Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Return of the Panda

The trade deadline came and went without much impact on the San Francisco Giants roster, surprising many professional observers. Third baseman Eduardo Nunez was the only notable to go, and the young players received in the trade were not immediately on the roster.

But soon there was a surprising new addition, especially in that he was the prodigal returned: After being picked up on waivers and sent to a couple of minor league teams for prep, Pablo Sandoval was back at third base.

Nobody expects the Giants to do anything much this year, but any hope that can be generated would be welcome.  The Panda not only perked things up at the ball park, he seemed to boost morale in the club house and generate some play more consistent with the Giants when he was a vital member of championship teams.

In particular he seemed to perk up Hunter Pence who started hitting, and hitting for power.  The two of them were really the hitting sparkplugs of the 2014 playoffs and World Series.

Meanwhile the Giants keep trying new players and different combinations, partly because more guys keep getting injured (Joe Panik most recently) as others heal up.  Positives have been the return of Parker in left field, the starting pitching of Ty Blach and Sam Dyson's work as a closer.  And my guy Kelby Tomlinson continues to be invaluable.  The Giants started winning some games.

Meanwhile, Pablo penned an emotional essay about coming home to San Francisco.  There's no guarantee he'll be back next season, but his effect on the team will have to be part of that decision.

Right now the Giants are finishing a series with the Marlins, the team I saw them play in San Francisco.  Giancarlo Stanton homered in the first two games, extending his consecutive game streak and continuing his power surge.  Someday I'll probably need to say that I saw him play, although I didn't actually see either of the two homers he hit in the July game.  I was ducking out of the sun and saw the first one on a stadium TV, and when he hit the second I was already on the train.  But if he really breaks a record this year, I can always lie.  Who will know?

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.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Another Record Setting Win for the Warriors

The Golden State Warriors won the second game of the Finals 132-113, setting a Finals record with the most made 3s at 18.  Steph Curry had his first playoff triple double, and Kevin Durant had a double double for the Dubs.  LeBron James had a triple double for the Cavs.

The Cavs changed their defensive approach and mixed their personnel.  Some of it backfired--they fouled to stop fast breaks, but Curry tied an NBA record by making all 14 of his foul shots.  But with an aggressive game by LeBron James, who also had a record number of assists in the first half, the Cavs kept coming close.  Still, the last actual lead they had was at 15-14 in the first quarter.  The Cavs had runs.  But the Warriors had blizzards.  They got a healthy lead in the third quarter and pulled away in the fourth.

Curry and Durant were the big guns, with momentum-changing and breathtaking shots and plays.  Klay Thompson got his 3 point stroke back.  Durant's defense was dominant as the game wore on.

Coach Steve Kerr was back on the bench for the first time since the first round.  In the post-game euphoria of the media, he cautioned that the Warriors turned the ball over way too many times, and if they do that on the road they are likely to lose.

Most Warriors fans probably remember the media euphoria last year, when some sportswriters wanted to declare them the ultimate winners after their first two home game blowouts, and even more so when they went up 3-1 with a fourth game win.  With a healthy Curry and Kevin Durant, whose play in these games invites some to call him the best in the game, this year is likely to be different.  But nobody should be counting their chickens just yet.

The important game 3--the next odd numbered one-- is Wednesday.  Obviously it's must-win for the Cavs, and it's all but over if the Warriors get the victory.

While a historically excellent team plays basketball in Oakland, San Francisco's baseball team struggles on the road, losing a series to the MLB basement dwelling Phillies, prompting at least one Bay Area sportwriter to proclaim them the worst Giants team in a generation.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Warriors Win Game 1

The Golden State Warriors became the first team in NBA history to win their first 13 games of the playoffs, prevailing against Cleveland in the first game of the Finals 113-91.

I remember the Lakers team of 2001 that swept the first three rounds but were unprepared for a rampaging Allen Iverson in the first game of the finals.  But they stifled him after that to beat Philadelphia in five games.

The Warriors played arguably one of their best games of the year, and yet not the best they could, at least theoretically.  Their shooting was a bit off.  But their defense was stellar, as was their rebounding.  The most startling stat was turnovers--they had four as a team.  LeBron alone had 7.  Kevin Durant scored 38, with thunderous dunks and long 3 pointers.  Steph Curry picked his spots for his amazing 3s, that further deflated and panicked the Cavs, as did his stuttering drives.  For most of the game the team was fluid, fast and fun.

 The next day the Cavs were talking about increasing their "physicality."  That could be translated into, the only way they can win is if they hurt somebody.  The Dubs chemistry was incredible, with lots of assists and everyone contributing on both ends.  The Cavs won last year because Curry was hobbled and they goaded Draymond into a suspension.  It's their main hope this year as well.

That's the remarkable thing about that first game: both teams are at full strength for the first time in three finals meetings.  It was clear in that first game that if the Warriors are focused and getting shots to fall at near their normal clip, they are the better team.  Only a significant injury is likely to change that.

Most of the time the odd number games are the most important in a playoff series--1, 3 and especially 5 (and of course 7, duh.)  Winning the first game is a big deal.  But as we found last year, lots can happen.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Two Finals Set

Now it's certain: The Warriors and the Cavs meet in the NBA finals, starting in a week.  There's been a lot of noise about the Warriors sweeping but I'm not listening to it.  I will not be surprised if the series goes the full seven.  I do expect the Warriors to win it.

Congratulations to Stanley Cup champs the Pittsburgh Penguins who tonight made it back to the finals.  I don't follow hockey at all but it was always electric in Pittsburgh when the Penguins were in the finals.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Here They Come

Congratulations to the Golden State Warriors, who won the Western Conference championship, going 12-0 in the playoffs, to be the first team to qualify for the  NBA championship finals.

They did it with a very active Stephen Curry and a deadly Kevin Durant on both ends, over an injury-depleted San Antonio Spurs.  But even though they might not have swept the Spurs at full strength,  they likely would have won in 6 or fewer games.

The only shock of the playoffs this week was the collapse of Cleveland in their third game, overcome by a depleted Celtics team that made up a 20 point deficit in the fourth quarter.  The disappearance of LeBron James in the quarter suggests how dependent they are on him having great games in the finals.

The Warriors may worry about the continuing shooting woes of Klay Thompson, an unusual pattern for this streak shooter who rarely has even two bad games in a row.  They will need a spry Iguodala and the canny Zaza to keep giving the Cavs a different look at the rim.  And protecting the ball better is also essential.  But the Cavs caving like that certainly diluted the intimidation factor, assuming they emerge (as they probably will, in five or six.)  It won't be till June but here come the Dubs.

And all of a sudden here come the Giants.  More home runs provide another victory, this time over the WC Cubs.  Winning on the road is a good complement to winning at home.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates, also with a disappointing start, have shown signs of getting back on track, especially as injured stars come back.  Both teams have a ways to go, but at least their season may not be lost after all.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Big Wins on Both Sides of the Bay

The San Francisco Giants won their fifth straight behind strong pitching from their youngest starter Ty Blach and their second over the visiting LA Dodgers.

They've won with new and improvised lineups due to injuries but now some of the hurt players are nearly ready to come back.  The problem becomes damaging team chemistry during the best streak of the year, which may not be the worst problem to have but is a delicate one.

Improved hitting, especially the home run streaks that both Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are on has made the difference, but some of the starting pitching has been surprisingly good.  Johnny Cueuto you expect, but how about the youngest (Blach) and the oldest, Matt Cain, who beat the Dodgers the other night and is 3-1.  He just broke into the top three of Giants pitchers in history in terms of innings pitched over the years.  He's kept the faith, kept his confidence in these last rough years and the Giants stuck with him for what was likely his last chance.  Now with Bumgarner out for several more months, they need both the young and the old guys.

Meanwhile the Golden State Warriors blew out the Spurs by the largest margin they've ever recorded in the playoffs, 136-100, to extend their playoff streak to 10-0.

Klay Thompson did have a better game, though not a breakout one.  And indeed there seemed to be an attempt by the Spurs' Aldridge to undercut Kevin Durant on a shot, but without effect.  The Warriors did come out with a very strong first quarter, led by Steph Curry with 4 threes in the period alone.  Otherwise it was a big game up and down the lineup.

Andre Iguodala was out with a knee contusion but McCaw had a good game, scoring 18 with his increased minutes.  Zaza went out early with a heel contusion.  No word yet on whether they will be available for the third game, though it seems likely both will (assuming Zaza's x-rays are ok.)  Likewise it's not known if the Spurs main man Leonard whose absense was keenly felt in this game will be back when play resumes in San Antonio.

Pre-Games Notes

Just before game time, the Giants are on a sudden winning streak facing the Dodgers, and the Warriors prepare for the second game after coming back from 25 down to win the first game of the western conference finals over the Spurs.

The most promising aspect of the Giants' lately is better and more effective hitting.  They are scoring runs in bunches.

The Warriors look to have a much better first quarter tonight.  A conspicuous weakness in the first game was the play of Klay Thompson on both ends.  Unless there's something really wrong--which could be a real problem going forward--expect him to have a great game tonight.

What else to worry about?  Steph Curry's right wrist which gave him problems in the fourth quarter.  And retaliation by the Spurs to injure one of the Warriors stars.  When Popovich pops off about a dirty play, the rest of the team gets the message.

A plus for the Warriors--coach Kerr is more active and involved each game.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Giant Problems

It was a strong suspicion after the All-Star break last year, but now it seems inevitable: the days of the San Francisco Giants we've known this decade are numbered.  There will be big changes by next season.

Not just the patched-together and sometimes desperate lineups of this current race to the bottom, caused in many cases by injuries but also by the hard facts that this team is losing.  It can't seem to score runs or get anybody out anymore.

Many observers point out to left field but the Giants won World Championships without a stellar left fielder--and failed to win one when they had their biggest offensive force in decades out there: Barry Bonds.

No, the problem place is third base.  The Giants probably could not have won its last championship without Pablo Sandoval in the playoffs.  Apart from their perennial MVP Buster Posey, it was the pesky hitting of Sandoval and Pence that generated just enough offence to keep them in close games, and sparked other hitters in routs.  

Sandoval's eventual replacement Matt Duffy was a key to keep them competitive in the regular season, both in the field and as a hitter, although devastating injuries ruined their 2015 season.  And the attrition of the championship pitching staff began.

But with a healthy start, 2016 looked more than promising.  The infield of Duffy, Crawford, Panik and Belt was arguably the best in baseball.  But when the second half nosedive began, the Giants traded Duffy for a starting pitcher.  I felt at the time--and a case can still be made--that the Giants' chemistry collapsed without Duffy, and it's been pretty much downhill since.

On paper it may have seemed that all the Giants lacked was a big time closer, since that was the conspicuous cause for their failure in the playoffs.  It turns out not to have been so simple.

Another incredible raft of injuries has turned a bad situation into chaos.  The Giants are in last place for a good reason--they are playing like a last place team.

Is it possible that they reverse 2016, with a terrible first half but a great second half?  Possible, yes.  But not likely. It's gone past the point of individual changes--it seems like a group thing now.  Big changes are probably coming.  Giants fans should brace themselves.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are undefeated in the playoffs.  They've shown some resilience and adaptability, based on their wisely revived slogan of "strength in numbers."  If they stay healthy (and Cleveland does), a rematch of last year's finals looks all but inevitable.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Bad Luck Giants, the Dubs Await, and Baseball History in Pittsburgh

The San Francisco Giants must have had a lot of very good luck in their championship years because their run of bad luck over the last two seasons and so far this season has been extraordinary.

On Thursday, the Giants started exactly one of their opening day starters in his regular position.  Catcher Posey played first, first baseman Belt played left field and third baseman Nunez played shortstop.  Only Pence played his usual position of right field.

Reserve Hundley was catching. The rest of the team wasn't even on the team: Arroyo at third, Tomlinson at second, Hernandez in center.  Although the Giants' dearth of hitting might suggest starters were benched, it was actually injury.  After their left-fielder Parker crashed into the wall and hurt his shoulder, their center fielder Span crashed into the wall and hurt his shoulder.  Could this actually be happening?

The new blood helped--Arroyo and Tomlinson got two hits apiece--but not enough.  Once again the Giants could manage only one run, ruining a fine outing by starter Matt Moore.  And once again, the bullpen lost it, this time in the 10th, allowing 4 runs.

Splitting a low scoring four game series with the Dodgers was however a kind of improvement.  Still, the ESPN story noted that it was another sellout in San Francisco but empty seats were visible.  It might not be much longer before that string of sellout games comes to an unlucky end.

Meanwhile, the Warriors have swept Portland in the first round and await the winner of the Utah/LA Clippers series.  Kevin Durant helped them to a record-setting first quarter in the fourth game, but there's still no word on when Coach Kerr will return.

 In Pittsburgh, a player born in Africa played in a US Major League baseball game for the first time on Wednesday. He's an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in his first at bat he hit a single. He has a great baseball name, too: Gift Ngoepe.

It may seem weird since it took until 2017 for the first African to play while so many African Americans have played the game. In fact, the first all-black starting lineup also belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1970s. But the lack of African players has not been due to racial discrimination, at least not since Jackie Robinson. Baseball is apparently not a major sport in any African country, and to be born and raised in South Africa presents fewer opportunities to learn and play the game.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Two Sides of the Bay: Warriors Up, Giants Down

With the first game in the bank, the Golden State Warriors hit the home floor against Portland in the first round of the playoffs without Kevin Durant and two other injured players.  They dressed 11 guys, 5 of them centers.  Then during the game, both Steph Curry and Klay Thompson had off nights shooting, especially the 3s.

So game 2 was a loss, right?  Not exactly.  The Dubs won by 29 points.

High octane defense, especially in the third quarter, and other players more than rising to the occasion, especially rookie Patrick McCaw (starting for Durant) and tall flying man JaVale McGee.  McGee changed the game in limited minutes, and while McCaw made some big momentum-changing shots (banking a fearless 3 pointer, followed by a fearless layup in traffic) he was credited with defensive intensity throughout the game.

Even with lots of misses, both Curry and Thompson had some exciting moments, including some deadly Steph deep threes, and a Thompson sequence beginning with a soaring block at one end and a catch-and-shoot three at the other.  A fun game of highlights, especially the third quarter, when the Dubs held Portland to 12 total points.

While the Warriors keep looking better (and a final collision with Cleveland looking even more likely), the San Francisco Giants continued their woeful April.  Like the end of last season, every time it seems they've hit the low point, they go lower.  After surviving extra innings in Kansas City with a 2-1 win, their bats were again silent in support of Madison Bumgarner, leading to a scandalous fourth loss in his first four starts.

As bad as things were in terms of hitting percentage for left fielders, it got worse with the injury to J. Parker, who will be out awhile.  Two other potential left fielders are also injured, though former l.f.er Michael Morse is playing himself back in shape in the minors.

The only difference is that the bullpen pitching has been pretty good lately.  It's mostly a lack of hitting, especially run-producing hits.  Everyone expects that to begin happening, but for the sake of the season, it really should happen soon.

Update 4/21: First the Pittsburgh Pirates saw their season devastated by the suspension of star Marte.  Today an off the field injury to Madison Bumgarner that will keep him off the mound for several months pretty much devastates the Giants' season, which is already in bad shape.  MadBum started strong, hitting two homers and taking a perfect game into the sixth inning on opening day, and pitching very well since, despite absent run support.  But a pretty dumb dirt bike accident has wrecked the Giants' rotation, and who knows what it will do to his pitching future.  A  very sad turn of events.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

NBA winding down, MLB starting up


The Lakers beat the Spurs, after which Stephen Curry and the Warriors outgunned the Suns, and just like that, the race for the Western Division championship was over.  The Warriors have clinched it, as well as the best record in the NBA for the third straight season.

This gives them home court throughout the playoffs; they'd already earned it for the Finals if they get there.  With Kevin Durant officially slated to return to action Saturday, the Dubs are strong favorites to win it all.

As the NBA season winds down and playoffs begin, MLB has started.  Unfortunately the SF Giants began by reenacting the same nightmare that ended last season and haunted them ever since: bullpen failure in the 8th and 9th to blow the save and lose the game, marring a dominant performance by MadBum, taking a perfect game into the sixth and becoming the first pitcher in MLB history to hit two home runs on opening day--and they were whoppers.

The Giants continued to blow leads throughout their first series.  On the bright side, they are hitting.  Usually hitters or pitchers dominate across the board at the beginning of the season.  Let's hope that's it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Statement

Down 23-3 in the first quarter, the Golden State Warriors surged and overwhelmed the Spurs in San Antonio, in their second of a road back-to-back.  The previous night they defeated Houston.  The two nights added to a 9 game winning streak, which began immediately after their 3 losses in a row following Kevin Durant's injury.  And they won those 9 without Durant.

The victory pretty much seals the number one seed in the West for the Warriors, with a 3 game spread over the Spurs with 7 games left.  Thanks to continued losses by Cleveland in the past week or so, any of the West teams would have home court in the finals, including the Dubs.

This impressive if not incredible victory was actually a win for both the Warriors and Spurs because it pretty much settled the #1 seed.  Had the Warriors lost, they would have been ahead by a single game, and both teams would probably have felt the need to compete for the seed.  Now they both can see about resting players before the playoffs, although that will be complicated for the Dubs if Durant is ready to return for the last games of the regular season.  Coach Kerr would probably want him to play with his fellow starters.

The Warriors victory in San Antonio also has to be viewed as a statement game.  The Spurs surprised them with a rout at home to start the season, and their next meeting--also the second of a back-to-back on the road for the Warriors--resulted in Kerr resting his starters, and an easy Spurs victory.  But the Warriors outplaying the Spurs for three quarters after giving them a 22 point advantage, in the second of another back-to-back, and without Durant, has to sow some doubts in San Antonio.

No one yet knows when Durant will return, nor how he will play.  But with these nine victories against the most competitive teams in the West, the Warriors look fully capable of beating anybody with their current lineup--and Durant coming off the bench for additional defense and firepower.  All of this as it looks more and more that the winner of the West playoffs will be the favorite to win it all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Back on Top


It took just a week or so, the end of a grueling road trip, some rest and some work on the home court.  The Golden State Warriors rattled off five straight wins, including four blowouts, the last two on back-to-back visits to competitive western teams, OKC Thunder and Dallas Mavericks.  OKC and the Milwaukee Bucks were hot, until their winning streaks were crushed by the Warriors.

And they did it without Kevin Durant in the lineup.

Curry and Thompson got their shot back but other members of the team responded to the challenge and the opportunity, particularly in the Dallas win.

Meanwhile San Antonio dropped two and are 2.5 back of the Dubs after briefly being in first for the best record.

The most challenging stretch left on the Warriors' regular schedule is next week, when they play back to backs in Houston and San Antonio, and then immediately host Houston again.  But it does not look like the home court in the playoffs will depend only on that game in San Antonio.

The Warriors now can be confident that they can compete and even dominate without Durant, though he seems to be healing on or ahead of schedule.  On these last two games with tough opponents, their defense was stifling and their 3 point shooting awesome.  They out-rebounded the Mavs.  The offensive flow was back, and so was the joy.

The big news for the San Francisco Giants is the return of Barry Bonds, in an official if advisory capacity with duties that sound pretty ad hoc but the symbolism is important.  Plus his baseball intelligence is extraordinary.

But other news not so great--after most of spring training passed without injury, there were a slew of them late: hamstring for Michael Morse, trying to return to the team; quad injury for Mac Williamson, and the worst, arm injury for pitcher Will Smith, requiring Tommy Johns surgery.

Still, pretty soon, baseball!

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Best Team in the NBA

Update 3/11: After a one point loss in MN--with Steph Curry once again failing to hit the kind of winning shot he regularly did last year--Coach Kerr elected to rest...well, nearly everybody...in San Antonio.  The Spurs were also short-handed but made easy work of the Warrior bench, which couldn't defend or score in the first half.  The victory puts the Spurs a half game behind the Dubs for top seed in the West, and their second win over the Warriors this year guarantees them the tie-breaker.  All of this could come back to haunt Golden State, as the Spurs pretty much prove they're deeper, and right now, better.

One other fascinating aspect of this game: how do you get the attention of perverse schedule-makers that try to maximize profits at the expense of the health and long-term viability of players for the prohibitive favorite of the year?  The Golden State Warriors and Coach Kerr did it very well.  No one can argue with Kerr's rationale for resting his starters, but obviously the league didn't anticipate he would dare do so in such an important game.  So fans in the arena and those who tuned into the mega-hyped broadcast were sorely disappointed, and that pretty much scuttles the NBA's too clever by half move of trying to squeeze the Warriors with a back to back middle of the night flight from MN to Texas, after a bizarre road trip with a home game sandwiched in.  It's no guarantee anything will change, but the schedule makers may think twice before doing this next year.  (Nevertheless, the Warriors will play the Spurs once more, again in San Antonio and again the second of a back-to-back.)

For most of the year the question usually asked was whether the best team in the NBA was Golden State or Cleveland.  At this point in the season, neither are.  The best team in the NBA at the moment is the San Antonio Spurs.

They are solid, well-coached and have been winning close games in the fourth quarter, and K. Leonard is this year's Steph Curry in terms of making the needed shot to win.

The Warriors are not where a team wants to be that expects to get deep into the playoffs and contend for the championship.  The injury to Kevin Durant made them beatable, but the shooting woes of the Splash Brothers have become worrisome.  They've lost three of their last five games, though they did win back to backs.

Now they fly to Minnesota for a tough game there, and then to San Antonio for only their second game with the Spurs.  Both of their remaining games with the Spurs in San Antonio are back to backs.  Tell me who put this schedule together.

The Warriors could catch fire at any time, and Durant could be back in time and in shape to a difference.  But at the moment I'd rate the Spurs as the favorites in the West and maybe for the championship.  Cleveland has built itself for the playoffs, especially against the Warriors, but is having trouble getting there.  Right now the Spurs have the mo and the mojo.

The game in San Antonio on Saturday will be a good test, but it will hardly be the last.  I expect the Dubs and the Spurs to see a lot of each other before it's over.  Neither team right now has much idea of how they match up.

The media may not take the Spurs seriously but I'll bet the Warriors do.  Cleveland better be thinking about that, too.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Drama Comes to Golden State

The Warriors were rolling, seemingly unstoppable.  They came out of the All-Star break without breaking stride.  Kevin Durant was out for a game with illness, the Dubs won.  Steph Curry couldn't make a single 3 for an entire game, the Dubs still won.  They clinched a playoff spot, either earlier than anyone ever had, or had in a long time, depending on what story you read.

Then it seemed to all come tumbling down along with Kevin Durant.  His knee injury took him out of action reportedly for the rest of the regular season, at least.
The Warriors, on their last long awkward road trip through the east and midwest, lost two games in a row for the first time since late in 2015.

Fans have to hope that the season low point was in Chicago, the first entirely Durant-less game, when Curry and Thompson and everybody else was stone cold.

The season--and the playoffs-- at best got interesting.  The Spurs (who host the Warriors at the end of this ridiculous trip) have more to play for now, as the top seed in the West is more imaginable.  Meanwhile, the Cavs got some apparently meaningful help before the trade deadline, while the Warriors seemingly got less.  How that actually plays out remains to be seen, but on paper the Cavs got a deeper bench, and nothing is more important to LeBron James than rest.

So now it's gut check, character time for the Warriors. They're still expected to beat most teams, but maybe not the elite.  For the first time in a long time, they are underdogs.

Meanwhile, spring training games for the San Francisco Giants started great but soon got messy.  But there's a lot of competition to make the team, and the Giants are learning more about who to watch for call-ups down the road.  So far, Mark Melancon is looking like a great addition as the closer.

Back to the NBA, Baby Buss and his bro tried to take the Lakers back from Jeannie Bush and Magic Johnson, but so far have failed.  A board of directors vote they are expected to lose appears to be their last chance.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NBA Moves, MLB springs

Biggest news out of the NBA All Star break was the DeMarcus Cousins trade to New Orleans, and the major management shakeup at the LA Lakers.

For the Warriors, it's the Cousins trade that poses the most immediate challenge.  If he can jell with his new team soon enough, the New Orleans Pelicans can make the playoffs.  If the Dubs stay on top, they'd likely meet in the first round of the playoffs.  With two very skilled big men, the Pelicans could create difficulties for the Warriors defense.  The two teams will meet once before then, so more will be known.  In the meantime, San Antonio remains the biggest challenge for the Warriors in the second half.

The Lakers finally got rid of Baby Buss who tried to make the team his own and sort of did, but not to the team's benefit.  The new head of basketball operations is none other than Laker great Magic Johnson.  He had an advocate in Kobe Bryant, and he is an advocate for involving Kobe in the team's future.  As a member of the Lakers' extended family, first year coach Luke Walton will likely get a chance to work with the new management, that reportedly now will include Kobe's former agent as GM.

Meanwhile, MLB spring training is underway.  As predicted, the SF Giants have let go both Romo and Casilla--only Kontos remains from the bullpen that won those championships.  Several veteran pitchers and position players are in camp to make the team, and some likely will.  Sports writers keep harping on left field but the Giants don't seem to be desperate to trade or acquire a starter.  At least to start the season, one of the younger players will be out there, Parker or Williamson probably.  Still there is backup experience at nearly every position, and several players will get a chance this spring to play at different positions to increase versatility off the bench, and to rest regulars in the hope of keeping them fresh and less prone to injuries for the long haul.  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Dubs Challenge


Photo:  Steph Curry's special edition shoes, which he wore to honor President Obama at the end of his term in office.

With the NBA season nearly half over, the new Golden State Warriors are playing the best they have so far.  Their convincing three in a row victories over Cleveland, Oklahoma City and at Houston featured fearsome defense and fewer turnovers to go with smart and efficient shooting.

But their challenge for the championship may still be waiting out there.  They played the San Antonio Spurs the first game of the season and got blown out.  They haven't seen them since, as both the Dubs and the Spurs have improved.  They play them twice at San Antonio in March.  That will be there final meaningful pre-playoffs test.

The likely if not near certain East winner, Cleveland, remains a challenge.  In their two games, the visitor was deep into a road trip and on a back to back.  Both home teams won, though Golden State was the more convincing win.  Meanwhile, the Spurs just beat the Cavs in overtime, in Cleveland, even short-handed.

So the Dubs can't underestimate the Spurs.  They didn't have to meet them in the playoffs last year but are much more likely to this season.  The Dubs are not the automatic West team to face Cleveland.  

Update:  Even with a road loss to Miami, Golden State has the best record in the West, which this year means the best in basketball.  The East has one team with 30 wins (Cleveland.)  The West has 4 teams with 30 or more wins (and one more with 29.)  Thirty wins leads the East, but it gets you fourth in the West (LA Clippers.)  

And let me repeat: like last year, the Dubs are getting the publicity but the Spurs are winning, too--just 2 back in the lost column now.  The first seven teams in the West are above .500 and all are capable of beating anybody.  So to win the West regular season is an accomplishment with playoff payoff.  But the Western Conference playoffs will be very competitive.  The second half may hold some surprises--injuries can change things quick--but the Spurs look to be the chief challenger to the Dubs, and neither team can look past any other opponent in the playoffs.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Another Reason I Love Stephen Curry

"One thing my pops always told me is you never count another man's money. It's what you've got and how you take care of it. And if I'm complaining about $44 million over four years, then I've got other issues in my life."
Stephen Curry