How the Baltimore Orioles can win the World Series next year

How the Baltimore Orioles can win the World Series next year

I know, I know. The Baltimore Orioles are bad. They’re 13-30 one game into their four-game weekend set with Boston. That’s the second-worst record in Major League Baseball. What am I doing talking about them winning it all next season?

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Hey, it’s not like worst-to-first doesn’t happen now and then. The Amazing Mets pulled it off in 1969. Kirby Puckett’s Minnesota Twins managed it in 1991. The Red Sox fired Bobby Valentine, hired John Farrell and did the deed in 2013. It’s at least a generational thing. Of course, that could mean it’s too soon for the O’s, but there’s another interesting trend that suggests they might have a chance, even though it isn’t something a sane person would put money on right now.

David Price looked like his normal pre-All Star self in the first game of the current series. He pitched the full nine innings against Baltimore. Manny Machado ruined his bid for a complete-game shutout by crushing a two-run shot with two out in the ninth. The Bosox were already up six when the shortstop took Price yard for his 14th of the season.

If Buck Showalter was Rich Renteria, we might be talking about his job being on the line. That is the difference between owning a 1517-1432 record and being 151-213. The O’s boss has roughly ten times the experience of his Chisox counterpart.

While that experience counts him in good stead, it can also work against him. With Showalter, what you’ve seen in the past seems to be what you get in the present. He can lay the foundation for a contender but can’t seem to build the roof. Maybe we should be talking about the team cutting ties with the skipper.

In his first three seasons with the Yankees, the then-30-something maverick led the Bronx Bombers to fourth, second, and first-place finishes in the American League East. He did it by relying more on the farm system than free agency. When the team fell back to second in his fourth season, George Steinbrenner panicked, firing Showalter and hiring Joe Torre. The former catcher and first-baseman took Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada et al to a World Series title in his first campaign.

Even though the expansion Diamondbacks wouldn’t begin play for two seasons, Arizona immediately hired Showalter to help them design their minor league system. Again, the club improved in his second season, winning 100 games before falling to the Mets in the playoffs. A regression to 85 wins in his third season left him looking for work again while Bob Brenly delivered the franchise’s only World Series title on the strength of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling’s pitching, and Luis Gonzalez’s clutch hitting.

Another manager wins a World Series on the back of Buck Showalter's good work.

Following another three-year hiatus, Showalter spent four seasons in Texas. Once more, the best year was the second, although the Rangers never rose above third in the AL West during his tenure, and successor Ron Washington needed another four years to build the Arlington club into two-time American League champions.

The first of those pennants coincided with Showalter’s arrival at Camden Yards. After short spells with his previous clubs, Baltimore has shown more faith in the 61-year-old. This is his eighth campaign yet, despite CEO Peter Angelos’ trust, Showalter hasn’t taken his game or the Orioles’ to the next level.

It’s been the same old Buck in Baltimore. The first season was a write-off followed by a strong 93-win second year. Predictably, year three was a step back. Angelos stuck with Showalter, though, and the manager produced his best season in year four, going 96-66. Then, he failed to maintain that level. The O’s played .500 ball in 2015, won 89 the next season and 75 last year. With this season’s woeful start, the pattern of one good season, one bad isn’t even sustainable anymore.

Manny Machado's bat is the one good thing about the Baltimore Orioles in 2018.

Despite a decent roster, the Orioles don’t look like bouncing back in 2018. Machado is the only player producing. He’s on the early-season AL MVP radar with a .339 batting average, 14 HRs, 40 RBI and 26 runs scored. He’s earning a base on balls for virtually every strikeout (23:24) and sports a ridiculous .418/.661/1.079 line. The problem is the rest of the order is letting him down.

Centerfielder Adam Jones is not getting on base enough. In a season where pitchers are walking more batters than ever, Jones is hitting .253. He hasn’t drawn enough walks to boost that number by 20 points. His on-base percentage is only .271. Compare that with the 79-point bump Machado is providing.

Slugger Chris Davis has a pitiful .248/.275/.523 line, his batting average below the Mendoza line. Mark Trumbo has better numbers but just 60 plate appearances. Showalter is showing the same misplaced faith in Davis that the owner has in him.

Meanwhile, Tim Beckham and Anthony Santander are on the 60 and 40-day DLs respectively. Colby Rasmus is on the 10-day version. Caleb Joseph has been sent down to Norfolk.

The pitching is no more encouraging. The staff is carrying a 5.09 ERA and 1.496 WHIP. They’re 10th in the Al in walks, 11th in strikeouts. The busier rotation is the movement between the DL and active status.

Overall, it’s a bleak picture. So, why do I think the Orioles can win it all next year? You may have noticed what happens to teams after Showalter leaves. The Yankees and Diamondbacks both earned trips to the White House. Texas took longer but won two pennants under Showalter’s replacement. Like Meatloaf said, two out of three ain’t bad.

Admittedly, I’m grasping at straws, but sometimes you just need to get out of your own way. Peter Angelos has had seven years to see that Buck Showalter has nothing more to offer. If he decides to let him go while there are still talented, hopeful pieces for a new man to work with, there’s a 67% chance the club can put a championship run together.

And why not? It’s not like the Orioles are going anywhere now.

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

 

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Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Yes or no. Black and white. Over/under. We live in a binary world where it’s most comfortable to think there are two sides to every story. If there are more, it’s easier just to say “it’s complicated.” So, let’s keep it simple by saying there are two narratives for Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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The overriding train of thought after Boston’s blowout win in Game 1 is that Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is just too smart for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Beat writers are comparing him to an NHL coach. He has no stars but has brought his team together as a unit too formidable for LeBron James to take down on his own.

Game 1 suggests there is some truth to that. The Celtics stormed to a 26-point halftime lead. The Cavs nearly cut it in half during the third quarter, the only frame in which they surpassed 20 points and Boston did not. Then Stevens made another adjustment and his squad ran away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Moore stopped LeBron James in Game 1 of the Cavs/Boston series. Can he do it again?

Marcus Moore held LeBron James to 15 points on 5/16 shooting, 0/5 from three-point land. In fact, almost the entire Cleveland team was colder than Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ stare. Only Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon shot 50% or better. Calderon only played three minutes. Rodney Hood contributed a passable 42%. The rest were in the low 30s or worse.

It was not pretty but poor shooting offers a different explanation. The Cavs had an off night. It happens. You’re free to believe that Stevens is the next coming of Steve Kerr or if you want to double down on that hockey analogy, Gerard Gallant, but having a good plan is only half the job. You must go out and execute it.

Ask yourself a question. Is Marcus Morris better than Draymond Green? Can he shut LeBron down for an entire series? The Warriors defensive specialist battled James in three consecutive NBA Finals. He won some battles but never completely derailed the L-Train.

Will Morris? Please. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season out of Kansas. One season was spent with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the former NBDL. If he can dominate the game’s best player for a full series, you’d have to wonder what took him so long to become an elite player.

No, LeBron is going to get his. He’s averaging 28.6 ppg in these playoffs. Even if he doesn’t go off, 23 points is both a bad night and an eight-point improvement for the King. Then, the question is whether his teammates can raise their games, as well?

Is Tristan Thompson the key to the Cavs/Boston series?

Pundits buying into the Brad Stevens narrative are calling for Tyronn Lue to bring Tristan Thompson in for Kevin Love. In small doses, Thompson was effective against Indianapolis. The matchup issues for Cleveland are similar. So, that’s an option.

If it works, the ball will be in Stevens’ court. He’ll make an adjustment to which the Cavs will have to respond. And that’s my point. A best-of-seven series isn’t decided in the first game. If it was, what would be the point of playing more? It’s about adjustments. Don’t toll the bell for Cleveland’s doom just yet. But don’t ring it for Boston’s demise either.

Expect a much closer game tonight.

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

 

Is Ozzie Albies the second coming of Andruw Jones?

Is Ozzie Albies the second coming of Andruw Jones?

In 1996, the Atlanta Braves were World Series Champions. They had beaten their American League clones, the Cleveland Indians, in six games the previous fall.

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The Braves were in the midst of a 15-year run as the National League’s dominant team. From 1991-2005 they would win the National League West [’91-93] or the East [95-05] a combined 14 times, at least 90 games 13 times, 100 in a half-dozen seasons, and go to five World Series [1991, 92, 95, 96, 99]. For all that, the 1995 Series was the only one they would win. From that perspective, the 1996 season began a long decline.

It didn’t look that way at the time. Exactly the opposite in fact.

While it was lefty Steve Avery’s final season with the team, the rotation appeared ready to dominate for years. John Smoltz, five seasons away from his conversion to the closer’s role, was the 1996 NL Cy Young winner. Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were also on course for Hall of Fame careers.

There was speed and power up and down the lineup. Javy Lopez, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones, Marquis Grissom, Ryan Klesko, Terry Pendleton, Jermaine Dye, David Justice, Luis Polonia. The Braves were going to score runs.

Bobby Cox’s coaching staff was formidable as well. First base, third base, and bullpen coaches Pat Corrales, Jimy Williams, and Ned Yost would all become major league managers in their own right. And Bobby always had Leo Mazzone’s company. The venerated pitching coach only stopped rocking in the dugout when he stood up to go to the mound.

That said, the best advertisement for the Braves’ future was a teenager who came up to the club late in the season to play left field. Andruw Jones was 19. He hailed from the Caribbean island of Curacao, off the Venezuelan coast, and he had some pop in his bat. In 31 games, he drove hit five home runs, drove in 13 runs, scored 11, stole three bases, and showed excellent range in the outfield.

It was in the Fall Classic where he made the greatest impression, however. In his first World Series game, the teenager hit two home runs and drove in five in the second and third innings to spark a 12-1 rout in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees would lose Game 2 as well before rebounding to sweep the next four,. Nevertheless, Jones became a fixture in the Braves outfield for the next 11 seasons before bouncing around the major leagues for another five, the last two with the Yankees. His major league resume reads more than 400 home runs and 150 stolen bases, a career 62.8 Wins Above Replacement, five All-Star appearances, the 2005 MLB home run and National League RBI crowns, and ten Gold Gloves.

That’s a tough act to follow. The Braves seem to have a pipeline to Curacaoan talent, though. Two players from the tiny island have followed Jones’ path to the big leagues.

Andrelton Simmons didn’t quite work out. His first full season at Turner Field held promise. The shortstop finished the season with 150 hits, 59 RBI, 76 runs, and 17 HRs. When his production dipped in the next two campaigns, the Braves traded him to the Angels in 2015. Last season, Simmons rediscovered his hitting stroke, setting new career marks for hits, doubles, homers, runs, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks. He also struck out more, although that was a fair price for the increased production. The 28-year-old has the talent to enjoy a solid major league career. It just won’t be with the Braves.

Last season, Atlanta mined their private Caribbean island for a third time, bringing away a second-baseman. Ozzie Albies made his debut on August 1st and quickly turned heads. In 57 games before season’s end, he cracked 62 hits, knocked six out of the park and collected 28 ribbies. His power was complemented by speed. Albies scored 34 runs and stole eight bases in nine attempts.

This season, he is proving it’s not a fluke. With teams coming up on the season’s quarter-pole, the 21-year-old infielder is third in the majors in run production, having scored or driven in 67. Only Boston’s Mookie Betts and the Yankees Aaron Judge, with 69 and 68 respectively, surpass the islander. Albies’ batting line reads .304/.564/.868.

He could certainly walk more, especially as pitchers are now pitching around him. His slugging percentage is seventh-best in the National League. It was fourth going into the weekend. It’s his turn to adjust now. The youngster must lay off pitches outside the strike zone to get on base more.

Couple Albie’s numbers with first-baseman Freddie Freeman’s power, though, and it’s little wonder the Braves are setting the pace in the National League East. Still young, Albies has the potential to be even better as he learns. If he does, people will start to look at Curacao less as the home of Andruw Jones and more as a baseball hotbed.

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

 

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

Is the Cleveland Browns draft class new hope or another false dawn?

What is the most wonderful thing about the offseason? No matter what happened last year, you can let your imagination off the leash.

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Life is cruel, however. The first things to go after the initial meaningful game are hopes and dreams.

Occasionally, though, the unexpected happens. Everything falls into place. Hope is fulfilled, dreams realized, and your club goes all the way. In 2017, the Houston Astros won the World Series. Three months later, the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl.

In the latter case, a few thousand memes had to be revised to fit a new team.

If I were Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, the first person I’d call would be Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam. The Browns were winless in 2017. They’ve only won four games in the last three seasons and had just two winning seasons since their reincarnation in 1999.

Hi Jimmy? It’s Jeff. Listen I’ve got all these old Super Bowl memes lying around that we can’t use anymore…

Of course, some aren’t transferrable.

Dad, what’s a Super Bowl ring? How should I know, son? We’re brown.

That doesn’t make sense. And can a color see its shadow?

On the other hand, Ned Stark is universal. You can put Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Minnesota, whoever, in there and it works. It could be leased out to baseball, basketball, and soccer trolls, too. Haslam would see a return on his investment. The Back to the Future meme offers double value. After all, Marty McFly’s mentor is Doc Brown. It’s a natural fit.

Getting good value might be a problem for Lurie, however. The Browns already have some existing inventory.

Right now, there is optimism in the Dawg Pound. Cleveland is a .500 team again at least until Week 1. There may be reason to hold out hope. The Browns had a strong draft, landing Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward in the first round, as well as Georgia running back Nick Chubb in the second. The team also acquired quarterback Tyrod Taylor from Buffalo, receiver Jarvis Landry from the Dolphins, and right tackle Chris Hubbard from Pittsburgh. Left tackle Joe Thomas retired but Vegas sport books have the Browns as early favorites in two games, Week 3 v the New York Jets and Week 15 when the Cincinnati Bengals come to town.

It’s encouraging to think the Browns might be competitive in 2018 but let’s not jump the gun. They’ve made exciting personnel moves in the past. Tim Couch never panned out. Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III. If anything, Baker Mayfield might deserve our sympathy. The Oklahoma quarterback has a different skill set than Griffin and more self-control than Manziel but is another unique personality. The team has already demonstrated it can’t deal with characters, preferring to cookie-cutter everyone in the squad.

Nor does the executive show patience or long-term thinking. Its five first-round picks in the 2017/18 NFL Drafts were courtesy former Executive VP of Football Operations Sashi Brown’s draft policy. Building a club through the draft is a multi-season endeavour. It didn’t happen quickly enough for owner Jimmy Haslam. He fired Brown in December to resolve a power struggle between the executive and head coach Hue Jackson.

Cleveland Browns EVP of Football Operations Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson.

Brown wasn’t perfect as a GM. He took a gamble on Griffin’s injury history and lost. He traded away a second-rounder to Philadelphia that turned out to be Carson Wentz. As if the quarterback was guaranteed to enjoy the same success in Cleveland as he has in Philly.

Brown clashed with Jackson because his focus was on collecting draft picks rather than paying too much to free agents or in trades with other teams. The team is now benefitting from that policy and likely will for the next few seasons.

Like Jackson, Haslam is impatient. When he hired both Jackson and Brown in January 2016, it was his fourth franchise reboot in five years as owner. It’s easy to imagine the team struggling early, Jackson turning to Mayfield too soon in the young quarterback’s tutelage, the team struggling further, and Haslam initiating the search for a new coach before season’s end. It’s more fun to dream, however.

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

Yankees showing they have pitching depth to go with the sluggers

Yankees showing they have pitching depth to go with the sluggers

If you’re going to cherry-pick one statistic to rate a team in any sport, it should be goal/run/point difference. Some teams can score like nobody’s business but can’t defend to save their lives. Others are just the opposite. They can’t do anything with the ball but won’t let you have any fun, either. When the margin between for and against is wide, though, you know you have a team that can do it all.

The World Series champion Houston Astros have the league’s fourth-best record at 24-15 but are lapping the field in run difference. They have scored 86 more runs than their pitchers have allowed. That would suggest they run hot and cold, which is why you must be careful when picking cherries.

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On the other hand, the league’s two best teams are running neck-and-neck in run difference. They’ve also been playing a three-game series at Yankee Stadium that wraps up tonight. The Bronx Bombers [26-10] have taken the first two to wrest the American League East lead from the Boston Red Sox [25-11]. Aaron Boone’s squad is on an 8-game winning streak in which their hitting has largely covered for a slumping pitching staff.

The first two games were 4-0 shutouts over the typically potent Astros. In the first, 25-year-old lefty Jim Montgomery only lasted an inning. ‘Gumby’s’ injury was later diagnosed as a flexor strain in his elbow that will cost him 6-8 weeks. The bullpen covered for him with eight scoreless innings. In the second game, Luis Severino pitched a much-appreciated complete game shutout. He surrendered only five hits while striking out ten. From there, the bats took over.

Masahiro Tanaka couldn’t get out of the seventh, giving up three runs after pitching six scoreless innings in the series finale. The bullpen surrendered two more, but Yankee bats came alive in the ninth, ringing up three runs to come home to New York with three of the four games and an unbeaten start to May.

Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez can now rub elbows with Giancarlo Stantaon, as well.

Cleveland came to town to open the six-game homestand. The Yankees raked Terry Francona’s staff for 19 runs in the three games and needed most of them. Boone’s pitchers surrendered 12.

Things settled down a bit in the first game against the BoSox. Severino went six-plus, surrendering two runs and the Yankees eked out a 3-2 win. Both teams went to town in the second game but the Bombers prevailed 9-6. They’ll have a chance to extend the winning streak to nine while adding a small cushion to their division lead.

The unbeaten run is something of a surprise. Montgomery’s loss is hardly the Yanks’ only injury concern. First baseman Greg Bird has been nursing a broken spur in his ankle. Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury’s plantar fasciitis and hip problems will keep him out until June. Pitcher Adam Warren will be out a couple of weeks with a back issue. Relievers Tommy Kahnle and Luis Cessa are also on the 10-day DL.

The Yankees have powered through, however. Opponents thought they’d have to deal with three sluggers coming into the season. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and new signing Giancarlo Stanton are all on nine home runs through the season’s first six weeks but shortstop Didi Gregorius leads the way with an even ten. The group has combined to position New York as the league’s most prolific hitters. They’ve scored 209 runs already. Boston is second with 200.

More importantly to their postseason hopes — I know, it’s early — is the pitching staff’s contribution. As Aaron Boone has had to reach into the minors to keep arms in the bullpen, Larry Rothchild’s group has remained stingy. They’ve combined with the starters to yield the American League’s third-fewest runs, behind the Astros and Red Sox. The Yankees’ ERA is a respectable 3.46, their WHIP 1.165.

The Yankees rotation is putting together solid numbers despite Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka's struggles.

Rothchild has some work to do with Tanaka and Sonny Gray. The Japanese star has decent numbers. In 46 innings he’s walked only ten. His WHIP is below the team average at 1.101. He is struggling to make the out pitch, however. Gray is a more alarming problem. His control is way off. The former Oakland ace has issued 21 passes in 33 IP and is allowing six runs per nine innings.

On the other hand, Severino is handling duties as an ace with aplomb and CC Sabbathia is rolling through lineups as the fourth man in the rotation. If Kahnle and Cessa return soon, the Yankees have a chance to open up some distance on the Red Sox.

The first step will be completing the series sweep tonight.

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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.