The NBA Finals 2017 Preview: Everyone Saw it Coming

The NBA regular season is 82 games. The NBA playoffs can be another 28 games – depending on the series. Despite all of this basketball, most of us knew where we’d end up: the Cleveland Cavaliers from the East and the Golden State Warriors from the West.

Why? Sure, the Celtics were the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. But the Playoffs are like a second season. There are three reasons why we are seeing this matchup (again):

  1. The Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead last year after a record-breaking, 73 win regular season. They are out for revenge.
  2. The Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant – a move that was definitely triggered by two blown series leads. First, the Oklahoma City Thunder over the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Second, the aforementioned 3-1 defeat in last year’s finals. The Warriors offense, while extremely potent, struggled a bit against the Cavs. Adding Durant made those struggles go away.
  3. The Cleveland Cavaliers are healthy (again) and LeBron James is playing out of his mind.

On sports talk radio this week, I heard Adam Silver talk about the lack of parity in the NBA. He said that this isn’t the case. Whether this is true or not is a more lengthy conversation for another day. But it does relate to the Finals and what has happened in the NBA Playoffs thus far.

The 2017 NBA Playoffs have been a dud, from a basketball standpoint. Sure, there were some great stories to come out of the postseason. The main one is the heart of Isaiah Thomas – one of the toughest players in the league. I admire him for all he overcame this postseason. Kawhi Leonard’s injury made the Western Conference Finals less than stellar. The Clippers collapsed yet again. The Celtics-Wizards series gave us a thrill, but at the top the Cavaliers and the Warriors steamrolled their way through the Finals, going undefeated and with one loss respectively.

Can the Playoffs be saved? Last year was pretty hard to beat, but the Warriors have had a year to sulk. They’ve went out and retooled. Mike Brown (yes that Mike Brown) will be calling the plays for Golden State.

There are a few key factors that will influence this series:

  • The Cavalier’s defense has been less than stellar. Sure, they’ve (almost) swept their way to the finals, but they’ve given a ton of points. True champions rise to the occasion. The Warriors are an offensive juggernaut. The challenge will be a tough one.
  • Andre Iguodala’s health. Two years ago, Iggy was the Finals MVP for his defensive efforts against LeBron James. His presence is still important on this GSW teams.
  • Klay Thompson needs to find his touch for GSW. This will create problems for the Cavs as they will have trouble keeping Curry (if he has a good Finals unlike last year) and Durant at bay.
  • The Warriors play a lot of small ball with Draymond Green at the 5 spot. This makes it tough for the Cavaliers because it will be tough to have both Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson on the court at the same time.
  • Kyrie Irving vs. Steph Curry. Every Batman needs a Robin. If LeBron is Batman, then Kyrie needs to be a solid #2. He outplayed Curry last year, which I think was one of the keys to their comeback win. The Cavs are successful when Kyrie scores and dishes in double-digit quantities.

So who wins?

In looking at the Vegas odds, it seems crazy to me that so many are choosing the Warriors to win in five games. In my opinion, with the way LeBron James is playing, the Cavaliers will not go down without a fight. This game will go to at least six or seven.

My heart says Cleveland but my head says Golden State.  More importantly, I am hoping for a solid series with good basketball.

Thoughts on #2 in 200 Words or Less

Tonight, I watched the New York Yankees retire Derek Jeter’s #2. Sure – Jeter played his last game three years ago, but a lot of the similar emotions came back while watching the ceremony that was befitting of a legend.

A lot of people know me as wordy – verbose, in fact. Sometimes when putting words on paper, it is hard not to ramble on. In this case, I wanted to write about what #2 meant to me as a sports fan in 200 words or less. I figure, if a guy can play a 20 year career in pinstripes and rack up all sorts of stats, then I can do this too… So here goes:

Thank you #2 for helping making baseball such an important part of my life. I grew up watching the New York Yankees with my family and you, of course, were the focal point of those teams. You brought a winning culture back to New York, and for that Yankee fans are forever grateful.

Thank you #2 for showing us all what it is like to be the ultimate professional. You came to work each day, played hard, and gave it your all. You brought the intangibles to the game along with the wins and the stats. You earned the respect of your city, your teammates, your fans, your opponents, and others.

Thank you #2 for demonstrating the importance of being humble. You’ve always been grounded. You’ve used your fame for the good. You’ve never forgotten your fans.

Today, you came back to the Bronx to be honored among your family, your friends, former Yankee greats, members of the Yankee organization, and your fans. Yankee critics say we, as fans, look too much at the past. No – we thank you for your career, your dedication. The future looks bright for us, but Yankees fans will never forget a legend.

[Photo credit: New York Daily News]

 

Thoughts on Aaron Hernandez

When Aaron Hernandez was arrested in 2013 for murder, I became fascinated by this case. I am not a fan of the New England Patriots. In fact, my New York Giants had just recently defeated them (when Hernandez was on the roster) in a Super Bowl. I am not a fan of the Florida Gators. In fact, I attended the University of Miami, a big in-state rival.

I became fascinated by this case because I wanted to know why a man with a promising NFL career ahead of him would commit and then be charged and then convicted of murder. I wanted to know more about his story. Why? It’s the same reason why people watched “Making a Murderer” to learn more about Steven Avery. It’s the same reason why people watch any crime show. We are fascinated by these stories. We can’t get enough.

 I became fascinated by this case because I grew up in a place where I saw classmates of mine or friends of my younger brother get involved with the wrong people with tragic results. A lot of these kids didn’t have strong role models in their lives or stable parents. A lot of these kids didn’t have a dad. I read about Aaron Hernandez and how the death of his father tore him up at age 16. Note – this is never an excuse for murder. More importantly, having extraordinary athletic ability should never be an excuse to let someone get away with anything – let alone, murder.

However, the more I read, the more I am confused. What led this kid who had so much going for him down this path? I recommend ESPN’s Ian O’Connor’s column Aaron Hernandez leaves us with one final ‘Why?’ In it, he goes over a lot of what I have wondered myself – why? What made him become a criminal? What made him do all of the things that he did?

Does it matter? No. But let’s look at the bigger picture. Suicide means that someone ends their life, and it leaves all of us who are living to wonder why. The death of Aaron Hernandez is not a tragedy – he took many lives. But we can agree on the following things – the events in his life were tragic. And he leaves behind a daughter who I can only hope lives a full and normal life.

Let Aaron Hernandez be a lesson to us all on the importance of strong family structure and being a good role model. Let us all learn that extreme talent should not excuse you from bad criminal behavior. Do not let your upbringing define you.There should be someone telling you the difference between right from wrong. There should be consequences for your actions, no matter your age or level of athletic ability.  Kids need parents. Kids need guidance. Take a look at your support system and really ask yourself – are these people here for the right reasons? As a 17 year-old kid, Aaron Hernandez enrolled at the University of Florida. Ten years later, he was found dead in his prison cell.

On Doug Baldwin, Athletes, and Social Change

When you’re a hobby blogger like myself, you often write only when you discover a topic that peaks your interest. This morning, I came across an article by ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia about Seattle Seahawks’ receiver Doug Baldwin.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick gained a lot of attention when a photo showed him taking a knee during the National Anthem.

I’m going to share a paragraph directly from the article:

[Doug] Baldwin has spearheaded the Seahawks’ “Building Bridges Task Force,” which is composed of players who are meeting with local law enforcement officials and politicians to promote social change.

Baldwin was inspired by Kaepernick’s actions. He said that he shed light on an important issue. Rather than hang back, as some do, Baldwin decided to step up, too.

Baldwin says he has received death threats for his comments. This week, he has demanded that attorney generals in all 50 states review their policies and training for law enforcement. He wants to emphasize de-escalation tactics.

Why do I like what Baldwin is saying and doing?

  1. He is a well-known NFL player who knows that he has a platform for speaking out and acting.
  2. He is the son of a police officer.
  3. He is not spewing out anti-police rhetoric, but he is looking to get to the root of the problem.

It is important to note that Baldwin’s words and actions are not empty. There is purpose in his argument along with a drive to seek solutions. It is very easy to sit in an NFL bubble, play the game, and collect a paycheck.

What we are seeing here are athletes who are now role models off the field, too. Throughout history, we have seen athletes take stands. We have seen this take off this NFL season.

According to news sources, Washington state attorney general met with Baldwin. Let’s see what happens from there.

 

NFL Week 3 Superlatives

Who were Week 3’s winners? This week’s column is not as in depth as normal, I apologize. But this post does include music.

Rookie of the Week

For the third week in a row, I am voting Carson Wentz. Prior to the start of the game, all of the talking heads except for one (Trent Dilfer) on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown said that they thought the Eagles would lose to the Steelers. Wentz has yet to throw an interception.

Rookie of the Week if Carson Wentz Had Lost to Pittsburgh

Jacoby Brissett. First start, first win, no picks thrown in a prime time matchup against J.J. Watt’s Texans defense.

Would The Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up? Award

I’m looking at you, Andrew Luck. Fantasy football owners of Luck and also T.Y. Hilton are thankful that the Colts offense came alive against the Denver Broncos defense. If the Colts would just get Luck an offensive line… really guys, it’s downright… offensive

T.I. “I’ve Got Your Back” Award 

The Buffalo Bills trounced the Arizona Cardinals at home this week. I wonder if the team played this song to Rex Ryan in the locker room following their win…

Zoolander Relax Award

After losing to the Minnesota Vikings last week, experts and Fantasy Football owners were all asking “What is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” Guess what, the Minnesota Vikings are a good team. We are finding this out week after week. And after this week, we are finding out that Aaron Rodgers is just fine. Which is why we are taking it back to the 2001 comedy Zoolander…

If I Were Sideline Equipment I Would Not Want To Be…

A kicking net. Odell Beckham went a little HAM on the net and lost his cool in Sunday’s loss to the Washington Redskins. We all knew that Josh Norman would be running his mouth. We all know that OBJ plays with a lot of emotion. However, it is up to Beckham to not lose his cool.

Most Likely to Succeed

Ezekiel Elliott. He has been a little outshone by the play of the rookie quarterbacks this season, but I think of all of these young offensive stars, Elliott is the one most likely to have a long, successful NFL career. He had his first 100 yard game (albeit against the Bears). Sometimes, it takes time to get used to an NFL defense. Elliott had to discover that he cannot just run through people – they are too big and too fast. It’s about being patient behind that massive Dallas offensive line and finding the right holes to run through.

Jack of All Trades Award

Let’s give it to a fellow former Buckeye – Terrell Pryor of the Cleveland Browns. After all, the Browns need to win something. Some might remember, Pryor started his career at Ohio State as a quarterback. Pryor had significant passing yards, receiving yards, and rushing yards on Sunday. When you’re on your third string quarterback with Cody Kessler, it might be a good idea to get a little creative.

 

New York Giants Week 3 Report Card

I forget what talking head predicted it, but they were unfortunately right. The Redskins at 0-2 were the more desperate team, and sometimes desperate teams are able to pull out a win. Especially when the less desperate team seems to shoot themselves in the leg. (Plaxico Burress analogy.) A second divisional win would’ve been huge, especially with Dallas and Philadelphia winning.

Quarterback

Eli Manning had a bad game. Sure – he accumlated a lot of yards, but the reason why I am giving Eli a bad grade is due to poor throws and decision making. Manning had two INTs – one was not totally his fault. I’ll touch on that with my grade for the tight ends. The other ended the game. Manning also threw two bad balls that could’ve been picked off. We’re used to seeing a good 4th quarter Eli. Sunday, we did not see that. Grade C-

Running Backs

Number one back Rashad Jennings missed the game, so it was up to Shane Vereen and Orleans Darkwa to pick up the slack. Last week, I said that Darkway needed more carries. This week, he got the chance and found the end zone. Turnovers are costly. Still, both backs found the end zone. Bad news for the Giants – Vereen is out for the season with a tricep injury. We will see what happens in the coming weeks. Grade B-

Wide Receivers

Odell Beckham Jr. got a lot of attention for his outburst on the sidelines at the end of the game where he attacked the net. That kind of emotion is warranted in a game like this one, especially against Josh Norman. Early in the game, Norman picked up Beckham in the end zone in a ridiculous no call. Sterling Shepard had an awesome game and is looking like an important target already in this offense in his rookie year. Victor Cruz had a fairly quiet day. Overall, better decision making from Manning would’ve been nice as the Giants receiving corps looks to be the lone bright spot this week. I just refuse to give any A’s when the team loses. Grade B+

Tight Ends

Eli Manning’s first interception of the game came because Will Tye gave up on the play. Donnell and Tye continue to not make an impact receiving. Grade D+

Offensive Line

I have to give the offensive line a higher grade this week than I did last week, because they did a great job making holes for the running game. However, the O-line had some costly penalties with Ereck Flowers committing a facemask and then an ejection of Richburg. Eli Manning was also sacked twice and one of those times he was drilled. The line needs to hold to allow for more time for the QB to read the field and find the best passing seam. The O-line improved, but there is definitely more room for improvement. Grade C

Defensive Line + Line Backers

Harrison and Hankins looked good and seemed to rack up tackles. We also finally saw Olivier Vernon and JPP record sacks this week. Though, Vernon had a crucial penalty. I’ve been a fan of Casillas so far this year, but he had a disappointing game this week with critical missed tackles. The defensive unit is much improved from last year, but they gave up a few big plays. Grade B-

Defensive Backs

Injuries to Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie proved to be very costly. Desean Jackson continues to haunt the Giants, no matter what NFC East team he is on. Also, the screen play to Crowder made me want to throw something. That can’t happen on a screen in a close game. Health will be important for the success of the Giants secondary. This week, I am giving them a lower grade because of the big plays. Grade B+

Special Teams

This is the only unit to receive an almost failing grade this week. Why? I think you know. The kicking game gave the Redskins decent field position on each of their drives. Special teams missed tackles, giving the Redskins solid field possession on punt returns. The Redskins were able to successfully complete a faked punt. And then Andrew Adams decided to commit a crucial unnecessary roughness penalty which negated a blocked punt at a critical part of the game. Dwayne Harris saves this unit from getting an F since we was able to recover a fumble on a punt return which led to a Giants touchdown early in the game. Grade D

 

I am an optimist, so I think Big Blue will bounce back next week on Monday night… I hope.

Is Tom Brady Really Even That Good?

That was my effort at attempting a New York Post-style headline aimed at getting people to read my blog post.

I apologize to any of my friends who are Buffalo Bills faithful and any of my fellow New Yorkers who are devoted to the New York Jets for what I am about to write. But, it is always important to give credit where credit is due.

This is a much delayed post that I intended to write on Friday evening, but when you have a full time job, and this blog is basically a hobby, things happen. But now, it is Sunday morning and it is time to shift focus to football. I’m not choosing to write about the games kicking off in just a few hours today, but instead about one that happened on Thursday night.

The New England Patriots are now 3-0. They have defeated one projected Super Bowl contender (Arizona Cardinals), a divisional foe (Miami Dolphins), and one team that everyone has projected to go to the playoffs (Houston Texans). And… they’ve done it without Tom Brady who is still serving a 4 game suspension for deflategate. The first two wins came at the hands of backup Jimmy Garropolo. The third win came at the hands of a Jacoby Brissett under center.

“Wow, put me in at quarterback for the New England Patriots, and I can win, too!”

This was some of the water cooler talk around my office on Friday morning.

But I think the story is not about the quarterback, but the guy in the hoodie standing on the sidelines –  Bill Belichick.

I can already hear groans and outrage from my New York State football brethren as I type, but I won’t stop there.

Often, we hear about “systems” in sports. Jim Boeheim has always played a 2-3 zone defense at Syracuse so he recruits players that are long and lanky that can grab errant passes on defense and slash into the lane on offense. Chip Kelly put a system into place at Oregon and made the Ducks offense one of the most fun to watch for many seasons. In college sports, systems are put into place by college coaches who are then able to recruit players to this system.

In professional sports, it is a bit different. There are two guys that I think are very good system coaches – Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurts and Bill Belichick for the New England Patriots. Both guys have had long, successful tenures where most teams have had a constant carousel of coaches and personnel changes.

Why has Bill Belichick been so successful?

He cheats!

(Sorry loyal readers – if I have any – but it’s time to cool it with that.)

Belichick is the guy behind the success of the New England Patriots. When Drew Bledsoe went down all of those years ago, Belichick inserted a guy who became Tom Brady. Brady won a Super Bowl that year and pulled off an upset. They had a defense that was the heart and soul of that team. Over the years, we saw Tom Brady develop into the super star quarterback that we know today.

Belichick has had an uncanny ability to bring in players that are not highly touted draft picks and turn then into solid pros. A lot of people think that by the time an athlete reaches the NFL and plays a few years, that their development stops. But it does not. When you pay a player money, you are investing in them.  It is up to an organization to invest in a player and oversee their development. It is up to an organization and the head coach to find a roll for that player on their team. The Patriots do that better than any other organization in the NFL.

Thursday night’s win over Houston was an example of that. Belichick outcoached Bill O’Brien. He drew up a scheme for Jacoby Brissett that allowed him to not just play to not lose, but to be successful.

For that – we have to respect what Belichick’s Patriots have been able to accomplish.