Thursday, April 28, 2016

Curry or Not, Here We Come (Continued)

The Warriors led from beginning to end and beat up on the Houston Rockets 114-81 with Steph Curry on the bench, to take the first round of the playoffs 4 games to sort of 1.

Now the Dubs wait for Portland, the likely winner of their series against the LA Clippers.  The Blazers won by ten on Wednesday and lead 3-2, despite the Clips being at home.  Losing their two stars was too much.

It's one thing to close out a first round series without the league's MVP.  To do it by more than 30 points--well, you have to like their chances in the next series, especially since they'll be starting at home in the games most likely to be without Steph.

There were lots of heroes in the Giants 13-9 victory over the Padres to sweep the series and salvage a .500 homestand.  Brandon Belt was a puff of wind short of being the first Giant to hit for the cycle at AT&T Park.  But my player is Gregor Blanco, who came off the bench to hit and especially make a play in the outfield--he actually launched himself horizontally to make the catch.  He's been the guy off the bench for years who saved the Giants time and time again, in the World Series and throughout the seasons.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Okay, Back to Fun, Baseball

Two kinds of fun in baseball: one kind, a tight but exciting 1-0 complete game, with clutch catches, close double-plays and a couple of stealers thrown out at second.  Second kind, a 9-4 blast and a three homer night for a great player.

They both happened with my teams on Tuesday.  The San Francisco Giants won 1-0 behind a masterful complete game by Johnny Cueto, for his 100th career win and a 4-1 record this season.  He's been the Giants' best pitcher.

But it also took a couple of great throws by Buster Posey to cut down base stealers in dangerous situations, and a Crawford-to-Panik-to-Belt double play that was so close it needed a replay. If it had gone against them, the Padres would have scored a run with a chance for more.  Everything really counts in a one run game.  And maybe the best thing--the complete game.  No bullpen needed.

Out in Colorado, Andrew McCutchen hit three homers, two boomers to left center and a line drive to right, to lead the 9-4 attack for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  It was his second career three-homer game, only the fourth Pirates player to do that (and I've seen two of these hit): Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.

Two kinds of fun.  Baseball.

Basketball: The other shoe dropped on the Clippers when it was announced that Blake Griffith is out for the playoffs, as is Chris Paul.  The Clips are at home for their next game with Portland, with that series at 2-2.  If the Warriors advance by beating the Rockets one more time, they'll play the winner of this series next.

Meanwhile, the Warriors' Steve Kerr won Coach of the Year, and his coaching will be tested Wednesday when the Dubs host Houston.  It's the Warriors best chance to win this playoff series, and then also get everybody some rest.  Houston players are sounding desperately confident (or confidently desperate) but the Warriors have plenty of ways to win.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Curry or Not, Here We Come

Officially now, Steph Curry is out and his injury will be evaluated in two weeks.  He slipped on a wet court near halftime of the fourth game in Houston of the first round of playoffs.  He'd already missed two games with an ankle injury, with the Warriors winning one and losing the third game by a single point, on a shot that the NBA later said shouldn't have counted.

 But in that 4th game, the Warriors played an impassioned third quarter and were deadly accurate from threeville. They blew out Houston to come home leading 3 games to 1.

It wasn't only that they pulled together and knew what to do without Curry.  It's also that they saw his tears when he couldn't play.

Now the Warriors face at least another game against Houston and an unknown number of games against their next opponents without their MVP.  About the injury, the two weeks is not definitive, one way or the other.  It's probable some sort of evaluation will be ongoing, and taken seriously in one week.

The Warriors are unlikely to blow through opponents, but they are capable of winning this and the next series without Steph if necessary.  That became really evident Monday night when Portland tied their series with the favored Clippers.  And after some Clippers seemed to greet Curry's injury with glee, they lost their own star--Chris Paul--for an even longer time, with a broken hand. Blake Griffith also left the game injured.

Klay Thompson will have to step up and nobody else can be injured. Now the depth of this team, and especially the things they do in practice that they don't get to do in games, will be front and center. The Warriors are coming, and other teams should beware.  Steph Curry's tears may not be as strong as his court presence, but they are going to make a difference.

It depends on how the conversation starts.  How about those Giants? means the SF club is playing well and winning.  What about those Giants? means something else.

The Miami Marlins came to town just in the nick of time, after the Giants were swept at home in a four game series with Arizona.  But their inability to score a tying run with the bases loaded and no outs spoiled what should have been a sweep against a much weaker team.  (Though the Marlins beat LA the next night.)

Still, that series exposed the main weak point of the Giants now.  The Marlins, the Padres are relatively weak teams especially in the bullpen stocked with rookies coming and going through the swinging door.  Unfortunately though, so are the Giants.

Some of these kids are stars of the future, but it's not the future yet.  In the present the Giants are depending on them, and so the late innings of every game are suddenly up for grabs. The remaining (uninjured) veterans are not so dependable either. And third year Hunter Strickland is so far not turning out to be the closer in waiting he was hoped to be.  The starting rotation is getting into a groove, and the young arms in the bullpen are showing flashes of brilliance, but things still are askew.

It's certainly not all bad.  Casilla got his 100th save, Angel Pagan is having a career month, and Gregor Blanco continues to be excellent whenever called upon. And maybe it's that I'm getting too used to the brilliance of Duffy, Panik, Pence etc. but somehow, so far this year, this team still seems out of synch.  Maybe it's just April.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stephless in Houston?

After outscoring Houston in the first quarter all by himself in the first game of the playoffs, Steph Curry left the action later in the game with an ankle injury that also kept him out of the second.  Golden State won both.  The difference was that they blew out Houston early in the first, but pulled significantly ahead late in the second.

Without Steph, they need tighter ball control and defense, and they need Klay Thompson and at least one other shooter to get hot.  They got all of that in the second game, and more.

Now the series moves to Houston, and Steph wants to play in the third game.  Will he?  Nobody associated with Golden State, including fans, would be upset if he didn't.  The ankle has to be strong, not just playable, because further injury might be disastrous.  Steph wants to stay sharp, and the team would probably like to sweep.  But a return for the fourth game on Sunday wouldn't bother anyone, regardless of what happens in the third game.

Whether Houston even wants to play is an open question.  Harden and Howard are not destined to be teammates much longer.

In baseball, both the Pirates and Giants have significantly cooled off since their fast starts.  Right now if the Giants didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all.  They held veterans back in spring training to prevent injuries, which seemed to work--for a week or so.  Now they are hit hard by injuries, particularly among relief pitchers, and their veterans show some signs of rust, with less than stellar fielding and pitching.

But two games lost on double play balls that were instead errors, and then a game that was won with the closer on the mound and just one strike to go but eventually lost in 11 innings?  That's just weird.

Romo and Kontos are on the DL.  Chris Heston was apparently so ineffective in short relief that he was sent down.  The bullpen is getting younger fast.  So far the new starting pitching acquisitions are doing well.  The lowly flu is hampering Bumgarner still, and the veteran back end of the rotation is having a rough time, as was feared.  But Matt Cain giving up three runs really doesn't matter if the Giants can't score at all.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

#24 and #73

What an amazing night for basketball fans.

It was the wonder of the past and of the future, both dazzling in the present moment.

After 20 years, Kobe Bryant played his last NBA game Wednesday night. Older and coming off injuries, his farewell tour performances were often cameos, in the worst Lakers season in their history, breaking last year's record.  But in several games late in the season, there were flashes of the old Kobe.  He scored in the 30 point range a few times.

Wednesday the Lakers were playing Utah, a team that until game time was hoping for a playoff berth, but Houston had nabbed it.  The Lakers players fed Kobe the ball and urged him to shoot just about every time down the court.  But these advantages mean nothing unless you make the baskets.  And Kobe did.  Drives to the hoop, steals and one-man fast breaks, and three pointers.  He hit two three pointers in the last minute and a half of the game, to give the Lakers their first lead.  And improbably, they won.

Even more improbably, Kobe Bryant had scored 60 points in his last NBA game, 23 in the fourth quarter alone.  Nobody his age had ever scored even 40 in their last NBA game.  Kobe, who once scored 81 and had a string of 50 plus nights, hasn't scored 60 since 2009.  He retires as the NBA's third leading scorer.  He was praised before the game by Magic Johnson.  He even hugged Shaq, who was one of Kobe's former teammates on hand for the occasion.

Now Kobe is past.  But the future is at Golden State.

The Golden State Warriors won their 73rd game, breaking the single season record for victories nobody thought would ever be broken.  They had to win their last four games to do it, including two against another team having a remarkable year, the San Antonio Spurs.

Steph Curry scored 46 points, including 10 three pointers.  The record for 3 pointers in a season was set last year (by Curry) at 289.  Earlier this season Curry became the first NBA player to hit 300.  And Wednesday, he became the first to hit more than 400.  He finished the regular season with 402.

This storybook season ended where it should have, at home at Oracle Arena.

Next weekend the Warriors begin the playoffs as the top seed, beginning their quest for a second championship in a row.   That's their immediate future, with a pretty bright future as a team.

What a night for basketball.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

#72

It had to be the most important regular season win in Golden State Warriors history that didn't have direct playoff implications.  Their victory over the Spurs in San Antonio meant they tied for the single season victory record of 72 wins.  They cinched the first time in NBA history that a team did not lose two games in a row, and/or without losing twice to the same team.

Their victory in San Antonio was Golden State's first since 1997, and it ended the Spurs' bid to become the first team to win out at home (though they could still tie the record for the most home wins in a season.)  The Warriors also set an NBA record with 34 road wins in a season.

Though the game had no direct playoff implications--it didn't change the seeding etc.--it sent a powerful message to the Spurs.  The Spurs lost three times to the Dubs this season, including twice in three games. The Warriors beat them despite playing a tough game less than 24 hours earlier, in Memphis.  The Spurs can no longer count on beating them at home.  And it told the Warriors that with Bogut in the lineup, they can be competitive with the Spurs even in San Antonio.

Bogut's presence was crucial, but it was Green's defense and a return to shooting form and audacity by Steph Curry that made the difference in today's game.  Other players like Thompson and Barnes made key shots--and generally it was the kind of team effort that is the Warriors at their best.

One victory like this changes the story.  Recent struggles can be seen as learning experiences, partly due to reintegrating players back from injuries.  A victory like today's reignites the confidence that can buoy them through the playoffs.

Especially if they come out with crispness and confidence to defeat Memphis when they go for the record 73rd win at their home arena on Wednesday.  As unlikely as that possibility may have sounded at the beginning of the season, or a few days ago.  Just think what it must be like to have tickets to that game!

And if you are counting, Steph Curry made 4 3s today, for a season total of 389. [Update: My math seems to be off here.  It was more like 392.] Reaching 400 is an unlikely but possible feat still, though the least meaningful of these records and benchmarks.  After all, nobody has even hit 300 before.

In San Francisco, Johnny Cueto learned some of the major advantages of becoming a Giant.  He had a terrible first inning against the Dodgers, giving up 5 runs.  But Bruce Bochy did not take him out.  Even in the fifth, with two men on and two out, Bochy did not pinch-hit for him, and his at-bat ended the inning in what had become a tight game.

After the first, Cueto settled down and pitched well for the next six innings but he had given up six runs.  Still, he left the field to a standing ovation.  It was his first game in San Francisco as a Giant, and how could he not feel welcomed by that?

The Giants came back fairly quickly in the game courtesy of homers by Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, then again on a homer by Angel Pagan, before Joe Panik broke it open with a double.  The Giants won 9-6, to take 3 out of 4 from the Dodgers.

A word about Pagan.  Some commentators watching him last season came to the opinion that he's washed up.  But as I noted here, he was playing hurt, and it hurt his play.  But he did it to help the team.  This year he was asked to play left field instead of center, and he has done that without complaint and so far with success.  His speed and power are back.  He's been instrumental in several wins so far.  Angel Pagan is a true Giant and a tremendous asset to this team.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The Great Escape

The Golden State Warriors won their 71st of the season with a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, and escaped Memphis with a one point win, 100-99.

It was another horrible shooting night for Steph Curry, and by now this repetition might be concerning for the playoffs.  He was especially off on 3s, going into the locker room at half time with five misses and no made 3.  He made a crucial one in the fourth quarter, but in the last seconds he had two opportunities to seal the win and missed them both.  He ended up with 3, barely continuing his streak of games with made 3s, and making the mark of 400 in a season less likely.  (He's at 385, so it's not impossible.)

But he contributed in other ways, with assists, and in the final seconds, on defense. It looked as though he blocked or altered what could have been the winning shot.

Steve Kerr held Andrew Bogut out, and that makes the victory more impressive because Bogut has become so essential on both ends.  So Bogut will be fresh for San Antonio, where he did not play last time because of injury, and his absence was crucial in that loss.

So Golden State can still make history, and they will need to make a bunch of it on Sunday, handing the Spurs their first home loss of the season, and breaking their own decades-long losing streak in San Antonio.  If they do, they will tie the single season record for wins, with a chance to break it at home, against that Memphis team they barely beat today.

The San Francisco Giants almost escaped with another win over the Dodgers--they were leading 2-1 in the ninth with one out and a double-play ball on its way to the day's second baseman Kelby Tomlinson.  But it was starting to rain again in a rain-delayed game, and the ball was doing funny things in the wet infield.  It took just one weird bounce to tie the game, and the Dodgers--who had left runners in scoring position all day--finally cashed one in, and eventually won 3-2.

Neither Bumgarner nor Kershaw got a decision.  Kershaw pitched the more efficient game but Bumgarner showed flashes of his typical dominance, and left with the lead.  Part of that lead came from what everybody will talk about from this game--Bumgarner's laser shot home run off Kershaw, the only pitcher to ever ding him more than once.

The 4-0 Pittsburgh Pirates lost their first game of the season, with ace Gerritt Cole again failing to beat Cinncy.