Thursday, September 04, 2014

Speaking of Sports: Early September Stretch

If the Pittsburgh Pirates don't make it to the playoffs, they'll probably look back at their last series with St. Louis.  The Cards are hot and swept the 3 games--the last one by the score of 1-0 in the last of the ninth.  Combined with the collapse of the Brewers, the Cards have taken over first place.  The Bucs and Cards don't play again this year.  The Cards go into a series right away with the Brewers, and all the Pirates can do is hope that the Brewers reassert themselves.  But as things are shaping up, the Pirates may have to win the division to get into the playoffs, and at the moment they are 5 back.  They have about the same number of home and away games left.

The Giants meanwhile are better positioned by their situation if not their play.  Only two games behind the Dodgers, they play Los Angeles six more times.  That gives them more control over their fate.  Plus they are in pretty good shape for a wild card even if they don't overtake the Dodgers.  But they are such an inconsistent team it's still a crap shoot.  When they are going good, they are great and fun to follow.

However the true wild card might be the games the Giants and Pirates play against American League teams.  Those are always hard to predict.  The Giants begin a series in Detroit, and they've had some trouble with AL teams.  The Pirates play the Red Sox, and it's hard to know which Sox team will show up.

Meanwhile, I've watched the 2004 Western Conference Finals.  The Minnesota Timberwolves won game 2 and their first elimination game in 5, and were playing a close game in 6.  Kevin Garnett was mesmerizing at times, all his moves before the shot, and the shots that he made.  Kobe and Shaq had their moments, as did Malone, but the Lakers were behind by 1 point at the end of the third quarter.  Then the Lakers took over in the fourth, with the key shots made by two of the newer and least known Lakers,  Slava Medvedenko and especially Kareem Rush, who hit 6 three pointers.  The Lakers won the game at home and the series, but it was clear at the conference trophy presentation that they considered this a minor moment on the way to the NBA championship.  Instead it would turn out to be the last championship of any kind that this particular team would win.

This 6th game would also turn out to be the high point of the careers of Medvedenko and Rush.  Injuries would short circuit both of them.  Rush would have some successful moments in the NBA and even taste stardom in Europe, but at this point he seemed to have the skills to become a Kobe-like NBA star.  It just wasn't to be.

Doug Collins was doing color commentary and he highlighted how coach Phil Jackson had prepared these two young players for playoff success during the season.  Particularly he built Kareem Rush's confidence by giving him playing time.  As Collins also noted, Jackson orchestrated this fourth quarter perfectly by putting sharpshooters Rush and Derek Fisher on the court with Shaq, Kobe and Malone (subbed for awhile by Medvedenko.)  Rush in particular got open shots and he hit them.

After the game Collins suggested the Lakers might have trouble with the defense of Detroit in the finals, and that certainly proved to be true. They shut down those "role players" and the heavily favored Lakers won only one game.   I'm not sure how much of the finals I'm going to watch.  I recall the fifth game as a bitter and pitiful loss, a surrender.  I recall there was dissension, and I remember Malone's injury being catastrophic.   I don't know if my curiosity is strong enough to check these impression by watching.

It was a one year experiment that was considered a failure, despite how far they got.  The end was just about total: Phil Jackson resigned as coach; Shaq and Gary Payton were traded, Derek Fisher left, Karl Malone and Rick Fox retired.  Malone never got his championship, though Payton did, with Shaq on the Miami Heat.  It would be several years before Kobe and the Lakers, with Jackson back as coach, won another championship.  My viewing so far has shown a lot of fun basketball, so even if this was hubris etc.  I don't think this experiment was doomed from the start or a complete failure.  There were games when this team was as good as it gets.

Now ten years later, Derek Fisher is starting his first coaching job, of the Knicks for Phil Jackson.  Steve Kerr, who played for the Bulls under Jackson and did color commentary for some of these games, is starting his first year of coaching Golden State, and Doc Rivers, also broadcasting some of these games, is back coaching the LA Clippers.  Kobie is still a Lakers star, after winning two more championships with coach Phil Jackson, but even one more in his future seems increasingly unlikely.  The oddest thing for me is that the core of the Spurs that lost four straight to the Lakers in the 2004 playoffs is still intact (Duncan, Parker, Genobli) and the Spurs are the reigning 2014 NBA champs.