Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How The Mavs Can Get Back In The Series (maybe)


Long odds, yes. Probably not going to happen. But if the Mavs are to win three in a row against the Spurs they must:

1. Think defense, not offense. Everyone, including Rick Carlisle, is obsessed with getting offense on the floor. I say the Mavs offense is at it's best when they get stops and can run--when they play defense. So, Carlisle should be thinking about having his best defenders on the floor as much as possible. Less Terry and more Marion in the 4th quarter. Even think about Stevenson for a few minutes here and there to shut down a hot Spurs shooter. Good defense leads to transition offense which leads to a faster tempo.

2. Less JJ Barea, less Dampier, less zone defense, less small ball. Championship teams don't get away with playing 5'6 guards, bad centers, tricked up zones, or tricked up small ball. Be an NBA team.

3. Dirk must be more assertive. Catch and immediately shoot over the smaller defender, or catch and immediately drive around the larger defender. Don't dilly-dally. Don't triple pump fake. Don't wait for the double team to fluster you--fluster them!

4. Attack the rim! Good Lord, we've been saying this for a decade now. Good things happen when you attack the rim. The Mavs are the best free throw shooting team in the NBA--take advantage of it! Why won't Jason Kidd attack the rim? They are running him off the three point line, so why not take that big body into the paint and see what happens? Ginobili is not THAT much quicker than Kidd, yet he gets to the rim at will.

5. Be clutch. Biggest difference in these two teams so far. Parker, Ginobili, Hill--they are making their clutch shots. Dirk, Kidd, Butler, Terry--they are missing their clutch shots. It's about being mentally tough. Step up. Be clutch. The game will likely be in doubt in the final two minutes--it will again come down to poise.

Can all of this happen? A lot of it is up to Carlisle, so I don't know. A lot of it is up to the players to change bad habits, so I don't know. And if this is a lost locker room--if Marion and Butler are upset with their minutes, of if every player thinks the refs are out to get them, of if they doubt their teammates--then none of it matters.

We'll find out soon enough.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Running Boston


There aren't many sporting events in this country that are more than 100 years old. The Kentucky Derby, the World Series, the Rose Bowl--and the Boston Marathon. For 114 years in a row, the Boston Marathon has been contested on Patriots Day, a New England tradition. Two and half years ago, when I started running, Boston became my obsession. This week, I realized my dream of taking part in the spectacle.

I had always wanted to run a marathon by the time I was 40. One day, I realized that I was 41 and that I hadn't yet checked the marathon off on my bucket list. So, I started training in the fall of '07 for the Dallas White Rock Marathon. To give me something to shoot for, I decided I would try to qualify for Boston, which meant I needed to run a 3 hour, 20 minute marathon. That fall, I took a weekend trip to Boston--I ran parts of the course, I went to the Bill Rodgers running store, I learned the history of the race. In short, I was hooked. I had to get there. I had to experience it. I had to be a part of the legend.

It took me four tries, but last fall I qualified for Boston by running a 3:20 in the New York City Marathon. I trained hard this winter and spring, and felt like I could run faster at Boston. What I didn't realize until after the race was just how tough the Boston course is. Nothing but up or down. 32 hills along the way, some as short as 100 yards, some as long as almost a mile. They take their toll. Running downhill fast forces your quads to serve as brakes, while they double as engines on the uphills. There are no flat spots on the Boston course. The cumulative effect gets you.

Luckily, there is a wave of energy that you can ride to counteract the difficulty of the course. The crowds were amazing. Loud. Drunk. A solid wall of humanity on both sides of the road from the start village of Hopkinton to the finish in downtown Boston. There were 26,000 runners, and probably one million spectators.

Along the way you run through small New England towns like Natick (the home of Doug Flutie) and Wellesley (the home of Wellesley College, an all-girls school whose students line he road begging for kisses from the runners). After the halfway point, you head into Newton, where the famous Newton Hills start--a series of four big climbs that make or break the race for just about everyone. Then, it's past the drunk frat guys at Boston College, through JFK's hometown of Brookline, into Boston heading past Fenway Park, and down the finishing straight on Boylston Avenue.


I went through the halfway mark in 1 hour, 36 minutes. On pace for a 3:12, but knowing that I would probably slow a bit over the final 13.1 miles. I thought I could run a 3:15 at the start of the day, but once I hit the Newton Hills I knew that wasn't going to happen. My quads were toast. It felt like I was running on two stone pillars. The hilly course had caught up with me. The last of the Newton Hills is called Heartbreak Hill, for obvious reasons. I poked up this climb. At the top, I was so trashed that I seriously wondered if I could even break 3:30, or 3:40, or 4 hours. It felt like the final few miles were going to be a death march.

My secondary goal was to run a 3:19--set a personal best, and better my time from NYC. I did the math--I would have to run 8:00 minute miles for each of the final four miles to get a 3:19. I had averaged a 7:20 pace for the first 17 miles of the race, yet the thought of running 8:00 miles seemed impossible to me at this point. I dug deep, yet could only manage an 8:13, then an 8:07. I was falling behind my needed pace. Two miles to go, and I gave it everything I had. The next mile was a 7:49, and the final mile was a 7:35. I "sprinted" the last 300 yards, and finished in 3:19:38--with absolutely nothing left in the tank. I was really happy that I had broken 3:20 on such a tough course. And happy to qualify to run Boston again next year (if I can shave one hour off of my time, I could actually keep up with the Kenyans--something to shoot for I suppose).

There is something incredibly satisfying about finishing a marathon. It's even more satisfying to finish the most prestigious marathon in the world--and to do it in your personal best time. I will never be a part of World Series, Kentucky Derby, or Rose Bowl history. But now, I'm a very small part of the history of the Boston Marathon--the world's greatest foot race. Finally.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Mavs vs Spurs

On paper, this looks like a really close series. I would be surprised if it didn't go six or seven games. There are a few key areas, matchups, and players that I think will swing the series one way or the other. They are:

1. Who stops Dirk? The Spurs no longer have Bruce Bowen or Robert Horry or David Robinson--no shut down defender and no athletic big alongside Duncan. Dirk should have his way with the Spurs in this series. Duncan won't guard Dirk much--he can't chase Dirk all over the place. Matt Bonner will probably see some time guarding Dirk, as will Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. The only one of those who can cause any problems for Dirk would be Jefferson, but he's been such a bust this year in San Antonio, I wouldn't expect much out of him in the postseason. Gregg Popovich does not like to double team, so I'm guessing that he plays Dirk straight up with one of those three guys--and because of that, Dirk should have a very high-scoring series. In the playoffs, you go as far as your star carries you--and Dirk should be able to carry Dallas against the Spurs.

2. Kidd vs Parker. Which point guard imposes his will on the series? Parker always lights up Dallas, and Kidd has been playing great basketball since the big Wiz trade went down. Offensively, Kidd can punish Parker by backing him down, but Parker can return the favor by blowing by Kidd on the other end. Parker's play has been good, not great, this year--and I still don't think he's found his stride since returning from the injury. Kidd seems to be very motivated. Advantage: Kidd.

3. Manu vs Matrix. Ginobili has been playing out of his mind for the last month and a half. If he keeps it up, he could be enough to tilt the series to the Spurs. I'm guessing we will see a lot of Marion on Manu. Marion has been great at shutting down big scorers (think Durant). Whoever wins this battle might just see his team win the war.

4. Small Ball? There is a thought that the Spurs will go small: Parker, Hill, Manu, Jefferson, and Duncan. Jefferson plays Dirk, and the Spurs try to out-quick and out-athlete the Mavs. It could work. Or, they could get killed on the boards. Could also make for a VERY entertaining series.

5. Benches. Both teams have good benches. If Jason Terry is hot, the Mavs have a great chance. If Terry lays bricks, it will be a tough series for Dallas. If the Spurs get consistent three-balls from Mason and Bonner, and get dirty work on the glass from Blair, they have a good chance. Will Roddy B. get to play? I don't think so--not much more than a couple of minutes a half. Put it this way--if he plays a lot, things may not be going well for Dallas. In the last five games of the regular season, when the push for the number two seed was on, Roddy didn't play much at all. I think that tells us what Carlisle thinks about having him on the floor when it matters.

In the end, I'm taking Dallas in seven. I've watched each team very closely this year--I bet I've seen 75% of both team's games. The Spurs have been very good lately, beating the Lakers, Celts, Magic, Cavs, Suns, and Thunder. That's huge. But Duncan has lost a step, Parker doesn't look right, Jefferson still looks lost, and--most importantly--they don't play defense like they used to. The Spurs have the experience and moxie and head coach to win a series like this, but I think Dallas is the more complete team--and they have the home court. This is the best Dallas team I've seen (at least on paper) since the late 80's, and I don't expect them to lose in the first round.

Monday, April 5, 2010

My April Sports Wish


A couple of years ago a friend of mine invited me to attend a charity dinner in Fort Worth. The guest of honor was American cyclist George Hincapie. It was great to meet him. I've followed his career closely since reading an article about him in the now-defunct Winning magazine, circa 1990. Then, he was a 17 year old phenom from New York City (of all places for a road cyclist). Now, he's one of the most successful road racers in US history.

Hincapie doesn't win the Tour de France, so the casual sports fan in this country doesn't know his name. But they should. In Europe, he's one of the most respected riders in the pro peloton. He's finished 13 Tours de France, serving as support rider to, most notably, Lance Armstrong. Hincapie is a great all-around rider--he can sprint, climb pretty well (for a big man), and time trial. But his strength is in the one-day, cobbled classics.

In pro cycling terms, the 'classics' are famous, old, one-day races over a variety of terrain and road types. They differ greatly from stage races (like the Tour de France, which are contested over many days or many weeks). One day races are typically long (150 miles or more) and very fast. They are held early and late in the cycling season, so the weather is often brutal. The biggest of the one-day classics are held in Italy (Milan-San Remo and Tour of Lombardy), Belgium (Tour of Flanders and Liege-Bastogne-Liege), and France--where this weekend, the most famous of all the classics will be held for the 108th time.


PARIS-ROUBAIX


The race from Paris to Roubaix is called "the Queen of the Classics" for good reason. It's the most difficult, most prestigious, most unique bike race in the world. It actually starts in the town of Compiegne (just north of Paris), and finishes 175 miles later in the velodrome at Roubaix. Along the way, the riders will tackle 28 different sectors of cobblestones--roads originally designed for cattle, certainly not for bicycles. The cobbles make the race legendary. They rattle the riders right down to their fillings. Flats and crashes happen--a lot. If it's dry, the racers choke on dust--if it's raining, they ride through mud and over cobbles as slick as ice. It takes great strength and great luck to win the race--and George Hincapie has come very, very close. But he's never won.

Paris-Roubaix is Hincapie's passion. It's the race he wants to win the most. He's finished 2nd, 4th (twice), 6th (twice), and 8th. He makes it his priority each season, but each season he comes up short. Thus, my sports wish for April: I wish George Hincapie would win Paris-Roubaix. He's won the cobbled classic Ghent-Wevelgem, and he's had some great rides in the Tour of Flanders, but Paris-Roubaix is HIS race. He was born to ride it, and born to win it. He's got the power to stay at the front of the race, and the bike handling ability to stay upright on the cobbles. But something always gets in the way--maybe he's the victim of an ill-timed flat, or team tactics that conspire against him. Sometimes just one or two riders are simply better that day. That's bike racing. But Hincapie is owed one, and I hope that debt gets paid this weekend.

TIME IS RUNNING OUT

Hincapie is 36 years old. He's still one of the best in the world, but he knows that Father Time will soon step in. The good news is that older riders have traditionally done well in Roubaix. The French legend Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle was like Hincapie--always close, but could never win "The Hell of the North". But, Duclos-Lassalle persisted, and he finally won Paris-Roubaix when he was 38. Then he won again the next year, at age 39.


Hincapie has great form right now. Last week he finished 4th in Ghent-Wevelgem and 6th in the Tour of Flanders. He has a good team to support him this weekend. He is motivated. He is still young enough. This could be the year.

I might even sports cry if I see Big George punch the sky on Sunday. And I won't be alone.