Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Baffling Giants, From the Stands

I saw the San Francisco Giants host the Marlins last Sunday, the final game before the All-Star break. Exactly a year before, the Giants had the best record in MLB. Many of the players on the field last Sunday were on that team. But if the Bay Area sports media is right, that may no longer be true even a month from now.

 Except for the unsurprisingly bad Phillies, the Giants ended the first half with the worst record in baseball, and have just lost a series in San Diego (due in part to 2 homers by their former backup catcher Hector Sanchez), where the Padres are almost as woeful.

 This is the worst Giants record in a generation, and it's baffled everyone. It's a proven team of highly skilled players just a year past predominance. Yet that year has been an ongoing disaster. And now a lot of people are expecting a lot of trades, and maybe for the first time are willing for them to happen.

 I tried to discern some difference at AT&T Park. I maybe didn't see the same intensity from Johnny Cueto on the mound, but that may not be valid. (He's now on the disabled list.) Otherwise, nothing I could be sure of. Maybe there wasn't the same electric buzz in the stands as there had been at some previous games, but the park was full on a clear warm afternoon, with a bright hot sun. Maybe the scoreboard emphasized past glories a lot, and they got the biggest cheers. As usual there were a lot of fans wearing Giants gear, including players shirts--often players of the past.

 But it wasn't a bad game. The Giants took the early lead on a titanic 2 run homer to the deepest part of the yard in right center by Brandon Crawford. The Marlins immediately tied it, then went ahead on a Giancarlo Stanton homer on a pitch that Cueto grooved. Then sub catcher Hundley homered right back to tie the score again.

 But over the past year, Giants fans have come to expect the bullpen cave, and it came when the Marlins scored 4 runs in the 7th. At 7-3, the script for the past year says the game is about over. But not this time.

 The Giants got a run back in the 7th and then staged a very exciting rally in the 8th, tying the game. Buster Posey (the lone Giants All-Star) got an ovation as a pinch-hitter but he inexplicably swung on an 3-0 pitch and grounded out without bringing in a run. Still, after Gomez two strike pinch hit single, the lead run was on third with one out. But one of the younger players--don't remember which--couldn't get a long sacrifice. With 2 out Denard Span smacked a deep ball to right that just got caught. A game of inches--if the ball had gone over the fielder's head, it would likely have scored two-- and how the dice falls, because one batter earlier and Span's ball would have easily scored the lead run, even if caught.

 A game also of instant heroics and instant humiliation. With the score still tied in the 13th, Brandon Crawford--who had a homer and run-scoring hit in the 8th inning rally for three RBIs, plus several clutch fielding plays and throws to first--scooped up a tough grounder and threw hard over Belt's head at first base for a two-base error. A couple of batters later, Kontos gave up a two run homer. By the time Stanton had homered again as well, and Kelby Tomlinson tripled in the bottom of the inning but the Giants could manage only one run for a 10-8 loss--we were on our way to, and sitting in, the train. In prior years, the chances of coming back again in the bottom of the 13th would be excellent enough to stay. This year, not so much.  (I do regret not seeing the Tomlinson triple.  He's a personal favorite.)

 As for the experience, I saw Matt Cain pitch in relief, and Ichiro pinch hit. I had the most expensive mocha I've ever purchased. I don't know how to compare this to previous years because I mostly kept to my seat before, but on this day there seemed an awful lot of people walking around and watching the boats in the marina. Maybe they were escaping the sun as I was. The people were a big part of the show. It will take a lot before people stop coming, I'm sure. It's such a San Francisco experience now--a very diverse crowd, all together here in Giants gear.

 But it may not be long before the players they see are different. (And in fact, we heard somebody yell "Trade 'em all!") Posey, Crawford, Bumgarner will remain the core. They've already broken up that perfect infield of Duffy, Crawford, Panik and Belt, and at least one of those left could go soon, as well as players added later. As for outfielders, though Hunter Pence is enormously popular, Span is probably more likely to be kept. But that's just guessing.

 Still, expectations that it will all change in a month aren't realistic. The starting pitching rotation was carefully crafted and looked so formidable before the season, and it is in shambles. Unfortunately you can't pick up a quality pitching staff in a month. The bullpen is so dispirited that nobody is completely safe. But contracts etc. enter in, and that's a level beyond my interest.

 I can see why people enjoy looking back, not only because those were championship teams--and pretty lucky teams at times--but several were definable teams. The team that played most of the first half of last season was a real team. But despite the familiar players, there's less sense of that now. Partly due to another season of injuries, but also to this baffling inability to win, players have been coming through, lineups and roles juggled. Things are likely to get even less stable before they settle, which will be when they jell. And become a team, a winning team, again.

Postscript: On Monday (July 17) the Giants' streak of consecutive home game sellouts ended at 530 games.  SF holds the record for the National League, and it is the second-longest streak in MLB to the Boston Red Sox 794.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Dubs Progress and Giants Revival

It's only been a few weeks since the victory parade but already prospects for the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors looks awfully good.  The Dubs have awarded a huge new contract to Steph Curry for five years, and are about to sign Andre Iguodala for three.  Also back on board are Shaun Livingston and David West.  Everyone expects that Kevin Durant will now re-sign, since he was willing to take less for next year in order to keep Iguodala.

Already under contract are Draymond, Klay Thompson, Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell.

Jordan Bell was a surprise steal when the Dubs bought a draft pick from the Bulls. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, he is said to have Draymond potential with the size of KD.

Plus the Warriors got Bell's Oregon Ducks teammate Chris Boucher as an undrafted free agent.  Hobbled by a serious injury until October, his upside potential is considerable.  

Meanwhile, several western conference rivals have strengthened themselves so far--notably Houston and Minnesota--but notably the Cavs have not.

While we weren't looking, the San Francisco Giants have gone on a five game winning streak, notching blowouts and today's 11th inning win on the road in Pittsburgh.  The injuries continue, but trades and call-ups are rotating new players all over the field as well as in the bullpen.

I may get a look at them next weekend when they return to San Francisco to play three games with the Marlins.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NBA Awards and Steph Props


Congratulations to Draymond Green for winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award, to Warriors GM Bob Myers for winning Exec of the Year and to Klay Thompson for the fan's award of Performance of the Year, all announced at the NBA awards.

With Kevin Durant winning the Finals MVP and often touted as the best player on the Warriors (perhaps the best or second best in the NBA), last year's unanimous league MVP seems obscured if not forgotten.

But the fan award of Assist of the Year to Steph Curry suggests his visible contributions to the Warriors championship season.  Let's not forget that when KD went down with what was feared to be a season-ending injury, Steph Curry led the Warriors on an epic winning streak that provided the confidence to go into the playoffs without fear.

And while KD got the attention and made key plays, Curry in every game made vital contributions in whatever ways were most needed.  In the Finals especially he may not have dazzled with so many of the 3s he had displayed throughout the season and in the early rounds, but he rebounded, he passed, he drove to the basket.  Maybe the Warriors wouldn't have won the championship without KD, and maybe they would have.  But they would not have won it without Steph Curry.

That's as much for his contributions that weren't visible on the TV screen.  Steve Kerr called him the heart and soul of the team, the one player who defines who the Warriors are.  The Warriors wouldn't be who they are without Draymond and Klay, and KD has become part of that dynamic.  This Ramona Shelburne piece at ESPN says it all eloquently.  At the center of it all is Steph Curry.

If the basketball world has been looking elsewhere, Warriors fans have not.  Steph Curry is clearly the most popular player, the one people want to watch.  They got more game to watch this year, as the video above suggests.

But basketball is over, and unfortunately there's only baseball.  It's hard to believe that the San Francisco Giants are basically the same team that had the best record in baseball going into the All-Star break last year.  This year they may yet have the worst, though the Phillies are again making that particular run.

This has to be the earliest in decades that the Giants have been out of playoff contention.  The Pittsburgh Pirates are having a down year but they've still got a shot, thanks in part to the even more epic collapse of the Cardinals and the rough start of the Cubs.

Monday, June 12, 2017

"You're Home, Baby"

The Golden State Warriors defeated the Cavs 129-120 in the fifth game of the NBA Finals to claim the 2017 Championship.  It was a storybook win for this team because every player played well and several played brilliantly.  It was Strength in Numbers triumphant.  After winning in 2015 and losing the seven game series last year, Steph Curry could touch the championship trophy and tell it, "you're home, baby."

Kevin Durant won the Finals MVP but in this revealing postgame press conference he noted the big contributions made by Steph Curry, who some observers claimed on the basis of numbers was the real most valuable player.  (And in fact, after KD got a huge ovation from the home crowd as he held up his trophy, when Steph was introduced the crowd chanted MVP--which technically he could still win for the season, though it's unlikely.)

KD had 39 points, bolstered by some audacious threes and jump shots.  The Cavs harassed Curry all game again and he wasn't hitting 3s but with drive after drive to the basket, he scored 34.  Andre Iguodala played longer off the bench as part of the Hampton Five smaller lineup and again came up big defensively while scoring 20 points.

Klay Thompson's defense paid off again and he had his 3 stroke going.  Draymond Green kept his cool, made plays and hit his open 3s.  Both veteran David West (who finally won his first championship) and rookie Patrick McCaw had key buckets and made plays.

All this was necessary because the Cavs got not only lots of scoring from LeBron and Kyrie but J.R. Smith hit seven 3s.  The Cavs won the first quarter but the Warriors went on major runs in the second and fourth quarters to keep control.  They led by as many as 17 points.

All the talk about the Warriors being the most hated team evaporated during these playoffs.  This is the team of unselfishness, of playing with joy, and of friendship.  The good guys won.  Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, 2017 NBA champions.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Pre-Game Five

The Cavs hit a record number of threes, benefited from dubious officiating ( hitting their foul shots while the Warriors didn't) and got away with muscling the Warriors to take the fourth game of the NBA Finals.

But nobody was harder on the Warriors effort than Coach Kerr on Sunday, especially on defense.  It was acknowledged by everyone that the Cavs were the more aggressive team.

Now the Warriors come home, playing another close-out game on Monday.  The fifth game is the most crucial game of any series, as the winner of it almost always wins the series.  It is the Warriors best chance to win the championship.

What adjustments do they need to make?  Most observers note that they scored well enough to win most games, but in addition to the Cavs super-hot shooting, their defense was inhibited by foul trouble.  They lost the first quarter badly but stayed pretty even the rest of the way.

It seems the fatigue factor hit the Warriors more, against the desperation energy of the Cavs, which continued by playing ahead and in some sort of zone.  Now the energy edge should go back to the Warriors at home.

One observer suggested that Steph Curry didn't have the ball in his hands enough as playmaker, and given the Cavs muscling him off the ball, it threw him off his rhythm.  So running the offense through Curry more seems like a good idea.

What is there to worry about?  Defending threes but not giving up layups as a consequence.  I'm not sure I liked Steph's statement after the fourth game that the first six minutes are crucial, and without them it takes a near miracle to win. It forecasts the strategy, and if the Dubs don't have a great first six minutes then the doubts creep in?

Draymond has been a little too vocal between games for my tastes.  Everyone knows the Cavs love to bait him, and he seems to be cooperating.  He needs to play a cool game for the first three quarters, and take over the fourth defensively if necessary.

The Cavs opened the fourth game with desperate energy and got the breaks they needed--they got calls, the Warriors were a step behind, and they hit shots at a phenomenal rate.  They fed off that overwhelming start, and even though the Warriors had gotten back within 7 points in the second quarter, the Cavs kept hitting key shots while the Dubs did not, to keep the Cavs at a safe distance.  It's hard to see this happening again.

The Warriors have to play with composure as well as joy, for the Cavs will do their worst to frustrate them and beat them up.  However it's hard to believe that the officiating will be as bad either.  The Warriors have to be the overwhelming favorite to win the championship tonight.

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins, winner of the Stanley Cup NHL championship with a 2-0 win on Sunday in the sixth game.  (They won the fifth game 6-0.)  The Penguins are the first NHL team since 1998 to win two straight championships.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Pre-Game Four

Even apart from being down three games to none, the Cavs are in a tight spot for the fourth game.  LeBron James played major minutes again in the third game, with an aggressive first half going to the hoop and shooting threes.  But he ceded the third to Kyrie and was pretty obviously gassed in the crucial fourth.  Now he's facing a closeout game for Golden State two days later, the least amount of rest in the playoffs.

That James and Kyrie carried the scoring meant other players were less involved, and that also came back to haunt them in the fourth quarter.  So the logical strategy for the next game is for James to get everybody involved early, and save more of himself for the fourth quarter.

But in that third game, without his first half scoring, the game would probably not have been close in the fourth.  So what is the strategy?  Down 3-0, the Cavs might start thinking about the long term, about keeping LeBron healthy and not using him up, even with the long off-season ahead.  But LeBron himself is likely to be especially competitive about not being swept.

So will we see LeBron come out scoring, or distributing? Maybe distributing to start.  Obviously how the game is going will be a major factor.  If the Warriors do what they've done in previous close-out games this year--get a big lead right away--then chances are LeBron will get more rest in this game.

On the Warriors side, all the talk has been about KD and Steph.  Some see them as potential co-MVPs though most observers tip the balance to Durant.  But the fourth game could see two other heroes: Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.  Green has been trying to be careful, although he's been in foul trouble anyway.  He might be more obviously active Friday, and put up big numbers.

As for Thompson, I was impressed that in his postgame interview on Wednesday he kept talking about Friday, what they needed to do on Friday.  He was (in the phrase they all use) "locked in."  Only Curry ventured to evaluate Wednesday's game historically.  So given Thompson's breakout from his shooting slump, he may have one of his monster games on Friday.  If the Warriors don't suffer a letdown, it's hard to see how the Cavs win a game, if they couldn't win Wednesday.

Warriors Tough It Out

Finishing with an 11-0 run to win the third game of the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors showed the one element some observers questioned: their toughness.  It was the Cleveland Cavs who arguably panicked as their lead slipped away in the final minutes.

The Warriors took the early punch they expected in the Cavs first home game, and countered it with a record number of threes in the first quarter.  They led at the end of the first quarter and the half.  Their signature third quarter didn't happen however, and the Cavs seized the momentum, when Kyrie Irving took over the scoring at the basket from LeBron.  But they both played heavy minutes and couldn't withstand the cool composure and determination of Curry and especially Kevin Durant in the final minutes.  The final score was 118-113.

Klay Thompson continued his return to shooting form with 18 points in just the first quarter.  His defense in those crucial last minutes, particularly on Kyrie's last possession, was outstanding.

Evidently the Cavs game plan was to neutralize Draymond Green, and he did get in early foul trouble.  Though always important on both ends, Green hasn't had a breakout game--yet.

The fourth game is Friday, when the Warriors could sweep and become the first NBA team in history to go 16-0 in the postseason.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Pre-Game Jitters

The third game of the NBA Finals in Cleveland will begin soon.  For the past few days the sports media chatter has been almost universally about Warriors dominance.  That may be so in the series, but it doesn't guarantee a win in this game.

In terms of the physical benefits of rest, the home team has a decided advantage in the first two games, especially in a time-zone spanning series like this one.  The Cavs crossed from the eastern to the western zone, with whatever effects that may have on sleep and sheer physical energy, presence and groundedness.  The Warriors hadn't gone anywhere in a couple of weeks.  They were totally there.

So we've seen only games in which the Cavs were at the biggest physical disadvantage in terms of time zones of the series. That advantage doesn't repeat to the same extent as the series goes on.  The Cavs will have some but a smaller advantage in their home time zone, but they've had to adjust as well as the Warriors.  The games are at about the same relative time, (5 or 6 p.m. West Coast time) so theoretically both teams now don't have to adjust as much.  But small differences in energy levels, in the ability to maintain focus, can have large consequences.

This is apart from the other aspects of home court advantage, such as familiarity with the space and especially the home crowd.

So how do the Cavs win this one?  If the Dubs come out shooting threes and don't make them, and especially if at some point in the game, the Cavs start hitting threes in droves.  Both things have happened before with these two teams.

The Cavs didn't shoot especially well in Oakland, and still managed to be competitive for most of the second game.  The Warriors went from only four turnovers in the first game, to 20 in the second.  As Steve Kerr said, they'll be hard pressed to win in Cleveland with that many turnovers.

So missed threes and turnovers that help to energize the Cavs with easy baskets early, followed by a rain of Cav threes.  Those are the obvious routes.  But of course every game is only itself: players in foul trouble and above all injuries can change the game, and injuries can still change the series.

Still, it's hard not to agree with media observers that the Warriors have so many weapons and are playing so well (and so fast) that over the course of a game, and certainly over the course of a series, they're very very hard to beat.