The Moment Of Crisis

In 1998 the Yankees dominated MLB, clinching the AL East on September 9th in Fenway and finishing with 114 wins. They swept the Rangers in the ALDS, but then the script changed. After an easy Game 1 victory over Cleveland in the ALCS, the Yankees lost their cool and Game 2 in extra innings when Knoblauch held onto the ball and argued instead of getting time officially called. Game 3 was a disaster as Andy Petitte got roughed up and suddenly the Yankees, a team that had dominated all year, were facing the prospect of seeing their magical season end.

I was thinking about that last night as I watched Oklahoma City take apart Golden State and take a 2-1 lead in the Conference Finals. That did not look like a team that won 43, let alone 73 games, last night and the pressure is now clearly on the Warriors. For all the celebrations about winning 73 games, that won’t matter unless they can go the distance. The 72-win Bulls closed things out. The 1998 Yankees rebounded and did so as well, but think about the 2001 Mariners. 116 wins, but a loss in the ALCS denied them a shot at immortality. Those are the stakes for the Warriors. Win and become legends, lose and become an interesting footnote.

Which way will Golden State go now? I have no clue, but it is going to be a lot of fun to watch. Game 5 is Tuesday night at 9PM EDT.

Hornacek?

Word is Phil Jackson, Steve Mills, and Jeff Hornacek had dinner in midtown last night. While that’s not evidence of a done deal, it’s a sign that the Knicks are really serious about making Hornacek the next coach of the Knicks.

My first thought is, can he shoot a three still? My second is, does Phil Jackson hope to be fired? Look, Hornacek may be a great guy, but he isn’t a triangle coach, something Jackson supposedly insisted on, and he doesn’t appear to be a great coach. In Phoenix his teams got worse each year, albeit after a big improvement when he took over.

Some will take this as a sign that Jackson realizes he need to bend. Hiring a non-triangle coach and a coach who isn’t one of his former assistants or players. I don’t agree. There were guys like that available earlier this year who had far better resumes, Thom Thibodeau for example. To me this is either a hire forced on Jackson by Dolan, or a radical change that makes me question exactly what the long-term plan for the franchise is once again.

Catching Up

Sorry to have been away during a big week in New York sports, but I don’t set the school vacation calendar!

Anyway, I watched the Rangers’ season end from 30,000 feet thanks to Jet Blue and the Giants draft thanks to ESPN on the ground. Some thoughts on both follow.

For the Rangers the really discouraging part is that Lundqvist looked terrible for most of the series. That could be a sign he is acting his age (34) and if that is so, the Rangers are in a lot of trouble.  This team is built around Lundqvist and any slippage on his part dooms them to mediocrity.

But even if it isn’t a function of age, what do the Rangers do then? Do they double down (or quadruple down I guess at this point) and try for one last cup run? Or do they make the more sensible choice and rebuild? And if they choose to rebuild, what does that look like? This is a team with a lot of talent locked up into the future and very little talent in the pipeline. Rebuilding could take a few years, but trying for one last run could dig the hole even deeper. Not an easy choice.

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I think all of the draft grades assigned to the Giants are meaningless because this is a team that won’t compete for a Super Bowl next year without an amazing amount of luck. If you accept that assessment you can accurately judge this draft. If you don’t, it is a big failure.

Apple in the first round is a pick that will marginally improve this team, but could help enormously down the road. In the best case, Apple is the 3rd corner this year. That’s it, so he isn’t going to improve the team dramatically. But, if the Giants are right about him, he takes the job from DRC in 2017 and stars from there.

Shepard could be a great #2 receiver and the perfect complement to OBJ. That’s a great second round pick. Thompson in the third round fills a void at free safety and could become the ball hawk this secondary needs.

Goodson, Perkins, and Adams add depth, but not in the places the 2016 Giants necessarily need. Goodson will be a great addition to the linebacking corp, but the other two are “luxury” picks, which is weird for a team coming off a losing season. However, if Perkins is the RB scouts think he is and Adams is the TE scouts think he is, they have two huge weapons for the future.

But, there are still HUGE questions for this team going forward. What is the right side of the offensive line? Where is the depth on the defensive line? There are no clear cut answers to those questions at this point and that means we have no idea how the 2016 season will unfold.

The Beginning and The End

For the Rangers, tonight marks the start of the NHL Playoffs. For the Knicks, tonight marks the first day of the offseason. Let’s delve into both.

The Rangers have won eight playoff series over the last four seasons, but they haven’t hoisted a Stanley Cup. That ties a “record’ held by the Bruins of the late 1980’s for most playoff series wins without a Cup- ugh. They absolutely can win this year, but they made it more difficult by beating Detroit on Saturday. If they had lost that game, they would have opened the playoffs in Florida and assuming a victory there, played the winner of the Detroit-Tampa series. Now they have to beat the Penguins in Round 1 and probably face the best team in the NHL, Washington, in Round 2.

It won’t be easy, but it comes down to a simple formula for them. Lundqvist, Lundqvist, and more Lundqvist. If he is on top of his game, the Rangers will be a very tough team to play. If he isn’t, if he plays like he has the past few weeks, this will be a very quick playoff appearance.

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Then there are the Knicks and we can actually look at their season with some good feelings. For one, they weren’t the disaster they were last year. 32-50 is nothing to brag about, but when it comes on the heels of a 17-65 season it represents progress. Two, Kristaps Porzingas looks like a cornerstone player.

They are going to need more and that’s where Phil Jackson is going to have to earn his paycheck. I think that the easiest route to respectability is trading Carmelo for a lottery pick this year, stinking next year for another lottery pick, and using your major cap room after the 2016-17 season to round out the roster. I can’t tell what the team is going to do. Part of me thinks Anthony is going to force his way out of here, but part of me suspects that the Knicks won’t part with him because he gives them the illusion of competitiveness. I hope I am wrong about that because Anthony is on the decline and by the time Porzingas is all that he can be, Anthony will be a role player at best.

Stay tuned.

Losses Ranked

After last night I tried to come up with the worst losses I have suffered as a sports fan. This is called catharsis.

1- Game 5 1995 ALDS- So many things make this the worst starting with the fact that the Yankees had the series in hand the day before when they jumped out to a 5-0 lead in Game 4. They blew that and then came into the 11th inning of this game with a one-run lead. Three batters later the game and the series were over.

2- 2002 NFL Playoffs- Start with the fact that the Giants led 38-14 with less than five minutes to go in the third quarter, but then consider this. The 49ers rally and cut the lead to 38-30 with two TD’s and two 2-point conversions. They then kick a field goal to make it 38-33, but the Giants drive deep into SF territory only to miss a field goal on a bad snap.

Then things really got nutty. The 49ers drive down and score a TD, but the 2-point conversion fails. The Giants have a minute left and get into position for a 42-yard field goal to win the game. Bad snap #2 ensues and the Giants have the heave the ball downfield in desperation. Everyone in the world sees the Giants’ receiver get tackled before the ball arrives and the flag on the play. But, the call is ineligible man down field and the game is over. The following day the NFL apologized to the Giants because the player flagged as ineligible had in fact checked in and was eligible and for missing the obvious pass interference call. <sigh>

3- Game 3 1980 ALCS- George Brett off of Goose Gossage, tears flowed.

4- Game 5 2004 ALCS- What people forget about this game, which went 14 innings, is how many times the Yankees bent, but didn’t break as the extra innings progressed. Made it that more painful when things finally ended.

5- Villanova 77 UNC 74. The cruel part of this game was the fact that it was “over” with a few minutes left. UNC trailed by 10 and had no shot. But Marcus Paige refused to accept that and hit one of the craziest three-pointers you will ever see with 4.7 seconds left. But then….

6 and 7- Games 1+2 2014 Stanley Cup- Both games see the Rangers up 2-0 early. Both games see LA storm back. Both games go to extra time. Both games end with LA winning.

8- Game 5 2011 ALDS- I saw this one in person and I will never forget the quiet after the game ended.

9- 1989 NFL Playoffs- Rams come behind in the 4th quarter to tie the game and then win the coin toss in OT. Flipper Anderson catches a pass, gets to the end zone, runs down the tunnel, and disappears.

10- Games 1 and 7 1995 NBA Semifinals- Pick your poison. Game 1 is Reggie Miller’s “8 points in 9 seconds” where the Knicks blow a 6-point lead over the final 18. Game 7 is Patrick Ewing missing a layup at the buzzer and the Knicks losing their first ever Game 7 at home.

Honorable Mention- 2002 Olympic Hockey Finals- The 1980 Men’s Team lights the torch and you can feel the gold medal finally coming back to U.S. soil. The 2002 team beats the Russians in the semis, just like 1980, and then gets bombed by Canada on home ice to lose the gold medal.

 

The Agony

There are so many things I want to say about that game, but picture the Britt household tonight. Nate Britt, Carolina’s junior guard just lost the National Championship. That’s because Britt’s adopted brother, Kris Jenkins, hit the game-winning shot for Villanova. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

I said before the game that Villanova would win if they shot 71% again. They came close- 58%. And while Jenkins’ shot will get all of the attention, Villanova’s defense has to be given the ultimate credit. They kept Carolina out of the paint and forced them to become a perimeter team. UNC rose to the challenge, and almost won a game where they shot 43% overall, because they converted 67% from behind the arc.

I will never forget the final image of Marcus Page. Page has meant so much to UNC the past four years, not only on the court, but off of it as an Academic All-American. He hit the tying shot, then watched the winner go in and burst into tears.

I know how he feels.

Finals Time

So the truth is that if Villanova shoots 71% from the field tonight like they did Saturday, they are going to win the game. That is just an amazing night from the field. But assuming they don’t match that performance, they will have their hands full.

Quite simply, UNC is very hard to stop. If you watched the Syracuse game, when was the last time before it that you saw a team playing a zone lose from the inside-out? Teams attacking a zone usually have to hit jumpers to pull the zone out and then pound it inside against a spread-out defense. Carolina flipped that script, pounding the ball inside repeatedly and easily.

That’s going to be the script tonight for Carolina. Get it inside to Meeks and Johnson, control the glass, and watch good things happen. I think they will, and I predict a sixth banner raised to the rafters of the Dean Dome this fall.

Is It Midnight?

Syracuse has shocked pretty much everyone by reaching the Final Four as a number 10 seed. This on the heels of barely squeaking into the tournament. The question now is, can they complete their Cinderella run?

I picked UNC to win it all, and I see no reason to change that prediction now. These two schools have played twice in some pretty unique circumstances and both times UNC won. Game 1 was in Syracuse on the night that Jim Boeheim returned from his 9-game suspension. The Carrier Dome was rocking and Syracuse held a six-point lead with about 8 minutes to play. That’s when UNC first flashed their ability to go on runs this season, stepping up and closing out the game on a 34-17 roll.

The second time these two met was ironically the start of the Heels’ current winning streak. On Senior Night in Chapel Hill, and with the Duke game looming, UNC played distracted basketball and let Syracuse hang around and hang around. It almost cost them at the end, but they pulled it out thanks to some nifty work by Joel Berry.

One thing that Syracuse has shown in both games is the ability to rebound fairly well against UNC- no mean feat. That could be significant, but only if UNC lets Syracuse stay in the game. If they pound the ball into Johnson, Meeks, and Hicks, they could quickly turn this into a blowout. I don’t think it will go quite that far, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a “comfortable” win.

As for the other game, I am going to pick Villanova. I saw them in person for their first two games and came away impressed by their athleticism. They made a solid team in Iowa look terrible on Sunday, dominating them by over 30 points for most of the second half. They went to their regional and upset Kansas. I have a ton of respect for Buddy Hield, and I think he is the best player in the game, but I don’t think Oklahoma has enough besides him.

So I think we have a Villanova-UNC matchup Monday Night. Two teams that have met in the tourney more than a few times, and in the Final Four just seven years ago.

Basketball in Brooklyn

I went to a four-of-the six games this weekend in Brooklyn and had a great time. A few comments and observations on the Barclays Center’s NCAA Tournament debut.

1- The entrance lines are ridiculous. I get the security, but make more lines, open more doors, get more guards screening people. It took me over half an hour to clear security and get to my seat. This isn’t an airport, fix it.

2- The upper deck is the red-headed step child of the arena. That’s ok, the views are still very good even if the concourses are too narrow. But, you have to open the stairwells and allow people to use them to get up and down. Two escalators only going in one direction and a few scattered elevators are not enough to allow fans to travel up and down.

3- I like the policy of not allowing fans to get back to their seats while the game is in progress, but you have to announce that policy and make it known. Way too many fans getting needlessly upset over a good idea.

As for the games, saw two great ones and two terrible ones. Villanova absolutely destroyed both UNC Asheville and Iowa. I still don’t buy the Big East (notice what happened to their tourney champion Seton Hall?) but Nova was really impressive this weekend. Iowa-Temple on Friday was a great game with lots of sad Temple fans after overtime. Kudos to Iowans for traveling in numbers to support their team. And the Notre Dame-SFA game today was the best of all, so close to a major upset.

Assuming Barclays can fix the entrance issues and flow between floors, I think the tourney can really succeed there. Hopefully, it will be back soon.

March Madness Picks

I am a Tar Heel and that means I am very, very biased about the upcoming tournament. My heart tells me that they are going to win it all. Problem is, my head is in agreement. So, I am going to overrule  my head and make a different pick below just to try and be objective.

“Heart” Final Four- UNC, Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma with UNC beating Kansas in the finals.

“Head’ Final Four- Kentucky, Kansas, UVA, Oklahoma with Kansas beating UVA in the finals.

I truly believe that UNC is the best team in the country. But Kentucky is the best 4 seed in the tourney and should have been ranked higher. They could beat them.  Kansas is right there too. UVA can beat anyone and while they are getting crushed in the press for a #1 seed, they came pretty close to beating UNC last night and Malcolm Brogdon is a joy to watch. Buddy Hield is a name you will know before March is over, watch out for him and OU, I think they are far and away the best team in the West.

Thursday and Friday are two of my favorite days of the sports calendar and I will be attending Friday’s games in person. I can’t wait.

 

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