Sunday, May 5, 2013

NBA Playoffs: Round one review

The first round of the playoffs was a mixed bag, and the journey to it was bipolar.  As the regular season was ending, it looked like we weren't going to get the best matchups.  It looked like Houston would face San Antonio and the Thunder would face the Lakers or Jazz.  But then the Rockets lost to the Suns and the perfect playoff bracket was still in play for the West.  Amazingly, the best matchups ended up happening.  We got James Harden facing his old team, the two most successful franchises of the past decade doing battle once again, a rematch of last year's 7-game series, and the "leftovers" being a matchup between two of the most exciting teams in the league.  In the East, we even got a Celtics-Knicks series.  On paper, the matchups looked about as good as possible.  Unfortunately, what looked good on paper didn't really materialize, as injuries wreaked havoc.

Kobe got hurt, as well as almost every other Laker, ruining what may have be the final go-round of a Kobe-Duncan series (at least one that included both guys playing at such a high level).  Injury struck again with Russell Westbrook, delivering a blow to that series.  David Lee got hurt (thankfully that didn't ruin that series, maybe because Denver had their own loss with Gallinari).  Almost every Bull has suffered some type of ailment.  Sensing a theme?  Add in the other injured players for playoff teams and here's the list of important players that didn't contribute in the playoffs: Kobe, Westbrook, Lee, Rose, Rondo, Granger, and Gallinari.  And this list doesn't even include other players who were injured that didn't make the playoffs (Kevin Love and Andrew Bynum); whose teams may have made it, had they been healthy (same goes for the Wizards, had John Wall been healthy the whole year).  Has there ever been a larger quantity of valuable players who missed the playoffs?  Could that group of guys medal in the Olympics?  I think they could.

Between the (probably) unprecedented number of injuries, the predictable Miami sweep, and Boston falling down 3-0 (all but guaranteeing their elimination), the first round ended up being very disappointing.  The saving grace came in the form of two series' (Sorry, Indiana and Atlanta fans. Not one of them): Clippers-Grizzlies and Warriors-Nuggets.  Clippers-Grizzlies was a quality follow-up to last year's series.  The bad blood and physicality makes for some great basketball.  But as good as that series was, my personal favorite was Warriors-Nuggets.  Which wasn't really a surprise to me, because these teams were two of my favorites to watch this year.  From start to finish, I thought the Warriors were the most exciting team to watch.  Their team even provided my favorite highlight clip from this season:

The Nuggets were thoroughly entertaining as well, but I wasn't privy to them until much later in the season.  They didn't become one of my favorites until after their February game against the Lakers, which produced my second favorite highlight clip of the season (coincidentally, the two teams I thought were most exciting provided my two favorite clips of the season, and they did it two days apart):

Those first two dunks are especially incredible.  I hadn't seen much of the Nuggets before this game, but I was a fan of them after it.  They played such a unique style of basketball.  I don't think I've ever seen a team attack the basket as much as they did.

Anyway, back to the series, the only downside to two exciting teams squaring off is that one of them had to be eliminated.  And while having seven games would've been fun, it would've been hard to top game 6.  Steph Curry going off, in front of an electric crowd, with Kevin Harlan calling the game is pretty much basketball at its greatest:

I hope these teams come back even better next year, but for now we'll just have to settle for them providing the highlight of round one.

While pretty much the rest of the first round may have been disappointing, I'm hoping that it at least sets up a very good second round.   We're kicking things off with a rematch of 2011's classic series between the Thunder and Grizzlies (which featured the superb triple overtime game).  Following that up with Pacers-Knicks, which I'm sure will provide plenty of flashbacks to their historic rivalry.  Spurs-Warriors has potential to be really fun.  And we cap it off with the Heat facing the Bulls, teams who have a nice history of tough games (including this year's great game where Miami's win-streak was ended).

There are two things would make round two even better.  One, no more injuries (additionally, the guys that are banged up become or stay capable of contributing).  Two, Derrick Rose returns.  Now I'm not one of those people saying he has to play.  If he's not comfortable yet, he shouldn't play.  Fans are fickle.  They may say he should play now, but if he came back and got hurt, then they would say he shouldn't have played.  Or if he doesn't play, but goes on to continue having a great career, no ones really going to care about him sitting out.  Perceptions change (just ask LeBron).  So I'm not saying I think he's ready to play; I'm just hoping that he is (A surprise return in game 3 would be especially fun. Chicago would go insane).

As it is, round two has a lot of potential to be great.  Let's just hope that, unlike round one, the potential is actually realized.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Chael Sonnen versus himself

After losing to Jon Jones, Chael Sonnen hinted that he was probably going to retire.  He said that there's no point in fighting, if you can't work your way to a title fight.  Unless he was actually planning on retiring, that was a dumb thing to say.  He put himself in a no-win situation, because now he's either forced to do something he doesn't want to do (retire) or something he said he wasn't going to do (continue fighting without contending).  He boxed himself into a corner.

Or did he?

Maybe there's actually a way Sonnen could capitalize on what he said, instead of backtracking from it.  Right now, Sonnen's in this middle ground where he's not close to a title shot and he might not be close to retirement.  So if he can't fight to prove he's a contender, why not fight to prove that he's not ready to retire?  How he should do that is by putting his career on the line.  He should announce that he will in fact retire...once he's beaten.

Sonnen has said he doesn't really have any interesting fights at Middleweight.  That's true.  But by putting his career on the line, it wouldn't be Chael Sonnen vs. Mark Munoz or Vitor Belfort; it would be Chael Sonnen vs. his career.  It's perfect, because it provides a built-in angle to promote his fights.  He doesn't have to be promoted as a contender, nor does he have to be relegated to being a gatekeeper.  It's just about him trying to save his career.

The irony is that it's not only the best way to keep him relevant outside of the title picture, but it's also his best (and probably only) path back into it.  Imagine the buzz it would create if he put together a winning streak.  Every win would raise the stakes for his next fight; and it could do the seemingly impossible and make the prospect of Sonnen fighting for a title actually interesting (not to mention that it could actually set up the fight Sonnen proposed once upon a time: title vs. career).  I think it would sell too, because it wouldn't be about Sonnen facing Silva (assuming Silva was still the champion).  It would be about Sonnen facing the ultimate stakes a fighter ever could: he'd either reaching the highest point of his career or the end of it.  No middle ground.  It would truly be "go big or go home".

Unfortunately, Sonnen's already basically backtracked on his retirement by calling out Wanderlei Silva (just as Dave Doyle predicted).  But if he doesn't want to fully undermine his post-fight comments, and would rather capitalize on them, all he has to do is put his career on the line.

The key to keeping Chael Sonnen's career relevant is for him to risk ending it.