Spurs Take Care of Business: The veteran leadership of the San Antonio Spurs proved to be too much for the upstart Memphis Grizzlies. Although the Spurs swept the series, 4 - 0, this was much closer than the final tally indicated. San Antonio needed two overtime wins to take command of the series and then just wore the Grizzlies down in the final game. Tim Duncan, who is rarely if ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, continues to lead a very underrated Spurs squad that now has two series sweeps in these playoffs. With the NBA Finals not set to begin until June 6, the aging Spurs now get a much needed rest before taking on either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers. Whether it's Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan stepping up each night, the winner of the Eastern Conference will be facing a tough, savvy, experienced and maybe most importantly, a rested Spurs squad. They certainly took care of business against the inspired Grizzlies. Now critics will point out, and rightfully so, that the Spurs were able to make it to the Finals without having to play any of the other top four seeds, defeating seeds seven, six and five on their way to the Western Conference championship. Would they have beaten the Clippers, a healthy Thunder, or even the Nuggets? We can only speculate, but the fact is they beat everyone they played, going 12 - 2 in the process. Now they get to wait, rest and practice to prepare for the next series. The unfortunate thing is that should the Heat win out, we'll have to wait a week between series, not a great thing for the NBA.
Heat Respond: As you would expect champions to do, the Miami Heat made key offensive adjustments and overwhelmed the Indiana Pacers in a game that could have solidified the underdogs' position as a contender in the series. Instead, LeBron James drove to the hoop at will and the Heat turned up the tempo to an uncomfortable level for the Pacers. I would expect to see more of the same tonight, but I also think Indians coach Frank Vogel will have some answers for the Heat. I think the most telling aspect of the Heat's turnaround is just underrated Miami coach Erik Spoeltra is. We tend to look at the talent on his roster and think all they need to do is roll the ball out on the floor and play ball. But Indiana plays defense at a very high level and Miami changed things up to regain home court advantage in the series. Can the Pacers stay in the series with a win tonight? That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. They now have to win at least one more game in Miami to prevail, and with multiple options for LeBron in a more open offense, that looks like it may be a bit more difficult. I like the way Indiana plays and I hope they can give the Heat a better game tonight, but they're going to need to find more consistent scoring if the Heat decide to keep the tempo up. I thought before the series started that the Heat could take it in five games. Despite some doubt after game two, I don't see any reason to change that pick at this time.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
Heat Escape with Win: It’s difficult to determine exactly what last night’s overtime win by Miami means for the rest of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat had been off for a week, generally a trap situation for a higher seeded team. If a lower seed is going to steal a game on the road, the first one is usually a good opportunity, as Chicago did to Miami in the last series. The fact that the Heat found a way to win can be viewed as a positive if you’re a fan of theirs. On the other hand, Indiana can take some satisfaction from going toe to toe with the defending champs for 53 minutes, before allowing LeBron James to beat them with a virtually uncontested layup as the clock expired in overtime. Paul George’s desperation three-pointer to tie the game at the end of regulation was a thing of beauty.
I think the most compelling aspect of the win was the total transformation we've seen from LeBron James over the last couple of seasons. Two years ago he was almost universally criticized for all but disappearing down the stretch of playoff games. Now, he breaks free and scores the game winner on a picture perfect drive past a flat footed, out of position and unassisted Paul George. He’s now the guy who wants the ball in the crunch, and he usually delivers. I won’t get into a debate on the comparison of Michael, Kobe and LeBron. But I will say that I had put Jordan and Bryant ahead of James because of the way they put it upon themselves to take over a game in the latter stages. Now, I would have to put LeBron in that category as well. All great players, and if the Heat continue as they have and Dwayne Wade can stay somewhat healthy for another year or two, all will have led their teams to multiple championships.
Getting back to the series, I still like the Heat in five games. They’re just that much better than everyone else right now. If Miami has a bad game, perhaps the Pacers can grab two wins and make it a six game series, but I don’t see it going seven and I certainly don’t see Indiana winning it. Indiana reminds me of the Utah teams that lost to the Bulls in consecutive seasons back in the nineties. They have the misfortune of being a really good team that just happens to have to go through what may end up being considered a great team when all is said and done.
Grizzlies – Spurs Off Until Saturday?: I’m sure there’s a good reason, but I don’t understand why this series has a four day gap in the middle of it. Why not just start it a few days later? My guess is the Memphis arena just wasn't available for a Thursday night game.
Sergio on the Losing End: As much as I like Sergio Garcia for his outgoing nature and genuineness, he really stumbled this week in his verbal squabble with Tiger Woods. Tiger is clearly not a warm and fuzzy guy, one who has always shied away from the limelight, despite being a golfing superstar since he was 14 years old. I feel that Tiger could have done a lot more to present a warmer, more personable image to fans. But that’s just not his style and it’s obviously served him well on the course. For those of us old enough to remember, Jack Nicklaus was considered cold and aloof early in his rivalry with the older and more amiable Arnold Palmer. He eventually warmed up and today is one of the most gracious and entertaining figures in the sport. While Tiger could have done better, it’s unfair to compare him to a Phil Mickelson or Brandt Snedeker. Tiger’s single minded determination and drive on the course makes him less likable off of it. His comeback after personal and physical issues is nothing short of miraculous, especially at his age. We forget that he is 37 years old and back at the top of the world golf rankings and the FedEx Cup points race. In fact, he has enough FedEx Cup points to be ranked first AND tenth at the same time. And this after only seven PGA events. As far as Sergio goes, I feel badly for him. He can’t beat Tiger on the course, and it’s apparent that he can’t do it off of it either. Next time Sergio, you might want to pick on someone your own size, as we used to say.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
That’s about enough, Sergio: Sergio Garcia finally crossed the line in his ongoing feud with Tiger Woods. He said yesterday that he would serve fried chicken if he was to host Tiger at his house. I guess he failed to recall that a similar comment resulted in Fuzzy Zoeller basically falling off the face of the golf earth. Really Sergio? Despite Tiger’s difficulties with his personal life, it’s still tough to take him on in this manner. He’s won four of six stroke play events he’s entered this season and appears to be rounding into form. Those four wins are half of Sergio’s career PGA win total. There is no active golfer that can make any case to even approach Tiger in golfing excellence, although Rory McElroy’s two recent majors give him some standing in that area. My advice to Sergio Garcia is to shut up and play golf. There are two words that come to mind: No, and Comment. Preferably put together in a very short sentence.
Grizzlies Show Signs of Life: With about eight minutes left in last night’s NBA Western Conference Final playoff game in San Antonio against the Spurs, it appeared that the Memphis Grizzlies were down for the count. I’m not talking just about the game, but the series as well. Even with Tim Duncan limited in minutes because of foul trouble, the Grizzlies just couldn’t seem to figure out a way to match the Spurs. But they suddenly came to life, getting a huge break from a flagrant foul call that allowed them to convert a four point play, tie the game and force overtime. The Spurs ended up prevailing, due in large part to Duncan’s inspired play. But as the series heads back to Memphis, it looks like the Grizzlies have life. If they can get back to San Antonio with the series tied at two games apiece, I think Memphis has an excellent chance to advance.
Heat and Pacers Begin Series: Miami has been off for a week, giving Dwayne Wade some time to nurse his bruised knee, which could be a key to the outcome in this series. That’s a big could, however. The Heat have won 45 of their last 48 games and the Pacers will be attempting to beat them four times in two weeks. I agree with Jeff Van Gundy, who during last night’s telecast took issue with the people who have indicated that they like Indiana’s chances in this series. Really? Did any of these guys actually watch the regular season? The Pacers are good, but come on. The Heat are great, better than last year’s championship squad, which by the way, took out the Pacers in six games on their way to the crown. Granted, the Pacers are improved a bit, but I just don’t see them pulling it off.
A Peak at the Major League Baseball Standings: I’m looking first at the bottom of the standings, not the top. Houston’s move to the American League doesn’t appear to be going well. The Astros are a dismal 13 – 33, tying them with the beleaguered Miami Marlins for the worst record in baseball. Their payroll is ridiculously low at less than $25 million. There’s just no way to compete when it’s that low. One year after opening a new ballpark with hype and a big payroll, the Marlins’ payroll is $15 million higher than the Astros, but still place them in next to last place in the majors. In fact, if you combined the pair, they would still fall short of 27th place Pittsburgh. With all of the talk about the big spenders, we seem to forget about the travesty the penny pinchers are making of the competitive balance in baseball. Considering the have-nots of the league end up with something averaging close to $30 million from revenue sharing, it’s pretty ridiculous to have such low payrolls. But what about the Dodgers and their $200 million + payroll? Oops! And the Mets and Cubs, well, they’re the Mets and Cubs. What else can you say?
Now we can move to the top of the standings. One of the biggest surprises has to be the performance of the New York Yankees. You would expect, with the huge payroll and all of their star power that they would be competitive. But a lot of those stars are out of the lineup due to injury, and yet they are sitting atop the AL East. Go figure. The Texas Rangers, despite losing Josh Hamilton to the Angels, are a similar story in the AL West, while the Angels are struggling to win with their big money, high profile acquisitions. Of course, in the Central, the Indians are in their customary pre-All Star break position, first place. Talk to me about the Indians in September.
In the National League, the Cardinals and Giants keep on rolling, while the Braves are hoping to use a hot start to outlast the Nationals and the Phillies. The Reds and Pirates, two small market teams, continue to impress with .600 plus winning percentages. It would be nice to see the Pirates finally break through, but they haven’t been able to finish well in recent seasons. They would certainly be a sentimental favorite come October.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
The Passing of a Golfing Gentlemen: I was barely six years old when Ken Venturi, who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, first entered my consciousness. My parents were at the 1964 US Open at Congressional Country Club for his historic victory while suffering heat stroke. His time as a player was cut short because of problems with his hands, but he went on to become, for my generation, the voice of golf. It’s ironic that one of his partners in the booth, Pat Summerall, passed away last month as well.
When he retired from broadcasting in May of 2002, every player paid tribute by acknowledging him as they left the 18th green on Sunday. I watched that broadcast from a beach house while on vacationing on Florida’s Gulf Coast. With tears in my eyes, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone, we bid farewell to a style and delivery that will most likely never be duplicated.
The reason the players showed him such respect was because he gave them the same consideration for all of his 35 years in the booth. He didn’t see the need to criticize them, but instead reported the action with the utmost professionalism and dignity. When paired with the aforementioned Summerall, they succeeded in painting golf action like artists transforming a canvas.
Ken Venturi was in the golf booth as Palmer gave way to Nicklaus, as Nicklaus battled Watson, as Faldo and Norman rose in prominence and as Tiger Woods transformed the game. Throughout it all, he was the constant on those many Sunday afternoons spent watching the greatest players in the world battle their opponents, the course and themselves. Thank you Ken Venturi for those memories and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family and the many friends he had in and outside of the golf world.
Can the Spurs Get Some Love? It seems to me that most people have forgotten that the second seeded San Antonio Spurs are still very much alive in the NBA playoffs. It may be the last hurrah for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, so I don’t expect to see these guys go out quietly. I admit the Memphis Grizzlies have been very impressive, but they’ve never been in this position before and the last time I checked, this isn’t exactly new territory for the Spurs.
On the other side of the bracket, the Miami Heat are just sitting back awaiting the end of the series between the New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers. If the Knicks can force a Game 7 with a victory tonight in Indiana, it could give the Heat’s Dewayne Wade another couple of days to rest his bruised knee. Wade’s health will be a major concern for the Heat as they try to get to the NBA Finals for the third consecutive season. Without Wade, the Pacers or Knicks could make it competitive. With him, I simply don’t see anyone beating the Heat four times in two weeks.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
Tiger‘s Troubles: Until Tiger Woods tees it up again at the Memorial in a couple of weeks, this should be my last comment on the top golfer in the world. As has been widely reported this week, Tiger had a couple of incidents at last week’s Players Championship that brought his on course integrity into question. The first one occurred on Saturday when he pulled a club from his bag, causing a gallery reaction that Sergio Garcia maintains disrupted his swing and caused him to bogey the hole. The other one occurred on Sunday after Tiger hit his tee shot on the 14th hole into the water. Many claim he dropped the ball closer to the green than he was entitled to.
First of all, I’m torn on this subject. It’s incumbent on golfers to follow the rules and police themselves. If Tiger is intentionally pushing the envelope, then that is wrong because he is the most-watched golfer, if not athlete, on the planet. The First Tee program touts that it teaches kids values that they probably don’t learn in other sports. When the face of the sport is breaking the rules, it would seriously diminish golf. However, that being said, I watched almost all of the coverage of last week’s tournament, and I remember seeing just a couple of other players’ drops being shown on television, one of which was Hunter Mahan, who was able to identify his ball in a tree through the use of a marshal’s binoculars. Did anyone even mention anything about the legality of the drop? Not at all. Is that fair to Tiger, that his rules interpretations are being shown and scrutinized at a higher level than his competitors? His drop on Sunday was made at the spot his playing partner and caddies advised him where the ball crossed the hazard line. Mark Rolfing, the NBC announcer who was standing directly behind the tee, told Johnnie Miller that he didn’t have a problem with the spot of the drop. That certainly satisfied me.
My point in all of this is that I agree that Tiger needs to be very careful that his activities on the course are carried out according to the rules of golf. On the other hand, he need not be held to a higher standard just because he is the best player and all of his shots are shown on television. I’ve played golf for virtually my entire life, and the process of determining where to drop a ball and the drop itself is imprecise at best. I hope there is not another incident like this as the season progresses, because if Tiger wins a major or two, it could end up being one of the great seasons in PGA Tour history, possibly just behind Tiger’s own run in 2000 – 2001.
So Long, OKC: Last year’s great story, the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t overcome the departure of James Harden to the Houston Rockets prior to the season and the loss of Brian Westbrook to injury during the first round of the playoffs. Now the Memphis Grizzlies, after victories over the Clippers and the Thunder are the new fashionable pick to face and even possibly beat the Miami Heat in the finals. My big question is what happened to the San Antonio Spurs? Oh, that’s right, their up three games to two in their conference semifinal series against the Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors.
I heard Mike Greenberg say the “R” word this morning, meaning rebuilding when referring to the Thunder. But if Westbrook doesn’t go down with an injury, am I even writing about the Thunder getting eliminated? Probably not. So it may be a bit premature to write off the Thunder, especially if they make a couple of key acquisitions. We’ll have to see where it goes, but I believe they still have a strong core, especially if Kevin Durant sticks around.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
SERGIO VS. TIGER: Should we call the dispute between golfers Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods “Marshal-gate”? If you’re not familiar with the incident, it occurred on the par five second hole during Saturday’s third round of the Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. Garcia hit a good drive into the fairway, while Tiger pulled his ball into the trees to the left of the fairway. As Sergio was getting ready to hit his second shot, Tiger pulled a 5 wood out of his bag, prompting some of the fans to cheer because it meant he was going to go for the green. Sergio proceeded to hit his shot to the right, ultimately making bogey and relinquishing a lead over Tiger that he would never regain.
After the round, Sergio alluded to the incident and accused Tiger of poor etiquette. Tiger, of course, had a different opinion. The replay of the two players in real time indicated that Tiger did in fact pull his club from his bag prior to Sergio taking his shot. However, it appeared from the video that Sergio had an opportunity to back off the shot, but didn’t do so. By Sunday afternoon, after Garcia went quadruple bogey – double bogey to end his fourth round, enabling Tiger to win by two shots over a trio of players, the incident was all but forgotten….until Monday morning.
Tiger had commented that a marshal had told him that Sergio had hit, so it was okay for him to proceed. Two marshals on the hole told Sports Illustrated that they never say anything to Tiger and that he was lying. But wait… on Tuesday the marshals that were following the Garcia – Woods pairing told the press that at one point that they did tell Tiger that it was okay to hit, explaining that Tiger’s recollection was factually correct, but he may have gotten the timing confused in the heat of the moment.
I have to admit, it’s tough being Tiger. He smokes the strongest field in golf by two shots and has to respond to arguably the biggest whining underachiever in the golf world. I am not going to try to defend Tiger here. As far as I’m concerned, he’s definitely guilty of a breach of golf etiquette. But even though I’ve played hundreds of rounds of golf, many of those in club tournament situations, I’ve never been in the kind of environment he and Sergio found themselves on Saturday afternoon. Besides, it’s not like Sergio is a newcomer to that circus. He’s played with Tiger over twenty times on the weekend and every time, Tiger has scored better than him. So maybe he’s just a bit sensitive about the whole thing.
Did Tiger lie? I don’t think so. Did he get the timing confused? Probably. Was he guilty of a rules violation? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, would it have changed the outcome of the tournament? Very doubtful. The fact is that Tiger Woods is the most focused and mentally toughest player in history. It’s one of the reasons he didn’t really pay attention to what Sergio was doing. After all, he was at least fifty yards away. Lastly, we already know Tiger has exhibited some character issues outside the ropes, but haven’t we all?
For most of his 37 years, inside the ropes has been a different thing, this year’s Master’s incident notwithstanding. But when you think about it, there has never been a golfer who has had virtually every shot shown on television. How would you like a television camera showing your every move while you’re at work? Enough said.
HEAT ADVANCE: In the craziness of NBA and NHL playoff series taking place simultaneously, sometimes we lose the sight of something truly great taking place. Tonight, the Miami Heat won their 45th game in their last 48 games to defeat a tough Chicago Bulls team four games to one in their Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Bulls were depleted by illness and injury, but they had taken out a strong Brooklyn Nets squad and had taken a 1 – 0 lead over the Heat by defeating the defending champs on Miami’s home court. The Heat took command of the series by winning the next three, but entering the fourth quarter tonight, the Heat found themselves down by eight and looking nothing like the team expected to win their second consecutive championship. Enter Dewayne Wade, hobbled by an injured knee, a game time decision to start. He carried the Heat to victory, helped by some clutch shooting by Lebron James and Shane Battier. Many will try to discount the win, saying the Bulls were playing shorthanded. Well, this is the NBA in May. In many ways, it’s an endurance contest to begin with. All I know is 45 – 3 down the stretch is pretty good, no matter who you’re playing.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Fan behavior, from the professional ranks to youth leagues is becoming, if it already isn’t, an issue that could undermine attendance at live sporting events. From abusive language directed at officials to overt criticism of coaching decisions, this unruly minority is threatening to make the stadium, arena, ballpark and soccer field experience so offensive as to discourage the peaceable majority from wanting to attend.
Since when did the purchase of a ticket make people think that exhibiting behavior that in any other environment would result in expulsion or even arrest is permissible? This past weekend, I was forced to endure a constant barrage of abuse aimed at an umpire in a college baseball game. Not only was the behavior offensive, it actually disrupted the rhythm of the abuser’s team’s pitcher. There is no doubt that this individual is a large contributor to the university’s athletic foundation, thus giving him the unfounded illusion that he is beyond reproach, regardless of his behavior.
It’s time for universities, professional sports franchises and youth leagues to seriously address this issue. I advocate that these entities develop and publicize codes of conduct at athletic venues and strictly enforce them by ejecting individuals that violate them. Contributions and tickets purchases would come with the acceptance of the code. While we can all argue there is gray area in any black and white issue, I believe most of us know when certain behavior is wrong. Why should we acquiesce to the one person out of ten that makes the experience for the other nine offensive and uncomfortable, just because we’re afraid to offend the offender?
My motive for such a policy is two-fold: First, it will make the experience of watching a sporting event more pleasurable, and Secondly, from a business perspective, it will keep people coming to games instead of opting for the comfort of their easy chairs and HD television screens. The NFL is already facing this problem for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is alcohol fueled foul behavior. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against beer at games. But if those that consume too much can’t demonstrate acceptable behavior, then they should not be able to attend.
We should not be putting the well-behaved majority in the position of policing the small minority that don’t seem to get it. Instead, it’s incumbent on the organizations themselves to take action before the only people left in the stadiums and arenas are the rowdy drunks. At that point, the athletes themselves may begin to question their own participation. I call on those individuals in leadership positions to step up and make our venues enjoyable, pleasant and safe. Come on!
Monday, May 13, 2013
Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods entered yesterday's final round of The Players Championship tied for the lead with rookie David Lingmerth at eleven under par. After all of the fireworks were over, and there were plenty, Woods had escaped with a two shot victory and Sergio had exited with his reputation as a petulant loser further reinforced. On Saturday, when paired with Woods, Sergio had blamed Tiger for creating a distraction that resulted in an errant second shot and a bogey 6 on the par 5 second hole. After the round, Garcia proceeded to comment further on the incident. When asked what he thought about being paired with someone other than Woods for the final round, Sergio said it was fine with him, as "we don't really enjoy each other's company..."
I know a lot has been written about Tiger Woods' fall from grace outside the ropes, but I'm a sports fan and don't really care much about the personal lives of athletes. The last time I checked, very few of us are friends or even acquaintances of these mostly millionaire players. All I know is, Tiger Woods has won an unprecedented fifty-two out of fifty-six times that he has led or co-led a PGA tour event entering the final round. For those of you that don't follow golf, there is really no valid comparison, primarily because unlike almost every other sport, golfers have no direct physical influence over the scores of their competitors. Now in some of those instances, his lead was so large that it didn't really matter what anyone else did, as they simply weren't going to catch him.
However, Sunday was a terrific example of why he has been so dominant the last seventeen years when getting a lead. Knowing that the greens, especially those on the back nine, would be very difficult to read and thus putt, he took his chances on the holes that would give him the best chance at birdie. On the rest, he played safe and made his pursuers have to play beyond their capabilities to catch him. Standing on the 14th tee, he had built a seemingly insurmountable two-shot lead. But while trying to play it safe on the very difficult par four, he ended up hooking his tee shot into the water, resulting in a double bogey. The key point about that hole, at least from my perspective, is that he made a bad swing while trying to make the correct shot. By the time he got to the 17th tee and faced the treacherous shot over water to the island green, it was apparent that Garcia, playing in the group behind, would most likely be tied with him by the time Tiger finished the 17th hole.
Tiger could have elected to hit at the flag, but instead played safe, hitting away from the hole and making a safe par 3. At the worst, he was looking at a playoff, unless Garcia could make a birdie on one of the two difficult final holes. When Sergio stepped on the 17th tee, he was indeed tied with Woods at 13 under par. When Garcia won the 2009 Players Championship, he hit a great shot at 17 to win the tournament, thanks mainly to Paul Goydos' shot into the water on the same hole. This time, instead of taking a page from Tiger's book and hitting a less risky shot, Sergio went directly at the flag and came up considerably short in the water. He tried another and it ended up in the same place. He finally holed out for a quadruple bogey 7, then hit his tee shot at 18 into the water for a double bogey six. The point is that Sergio made a poor decision and made it worse by failing to execute it. The same shot aimed at the center of the green would have been dry, keeping him in the tournament for at least another hole.
I'm pretty sure Sergio Garcia is never going to share with me his real reason for going at that pin on 17, but I can guess it was because he didn't believe he could beat Tiger Woods without making a spectacular shot. And that is the reason Tiger has been so dominant with the lead. No one truly believes he will back up by making bad decisions or bad shots. He made a bad shot on Sunday, but it was with a two-stroke lead. Tiger Woods, despite the double bogey, did not relinquish the lead.
Some people will maintain that Tiger isn't all the way back until he wins his fifteenth major. I disagree. He's won four times in six stroke play events this year, the earliest he has reached that victory total in his career. But the more telling sign is that he is back in the heads of his fellow competitors. I can assure you, they don't think he's back, they KNOW he's back, by virtue of finishing behind him four times already this season. And you want to know the scariest thing if you're a tour player? Tiger's last comment in his post-round interview was simply, "I'm getting better." Watch out golf world. This guy isn't done yet!