While there are a lot of things to talk about in sports that are pretty heavy, we're going to leave Mr. Sterling out of this. What erupted this weekend isn't news. He is an awful excuse for a human being, and this is just more proof of that.
Instead, we're going to talk about something much more uplifting and hopeful. As you might be able to see on the right, I* went to a Blue Jackets game a couple years ago. Let's get the good out of the way first. Despite our car being broken into and having our iPods and GPS stolen, it was a wonderful trip. The arena was amazing, it was set into a nice little district, and it should be an amazing All Star host next year. I'm giving some good, hard thought about making the trip over to some of the festivities. The team, though, was just garbage, and it has continued to be a mess in Columbus until they were unceremoniously booted from the Western Conference. Most would have probably said that the West was getting the best of the Columbus-for-Winnipeg deal.
*Along with a whole host of other people.
But, here we are, just one season into the trade, and Columbus is not only in the playoffs, but giving the Penguins everything they can handle. As I've professed on this blog before, I don't watch very much Eastern Conference hockey and certainly don't follow it as closely as I probably should. Just as in years past, though, I know somebody who pays as much attention to the East as I do to the West. And he's a Penguin fan to boot, so he's gotten to see the rise of the Blue Jackets especially close. So, in nice list format, here are five reasons why Columbus should be awfully excited about their team, both this year and in the near future.
For many who do not watch the NHL’s Eastern Conference, it may come as a surprise to see the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It may come as an even bigger surprise to see them putting up a heckuva fight against the top seeded Pittsburgh Penguins. However, the Blue Jackets should not be overlooked. They are a very young, very talented team. We have seen the emergence of a few stars for the Columbus squad in this opening series.
1. We are seeing a superstar in the making.
Twenty-one year-old Ryan Johansen has been emerging as a superstar this season for the Blue Jackets. He has carried the Blue Jackets offensively all season long, and he continues to produce in the postseason. Johansen scored a career high 33 goals this season, while also dishing out 30 assists (also a career high). This was the breakout season the Blue Jackets have been waiting for from their fourth overall pick in the 2010 draft. This is only Johansen’s third season in the NHL, and it looks like he may have a very bright future ahead of him. In order to make a serious run in the playoffs, you need your superstars to be superstars, and that is exactly what Johansen has been doing for Columbus. He has produced 6 points (2G-4A) in the first five games of the series.
2. Columbus’ relentless forecheck.
Columbus relies heavily on their forechecking to create plays. They like to get the puck in deep and play behind the net. So far this strategy has proven to be successful against the Penguins who are more of a skill team rather than a physical forechecking team. Not to mention that Marc-Andre Fleury has had his fair share of struggles handling the puck (which was prominently displayed in Game 4 in Columbus). The Blue Jackets forecheck has caused headaches for many teams, because their physical play wears down a defense. Oftentimes if the defense retrieves the puck, they are forced to make a play they may not be comfortable with and end up turning the puck over in their own zone. That has been the case against the Penguins. The Penguins defensemen have been relatively successful retrieving the puck from the Columbus dump-ins, but the Blue Jackets forechecking has caused quite a few turnovers that have led to easy tip-in goals. This is how a tough forward like Boone Jenner has been able to score goals in each of his last three games and have a 5-game point streak going. If they continue to play physical and force turnovers, the Blue Jackets may find themselves going deep into this Stanley Cup Playoffs.
3. Sergei Bobrovsky
Of course, a hot goaltender makes all the difference in the Stanly Cup Playoffs, and right now Sergei Bobrovsky is playing pretty well. Sure he lost his last game, but he saved 96% of the shots he faced. It is difficult to win a hockey game when you allow the opponents to rifle 51 shots at your goaltender. And sure Bobrovsky did not have a playoff win coming into the series against the Penguins, but he has experience. That is something that the Blue Jackets will find valuable moving forward, even beyond this season. It should not be overlooked that Blue Jackets have last year’s Vezina Trophy winner and Russian Olympian between the pipes. Bobrovsky has good pedigree and is able to keep Columbus in most games. Playing against Pittsburgh’s high-octane offense has not seemed to faze him much. He seems pretty composed handling the puck and has not given up many soft goals, something I’m sure a lot of Penguins fans would love to see from their goaltender.
4. Coaching familiarity.
A lot has been made of how well both coaches know each other. Scouting can be a big part of a series, and so far both Byalsma and Richards have done well playing the proverbial, “game within a game.” There is a long history between Penguins coach Dan Byalsma and the Blue Jackets’ Todd Richards. Both worked in the Penguins organization starting out, and it was Todd Richards that saw head coaching potential in Dan Byalsma. Richards was named the head coach of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Baby Penguins (the AHL affiliate of the Penguins) in the summer of 2006. His first task was to hire an assistant coach. That coach would be Dan Byalsma. Richards noted that the two meshed well since Byalsma was a defensive forward in his playing days and Richards was an offensive defenseman. They would eventually reach the Calder Cup finals in 2008 and compile a record of 98-49-13. And of course, Byalsma returned the favor this year by selecting Richards as an assistant to Team USA at the Sochi Olympics. Many believe that if Richards would have stayed one more year at SWB, he would be coaching the two-headed monster of Malkin and Crosby and have his name on the Stanley Cup instead of Byalsma, but that’s not the path that was meant to be. But the two still stay in touch, and their familiarity with one another has been on display as they play the match-up game. So far Richards has been able to keep Pittsburgh’s star players in check. Crosby and Malkin have not scored a goal in this series, and a lot of that is due to the match-ups that Richards has thrown out against Pittsburgh’s top line.
5. The Fifth Line
Did you hear the Columbus crowd during those home playoff games? You would have thought this was for the Stanley Cup rather than a first round match-up. Columbus’ fan base has been hungry for playoff hockey for a while, and the Fifth Line, as they are called, did not disappoint. As the announcers pointed out before the game, the fans created an intimidating atmosphere for the Penguins, and it showed early. The Blue Jackets scored two quick goals. If the fans can keep their energy level up and make the trip to Pittsburgh, they may be able to carry their team to the next round. This could also make for a great atmosphere for next year’s All Star game which will be held in Columbus.
No matter what the outcome, the Blue Jackets should be proud of where they are as a young franchise. They have some great young talent in Columbus and have built a loyal fan base that will rally around the team. You can’t ask for much more than that. I would expect Columbus to make this whole playoffs thing an annual event for the next few upcoming seasons. And if you don’t normally watch these guys play, you should at least tune in to hear the fans at Nationwide during the playoffs.
What a difference a half makes.
I was about ready to give up on this Pacer team. They trailed at halftime, they generally looked like the same team that had completely fallen apart over the last month.* I was at the end of my rope and seriously considering giving up on watching the rest of this round of the playoffs, with the thought being there wouldn’t be a second round to worry about. I kept with the game, though, because the Hawks were only up four at half, and the Pacers had made a bit of a run.
*With the exception of Luis Scola. Rediscovering his jump shot in a big way is the only thing that kept the team in the game in the first half.
In the span of about two minutes from the start of the third quarter, things really felt like November all over again. I have no idea what Frank Vogel or the team said in the locker room, but something finally clicked. The defense looked like what this team claimed to be starting last year, which led to easy baskets. And when the Pacers did have to set up an offense, the ball moved, people made cuts, and it just looked like extremely good, solid, fundamental basketball.
Long story short, the second half is what I expected this Pacer team to look like in the playoffs, and if they had played like that the whole game, it probably would have been a fifty point win. If they had generally played like that since the All Star Break, they would have had the top seed wrapped up back in, what, March? Maybe even February? I don’t want to get too bogged down on the frustration, though. The team is not in a bad place right now, and if they’ve rediscovered themselves the same way Scola did, all will be forgiven.
Of course, not all of this on the Pacers. Over the last two and a half games against Atlanta, the Pacers defense was not good. There’s no two ways about that. But you have to give the Hawks credit: they took advantage of all those looks. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but it sure felt like they shot at least 75% against the Pacers. You wouldn’t expect a team to shoot as well in warm ups as the Hawks had been shooting against the Pacers. Water finally found its level in the second half last night, though. Of course, the Pacers forced the Hawks to take worse and more contested shots, but even the open looks stopped falling for them. The whistles evened out, though as Conrad Brunner pointed out on Twitter, the whistles tend to break for the more aggressive team, and that was certainly the Pacers in the second half.
It should also be pointed out that this happened without David West and Lance Stephenson having particularly good games. West again got into foul trouble, while Lance was just generally ineffective. Those are things that I don’t foresee becoming normal. I didn’t like Lance’s body language when he came out of the game, but I’ll chalk it up to frustration more than pouting until I see reason to believe otherwise. Roy Hibbert also didn’t have a great game, but unlike Mike & Mike this morning, I really don’t have a problem with that. I don’t expect much out of Roy this series, and that’s not a knock on him.* It’s purely a match up thing. The Hawks are almost purely an outside team, relying heavily on stretch bigs to open up the inside for a slashing Jeff Teague for all their inside offense. Having bigs on the outside, at least in the pros, forces Big Roy to go play defense on the perimeter, which is plainly not his skillset, nor should anybody really want it to be. Pulling him away from the basket makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to defend the rim, which is where his strength is. It is also going to really cut down on his rebounding, which was admittedly already floundering. If you had Roy around the basket, you risk illegal defense calls and wide open looks from bigs who can shoot. All in all, this whole series is just a lose-lose for Hibbert. Basically, as long as they’re playing the Hawks, I’m going to take whatever I can get out of Roy as a plus and just move on. When he gets to match up against Nene and Gortat,** I’ll worry about it a little more.
*There are plenty of reasons to get on Roy for his play as of late, and people certainly have.
**Which, on that note, what about those Wizards! Maybe the Pacers won’t have such a rough path to the conference finals after all, according to all the pundits.
If the Pacers really did find the mythical playoff switch we’ve all heard so much about, this series is as good as over. If they play like that, Atlanta just doesn’t have the horses to keep up, no matter where they play. I would like to think that the road might be a great place for the team to solidify that great half. No stress of managing friends and family at home, you don’t have to get the local media crush on top of the national media duties. Hell, I’m sure even their neighbors or anybody they run into anywhere in the city has been giving them the business for how they’ve been playing lately. Taking a few days in Atlanta to chill in the hotel and whatnot might be the perfect incubator to pull this team together again.
I would love to believe that. However, as nice as that sounds, I’ve seen this team on the road lately. It’s not been pretty. The fans might be happy about last night, but I don’t know if anybody will be truly back on the bandwagon until they see this team do it on the road. What better chance than Thursday? And, hey, while you’re at it, you might as well win on Saturday, too.
And then if you defend home court again, you win the series 4-1. You want all the question marks to go away? That would be an awfully good start.
So, this weekend was exactly the sort of disaster I didn’t want to see. The Blackhawks are down two to nothing after a pair of overtime losses. The Pacers dropped their opening game thanks to just a terrible third quarter. I fell asleep before the third period of the first Blackhawk game, and didn’t see the second one because I was at the Pacer game. So, frankly, I don’t feel like I can speak very well to what’s gone wrong on the ice.
Even though I’ve watched much more of them, I’m also not so sure I can speak all that strongly to what’s gone wrong wrong on the hardwood, either.
Here’s the short version of what I saw Saturday night from the balcony.* The first quarter was a bit sluggish, but there was some good signs from Roy Hibbert scoring early and George Hill looking for his own offense. Sure, the team lost that quarter, but there was nothing to be too concerned about at that time. The second quarter went well until the end. The bench especially looked pretty good in getting the lead back for the Pacers. The third quarter went dismally. Uneven whistles and shoddy rebounding didn’t help the cause, but the defense looked disorganized, and the Hawks hit just about every open look they got.** The fourth quarter was marginally better, but the Pacers just couldn’t seem to make up any ground. The seats were starting to empty in our section pretty much from the start of the fourth quarter. I held on for about half of that quarter before my frustration was just too much. Apparently things did go better for the Pacers after that, as they did actually win that quarter and make a fourth quarter twenty point deficit into only an eight point loss. Not a huge victory, but we’re to the point where we have to appreciate the little things.
*The Fieldhouse really is a great arena, I don’t feel like there really is a bad seat in the house. Here’s a cool picture my wife took from our seats.
**Not too dissimilar from what the Hawks did the last time they were in Indy. On the bright side, it only lasted a quarter and not the whole game.
Am I in panic mode just yet? Not, not really. Concerned? Oh, definitely. That was exactly what I didn’t want to see out of this team to open the playoffs. For all the noise the Pacers made about wanting home court because they knew they could defend it suddenly looks pretty thin. It doesn’t leave me feeling all warm and fuzzy about the upcoming rounds, either, assuming the Pacers do survive this series. That said, there were some things to take heart in. For one, clearly something positive happened in the fourth quarter to cut the lead. In previous games that got away, big leads stayed big. As somewhat mentioned before, George Hill did score twelve points, and on 5-for-8 shooting. Hill has hardly even gotten up shot attempts in the past several games. Yeah, he had a pretty horrendous looking three ball, but if he’s looking to shoot again, he’ll get that feel back quickly. As also mentioned earlier, the whistles felt awfully lopsided on Saturday, which especially caught up to David West. That ought to average out as well. This is also a team that typically hits its free throws. Of the 23 that were shot on Saturday, they missed seven. Not only does that happen to be nearly as much as they lost by, but also something else that surely will even out.
Of course things do have to get better. Hibbert’s legs still don’t look right to me, which probably explains getting blocked by Kyle Korver. Lance Stephenson let a nice second quarter run go to his head, which lead to a pretty inefficient stretch. 19 points, sure, but doing it on 8-for-18 shooting isn’t great. The same could be said of Paul George, shooting 6-for-18. And poor Luis Scola. He’s getting open looks, but he failed to hit any of them. None of them even looked particularly good from where we were sitting, either.
Of course there were dark spots. Losing an opening home game as a one seed is clearly not good. But it’s not the end of the world yet. I’m not the first to say it, but this team will be judged solely on how they do against Miami. If they don’t reach Miami or lose in that series, this season is nothing but an abject failure, and some big moves will probably be made. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but that’s how things work in the NBA these days. If the team struggles every round but still manages to squeak into the finals, though, there will be nothing but pride in this group. Those early round woes will be completely forgotten, and this will only be known as a Finals team, if not World Champions.
If you want to get to that level, though, you can’t be dropping many more games to lowly Atlanta Hawks.
Finally, the winter playoff season is here. In not so great news, the weather still feels much more wintery than it rightfully should for mid-April. I’ve written enough about the Pacers, so let’s take a bit to talk about the Blackhawks.
They’ll kick off their series against the Blues tonight in St. Louis. I don’t feel too badly about the Blackhawks, despite some scuffling at the end. For one, the Blackhawks’ slide was nothing compared to the Pacers’. Two, the big guns* are finally back on the ice and (presumably) healthy. That ought to be a heck of a lift for any team. That said, I do have my worries. Namely, the Blues are a hell of a team. They slid at the end, too, but I still am afraid of them for all the same reasons I still have faith in the Pacers.
*That would be Toews and Kane, if you’re unaware.
As a Blackhawk fan, though, I am just thankful to avoid the Avalanche. Of all the teams in hockey, Colorado seemed to be the one that Chicago was just absolutely unable to figure out. To put that confrontation off for a round is fine by me, even if it means welcoming in the Blues. And for all the talk about the Blackhawks getting healthy, the Blues seem to be trending the other way. Amongst others, I don’t believe the Blues will not have TJ Oshie* or David Backes available for at least the first game. That should give Blues fans plenty of reason to pause, especially knowing that their playoff history is not stellar to begin with.** The Blues might have home ice in this one, and they certainly earned it. But I’m not overly worried. With the injury situation on both sides, I’m thinking the Blackhawks will win this one fairly easily.
*Who you may remember almost single-handedly beating the Russians in the Olympics in the shootout.
**And that absolutely makes a difference. Watch Cubs playoff games. You can just feel the pressure crushing down on every pitch. It was especially bad in 2008, and the Cubs quickly found themselves swept by a Dodger team they seemingly had no trouble with during the regular season. The Blues, while not as tortured as the Cubs, have similarly never been able to break through, and last year’s first round collapse isn’t going to help matters.
Of course, Pittsburgh fans probably thought their Penguins would steamroll the Blue Jackets, and that turned out to be a little tougher than expected last night. Granted, the Penguins found a way, but Columbus sure seemed to make the point that they cannot be taken lightly.
On a somewhat related note, I do like this new playoff setup, but I have to wonder, how is this really any different than the rejected four conference alignment? So far as I can tell, the only real difference is it still sets in stone what the final four will be. The only real difference a four conference setup would make is to give the NHL more flexibility in how the playoffs can shake out. I wrote about it in some detail at the time it was proposed, and I stand by it. I can’t really see any downside, and I can certainly see a great upside, as you would gain more loyalty to your conference* in much the same way that college sports enjoy. The “SEC” chant springs to mind. What’s not to love about that?
*Baseball certainly has this in the NL/AL split, but for whatever reason, the powers that be seem hellbent on destroying it. Again, MLB, I am available to step in when Bud steps out. And do you really think George Will is the answer? He wasn’t in 1997, but the idea hasn’t died. As a bit of sidenote to the sidenote: as much as I have a hard time listening to George Will go on about much of anything, I did really enjoy Men at Work, which makes me want to pick up his new book about Wrigley.
I suppose I shouldn’t rock the boat too much, though. Whatever keeps the NHL actually, you know, playing hockey should be fine for me. There’s a reason they have a reputation for being the “labor issue” league.
The Pacers close out their season tonight with nothing on the line. No matter how things go down in Orlando, the Pacers will have the top seed. There is some argument that maybe the Heat are better off in the second position because of how the early round matchups work out. And maybe those pundits are right. But, frankly, I couldn’t care less. This season has been about one thing to this point, and that hasn’t changed. It’s beat Miami or bust. The Pacers have stumbled as of late, sure, but they looked a whole better on Sunday after a week of rest. And they’re going to be a lot more rested come playoff time.
All the starters are going to be resting tonight other than George Hill and Roy Hibbert, who Frank Vogel is looking to get into a rhythm. I think he might as well held out everybody. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody stepped in for Dan Dakich* and made the comment that, more than his head, Hibbert’s problem is his legs. I would tend to agree. He’s missing an awful lot at the rim and backing down from a lot of dunks. I suppose that could point to a lack of confidence in his head, but more than that, it tells me there’s a lack of confidence in his legs. He’s not getting the lift or drive he typically gets, so he’s not doing the things he typically does. Now, he has gotten some extra rest, and he and Hill** are not going to play the whole game. Combine that extra rest with the rest that comes along with waiting for the playoffs to start and just the general rest you get from the spread out schedule of the playoffs, and I really think you are going to see a team that looks a lot more like the team that started the year than the one that ended it.
*His father just died, and he gave a great eulogy for him on today’s show. I would suggest you find the podcast and give it a listen.
**Who I have also made the case is much more worn down than usual.
That team? The one that only lost a five games through the first two months of the season, and only one of those at home? That team looked pretty damn good. And, you know, this team is worn down a bit, but they’re not injured. Their biggest injury was CJ Watson, and he looked pretty damn good against the Thunder.* The Heat, on the other hand, can’t seem to count on Dwyane Wade, and I don’t see how that really changes for the playoffs. All the front line help they enlisted to counter Hibbert is out and not likely to return. Do I worry about the Hawks, even with what happened a couple Sundays ago? No, not particularly. Do I worry about either Chicago or Brooklyn? More than I do Atlanta, but I still have no doubt the Pacers can best them in four out of seven games. Especially with home court advantage, which the Pacers will enjoy against the Heat.
*If you’d like, you can throw Bynum in there. He admittedly looked pretty good when he did play. But I’ve been pretty strongly on record that he was never actually part of the plan here.
I wrote it a couple days ago, but I’ll write it again. Was this last month or so fun here in Pacerland? No, not really. But am I scared? No, not really. This team has been totally focused on the playoffs all year, and this team is only going to be judged with how things go in the playoffs. They know that, the fans know that, the media* knows it. And everybody is fine with that. If you really want to see how this team reacts, look at the games they played against better competition lately. They beat the Thunder. They lost the last game to the Heat, but outside the third quarter, they looked pretty good. They beat the Heat in a game that was early in this slide. They did manage to generally defend their home court, even if it was ugly at times.** Would I feel better if the Pacers had finished the season the way they started it? Sure, but I don’t feel half bad after watching them beat a very good Thunder team and break 100 doing it. If that doesn’t show you that this team can still win a championship (cough Greenie cough), then you haven’t been paying attention. Or paid too much attention to the last few weeks. Either way, have some balance, please.
*At least locally. I still don’t think national folks really know much of anything about the Pacers, even after this ascension.
**The game against the Spurs is an exception to all this, but the Spurs are damned good, too.
One more point, and one that I feel has been terribly overlooked by everybody. You might remember that Lance Stephenson has the most triple doubles in the league with five, and you might even remember that the last one came against the Thunder last Sunday. But you know what the biggest problem with this team was during the slump? They couldn’t score the ball, and that was mostly because the ball didn’t move. Too much dribbling, too many jump shots, too many quick shots. When this team was rolling along and looking like a legitimately good offensive team, the ball moved, the points were fairly evenly distributed, and everybody looked better for it. For me, Lance consistently putting up triple doubles or numbers close to it was the perfect sign of that early in the year. If there’s anybody on this team who is especially prone to not sharing the ball, it would be Lance. Those triple doubles, and assists in general, just plain dried up during this stretch. After watching the bench share the ball and making basketball look easy again, it seems to have sparked something. And that something was good for a triple double on Sunday against a very good Thunder team.
And, hey, the only other time the Pacers went to the finals, they were the top seed in the East. It’s all adding up for me. You can spout off about better matchups and all, but I’ll take these guys against anybody.
This was written before the Heat lost Monday's game, and before we knew the Heat would be resting their stars. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to posting it until after that game. It goes that way sometimes.
For all the stumbling and bumbling and other Chris Berman type of words you could apply the the Pacers recent play, it’s hard to be too upset with the results after yesterday’s big win against the Thunder. Has it been tough to watch? Absolutely. Are all the problems fixed? Undoubtedly not. But are there signs of hope? Aplenty.
Watching the bench pull out a big win against the Bucks* was the first sign. Not so much that the bench did pull out the win, though that was awfully nice. The bigger sign, to me, anyway, had to do with how the rest of the team reacted. You might remember that the game against the Hawks just before that was about as ugly as it could have been. It also featured a benched Roy Hibbert, who was, how to put this, very visibly unhappy with the decision. All the play and chatter leading up to that game pointed to a team that just flat out didn’t like or trust each other. When fan favorite Chris Copeland hit the game winner, though, you could just feel the team re-galvanizing. I mean, really, look at this and tell me you can’t feel it. To that point, Paul George posted a picture of a fishing trip he took with Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner the other day. It seemed like that happened fairly often in the early part of the season. Not so much lately. I’m sure weather played a role in that, too, but there may have been some underlying factors as well.
*Normally “big win” and “2014 Milwaukee Bucks” are not two things you would expect to go together. But given the timing of the game, the Heat graciously leaving the door open, and the fact the Pacer B-Team was playing, it was a much bigger, more interesting game than anybody would have rightfully expected back in December.
After that was Friday’s game against the Heat. Most have focused on the fact that the Pacers were not able to pull that game out along with the atrocious third quarter. And make no mistake about it, that third quarter was one of the worst displays of basketball I have seen out of any team on any level. But, look at the other three quarters. For 75% of that game, the Pacers more-or-less looked like the Pacers we had come to expect the first half of the season. No, they didn’t ultimately win, but you might remember how quickly the team cut the lead in half to open the fourth quarter. Thankfully, the Heat apparently used too much juice against the Pacers and again left the door open the next night. Just in time for the Thunder to come to town.
And, well, the Pacers answered the bell. The Thunder are a very good team. And they did not rest their starters, even though they didn’t have seeding to play for as far as I know. Russell Westbrook played over 30 minutes. Kevin Durant played over 40. If that’s resting your starters, I don’t think they know the meaning of “rest” in Oklahoma. No, this was a serious, playoff-type game, and both teams turned in a serious, playoff-type performance. And the Pacers came out on top, even breaking a hundred points in the process. Discounting the Milwaukee game that featured no starters, that had happened three whole times in the past month. Twice against Detroit and once against Philadelphia. Not exactly murderer’s row, even throwing the Bucks back in there. But they broke through yesterday against a top-half defense. And when things got tough at the end of the game, the team toughened up right with it. Big defensive plays* and hitting some clutch free throws, all things we hadn’t seen in recent weeks.
*And that three Durant hit at the end of the game was just ridiculous. Paul George did everything humanly possible to defend that three, and he had Durant shooting a turnaround, fadeaway three at the elbow. When that shot swished in, all you could do was laugh.
Some will probably be calling for George Hill’s job, and, I mean, it’s just inevitable. Pacer fans have never been happy with the point guard, at least going back to the Mark Jackson days. I would imagine people were complaining about Freddie Lewis back in the ABA days. As Frank Vogel said after the game, though, the decision to play CJ Watson down the stretch had a lot more to do with what Watson was doing as opposed to what Hill was not. And, well, it makes sense. While Watson has been hurt, the team has had no real choice but to log serious minutes on George Hill, who isn’t a pure point guard in the first place. For all the players that have been talked about needing rest, Hill is the one who truly has needed it the most. I don’t know if he took more than a couple minutes off in a second half during that whole stretch Watson was out. Of course he isn’t going to look as sharp as he did early in the year. And, well, with tired legs, his offense is inevitably going to suffer. Now that he might catch a breather once in a while, I expect to see him starting to look for his own offense more. And just in time, too, with the playoffs just a game away.
On the flip side of that, CJ Watson has to easily be the most rested regular-rotation player on the roster. He was out for what felt like forever,* and even when he briefly came back, he hadn’t played in back-to-back games in well over a month. He logically should have been primed for a huge game against Oklahoma City, who had been in their own fight for first with the Spurs. And, well, he looked pretty good, didn’t he?
*I’m sure that feeling was made much worse by the team’s performance without him.
So, yes, the last month or so has been pretty damned disheartening for the Pacers. But winning works wonders, and works it quick when your competition has been struggling just as badly. For all the stumbling along, the Pacers are still in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the East, which was their very publicly stated goal. They are just a win over Orlando on Wednesday from making that reality. It may actually come true as soon as tonight, if Washington can manage to beat the Heat. Which, well, the top seed looks particularly attractive this season. With the top seed, the Pacers would play Atlanta in the first round, which, to paraphrase Sports Illustrated, accidentally made the playoffs. The Heat would have to deal with a surprisingly spry Bobcats team. Now, I don’t think Charlotte will actually win that series, but they could well make it much tougher than expected for Miami. The second round looks a little dicier, with the Pacers having to tangle with either Chicago or Brooklyn, both teams that have come up much tougher than expected late in the season. Miami, on the other hand, would either get Toronto or Washington. Both teams I would really rather see. Why do we still bother with divisions in the NBA, again?
First things first, though. Let’s get this win on Wednesday and lock up the first big goal.
As most have probably heard by now, another famous professional wrestler is dead. This, in itself, is nothing too outrageous. Professional wrestlers seem to have a tendency to die rather young. This one did hit a little closer to home, though. Literally.
Most people I know are likely aware, but for those that aren’t, Jim Hellwig was not only a native Hoosier, but from my particular patch of Indiana. Despite being billed from Parts Unknown and Queens, NY, he was born in Crawfordsville. You might recognize this as the home of Wabash College. He went to high school at Fountain Central, just outside of Veedersburg. That, along with Attica and Covington, make up the bulk of Fountain County’s population. He also spent a year at Indiana State, down in Terre Haute. Which, as a piece of trivia, is where the Ultimate Warrior made his WWF debut.
There is a lot about the Ultimate Warrior that was a bit nuts, but purely in knowing where he was from, I had to keep a sense of awe about him. Making it big in the world is impressive enough when talking about the state of Indiana, as I talked about yesterday. To do coming from Fountain County? Well, don’t ever let it be said that you can’t make it because you come from a county with all of 18,000 people in it. The odds might be long, but play your cards right and catch the right breaks, it can happened.
All that said, it was a bit of a shame that Warrior* was the pride of Fountain County, because he was absolutely crazy. Go through and read the stories about him today and in the past several years. As crazy as he was in the ring, it seems it was worse out of it. Go read his TV Tropes page for further confirmation. The dude was off his rocker pretty well from day one. His time living the life of a bodybuilder and a wrestler surely didn’t help that.
*As Hellwig somewhat famously legally changed his name.
His brand of wrestling was rather limited, too. He was every bit as strong as the puffed up physique would suggest, but that was about his only attribute. Most of his matches were over and done with pretty quickly. For one, he couldn’t keep the pace of the character up for very long. Not many could, but most could have probably drug it out longer than Hellwig did. Secondly, his wrestling arsenal was limited at best. So he was more or less stuck with squash matches. Those certainly have their place, but those are going to get boring after so long, and certainly don’t lend themselves to the type of bigger storytelling you would like to see from the face of your company. And make no mistake, Ultimate Warrior was supposed to take over as the top dog after Wrestlemania VI. His crazed mic skills and distinctive get-up was good enough to get him that over with crowds. Unfortunately, his limited wrestling skill set and limited people skills ultimately* doomed his time in the WWF. And WCW, for that matter.
*No pun intended.
As has also been recounted everywhere, it can’t be any surprise that all these wrestlers keep dying. It’s a bit of a risky profession as it is. Taking all the different bumps and jumps without any pads can’t be good for anybody’s health. Just because the winner is planned doesn’t mean the pain is fake. Or the concussions. Take the whole “concussion crisis” of football and imagine it without the pads and no offseason. And then add (even more) drugs, both of recreational and performance-enhancing types. It’s really more of a wonder that any wrestlers get to enjoy old age at all.
How do you fix it without blowing up the “sport?”* I don’t know. Just as I’m not entirely sure what you do about football and its problems. I’m sure having some sort of off-season would help. Not, necessarily, that all of wrestling would have to take a few months off, but have some sort of rolling “inactive list.” Just some way to manage the amount of time wrestlers put in the ring to limit, as best you can, their exposure to injury. It would seem that wrestling, along with baseball,** has done about all it can to filter out the steroids from their scene. And other drugs, for that matter. Jeff Hardy, for example, did not lose his WWE spot because of a lack of talent.
*I put this in quotation marks solely because of the predetermined outcomes. I don’t really watch wrestling. I might watch a little bit if I stumble on it, but I wouldn’t count myself as a fan. But, for whatever reason, reading the storylines and the metagaming of it fascinates me. Also, I absolutely respect these guys as athletes, even if what they’re doing is more athletic (and violent) ballet than legitimate competition.
**The NFL and NBA just seem to kind of put their head in the sand about PEDs for the most part. It’ll catch up with them eventually, I’m sure.
I don’t know what more professional wrestling can really do. I’m sure they can offer better healthcare and benefits and that sort of thing, but that seems to be more about managing symptoms than it does with avoiding the injuries in the first place. Which seems like the better goal. But maybe an impossible one. As it is, the Warrior will take his place, along with Macho Man Randy Savage, as childhood heroes taking their rest a little earlier than planned. I don’t imagine we’ve seen the last of these sorts of deaths. I just hope the WWE can get around to honoring them all before it’s too late.
This blog turned three on Saturday. It’s a bit strange to think out. On the one hand, three years doesn’t seem like a very long time. On the other hand, that’s most of a college career. What have I built in this time? Well, I’m not really sure, honestly.
I described this blog in Ireland as “somewhat mildly successful.” This was mostly joking, but not altogether false. I haven’t seen a dime from this blog, and until last week, it didn’t seem to be making any larger inroads.* I don’t think anybody would say this blog has been a smashing success. But a failure? Not by a long shot. I pull in a few thousand readers a week from what sure seems to be, by the analytics, a pretty diverse audience. I get to write about whatever interests me every day (or as often as I want, anyway). It’s a nice little outlet. For a blog with no expectations or goals,** it’s hard to complain about that three years later.
*I’m still debating about the Answers.com opportunity.
I had a couple other fits and starts with blogs before, but they never really got off the ground. They all died just a few posts in. When I started this one, I had a foggy notion that if I wrote something every day, it would have a better chance at surviving than trying to keep to a collegiate schedule.* It took me a little while to find a groove, as I’m sure the archives will show. Sure, there were some pretty big, solid pieces early on, but of course the ideas were untapped at that point. You could see the dip fairly quickly. But I pressed on, and eventually I’ve found a good rhythm between recap posts and more thoughtful pieces. The idea when I launched this really was to be somewhere around 90% baseball posts, either by talking about what was currently going on or by digging through the game’s rich history. Clearly, that didn’t really pan out. But, I don’t feel like the blog suffers for it. If anything, it’s all the stronger for it, as readers don’t necessarily know what they’re in for day-to-day. Hell, I don’t know what I’m in for day-to-day.
*That would be either MWF or TT.
It’s been a nice run so far. From what started as an idle diversion to make the work day go faster has turned into something slightly more than that, and I think produced some pretty decent writing, all things considered. Here’s to another three years!
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers. But wherever you go, there is always a Hoosier doing something very important there.” One of those places was TV, where a Hoosier, in maybe somewhat unlikely fashion, became nothing less than a Late Night Legend. And now, after 33 years as a TV talk show host, David Letterman is calling it a career.
To me, for whatever reason, whenever I read that Vonnegut quote, my mind immediately goes to Letterman. If I had to guess, I would say he was probably the first celebrity that I really and truly understood hailed from Indiana. I still feel confident in saying that Michael Jackson is still the most famous Hoosier ever, but Letterman just might be the most famous living Hoosier now.
Most tributes to Letterman really hit hard on his NBC show following Carson and how groundbreaking it was. I have no doubt that’s true, but I’m simply too young to really remember that. My memories of Letterman do start pretty young, though. I remember working all the angles I knew how to work as a first or second grader to get my parents* to let me stay up to watch him. A lot of the jokes were a bit over my head at that age, but even at that age, there were things to learn from Dave. If I were really pressed, I would probably Letterman as my biggest comedic influence. Oh, sure, there are other big ones. Monty Python in particular was an enormous influence throughout middle and high school. But as far as crafting a very dry, very ironic sense of framing and timing, that came from Dave. I definitely catch myself using the same sort of smug demeanor in writing or conversation. I have no doubt that came from Dave.
*My dad, mostly, on this one.
There are tons of words to be written on David Letterman, and you’re probably better off reading those words from people who are much more knowledgeable with Dave’s full career arc from channel 13 weatherman to TV royalty than you are from me. But I will say this, and it goes back to that Vonnegut quote. Sure, it seems there are Hoosiers doing big, important and impressive things everywhere. Except for, you know, in Indiana. It really is a shame, but it seems like if anybody wants to gain the audience they need, the first step is to get the hell out. The Jacksons didn’t stick around Gary any longer than they had to. Letterman mostly made his name in New York. Vonnegut’s literary circles were centered in New York, and he wrote somewhat extensively about why he had to leave Indiana in Palm Sunday.* There was a time Guns N’ Roses was arguably the biggest rock band in the world, and Blind Melon was a big draw in their own right. None of that was going to happen in Lafayette, they both had to flee to L.A. for that to happen.
*And, really, for all his great fiction writing, Palm Sunday is my favorite Vonnegut work and the one I find myself coming back to the most often.
It’s just too bad. I am a big fan of this state and of Indianapolis, but there just doesn’t seem to be any way to truly catch fire and reach the deserved levels by staying around here. I wish that weren’t so. I wish I knew what it would take to fix it. It sure seems like in this digital age there should be some way to stop the brain drain, or at least slow it. But, well, no luck so far. Would Letterman or Vonnegut or any famous Hoosier so far have been able to find success today without leaving home? Could they find the right audience or make the right connections in the heartland? I don’t know, but we need some people smarter than I am to start working on it. Whether it’s a cultural thing or a logistical thing, it’s just a damn shame that Indiana produces these sorts of people who can’t seem to get anywhere at home.
So, I'm just watching the Cubs finally blow somebody else out instead of having it done to them. It was a nice feeling, a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. As is not unusual for a baseball game, there is some time to fill, and what a better, more delightful way to fill it with shots of the crowd? Oh, look, there's a lovely elderly lady. Let's see what she's doing with her day at the venerable old ballpark.
WHAT IN GOD'S NAME IS THAT ABOMINATION?!?!?!?
Really, this raises far more questions than it answers. It was even worse in motion, as it certainly appeared as if the lady was holding a conversation with the puppet. It also kind of looks like the puppet* has its own seat. Did the puppet have its own ticket? That's. . .well, that would be a little different. But, I can't blame an usher for letting it pass. We learned about denying non-humans admittance, I think. The younger lady was pretty clearly enjoying some sort of mixed drink. Judging by the look on her face, she enjoyed more a few of those drinks. And, honestly, if I had to sit beside an almost certainly crazed senior citizen carrying on a conversation with her puppet** for a whole afternoon in a lopsided game, I would probably have a few drinks, too.
*I'm assuming it's a puppet, anyway, and not just a really creepily proportioned person in an even creepier suit.
**Who clearly was relaying what Ron Santo was saying about the game through his headphones. And don't try to tell me Ronnie is dead. Look at that thing's eyes. Clearly summoning dark spirits from beyond is old hat. You can't convince me channeling one of the most beloved Cubs ever to continue calling games from beyond is out of its grasp.
As terrifying as that thing is, though, I would be lying if I said I wasn't fascinated. Is that puppet and its minion regulars at games? Is this thing in the crowd more often than it's not, and somehow we just never knew? WGN and CSN-Chicago would be doing us a grave disservice if this thing didn't regularly grace our screens all season long if that is the case.
Upon conclusion of the game, it would seem that these two ladies were at the game together, as they were splitting a W flag to sing along with "Go Cubs Go." Which would probably just make me drink harder, honestly. I wonder how that conversation went. "Hey, Grandma, I got tickets to the game on Sunday. Want to go?" "Sure, honeybuns, let me get Joey dressed up for the game and I'll be right there!" Tell me you wouldn't immediately be counting out your alcohol budget and seeing what you could squeeze out of it at that point. There is no way you can't tell me that with a straight face unless A) you don't at all budget your alcohol at games or B) are a ventriloquist.
But, hey, the Cubs won, so maybe we're onto to something here.
Plus, we know he has anger issues, as he led the majors in ejections in his one full season of managing. No wonder Theo was so eager to move on.