head, it had happened."
The NBA playoffs are in full swing, and as the amazing continues to happen, the Grantland crew wants to help you buff up on some of the lesser-known faces who will be populating basketball's second season.
Who Is He? Quincy Pondexter.
Where Is He From? Washington.
Years Played: 3.
What’s His Salary? $1.23 million.
Nickname: Back at San Joaquin Memorial High School, where Pondexter played with Brook and Robin Lopez, they used to call him “Slow Mo.” He didn’t like that. These days, it seems to be “QPon,” which counts, I guess.
His Game in 25 Words or Fewer: Improved shooter whose main value on offense comes via the corner 3. A capable defender who has a length advantage when matched up on 2s.
In case you were out changing the world with the first-ever mass-produced backyard eagle coop (patent pending), here's what you missed in sports on Thursday:
On a day when men in the trenches were in demand, the Kansas City Chiefs selected OT Eric Fisher out of Central Michigan with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. "Oh, that's awesome, I love Eric Fisher," said casual Chiefs fan and Kansas City transplant Bill Franzen. "I remember watching him in college and thinking to myself, 'Man, I hope that guy ends up on my Chiefs.' What an exciting year to have the top pick in the draft. I remember last year; I was in the break room at the actuarial firm where I work, and I was like, 'This team is an Eric Fisher–type talent away from contending.' I just can't wait to watch him stop guys from hitting newly acquired quarterback Alex Smith next year." Franzen then paused, looked over his shoulders and asked in a whisper, "Right? Was that a good reaction to have? I have no idea what to think."
Manti Te'o was among the high-profile prospects to drop out of the first round of the NFL draft. Te'o's embarrassment was compounded by a phone call he received from someone purporting to be an NFL general manager. "He said his name was Trick Footballsworth of the Los Angeles Footballers and that I was for sure going to be his first-round pick," a sheepish Te'o explained after the first round was over. "All I had to do was give him my social security number, some bank passwords, and then mail my car keys to a P.O. Box in Simi Valley. Anyone could've fallen for that, though, so I'm not going to beat myself up too hard over this. Though I do need a ride."
I guess when you have someone who plays crunch time in bullet time, it's not really crunch time, is it? When you have someone capable of scoring eight of your final 10 points, you don't really have to worry that your half-court offense is entirely reliant on moments of individual brilliance from your stars, rather than finding open looks for players through passing and off-the-ball movement. There's something magical about the Clippers (and I don't mean that in the sun-dappled, wheat-field-blowing way ... I mean that in the down-market Vegas lounge act way). You watch them, and it just doesn't make any sense. You could tell me they had the best or worst offensive efficiency in the league (it's closer to the former), and I'd believe you. But when you have Chris Paul in the fourth quarter, magic goes out the window. It stops making sense. Maybe you don't want to need him — if the Clippers had done better than 2-of-15 from behind the arc, or hadn't fouled the Grizzlies back into the game, they might not have required his legendary crunch-time services — but it's nice to know he's there, just in case.
In case you were busy because no one at the game of Celebrity you were playing could get Lark Voorhies, here's what you missed in sports on Monday:
Chris Paul scored his team's last eight points, including an acrobatic runner with 0.1 seconds remaining, as the Los Angeles Clippers edged the Memphis Grizzlies, 93-91, to take a 2-0 lead in their playoff series. "I don't know how he does it," Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said after the game. "Seriously. He seems to have a really good understanding of floor spacing and leadership. Is there like, a book he read? Because if so, could anyone tell me the name of it so I can throw it on my Kindle? It would be greatly appreciated."
The Chicago Bulls evened up their series with the Brooklyn Nets with a 90-82 win at the Barclays Center. The Barclays Center is not to be confused with Bar Clay Centre, also located in Brooklyn, which allows patron to both paint their own pottery and sample delicious Belgian ales. Team officials denied rumors that Nets guard Deron Williams, who went 1-for-9 in the loss, mixed the two up before the game. But afterward, there were a suspicious number of shoddily constructed clay trophies strewn about the Nets locker room with "Wurlds #1 PG," and "Chris My Paul," scrawled on them.
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is here to help you keep track of it all. You'll find takes on moments you might've missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
He Ate the Bones
Bucks coach Jim Boylan on LeBron James: "I mean, what can you do?"
In preparation for the NBA playoffs, this is second entry breaking down one play or action central to the success of each playoff-bound team. (Read the first post, on the Knicks, Celtics, Heat, and Bucks, here.) Check back tomorrow for the remaining eight breakdowns.
Denver Nuggets: Andre Miller and the Hit-Ahead Pass
It’s no secret that this Denver team loves to play fast. What may come as a shock, however, is that it’s the Nuggets’ 37-year-old backup point guard, not their speed merchant Ty Lawson, who allows them to truly achieve a breakneck pace.
This is because Miller is perhaps the best point guard in the league at the hit-ahead pass, a pass most players learn before they even hit puberty. But knowing about it and executing it are two different things. The veteran guard possesses an unbelievable ability to receive an outlet from a big man and then, sometimes even without a dribble, fling a pass on the money to a streaking teammate nearly 50 feet upcourt.