2012 NBA Playoffs: Pacers Vs. Magic Gets An Extenzion

Pacers vs. Magic, Game One, was a gut-scrambling watch for this native Hoosier. Well, duh, you say, Indiana lost to an obviously inferior team, at home, and it was really ugly, and it just proves that the Pacers aren’t ready to take the Next Step, and even if they do get by Orlando, a Miami series is going to be just no fun at all.

All very true, I’m saying it too. The Pacers should not have been beaten by a team led by Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson (a middling third banana, at his peak) and the marvellously inefficient Glen Davis, and though the Enlightened part of my mind says there’s lots of basketball left to play, the Reactive part is lighting up with disaster scenarios: Ryan Anderson was awful! What if he gets going, too! and Nelson just obliterated George Hill off the dribble, and Darren Collison was pesky on defense, but only against Chris Duhon, and if Roy Hibbert can’t hit that jump hook over a fat 6-foot-8 guy, what’s he going to do against a real center after the Pacers give him $60 million this offseason, and WHAT THE BLANKETY BLANK DANNY a travel and over-and-back sequence in the last 30 seconds is a GREAT way to establish yourself in the national eye as a humble semi-star worthy of inclusion in those montage highlights that are the NBA’s canonization process.

Now that that’s out, happy thoughts must prevail. There are very few sweeps of seven-game series, and the Pacers are playing a club that’s done a good deal more in May and June recently. Chris Mullin, in all of his Brooklynite eloquence, said several times of Indiana “that’s a tough step, going from an eight to a three-seed.” The tougher step, though, is winning a series. And then two, or three, or four. Playoff basketball is an entirely different entity than the regular season, and what Indiana has yet to learn (and Memphis, too, after their devastating giveaway Sunday night) is that getting buckets in the last minutes can’t be a chuck-it-up-there affair. You gots to dance the same steps that got you there, and those, especially against this Orlando team, include going through Hibbert and David West. Otherwise, you get the same sort of late offensive incompetence that plagued them in that quite close first round five-game series last year against Chicago, saying “Granger’s our best player, give it to him” while conveniently forgetting that he’s not much of a creator.

Also, Paul George had eight points, and two open 3s rim out in the closing minutes. He turns 22 on Wednesday; then the Pacers will be OK.

In all, this was already the Public Access series coming in, particularly without Dwight playing-Games Two and Three are on NBA TV, if you need proof-and the level of play was appropriately Dr. Steve Brulesque.  Thus, the lead-in commercial on ESPN was apropos: I give you Jimmy Johnson talking about improving his nether regions:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oF7peOWD0ws

2012 NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Orlando Magic

A knowledgeable NBA fan could have predicted in the preseason that the Pacers and the Magic might finish as the third and sixth seeds in the Eastern Conference, respectively. What many would have failed to predict is that the Pacers would be the host to the Magic in the first round of the Playoffs. Currently, there may not be two more divergent teams in the entire NBA playoff field. The Indiana Pacers on one hand, have exceeded the expectations of most analysts, and have a vapid fan base more consumed with off-season football melodrama than on the court execellence. While the Orlando Magic have come apart at the seams as a franchise, polarized by a season long soap opera most noted for the roller coaster trade-winds surrounding Dwight Howard.

Indiana finished 42-24 in this compacted 66 game season, with five more wins than all of last season, quietly demonstrating the tremendous growth of a ball club ready to contend. Last season’s grueling five game series against the top seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs laid the foundation for the success the team has experienced this year. They return to the playoff stage a deeper, more efficient, and better defensive team than a year ago, with six players averaging double figures, and a tenth overall ranked scoring defense. In a normal 82 game NBA season, the Pacers were on pace to win 52 games, eight more wins than in any of the previous seven seasons, and their best since a franchise record 61 in 2003-2004.

The current state of the Orlando Magic franchise is not one that coincides with the fun-filled, exciting ethos of the city’s famed Walt Disney Resort. There is no question though, this season has been filled with mickey-mouse antics, from rumored deals to the Lakers, Nets, and Mavericks for soon to be free agent franchise center Dwight Howard, to unscripted tell all interviews by embattled coach Stan Van Gundy about his impending firing. Further sowing the seeds of this season of discontent, Dwight Howard has been sidelined with a season ending back injury that significantly curtails the chances of the Magic to advance past the first round for the first time since the 2006-2007 playoffs. The Magic won the season series against the Pacers 3-1, in part because of their scoring defense (93.4), none of which matters now without the 3-time defending Defensive Player of the Year.

X-FACTORS

INDIANA

The front court size of Indiana will be of greater importance in these playoffs without Dwight Howard on the floor. That is the obvious. Indiana is one of the biggest teams in the league with significant length in the post and on the wings. But, the difference in just how well this oiled machine runs will depend on the point guard play of George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa. Collison and Hill have been the starters, with Hill taking over the starting job in the last month of the season. Indiana has gone 7-2 in that span, facing the Sixers as their only playoff foe, with whom they split two games. Hill figures to log the most minutes going forward, but Collison and Barbosa will play significant roles off the bench, depending on the game tempo and matchup. Another key factor in the Pacers chances of moving to the next round could be the play of Paul George. On good nights, George can do a lot of things well, from rebounding to attacking the rim with ferocity. His shooting percentage has generally been better against the Magic, and without Howard clogging up the middle, put backs and drives to the bucket may come a little bit easier for the second year guard.

ORLANDO

Built around their franchise center, the Magic offense is predicated on spacing for open perimeter shots. Third year forward Ryan Anderson had his best season yet, leading the league with 166 three pointers, and is in strong consideration for the Most Improved Player award. JJ Redick has also stepped up his game in the absence of injured Hedo Turkoglu, scoring 14.5 points a game, while shooting 45% from behind the arc in 22 starts. While the open looks may be more difficult to come by, especially when you factor in the opportunistic defense of the Pacers (15 forced turnovers a game), Orlando is still capable of moving the ball quickly enough to get good shots. Anderson and Redick will both have to do a better job of creating their own shots in this series if they hope to make up for the scoring loss of Howard. Glen “Big Baby” Davis will also play a pivotal role for Orlando, as their lone inside presence without Howard. More than anything else, the question regarding Davis will his ability to handle the increased minutes against a physical and deeper Indiana frontcourt unit.

PREDICTION

Pacers in six. Well, I wondered how many times I would mention Dwight Howard despite the fact that he isn’t playing. Doing so as many times as I have, underscores his value to the Orlando Magic franchise, and ultimately their chances at winning this series. Having led his team in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks this season, there is no question that his presence, or lack thereof will be the ultimate deciding factor. Indiana will almost certainly attempt to attack Orlando in the paint behind aggressive play from Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansborough. They should ultimately be successful in doing so, as the Pacers perimeter players will also have less fear of penetration into the middle of the paint for easy layups and dish offs. The leading scorer for the Pacers, Danny Granger has gotten his game together after struggling in the early season. Look for his play to also elevate in this series, especially in clutch situations.

The Orlando Magic should have a glimpse or two of success and past glory against an Indiana team with less playoff experience in this series. Assuming that the aforementioned shooters Anderson and Redick are able to get open consistently, and Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Turkoglu are able to use their experience to drive the lane and kick the ball out successfully. Unfortunately a lethal combination of front office turmoil and the loss of their franchise player to injury, the Magic have been given little chance to win this series. Stan Van Gundy will have to rely on every bit of coaching knowledge and game plan trickery that he can muster just to keep this series competitive. That will be a very tall order for such a short turnaround.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/John Raoux

2012 NBA Playoff Preview: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Am I excited for this Clippers-Grizzlies series? You betcha. The regular season’s been ugly, and it was best to tune out for a while, but now we have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the 30-foot bricks of Mo Williams on one side, set against Zach Randolph’s shambling post game combined with Gasol the Younger’s finesse and whatever praises or curses you want to lay on Rudy Gay. There’s intrigue in Chris Paul taking on the long arms of Mike Conley and Tony Allen, suspense in the question of whether Z-Bo can run the floor. He did this time, but will he get back again?

These are not your father’s Clips nor Grizz, not even the same teams from a couple years ago. Memphis beating the one-seed Spurs last year in six games was the franchise’s first playoff series win ever, after they were swept in three straight first-round series from 2004 through 2006. The Clippers won their second playoff series ever in 2006, and are returning to the postseason for the first time since this year. Both teams are talented, with young stars, with plans in place for the future.

And yet, for all of this anticipation of Good Basketball, I feel anxiety for these two teams, much in the way a poor mother worries about her late-blooming bucktoothed daughter dating a broker at Goldman Sachs, or foreign policy wonks concern themselves with the one crazy uncle of Banana Republic Z’s most recently installed dictator-for-life: The fall back to Cold Hard Reality is only a missed step, a misfired shot away.

Maybe it’s just my basic jersey biases coming through, but it’s strange to see these two teams in the playoffs and expecting success. Becoming a winning team is a precarious process, one that must be renewed every 48 minutes, and these two teams still have two of the worst owners in the league in Michael Heisley (Grizz) and the abject Donald Sterling (Clippers). Bad ownership always trickles down, eventually. For L.A., their hopes for now and at least next season rest on the finest Carolina pulled pork shoulder currently holding together Chris Paul’s knees, and his supporting cast, besides Griffin, can’t be called stellar. In Memphis, the Grizz are creeping up the attendance standings (20th this year), and there’s plenty of precedent for the NBA doing very well in single sport cities, but it takes years of winning and likable guys to keep the building rocking. Becoming a Portland or Utah doesn’t necessarily require repeat Finals wins, but it does take the hope that it could happen this year, or the next. This core has come together nicely, but if say Gay and/or Gasol don’t take the Big Step into elite status, does a front office that sent away Kevin Love (for the admittedly alright O.J. Mayo) and drafted Hasheem Thabeet (which will, in a decade, look worse than Darko if only for the sheer volume of talent that went after No. 2 overall in 2009) have the knowhow to retool on the fly like the best organizations?

Worry, anxiety, distress about the future, though–these are not thoughts for playoff time. Not when there’s as much talent as there is in the NBA right now. The Clippers and Grizzlies are playing what should be a competitive, important playoff series: what more evidence do you need for the State of the Game than that?

A Possibly Important Variable That’s Not So Obvious To You, Common Observer

If this incarnation of the Clippers is to compete for a championship, DeAndre Jordan has got to play more than 27 minutes a night, and he’s got to be a true $10 million big man. Blake Griffin is a pretty terrible on-ball defender, and Jordan isn’t so hot, either, but the latter has to play defense out there–his 7.2 ppg isn’t exactly off self-created offense. Jordan has rebounded well this year on both ends of the court, and blocks shots well from the weakside; none of that matters in the playoffs if you can’t keep the opposing big man from scoring on the block. Memphis will be throwing it down low to Gasol and Randolph a lot.

Prediction

Grizz in 6. Chris Paul’s pretty great at his job, and there’s been times when it has all come easy for the Clips this year, but not enough so that I think they can get by this Memphis team. San Antonio will be thrilled to see them, I’m sure.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Promoter: The Boss Hogg Gang

The Promoter could tell you that the long layoff this column ends was due to prioritizing, distractions, the monetarily uncompensated nature of this gig, and maybe just a wee touch of sloth, or if you want to minimize the moral judgment inherent in that word, a case of the old postmodern malaise.

As a window into the boxing world, however, we feel obligated to offer an excuse worthy of the modern Sweet Science: Let’s call it a “strained left middle knuckle” on top of some “serious dehydration resulting from a long Tuesday night.”

Alas, it’s been a slow start to the 2012 boxing year, and inspiration to write my way through these  serious physical obstacles has been lacking. The premiere early-year matchup, February’s rematch of welterweights Andre Berto and certified crazy-talker Victor Ortiz, was postponed to June.  Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao still aren’t getting together, and there’s been what feels like a good deal more controversy over scores than heated fights.

Even in dirty dealings, though, we must find some charms.  A studied, screw-it, too-cool cynicism is useful as one waits for something good to happen, but use it every day and you become a graying Jon Stewart: flinging your hands in every direction in response to all stimuli, and maintaining a following because there continue to be people who don’t remember that the time when you were allowed to merely point out a headline for a laugh passed after the late Clinton administration.  And if you just get angry every time something bad happens, well, we need your indignation for Change to occur, but good luck keeping the fire going anywhere other than Facebook after baby number two comes along.

Your average sort of scandal was on display this past weekend, as Action Star Brandon Rios missed the lightweight limit and then did approximately zero to earn a win against the lesser-known and not very exciting Richard Abril. The favored fighter wins, the commission (Nevada, in this case) says “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” the losing team protests, and presumably, nothing happens.

Appreciating boxing’s foibles as a higher and darker level of comedy requires cartoon villains and more surreal situations than a simple scoring screw-job, though.  (Also, it helps to have a willingness to put aside the fact that these men (and sometimes women) are putting their bodies and lives on the line and getting screwed).  One “Jackass” type example of such absurdity is last August’s fight in which Joseph Agbeko suffered about 700 balltaps–in that case incompetent referee Russell Mora did take a demotion to the 4-rounders for a while, but he was back on TV this winter.

Most of the Big Screw-Jobs lately have come from Texas.  Texas is a pretty great place to hold a fight for promoters, who like making money.  There’s plenty of big markets there, with lots of nice venues, and lots of rich folks, and it’s really close to Mexico, a country that still likes boxing enough to tune into big fights like they’re Super Bowl commercials.  Texas also boasts the best (worst) characters in the sport of late, and the most Pythonesque endings.

Take the James Kirkland-Carlos Molina fight from March 25.

Through most of 10 rounds, Molina negated Kirkland’s power with lots of wrestling, which was boring, but referee Jon Schorle did nothing about it.  Right before the bell sounded in round 10, Kirkland dropped Molina on a left to the chin.  Molina stood up; Schorle gave the count; the bell had rung.  Then Schorle decided he had to stop the fight, since according to the rules Molina’s cornerman coming through the ropes for a second when the count was still going, after the bell had rung, was grounds for disqualification.  Schorle was forced to stop the fight, or so said the announcement.

Here’s the from-the-rules doubletalk:

‘As special and unique circumstances arise in the sport of boxing, not all of which can be anticipated and addressed explicitly in these Rules and Regulations, the President of the WBC, in consultation with the WBC Board of Governors, has full power and authority to interpret these Rules and Regulations, and to issue and apply such rulings as he shall in his
sole discretion deem to be in the best interests of boxing.’

Q.E.D., indeed.

In a just universe, the fans would get to see that fight finish. Can Kirkland finish him?  Can Molina hang on?  Instead, there was a stoppage on a technicality that wasn’t even properly enforced.

So we can complain (and you should), but that’s not a coping mechanism.  My method for dealing with the clowns in the smoke-free backrooms is imagining them as something like Boss Hogg in “The Dukes of Hazzard:” hatching all sorts of plans to rob widows of their property and extending credit to carnies while mixing drinks out of beer mugs and smacking around Sheriff Rosco.

Someday (I do hope) boxing will find its Good Ole Boys who’ll do some serious harm to the way it works.

Not all was gloom in this first quarter of 2012.  Juan Manuel Lopez and Orlando Salido put on a great fight in early March, with Salido earning another win with a 10th round stoppage.

The 9th round is the current frontrunner for Round of the Year:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pm8KocyaAA0

And there’s good stuff a-coming!  Floyd Mayweather took about the best fight sans Pacquiao he could, taking on Miguel Cotto on May 5th, which will again be a crazy sporting day what with the debauched Kentucky Derby and all manner of NBA and NHL playoff action.  Some rich guy sometime needs to take the May First Saturday challenge and hit as much sporting action as he can, dropping out of helicopters to sit courtside and trackside and ringside like drivers who do the Indy 500-Coca Cola 600 double on Memorial Day weekend.

Until next week (maybe!), keep your dukes up.

Photo credit: CBS

Big Ass MLB Preview 2012 – St. Louis Cardinals

Last season: 90-72 (2nd in NL Central, 6 GB; Won NL Wild Card)

2011 Playoffs: Beat Philadelphia in NLDS, 3-2; Beat Milwaukee in NLCS, 4-2; Beat Texas in World Series, 4-3

Kyle Lohse had a 3.39 ERA in 2011. Skillful pitching, or black magic? You decide. (Photo: Associated Press)

Josh says: It used to be, when people knew other people were messing with the supernatural, they did something to stop the hijinks. The very survival of the village and its sustenance-farming economy was at stake; no one could trifle with the possibility of taking away a peasant’s eternal reward and live to cackle at the demonic tale. So Joe and Genevieve Six Rows Of Corn did the right thing: If s/he looked like a witch and weighed like a duck, they burned him/her. Or drowned him/her. Most likely, they did both (in some order), along with a whole slew of other tortures that even pay cable would censor in these soft days.

And we are soft in these “everyone’s a sunbeam, no one’s a witch” politically correct times, for we see evil users of black magic and let them complete their careers without even one good stake-burning. Instead of salting the fields where they grow their noxious herbs, we allow their cauldrons to bubble merrily all spring and summer until the brew is complete: Another above-average season from Kyle Lohse, and another World Series win.

What else can explain a Cardinals’ Series win but extrarational intercession?  No positive human thought or action can be praised.  Would you laud John Mozeliak for trading Colby Rasmus for two months of Edwin Jackson and 50 at-bats from Corey Patterson (a punishment worse than a PED suspension)?  Will you say “What a blessing that Tony LaRussa cannot use a telephone, for if we had not lost a Game 5, there could not have been a clinching Game 7!”?

Their second baseman was a squirrel!  Yadier Molina has a jugular vein covered in Oriental symbols!  Adam Builder-of-Hay-Wagons was out the whole year. Ryan Theriot played a lot, and sucked, and they still won. Lance Berkman produced a .301/.412/.547 line. He was fat, and old, and ugly, and playing the outfield for the first time in a decade, and gave them almost 600 plate appearances.  How much more proof do we need?

The question, now, is whether the Cardinals, without LaRussa and Dave Duncan and that Pooholes guy, can continue to defy nature and win baseball games.  In comes Carlos Beltran, and if the dark magic is working, he’ll give them a minimum .300/.400/.500 line and 150 games. If not, if the evils were all contained in Tony’s fuzzy red nose, Beltran will likely shatter on a chalk line before April is over.  If Wainwright returns, less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, and starts spinning webs of deception over opposing hitters’ eyes, we’ll know that the Dutch-owned American light lager presumably still allowed in the clubhouse has some sort of magic in it that can’t be captured by an accurate Born-On Date.

At age 35 and appearing to be headed into the twilight of his career, Lance Berkman was a huge part of the Cardinals' 2011 World Series run. (Photo: Associated Press)

Get your pins and dolls ready, and your stakes, and save up all the kindling you can.  It takes a special sort to light torches for the elimination of an evil as subtle as the St. Louis Cardinals.  Hate the Yankees all you want for their money and power–sure, we’re all broke, and who is actually from New York City?–they deserve our resentment.  But this humble ballclub? Hailing from a declined Midwestern city more crime-ridden than most, with tenuous claims on styles of barbecue and music long ago absorbed and improved by its neighbors and a few halcyon years in the forgotten Gay 1890s when people thought St. Louis was really the future’s Place To Be–it takes a certain type of red-eyed rage to recognize the dangers the Cardinals pose.

May the Cardinals sink, so that they must burn.

Worth watching: Tyler Greene and Matt Carpenter are white men who play the middle infield for the Cardinals. Joe Buck will realize during an August game against the Cubs that he is calling not just any stupid baseball game, but one that involves his father’s club, and so Buck will skip the fifth-inning Ambien that, to his credit, is the only thing that gets him through three hours with Tim McCarver, and he will get all weepy over the American Pastime as it is played in this Midwestern city, and one of these two mediocre middle infielders will be the receiver of his greatest slobbering praises, since Hometown Hero David Freese will be 0-for-28 in his last six games and hitting .227 on the year.

Featured Image Credit: Associated Press