Friday, June 13, 2008

Not quite the Fantastic Four....

But without them, the Celtics Big Three wouldn't be 48 minutes away from hoisting a seventeenth championship banner in the rafters of the Gahden (I refuse to call it by its corporate sponsored name - but more on that some other time). As important as The Big Ticket, The Truth, and The Rain Man have been to Boston's success, the three would still be coming up short against Los Angeles.

Each of the following four have been instrumental in the C's three wins -

Rajon Rondo - In game one Rondo notched 15 points and seven assists in a ten point Boston win to kick off the Finals. The fourth best Celtic on the floor tied the offensive output of the second best Laker.

Leon Powe - The hero of Game Two was arguably the second best player on the court, not just the Celtics, when he put up 21 points on 6 of 7 shooting in less than 15 minutes of play.

Eddie House - In game four House subbed in, taking over for Sam Cassell who had taken over for an injured Rondo. House put up 11 with four rebounds.

James Posey - The real horse of the bench in game four, Posey sunk 50 percent of his shots, including four of eight from behind the arc while helping to bring the Celtics back from their 24 point deficit. In a game where Lakers starters outscored Celtics starters 76-62, Posey and House were part of a Boston bench that smoked the Lakers bench by a 20-point margin, scoring 35 to the Laker bench's 15. Hell, Posey alone outscored the Laker bench by three.

On a Laker note -

During their playoff run leading up to the Finals, the acquisition of Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies was being hailed as one of biggest one-sided trades in NBA history. Gasol was being widely hailed as the move that would take pressure off of Kobe Bryant.

Here were some of the headlines predating the finals -

Utah Jazz: Gasol key acquisition for L.A.'s title run - The Salt Lake Tribune

With 19 rebounds, Gasol shows he can do more than score - The Press Enterprise (on May 29, in the wake of the San Antonio series)

Kupchak's deal for Gasol headlines Lakers' return to Finals - USA Today

Was Pau Gasol trade the worst in recent NBA history? - Orlando Sentinel

With the acquisition of Gasol, the Lakers were thought to be the deeper of the two teams in the Finals. The line that we were fed by the pundits was that the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the regular season, but that was before they had Gasol. He was the missing piece.

Before the finals the Lakers had the deeper team. They had the experience in guys like Kobe and Lamar Odom who were helping the young talent develop. They were the best team in the Western Conference because Kobe finally had help. They handled the defending champs in five games which included a convincing 30 point win in game two.

Four games later against Boston the pundits are writing their epitaphs for a heavily favored Laker team now down three-one, fans and pundits have started the "Kobe can't do it by himself," calls.

Fact of the matter is, either he has a team around him or he doesn't - that doesn't change from one series to the next. What does are match-ups. And the Celtics match-up better against the Lakers than anyone, including myself, gave them credit for before this series began.

Before the finals, Gasol was the missing piece - for most of the finals, he's just been missing.
He went from key-man in the middle to softer than Charmin. Odom was no longer the sage voice of experience helping to mentor the younger players - he was mostly just a no show. Phil Jackson was supposed to be the Hall of Famer that would coach circles around Doc Rivers - instead, he's a JAG (just another guy), who is doing little strategically to react to every move that Rivers though by the virtue of being Phil his team will find a way.

The Lakers depth off the bench - apparently a myth against a tough defensive team...consider this stat: including the C's game three loss, the Boston bench has outscored the L.A. bench by 26. Considering only the Boston wins, that margin jumps to 34 (in Lakers terms, should the series close out on Sunday, that number will heretofore be referred to as the number of The Beast).



-Doc Rivers, Celtics coach to his players during the fourth quarter of game four of the 2008 Finals.

At the end of the first half, I certainly didn't.

The Celtics were playing ugly, and the Lakers were taking the game to them. I have to admit, I was convinced that the Lakers were walking away with this one - so much so that I went to bed at half-time.

Jokingly, I told my wife that I was going to miss the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history.

When a team comes back from 24 points down on the opponent's home court, that's not just a comeback - that's a neutering. Paul Pierce and friends effectively took the Lakers' collective manhood.

A lot of articles will make a big deal out of the first and second half scores, but realistically, the comeback started at the in the second quarter. The Lakers blew their load in the first 12 minutes, outscoring the C's 35-14. The problem for L.A. is that in the subsequent quarters Boston outscored Phil Jackson's team by 3, then 16, then 8. After spotting them 21 in the first, the Celtics grabbed the Lakers by the balls and squeezed to the tune of 37 points for which L.A. had no answer.

After the first two games, I figured there was a good chance the Celtics could take the series in six if they could steal one in LA-LA-Land. After the way the two games went, I'm wondering if Doc Rivers will be keeping Kobe's and Jackson's balls in a jar next to the trophy on his awards shelf after Sunday's game five.

One final note - everyone, stop comparing Kobe to Michael Jordan. In a series like this Jordan would have put the team on his back and done everything possible to ensure a Bulls win. He wouldn't have walked off the court with time left on the clock. More and more in this series the league MVP has looked more like the league's biggest chump.

For more on this game, check out The Coffin Corner's take.

Manhood, part II...

Josh Beckett is second on the team in wins, in spite of being incredibly mediocre on the mound this season. Daisuke Matsuzaka had been the Red Sox ace before going down with a shoulder issue. Beckett did not pick up the slack.

Jon Lester did. Lester has been the team's second best pitcher and he came through again in his latest start, going seven innings and giving up only two earned runs against an Orioles team that has given the Sox problems lately.

The Sox are 9-6 in Lester's starts (Lester is 5-3, including a no-decision in a game where he pitched 8 innings of shut-out ball, a game the Sox won). Only four times this season has the lefty given up more than three earned runs, and the last time that happened was in April.

Since April 23, the last time Lester gave up more than three earned in a game, Lester has averaged 6.1 innings per start and has lowered his ERA from 5.40 to 3.43. In six of the nine starts Lester has given up two runs or fewer, including twice shutting a team out. During that stretch Lester is 4-1 and the team is 6-3. In spite of an ERA over three, Lester has been the team's best starter for the last six weeks, and against Baltimore, he showed it again.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The difference between first and last

Due to either injury or ineffectiveness the Yankees have started nine different pitchers. Primarily, in regards to the Red Sox, Boston has started eight different pitchers due to injury.

The quality of the two teams' pitching tells the story of the difference in the standings.

Through 66 games, Yankees starters have pitched 355 innings. Only three pitchers - Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Chien-Ming Wang - have thrown more than 60 innings. Only three - Pettitte, Wang, and Darrell Rasner - have averaged at least six innings per start. As a team, the Yankees have averaged five and a third innings per start. Take away Mussina, Pettitte, and Wang, and the remaining staff has averaged a paltry three and two thirds innings per start. In other words - based on the average of the 25 starts made by the other starters, the bullpen (in those 25 games) has logged 158 1/3 innings of work - the equivalent of 17.5 games worth of pitching.

The Sox starters, on the other hand, through 68 games, have racked up 406 1/3 innings - a six inning per start average. Only David Pauley, a minor leaguer who has had one spot start that lasted four and a third, has an average innings pitched below five and a third. The disparity between the two teams has resulted in the Yankees utilizing their bullpen for 44 1/3 innings more than the Sox, despite playing two fewer games. That means the Yankees have had their bullpen pitch the equivalent of roughly five more games than the Sox pen.

Consider some of the head to head comparisons -

Matsuzaka - 11 starts, 64 innings, 5.2 IP/G
Masterson - 4 starts, 24.1 innings, 6 IP/G
Colon - 5 starts, 29 innings, 5.2 IP/G
Lester - 14 starts, 82.1 innings, 6 IP/G
Beckett - 12 starts, 79 innings, 6.2 IP/G
Wakefield - 13 starts, 81 innings, 6.1 IP/G
Buchholz - 8 starts, 42.1 innings, 5.1 IP/G
Pauley - 1 start, 4.1 innings, 4.1 IP/G

Bruney - 1 start, 2 innings, 2 IP/G
Chamberlain - 2 starts, 6.2 innings, 3.1 IP/G
Rasner - 7 starts, 42 innings, 6 IP/G
Mussina - 14 starts, 75.1 innings, 5.1 IP/G
Wang - 14 starts, 90 innings, 6.1 IP/G
Pettitte - 13 starts, 79.1 innings, 6 IP/G
Hughes - 6 starts, 22 innings, 3.2 IP/G
Igawa - 1 start, 3 innings, 3 IP/G
Kennedy - 8 starts, 43.2 innings, 4.1 IP/G

While the comparison of the veterans isn't bad, where it really falls apart for the Yankees has been with the young pitchers that they needed to contribute, and the spot starters who, as previously noted, have been unable to even muster an average of four innings per start. The Sox, on the other hand, have actually improved team averages as both Masterson (6 IP/G) and Colon (5.2 IP/G) have both put up better or equivalent per game averages than have Matsuzaka (5.2 IP/G) and Buchholz (5.1 IP/G).

The Yankees, on the other hand, have had trouble plugging that five-hole, and it was thirty games into the season before they had a solution - Rasner - at the four spot. Consider that only Ian Kennedy, outside of the front four in the rotation, has even averaged as many as four innings per start at 4.1.

And let's be serious - Rasner has never started more than six games in the majors...ever. Already the deterioration has started. Rasner won his first three starts and lost his last four. In his first four starts Rasner averaged 6.1 IP and went 3-1. His last three - 0 - 3 and 5.2 IP.

When Rasner completely spits the bit, then what is the Yankee solution?

To stay competitive this season the Yankees will need to trade away some young talent and acquire someone that will give their bullpen a rest. Otherwise, they should get used to .500.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spin control

The NBA is in full spin control and David Stern is sounding more and more like Roger Clemens in relation to the latest allegations from Tim Donaghy. Stern has been all bluster and no substance, attacking the character of the accuser while sidestepping any real comment on the claims themselves.

My guess is that Stern would like this to go away....probably as much, if not more than the NFL wants Arlen Specter to go away.

The problem is part of Stern's reasoning.

Sterns recent comments about Donaghy -

"Because a convicted felon said something about his colleagues in order to lower his time away, am I worried about that? I'm worried that someone is out there saying it, but you're the one who will either deal with it or not as part of the media. We've been as open and transparent as we can be...But we'll stay with it, and we have no doubt that Mr. Donaghy is the only one here that's guilty of criminal activity."

Those are made all the more interesting in light of this quote from 2006 when Donaghy was still on the league's payroll - "
I think we have the best officials, the best-monitored officials, the best-developed officials in all of sports."

They have "the best-monitored officials" in all of sports? Yet a majority of the officials were, at the time, in violation of the league's gambling policy, and they knew nothing of Donaghy's violations?

Now Stern expects us to believe the denials the league is issuing?

That's the height of arrogance.

Of course, considering Donaghy's claims, in essence, are an indictment of Stern, he's going to deny the claims. Stern is telling us that the league has been transparent, and that the feds have found no violations beyond Donaghy's - but can anyone out there tell me exactly what the Feds were investigating? Were they investigating the league, or were they investigating Donaghy? Because if it was just Donaghy, it was out of the purview of their investigation, it was not an investigation into what other officials may have been doing. What did the league even investigate? Gambling?

What has really done by the league to look into this? I know they found that a whole bunch of other officials violated league rules and then were given a free pass. Hell, Stern suggested changing the rule to accommodate the violators. So why should I believe Stern on this? I mean, that could be construed as a payoff - a free pass in exchange for the silence of the violators...assuming that Donaghy is indeed telling the truth.

There are a lot of reasons that you could give for Donaghy lying about this, but Sterns reasons for possibly putting the fix on games has to do with a league whose net worth is in the billions. A lot of money is a lot of motivation to make sure the league continues netting maximum profits - and max profits are definitely not Sacramento making the finals over the Lakers.

Once again - I'm not saying I believe Donaghy. But I am saying that I don't think Stern is any more credible than Donaghy, and that Donaghy's claims have to be given at least enough weight to merit an investigation, if for no other reason than to put this to rest once and for all.

As for Stern - he might want to consider NOT taking a page from the Roger Clemens playbook on this one.

And let's just note - if an independent investigation reveals Donaghy to be correct - let's start talking about the validity of Phil Jackson's genius and post-season record.

Credibility and other things on my mind...

"I’ve never seen a game like that in all these years I’ve coached in The Finals"

-Phil Jackson on game two of the Finals when the Celtics went to the foul line by an almost 4 to 1 margin.

The same Phil Jackson whose Laker team benefited from a 28 to 10 margin in the fourth quarter of a semi-finals game against the Kings to get to a game 7. The same game that disgraced official Tim Donaghy implied was fixed to give the Lakers the win in order to get the team to game 7.

The same Phil Jackson whose Laker team, earlier in the playoffs, went to the line 43 times against the Jazz's 16.

Of course Jackson was going to point out the free-throw disparity, because the actual proportion of fouls called in that game - 4-3 (28 on L.A., 21 on Boston - which, of course, is more an indictment of the Lakers' play in that game than the officiating).

Game 3...

The third game is not a game that should have given the Lakers a lot of confidence. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett played poorly and the Lakers could only win by six, and they couldn't score 90 on their home floor against Boston.

At this point, I'm thinking the C's win in six, giving the Boston faithful something to celebrate on the parquet.

The Fix is in...

For years pundits and fans alike have speculated that the fix may very well be in when it comes to the post-season in the NBA. Now it seems as though most of those pundits are very quick to come to the NBA's defense in regards to Tim Donaghy's allegations about fixing games.

Of course, this is also the same press that was quick to dismiss Jose Canseco's allegations of steroid use in Major League Baseball, in spite of the fact that others before him - including the late Ken Caminiti, a former MVP and steroid user - had already made the same claims.

Personally, I think Donaghy is on the level regarding this. Or at the very least, he believes he is on the level.

Let's consider two very important facts in regards to that particular year -

First - a game seven would generate significant additional revenue for the league and give the Lakers an extra shot at getting to the finals.

Second - what team is going to garner the most viewers? The Kings or the Lakers? As such, which team is going to generate the most advertising revenue?

Circumstantially, the evidence really does favor Donaghy, and not just in this instance.

Anyone else waiting to hear Arlen Specter crying foul? I mean, this isn't a team trying to break the rules - this is a league trying to fix games, if what Donaghy says has even an iota of truth.

This requires an independent investigation far more than any issues the NFL is currently facing.

Here's one final NBA thought to leave everyone with - How, exactly, did David Stern turn the league around? Adding games in the playoffs?

Dontrelle Willis...

Am I the only one that saw this one coming?

Willis, often billed as the second coming of Lefty Grove, has had only one ace-like season under his belt when he went 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA en route to the World Series. Only once has he won more than 14 games. His ERA has increased by one run or more in each of the last three seasons.

This season Willis is no longer in the hitters' B-league and only twice has lasted more than two innings and only once as long as five. In five appearances he has averaged two innings per appearance and is giving up over ten runs per nine innings.

Okay, this is worse than what I thought, but I didn't think the Willis trade and signing was that great a move by Detroit.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Powe-etry in motion

With apologies to Edgar Allen, who was born in Boston in 1809...

Once upon a playoffs dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious story of champions past,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping on my parquet floor.
`'Tis someone off the bench,' I muttered, `dribbling on my parquet floor -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the hot, hot June,
And each separate air conditioner cooled upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my sports columns' surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Celtics of Yore -
For the rare and radiant Celtics whom the angels named the Big Three of Yore -
Champions here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each basketball short
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some Laker entreating a post-season win on my parquet floor -
Some Phil Jackson entreating the refs on my parquet floor; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Doc,' said I, `Mr. Rivers, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and through playoffs you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at the finals door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Kobe was there, and little more.

Deep into that player peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming of championships Celtics fans ceased to dream before
But the home-court advantage was unbroken, and the Celtics gave no token,
And the only words there spoken was the whispered words, `one more!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the words, `one more!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped Three like those of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made they; not a minute stopped or stayed they;
But, with mien of lord, perched above rim on my parquet floor -
Perched by a bust of Russell just above my parquet floor -
Perched, and stood, and nothing more.

Then this ebony Three beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance they wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Garnett grim and Allen - stars wandering from other franchise's shores -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Playoff shore!'
Quoth the Three, `champions...evermore.'

Much I marveled these lanky Celtics to hear discourse so plainly,
Though their answer held little meaning – until they win the final four;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing Bird on his parquet floor -
Bird or Pierce above the backboard rim above the parquet floor,
With such a cry as `champions...evermore'

But the Russell, sitting lonely on the placid bench, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a uniform fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other champions have flown before -
On the morrow they will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then he said of the Lakers, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only what came before,
Caught from some unhappy fanbase whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till in the cellar the fanbase bore -
Till the dirges of our hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "champions...Never-nevermore."'

But the Celtics still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of the big screen TV on the floor;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous Three of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous Three of yore
Meant in croaking `champions...evermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the players whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the TV-light gloated o'er,
But whose bright, wide-screen with the TV-light gloating o'er,
The Lakers' press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Auerbach whose foot-falls shuffled on the parquet floor.
`Coach,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - with those players he has sent thee
Rivers - Rivers recalls fondly our memories of the parquet floor!
Quaff, oh quaff in the Garden seats, and recall the glories of the parquet floor!'
Quoth the Russell, `Lakers...Nevermore.'

`Jackson!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if coach or devil! -
Whether Laker sent, or the playoffs tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this Celtic team enchanted -
In this Garden by Pierce and Powe haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in LA? - tell me - tell me, I implore!'
Quoth the Russell, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if coach or devil!
By that official that bends above us - by that hoop we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Arena,
Celtics clasp a sainted trophy somewhere away from their parquet floor -
Clasp a seventeenth radiant trophy, maybe on their parquet floor?'
Quoth the Rajon, `champions...evermore.'

`Be those words our sign of parting, Phil or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Nation's Pacific shore!
Leave no purple sock as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my dreams of winning unbroken! - quit the bench on the parquet floor!
Take thy team from out my Hub, and take thy Lakers from off my door!'
Quoth the Celtics, `Nevermore.'

And the Jackson, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the bench, of the refs complaining sitting by my parquet floor;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted – Champions again and forevermore!

Now that I have posted this, the boys in green better win.

Things I think about this weekend

  • I think the finals are designed in such a way as to minimize the impact of home-court in the NBA. With three straight games coming up in Los Angeles, and the way the Celtics have played on the road, the Lakers still worry me. I think for the Celtics to win this thing they absolutely, positively need to take one in LA, and I think it needs to be one of the first two games they play against the Lakers, because I'm not convinced that they will be able to take the third if they drop two in a row.
  • I think the Celtics lack the ability to stick the dagger in a team when they have it dead to rights. I think that was obvious when they nearly coughed up a 24-point lead, and over 40 points in fourth quarter to the Lakers in game two.
  • I think that the Celtics tend to go away from what gave them their lead when they get one.
  • I think with a 3-0 record and a 2.59 ERA (only one start in which he gave up more than one run) in four major league starts, the Red Sox are going to have a hard time justifying sending Justin Masterson back to AAA when Clay Buchholz gets healthy.
  • I think it's amazing that people were positive that a horse with a cracked hoof had a shot at the triple crown. And that they were surprised when Big Brown didn't run well.
  • I think Cedric Benson's an idiot. After being picked up for drunk driving this past weekend, he has lost the benefit of the doubt in relation to the incident last month on the boat. wherein police claim Benson was boating drunk.
  • I think the Red Sox need to learn how to be the same team on the road as they are at home...or even half that team. Currently when they're on the road they're...well, they're the Baltimore Orioles.
  • I think the more we see of him, the more everyone will realize that Jeremy Shockey is one of those supremely talented me-first guys who causes a team more harm then good with his selfishness. I still firmly believe that the Giants don't even make the Super Bowl, let alone win it, with a healthy Shockey.
  • And one final note - I think the three most important people in the Celtics' win were Paul Pierce who has been the best player on the court in the first two games, Rajon Rondo who has been finding the open man seemingly every time he has touched the ball, and Leon Powe who played less than 15 minutes and scored 21 points.