Friday, May 18, 2018

Going Into Game Three

The first two games of the western conference finals fit the playoff pattern: each team has a blowout win, and conversely a loss that makes them look very vulnerable.  If this pattern holds, the rest of the games to be played will be closer, including at least one decided in the last minute, or the last few seconds.

With their commanding win in game 2, the Rockets have confidence in their game.  The Warriors, who frightened fans with their regular season tendency--different from the past two seasons--to fall apart and get beat big, have rattled their fans for sure with this game, and perhaps impressed themselves with what they need to do every game.

What the second game showed was what I proposed as the Rockets path to victory: the Rockets made adjustments, then played at the top of their game, while the Warriors played at the bottom of theirs.  Two games with a day between on the road is as hard as the playoff schedule gets.  It seems unlikely that Steph and Klay will miss so many shots at home.  It seems unlikely that the Warriors play as badly again--but given the regular season, there's some doubt.

Steph Curry will need to have a big game to silence the questions about his recovery from his latest injury.  He denies that he's not as quick physically, but he did that two years ago also, when he was in fact not fully recovered.

Now the Warriors must win their two home games in order to stay in control of this series.  They then have the luxury of not needing game 5, and taking the series with game 6 at home.  Anything short of taking the next two games is dangerous.  That has to be their mindset.

In the eastern conference finals, game 3 is an obvious must-win for Cleveland at home.  Having lost the first two games on the road, they must win all their home games plus one in Boston.  They don't seem to have the firepower or the defense to make up this deficit, as they made up a 3-1 deficit two years ago in the finals to win the championship.  Not if the Celtics stay as healthy as they are now.

The East plays game 3 Saturday, the West on Sunday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Conference Finals: The Story So Far

We should be used to this by now--after every game 1 victory for Golden State, nobody in sports media can figure out how they are going to lose.  But teams make adjustments, and I'd be surprised if the Rockets don't at least make a game of it tonight.

To be fair to the commentators, the Rockets seem locked into the style that didn't work, so maybe they can't make enough adjustments. Right now the Warriors look like the better and more flexible team. They have more than one way to win.  But if the Rockets successfully adjust their offense and defense and win the second game, then game 5 looms large.

If they don't adjust, or if they do adjust and still lose, then it is pretty much over. It's more than a math truism to observe that if the Dubs win tonight, they very well could sweep.  The problem for the Rockets is that they need to play an almost perfect game, and the Dubs must slump.  The Rockets can't stop Durant, but he could have a poor shooting night. Still, they have to worry about Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson going off.

It will be interesting to see what lineup Coach Kerr starts.  Will he rest Iggy as he did between road games in the last series?  That lineup didn't get the team off to a great start anyway.

 We'll know more about how long a series this is likely to be after game 2.  But in almost any scenario, the Warriors should prevail.

It also looks very much like the Warriors' Finals opponent will be the Boston Celtics. The Cavs have not only lost the first two games, they looked bad doing it.  The Celtics also look to be a stronger opponent for the Warriors, especially because of their coach and his relationship with his players.  That combined with their youth could win them a couple of games.  But the Dubs will expose their inexperience.   It could be a respectably long series.

The Giants got a victory in Pittsburgh to break their road trip losing streak, and promptly won the first two against the Reds at home.  After living off their rookies and young players in the early season, the veterans are starting to come through at the plate.  Some exciting baseball back at what seems like a still not regularly sold out field.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Storm Before the Games

Going into the weekend before the NBA conference finals, a few especially interesting takes among the usual noise.

While the ESPN experts pretty unanimously pick Golden State (and Cleveland), the numbers folks at 538 say that Houston has a 79% chance of going to the Finals.

However, this prediction itself was panned by the big lead.

Sports Illustrated was pretty direct in its predictions:

"As long as everyone is healthy, Golden State really shouldn't be threatened by anyone. I hope I'm wrong about this, and it would be great if we're about to enter two weeks of Warriors–Rockets chaos, but Steph Curry already warned everyone about overthinking it. Nobody can guard Kevin Durant. If he plays his best basketball over the next month, the playoffs are already over."

The rest of SI's analysis is interesting--and well-written.

A lot of the comments in other places as well focus on the difference between playoff basketball and regular season.  The Rockets found themselves in the regular season, but the Warriors know how to perform in the playoffs.  SI emphasized the efficiency of Steph Curry and KD, and the level that Draymond hits (and hit immediately in the first series) in the playoffs.

But 538 does have some good points, especially the potential importance of home court, which belongs to Houston.

As a rule of thumb from just a viewer, the crucial games in a playoff series are 1 and 5 and of course 7.  The ball is literally in the court of the home team in game 1--victory by the visitors (the Dubs, in this case) is very big.  On the other hand, the visitors figure they've done their job if they get one win out of the first two.

In a fairly evenly matched series, the first game is especially crucial, because the other team always adjusts to a defeat.  Perhaps because of these alternating currents, the winner of game 5 almost always wins the series.

 If the Warriors win on Monday, the Rockets are in serious trouble.  But this will still be a series, every game until it's over.

Meanwhile, after their surge, the San Francisco Giants have lost 5 straight, mostly due to pitchers being beaten up and their hitters striking out.  But Andrew McCutchen did get a hero's welcome his first game back in Pittsburgh.  That's great--the city's sports fans weren't always so classy.  There were video tributes and standing ovations--they love the Cutch in Pittsburgh.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Western Showdown is Coming

Update Tuesday: As was foretold you, the Warriors and Rockets both advanced to the championship round in their fifth game on Tuesday, and by nearly identical scores.  Now comes nearly a week of analysis and prediction, but at this point it seems these teams are pretty evenly matched.  If the series goes to 7 games, Houston has the traditional home court edge.  This much can be said now: the Rockets have been playing their best basketball of the year.  To beat them, the Warriors will need to play their best basketball of the year.

When you are down 2-0 in a playoff series, you coach and play for only the next game.  But when you are up 2-0, you can play also for the series.  That's what Coach Kerr did for the third game of round 2.  Knowing that the Warriors were to play two games on the road with only a day between them, he sent out a lineup that was different from the kind of lineup that had won the first two games.  He did it to rest Iggy and to be able to limit Steph Curry's minutes and lessen his role in his second game back from injury.  In terms of conditioning, the second game back--after the adrenalin rush of the first return--is the most difficult.

But Kerr returned to the small lineup, his best five players (he said) for the fourth game on Sunday, and the Dubs defeated New Orleans by 26 points.  It will be shocking if the series doesn't end on the Warriors home floor in game 5.

Houston seems just as likely to end their series, so the predicted Western showdown is about to occur, and it promises to be the hardest-fought series of the entire post-season.

In the east, it may take Toronto a long time to recover from its complete collapse and capitulation to the Cavs.  Game 4 was barely contested.  TO gave up.  There could be major changes, and should be coaching changes, there soon.

Philadelphia avoided a similar collapse by beating back Boston in their fourth game, but the odds of course still are that Cleveland will meet the surprising Celtics.  With Kyrie down, the Celtics are really a wild card in this series but certainly start out as underdogs.  The Cavs lucked out with their opponent in the second round, and may have again in the championship round.  But neither team seems a match for either team from the West, and in either case it looks to be another short finals series.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Stephless No More

Steph is back.

Steph Curry came off the bench against New Orleans in the second game of the second round--an idea I had as a strategic advantage. So I assumed Coach Kerr had a similar thought about confusing the Pelicans defense.  But apparently it was Steph's idea.

His shooting was there from the start.  He ended up with 28 points.  The rust showed in bad passes and not anticipating Anthony Davis' ability to block shots. He should be up to speed by Friday, when he is set to start in the third game, this time in New Orleans.

Coach Kerr's decision to field a small lineup against the speedy Pelicans is working.   Judging by the first two games, I expect the Pelicans to win one, maybe two, but the Dubs to prevail in 5 or 6.

The other Western Conference match-up got interesting Wednesday when Utah defeated Houston, tying that series at 1-1.  Now it goes to Utah.  Yes, very interesting.

In the East: How many miracles can LeBron perform to keep Cleveland going?  It took seven games for them to win the first round.  The Cavs won the first game of the second round over Toronto by coming back to tie and then winning in overtime. They led the game only at the end.  Everything depends on how Toronto responds to this game.  But at this point, it seems the Cavs dinking into the finals really would be a miracle.

Thursday update: TO responded badly, and down 2-0 on the road, they've got a massive hill to climb, starting with their confidence. Undermanned  Boston is surprising many by handling golden Philadelphia.  And the Houston-Utah series is 1-1.  That's three wows right there. 

Meanwhile after a challenging April the Giants just climbed back over .500.  They've won 4 straight series, including one over the Dodgers.  Highlight of Wednesday was the return of lh reliever Will Smith.  They're also providing some exciting baseball for Giants fans.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

NBA Playoffs Taking Shape

Heading for the second round, the NBA playoffs begin to take shape.  The big news so far is the New Orleans Pelicans.  They dispatched the favored Portland Trailblazers in four emphatic games, for the only sweep of the round.  If the Golden State Warriors finish their first round with a 5th game victory at home tonight, they will meet this weekend to begin the second round.

The Pelicans have strong momentum, always important in the postseason.  The Warriors are still without Steph Curry and may remain so for awhile. They are otherwise banged up as well.

New Orleans looked to be a strong challenger for whoever played them, especially Houston and Golden State.  By dropping to second seed, the Warriors drew the Pelicans, the team most likely to slow down the Rockets, and perhaps eliminate them.  Now that's not going to happen in this round, and the Warriors are in for a fight.  So the Warriors-Pelicans could be a difficult and even fateful series.

Utah is likely to emerge as the winner against OKC, which may also be good for the Rockets, as OKC is the other team that gave them trouble.  The Rockets looked rocky in the first round, but they dropped 50 points in one quarter of game 4 on Monday, which has to be getting everybody's attention.

In the East, Cleveland has looked shaky-- their first round will go at least six games, and a long series early is not good for the Cavs.  Philadelphia looks the strongest, with Toronto behind them, with Boston a dark horse.  Philadelphia feels like the team of destiny there.  The Pelicans are a legitimate dark horse team in the West, with the Warriors and the Rockets still most likely to meet in the conference championship series.   But that's likely a month away, so hang on.

The disturbing trend of the first round has been the acrimony, fighting and possibly even attempts to injure.  It hasn't affected the Warriors yet--the Dubs and the Spurs are two of the classiest teams in the league--but egos elsewhere are out of the control.

After a hard luck start (losing your top three starting pitchers and top two relief pitchers seems to qualify) the San Francisco Giants began to stabilize in the past week or so.  Getting two of those pitchers back--both with strong first starts--probably helped, but so did the cold veteran bats coming around.

But the big news was the return of Mac Williamson with a whole new stroke.  He homered to win one game, and on Monday, blasted the longest home run by a Giant at home in several years, 464 feet, to win that game.   With Williamson an unexpected jolt in the outfield, the surprisingly (at least to me) effective job Hunter Strickland has done as the closer, and the strong starts some of the young pitchers have made, could it be that the Giants luck is finally, finally turning around?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Great Start to the Warriors Playoff Run

The Golden State Warriors defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the first game of the playoffs with pace, defense and some hot shooting.  It was a total effort with some stand-out individual performances: Klay Thompson had one of those great shooting games he's capable of, hitting on 11 of 13 shots.  From the start, Kevin Durant was in charge of the offense, made shots and combined with JaVale McGee for others.  Draymond Green made shots as well as led the defense.

Credit Coach Kerr for a surprising starting lineup, with Andre Iguodala at point guard and McGee at center.  Both were outstanding.  Andre was disruptive on defense and McGee was aggressive, scoring a season high 15 and handing the Spurs major scoring threat, LeMarcus Aldridge, on defense, with one spectacular block that led to a Klay three. When the starters play like this, the bench responds with defense and key shots. The Dubs led by 28 at one point.

The Dubs can't expect Thompson to be that hot or McGee that effective every game but the victory was a total package. (KD only had to score 24 for this blowout win.) The Spurs don't seem to have answers for the match-up problems Kerr exposed, so only a reversion to pre-playoff intensity by the Warriors is likely to prevent this being a short series.