Sunday, December 4, 2016

Playground Pick 'Em: Live-Action 'What If's


Even imaginary fights are enough to give enthusiasts fits. When you are arguing about boxing, the first thing you do is pick apart the other guy.

One of the knocks on Lennox Lewis is that some of his career wins are suspect. By the time Tyson-Lewis happened, Mike was on the downside. Lennox's victory over Klitchsko was stopped because of cuts, in a fight that many believed the Russian would win. He turned down a reported $20 million for a rematch, retiring instead. The books only say that Lewis won, and the fact that he beat a younger fighter like Klitchsko, who was just as powerful and tactical, is a tick in the positive column.

As for Ali, his critics believe that time has made him seem more invincible than he really was. Film reveals some flaws in his technique, like his occasional half-hearted glove position after jabs. Ali did encounter trouble against quick, strong fighters who kept him close, like Joe Frazier.

Round 11:
The fists that punished other big men, including Foreman and Frazier, are still at work, swift as ever. Lewis backpedals, brushes the ropes, and sits down. One boot rises as he half-rolls on his back, and the photos of that instant become the collective image of the fight. He rises at the count of five, but doesn't respond to the referee's satisfaction. The fight is stopped by way of technical knockout(TKO).

It became obvious that Ali is too quick and strong for Lewis--a combo that the Brit cannot solve tonight. In the end, it is Muhammad Ali's night. Lennox's jab posed no difficulty for him, and Ali was simply lighter on his feet. He faced a few men of Lennox's size and intelligence, and almost always beat them. But Lewis never boxed such a combination of strength, intelligence, and grace.

Much was made of the strength of Lewis, who is almost thirty pounds heavier, but it is now clear that Ali's power was underrated. True punching power isn't just about physicality--it is timing and accuracy. Muhammad Ali may have been the best ever at picking his spots. No rope-a-dope needed.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

4 reasons the 2016 Warriors would lose to the 1996 Bulls (and 2 reasons they would win)

Once the 2015-16 Warriors lost to Cleveland in the NBA Finals, diehard fans were forced to unfog their glasses. That Golden State team was not the best in history. 

They did not win the title. Also, the Warriors lost a 3-1 lead in the Finals. At best, they deserve a place in the conversation following such a collapse. But because they didn’t win it all, it’s a game of musical chairs the Warriors cannot win in a serious discussion.

During the Warriors’ record-breaking season, people said things like “this is the best team I’ve ever seen.” Perhaps another and better description would be the most aesthetically pleasing team. Steph Curry and friends could look oh-so pretty.

Golden State does own the single season record, with 73 wins. That’s different than the ‘best team ever’ or even ‘best regular season team ever.’ BEST and MOST are different words. You can get a dictionary and see for yourself. The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls have a far better claim to both 'best evers'. Why? Because though the Bulls won one fewer game, they won the actual title. It’s difficult to get around that fact.

Some longtime observers might include the 2001 or 1987 L.A. Lakers in the best-ever convo, along with a few other champions.

The Warriors’ eventual record, with regular season plus playoffs, turned out to be 88-16 (.846).

The 1996 Bulls combined record was 87-13 (.870).

Like any historical matchup, we’ll never really know what would happen. But like the others, it is entertaining to imagine a series between these teams. Golden State gets home court advantage by way of their regular season record. The Bulls get to play in the style which they’re accustomed; an age when the game was more physical.

Game 1: The Bulls storm out, intent on proving that their team is better top to bottom. Strong benches don’t matter a lot here—can your starting five beat mine? With both teams at true Finals strength, season fatigue and nicks and bruises and all, the match ups tonight look about the same throughout this series.

The key is at the forward position, between Scottie Pippen and Klay Thompson, a theme that affects the whole series in hindsight. Pippen is capable of steering Thompson around the court on defense, and saves his energy on the other end. Many times he acts as a decoy on offense, to keep Thompson, also an outstanding defender, out of play.

Andrew Bogut and Luc Longley are a wash. “Bogut is much better than Longley,” some argue, and maybe it’s true over a season. But some of Longley’s unexpected playoff appearances, like in Game 3 against the Seattle Sonics in the ’96 Finals, have confounded better players than Bogut. Bulls win and lead the series 1-0.

Game 2: The “microwave factor” is in effect. There are games when everything a team wants will join together fitly. When that happens with Golden State, they look like the Globetrotters, swishing thirty footers like no one else is in the gym. The basketball flicking around the court like a pinball, in search of the open man.

But 2016 NBA is like a finely-tuned engine. A Lamborghini Venano to 1996 NBA's muscular Ford GT. The thing about those supercars is, minor issues will drastically affect performance. High-maintenance on more than one level. And like a Lambo, 2016 NBA players have been conditioned out of physical play on the perimeter. 

Steph Curry is the perfect player for such a time. Players are commodities and brands, and too much physicality might keep someone out of the game. Bad look for the league.

Also, though they are still important, big men have been legislated out of the game. Guard play dictates success overwhemingly.

This was no accident. All of the major sports moved toward a sleekness, a mindset where the product's imaging matters as much as the game and the players. 

The home team gets the refereeing of its own era. Golden State takes advantage of the Bulls' early foul trouble. Even so, sometimes there is simply nothing you can do with Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green in lockstep, not even these Bulls. This is one of those nights. Warriors win and tie the series at 1-1.

Game 3: Physicality vs. skills is the argument for tonight’s game, the first in Chicago. The skills of shooting and dribbling is thought to have taken a quantum leap in the 2010s. Unfortunately for the Warriors, the Bulls has skills, too—and they are tougher. The only player Golden State has who qualifies as anything of an enforcer is Draymond, and Chicago does not fear him.

Curry was projected as the protoype for Generation Blech. We are meant to keep watch for a thousand little Stephs, mesmerized into idolizing Curry. Trick-dribbling and three point tossing into the future. But the finer points of basketball aren’t that superior to twenty years prior. Maybe we confuse improved technology with improved everything. “What, you want to watch Charles Oakley in 2016?” one sports radio talking head sneered. “I want to see skilled players out there, not bangers.”

Except those bangers can knock your skilled one down and keep him mentally and physically off. You say you don’t want to watch that kind of basketball? You got no choice. Buck up, Sally. Bulls win and lead the series 2-1.
Oscar Robertson's claim that more physical play would slow Steph Curry was widely mocked by Sports Talking Head Central. But the Big O was vindicated as Curry became fatigued late season.

Game 4: Turning point in the series. This is not a “must-win” scenario. That would be Game 5, back in California, if Golden State loses tonight. The star of the Bulls decides that it is a good idea. Michael Jordan wears Steph Curry out. There is a microwave factor… and then, there is an MJ factor.

It’s not always about scoring bunches of points. It is an all-around domination of skill and will. It is knowing the moment, and better, knowing how to seize that moment, that intangible substance. Nerds and people with too much time on their hands can crunch all the analytics they want. In a time when players run untouched on the perimeter, Curry grasps the moment well. But no one does it better than Mike. Bulls win and lead the series, 3-1.

Game 5: Back at home, Golden State is focused and yes, taking it one game at a time. Anything is possible. GSW got beat by LeBron and the Cavaliers three straight games in the Finals. Maybe lightning could strike twice (better, thrice).

People think of Draymond Green as mercurial and talkative. Troublemaker and instigator. A reckless punter of other men’s inseams. Rodman looks him up and down and thinks, “Amateur.” Draymond plays the hardworking everyman card, but the bright spotlight reveals him as Rodman-esque. The problem is that he still thinks we’re fooled.

Rodman, on the other hand, is always open about his entertaining buffoonery. He is flagrant with his crazy and serves an agenda. He is more honest than Draymond. Even Rodman’s arms-out-mouth-agape denials to the referees always contained a kind of winking smirk. He knew that you knew that he knew it was all a game, an experiment on his part.

“Was the rest of this simply designed as a marketing aspect?” media personality Jim Gray asked Rodman once.

Rodman said, “You don’t market stuff like this... the only reason people like this is because of who I am. I’m a basketball player.”

Draymond Green is neutralized by Dennis Rodman throughout the series—with the exception of tonight. He draws the Worm outside with three pointers, then transforms into a point forward. He has so far been frustrated, and this triple-double feels good. Warriors win and trail the series, 3-2.

Game 6. Chicago hosts. Phil Jackson and his protégé Steve Kerr engage in what is most definitely a “must win.” The student cannot best the teacher this time. Golden State was the king of small ball in the seventy-three win. However, ’96 Chicago did it first.

A locked-in Bulls squad wins this series, four games to two (4-2). No one on the Warriors has the indomitable will of Michael Jordan. No, we cannot quantify that. But those of us who were there, we have eyes.

Draymond Green