If it’s June, it must be Roland Garros

If it’s June, it must be Roland Garros

When I was a kid, the most important sporting event was Play Day. With all the tests taken and report cards handed out, the fenced-in playground became an asphalt Olympic Stadium for the final morning before summer vacation. We’d compete in sack races, egg-carrying, and other elite competitions. Unfortunately, any winners ribbons did not compensate for poor grades when we made the last walk home for the year.

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Now that I’m older, I don’t sweat grades anymore. When June comes around, I do sweat finding interesting stories so I don’t have to get a real job. The Stanley Cup and NBA Finals are winding down. European football is on hiatus between seasons’ end and the World Cup. Baseball doesn’t command full attention until the All-Star Game. It’ll be hard to even do that this year. Aaron Judge has already ruled himself out of the Home Run Derby. Remember 1989 when Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins ditched the NBA Slam Dunk Contest? June is the month to remind yourself there are other sports and other stars.

The French Open will reach its climax at Roland Garros this weekend. A collective “pfft mother, please” rises up from the entire United States at the thought. Tennis is the worst sport. How can it be any good if there aren’t any Americans in it and you have to get up early in the morning to watch?

Alright, I’ll give you the getting up in the morning to watch but not the no Americans. Bear with me. I know there hasn’t been a great American tennis player on the male side since Pete Sampras retired and Serena Williams hasn’t been carrying the torch for the women since she decided to get married and have a baby, as if her life was her own to do with as she pleased. But Serena has been back on the circuit in 2018, slowly rebuilding her game. She was looking like her old self at Roland Garros until she injured a pectoral muscle while closing out her third round match.

She had drawn Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. Williams, 19-2 and riding an 18-match win streak against the Russian in her career, expressed her disappointment at having to withdraw.

It’s very difficult, because I love playing Maria.”

Apparently, there is such a thing as an understatement lob.

Despite Williams’ early exit, two Americans remained in the draw: Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys. The duo sport names that would attract anyone casting a Dynasty reboot but both can bring it on the court. Stephens is ranked 10th in the WTA, Keys 13th. Seeded accordingly, they met in the semifinal.

Stephens started out painting the lines in the early games. When Keys questioned one that put her opponent up 2-1 and was overruled, the 23-year-old took out her frustration by firing a serve right back into Stephens, then powering a backhand passing shot down the line. Stephens still won the first set 6-4.

She continued to control the match in the second set, as well, again winning 6-4. She couldn’t seem to hit a ball out while Keys made a few unforced errors. Stephens meets world number one Simona Halep on Saturday morning.

Del Potro, PI

On the men’s side, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro gave us a little throwback to John McEnroe in his four-set quarterfinal against Marin Cilic. When he double-faulted after being distracted by a spectator, Del Potro approached the stands to identify the culprit.

Juan Martin del Potro takes the law into his own hands at the French Open.

Who says tennis is boring?

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

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If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

They say no one remembers who finishes second. ‘No one else’ is more accurate. The players who finish second can never forget until they finally win it all.

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Right now, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Vegas Golden Knights are having series they would rather forget in the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals respectively. If they cannot forget now, the end will arrive sooner rather than later and both will have at least a year to replay it all in their minds, wishing after what might have been.

Vegas

Last night, the team playing with house money took the game to the Washington Capitals in the opening ten minutes. Down two games to one in the series, victory would both level terms and return home-ice advantage to the Golden Knights.

The puck gods had other ideas and, apparently, all their money on the Caps. Ninety seconds in, a shot deflected off Eric Haula’s skate then the post. Reilly Smith was up next. He fanned on a shot with the net gaping. James Neal hit the post on the powerplay with Washington netminder Braden Holtby flat on his back, helpless. Those three misses may have cost Vegas the series and the rest of us an amazing Cinderella story to get us through the next lockout.

The Capitals would not miss three times in the following ten minutes, taking a commanding lead into the second period, one that would translate into a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

Washington Capital TJ Oshie pops in the rebound Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lady Luck has caught up with irrepressible Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, too. The ever-smiling, effervescent ex-Penguin carried the club through the regular season, then the playoffs’ first three rounds. Against Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, his net was emptier than Donald Trump’s promises. Fleury boasted a .947 save percentage. At the worst possible time, he has regressed to the mean, his number in the Finals 102 points lower.

It will have to come back up and the skaters in front of him will have to start converting their chances. As hard as it is to relax when it’s win or go home, Vegas can’t afford to grip their sticks any tighter or make that one extra pass out of uncertainty.

Cleveland

It wasn’t three misses that put the Cavaliers under the cosh in the NBA Finals; it was one shot declined. Things had been going swimmingly for the Cavs in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James had been carrying the load and the supporting cast was ensuring he had a clear path to the basket against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. Matters were much the same for 47 minutes and 56 seconds or so of Game 1 in the fourth instalment of their annual NBA Finals confrontation. Then JR Smith happened.

In case you were locked in your bathroom for five days [it happens, I’m not judging], the 6’9″ Freehold, New Jersey native who the game program lists as a shooting guard suddenly declined to do so. Collecting the ball under the rim with the score tied [NHL Fan Book rule number 14: Never listen to Don Cherry], Smith dribbled to the sideline to run out the clock, apparently thinking the Cavs had the lead when the score was tied. Cleveland then lost in overtime.

Needless to say, LeBron was displeased. He’d been driving the bus for three series just to get the chance to beat the Warriors, and now JR Smith decides to hop out for cigarettes?

Game 2 was a debacle. Cleveland suddenly couldn’t trust each other while Golden State had to believe the stars were aligned and the moon was in the house of Klay and Curry. The Warriors won by 19 to take a two-games-to-none lead as the series switched to The Land.

Another time-honored truism in best-of-seven series is that you’re never in trouble until you lose at home. Well, the Cavs are 48 minutes from trouble of a kind they absolutely do not want. They cannot afford to give Golden State a 3-0 or even 3-1 lead. There will be no coming back. JR Smith, at 32, may face a lifetime thinking, “I could have sworn we were up one.”

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

A Stanley Cup primer for the conflicted

A Stanley Cup primer for the conflicted

Either the National Hockey League made a mistake or exhibited rare foresight.  On Wednesday, the Washington Capitals shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Tampa in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference final to advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights, who had earlier dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference final. Then the league gave Washington time to rest, scheduling Game 1 of the Stanley Cup for tonight.

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That decision allowed the NBA to catch up. Game 7 in their Western Conference final is also tonight, between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. The hook is whether we’re going to see a fourth consecutive Cavs/Warriors showdown in the NBA Finals. Last night, LeBron James won two consecutive elimination games, coming from 3-2 down to win the Eastern Conference final over the Celtics in seven.

[Full disclosure: I’m not crediting the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers because after the L-Train scored 81 points, pulled down 26 boards, rang up 18 assists and blocked three shots in Games 6&7, no one else is, either]

LeBron James carries the Cavaliers to a fourth straight NBA Finals.

But the point here is that the NHL didn’t have to cede the spotlight to the NBA. They could have cranked up Game 1 on Friday or Saturday to maintain the momentum they had built with fans in what has been yet another thrilling Stanley Cup playoff year. Instead, they let those fans discover two exciting seven-game series on the hardcourt, assuming they would be back on the ice Monday and the two leagues would carry on their tradition of alternating evenings during their Finals.

Here’s why you should come back to watch the “Better Late Than Never” Washington Capitals and the Sin City Wedding Crashers, more familiarly known as the Vegas Golden Knights fight it out for Lord Stanley’s chalice.

Breaking new ground

Expansion teams are supposed to be bad. They are not expected to contend for a championship straight out of the birth canal. Vegas’ opponent in this series posted the NHL’s worst regular season record when they debuted in 1974/75. In an 82-game season, the inaugural Washington Capitals failed to win ten. Their 8-62-12 record, in the immortal words of Tommy Boy Callahan, “left a mark” that still stands.

The last time an expansion team made the Stanley Cup Finals, the deck was stacked. The St Louis Blues were the best of six expansion teams in 1967. The group doubled the league’s size to 12 teams and the NHL saw fit to put them all in the same division and the so-called Original Six in the other. Therefore, an expansion team was guaranteed to get its butt kicked in an anticlimactic Stanley Cup Final for three consecutive seasons, until the league expanded again, moved the Chicago Blackhawks to the West and placed the Vancouver Canucks in the East.

[Further disclosure: The NHL is not good at this sort of thing]

How has Vegas broken out of the expansion dungeon? Well, when you pony up $500 million for an NHL team, you expect to get value for your money. Every NHL team was allowed to protect seven or eight players and one goalie, but that left significant talent available. Further, the league’s rigid salary cap provided opportunities for Vegas GM George McPhee to wheel and deal. And, as Sean McIndoe, otherwise known as @DownGoesBrown so adroitly observed, it gave the Golden Knights a built-in advantage. As a team without any players, it had no bad contracts to artificially lower its cap. Unless it took on a bad contract here or there [mind the foreshadowing], it had more room to sign quality players.

McPhee made several deals, hired an astute coach, and assembled a solid cast with speed and skill that surprised the hockey world. They started quickly and, despite everyone waiting for the other skate to drop, never faded. For all that, not everyone, including yours truly, is completely convinced. Washington is also something of a Cinderella story and has far more talent than the Golden Knights.

The exorcists

After beginning life as a doormat in the 1970s, the Washington Capitals developed a reputation as a strong regular season club that couldn’t cut it in the playoffs. The only Finals they reached came in 1998 when they were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. More recently, they had become the whipping boys for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. As Sidney Crosby and friends skated to back-to-back championships, they ripped through the Caps in the second round both times.

This season has been about putting the demons to bed for Barry Trots’ Capitals. First, Washington emphatically reversed their curse against the Pens, eliminating the champions in five second-round games. Then, as already noted, they made it past the Lightning, whose GM Steve Yzerman captained those ’98 Stanley Cup-winning Red Wings two decades prior.

So, while Vegas is living the dream, Washington is intent on exorcising a nightmare. Which brings us to their high priest.

The unstoppable force

As already stated, Vegas is a roster comprising the rest of the league’s 8th and 9th-best players or worse. Some have displayed ability we never knew they had [more of that foreshadowing stuff] but if you’re looking for a LeBron James in this series, you have to look to the Caps, who definitely have one. Alex Ovechkin ticks several L-Train boxes.

To begin, the Great Eight has the catchy nickname to match King James and just as you know who anyone means when they say “LeBron”, “Ovie” refers to just one star. The Russian tank has also had to contend with living in Sidney Crosby’s shadow in the same manner James has struggled to reach the same altitude in fans’ eyes as Air Jordan. Finally, there is the winning.

LeBron has now made eight straight finals. Michael only appeared in six but won them all. James has only three rings. Meanwhile, NHL fans will have to find another nominee for best player never to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. After 13 years, 607 regular season and 58 playoff goals, one Ross [scoring], three Hart [MVP], and seven Richard* [goals] Trophies, Alex Ovechkin has finally made the big dance.

*for any NHL neophytes, that’s a French Richard, pronounced Rishard.

Vegas will be doing their utmost to make him a wallflower. It will be difficult. To start, they must stay out of the penalty box. Ovie proved that he remains the king of the one-timer in the last round and that Steven Stamkos is the pretender. The Lightning captain does an almost perfect impression, but he’s the pretender nevertheless.

Another problem is that, while teams like to get physical to intimidate the opponent’s best player, Ovechkin hits back. Harder. And that’s if he doesn’t get in the first lick. If Washington emerges triumphant in this series, there is every chance their captain will add a Conne Smythe Trophy for Stanley Cup Playoff MVP to his collection.

Dark horse heroes

Here’s a short list of other skaters who can do damage in this series.

William Karlsson — The golden knight among Golden Knights, Karlsson was Vegas’ top scorer in the regular season with 43 goals and 35 assists, stunning NHL aficionados. In three seasons split between the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Swede had peaked at nine goals and 25 points. He had been pigeonholed as a third-line centre and tasked with checking the opponents more dangerous forwards. George McPhee agreed to take David Clarkson’s ridiculous contract off Columbus’ books providing Karlsson came with it. Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant then gave him the chance to showcase his offensive skills and was repaid handsomely for his trust. He’ll be Washington defensemen’s first priority throughout the series.

Evegeny Kuznetsov — If you want to describe Ovechkin as Washington’s thunder, comrade Kuznetsov is the lightning. Less physical but more technically gifted, Washington’s no.92 tends to be quiet for long stretches then strike out of nowhere in highly charged moments. If he gathers any momentum, well, let’s just say Vegas won’t be able to handle the chain-lightning.

Jonathan Marchessault — The Golden Knights may be a group that other NHL clubs didn’t value, let alone consider top stars. That doesn’t stop the former Florida Panther center from showing up to Vegas home games in a Golden Knight-themed Lamborghini.

Marchessault’s 27 goals and 48 assists put him only three points behind Karlsson during the regular season. The undersized forward has been hot in the playoffs, too.

Nicklas Backstrom — The Swede is Washington’s playmaker. He runs the power play and provides goals at even strength. He missed most of the Lightning series with what may have been a broken hand. It’s hard to be certain because transparency is another thing the NHL does not do well. Every injury throughout the season is listed as an upper or lower body injury. The former covers everything from a concussion to whatever damage Backstrom suffered. The latter includes everything from a sprained toe to irritable bowel syndrome. Backstrom has returned, surely benefitting from the five-day layover between series. He’ll make Ovechkin’s one-timer all the more dangerous with his pin-point passing.

James Neal, TJ Oshie, Andre Burakovsky — All three are snipers. Veteran left-winger Neal had 25 regular season goals and was in the Cup final last year with Nashville. Oshie is the silky-skilled winger you forget about on the power play while worrying about Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He also famously took every penalty [because you can do that in international hockey] in the USA’s shootout win over Russia in the 2014 Olympics, scoring on four of six attempts. Burakovsky may be the most dangerous of the three. He was starving for goals until Game 7 against Tampa, when he broke out for two, clinching the series. Momentum to carry into the Finals?

The Baddies

Hockey is not a game for pacifists. That said, Vegas tends to get chippy by committee. Marchessault has a reputation for being something of a dirty player. Defenseman Deryk Engelland, too. The enforcer on the team is Ryan Reaves. He gave as good as he got from Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien* in the Western final, which officially puts him at the grownup table.

But Washington can add the nasty edge to their advantage in skill. Beyond having to keep your head up whenever Ovechkin is on the ice, Mr Tom Wilson will happily introduce himself if he feels you aren’t showing proper deference or attention. He’s already taken a three-game suspension for a nasty, illegal hit to the head in these playoffs.

In addition, wingers Devante Smith-Pelly, Lars Eller and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik all possess sadistic, opportunistic traits. The Golden Knights will have to oil their swivels before the series begins or they’ll lose their heads like Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese.

*Don’t worry neophytes, even lifelong NHL fans don’t know how you get ‘buff·lin from Byfuglien. 

For the defense

You may be detecting a pattern here, but while Vegas’ defensive corps hasn’t any real standouts, they’re a solid, cohesive unit. Former Capital Nate Schmidt will sneak into the attacking end if Washington isn’t mindful.

I’ve already mentioned Orpik and Niskanen, who provide the muscle at the back for the Caps. John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov like to join the attack. Respectively, they’re Washington’s Ovechkin and Kuznetsov at the back. Carlson’s size and skill are a tough blend for opponents to handle and he has a cannon for a shot. Orlov, meanwhile, is the George Clooney of puckhandling, which is to say, with Pavel Datsyuk retired, there are no danglers smoother and more handsome than the Russian backliner.

Who was that masked man?

Goaltenders have a well-deserved reputation for being strange. Why not when we are willing to throw our bodies and heads in front of a dense, frozen object moving at speeds that would help a traffic cop meet his weekly ticket quota? The puck isn’t the only danger. When you smother one you can occasionally expect a knee or skate to ‘accidentally’ find your skull. At other times, opposing forwards might lose their feet [or not] and barrel into you. You’re lucky if they simply stuff you into the net rather than pinning you against a post. If a goalie wasn’t a bit off before getting between the pipes, time will correct the error. Vegas and Washington both have unusual personalities in goal.

Marc-Andre Fleury — The Vegas netminder came from Pittsburgh in one of those trades where George McPhee squeezed out a little extra. The Penguins threw in a 2020 second-round draft pick to ensure McPhee didn’t select any other player from their roster. Pittsburgh had two Stanley Cup proven goaltenders, could only protect [and pay] one, and elected to go with the younger, saner Matt Murray. Again, give it time.

Earlier in his career, Fleury had two or three inconsistent playoff series that had tagged him a liability. He laughed it off. Literally. The French-Canadian’s spirit is unquenchable. He never stops smiling no matter the situation. After losing his starting job to Murray, he stepped in when the youngster was injured, carried the Penguins through a difficult series against the Ottawa Senators, and left many fans worried when Murray was reinstalled in goal after recovering. In the Western Conference final, after losing Game 1 decisively to Winnipeg, then evening the series, Fleury delivered a wet willy to Blake Wheeler as the Jets forward tussled with Golden Knights’ defenders behind the goal after a whistle.

Despite posting a ridiculous .947 save percentage in these playoffs, Fleury will be overmatched in this series. As usual, he won’t care.

Brandon Holtby — At the other end, the Capitals’ goalie is the opposite kind of strange. His intensity is legendary. Teammates won’t go near him before a game. They’ll rarely talk to him during. Which is fine. Holtby talks, or chants, to himself. He stares vacantly out from his mask in a way that makes you wonder whether he might have been a serial killer if hockey hadn’t provided an outlet. Dexter and Jason Voorhies have nothing on him. The Capitals and NHL may be saving innocent lives by keeping him employed.

Add to that Holtby’s ridiculous talent. His reflexes are blindingly quick; his positioning perfect; his ability to move post-to-post unrivaled. Ask Steven Stamkos.

Holtby came into the playoffs riding the bench after a rough late-season patch. Phillip Grubauer struggled in the first round, and Holtby reclaimed his net. He was the difference in Game 7 against the Lightning, posting a shutout, making several defiant saves while counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy struggled 200 feet away. His .930 save percentage doesn’t match Fleury’s but he’s trending up.

If I were a betting man…

Despite all the talent on their roster, the Capitals struggled through a regular season they usually dominate. Vegas finished four points above them in the overall standings. But the regular season is not the playoffs and Washington is gathering momentum. The Golden Knights keep proving people wrong and maybe it’s my turn but, while I don’t think they’ll roll over, I can’t see them handling the Caps.

The series begins in Las Vegas but the Stanley Cup won’t stay there. Washington in six.

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Martin Palazzotto, former goaltender, is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

A Champions League primer for the uninitiated

A Champions League primer for the uninitiated

The European football season climaxes this weekend when Real Madrid and Liverpool meet in Kyiv, Ukraine in the Champions League final at 2:45 Eastern.

What’s that? When I say football, do I mean soccer?

Yes. Yes, I do. This article is intended to help those of you who felt the need to ask that question and maybe catch some casual fans up even though they didn’t. We’ll start with the basics and get more detailed as we go. Feel free to jump ahead anytime. Don’t wait for the rest of us.

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What exactly is the Champions League?

UEFA is Europe’s governing body for soccer. It’s in charge of maintaining the game’s integrity on the continent. It organizes intracontinental competitions for both genders and various age groups, as well as conducting two annual tournaments for qualified clubs from every country’s top league.

The Champions League is the crown jewel, featuring the best clubs from those leagues, and not just the champions, but many contenders, as well.

How do clubs qualify?

There are two ways.

  1. Win or come close to winning your league. UEFA ranks the various leagues [UEFA coefficient] according to their relative performance annually. The strongest leagues are given four berths, the next strongest three, and so on.
  2. Win the Europa League, the other UEFA club competition. That is how Manchester United, who finished sixth [not in the top four] in the Premier League in 2016/17, qualified for this year’s Champions League.

What is the tournament format?

The Champions League has four phases.

  1. Qualifying phase. The strongest teams [UEFA club coefficient] in the strongest leagues skip this phase. Weaker teams in lesser leagues are drawn together to play two-legged ties [home and away games] in which the better aggregate score wins. If the score is level after both legs, then a) the team with the most away goals advances or b) the teams play 30 minutes extra time and, if still tied, stage a penalty shootout. Depending on their UEFA club coefficient teams may have to play one or two qualifying rounds. These matches take place in August, while most clubs are still preparing for and beginning the new season.
  2. Group stage. When the qualifying rounds conclude, 32 clubs remain. They are divided into eight groups of four through a weighted lottery rather than a seeding system. One or two groups might have three or even four strong teams. Because only two teams from each group progress after a six-game home-and-away round-robin staged on Tuesday and Wednesday nights from September to December, such a top-heavy foursome is labeled a group of death.
  3. Knockout rounds. The final sixteen teams are thrown into two pots of eight. One pot holds the group winners, the other the runners-up. Another lottery pairs group winners against runners-up from other groups. In the round of 16, but not later rounds, no teams from the same league can be drawn against each other. The drawn clubs play a two-legged tie with the same format as in qualifying: aggregate score/away goals/extra time/penalties. The eight winning sides are then drawn against one another in the quarter-finals, and so on until two clubs remain.
  4. The Champions League Final.Ramirez! There can be only one.” Like the Super Bowl, the final is held at a different venue every year. This year’s final takes place in the 70,000-seat Olympic Stadium in Kyiv.

A Champions League primer for the uninitiated.

Who are the two teams in the final, again?

Real Madrid and Liverpool are the finalists.

What do we need to know about each club?

Liverpool —  The Reds have won the Champions League/European Cup five times previously. Four came in the 1970s and 80s when the top flight in England was known as the First Division. They have struggled during the Premier League era, which began in 1992/93, never winning the domestic title. Liverpool did add their fifth Champions League title in 2005 and were runners-up in 2007. They finished fourth in the English Premier League last season to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in three years and only the second in eight. They finished fourth in the Premier League again this season but surprised everyone by making the final. The club is owned by John Henry, who also owns MLB’s Boston Red Sox.

Real Madrid — Los Blancos are the most prolific European champions by far. They are seeking their 13th title in Kyiv, having won the last two. Only Bayern Munich and Ajax of Amsterdam have won the European Cup three years running, and the two clubs both accomplished it in the 1970s. In the new millennium, Madrid has been famous for signing all the best players from Europe to form super teams known as Galacticos. Recently, they have focused more on developing talent in-house, however.

The Managers

Jurgen Klopp — Liverpool’s German manager brought his Gengen Press style from Borussia Dortmund to Liverpool in 2015. What is Gengen Press? Think equal parts full-court press in basketball and run and shoot offense in football and you’re pretty much there. It’s exciting, energetic, open play. Liverpool was arguably the most dangerous attacking club in Europe this season. With Dortmund, the style won Klopp two Bundesliga titles and took him to a Champions League final. When the broadcast focuses on the managers along the sideline, Klopp will be the tall blonde one possibly leaping about and screaming like an oversized Yosemite Sam. Great horny toads!

Zinedine Zidane will be looking for more Champions League spoils.

Zinedine Zidane will be looking for more Champions League spoils.

Zinedine Zidane — Zizou will be the bullet-headed scowler in the long coat or dark suit, less demonstrative but more intimidating. If the name sounds familiar, yes, he is the French midfielder who cost his team the World Cup in 2006 when he headbutted Italy’s Marco Materazzi. Even so, he is ranked among the game’s all-time best, a step below Pele, Maradona, and Messi, but in the conversation with Cruyff, Beckenbauer, and both Ronaldos. He has less than three full season’s experience as a manager, all with Madrid, but has won two Champions Leagues and a Spanish title in that time. Other than making the final, this season has been substandard. His job may depend on winning the match.

The Marquee Players

Cristiano Ronaldo — The 33-year-old has rivaled Lionel Messi for the past decade. The two have won the last ten Ballon d’Or’s [Golden Ball] as UEFA’s best player with five each. Critics thought he was past it early this season when he could only muster four La Liga goals before the holidays. They ignored that the Portuguese had lit up the Champions League group stage. He caught fire in 2018, finishing the season with 44 goals and eight assists in 43 games. One goal every other game is considered very good. Madrid has other stars, but Liverpool will focus on stopping Ronaldo.

Mo Salah — Whereas Ronaldo is tall, handsome, fit, and exploits his supermodel looks in underwear ads and other endorsements, Salah is short, hirsute and quiet off the pitch. Although this is his breakout season, following one promising campaign with AS Roma, the Egyptian’s play has people comparing him favorably to Lionel Messi. He won the Premier League Player of the Year award this season, and his 44 goals and 16 assists in 51 matches will earn him similar attention from Real Madrid’s defenders.

Ronaldo had the better of Mo Salah when the two met in an international friendly recently.

Ronaldo had the better of Mo Salah when the two met in an international friendly recently.

The Supporting Cast

Roberto Firmino — The Brazilian is Liverpool’s second-most dangerous player. He can score and create, too, but also comes back to support the defense, often winning the ball and initiating the Reds deadly counterattack.

Karim Benzema — Real Madrid’s French striker will be the most disliked player on the pitch. When you’re implicated in a sex scandal and extortion plot against a national teammate in short order, then go through an even worse start to the season than Ronaldo’s, everyone will be calling for your head. Zidane risked his job in resolutely defending Benzema this season. The player repaid his faith with some key goals down the stretch. One or two more in the final may be needed.

Sergio Ramos — Having the Spanish defender in your squad is a bit like playing Russian roulette. He’s famous for producing timely goals, especially with his head, but also for losing that head and taking red cards that hurt his club. Having to contend with Liverpool’s attack could very well produce a moment of madness from the Real captain.

Sergio Ramos has a short fuse but is just as likely to turn up aces when needed.

Sergio Ramos has a short fuse but is just as likely to turn up aces when needed.

Virgil van Dijk — The Reds bought the defender from Southampton in January for £75 million after chasing him for more than a year. Yes, clubs buy and sell players rather than trading them, but that’s a discussion for another day. Liverpool’s defense was their Achilles heel until his arrival. Now it’s better but still features the inconsistent Dejan Lovren. Don’t expect VVD and co to keep a clean sheet [shutout] but, like Sergio Ramos, the Dutchman may come up big at the other end.

Sadio Mane and Gareth Bale — Both Liverpool and Real Madrid have a speed merchant on the flank to stretch defenses. Neither has consistently been at his best this campaign, although Liverpool’s Senegalese winger has been more productive. Bale, as usual, has battled injury. When available and called upon, however, he often makes the difference for the Merengues.

Weaknesses

The Goalkeepers — Loris Karius finally won the Liverpool job over Simon Mignolet in January and has been solid. Every once in a while, however, his inexperience at this level shows. At the other end, Keylor Navas is a quality keeper, probably somewhere between 11th and 20th best in the world. Clubs without Real Madrid’s pedigree would be thrilled to have him. Los Blancos are continually linked to potential replacements at other clubs. With the attacking talent on display in this final, don’t expect either to pull off a man of the match performance.

Trent Alexander-Arnold — In recent games, the Liverpool youngster has begun to show his age. The 19-year-old has tried to balance duties at right back with greater responsibility in central midfield. He’s made some excellent plays but also been exposed. With Philippe Coutinho sold to Barcelona and his replacement, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain injured, Liverpool has few options when it comes to transitioning from defense to attack and distributing the ball. Matching Isco, Luka Modric, and Toni Kroos in the Real midfield is asking a lot of the teenager if that is who Klopp chooses.

There are worse weak links for Liverpool to have than Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a reliable veteran presence and a skilled, energetic youngster.

There are worse weak links for Liverpool to have than Jordan Henderson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, a reliable veteran presence and a skilled, energetic youngster.

Jordan Henderson — The Liverpool captain plays the holding midfield role, providing a shield for Van Dijk and Lovren in defense. He’s sound positionally, and intelligent, but his pace is non-existent and his distribution skills woeful. Klopp may gamble on Emre Can’s health for the final, although, even if he’s healed, he won’t be match fit after being sidelined since mid-March with a back injury.

Marcelo — The Brazilian left-back with the floppy afro is usually a strength for his side, joining the attack, scoring and creating timely goals. His defence is suspect, however, and he must deal with Mo Salah. Oof.

Outlook

Bovada has set the total [goals] in this final at 3.5 with Madrid giving half a goal at +110. To me, it seems like they’re inviting people to bet the over. Liverpool has been playing high-scoring matches throughout the late rounds in the competition. Real Madrid isn’t a defensive powerhouse either. That said, I have more confidence in Casemiro for the Merengues in defensive midfield than for Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson. If I had to pick a score, I would say Real Madrid 4-2 Liverpool.

Enjoy the game.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Brad Marchand gets his licks in

Brad Marchand gets his licks in

Gambling isn’t exactly a societal norm in the United States. Unlike the United Kingdom, China, and other countries, it’s only legal in certain places, even when you’re online. That said, gamblers aren’t that different from other people. They fear the same thing: the outlier. Anything that throws a wrench in the works is an unwelcome sight.

The Boston Celtics weren’t too happy to learn that screws in point guard Kyrie Irving’s knee, placed there in 2015 to help a broken patella heal, had caused an infection that would rule him out for the rest of the regular season and playoffs. Gamblers had to revise their betting strategy for Celtic games. Could benchwarmer Terry Rozier step in to do a job? To date, the answer has been yes.

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The Celtics share the TD Garden with the NHL’s Bruins, who have an outlier of a different sort. Brad Marchand is a talented left winger with skills that make him dangerous in front of goal. Despite that skillset, Marchand has cultivated a reputation as an instigator, the player who gets in the face of the opponent’s best players trying to induce them into taking stupid penalties. He is so effective, he has become the second player in league history, after former Flyer, Oiler, and Bruin Ken ‘the Rat’ Linseman to be dubbed “Little Ball of Hate.”

For years, opponents have pressured the league to do something about Marchand’s penchant for ‘low-bridging’. He will bend low as he glides into an opponent, taking their legs out from under, risking serious injury.

The league has suspended him for the practice but hasn’t cured him. On Saturday, he low-bridged Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan. Body checks are legal in hockey but the operative word is body. Targeting the head or legs is outlawed because the only protection against injury is luck.

The hit on Callahan didn’t draw discipline from the league, in part because Marchand has developed a new tactic for antagonizing opponents. He kisses and licks them.

Yes, you read that correctly. The 29-year-old has become the creepy aunt with too much lipstick who terrorized nieces and nephews at holiday dinners. At least his gloves make it impossible to pinch the other guy’s cheeks.

Marchand debuted the practice in the Bruins’ first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. On two different plays in that series, he could be seen nibbling on Leo Komarov’s neck then pecking him on the cheek. The Finn is something of a pest himself and displayed remarkable restraint in ignoring Marchand’s advances.

After the Komarov episode, an inside source leaked to the media that the league had used a third party to communicate to the Bruins its opinion such behaviour was undesirable. The league later denied it had. Marchand was emboldened.

On Saturday, he went full tongue on Callahan’s face. The Lightning veteran had less patience than Komarov but officials intervened before matters could escalate further.

When asked about the second incident afterwards, Marchand claimed it was in response to Callahan’s aggression.

Well, he punched me four times in the face. So, you know, he just kept getting close.

The second episode drew reprehension from all corners. It was called “embarrassing”, “unacceptable”, and “disgusting.” The most echoed opinion came from Lightning coach Jon Cooper.

There’s no place in our game for licking.

Marchand has his good points. Among other causes, he’s been supportive of gender identity and LGBTQ issues. If his latest transgressions were an attempt to subtly expose bias towards both groups, it was effective.

Cooper and others, all men, expressed their discomfort with watching replays of the incidents. The league responded to their anger by speaking directly to the player. With the Bruins subsequently eliminated by the Lightning, he has vowed to rein in his more controversial behaviour. The likely translation is that he will seek new methods to upset opponents.

Meanwhile, for all their outrage, it’s easy to imagine that many among those who railed against the Bruin’s gamesmanship will go home, walk in the front door, and happily allow the dog overjoyed at their arrival to lather their face with affection, not considering for a moment that Fido’s tongue may recently have been in a place Marchand’s never has.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

There are significant differences between college hoops and the pros. The game and shot clocks are not the same. Nor are the number of fouls that take you over the limit. Other rules vary, as well, but I said ‘significant’.  Topping that list is the fact that NBA players are paid much more than NCAA athletes, and not under the table.

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Making the NBA is also a rite of passage into manhood. Pro coaches may occasionally refer to a rookie as a ‘good kid’ but the player will work hard to shed that image. All but the most impressive NCAA players are kids. The elite are ‘young men’. The NBA is all about being a man.

Talk is building that the T-Wolves might hire Becky Hammon as coach.

Yes, I see you there, Becky Hammon. You know I don’t mean it that way. What I’m saying is that NBA stars are more independent and therefore resistant to coaching than student-athletes. In the college ranks, players don’t stick around too long. Coaches are the stars. In the pros, it’s the opposite. Virtually every franchise is associated with a player.

People will refer to Golden State as Steph Curry’s team, not Steve Kerr’s. The Cavs are LeBron James’ squad. Many fans need a second before identifying Tyronn Lue as the coach. Even the greatest coach in the game’s history [Sorry, Mr Auerbach] took a back seat in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team. People argued over whether the Lakers belonged to Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal before the Big Aristotle settled the debate by leaving for Miami. No one questioned Phil Jackson’s genius in either city but he wasn’t the face of the franchise like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are at Kentucky and Duke respectively.

If we’re honest, the alpha male mentality among NBA stars is why even the best college coaches struggle in the league. Yes, I’m looking at you, Calipari.

John Calipari will tell you it's tough for NCAA coaches to make the transition to the NBA

There are some coaches who can adapt. Billy Donovan is doing an excellent job in Oklahoma City. A coach without NCAA credentials might have blinked when Kevin Durant ditched the Thunder for the Warriors. Not the former Florida Gators boss. He’s used to players leaving after one or two years.

The other coach proving it’s not a question of either/or enjoyed more lasting relationships with his players. Brad Stevens didn’t have a procession filled with NBA sure-things like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, David Lee, Corey Brewer, Chandler Parsons, and Mike Miller, among others, parading in and out of the Butler locker room, collecting huge signing bonuses rather than diplomas. There was Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and that’s it. Two men don’t a parade make. Nevertheless, Stevens coached his mid-major side to a pair of NCAA Finals.

Now he’s in charge of the most storied team in NBA history, the Boston Celtics. He has them in the playoffs, one game from an Eastern Conference matchup with the Cavaliers. He’s led them this far without his most talented player, the point guard who forced a trade away from the Quicken Loans Arena to escape LeBron’s immense shadow. Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in 2015. Three years later, on April 8th, the Celtics were forced to shelve Irving for the season after an infection developed around the tiny screws still in his patella, requiring surgery. Without his primary star, Stevens has had to pull his team together.

To add injury to injury, the coach has lost the player who might best help him unite the squad. Former Butler small forward Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia six minutes into the season opener against the Cavaliers. He has been gone the entire season. If the Celtics put the Philadelphia 76ers away tonight, they’ll come up against the Cavs again, but it won’t be full circle. Stevens can still call on Billy Donovan’s former UF big man, Al Horford, however, to keep the six degrees of separation in play.

When Brad Stevens draws up a play during a Celtics timeout, it tends to work.

What separates Stevens from many NBA coaches is his tactical acumen and man-management skills.

He has shaped the Celtics into a balanced team in which there is no alpha male. The detail-minded coach spent equal time with reserves at the end of the bench as he did with Irving, Hayward, and Horford when all three were healthy. When two of them went down, players such as Terry Rozier stepped right in and thrived, knowing exactly what Stevens desired because trust and understanding had already been established.

In-game, Stevens is renowned across the league for running diverse and varied plays following timeouts. The Celts can come at you and defend you in different sets and situations.

A Cleveland/Boston series offers a unique matchup: Stevens v LeBron, Mind v Matter. Can the game’s most cunning strategist find a way to stop its most determined will? James has adapted to adversity himself. The Cavs failed to provide another running mate to replace the traded Irving. Isaiah Thomas didn’t fit. Dwyane Wade’s knees weren’t up to the task. Nearly half the roster turned over at the trade line. The man on a mission to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals had no choice but to go all Thanos on the Eastern Conference.

LeBron has carried the Cavs through the Eastern Conference’s first two rounds. The Clevelanders needed seven games to sneak past the Pacers in the first round but the L-Train wasn’t going to run out of steam before reaching the Finals. He raised his game and the rest of the team’s with it to sweep the number-one-seeded Toronto Raptors, allowing for a few days’ rest. Maybe more if the Sixers make a series of their clash with Boston.

We’ve seen the Cavs and Warriors go at it for three seasons running now. We know what to expect. That isn’t the case with a potential Cleveland/Boston matchup. Can Stevens keep LeBron off-balance for an entire best-of-seven series? The fact he came up short in his two NCAA title games suggests maybe not, but there will be tremendous entertainment value in watching him try.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Should Bryce Harper lead off for the Washington Nationals? That’s a clown question, Bruh

Should Bryce Harper lead off for the Washington Nationals? That’s a clown question, Bruh

What does Bryce Harper have in common with Alex Ovechkin, Karl Malone, and Andy Reid? He’s perennially attached to a team, teams for Malone and Reid, that are excellent in the regular season but never make it in the playoffs. They could start a support group for stars who never won the big prize. Who knows? Maybe it already exists. I wonder if they would let Glenn Close and Amy Adams attend? The actresses have been nominated for an Oscar six and five times respectively without giving an acceptance speech. Hillary Clinton could moderate the meetings.

Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning would have left the group in 2007, Andy Murray in 2012, Sergio Garcia in 2017. Ovechkin’s Capitals are 3-2 up on the defending Stanley Cup Champions going into tonight’s Game 6 but they’ve blown similar opportunities more than once against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forgive me if I don’t revoke his membership card just yet.

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Harper has felt similar pain in the playoffs. Since 2012, his rookie campaign, the Nats have made the Major League Baseball playoffs four times, missing only in 2013 and 2015. In each case, they crashed out in the National League Division Series. Worse, each series went the maximum five games, save for 2014 against the eventual World Series Champion Giants. In 2012, the Cardinals sent Washington packing. In 2015, it was the Dodgers. Last season it was the defending World Series champion Cubs.

The brash outfielder began this campaign hitting cleanup for his fourth manager. Dave Martinez took over for Dusty Baker in the offseason, coming from the Cubs, where he had been on Joe Maddon’s staff. If you can’t beat ’em, steal their coaches.

As managers go, Maddon has a reputation for being relaxed in the clubhouse and tactically flexible in the dugout. Martinez emulates the latter trait.

Washington was mediocre in April, playing sub-.500 baseball in the moribund National League East. With a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Steven Strasbourg, and Gio Gonzalez, you would expect better. Then again, it’s early and Martinez is just finding out what he has.

One problem he encountered in the season’s second week was opponents pitching around Harper. Slugging third baseman Anthony Rendon had fouled a ball off his toe and needed three weeks to recover. He is just now back in the lineup, trying to rediscover his timing. Without Rendon’s protection, pitchers could walk Harper in any dangerous situation and frequently did. As a result, he is not hitting for average but has an excellent on-base percentage.

Bryce Harper line as of May 6th, 2018. Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper’s line as of May 6th, 2018.

Conveniently, the right fielder’s 34 starts project easily to his career high in appearances: 153. If he holds his current pace, he would hit 54 home runs, knock in 126 runs, score 130, and steal 18 bases from the cleanup spot even while being walked regularly.

But other Nats weren’t providing much support. Washington was struggling to score. Martinez adapted by slotting his most dangerous hitter in the leadoff position. Now, rather than trying to drive people in, Harper’s responsibility is to get on base. Walk him all you like.

Martinez made the shift on May 1st. The team responded by winning 5 and losing one. That 3-1 defeat to the Phillies was the only time the team failed to score at least three runs in the six games. They rang up 24 against the Pirates, then 13 against the Phillies, including the loss when they only scored once.

If Martinez decides to bat Harper in the one-hole all season, his RBI numbers may suffer. Then again, maybe not. Opponents will have less reason to pitch around him. Last season, Yankee slugger Aaron Judge hit 13 of his 52 HRs (25%) in 28 of his 155 appearances (18%).

It goes against conventional wisdom to lead off with your most powerful hitter, but if Harper is also their best hitter, why not? The Nats 5-1 record to open May lifted them a game over .500. They remain in fourth but are only two games behind division leaders Philadelphia.

So far so good for new Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez's Bryce Harper leadoff experiment.

So far so good for Dave Martinez’s Bryce Harper leadoff experiment.

Of course, the six games came at the end of a homestand. The next trick will be to see whether they can maintain their momentum on the road. Stephen Strasbourg opened a series at Petco Park against San Diego last night. He was coming off a seven-inning win over the Pirates in which he struck out 11. The Padres, anchoring the National League West following a 13-22 start, countered with Tyler Ross.

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Strasburg went seven innings again, striking out five. Harper had an off night, going 0/4 with a walk but the middle of the order picked up the slack, especially in the four-run sixth. Rendon, Matt Adams, and Howie Kendrick all had two-hit games. First baseman Adams drove in five. The 8-5 win suggests Martinez made the right adjustment.

The series continues tonight and tomorrow. Gametimes are 10:10 and 9:10 Eastern respectively.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.