Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celtics Need Intimidating Nickname

I never knew the color green could be so intimidating.

These modern-day Boston Celtics scare the living hell out of me. Out of all the teams in the league, they're the most deadly serious. The Lakers are a young, affable, goofy bunch. In their own unique ways, Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmonovic, Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and even Jordan Farmar are all stupid, but likably so. You can tell they're good, unthreatening guys.

The Spurs are totally business-like and professional, but emanate class, dignity, and humility. We know they're good guys, always have been (except that damn Bowen).

The Celtics, on the other hand, seem unapproachable. If I saw a person on the street that carried the same disposition one of these Celtics displays on the court, I'd look for someone else to give me directions. Boston is like the tough antagonist team in sports movies or TV sitcoms that you're supposed to root against, that appears on screen for the first time walking in slow motion. Basketball fans know that once the buzzer sounds, the C's are cooperative gentlemen. But we know that only because we follow the sport. The casual fan, flicking channels and happening upon one of their games, isn't going to be able to decipher that.

Starting with KG, and trickling on down the line, the Celts ooze intensity. And not just in their faces, but in their play. I have never seen a more aggressive defense. Sometimes, like during the Christmas Day tilt with the Lakers, it goes from simply stalwart to spectacular. It's like their defense starts attacking the other team's offense, Boston's swarming, smothering athleticism and contesting of every shot overwhelming. It happens when the C's are making a run, they always close it out with defensive rebounds, and if they're on the road you'll hear a lot of hooting and hollering from their bench.

The Celtics get a lot of flack for hooting and hollering, but that's more annoying than intimidating. Kendrick Perkins, an excellent role player, needs to shut the hell up. Seriously. Just because you won one championship averaging six points and six rebounds on a team with Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen doesn't mean you're Shaquille O'neal. And Kevin, I must admonish you also: There's no need for all that nonsense. I don't play favorites.

Of course, the Celtics, who lead the league in technical fouls, wouldn't behave so brashly if they weren't so damned good and couldn't back it up. I didn't truly believe that the Lakers would pull out that close Dec. 25 game until they did. After losing in Portland Tuesday night, the C's are now 8-1 in games decided by fewer than nine points. Nothing fazes them. They're the iciest team in basketball. We knew Pierce and Allen were assassins, but have you seen KG this year? Last spring he played through the most important games of his career and was shaky in the biggest moments (that's always been the biggest knock on him), but his team achieved the ultimate success, and thus, the weight of having never won a championship has been extricated from his shoulders forever. And it seems as though the relief of this pressure has turned Garnett into a clutch player. KG don't feel nothin' no more. He's not as cool about it as Allen and Pierce; you can tell it's new to him, and he seems almost pleased with himself. But the fact remains that Boston has three players on their roster who are ready and willing to take and make big shots, and that their entire team thrives in tense situations.

The Celtics have lost three of their last four, but always seem invulnerable.

You know who these Celtics remind me of: John Thompson's Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas. The intense physical play, trash talking, and hellacious defense, along with the reality of their (nearly) all-black squad, evokes comparisons to Hoya Paranoia (with KG simultaneously embodying both Thompson and Ewing) - specifically the '85 squad that HBO immortalized (well, right up until the part about the loss to Villanova). You mean to tell me you don't recognize some of the parallels?

I need to think of a nickname for these Celtics that reflects how terrified I am of them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In Peyton Manning We Trust

His name belongs with the greats.

Montana. Unitas. Brown. Rice. Butkus.


Sounds right.

Don't you see what's happening with Peyton Manning this year, right now? He hasn't just had his most valuable season, he's begun the process of transcending mere first-ballot Hall-of-Fame status and becoming a sacrosanct legend.

Manning was already a lock for Canton before this season, with his gaudy and mind-numbing regular season numbers (we take them for granted, bored by their consistency, but they are the best ever), two MVP's, and Super Bowl trophy.

But his career still lacked that something extra, that thing that separates great players from hallowed ones.

It's one thing to put up a bunch of crazy stats and win a bunch of games and even win a championship when the conditions are relatively amicable. But Michael Jordan's finest hour was his last one, in his final season with the Bulls, aged 35, when he led Chicago to a 62-win season and a championship despite Scottie Pippen missing 38 games during the regular campaign and being practically debilitated by a back injury by the last game of the Finals. Muhammad Ali's greatest athletic triumph came at 32, when he was considered past his prime and even Howard Cosell said he had no chance versus the younger, seemingly indestructible George Foreman, but knocked Big George out, anyway.

Manning came into this season not fully recovered from two offseason surgeries on his left knee and missed all of training camp and the preseason. The Colts struggled out of the gate, limping to a 3-4 start as Peyton threw only 10 touchdowns versus 9 interceptions. Bill Simmons asked if Manning was "sleeping in the same bathtub of plaster Dan Marino used from 1995-1998?" I wrote an article (which never saw the light of day) about the mortality of athletes, and it centered around Manning, now 32 and looking like a shell of his former self.

So what happens? He spends the first half of the season playing himself into form, and now the Colts have won eight straight, clinching a seventh consecutive playoff berth Tuesday night with a victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Manning's line: 29-of-34, 364 yards, three touchdowns. During the winning streak, he has thrown 16 touchdowns and only three picks, in the process establishing himself as the favorite for a record-tying third MVP award and giving his career the substance that turns the greatest of players into mythical beings.

This season the Colts became the first team in NFL history to win 11 or more games in six straight seasons. But this is the least imposing of all of those squadrons. Bob Sanders has been hurt. That would be okay, because Bob Sanders is always hurt, but on top of that Manning's longtime center, Jeff Saturday, has been in and out of the lineup. So has Joseph Addai, and he's averaged only 3.5 yards per carry when he's played, same as his backup, Dominic Rhodes. As a result, the Colts are ranked 31st in the league in rushing. And Marvin Harrison, once the Frick to Manning's Frack, is, definitively - and understandably, at 36 - no longer the man he once was.

True greatness is measured in times of adversity.

And there is no question that watching Manning - not a kid anymore, coming off the first serious injury of his career, with three of his team's top seven players missing a combined 16 games, with his famous partner-in-crime finally acting his age - this year has been a more meaningful experience than watching him at any point in the previous ten (well, other than when he won the Super Bowl).

The Colts are older and more vulnerable now, and so is Manning. He doesn't seem as invincible now as he did just as recently as last year. But in a way, he seems more dangerous than ever. Mortality and the decline of the team around him have wounded him, but wounded animals are extremely dangerous. Which means the Colts are, too, because Manning has never been more indispensable to them and completely embodies their team at this point.

And so now, when you consider all of his accomplishments, when you consider the fact that he has not once missed a professional football game (he started the very first game of his rookie year and has started every game since), when you consider that he was one of those rare no. 1 overall picks that absolutely, positively lived up to every expectation that comes with being that selection (and then some), and when you consider what he has done this season, you must realize that 40 years from now, they'll show grainy old footage of Manning stretching or warming up before a game and it won't need any sound.

This year, Manning has become that kind of player.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dream Match turns into Mismatch

Wow. That was sad. It felt like a boxing funeral. It was a boxing funeral.

It was an annihlation you had to see to fully comprehend. If you didn't witness with your own two eyes, you would not be able to truly grasp it. Manny Pacquiao crushed Oscar de la Hoya Saturday night in Las Vegas. He destroyed him. He decimated him. He humiliated him. He hit him and he hit him and he hit him again. Then he hit him some more. It got worse over the eight rounds; by the end, Oscar wasn't even swinging back. He was just getting hit. Over and over and over again.

De la Hoya had become the proverbial champion fighting that one fight too many. Other than Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, no one saw it coming. To the rest of us, Oscar's boxing death unfolded in one night.

It went from shocking to kind of numbing to just plain hard to watch. It wasn't quite Larry Holmes beating up a defenseless Muhammad Ali in 1980, but it was something like it. Of course, I know that fight only through the internet; I wasn't born until 1988, so I truly only know Ali's legend via ESPN Classic, a movie starring Will Smith, and YouTube. It would be impossible for me to watch a grainy, 28 year old tape of him on a computer screen and feel the same pangs of sympathy for Ali that those who lived through his career did as he was absorbing blow after blow.

But I lived through Oscar's run. Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are the best boxers of this era, but Oscar was unequivocally the most famous. Plus, he was from (East) LA, my hometown. He's a good man. I was rooting for Oscar last night. Now, I know how those Ali followers felt. Saturday's tilt made me squeamish, and when it became obvious in the seventh and eighth rounds that referee Tony Weeks could step in at any time (and arguably should have, although I respect that he gave the aged warrior the benefit of the doubt), my heart started beating in anticipation. Oscar was getting pummeled, and the stoppage could come at any moment. Dueling emotions were at work here: on the one hand, I didn't want to see De la Hoya go out like that. On the other, he was being badly embarrassed, and even his puncher's chance seemed vanished - so why not just stop it?

Luckily, it was over before Oscar was seriously damaged - he came out of his corner before the start of the ninth, but only to embrace and congratulate Pacquaio, boxing's new big draw. It was a dazzling performance by the Pacman - with Mayweather in retirement (more likely an extended vacation, of course), Manny is - by far - the sport's best pound-for-pound fighter, as well as it's most exciting. But for Oscar, it was over - for this night and probably forever.

De la Hoya, a warrior just as much as a cash cow, was too prideful to utter the words "I quit," but knew he had no chance and offered nothing in the way of protest to his corner's decision to throw in the towel. His body language spoke defeat, and the forced, humbled acceptance of it. Pacquaio was clearly the much better man, obvious to everyone, including Oscar.

But that's sports, right? Pacquaio, 29, is in the prime of his career. Oscar is 35, not even competitive on this night. It goes like that. LaDainian Tomlinson, once as breathtakingly good as any tailback to ever play, is averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season. Through 13 games, he has had two 100-yard outings and is on pace for the poorest rushing totals (yards and touchdowns) of his career. His toe may still be bothering him, but the real problem is that he's 29 now - running backs start going downhill at 28. Adrian Peterson, aged 23, is the guy now.

Allen Iverson, now 33, the NBA's third all-time leader in career scoring average, is producing only 18 a game this year. For this year, the Pistons would be better off with Derrick Rose, a rookie.

Greg Maddux retired this week. Nobody lasts forever.

Though he entered the bout about a pound-and-half lighter than De la Hoya, Oscar is naturally about 25 pounds heavier - he began his pro career at 130 lbs, Pacquiao at 106. But Pacquiao was simply too fast, too quick, too maneuverable. Had Oscar been 29, it would have been more of a fair fight. Maybe he could have caught Pacman, maybe he could have avoided him. Instead, he just got beat up. Badly. Hit. Repeatedly.

Oscar's legacy? Obvious Hall-of-Famer, 10-time world champion in six different weight classes, Olympic gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992. No fighter ever generated more money. Totally classy. Never ducked anybody - he fought Tito, he fought Shane (twice), he fought Hopkins, he fought Floyd, he fought Pacman. But what endures may be that he lost all six of those matches (albeit a couple of them controversially), and the argument can be made that he never beat a truly great fighter at the peak of their powers (Julio Cesar Chavez, whom he beat twice, and Pernell Whitaker, had both probably advanced their apex's).

The final Compubox number's from the night? 224 of 585 total landed for Manny, as opposed to 83 of 402 for Oscar. 195 of 33 power punches met their mark for Pacquiao, only 51 of 164 De la Hoya, 59 percent to 31 percent. But if you didn't see it, you still don't get it.

Oscar did. He was ulitmately non-committal, but also reasonable, about his boxing future in his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant. While he stopped just short of saying "I'm finished," his words spoke of a man that knew he was. He told Roach, his former trainer turned nemesis who in the events leading up to the match said that after watching Oscar's victory over Steve Forbes in May, he realized De la Hoya no longer had his fastball after and predicted exactly the round this one would end, after the fight, "You were right, Freddie. I don't have it anymore."

He doesn't.

As for me? I just wish I could unsee what I saw.