Thursday, February 23, 2012

Linsanity: an unlikely superstar

Until two weeks ago, I dare anyone to say they knew who Jeremy Lin was. Today, you have a hard time finding anyone who doesn’t. For the past two weeks, the topic of conversations on ESPN and all sports TV and radio centered on Lin, the 2010 Harvard grad who came out of obscurity to become the talk of the NBA – and the entire sports world.
Talk about an underdog story, Lin is the ultimate NBA overachiever: He received no athletic scholarship offers out of high school, was undrafted out of college, cut by two NBA teams, then picked up by the Knicks and subsequently sent to the NBA D-League. After a triple double with the Erie Bayhawks, Jan. 20, Lin was recalled by the Knicks. If not for the Knicks playing so abysmally, this feel-good story likely wouldn’t have happened and we all wouldn’t be treated to the joy that is “Linsanity.” After the Knicks squandered a fourth quarter lead to the Celtics, Feb. 3, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni decided to give Lin a chance – and he made the best of the opportunity. Off the bench, Lin had 25 points, five rebounds and seven assists in a 99–92 win. In the Knicks next game, Lin got his first NBA start, scoring 28 points and eights assists.
His first four NBA starts read like a Hollywood script – including scoring 38 against the Lakers to lead all scorers. He is the first NBA player to score at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first four starts and was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 27.3 points, 8.3 assists and 2.0 steals in those four games. Just when we think the Lin story can’t get more exciting, he scores a game-winning three-pointer with five-tenths of a second remaining against the Toronto Raptors.
What Lin is doing is something we’ve never seen at this level of sports – a player rise from absolute obscurity to global superstardom in just a week. The clearest proof of this lies in fantasy – two weeks ago, Lin was owned in 0 percent of ESPN fantasy leagues; today, he is owned in 100 percent of the leagues. Want more proof? Sales and traffic for the Knicks online store increased more than 3,000 percent since they introduced the No. 17 jersey and t-shirts. Linsanity has even stretched beyond the sports world – since Lin’s Feb. 4 debut, stock in Madison Square Garden Inc., the company that owns the Knicks, the Garden and the namesake sports network, has surged increased 9 percent to an all-time high.
A large part of the hysteria has to do with his race – let’s be honest, Lin being of Taiwanese descent makes his meteoric NBA stardom that much more unexpected and exciting. He is the first American-born player of Taiwanese or Chinese descent to play in the NBA and in the past week, has graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and newspapers across the U.S. and in Taipei. He has a built-in fan base in basketball-mad Asia that has been waiting for a superstar of their own since Yao Ming retired last year.
In three weeks, Lin has gone from NBA D-League and sleeping friends’ couches to stardom. He needs to work on his shooting (38 percent on his jump shots) and his dreadful defense; but what Lin has going for him is his efficiency in the pick-and-roll, his lateral quickness that effectively shakes defenders and, most importantly, his unwavering composure.
It’s important to note that all of Lin’s games have come with Carmelo Anthony on the bench, and the superstar scorer will likely take away many of Lin’s scoring chances. With that, Linsanity is sure to die down; but for now, I’m sure enjoying the show.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Spring training brings optimism to MLB

The Major League Baseball season starts this week, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training. Spring Training is a wonderful time, when fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates think their team has a chance to compete with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Orioles have hopes of topping the Yankees; it’s a time of hope and optimism – a time when anything is possible for your beloved team.

This season is sure to be an interesting one, with teams that usually sit atop the standings having unresolved issues (Boston Red Sox, still not filling many of the holes they needed to) and some perennial cellar-dwellers showing promise (Washington Nationals).

Many teams got makeovers, starting with the Tigers. Prince Fielder joins Miguel Cabrera in Detroit, giving them the scariest back-to-back batters since Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz circa 2004-2007 over the next four or five seasons. The addition of Fielder improves any team, but I question how much he really helps Detroit in the long run. Statistically and physically, he and Cabrera are the same player – and because of their weight problems, both will become (defensive) liabilities in coming years.

Another makeover took place in the Sunshine state, where we have a “new” team – the Miami Marlins. Formerly the Florida Marlins, this re-vamped club added shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buehrle, pitcher smasher Carlos Zambrano, closer Heath Bell, manager Ozzie Guillen and a brand-new ballpark to mark the beginning of a new era of baseball in Miami with a pretty good team.

The 2011 season was an exciting one, with epic collapses to by the Braves and Red Sox to end their playoff chances, and standout rookie seasons by players in both leagues. There are a lot of players I’ll be keeping my eye on 2012, but here are my standouts:

Yu Darvish, Texas – the Rangers took a risk paying the Japanese sensation (of half Iranian decent) $60 million over six years, plus a whopping $51.7 million posting fee. Here’s hoping it turns out better for Texas than the Dice-K deal of 2006 has for the Red Sox.

Carl Crawford, Boston – after a disastrous 2011 season in which he was paid more than $20 million but batted just .255 with 11 homers and 56 RBI, Crawford has a lot to prove. Unfortunately, he had arthroscopic surgery on his wrist in January and will miss most of spring training and potentially opening day. Red Sox fans hope it’s not a foreshadowing of the 2012 season.

Bryce Harper, Washington organization – Harper is the most-hyped prospect in baseball history, but so far he’s lived up to the hype in the minor leagues. But at just 19, he’ll likely spend the first months of the season in Triple-A Syracuse. That said, he will undoubtedly be in the majors before his 20th birthday (Oct. 16).

Matt Moore, Tampa Bay – Moore is the only player who comes close to Harper for the title as “most exciting young player.” In his first season in the majors, Moore started 18 games, going 8-3 with 131 strikeouts and a 2.20 ERA. Those numbers in themselves are gaudy, but add in the fact that he was just 21, and the future looks bright. I have my fingers crossed he won’t go the way of the last “can’t-miss” pitching prospect, Stephen Strasburg, who was rushed to the majors too quickly by the Nationals and his 2011 season ended with Tommy John surgery after just five games. Strausburg will be back in 2012, and is another player to watch.

With so many changes in the offseason, I, like more baseball fans, can’t wait for the beginning of the 2012 season. Let’s play ball!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI: Breaking down Patriots-Giants

 In what borders on a holiday in the U.S., just about everyone will be with friends and family on Sunday, watching the Super Bowl and consuming copious amounts of food and beverages.

About half of those around the TV are there to watch the game and the other half are there for the halftime show and the commercials, which undoubtedly will feature cute animals, attractive women, funny old people and foolish, emasculated men. For those of us who are Patriots or Giants fans, the commercials will be a chance to regain our composure and teeter back from the edge of our seats; Madonna at halftime will be an opportunity to take a deep breath and maybe bring our blood pressure back to normal after a suspenseful first half. But most importantly, it’s our chance to analyze the first half and try to convince ourselves why our team is going to come back or hold on in the second half.

Why the Pats will win:
1. Tom Brady. Already considered one of the best of all time, Brady is determined to win his 17th playoff game, which would be an NFL record, and his fourth Super Bowl, which would be tied for the most all time. If there’s one thing Tom Brady is, it’s proud – and he wants to redeem himself after his sub-par AFC Championship game, where he didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 36 games.

2. Revenge. Bill Belichick will do anything and everything not to lose to the Giants again. He, Brady and the rest of the Patriots want to redeem themselves not only for their Week 9 loss to the Giants and, more importantly, their loss in Super Bowl XLII. If there’s one thing I would always bet on, it’s Belichick and Brady when they have a chip on their shoulder.

3. Patriots Tight Ends. Never before have we seen a team with two dominant tight ends. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for 2,237 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns this season. Gronkowski set an NGL record with 17 touchdowns in the regular season, and added three more in the playoffs. In their last meeting, they torched the Giants for 12 receptions, 136 yards and a touchdown each. If the Giants want to have a chance at this game, safeties Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle need to step-up big-time for the G-men. That being said – the entire game changes if Gronkowski’s ankle injury limits him on the field Sunday.

Why the Giants will win:
1. The Patriots defense. The Pats defense, decimated by injuries and draft picks who haven’t lived up to their supposed potential, allowed 4,703 passing yards in the regular season, ranking 31st in the league – lower than any team that has ever won the Super Bowl. Of the 45 Super Bowl champions, 11 ranked first in yards allowed, five ranked second and six ranked third. Thirty-eight defenses were ranked in the top 10. Of teams that lost the Super Bowl, the worst-ranked defenses were the Buffalo Bills teams of 1991 and 1993 that ranked 27th (in a 28-team league); no other runner-up even ranked as low as 20th; the average defensive ranking of the past six Super Bowl teams was 18th … and  the Patriots were significantly below that this season. Eli and his trio of receivers have ability to pick apart this mish-mash defense.

2. Giants receivers. It infuriates New England fans that a product of the University of Massachusetts, Victor Cruz, is an out-of-nowhere receiving star for a New York (yes, we know he is from New Jersey). For the 2011 season, he set a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards and led the team with 82 receptions and nine receiving touchdowns. In the NFC championship against the 49ers, a great defense, he had 10 catches for 142 yards… which doesn’t bode well for the Pats defense. Cruz is young, hungry, and a big-play receiver. Put him alongside Hakeem Nicks (1,192 receiving yards) and Mario Manningham and you have the best trio of receivers in the game – a near impossible match up for the Pats.

After all of the analysis, it comes down to who wants it more – the Patriots, who’s thirst for redemption will overcome their sub-par defense; or Eli Manning and the Giants, who want to erase the memories of a 6-6 mid-season record and come out of the shadow of a certain big brother. Belichick and Brady won’t lose this game, so if they Giants want to take it from the Pats again, they’re going to have to play the game of their lives.

As I said before, I don’t bet against Belichick and Brady with a chip on their shoulder – Patriots 27-24.