Thursday, May 29, 2014

Heat-Pacers Game Five--Rigged? You Bet

What in the hell is the NBA doing?

The league is constantly trying to skirt charges that games are rigged. But last night's game, which was a travesty of officiating, is just fodder for conspiracy theorists. The Pacers, at home, nipped the Heat, 93-90, to extend the Eastern Conference Finals to six games. Had the Heat, with a 3-1 lead, won last night, the series would have been over, robbing the NBA of revenue from a sixth or possibly seventh game. But the Pacers couldn't do it alone. Their offense is so pathetic it managed a mere 11 points in the second quarter. To win that game, they needed help from the officials. And, man, did they ever get it.

The recipe for beating the Heat is simple--just take Miami's superman LeBron James out of the game by putting him in foul trouble. With him playing limited minutes--and playing cautiously--the Heat is just an ordinary, very beatable team. In just over 24 foul-plagued minutes, James had only seven points. If he had his usual 25 points and was able to play his normal all-out, bruising defensive game, the Heat would have cruised to victory and the Pacers would be on vacation now instead of preparing for a sixth game in Miami.

The refs got rid of James early. He picked up his fourth foul a few seconds into the second half. With about eight minutes left in the third quarter he was awarded his fifth, diving for a loose ball. Right then, he was finished for the night, mostly riding the bench or operating tentatively, afraid to drive or play tough defense.What's worse, that fifth foul was flagrantly bogus.. Even the TV announcers questioned it. The NBA's unwritten rule is to make calls in favor of its biggest stars, to keep them from fouling out and to allow them to play with abandon. So it looks ridiculously fishy when the best basketball player on the planet, who is rarely in foul trouble in playoff games, is handcuffed by a series of rinky-dink fouls.

That wasn't all. In the fourth quarter, with the Heat still in contention, the refs did it again. The Heat's Shane Battier was mugged by some Pacers, yet, somehow, a foul was called on Battier. On another play, a replay clearly showed a Pacer last touched a ball that went out of bounds. Yet the refs, in keeping with their policy of Pacer-boosting, awarded the ball to the Pacers. Even with the refs' help and James severely limited, the Pacers, at home yet, barely won. That's how weak they are.

Some gamblers were laughing about the game, charging that the refs didn't do a very good job of camouflaging their intentions. Observed bookie Donnie F, who works out of New Jersey: "The NBA is saying they're always on the look out for gamblers trying to fix games and then the refs do what they did last night. It was lame. It was sloppy. It was obvious. Guys in my business can't believe it. If you're going to do it, do it right--not like that crap last night. Now everybody's talking about how the game was rigged. It gives rigging games a bad name."

Clearly the Pacers, with that cartoon offense, can't win the Miami series. But extending the Eastern Finals a game or two is good for the league. Let's face it, though--the last thing the NBA wants is for the Pacers to make the league championship Finals. Of the final four, Miami is the only big-time city left. Can you imagine what a TV ratings disaster the championship series would be with Indiana playing San Antonio or Oklahoma City?

Don't worry. Miami--and, of course, superstar attraction LeBron James--will be in the Finals. The refs will see to that.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Inside the Clippers' Failed Playoff Run

Who beat the Clippers? Who kept them from turning a franchise-best season into at least a trip to the Western Conference Finals? Was it the Oklahoma City Thunder? Not really.

It was that selfish, racist owner Donald Sterling who torpedoed his team. When that anti-African-American rant, the one secretly recorded by his bitter ex-girlfriend, went public on TMZ, Sterling could have taken the high road and backed away and refused to play along with the media.. But he clearly loved the attention. So did his wife Shelly. They happily plunged into the media sewer, dragging the Clippers with them.

The team was never the same after that. The Clippers wanted to play basketball, to just focus on beating Golden State and Oklahoma City. But they couldn't. They wanted no part of the Sterling scandal. But they couldn't escape it. They had no choice. And they got buried.

Sources close to two team members report that Clippers officials were trying to downplay the effects of the the scandal, insisting that the players were fine, that things, after a brief, early.slip, were back to normal. But, according to these sources, it was clear in practices and in relationships between players and their relationships with family and friends, that things weren't the same. Far from it, in fact.

What happened was that people wouldn't leave the players alone about the scandal. It was everywhere they went. Dealing with that ugliness constantly turned them into different people.

 Said one source: "If you're around those guys a lot, you could see that the Sterling mess really changed them. This negative thing was hanging over them. It really drained their energy. They were snapping at each other, off the court and even on the court.. There was this negative vibe that wasn't there before. They used to laugh and joke around. They used to be hang loose and confident. But then they became anxious and tight. It was gloom and doom. Some of the guys couldn't sleep. Their heads were all wrong. Playing basketball should have been the main thing on their minds. But it never was, not after that Sterling mess hit the fan."

Continued the source: "It really effected Chris Paul. The whole thing depressed him. You could see him fighting it, but it was a losing battle. The Chris Paul in the OKC series, that wasn't the real Chris, not him failing in the clutch. And DeAndre Jordan? He was really down, not his usual self in the locker room. And on the court, his mind was somewhere else. He had a few good moments in that OKC series but he mostly disappeared. That really hurt the team."

The Clippers barely won the Warriors' series, which should have been a cinch for them since Golden State center Andrew Bogut, a huge defensive difference-maker, was out and there was no one else to effectively guard the interior. The real Clippers, the pre-scandal Clippers, would have rolled over that Bogut-less bunch. But they struggled and were lucky to win in seven.

According to the sources, there was no way the Clippers, in their fractured state of mind, were going to beat Oklahoma City, a much better team than the Warriors. The Clippers' blowout in that series opener in OKC was misleading, insisted the source: "The Clippers didn't win that game, the Thunder just didn't show up. They hadn't recovered from that brutal seven-game series with Memphis. They were too worn out to put up a fight. But they recovered next game. The real OKC showed up."

After that, the Clippers couldn't cope. Their heads were elsewhere. They couldn't muster up enough energy to play their usual brand of high-powered defense. They were usually a step slow, particularly on the perimeter, where they generally excel. OKC killed them with open shots. OKC is good, really good. You've got to be at the top of your game to beat them. The Clippers weren't even close.

After that opening game win in Oklahoma City, the Clippers had just two strong spurts in the next five games. One was at the end of the fourth game, which carried them to victory. The other was at the beginning of the sixth game, which translated into an early sixteen-point lead. But from then on, they didn't put up much of a fight, ultimately losing that game and the series..

Let's face it. The Clippers could have handled the scandal better. A stronger-willed bunch might have. But this was virgin territory. No NBA team has ever had to go through something like this while competing in the playoffs. Yes, the Clippers failed. But they only get part of the blame.

They were pushed into a cesspool and they drowned. But who pushed them in? That selfish, racist, idiot owner Donald Sterling. A lot of the Clippers' playoff failure is on him.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Dirt Behind the Warriors' Firing Mark Jackson

Everybody figured Mark Jackson would be the Golden State Warriors' coach for the next ten years. Yet he was just fired, right after the team's playoff's run ended.

What happened? In a situation like this there can only be one answer--behind-the-scenes dirt. Before we get to that and what Jackson did wrong, here's what he did right.

A former NBA star and television analyst, Jackson had no previous coaching experience when he was hired by Golden State three seasons ago, in June 2011. Yet he quickly transformed a perennially average team into one of the most feared powers in the NBA, powered by a pair of crowd-pleasing sharpshooters, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. For decades, the Warriors hardly ever made the playoffs. But under Jackson's guidance, they surged into the playoffs two consecutive years, even getting into the second round last season. Consistently packed with frenzied followers, their arena is one the toughest for visiting teams. This season the Warriors won 51 games and battled a favored team, the LA Clippers, down to the last few minutes before losing a brutal seven-game playoff series. All the while though, Jackson was a dead man walking.

According to sources close to the team, to keep his job he had to make it to the West Finals. However, ace defender, center Andrew Bogut, was injured just before the playoffs and was done for the season. The Warriors' playoffs hopes went with him. So did Jackson's job.

What most people didn't know is that, all season, there was an ugly soap opera raging behind the scenes. Jackson was at war with his bosses. He didn't like them and they didn't like him. Said one of the sources, Jackson's superiors considered him "arrogant, stubborn, inflexible, defiant, hypocritical and unable to take criticism." One of his enemies was Kirk Lacob, assistant GM and son of co-owner Joe Lacob--probably his biggest enemy.

Jackson was consistently doing things to anger management. For instance, when center Jason Collins came out of the closet and everybody in the league was being supportive,  Jackson was lukewarm. It turns out that Jackson, pastor of a church in Van Nuys, is a fundamentalist who's not favorable to gays. That's not a popular stance in the Bay Area, which includes San Francisco, a gay mecca. Team vice president Rick Welts, who's openly gay, was also offended. This was definitely a strike against Jackson. In a gay-friendly league, with more players likely to come out in the next few years, a coach not supportive of gays is a liability.

What galled the team front office is that Jackson, despite his sanctimonious, holier-than-thou attitude, doesn't practice what he preaches. When Jackson, who's been married for more than 20 years, was working back east about eight years ago, he had an affair with a stripper, who tried to blackmail him in 2012. The scandal, foiled by the FBI, went public, embarrassing him and the team.

Another problem Jackson had with management--he prefers to live in Southern California, to be closer to his church. The bosses wanted him to reside in the Bay Area so he could have easier access to team operations. But, as he did in other matters, Jackson ignored them.

It didn't help that some of his bosses didn't care for his coaching, particularly his penchant for one-on-one basketball and his tendency to make poor half-time adjustments. Someone who questioned his coaching moves was Warrior executive Jerry West, the former Laker great. Jackson, however, tuned him out, adding him to his enemies list.

Another black mark against Jackson--his handling of coaches. He had epic battles with Brian Scalabrine and defensive specialist Darren Erman, often in front of the players. Both were removed. Because of these conflicts with assistants, Jackson's management skills were always in question. Much of his staff, according to the sources, was unhappy and not too supportive.

Jackson has a reputation for being a player's coach. However, report the sources, some of the Warriors weren't in his corner. They felt he favored Curry and Thompson and treated others unfairly.

In spite of all the behind-the-scenes soap opera, Jackson still managed to produce a winner, even though handicapped by the loss, for the playoffs, of a key player--Bogut. That's a testament to his coaching skills.

But, in this case, coaching skills and wins and losses didn't matter. The off-court issues may seem relatively minor and not important enough to get Jackson fired but his bosses, fed up with all the transgressions, saw it differently. Only a trip to the Western Conference could have saved him--because you can't really fire a coach that takes his team that far.

Setting the bar impossibly high was the Warriors' less-than-subtle way of getting rid of someone who had alienated the key powers of the organization.