There’s No Season Like the Offseason

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The classic Bulls-Celtics series, arguably the greatest first round series in the history of the NBA and up there with any series in any round in terms of pure entertainment value, ended on Saturday in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion.  By normal NBA standards, it was a better than average basketball game, but with a playoff record 4 overtime games (covering 7 overtime periods) and another game that ended on a last-second Ray Allen shot in regulation (I recall thinking in Game 1 that Jesus Shuttleworth didn’t look too intimidating, and he of course then went on to hit roughly 978 fadeaway three point shots in a row while being double-teamed for the rest of the series), it was almost impossible to expect anything more even though this series had exceeded expectations up until the end.

When one of your teams gets eliminated from the postseason, there’s a sudden shutdown that’s quite different than, say, the end of a regular season where that same team doesn’t make the playoffs at all.  If your team had a bad regular season, you almost welcome the offseason and have plenty of time to plan for it.  In contrast, a team in the playoffs (especially in basketball and baseball where the sheer length of each playoff series increases the time commitment) dominates your life for days on end – you seem to plan all of your evenings around these games, so when it’s over, there’s a sense of emptiness after being constantly in an amped up mode.  Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, yet I would have been perfectly happy to have had the Bulls roughed up by the Magic on Monday (if Boston had a 28-point deficit at home in the first half, the Bulls probably would have had a 40-point deficit on the road).  At least the Bulls season ended on a relative uptick, which has already spurred me to spend hours scouring websites on what the team plans to do with Ben Gordon, NBA trade rumors (I’m hitting up the trade machine with any and all combinations for the Bulls to nab Chris Bosh), and potential draft picks (as much as I watch college basketball, I’m at a loss right now because there probably won’t be anyone of use at the Bulls’ 16th spot in an already weak draft).   If anything else, I want to spend as much time avoiding having to watch Octavio Dotel give up leads in the 7th inning at all costs.

(Image from Slam Online)

Chillin’ Like a Villain: That’s Entertainment

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It happens in every single great basketball matchup – one team’s fan base ordains one player on the opposing team as the villain.  For Boston Celtics fans, they immediately latched onto the haterade for Joakim Noah at the beginning of what has turned out to be an epic series with the Bulls.  It took a few games for Bulls fans to coalesce around a single Celtics villain, though.  Last week, my money would have been on Eddie House, who just grates on me on a personal level if only because he kicks out his legs like a buffoon when he takes a jumpshot.  However, the events that transpired in games 5 and 6 of this first round series has catapulted Rajon Rondo into an illustrious club of Villains of the Bulls, which includes John Starks, Reggie Miller, James Posey, and, of course, my least favorite athlete of all-time by a landslide margin, Bill Laimbeer.  As I mentioned in my post the other day, my respect for Rondo had grown exponentially over the first four games of the series as he led a Celtics team depleted by injuries with the most consistent play of any player on either team.  In game 5, though, Rondo was involved in two plays that caused Bulls players to get stitched up, including the controversial hard foul at the end of the game on Brad Miller that many people thought was a flagrant foul.  (It wasn’t just Bulls fans – even Charles Barkley, who was the master of hard fouls, immediately thought that it was a flagrant.)  Personally, I thought that it was a flagrant foul as it’s defined by the NBA rule book, but there were a whole lot more reasons as to why the Bulls lost that game (i.e. failure to close out the game in regulation with an 11-point lead late in the 4th quarter, letting Paul Pierce prance to the exact same spot on the left side of the free throw line where he apparently can swish jumpshots blindfolded, etc.) and I didn’t think that Rondo had any malicious intent.  So, while most Bulls fans seemed comfortable in making Rondo as Chicago’s new Public Enemy Number One after game 5 (and the United Center crowd admirably let him know it by booing him mercilessly every time that he touched the ball in game 6), I still reserved some judgment on the young Boston point guard since I have been so impressed with his overall leadership skills in the series and he appeared to be the quiet and humble type like his opposing counterpart of Derrick Rose.

However, when Rondo tossed Kirk Hinrich into the scorer’s table in game 6, I finally came to the conclusion with the rest of Bulls fans that he’s a straight-out thug.  He might be a thug with actual basketball skills like Reggie Miller (and unlike Bill Laimbeer), but he’s still a thug.  It was amazing to me that Rondo would do such an idiotic move when ESPN and every sports media outlet in the country had already put him under such intense scrutiny.  (It was almost equally amazing by how quick Captain Kirk was ready to throw down.)  Congratulations, Rajon Rondo – you’ve guaranteed yourself a lifetime of catcalls every time that you step in the City of Chicago.

As for the series overall, it’s a bit premature to put this in the “greatest series of all-time” category in the annals of NBA history.  In just Bulls history alone, is this really a better series than the Bulls-Knicks and Bulls-Pistons battles of the early-90s, or the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Pacers that also went to 7 games?  Those were games featuring numerous Hall of Famers on the floor such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, and Reggie Miller all at full strength.  The Celtics’ battles with the Lakers and Pistons in the late-80’s were also all classics with guys like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, and Larry Bird on the floor in crunch time.  So, I’m not going to be so quick to grant this “greatest ever” status since arguably the best player on either team, Kevin Garnett, has been reduced to scowling like Tony Montana on the bench.  However, for pure entertainment value, this series is definitely off the charts.  I’d compare this to watching five buzzer beater first round NCAA Tournament games(with one blowout mixed in) all in a row – the quality of basketball might not be at a peak level compared to what we might see in, say, a potential Cavs-Lakers NBA Finals, but the back-and-forth nature of the games keeps you fixated at the edge of your seat.  So, if you’re a casual sports fan that wants to see intense games that go down to the wire, this series has been a boon.  At this point, I have no clue what’s going to happen in game 7.  I seriously didn’t believe that there could possibly be another overtime game after game 5, yet game 6 ended up giving basketball fans three overtime periods. (Joakim Noah’s steal and dunk (in the process posterizing and fouling out Paul Pierce) and Derrick Rose’s block on Rondo in the third overtime of game 6 are easily the most memorable Bulls moments in the post-MJ era.)  Chances are that game 7 is going to be just entertaining – I can’t imagine it being any other way after how everything has gone up to this point.  (One bit of advice to Vinny Del Negro: when the Bulls have the last possession in regulation or overtime to win or tie the game, GET THE BALL IN DERRICK ROSE’S HANDS FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS HOLY!!!  That is all.)  Enjoy the weekend and GO BULLS!!!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

A Bulls Market Once Again

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With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

Unclear Bandwagon Status

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I’ve always considered myself to be a complete purist when it comes to my sports fandom.  As much as Bill Simmons can be insufferable these days, his column on “The Rules For Being a True Fan” from earlier this decade is a classic and still holds up today.  I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so I’m a die-hard fan of the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls.  When I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate years, the Illini became my college team forever.  I’m a huge believer in steering clear of sports bigamy or shenanigans with adopting popular teams in different markets just because they happen to be dominant or have players that date supermodels and music stars (i.e. Cowboys and Yankees back in the ’90s or any of the Boston teams today).  The only acceptable exception would be some direct family connection – for instance, if I had to move to, say, New York, I would insist that my future kids be raised as Chicago sports fans.

This also means that I have very little tolerance for bandwagon fans.  While I believe that Chicago has the best sports fans in the country (only Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit fans can be allowed to debate this), there is also an unfortunately long history of bandwagoneering in this town.  The ’85 Bears, the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s, the ’05 White Sox, and every Cubs team that has finished above .500 have all drawn out the pink hat crowd in massive numbers.  These people took a sudden interest in these teams right when they were on the ascent without having had to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of missed expectations and painful losses.  Maybe that’s acceptable in places such as Los Angeles and Miami, but it’s infuriating to witness this happening in the legit sports towns like Chicago and Boston.

Having said that, I wonder if I’m being a complete hypocrite on this issue with respect to the Blackhawks.  For reasons that I’ve stated elsewhere, I never became anything more than a casual hockey fan.  While I absolutely love seeing the game live (making it a point to go to at least a game or two per year) and own a Blackhawks hockey sweater (which is my favorite sports jersey since it’s the only one that I can wear that doesn’t make me look like a complete tool), the combination of the half century of ineptitude of the Bill Wirtz regime and the fact that I have the ice skating skills of a Brachiosaurus means that I never cared about the Hawks in the same way as the teams that I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

The number of hockey games that I watched this past regular season is one-and-a-half: about half of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field (as I flipped between that game and the college football bowls going on at the same time) and then a Hawks-Kings game that I attended in person.  I know a handful of guys that are on the team: budding young stars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, and Nikolai Khabibulin (who, as the “Bulin Wall”,  was my lockdown goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes in marathon sessions of EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college).  The last time that I watched a hockey game that didn’t involve the Hawks was the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals when the Stars beat the Sabres on the controversial Brett Hull goal (where he may or may not have been in the crease) in overtime.

Yet, I’ve been juggling my schedule to watch the Blackhawks’ playoff games, as hockey this late in the year has been a rare occurrence over the past decade.  Thursday’s win over Calgary with Havlat scoring the game winner with 16 seconds into overtime was thrilling in terms of action and spurred me to look forward Saturday’s game (which turned out to be another win against the Flames to go up 2-0 in the series).

What I’m trying to figure out is if I actually start following the Hawks with some semblance of regularity, particularly if the team has a successful run in this year’s playoffs, would I be one of those bandwagon-jumpers that I despise?  Granted, I think that a lot of my contemporaries in Chicago are in a similar position as me since the late Bill Wirtz did everything possible to destroy the franchise’s fan base with bass-ackwards TV and marketing policies along with a reputation of throwing nickels like manhole covers (as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas) in terms of payroll.  With son Rocky in charge, it’s as if though Chicago received a completely new NHL franchise with a fresh start.  Still, I don’t want to be one of those guys that just hops onto a shooting star when it’s the easy thing to do.  That would be an injustice to the Hawks fans that still bought season tickets even when the United Center was barely half full (such as a mere 2 years ago, when I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with Danny M and it was at about 2/3 capacity, with 3/4 of those people being Detroit fans).

Realistically, the Blackhawks will likely always be a team that I want to win (similar to my attitude toward the basketball team at my law school alma mater of DePaul), but never reach a level in my heart where I would be a die hard fan.  In contrast, earlier in the day on Saturday, I was screaming at the television for a solid three hours during the Bulls-Celtics game.  (It should be no surprise to you that my continuing man crush on Derrick Rose has been sent into the stratosphere.)  That type of emotional investment didn’t occur overnight or even over the course of a year or two – it was built up over nearly three decades of watching and growing up with the Bulls.  By the time the Blackhawks could catch up to that timeframe, I’ll be starting to take withdrawls from my 401(k) and hopefully be spending my winters in a place with a beach and palm trees.  (As a side note, I’m not foolish enough to believe that anyone in my generation will ever actually be able cash a  Social Security check.)  Plus, I’m not sure how much longer my wife would want to be around me if I started watching hockey on top of all of the basketball and football that I follow during the fall and winter months.  Thus, I envision myself being the hockey equivalent of the people that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that don’t watch college basketball all year but then rabidly follow the NCAA Tournament, where my interest in the sport is pretty much limited to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  My promise is that I will cheer for the Blackhawks, but do everything in my power to not fall into the traps of the typical bandwagon fan (i.e. using the royal “we” when talking about the team’s performance).  If I still get called a bandwagon jumper in this instance, I’ll just have to suffer the consequences when I get judged by the sports gods.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

No KG? It’s a Little Bit Rosier for the Bulls

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Last night, when the Bulls got locked into the seventh-seed position in the Eastern Conference for a first round matchup with the defending champion second-seed Celtics, I was pretty sure that we would have been witnessing a Boston sweep. Of course, this was assuming that Kevin Garnett (even a 50% healthy one) would be on the floor. With today’s announcement that KG will likely be sitting out of the entire playoffs, though, the Bulls’ loss to Toronto on Wednesday night (which prevented them from moving up to the sixth-seed) now looks fortuitous since they get a banged-up Boston team having to play the third-seed Magic and a healthy Dwight Howard. Granted, I still think that the Celtics have a substantial upper-hand since Paul Pierce will still be the best player on the floor and Ray Allen is what Ben Gordon could be if you added a heavy dose of consistency, but this has at least turned a series that was a virtually guaranteed sweep 24 hours ago into a scrum that could reasonably go up to 6 or 7 games.

The Bulls’ best chance to be competitive is to use their relative athleticism to push the tempo against a half-court-oriented Celtics offense and downgraded KG-less defense. This would be similar to the method employed by Scott Skiles’ Bulls team that swept the Heat (who happened to be that season’s defending champs) in the 2007 playoffs, albeit Vinny Del Negro’s group has better offensive weapons counterbalanced by a significantly worse defensive unit. After having a little bit of a lull in January and February, Derrick Rose has been rejuvenated in March and April (to the point where the point guard winning the Rookie of the Year is the biggest lock out of any of this year’s NBA individual awards) and John Paxson’s trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller has been a relative success. I’ll admit to having known virtually nothing about Salmons when he got sent over by the Kings (and I watch a lot of basketball), but his cockeyed jump-shot has grown on me to the point where his apparent recent injury issue has me much concerned than the fact that Luol Deng has been shut down. Salmons is one of a rare breed in the NBA: he’s a solid contributor and scorer that’s getting paid commensurate with the value he provides to the team. This means that he’ll be getting a Deng-like overpayment by the Bulls or some other team after next season (see also Kirk Hinrich and Ben Wallace). Regardless, I can’t believe that I’m writing that the health of some guy that I thought was the name of an entrée at Red Lobster a couple of months ago will end up swinging a game or two for the Bulls one way or the other against the defending champs, but it sure looks that way.

I still say that the Celtics will take the Bulls in 6 games (as opposed to 4 if Garnett were playing), although I also envision Derrick Rose having a couple of games that will serve the general public notice of his phenomenal skills (to the extent that it doesn’t know already) at the most difficult position to play in as a rookie in sports outside of quarterback. While D-Rose won’t put on a performance on par with Michael Jordan dropping 63 points in the old Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs (against a Celtics team that would go on to win the NBA title that year), which led Larry Bird to famously proclaim that MJ was “God disguised as a basketball player” (and if Basketball Jesus makes a statement of that nature, you know it to be true), I think that it’s great that young point guard is going to get some playoff experience right away against a veteran club. From the moment that the Bulls won the NBA lottery last year, the focus of the organization has been to build around Rose to create a legitimate championship contender two or three years down the road. Outside of having Vinny Del Negro as coach (unfortunately, it’s 99% likely that we’re stuck with him for at least another season – I’m sure I’ll be posting a long overdue rant on this subject sooner rather than later), the Bulls are at least on the ascent where they should be set up nicely when the all-important 2010 free agent class hits the open market. Until then, I’ll enjoy some playoff basketball back in Chicago after a one-year hiatus.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

Random Observations on the World of Sports and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – New Year’s 2009 Edition

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A few random observations before we get to an expanded edition of this week’s football picks:

  1. The Bears Are Horrible… and the NFC is Even Worse – There was no logical reason for the Bears to have beaten the Packers this past Monday night.  They played as if though they were ready to pack it in for the season as opposed to fighting to keep alive in the playoff race.  Only the Bears have the ability to make me feel like I just drank some paint even while winning football games.  The only saving grace is that the NFC is so horrific (trading the Big 12 South straight up for the NFC West would have made for a much more competitive year) that this mediocre team could still actually host a playoff game if the right things fall into place.
  2. The Illini Basketball Team Actually Has Some Life… and So Does the Rest of the Big Ten – Hope is a dangerous drug.  As I’ve stated in some prior posts, I was more than willing to scrap this current Illinois basketball season as a complete rebuilding project with an aim toward giving Alex Legion ample playing time.  After absolutely crushing Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights Game on Tuesday night, though, the Illini seem to be looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament a year ahead of schedule.  One of these years, Illinois will beat Mizzou in football and then Mizzou will beat Illinois in basketball, upon which I will cardon myself in the basement with a plethora of perishable goods to prepare for the impending destruction of the world.
  3. Bulls Are the Ultimate .500 Team – Has there been a team in recent memory that have hung around the .500 mark with such consistency as this year’s Bulls?  I’m pretty sure they’ve attempted to get to .500 every single time that I’ve watched one of their games this season.  They’re like a baksetball version of an Escher painting.
  4. For the Love of God, Stop Fellating the Celtics – On the complete opposite side of mediocrity, I know that the ESPN criticism in the blogosophere can often be over the top at times, but how many fucking years in a row do they need to put up a fucking daily game-by-game comparison of a hot NBA team’s record versus the 1996 Bulls (and said hot NBA team flames out by the middle of January at the very latest)?  Well, the tizzy around the Celtics’ recent 19-game winning streak has been almost as ridiculous as the inclusion of the 2005 USC Trojans in the infamous “greatest college football team ever” bracket prior to that season’s national championship game (who subsequently lost to Texas).  When an NBA team only has 5 losses at the All-Star Break, then we can start talking about whether a team might beat the Bulls’ single-season record.  If it’s only a month-and-a-half into the season, though, just simmer down and shut the fuck up.  I cannot tell you how much I hate these premature crownings of teams.  Let me move on before I throw my laptop across the room…

On that happy holiday note, let’s get to a super-sized edition of the football picks (home teams in CAPS where applicable):

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

  • PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (-1) over Dallas Cowboys – In relatively quiet fashion, the Iggles have been as consistent as anyone in the NFC since Donovan McNabb learned about ties in the NFL.
  • Miami Dolphins (+3) over NEW YORK JETS – I’ll admit that all I want to see if Chad Pennington to come in and stuff the team that turned on him so that they could whore themselves for Brett Favre.
  • Chicago Bears (+3) over HOUSTON TEXANS – The bookmakers know that the Bears are horrible, which is how a listless Texans team could be favorites over a club that is still fighting for a legit shot at the playoffs.  Yet, I still think that the Bears will pull this out for a restless Chicago fan base.  Let’s hope that the Giants play their starters long enough (if at all) to do some damage to the Vikings at the same time.

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Bears Games for the Season: 3-91
Overall Season: 19-20-3

NEW YEAR’S DAY NON-BCS BOWL PARLAY

  • Outback Bowl:  South Carolina Gamecocks (+3.5) over Iowa Hawkeyes – Can I really trust an Iowa team that lost to the Illini to actually cover against a Steve Spurrier-led team in Tampa? NFW.
  • Gator Bowl:  Nebraska Cornhuskers (+3) over Clemson Tigers – The only team that I trust less than Iowa is Clemson.
  • Capital One Bowl:  Michigan State Spartans (+7.5) over Georgia Bulldogs – I truly don’t understand this Georgia team, which was bandied around as one of a handful of national championship contenders at the beginning of the year.  On paper, UGA should be crushing State, but the Big Ten has a pretty good track record against supposedly superior SEC teams in Orlando.  I’ll take the points for Sparty here.

BCS BOWL PICKS

  • Rose Bowl:  Penn State Nittany Lions (+9) over USC Trojans – Chicago has alternately seen temperatures close to zero degrees, traffic debiliating snowfall once the temperature rises into the teens, and then zero-visibility fog as the temperature creeps above freezing over the past THREE days.  This type of setting has made the dark hole of no Pasadena trip to look forward to for the Illini (and me) even more depressing.  I always have an extremely hard time watching a major sports event the year after my favorite team has played in it (i.e. 2006 NCAA Final Four, 2006 World Series, last year’s Super Bowl) and this Rose Bowl will be no exception, particularly with the Illini failing to make any type of bowl at all.  The only thing that warms my heart here is that the Big Ten has its best shot to knock off those USC bastards yet.  Unlike Ohio State earlier this year, the Illini last season, and Michigan two years ago, JoePa’s current squad is anything but a stereotypical plodding Big Ten team – Penn State has as much speed as anyone in the country.  The spread is way too large here with the Nitanny Lions at full strength.
  • Orange Bowl:  Virginia Tech (+2.5) over Cincinnati Bearcats – I’d stay the hell away from this game in the sportsbook in real life.  In theory, Cincy should be much more motivated to be here, particularly since Virginia Tech was just in the Orange Bowl last season.  I’ll go with the established power here, though, only because the Hokies still have an abundance of talent to the point that I’m fairly surprised that they are more than a 1-point underdog.
  • Sugar Bowl:  Alabama Crimson Tide (-10) over Utah Utes – As much as I’d love to see Utah draw blood against the team that was #1 for most of the season, ‘Bama is way beyond the draws that the ’04 Utes and ’06 Boise State respectively received with Pitt and Oklahoma in their Fiesta Bowl non-BCS conference upsets.
  • Fiesta Bowl:  Ohio State Buckeyes (+8.5) over Texas Longhorns – Much like the Rose Bowl spread, there are way too many points to pass up taking here.  Plus, am I the only one in America that didn’t find a single thing wrong with how the Big 12 determined its tie-breaker at the division level?  Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech were all tied for first place in the Big 12 South division with 1 win and 1 loss in head-to-head competition against each other.  It seems to me that having the BCS standings is the next logical tie-breaker (with “logical” being an extremely convulated term in the world of college football) since any conference would want to elevate a team that would have the best chance of getting to the national championship game.  While Texas beat Oklahoma head-to-head, the Longhorns didn’t have any more claim to get a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game than Texas Tech, who beat Texas head-to-head.  I have no clue why there was such a national uproar over a tie-breaking procedure that seemed to actually make a lot of sense considering how the national championship match-up is determined today.  Anyway, the point is that Texas seems to be acting like the ’06 Michigan Wolverines that complained mightily that they didn’t get a re-match with their fiercest rival in Ohio State in the national championship game and then got crushed by a very talented USC team in the Rose Bowl.  I have a strong feeling that Texas is going to put up a massive dud here, too, since Ohio State is anything but a pushover when Beanie Wells is on the field.
  • BCS National Championship Game:  Florida Gators (-3) over Oklahoma Sooners – No one should forget that Florida is going to be playing a virtual home game in Miami in the same manner that LSU had the home field advantage in last year’s national championship game in New Orleans.  At the same time, for all of the national bashing of Ohio State for its high profile stumbles over the past two seasons, they have made it to BCS bowls 6 out of the last 7 seasons (including this year) with 3 victories that includes a national championship (the only two losses coming in the last 2 national championship games).  There isn’t another program other than USC that would trade places with the Buckeyes with that type of record.  Meanwhile, in the last four BCS bowls for Oklahoma, the Sooners were crushed by West Virginia (who was reeling after having just lost its head coach to Michigan) by 20 points in last year’s Fiesta Bowl, was on the wrong end of the classic upset by Boise State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, got blown out by USC by 36 points in the 2004 Orange Bowl for the national championship (one of the most horrific performances that I’ve ever seen considering the stakes), and was beaten by LSU in the 2003 Sugar Bowl for the national championship.  Jim Tressel looks like Mozart to Bob Stoops’ Salieri when it comes to BCS bowl performances.

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Illini Games for the Season: 5-6
Overall Season: 19-22-1

Enjoy the games and Happy New Year!

(Image from Washington Post)

Team Chemistry and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 10/9/2008

I’m off to Napa Valley for the weekend, so the truncated parlay posts continue for at least one more week.  For your enjoyment, here’s a nasty dunk from last night by Celtics rookie Bill Walker:

While I was impressed with the dunk when I caught it on SportsCenter last night, what got me to rewind my DVR numerous times was the fantastic sight of the entire Celtics bench, particularly superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, going absolutely bonkers for a rookie to the point where they had to hold each other back from spilling onto to the court (in a preseason game, no less).  If you’ve read my blog for the past several years, you’ll know that I’m of the general opinion that winning creates team chemistry more than the other way around.  However, there’s something to be said for how tight the Celtics appear to be as a team – Kobe Bryant has posterized opposing players hundreds of times in the same manner as Walker but the rest of the Lakers are usually too busy hitting on the flavor of the month actress sitting courtside to notice.  At the same time, the sight of Andres Nocioni and Kirk Hinrich going nuts on the bench for a Tyrus Thomas dunk would be only slightly less awkward than this piece of history.  Anyway, here are this week’s football picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) INDIANA HOOSIERS (+6) over Iowa Hawkeyes
(2) MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS (+2.5) over Vanderbilt Commodores (It’s time to cash in your Vandy chips)
(3) ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (-12.5) over Minnesota Golden Gophers

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 3-0

Illini Games for the Season: 2-2
Overall Season: 10-7-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY
(1) Green Bay Packers (+2.5) over SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
(2) DENVER BRONCOS (-3) over Jacksonville Jaguars
(3) Chicago Bears (-2.5) over ATLANTA FALCONS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-0-2

Bears Games for the Season: 1-31
Overall Season: 5-7-3

The NBA Finals That We All Wanted (Outside of Detroit and San Antonio)

The ABC/ESPN hype machine has gotten the Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals matchup that it has been craving since the day it took away the league television contract from NBC six years ago. (The worst thing about the network move was that the glorious John Tesh theme song was mothballed in favor of a rotation of music “stars” that has gotten progressively worse over the years, culminating in the horrific current opening that stars Tim McGraw and Def Leppard. For as much as the ESPN empire bashes us over the head with pop culture references, they seem to have confused the highly urbanized NBA audience with a group of carnies from Decatur. This might also be planting the seeds of another sick ploy by the television conglomerate to jam NASCAR cross-promotions down our throats.) I’ll be honest with you – I’ve been craving this matchup, too. It’s not that I have any personal affinity for either of these teams, but I couldn’t take another NBA Finals involving the Pistons (unequivocally my least favorite pro sports franchise after the Packers) and the Spurs (a team that I know I ought to like as a pure basketball fan, but they annoy me in an irrational manner). Plus, as a sports fan in general, I’ve come to appreciate the rekindling of storied rivalries at the highest level since people can’t bank on it anymore with increased parity in all of the sports leagues. Back when I was a little kid, the Celtics and Lakers playing in the NBA Finals was considered a common occurrence, so the fact that it has been 21 years since they last met for the championship (a series that I remember clearly) is the latest in a long line of historical moments that have reminded me that I’m not really young anymore. What’s unique about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is that it isn’t based on geography or conference/division affiliation like almost every other sports rivalry, such as the general New York vs. Boston/Philadelphia or Chicago vs. Detroit/Green Bay/St. Louis matchups (note that Cowboys-Redskins is still a divisional rivalry), but instead on excellence where they have met on the final stage with incredible frequency for a three decade stretch of time. The closest comparison might be Notre Dame-USC, but even then, they have only played one game where the teams were ranked #1 and #2 (this occurred in 1988, which was the last time the Irish won a national championship).

Of course, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aren’t going to have much effect on this series. I was very excited about the prospect of the Celtics-Lakers matchup at the beginning of the NBA Playoffs, but over the past few weeks, it’s been looking more and more like this series can’t possibly live up to the hype. Hopefully, I’m wrong and this will push out to seven games, since that would be a transcendent sports moment. However, the Lakers look dominant right now and they disposed of the Spurs (who I think would beat the Celtics head-to-head) in five. There’s little indication that L.A. wouldn’t be able to dispose of Boston in the same number of games, so I’ll avoid the typical conservative commentator prediction of a six-game series and say that the Lakers will win 4-1 (I foresee a split of the first 2 games in Boston and then the Lakers rattling off 3 straight at the Staples Center).

Kobe Bryant continues to play out of his mind (the yahoo portion of the Bulls fan base that didn’t want to give up guys like Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and/or Luol Deng for this guy last fall continue to look horrible) and will clearly be the best player on the floor (which you could say no matter who the Lakers are playing). I love Kevin Garnett as one of my favorite athletes that hasn’t played for a Chicago team or the Illini (although he’s a native Chicagoan), but he can’t necessarily take over a game the way Kobe can. At the end of the day, Paul Pierce is going to be the one that needs to match Kobe shot-for-shot while the rest of the Celtics have to hold down Pau Gasol and the balance of the torrid Lakers offense – that’s going to be a whole lot tougher than the one-man-LeBron-show that took Boston to the brink of elimination or the Pistons club that could only utilize Chauncey Billups in limited fashion.

At the same time, the Lakers have a monster coaching advantage in Phil Jackson over Doc Rivers. For the Phil-haters out there, particularly from Boston, that discount his accomplishments since his championships came with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, I would like to point out that Red Auerbach never won a championship without Bill Russell in an era when power forwards rarely cracked 5’10”. I’m not sure why this never gets mentioned. Granted, I’m a bit biased here since I grew up as a Bulls fanatic and Phil was at the helm of the teams that provided me with probably the most memorable sports moments of my life. However, he should always deserve credit for getting the max out of that franchise in the 1990s. As much as I love Mike Ditka (to the point where I have this autographed photo in my basement), the ’85 Bears ended up being the ultimate one-hit wonder in sports history instead of the becoming the first championship team in a dynasty that should have lasted for the rest of the 1980s (Bill Walsh’s 49ers teams ended up filling that space) due to a lot of internal squabbling and personality clashes (many of which were caused by Ditka himself, much less the case of him not being able to solve them). In contrast, the ‘90s Bulls were able to achieve success even when they had a murder’s row of Godzilla-sized egos – MJ was a cold-hearted competitor to the extreme, Scottie was always a Toni Kukoc-last-shot-play from snapping, most of the rest of the team was perpetually at odds with Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause about their contracts, and there was that slightly-off personality known as Dennis Rodman during the second three-peat. The fact that Phil put those guys into line for six championships (along with three more rings with Lakers teams that were nearly as ego-filled) is a testament to his ability to coach in the modern NBA.

Meanwhile, Phil’s well-known soft skills in managing personalities and digging into players’ psyches are complemented by what I believe is an underrated substantive skill: I don’t know of a basketball coach at any level that has ever managed rotations of players better than Phil. Phil would often take MJ out of regular season games relatively early, yet the Bulls rarely collapsed because he got key bench players substantive playing team with Scottie Pippen running the second unit. This paid off massively in the postseason since (a) MJ was always healthy because he wasn’t unnecessarily put through max minutes early in the season and (b) the bench players often came up huge as a result of not just being in there at garbage time, which is why reserves such as John Paxson, Bobby Hansen and Steve Kerr live on in Chicago sports lore with key baskets in championship clinching games. Phil has done the same thing with the Lakers by regularly removing Kobe early and giving the second unit quality minutes with Lamar Odom running the offense. That means that Kobe and the rest of the starters are fresher (and already younger) than an older tapped-to-the-brink Celtics team and Luke Son-of-a-Bastard Walton or someone else of that nature will be primed to make a number of clutch shots in the series when Kobe is double or triple teamed. On the other side of the floor, Doc Rivers is acknowledged to have one of the most inconsistent rotations in the NBA (guys will play 30 minutes one game and then get DNPs for two weeks straight), which is a severe disadvantage when the Celtics are much more banged-up and can’t really depend on their stars to go 48 minutes every night.

Like I’ve said before, the basketball fan in me hopes that I’m wrong and that this becomes an NBA Finals that lives up to the hype. However, the basketball analyst in me believes that this will be a pretty easy stretch for a significantly superior Lakers team.

(Image from Sportslifer’s Weblog)