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Breaks of the game

For a while there, it looked as if the basketball gods were conspiring to alter the outcome of Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals yesterday. The Heat were up nine with less than a minute to go in the match, seemingly poised to claim their third win in the series. As things turned out, they needed to go through the veritable wringer to secure the victory. And it wasn’t simply because the Celtics refused to give up. So-called breaks appeared to keep going against them en route, testing their limits and challenging their resolve to prevail.

Nuggets’ resiliency

Not a few quarters saw fit to write the Nuggets off in the wake of their disconcerting loss to the Lakers the other day. It wasn’t simply that the outcome put them two down after two contests in the West Finals. More crucially, it was that they appeared quite overmatched for long stretches at a time in both encounters. And while they made enough adjustments after Game One to nearly snatch victory in Game Two, that they succumbed, anyway, speaks volumes of their status as vast underdogs. In a series where they don’t have the two best players, they need no small measure of good fortune to survive.

Celtics care

The Celtics were easy prey in the aftermath of their second straight setback against the Heat late last week, and not just because they faced the prospect of needing to claim four of their next five matches to advance to the National Basketball Association Finals. Talking heads rightly took them to task for failing to adjust to a zone defense that had them cough up yet another double-digit lead in the second half. It likewise didn’t help that their disjointedness on the court carried over to the locker room, with loud voices and overturned fixtures underscoring a level of frustration reflective of their state of mind; all the finger pointing seemed to indicate their predisposition to look back instead of move forward.

Bucs’ Brady

Tom Brady clearly wanted to get off to an auspicious start. He was bent on proving in his first time out as the Buccaneers quarterback that he remains at the top of his game, and that he continues to possess exactly the tools they required to meet outsized expectations. And, as far as motivations go, the fact that he faced the Saints — division rivals led by longtime foil Drew Brees — served only to provide even more fodder. Which was why he looked sharp as he took to the field with 12:20 left in the first quarter. He promptly led a charge of 85 yards through nine plays that, fittingly, had him calling a keeper for a touchdown. How important was it to him? He punctuated the unusual play with an even more uncharacteristic celebration, spiking the ball for effect.

Naomi’s mask

It was clear from the outset that Naomi Osaka planned to stay in the bubble environment at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the entire fortnight. As she prepped for the 2020 United States (US) Open, she strove to embrace its uniqueness; she pledged to wear a mask,  bearing the name of a victim of police brutality to every match. Certainly, it showed her willingness to flex her muscles off the court, first made evident when she sat out the semifinal of the Western & Southern Open the week before to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake. More importantly, it underscored her self-assurance in likewise making a difference with a racket in hand; the fact that she brought seven masks with her meant she believed she would be able to stick around all the way to the final.

Game 7

To argue that the Celtics went all in yesterday would be an understatement. They most definitely wanted to put the game away. Up three to two in their semifinal round series, they understood the importance of taking advantage of the opportunity they had to advance to the conference finals on their first try. Even as they had a cushion, they knew all bets were going to be off with a loss. Being forced to prevail in a Game Seven against the gritty Raptors was a risk they did not want to take. And so they put everything on the line — so much that they went the final 22 minutes and 23 and a half seconds of the set-to without a substitution.

Self-inflicted wound

THE United States (US) Open was supposed to serve as validation of Novak Djokovic’s ascendancy in tennis. With rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal out of the competition, he certainly had impetus to dominate the major tournament much in the same way he had in every stop so far in 2020. True, the season has been unlike any other in his lifetime; with the novel coronavirus pandemic restricting mobility and changing terms of engagement, he faced unique challenges en route to his projected Grand Slam championship. Yet, there was no question he stood head and shoulders above the rest of the field. It wasn’t simply that he headed into his fourth-round match as World Number One armed with a pristine slate in 26 starts since the turn of the year. It was that he stood as only player still in the draw with any title in the sport’s holy grails — and he had not one, not two, not three, but 17.

Intimate and grandiose

NIHOM Falcom’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel series enters the latter half of its quadrilogy with the release of the third installment. Pushed out on the Sony Playstation 4 last year and the personal computer earlier this year, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III has now also made its way to the Nintendo Switch to predictably stellar results. The extremely popular franchise’s steampunk setting mixed with magic locked away behind the mystical Quartz stands strong no matter what platform it is played on. Is it even a surprise, really?

Bucks in trouble

There are no ifs or buts. The Bucks are in trouble. After having lost yet again to go down zero to three in their second-round series against the Heat, they face the inevitability of elimination from the 2020 Playoffs. It isn’t simply that they require the right mix of skill, focus,  determination, and no small measure of luck to be the first in National Basketball Association annals to come back from such a deficit. It’s that they don’t seem to be in the right mindset to do so; they’re already backpedaling even as today’s match has yet to commence. Starting and ending with acknowledged leader Giannis Antetokounmpo, they appear overwhelmed by the moment. Under intense scrutiny from all and sundry to deliver exactly as expected, they instead feel compelled to justify the very strategies that enabled them to rule the roost in the first place.

Jazz roster

A season’s worth of disappointment was etched on Donovan Mitchell’s face as he met members of the media, in the aftermath of Game Seven of the Jazz’s opening-round playoff series. To argue that he was deflated would be an understatement; he entered the 2019-20 campaign determined to do all he could to better their immediate-past, one-and-done postseason showing. And, for a while there, he seemed ready to live up to his own outsized expectations; he sported a more complete playmaking arsenal en route to an All-Star berth, his upward trajectory stalled only by circumstances off the court. Unfortunately, it still proved wanting in the face of the Nuggets’ superior talent base.

Thunder’s pride

All but the most impassioned fans wrote off the Thunder heading into the 2019-20 season, and seemingly with reason. After All-Stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook departed for greener pastures, even advanced metrics pegged them to miss the postseason; in fact, conventional wisdom had them winning some 30-odd games and finishing in the lowest fourth of their conference. Head coach Billy Donovan was stuck with middling talent even as a trove of draft assets gave general manager Sam Presti leeway to oversee a rebuild. Under the circumstances, pundits foresaw a year of transition.

Silver lining

THE BLAZERS could very well just have folded. Down one and three in their first-round series, they could have readied themselves for the inevitable, and, under the circumstances, the desired: a departure from the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) bubble environment at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, and a much-awaited return to their families. After all, they were missing Damian Lillard, their leader and best player by far, due to a bum knee while up against the heavily favored Lakers. They were tired, beaten up both on the court following three straight defeats and off it by their compelling calling to be part of protests against abuse of authority, particularly over Blacks. And yet they competed from the get-go and until the final buzzer, if for no other reason than because they stood for what was right.

Tiger Woods’ bid

THE BMW Championship, which figures to occupy golf habitues this weekend, is being compared to the 2003 United States Open for good reason. Apart from sharing the Olympia Fields Golf Club in Cook County, Illinois, as the venue, the first stop on the FedEx Cup Playoffs rota likewise looks to sport penal conditions reminiscent of typical setups for the major tournament. And it doesn’t help that the weather slated to reign at least through the first two rounds will make the Bent grass fairways hard and Blue grass greens uninviting. Under the circumstances, players are right to expect high scores, and certainly well north of those that bombarded The Northern Trust at TPC Boston over the weekend.

Doncic confidence

Even by National Basketball Association standards, the stepback three-point shot is a low-percentage one. While taken to create significant separation — up to six feet when well executed — from a defender who will then be reacting too late, it likewise increases the subsequent attempt’s degree of difficulty. Don’t tell that to Luka Doncic, though; the Mavericks All-Star has it as an effective part of his arsenal, and all and sundry have no choice but to accept the outcome either way. The operative word is “effective” as opposed to “efficient,” so its launch is accompanied by anticipation; in the make-or-miss league, the make-or-miss proposition is accepted with bated breath.

Overmatched Blazers

Close to three minutes had passed before the Lakers got their first field goal yesterday. In what would give them their only taste of the lead for the entire first half, LeBron James’ left-handed reverse stab off a quick leak past the unprepared Blazers followed two missed shots, a turnover, and two flubbed charities. The unscripted sequence was one of many that would benefit them throughout the match, but their relative carelessness with the ball told on their consistency. Despite ultimately taking 24 more free throws and 17 more rebounds, their 17 turnovers kept things interesting.

Mavs even series

Luka Doncic didn’t want to talk about the monstrous numbers he put up in Game One of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Clippers, and with reason. Even as his stat line of 42, seven, and nine was a first in National Basketball Association history, he labeled his effort “terrible” if for no other reason than it likewise included a whopping 11 turnovers. Considering that the total was seven more than his season average, and that the blue and white lost by eight points after leading by as much as 14, the lost possessions may well have told the outcome.

Costly miscue

Heading into the Jazz’s first-round series against the Nuggets, All-Star Donovan Mitchell knew he had to step up. The blue and gold were decided underdogs against the West third seeds even at full strength, so he needed to pick up the slack in the absence of erstwhile starters Mike Conley, Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic. The good news was that he did, winding up with a whopping 57 markers (on 19-of-33 and perfect 13-of-13 shooting from the field and from the line, respectively) to go with nine boards and seven dimes. And, in so doing, he managed to take the measure of the opposition despite limited help.

Go-for-broke stance

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts wanted the victory yesterday, and badly. He wasn’t about to waste the first of two chances to clinch the final playoff spot in the West by resorting to substitution patterns that sought to save his charges for a long postseason run. Instead, he leaned on the same predilections that allowed him to enjoy a stellar 6-2 slate in the seeding games and force the erstwhile eighth-seed Grizzlies to do battle with them for survival in the bubble. Which is to say he leaned on his five best players — hard.

Hardware up for grabs

The National Basketball Association cannot but be happy with how its bubble experiment has progressed so far. For the fourth consecutive week, its mass testing of players has resulted in zero positive results — proof, if nothing else, of the effectiveness of the stringent health and safety protocols it has put in place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. And while broadcast ratings haven’t exactly been the bonanza conventional wisdom envisioned in light of the seeming absence of entertainment options under the new normal, they nonetheless underscore the continued appeal of the league’s principal product.

Handed chances

When plans for the National Basketball Association’s campus environment were being formulated, not a few quarters criticized the Suns’ inclusion in the mix. The concerns weren’t unfounded, to be sure; when the 2019-20 season was suspended in mid-March, stalwarts of the purple and orange were fresh off losses in five of their last seven contests. And, at 26 and 39, they faced the near-Sisyphean task of winning every single one of their eight seeding games just to move up from 13th in the conference and force sudden death for the last spot in the playoffs.

A brilliant game that nobody should miss

Ghost of Tsushima won’t strike gamers long familiar with the action-adventure genre as transcendent at first glance. Those who have spent countless hours captivated by, say, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Lord Of The Rings: Shadow of War won’t find its grounded setting appealing from afar. That said, all it takes is one spin, however short, for doubters to conclude that even its well-made trailers don’t do it justice; it’s like a cake that looks nothing out of the ordinary in appearance, but hooks the reluctant with just a single taste. Certainly, its unique sense of style and presentation entices even the most skeptical to binge on it with nary a care for the time.

Confidence boosting

Doc Rivers doesn’t often disagree with referees’ calls. Armed with 36 years of league experience, including the last 21 as head coach, he understands that the men in gray can’t possibly get everything right. As far as he’s concerned, it’s enough that they try their best. Yesterday, however, he saw fit to voice his displeasure with a whistle late in the Clippers’ set-to against the Blazers. With 18.6 ticks left in the payoff period and his charges up one, he felt the contact that sent a driving Damian Lillard to the line was incidental at best. And so he made his sentiments known, never mind his reluctance for protest and notwithstanding the contest’s relative lack of bearing.

Ready to contend

When Tiger Woods says he’s ready to contend at the PGA Championship, all and sundry need to give him the benefit of the doubt. Nobody...

Raptors standing

It’s hard to deem a play occurring with more than half the fourth quarter still to be negotiated as pivotal. Even in a close match, such a turn of events can easily be tabbed run of the mill; the extremely fast pace of pro hoops typically produces bang-bang sequences from opening tip to final buzzer. Nonetheless, there can be no doubting the impact the flagrant foul slapped on the Heat’s Kelly Olynyk off a rebound battle with 6:56 remaining in the payoff period had on the set-to, and not simply because the immediate aftermath — two free throws (from supposedly offended party Kyle Lowry) and a basket — saw the Raptors turn a tie into a lead it would not relinquish.

Tough loss

To argue that Rick Carlisle was disappointed in the aftermath of the Mavericks’ setback to the Rockets the other day would be an understatement. It wasn’t simply that his charges snatched defeat from the throes of victory. It was that they did so in a manner all too familiar to him: with an offense — otherwise the most efficient by far in league history — cratering to alarming proportions and therefore unable to prop up a middling defense. For some reason, they keep tightening up late in close contests, leading to them being outscored by a whopping 16 points per 100 possessions in the crunch. And they did so anew in their first seeding game; they were up by 11 to start the fourth quarter, by as much as 13 at one point, and by seven with 45.2 ticks left — and they still lost.

Whole New Game

The 2019–20 season of the National Basketball Association officially resumes today, at least on paper. In truth, the eight seeding games and the playoffs present little to no continuity with the first four-fifths of the campaign, and not just because they will be held under a different set of circumstances. Even the league itself acknowledges the contrasts, adopting the slogan “Whole New Game” for its bubble environment. At this point, it’ll gladly take any semblance of normalcy for its setup at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. “Where Amazing Happens” doesn’t seem to be apt in a situation that has it hoping for the best while in the midst of a pandemic.

Being Lou Williams

Three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams parties hard. Everybody knows it. Everybody’s mother knows it. And not only is it not a secret in hoops circles; he’s proud of it. As ESPN scribe Zach Lowe recounted him saying in the latest The Lowe Post podcast, “sometimes, I just don’t tell the young players where I’m gonna go out at night, ‘cause they all want to come with me, and they can’t hang. They can’t play the next day doing what I do, but I can play the next day.” Which, in a nutshell, was why no surprise greeted news that he was photographed holding a drink while in a strip club late last week. It was Williams being, well, Williams.

Knicks mentor

It didn’t take ESPN scribe Adrian Wojnarowski long to make his presence felt anew. In fact, one day was all he needed to reclaim sports headlines; his two-week suspension by the media giant ended Friday, and he was already breaking news that the Knicks had hired Tom Thibodeau to be their next head coach when weekend struck. Which was just fine by him, as well as by all and sundry in hoops circles; he immediately regretted sending a sitting senator an F-bomb via his office email address, leading to his ban and all the #FreeWoj hashtags. Everybody knew the byline and not the body was his rightful place in an article.

NBA scrimmages

The first set of scrimmages in the National Basketball Association’s bubble environment got under way yesterday. To be sure, the four matches on tap weren’t representative of the quality expected from the restart to the 2019-20 season. That said, teeming fans deprived of pro hoops competition since it was halted by the novel coronavirus pandemic last March were willing to overlook the fact that they bore witness to more misses than makes, and more miscues than moments of marvel. They understood that all and sundry still needed to adjust to the demands of full-bore action, not to mention the unique court setup at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

LeBron’s focus

Considering that LeBron James was still facing an uphill battle when the National Basketball Association suspended the 2019-20 season in the middle of March, the decision not to include the upcoming seeding games in voters’ consideration for individual awards all but formalizes Giannis Antetokounmpo’s claim to the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Forget that the 16-time All-Star managed to put together an outstanding run after the break; he normed an even 30 markers (on 55% shooting from the field), 8.2 caroms, and 9.4 dimes in steering the Lakers to an 8-2 slate. For all his exertions during the run (including against such notables as the Clippers, Bucks, and Celtics), he failed to definitively bridge the gap the reigning Most Valuable Player built early on.

Reckoning

The National Basketball Association is ramping up its operations inside the bubble environment at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Even as a cacophony of social media posts have shown players engaging in various pastimes at the Walt Disney World Resort, the increasing number of practice sessions leading to the start of exhibition games this week underscores the focus of franchises on the ultimate objective. It’s right to push for progression, to be sure; outside of restricted, albeit supervised, workouts at home, those slated to burn rubber when the 2019-20 season resumes at the end of the month practically went on hibernation for close to four months. Going full bore from full stop is a recipe for disaster. Even the truncated run-up presents not inconsiderable risk.

Cowboys QB

Considering that both the Cowboys and franchise cornerstone Dak Prescott had ample reason to get a new deal done, the fact that they walked away from the negotiating table without one speaks volumes of their inability — or, to be more precise, refusal — to make compromises en route. Not that they didn’t have cause to stand their respective grounds. After having plied his trade on a rookie scale through the last four seasons, the quarterback was rightly moved by the need to maximize his earning capacity moving forward. Meanwhile, the team felt compelled to stick to how it traditionally does business, its asset’s current value and future importance notwithstanding.

The Memorial

For golf, good news came with the bad yesterday. The Memorial Tournament will push through this weekend with a veritable Who’s Who of stars on tap. The Muirfield Village Golf Club has always been a popular destination for members of the United States Professional Golfers Association Tour, and not simply because it also happens to be the venue of living legend Jack Nicklaus’ event; it’s a challenging layout designed by the host himself. And, evidently, the intrinsic pull of the stop overrode and fears fueled by the dramatic spike in novel coronavirus infections.

Bubble setup

Complaints started making their way to social media as soon as players arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. And, as usual, the discussions bordered on the flippant. The packed meals, while elaborate, were compared to those served in airlines, or even in the ill-fated Fyre Festival. Needless to say, the criticisms bordered on unfair, what with the situation improving drastically after they cleared quarantine. In fact, notwithstanding the musings of such notables as the Sixers’ Joel Embiid, the Lakers’ JR Smith, and the Rockets’ Ben McLemore, they were nowhere near subjected to what the Lakers’ Rajon Rondo described as a “Motel 6” experience.

Big picture

Novak Djokovic is seething. He’s being subjected to a “witch hunt,” he said, for having hosted a multi-leg event that had to be scrapped after four players, himself included, tested positive for the novel coronavirus. In an interview published the other day on the Serbia-based sports daily Sportski Zurnal, he noted that he: 1) had only good intentions in trying to steer tennis to some semblance normalcy; 2) spearheaded the event while complying with regulations to ensure public safety; 3) scrapped the remainder of the Adria Tour as soon as he got wind of the test results; 4) apologized after admitting he restarted the sport too early.

Betts’ take

Mookie Betts could have signed a $300-million extension last year. Credible reports had the Red Sox offering him the decade-long deal in the offseason, the latest in a string of attempts to keep him in the fold for the long term. For the best position player in Major League Baseball not named Mike Trout, however, the numbers were nowhere close to what he felt he deserved. And so he countered with $420 million over 12 years, figures that then compelled his employers to reject as untenable. Instead, they inked him to a single-season deal worth $27 million last February, and, as expected, promptly looked around for trade partners.

Revenge is a fool’s errand

Not surprisingly, The Last of Us Part II dominated gaming news since the leaks spread on the internet in late April. Anticipation, already eager to begin with given the proven value of the source material, was further fueled by third-hand information. On the flipside, not a few quarters found cause to draw thoroughly unfair conclusions; after all, the game had yet to hit retail shelves, and any discussions on particulars of that title, or argued lack thereof, bordered on speculation. If there was any benefit to all the talk, though, it was that Sony wound up committing to a release date. Earlier in the month of the leaks, it was postponed indefinitely due to the novel coronavirus pandemic‘s effects on international distribution.

Turnaround

For a long, long time, the Redskins insisted that their name wasn’t derogatory. It didn’t disparage anyone or any group, they argued. Never mind that its use in common language dating back to the 1800s was typically as a pejorative. Forget that Native Americans continually opposed it; from the seventies onward, it became targets of organized action on official and legal fronts. And still the National Football League franchise resisted any change; in fact, they contended that they were honoring indigenous peoples by trumpeting it proudly. Meanwhile, they filed for, and secured, multiple trademarks on its application, as clear a sign as any that they were digging in on the matter. As Dan Snyder, owner since 1999, told USA Today eight years ago, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER; you can use caps.”

Doing its job

The National Basketball Association has rightly made participation in the restart of the 2019–20 season voluntary. With the novel coronavirus still spreading — and evidently with greater frequency in Florida, where the competition is slated to resume — and safety concerns giving otherwise-healthy quarters pause, the league has made it a point to give them all the information and time they need to make a decision with which they will be happy. Needless to say, it aimed for complete attendance, but acknowledged the goal to be a pipe dream in the face of all the uncertainty.

Bubble challenge

The news that 16 of 302 players tested positive for the novel coronavirus is among the biggest pieces accompanying the National Basketball Association’s announcement of the restart of its 2019–20 campaign. Lost in the excitement of pro hoops returning to the mainstream come July 30: the fact that nearly six percent of the base got flagged. It’s a hefty number, particularly when juxtaposed with national and worldwide totals. On the other hand, the sample size is admittedly too small to make a determination one way or the other; for corrective purposes, it holds value only as a reminder of the need for the league to continue taking extraordinary precautions in ensuring the well-being of its stakeholders.

Coping

As expected, the National Basketball Association is pushing ahead with its plan to restart the 2019–20 campaign despite all the uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. With its future literally at stake, the league felt it had no choice but to exhaust any and all measures possible in reclaiming a significant part of the season it was compelled to indefinitely suspend last March 11. And, notably, safety remains at the forefront of its efforts; the measures it has instituted have been lauded by no less than Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an influential member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

Getting it right

Of all organized sports, golf has been seen as the one best equipped to return to action while in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Its very nature lends well to the implementation of measures required to minimize risk; it’s a non-contact endeavor held outdoors, with players able to traverse the course by themselves throughout any given round. And for doubters, The Match: Champions for Charity served to allay fears; last month’s exhibition saw crossover stars Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning sticking, with relative ease, to safety guidelines through 18 holes of play.

Quest to repeat

Of the 22 franchises in the National Basketball Association slated to head to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort for the resumption of the 2019–20 campaign, the Raptors have the toughest hurdles by far. For instance, cross-border considerations — significant under normal circumstances and downright restrictive in light of the pandemic — have compelled them to set their assimilation schedule even ahead of the players union’s efforts to come up with a consensus on participation in the bubble.

MLB snag

If there’s anything the postponement of the players’ decision on Major League Baseball’s latest proposal to terms governing the 2020 season shows, it’s that external factors remain major stumbling blocks to any agreement. The union’s executive board scuttled formal voting, originally scheduled today, after franchise facilities were affected by coronavirus infections, leading to a league-wide closure of training camps. When they will reopen and when ballots will be filled and counted remain up in the air. Clearly, safety considerations come first.

Working schedules

In a bid to reinstate a semblance of regularity to organized tennis, the men and women’s tours yesterday released its provisional calendars marking the resumption of sanctioned competition in August. On one hand, it’s still a month and a half away, giving the Association of Tennis Professionals and the Women’s Tennis Association leeway to establish safety protocols for event participants while in the midst of the pandemic. On the other, it’s just a month and a half away, with not quite enough time in between to pin down the moving target that is the novel coronavirus. There are risks involved, especially in light of the sport’s global nature; depth of field is directly tied to mobility, which is currently restricted for obvious reasons.