Defensemen on the Defensive

The Bruins were doomed.

Even after their stunning upset of Toronto in Game 7 of the first round and having the higher seed, the forecast called for a lot of wind. Most experts expected the Bruins to get blown out of the Eastern Conference Semis by the New York Rangers. Even homers like Michael Salk and Michael Holly on WEEI proclaimed, “After the Maple Leafs series, I won’t make any predictions…but if I were to, I don’t like how it looks.”

Boston’s line of defense presented the largest area of concern. Wade Redden, a 13-year veteran with over 450 career points, landed on the disabled list with a typical NHL injury: “undisclosed.” Dennis Seidenberg, a veteran of nine years, couldn’t play as a result of a leg injury. And the biggest loss came to the injured Andrew Ference, a very valuable Bruin who averaged over twenty-minutes.

All three defensemen, all three important, and all three out.

The Bruins were seemingly trotting out lambs named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner when they employed three rookies as their top five defensemen. Highly touted first-round pick Dougie Hamilton played on the first-line with skyscraper-on-skates Zdeno Chara. Late-season call-up from the AHL Matt Bartkowski paired defensively with Johnny “Rocket” Boychuk. Torey Krug, a Providence promotion, sided with Adam McQuaid. Between Hamilton, Krug, and Bartkowski, none possessed a full-years worth of real NHL experience – their inexperience exacerbated by the lockout shortened season.

What fans expected resembled a Bad News Bears-esque bumbling and stumbling into one another while Rangers snipers treated the game like a penalty shot: clear ice with only the goalie to beat.

What fans received resembled nothing short of a miracle. They saw something historic. Not historically bad, like they expected, but Torey Krug becoming the first player (not just defensemen, but player) to score four goals in their first five playoff games.

A defenseman scoring presents a new weapon into an already-potent arsenal. During the regular season, which consisted of 48 games, blue-liners scored 23 of 127 (18%) of Bruins’ goals. The budding Bruins blue-liners surprised everyone by scoring seven out of the Bruins’ sixteen goals (44%) in the second round of the playoffs. They iced the hot Rangers offense and opened up the door that Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist had closed.

Someone should send a fruit basket to Providence.

The Bruins defensemen, once considered a liability, ended up to be the reason the Bruins emerged victorious – including scoring two of the three Bruins goals in the momentum-grabbing, overtime, Game One win.

So everything was going wrong, but then three unproven, unanticipated players appear and make the difference. Everything’s going great and it seems the Bruins have a better ending than a Lifetime movie.

But there’s a problem. (There’s always a problem.) What decision would Coach Claude Julien make when Ference and the Injury Company returned, as the all may do in their next series? The next series faces off the offensive juggernaut Penguins of Pittsburgh against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Claude Julien, who two weeks ago had his house for sale and was leaving Boston after another playoff collapse, got the miracle from his team in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and therefore got the opportunity to hang around.

Now, he needs to reward the players who helped him get here. He needs to win, now, for Boston. He needs to keep Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski in the defensive rotational for the Bruins.

The Bruins can ride the hot streak – no, more like exploding supernova – of Torey Krug, former Michigan State captain, Providence Bruin until April, and now leading goal-scorer for the Eastern Conference Finalist Boston Bruins. Unreal represents a major understatement of his play thus far. The Bruins know, maybe better than anyone else, that a team can pack its saddle on to the most popular mule and ride it to victory as they did with Goalie Tim Thomas in 2011 en route to the Stanley Cup. Thomas shut down opponents and made diving, acrobatic saves with his large frame that endeared him to Bruins fans everywhere. Boston rode Thomas’s play in the crease all the way to the cup – why not pitch in with Torey Krug and the Rookies and see how high the hit soars?

It’s like the first rule of poker; don’t get up from the table when you’re on a hot hand. The corollary to that rule says to leave before the hand goes cold, but there’s no sign of the latter.

In conjunction with the above plan Julien should patiently work back the Injury Three. Julien’s dynamic stratagem should involve a steady, slow increase of playing time between the three as to give them time to acclimate to the pace and demanding physical aspect. The dichotomy between practice time and game play exhibits how different the two are and how every athlete, regardless of the sport, requires time to re-enter the routine and the groove of the game.

Take it from Amaré Stoudamire in the NBA this postseason, or Ben Roethlisberger during the 2008 NFL campaign, or better yet: Keith Primeau, the Philadelphia Flyers Captain whose career ended in 2005-06 after he returned too quickly from a concussion and received a recurring one.

It’s better to let athletes work their way back slowly (though not as slowly as Derrick Rose) than to rush them back and risk re-injury.

Granted, Julien did play Seidenberg 23 minutes in Game 5 (his first game back), but he didn’t contribute in the points category and only delivered two hits.

As the other ailing Bruins begin to return to action, Julien can’t rush them back, nor should he give them more ice time than Krug or Bartkowski or Hamilton. Whoever plays better deserves the ice time and whoever gets the ice time needs to produce.

Julien received a miracle with the end of the Toronto series; he can’t waste it just because other Defensemen used to play there.

It seems bad enough that the three defend Tuukka and the goal, but now they must defend their own jobs.

The Curious Case of Carmelo

Saturday night’s 106-99 loss to the Indiana Pacers marked the ninth straight year that Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks has exited the playoffs without a title.

Carmelo, a six-time All-Star, the 2012-13 NBA scoring champion, and five-time “All-NBA” selection, takes that walk of shame off the court every year. He has never even made it out of the first round with the exception of this season and when he was on the 2008-09 Denver Nuggets team that lost to the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Conference Finals.

Anthony is considered a premier player in the game today. A man in his prime, he is ranked by both CBS and ESPN to be one of the top 10 most impactful players in the sport, it is even arguable for his spot in the top five.

The most curious thing about Anthony concerns his play. It’s not that his play is poor – he’s averaging 25.4 points per-game on 41% shooting in the playoffs – but rather his simple inability to win. However, unfortunately for Carmelo, how you do is judged by winning and losing – regardless of what some adults will try to say in modern America.

He’s been called a “ball hog” who handles too many touches, like after the Knicks Game 5, first-round loss to the Boston Celtics when Carmelo went 10-35 from the field. In fact, Google “Carmelo Anthony” and it will suggest “shoots too much.”

But he has also been told to shoot more, like after the Knicks loss in Game 3 to the Pacers where Anthony attempted a career-low (for the playoffs) 16 shots.  

Since movies are similar to basketball in the sense that it takes many people to make a final product, it’s not too hard to imagine the Knicks season as a movie – after all, they play in Madison Square Garden where heroes and villains arise, all spurred on by court-side Spike Lee.

So if Carmelo’s allergy to winning isn’t his fault, then to whom does it belong? The supporting cast?

Just two years ago, a less-skilled NBA player went to, and subsequently won, the Finals. It was Dirk Nowitzki with the Dallas Mavericks who triumphantly captured his NBA title in 2011. (Calling Nowitzki less skilled is not only my opinion, but ESPN’s and CBS’s as well.) It was Nowitzki and his falling-away, flamingo-looking shot that helped the Mavs overwhelm the Heat in six games. But the credit can’t all rest with Nowitzki. He had help. Assistance appeared mostly from Point Guard Jason Kidd and Big-man Tyson Chandler. Ironically, the two men were also staples in the New York Knicks lineup this season. With J.R. Smith playing a flashier version of the 2011 Dallas’ Jason Terry, the Knicks had the spot-up Shooting Guard who could enter the game and provide instant scoring.

Both teams also had a film cliché of “rags-to-riches” and past-their-prime players getting the call to the big time, and making a difference. Think The Rookie. A surprisingly large role and pivotal performance came from back-up Point Guards. J.J. Barea, the diminutive dynamo from Dallas, and Pablo Prigioni, former Euroleague star and 34-year old rookie, for the Knicks.  It was as if Dallas was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the original, while the Knicks were a re-make with the same concepts, but with disastrous results.

If not the support actors, then who could it be? The director?

Yes, Rick Carlisle, Coach of the 2011 Mavs, won the 2001-02 award with the Detroit Pistons so that is a boost to his resumé, but Mike Woodson (Knicks Head Coach) hasn’t been coaching as long as Carlisle.

No, Woodson doesn’t have accolades, but he did take the dismal Atlanta Hawks franchise over in 2004-05, completely revamped the system and in four short years, led them to a 53-29 season. He was then hired as an assistant coach for the New York Knicks under the tutelage of run-and-gun Coach Mike D’Antoni, but assumed full control when D’Antoni resigned in the last month of the season in 2012. When he took over the Knicks were 18-24, but an 18-6 run to end the season led them to the playoffs. This year he captured the Knicks’ first Atlantic division title since 1994.

The point is that yes, Carlisle is a great coach, but in juxtaposition, the 2011 Mavs had no tangible advantage in coaching over the 2013 Knicks.

If not director, it must be the antagonist.

The 2011 Mavericks defeated the storied franchise of the Los Angeles Lakers, put the kibosh on Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season, and took down the juggernaut Miami Heat in six games. It seemed as though the Mavericks were the resilient hero, ready to take down those who would harm the world, and take on more opponents than Rocky.

The Knicks struggled through an exhausting first round series against a Celtics team without their best players, Point Guard Rajon Rondo and Power Forward Jared Sullinger, before succumbing to the Indiana Pacers – who were without their best player as well, as Danny Granger’s knees continue to behave like an octogenarian’s.

Clearly then it isn’t the antagonist as the road to the Mavericks championship was blocked by foes on caliber with villains such as Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter and Severus Snape, but the Knicks were beat by meager caitiffs such as when Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze.

As far as side-kicks go, everyone needs one. Carmelo and Nowitzki were no exception. The Knicks even had a better second option: Amaré Stoudamire as opposed to Caron Butler. While JR Smith’s cold shooting charts from the second-round looked like the meteorology report from an impending winter storm in Minnesota, New York had other options to score, and they even had another superb Shooting Guard in Iman Shumpert.

So to sum up why the Knicks can’t win: I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either; seeing the Knicks lose is more confusing than watching Memento.

 

How are you, David?

Boston loves sports and over the past decade, they’ve been given many reasons to celebrate.

The Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years, the Celtics captured the 2008 banner and the Red Sox won the World Series in both 2004 and 2007.

Through all that, there was no athlete more visible than David Ortiz. Known as “Big Papi” and the lovable father of Red Sox nation, his combination of affable antics and clutch performance have eternally endeared him to the city of Boston.

The Golden Age of Ortiz occurred from 2003 to 2008 when he spurred the Sox to two World Series titles and became the proverbial “Face of the Franchise.” In that time he lead the Majors in RBIs twice, broke a franchise record with 54 homeruns in 2006, and hit .300 four times.

In 2009, it seemed that Big Papi was becoming “Big Pop-up” as Ortiz’s average plummeted to .238 and the homeruns that were once heading into the stands ran out of juice on the warning track. It seemed that Ortiz was beginning the natural decline of a power hitter in Major League Baseball. His batting average was the lowest of his career, his homerun total the lowest since his Minnesota tenure in 2002, and a career high with 134 whiffs at the dish.

So this season, when Ortiz began the year at .426 and carrying over a 27-game hitting streak from last July, fans were mystified. As surprised as they were, it was a pleasant shock for Sox fans, who had been disappointed after last year’s dismal campaign.

Dan Shaughnessy, staff writer at the Boston Globe, was as surprised as any fan to see what Ortiz was doing, but he was skeptical. He asked “How do you think he does it? I don’t know! What makes him so good?’’ and put it at the beginning of his article.

The article he wrote concerned David Ortiz’s improved performance. Shaughnessy penned the piece only after he sat down in the Sox clubhouse to bring it to Ortiz first.

Shaughnessy argues that Ortiz’s only positive test, 2003, could not have been the only time he used Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). He cited that cheaters are perpetually ahead of testers; Ortiz’s hot start this season, and his residence in the Dominican Republic.

The reciprocation of outrage from the Boston public and colleagues of Shaughnessy have been quick and severe. Over the Monster, a Red Sox fan blog, published Dan Shaughnessy is 59 years old and therefore David Ortiz is Cheating, which – as shown by the sarcastic title – was a biting, harsh piece. Tom Werner has thrown in his reprimand and Barry Petchesky, a Deadspin writer, penned a column insulting Shaughnessy and calling his accusations “inventions.”

The furor against Shaughnessy is unreal. Google “Shaughnessy and David Ortiz” and you’ll see two pages of articles slamming the Boston writer’s article on Big Papi. But, like Lou Merloni said on his show Mutt & Lou on WEEI, Shaughnessy isn’t afraid to be hated. He isn’t afraid to ask the tough question or cause controversy.

Shaughnessy’s main claim is that, without Spring Training, it was improbable for Ortiz to “roll out of bed and hit .426” (Ortiz is now four for his last 32 and his average has “dropped” to .311.)

I can see his point, a 37-year old slugger coming off of wrist and leg problems who is on a tear after not seeing big league pitching for about six months? Seems downright unbelievable. Taking a more focused look at it, however, is it really that ridiculous of a question to ask David Ortiz if he had used PEDs? Is it really a ridiculous question to ask a man who, four years ago, didn’t even hit his first homerun until the 20th of May?

To address the section of the article that people have a problem with the most, the bit about Ortiz living in the Dominican, is not what you think. Yes Ortiz lives in the Dominican in the offseason, trains there and vacations there, but it wasn’t racism by Shaughnessy. It was merely based on the fact that you can buy things there that are unavailable in the United States.

For instance, since the Mitchell Report surfaced and since baseball began suspending people for steroids, over 60% of the suspensions given have been imposed upon those from the Dominican. That trend seems to indicate that 1) Dominican players have an inferiority complex and need to use PEDs to make it to the Bigs or, 2) that sort of stuff is easier to get in the Republic. The intelligent money gets put with option two.

Moving to Shaughnessy’s second point, that Ortiz was mentioned in a 2003 PED-positive list and has injuries in line with sustained steroid use, again we see it’s not ridiculous. Big Papi has never played a full-season (a defensive liability at first base during Interleague play has assured that), but in the last few years, it has been more than that. The Achilles, wrist and leg have all been the source of recurring problems and limited his effectiveness and playing time. It has been proven that those with rampant PED use have their bodies turn on them. Speaking of which, anybody seen Alex Rodriguez this year?

David Ortiz should be slowing down, and hampered by wrist injuries, that should be expedited. Yet, his bat speed is still as quick as the day he reported to camp in Minnesota for his rookie year. (At this point in the interview, Ortiz actually should have been happy for; he “teed off” as he refuted the steroids claim.) He attributed his quick bat to the 400-pound bench press he does every other day. He also said he’s been tested six times (once by blood, five by urine) since the start of the year and every one has come back clean.

Maybe Shaughnessy is just trolling, maybe he’s just trying to get Sox fans riled up and more views on his page at The Globe. But my inclination is that he’s legitimate with his accusation. He really wanted to know why Ortiz was gaining when others of his age and caliber were beginning to fade. Where’s the issue with that?

I’m a huge Sox fan, I love the team. I was frustrated last year, overjoyed during 2004, and devastated the day they traded Nomar, who was my favorite player as a kid. As much of a Sox fan as I am, I’m interested in the truth – if it comes with a hard question, someone needs to be there to ask it. I’m glad Shaughnessy stood up to ask the question that lingered in everyone’s mind – even when he took so much flak for it.

Also, calling Shaughnessy a troll or write something that’ll, to quote Blades of Glory, “Get the people going!” are badly missing at a target placed five feet away. He sat down with Ortiz, mano-a-mano, and asked him directly what made him good. Shaughnessy didn’t take potshots or hide behind the ink of The Globe, he went out and owned his accusations.

So why are other writers doing what Shaughnessy was too brave to do?

As much of a beating that he has taken in the media, Dan Shaughnessy was perfectly within his own right as he made the right call to ask Ortiz about PED use. It may not have been comfortable, it may not have been easy, but it was right. And then again, nothing worth doing is easy.

Mocking the Mocks

When ESPN was just starting out in Bristol, Connecticut it was a dirt lot, with few employees and Getty Oil was the biggest financier of Bill and Scott Rasmussen’s project. Programming included college soccer, wrestling and slow-pitch softball games.

ESPN’s biggest draw was their pre-taped, half-hour highlights of the U.S. Open – tennis, that is.

Then, in 1980, then-General Manager Chet Simmons made a move that would keep football fanatics on their couch for three days in April every year. He received the approval from Commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozell, to air the draft, but he did not believe it would be good television.

In 1988, ESPN asked the NFL to switch the draft to the weekends. The ratings began to rise, and kept rising all the way to the global power that ESPN is today.

As ESPN’s popularity grew, so did the draft, which, in essence, was their first-born, their pride and joy and their leader. So what did they do? They began to cover the draft more than Jets camp, Tim Tebow, and a Heat winning streak combined.

ESPN brought in “draft experts” who were College Football virtuosos to help add some flavor to the draft stew. They brought in Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, Jr.

Those experts, when they’re not bragging about the amount of time spent watching game film, fill out mock drafts – their predictions – about which team will draft which player.

In fact, the April 22nd edition of ESPN the Magazine is the “NFL Draft Preview” which happens to coincide when exciting regular seasons for the NBA and NHL were coming to a conclusion and the leagues were just about to begin playoff action. But the draft came first.

In that April 22nd issue McShay and Kiper, Jr. published their mock drafts and since the draft was April 25-27, these must have been their finest and most up-to-date pieces.

Both had Luke Joeckel, the Offensive Tackle from Texas A&M, going first, but after that the two agreed on little else.

In fact, Sports Illustrated led off their draft preview with, “Luke Joeckel is a lock at number one, but after that, the first round is anybody’s guess.”

Really? They should have stuck to their original assertion that it was “anybody’s guess” because ESPN the Mag writers McShay and Kiper, Jr. were three for 32 in the first round…combined! And Sports Illustrated analyst Peter King pegged exactly one pick. One, the first round.

Those few correct predictions did not include Mel Kiper, Jr.’s guess of Geno Smith being taken with the fourth overall pick. Smith was taken 39th by the plane-wreck of a team in New York called the Jets. He was so happy he was drafted by New York that he grimaced when his name was called and immediately fired all of his agents.

For those counting along, the three writers combined went four for 32. That’s a 13%. No matter what it is, batting average, test score, dating success rate, whatever it is, it isn’t good.

But yet, after the weekend was over, their jobs as experts were safe and their reputations were fine…and certainly better than Amanda Bynes.

Now I’m not saying that I expect the draft gurus to anticipate all the first-round trades (there were five) that would shake up the draft order, and therefore their mocks, but that isn’t important because it is still a case of “Who can we take that’s available?” Teams weren’t selecting who the “experts” thought.

Which brings up the question: if they don’t know who is going to be picked by whom, then why should their opinions be validated when it comes to draft grading?

A microcosm of draft talent evaluating is found in the Sports Illustrated archives. I found the 2000 New England Patriots draft card and they received a B+. Why did they receive that mark? King wrote that, “Redmond will be an every-down back right away” and that he was a steal in the mid-second round. Redmond who? JR Redmond, the Half-back out of Arizona State, who played 50 games and rushed for 676 yards…in his whole career.

That was juxtaposed by the Pats 6th round choice of Tom Brady who was, “not what you’re looking for in terms of physical stature, strength, arm strength and mobility” according to the scouting report. The report left out things such as motivation, work ethic, and intangibles.

But perhaps the most ludicrous misevaluation of talent was when SI gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a solid D for their 1998 draft. That was the draft that netted them 7-time Pro Bowler and 5-time All Pro selection Left Guard, Alan Faneca. Faneca made 96 consecutive starts at Left Guard for the Steelers.

Then there was the third round. With the 92nd overall pick, the Receiver from Georgia by the name of Hines Ward was still available and the Steelers drafted him. Ward became a 4-time Pro-Bowler, a 3-time team MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and the franchises’ career leader in receptions (800), receiving touchdowns (72), and receiving yards (9,780). Utah Running Back Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala provided a complimentary speed option to Jerome “The Bus” Bettis and Arizona State Corner Jason Simmons also played well for four seasons. Overall it was a deep, fruitful draft and certainly worthy of more than a D rating.

So what we can determine from the three-day, non-stop media hullabaloo of this glorified version of school-yard pick is that, well, it really all doesn’t matter. It’s about the system, it’s about how they’re coached and it’s about their effort. Where they’re drafted matters (it’s more likely a first-rounder will contribute as opposed to a seventh-rounder), but it is certainly not a guarantee. Looking at you #1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell and you, #199 overall pick Tom Brady.

Next year, those who label themselves football “die-hards” will once again waste three nice days in April, sitting inside waiting for their team to pick a supposed “cornerstone” of their franchise or a complementary piece to take them to the top. If that player pans out, but only if.

But either way, as sure as the New England Patriots will trade down, not a single mock will be right that day.