Posted by: Nate | May 21, 2008

Celtics Dispose Cavs, Move on to East Finals

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend game 7 between the Celtics and Cavaliers on Sunday night. This marks the second consecutive game 7 of theirs that I was able to attend and my 6th Boston Sports playoff game since 2004 (’04 ALCS game 4, ’07 ALCS games 6 & 7, ’07 World Series Game 1 being the other 4). You’ll note that all of those games have resulted in favorable outcomes, so as a service to the Boston sports community, I’ll be doing my best to attend as many deciding games as I can. If you want to help out the cause, I certainly accept donations and free tickets and my contact info is on the “Contact” page…

Getting back to the game, it was truly an incredible experience and I likened it to a heavyweight fight. LeBron and Pierce put their teams on their backs and carried the offensive load, going back and forth, shot for shot the entire game. It got to the point where I was convinced that Pierce wasn’t going to miss and that LeBron could smash through the Berlin wall and still get a shot off. Those two put on quite a show, one that was eerily reminiscent of the 1988 series against the Hawks, where Dominque Wilkins and Larry Bird squared off in a similarly epic battle among NBA greats.

The story of the game for me, though, was the play of the bench for the Celtics. Ray Allen has disappeared in the playoffs and Sam Cassell has been struggling to find the range and didn’t play in game 7. PJ Brown and Eddie House came off the bench and had some excellent contributions both offensively and emotionally that really elevated the Celtics to the next level.

When House hustled down the court and made that diving save of the ball that led directly to Celtics points, The Garden erupted and carried an “Eddie, Eddie” chant all the way through the timeout. His line for the night wasn’t anything that will win any awards (4 points on 1-5 shooting, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block in 15 minutes) but the hustle plays like that one and the 2-2 shooting at the free throw line were instrumental in swinging the momentum and harnessing the raucous Celtics home crowd. PJ Brown was even more impressive, going a perfect 4-4 from the field, 2-2 from the foul line, collecting 6 rebounds (3 of which were offensive) and playing tough interior defense making sure that LeBron didn’t get any easy baskets. These two really helped invigorate the crowd, made the hustle plays that led to victory and contributed big minutes off the bench. They will be instrumental in the coming series as well, as Detroit is a strong team that also has a lot of depth and talent off the bench.

Seeing LeBron in person for the first time was quite an experience, as he really is an impressive talent. As I mentioned, he can barrel through the lane, taking 2-3 fouls on his way by and still get a decent shot attempt up. It’s getting to the point where if you don’t wrap him up like Pierce and PJ Brown did multiple times this series, he’ll get the 3 point play more often than not. He also is a much better passer than I anticipated as well, often hitting the wide open or cutting teammate in perfect position. He can’t control the fact that his teammates can’t convert those opportunities often enough.

My only critique is that I feel like he settles for the long jumper or contested 3 far too often, especially given his career .324% from downtown. His game is most effective driving into the lane for easy buckets or drawing fouls, not falling away from 18-20 feet or heaving 3 pointers. If he can work on shooting a better percentage from 3, or shooting less of them I think his game would be much improved.

I know I have said this several times already, but the crowd was really something special the other night. It’s great to be a part of the crowd where the fans are engaged, enthusiastic and vicious like back in the old days, having sat through some very lackluster crowd performances in recent years. It’s also nice to have the entire sports scene be on the rebound after a decent stretch of futility and missed opportunities. The Red Sox have won 2 championships in 4 years, the Patriots completed a historic regular season last year and the Celtics have returned to glory of Big Three’s past. It’s a great time to be a Boston fan right now and the combination of that exciting game 7 win followed by a no hitter from Jon Lester really drove home how great things are right now. We really are spoiled as Boston fans right now, and it is so sweet to be able to savor these moments, and these victories after a long absence from success and relevance. It makes enduring seasons like the 2006-2007 Celtics and the 1990 Patriots worthwhile when you can see them transform over the course of a year, or ten.

Trivia Answer: The only two players to collect 3 hits in the same inning were Gene Stephens (1953) and Johnny Damon (2003), both with the Red Sox.

Next Question: Who hurled the first no hitter for the Red Sox in the 21st century?

Answer to follow at the end of the next post. Post your answers in the comments section.

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Posted by: Nate | May 19, 2008

Lester No-Hits the Royals!

Jon Lester just finished no-hitting the Kansas City Royals tonight at Fenway Park! In his first complete game in the Major Leagues he throws a no-no, the first by a Red Sox lefty since Mel Parnell in 1956 and the 18th in team history. Also of note, this marks the fourth no hitter caught by catcher Jason Varitek in his career, which is a MLB record (Hideo Nomo, Derek Lowe, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester). A pretty special night for both Sox fans and baseball fans in general, as Lester adds another chapter to his already impressive baseball story. He now has a World Series clinching victory and a no hitter after his courageous comeback from cancer.

His line for the night: 9.0 ip 0h 0r 0er 2bb 9k’s

He also threw lots of of first pitch strikes, which is very important for him. I think 20 of the 28 batters.

Watching the post game commentary from everyone, and watching the game myself and gauging my reaction to it it was clear that this was more than just a no hitter for a lot of people. Given all that Lester has experienced in the last few years with overcoming cancer, clinching the World Series, the trade rumors and the growing pains on the mound it was a really special experience – even more so than the already impressive no hitter would have been on it’s own merit.

Francona was incredibly emotional and it really drove home what a player’s manager he is, really caring about all of his players and their well-being even outside the realm of baseball. You can talk all you want about being a “player’s manager” isn’t necessarily the best style, but I think it works really well with this group of guys on the roster and the environment that is Boston.

I mentioned earlier this season that I was really invested in Lester this year and thought he was finally going to turn the proverbial corner and harness his abilities and limit his walks. So far he has been better, but still with room for improvement, but this type of outing really solidifies in my mind that he has the tools to be able to compete at a high level and be effective as a mid-rotation type of guy. I was never in favor of the Santana deal, not because of the prospects aspect of it but more so the money concerns, but this last start really made me appreciate the Sox brass a little more for sticking to their guns and not making a deal. Here’s hoping for more continued success from our draft classes, starting tonight with Masterson’s spot start.

Posted by: Nate | May 9, 2008

2008 NBA Awards Recap

2008 NBA Awards:

NBA MVP: Kobe Bryant – Los Angeles Lakers
This wasn’t a close race in the voting, as Bryant ran away with the 2008 NBA MVP award. Kobe is an excellent player, had a phenomenal season and I certainly don’t think he is un-deserving of accolades. That being said, I still stand by my previous vote that Chris Paul should have won the award. He is playing the point guard position at an unbelievably high level, has taken his team of nobodies to a second place seed in the West and a 2-1 series lead over the defending champion Spurs and looks unstoppable.

I will certainly concede that there was some homer-ism in my slotting of Garnett second and I was emphasizing his “intangible” effect on the Celtics and Boston fans over his strong, but not overwhelming stats. I am willing to cede that Bryant, who is playing at a similarly incredible pace to Paul in the playoffs thus far, probably should have been second on that list. I still maintain that Paul had the better year and was more valuable to his team than Bryant was to the Lakers. Regardless, congratulations are in order to Kobe on his first MVP win.

NBA 6th Man Award: Manu Ginobili – San Antonio Spurs
This award was a massive no-brainer as Ginobili is one of the best players in the NBA and would start for any team in the NBA. His per 40 minute averages are unreal and he even did get a start in last night’s pivotal game 3 match up against the Hornets, where he lit them up for 31 points. Congrats, Manu, and happy flopping.

NBA Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Garnett – Boston Celtics
While he didn’t win the MVP, it was clear that the presence of Garnett transformed the Celtics this season. They won 42 more games than a season ago, their defense has been stifling (just ask LeBron James) and he is the main reason why. Clearly, this was an obvious and excellent choice by the sportswriters and well-deserved. Congrats, KG and remember it’s ok to take over in crunch time and go to the basket.

NBA Most Improved Player: Hedo Turkoglu – Orlando Magic
Now I had a bit of the inside track on this one, as I had Turkoglu on my fantasy team this winter and watched him continually light it up day in and day out, so I saw this coming. He won by more than 200 points over second place finisher Rudy Gay, who had an excellent season in his second year in the NBA for the lowly Grizzlies. Hedo’s stats, just for reference in 2006-2007 were: 13.3ppg, 4.0rpg, 3.2apg with a FG% of .419, FT% of .781 and 3PT% of .388. This season his numbers spiked to 19.5ppg, 5.7rpg, 5.0apg with percentages of .456, .829 and .400, respectively. Quite an improvement so congrats to you as well, Hedo.

2008 All-NBA First Team:
(first place votes in parenthesis, followed by total points)

F — Kevin Garnett, Boston (118), 612

F — LeBron James, Cleveland (117), 610

C — Dwight Howard, Orlando (86), 546

G — Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers (127), 635

G — Chris Paul, New Orleans (124), 629

The results here, not terribly shocking as you have your 1-2 MVP candidates, Defensive player of the year, the league’s best center and slam dunk champion and the man-child that is LeBron James. Kobe was the only unanimous selection to the first team this season, but all 5 members were considerably ahead in the voting from those making the second team. For the the members of the second and third teams, you’ll find those here on ESPN.

Trivia Answer: None. Ted Williams’ highest hit total for a season was 194 hits in 1949.

New Question: Who are the only two American League Players to get three hits in the same inning?

Answer at the end of the next post. Submit your guesses in the comments section.

Celtics vs. Hawks: Game 7 – Win or Go Home.

That was the environment Boston was engulfed in over this past weekend when the surprising Atlanta Hawks forced a game 7 in their first round series with our beloved Celtics. People were somewhat nervous going into this game, since most of the fans, pundits, and players (I’d imagine) didn’t see this series making it 7 games. We were also hopeful though, as Boston has a great winning percentage historically at home in the playoffs, and especially in game 7’s. Also, we had beaten the Hawks 3 times at home already in convincing fashion.

It was with this backdrop that I had a difficult decision to make. I was offered tickets to the game from some friends of mine, and I instantly accepted of course. The offer was made Friday night and by Sunday morning I felt terrible. My health has been pretty horrible this year for a lot of reasons, and Sunday was no exception to the nagging pseudo-sickness I have had for awhile. It felt like I was looking at the world through a dirty cigarette filter and that I had spent far too long cruising around the Tilt-a-Whirl I was so nauseous. I briefly considered giving my ticket up to someone else, but then realized I would be really upset if this turned out to be an ESPN classic worthy game and I missed it. Thus, I did what any good fan would do and sucked it up because my team needed me.

Our seats were phenomenal, as we were about 15-20 rows behind the basket on floor level. How we acquired these seats is astonishing, but I wasn’t about to complain. The energy in The Garden was electric once we arrived and as soon as we got to our seats the 6 of us set in on our mission to be “those fans.” We were standing most of the game like a group of chanting, cheering, heckling and dancing machines. We started innumerable “Let’s go Celtics!” chants, mercilessly berated Zaza Pachulia all game long, got the several “Where’s Mike Bibby?” chants going and even got a personal shout out from the Celtic’s mascot Lucky, who came to our section to dole out high-fives for our good work.

I almost felt bad for the two Hawks fans sitting in front of us who got a steady stream of taunting for the entirety of the game. But then I came to my senses and realized these guys were stupid enough to think that this particular Hawks team, winners of a paltry 37 games all season, was going to stroll into Boston for a game 7 and steal a win. To quote an amazing sign a girl had in the front of our section:
“The Garden – Where Shocking the World WON’T Happen!”

I went to the March meeting of the Pistons and Celtics, and the energy and intensity in that game was something I would have classified as “playoff level.” Game 7 started out louder and got progressively more intense with each passing second of this game. There is nothing quite like playoff sports in Boston. Game 7 was your quintessential example of The Garden being The Garden again and not some stupid corporate whore box owned by TD Banknorth or Fleet. As far as I, and many fans are concerned, our house will always be The Garden. The building was rocking all game long, despite it never being a game and resembling more of a massacre, and I wouldn’t be surprised if passing cars on the central artery could hear and feel the crowd noise as they drove by.

As for the game itself, we totally dismantled and embarrassed the Hawks who were never in this one. We ran a smooth offense and took good care of the ball, played strong, aggressive defense and acted liked a competent basketball team. The game was really punctuated by the flagrant 2 called on Marvin Williams that led to his ejection, a real sign of how things were going for Atlanta at that juncture. We in section 6 of course, serenaded young Marvin from the arena with a rousing cheer of “Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye” which echoed to the rafters.

It was great to see the team play this well, and dominate the entire game as much as they did. It was a much-needed win for us, both to advance to and build confidence for round 2. Despite feeling like crap heading into the game (and the deafening crowd noise did not help my headache) I was really glad I went and look forward to catching another game or two before the playoffs are over. As was so aptly put by a crowd of 19,000 strong: “We Want Cleveland! We Want Cleveland!”

New Feature!: At the end of every post I will be posting a baseball trivia question with the answer to follow in the next post, along with a new trivia question. Post your answers and guesses in the comments section and try to refrain from Googling.

Question: How many 200 hit seasons did Red Sox great Ted Williams have in his career?

[Note: I added a couple of pictures from Opening Day at Fenway to that post if you want to check those out.]

After losing another close game to the Atlanta Hawks, many people are starting to get a little worried about the Celtics and the 2008 playoffs. In typical Boston fashion, all the pundits and talk shows are harping on the fact that the Celtics now have to play a minimum of 6 games in the first round to advance, and at this point look like possible candidates to get upset. The questions that beg to be asked are: Should we be worried? And why have we looked so terrible as of late?

To answer the first question, you should not be worried about this Hawks series. Boston has the superior team, evidenced by innumerable factors including regular season record, experience, talent, depth and a host of other factors. We will win this series, although it is apparently going to be done the ugly way at this point. Should we be worried about the playoffs as a whole though? I would say so, seeing as how the last two games have been near reversals of the mode of Celtics play throughout the season.

For instance, on many occasions this season Tony Allen was used as a defensive stopper on the strong offensive options from the opposing team. If you remember, Doc Rivers put Tony on Chauncey Billups with time winding down and the score tied (this was the teams’ Dec. 19th meeting in Boston). Allen fouled Billups, who hit both free throws with .1 seconds remaining to seal the win, but afterwards Rivers backed up Allen and commended him on his defense. Why then, when Ray Allen was getting torched by Joe Johnson in game 4, did Tony Allen remain sitting on the bench? If his defense is good enough to put on a star player like Billups with the game on the line, why not do it again and try to slow Johnson down? Granted, that particular example ended in a Celtics loss, but the situation was repeated many times, plus we were already losing! Johnson scored 20 points – IN THE FOURTH QUARTER! It isn’t like Ray was slowing him down at all.

Moves like this are a source of the problems we have seen exposed in the last two games. Ray Allen cannot defend very well against quicker players like Johnson, and he got exposed. I know Ray is a great perimeter shooter, but why not bring in Tony for some defense and look to players like Garnett and Pierce to shoulder to offensive load down the stretch, like great players should? It’s inexcusable that Tony Allen didn’t see a minute of playing time down the stretch and it’s a typical Doc Rivers maneuver – tighten up in the playoffs.

This is the same guy who was coaching the Magic in 2003 when they coughed up a 3-1 series lead to the Pistons and has a history of jerking guys around in the rotation. Why is it that we spent the entire regular season establishing a solid rotation, developing roles for the players on the team, and then come playoffs we totally abandon that strategy? It isn’t like it was ineffective in winning us 66 games this year, so I just don’t see why it is happening now. Granted, I was absolutely shocked that Rivers even had a job after last season’s stink bomb, and so it should come as no surprise that he is completely overmatched now that we are in the playoffs. His panic-stricken, tight coaching has spread to the players, as many of the guys have looked tense and on edge during this series leading to a lot of careless mistakes. And no, it isn’t because they are afraid of or intimidated by Zaza Pachulia.

A return to The Garden tonight should be a needed boost for the team, and let’s hope someone sits down with Rivers and explains to him how it is they managed to win 66 games so he calms down a bit and stops contaminating this talented team with his incompetence. Let Thibodeau handle the defense, make appropriate substitutions that resemble a rotation, and let the talent do the talking. A loose, efficiently operating Celtics team is very dangerous and it would be a shame for Rivers to screw that up by panicking.

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