Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mad Props Playoff Preview - Spurs v. Jazz


#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. Utah Jazz (Game 1, Sunday 1:00 PM, at San Antonio)

December 31, 2011, @ San Antonio – Spurs 104, Jazz 89: Coach Pop rings in the new year with win #800; a balanced attack, led by 23 from Manu, trumps Al Jefferson’s lonely 21 and 11.

February 20, @ Utah – Spurs 106, Jazz 102: 20 from Timmy, 23 (and 11 assists) from Tony and a clutch Richard Jefferson triple prove too much for a balanced Utah attack, led by double-doubles from Big Al (20 and 11) and Paul Millsap (16 and 11).

April 8, @ San Antonio – Spurs 114, Jazz 104: Manu and Tony Parker combine for 51 and Tim Duncan kicks in 13 and 16, as the Spurs cruise past (stop me if you’ve heard this) Al Jefferson (19 and 10) and the Jazz for their 11th consecutive win.

April 9, @ Utah – Jazz 91, Spurs 84: Pop punts an 11-game win streak in the second of a home-and–home, though the Jazz need 25 from Devin Harris to dispose of a spirited Spurs supporting cast.

Got It Made: Manu Ginobili has taken the floor just twice against the Jazz this season, but in that limited burn he has been an absolute terror. While New Year’s Eve was something of a statistical anomaly (9-of-10, with 5-of-6 from 3 doesn’t happen often), Manu nearly managed to replicate the that 24-minute, 23-point form on April 8, against notching 23 points, this time in 28 minutes, despite making just four of 10 shots. Checked by the likes of DeMarre Carroll, Jamaal Tinsley and Gordon Hayward, he earned an awesome 15 free throw attempts, making 14. It’s now playoff time, and, barring injury, he will be Euro-stepping around and through the same defensive contingent for at least half an hour (and, conservatively, 18+ points) per game. The biggest threats to Manu’s minutes now are Spurs blowouts.

Also worth a look for the Spurs is Tim Duncan on the boards. In three meetings with the Jazz, Timmy averaged nearly 11 rebounds per, though he only reached double figures once. As a scorer, Duncan will provide the 12-18 that his team needs, but forecasting when he’ll take a back and when he’ll be driving is a crapshoot. However, in the postseason Duncan has grabbed fewer than 9.9 rebounds per game just once since his rookie year and managed 10+ in five of six games in last year’s opening round series against Memphis. This year, against a similarly deep and hefty (though more athletic) front line, look for a similar performance against Duncan

On the other side, we’ve got Al Jefferson – whom I regard as a poor man’s Duncan – who has played extremely well against the Spurs, both this season (four double-doubles; 19+ points three times) and last (22-8 or better in two of three games, once in San Antone). Al’s lines will call for something on the order of 18-10 to hit on the over. I am (a bit more than) cautiously optimistic, though I’ll probably wait to see the early returns on in his return to the postseason before taking the plunge.

Meanwhile, we’ve got Devin Harris, who has played phenomenally of late (16.5, with 5.3 assists and 42% on 3-pointers in his last 12 games) and has performed well against the Spurs, averaging 16.5 and nearly 5 assists per game, hitting 42% of his 3s (weird, right?) and notching three of his top 15 scoring performances of the season. Harris strikes me as the type of player capable of ignoring stakes and shaking off a hostile environment and working his way to 15+. With Tinsley and Earl Watson behind him, the minutes ought to be there (though guarding Tony Parker, they will not be easy minutes), and Harris plays (~14 points) should be live.

Look To Fade: I no longer bet against the Spurs. I used to “try and avoid it.” I now simply no longer do it. If you’re feeling frisky, you might roll the dice with an under bet on Tony Parker’s points in Game 3 (he’s scored just 16, 18 and 12 points in each of his last three playoff road openers), in hopes that keeping up with Devin Harris will lead to foul trouble or an off shooting night. It’s worth noting, however, that only twice in the four regular seasons has Parker failed to score 20+ against the Jazz.

Tempt fate if you must. I’ll be staying away.

On the other side, if I encounter a Gordon Hayward line in excess of 14/15 points, the fade will be on. Hayward has proven me dead wrong by developing into an above-average (and improving) wing scorer. However, between his lackluster performance (10 points per game, on 14-of-37 shooting; topped 12 once) against San Antonio (namely Kawhi Leonard) this season and the prospect of having to check Manu (both fatigue and foul risk), I’m not terribly optimistic about Hayward’s outlook in this series.

The Call: Spurs in 4. Not to denigrate the Jazz, who’ve played some excellent ball to earn entry into these playoffs and look to have a very bright future, but they were unable to stay within double digits of the Spurs in San Antonio, and their lone regular win came with Duncan, Parker and Ginobili inactive. And even that was hard fought. Pop’s done fucking around.

Mad Props Playoff Preview - Thunder v. Mavericks


#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks (Game 1, Saturday 9:30 PM, at OKC)

December 29, 2011, @ OKC – Thunder 104, Mavericks 102: Behind 29 and 10 from Dirk, Dallas takes a lead into the final second, when it is confiscated by Kevin Durant.

January 2, @ Dallas – Mavericks 100, Thunder 87: Dirk with another outstanding performance this one sufficient to end OKC’s perfect start.

February 1, @ Dallas – Thunder 95, Mavericks 86: Mavericks inexplicably (well, Jason Terry had 25 and Shawn Marion and Brandan Wright combined for 24) stay within single digits despite 33 from Russ, 23-12 from KD, 10 blocks from Serge and a near-triple-double by Harden.

March 5, @ OKC – Thunder 95, Mavericks 91: Despite 27 from Dirk and a combined 12-for-38 by Westbrook and Durant, an 8-0 run to close the game gives the Thunder 30th win in 38 games.

Got It Made: Had you asked me a month ago, I’d have pushed every last chip to the middle of the table with Russ Westbrook. Between Jason Kidd and Roddy Buckets, the Mavs do have a player with the combination of size, speed and defensive acumen to slow Russ down. However, Russ has struggled recently (sub-40% shooting in 5 of last 9 regular season games; 4-of-24 from 3 in that span). In the meantime, the Thunder have dropped seven straight against playoff-caliber competition. I’m not eager to wager against them (in Game 1, Russ’ 28 and 5 paid, though not the one-point victory), out it’s become a bit difficult to blindly assume the consistency of either.

Now, this may be a bit obvious, but if you’re looking to the upside with OKC, Kevin Durant is the way to go. For starters, and I will repeat this as often as is necessary… Greatness is, for lack of a better word, good. Greatness works.

Durant only topped the likely 28/29 at which his lines will be set once in four games against Dallas in 2011-12, but he scored 22+ on each occasion, including a 27 in Dallas January 2, and shot an uncharacteristic 13-for-37 (combined) in his other 22- and 23-point showings. Combine this with the fact that he lit up the Mavs to the tune of 28+ in each 2010-11 regular season meeting and 23+ in each of five playoff matchups, the fact that he’s a 28.6-point per game playoff scorer and had dropped 29+ in five on the trot entering the playoffs and baby, you got a stew goin’! His 25-point Game 1 showing fell three-ish short of the mark, but unless you’re expecting a great many more sub-40% shooting performances from KD, I’d look to capitalize on the opportunity wager on the 23 year-old, three-time scoring champ.

For those looking for upside with the Mavs, Dirk Nowitzki is as he has been against OKC, scoring 26+ in three of four 2011-12 regular season meetings and 25 in Game 1 (though this required two LATE free throws) after going for 26+ in five of seven 2010-11 meetings, including four of five in the conference finals games. As long as he is healthy, Dirk will be on the floor, he will be the primary option and will still be Dirk Nowitzki.

Where is likely to find a bit more value however, is with the Mavs’ #2 option – though I bet not if you ask him – Jason Terry. A man that I have referred to as “a sane J.R. Smith,” Terry’s consistent productivity against the OKC makes him an excellent limited-downside play. Heading into last night’s ultra-efficient playoff opener (20 on an awesome 8-of-10 from the field; 4-of-5 from 3), which paid on the over (14.5) by halftime, Terry had scored 15+ in each of the team’s four previous meetings, whether shooting extremely well in two games at home (a combined 40, on 13-of-22), or struggling (34 on 13-of-36) in two in OKC. In these teams’ seven 2010-11 meetings, despite only shooting 50% or better twice, Terry hit double figures six times, including three outings of 20+.

Despite Dirk’s ownership of the Mavs and Terry’s the role as sixth man, the gap in their roles narrows significantly come playoff time. There is a chance it won’t be pretty, but Jason Terry, neither a hothead nor a foul trouble risk, will be on the floor (he’s played 29+ minutes in each of his last 11 v. OKC) and will, as he always does, ooze fortitude as the Mavs’ top backcourt option.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mad Props Playoff Preview - Heat v. Knicks


#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks (Game 1, Saturday 3:30 PM, at Miami)

January 27, @ Miami – Heat 99, Knicks 89: Shockingly, 21 from Bill walker and 43 3-point attempts are not enough to overcome 59 from LeBron and Wade.

February 23, @ Miami – Heat 102, Knicks 88: Linsanity hits South Beach, is quickly smothered by LeBron and Wade.

April 15, @ New York – Heat 93, Knicks 85: Carmelo Anthony scores 42 of Knicks’ 85, singlehandedly saves ABC’s second half ratings.

Got It Made: Dude… LeBron and Carmelo.

Remember those things I’ve said (many, many times actually) about keeping it simple and not making a habit of betting against greatness? This is that. I will be shocked if either of these guys fails to hit 30 in any game in this series. Keep it simple.

Additionally, and I maybe clouded by a borderline familial love, keep an eye out for any J.R. Smith scoring lines. Given the Knicks dearth of scorers behind Carmelo and (sometimes) Amar’e, to say nothing of J.R.’s shall we say “enthusiastic” approach to projecting the ball at the rim and the high potential for LeBron and Wade to bring out his swagtastic best/worst, lines you find (likely ~12.5) are sure to be live, and could prove conservative.

Look To Fade: You remember that thing about not betting against greatness? Well, in a similar vein, go ahead and feel free to bet against proven mediocrity. In the case of Knicks-Heat, we’re talking about the likes of Mario Chalmers and Landry Fields. (I have actually seen lines for both, on multiple sites)

In the case of Chalmers, he’s failed to make an impact against the Knicks this season as either a scorer (combined 15 points on 6-of-17 in three meetings this season) or a distributor (7 assists). While it’s likely that he’s find the range at least once in the series, given this, along with the likelihood of LeBron and Wade shifting into top gear offensively, we’re not terribly likely to see ‘Rio doing a great deal of damage.

Fields, on the other hand, has simply been putrid of late. And yet, thanks to two magical months last season, a prominent work address and a handful of oops from a now-famous former houseguest, his status as a relevant NBAer remains cemented. In his last 17 games, only three times has he scored more than 10 points, and only once has he topped five rebounds. Checking Dwyane Wade and switching onto LeBron in the pick-and-roll is not likely to reverse either of these trends.

The Call: LeBron and ‘Melo will each score a ton, and the rest of the Heat > rest of the Knicks. ‘Melo will go nova once - Miami in 5.

Mad Props Playoff Preview - Bulls v. 76ers


#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers (Game 1, Saturday 1:00 PM, at Chicago)

2011-12 Meetings
February 1, @ Philadelphia – 76ers 98, Bulls 82: Still riding high, a balanced Philly attack (five guys with between 14 and 19 points) blows out the Bulls.

March 4, @ Philadelphia – Bulls 96, 76ers 91: A similarly balanced showing (17 from Thad Young, 16 from Jrue Holiday and three guys with 14) fall short against 35 from Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah’s 18 boards.

March 4, @ Chicago – Bulls 89, 76ers 80: No Rose, no problem. The Bulls overcome 30 points by Holiday, behind five double figure scorers.

Got It Made: Assuming a nicked-up Derrick Rose that missed virtually half the regular season needs a minute to regain his MVP form, and given the offensive struggles of Carlos Boozer (11 points, 7.3 rebounds per game, 42% FG) and Luol Deng (more on him in a second) against the Sixers, balance is likely to be the Bulls’ greatest offensive weapon in this matchup. Worth a look, however, is Joakim Noah on the boards. In three previous meetings this season, JoNo has grabbed an average of 12 boards against the Sixers (who allow a combined 25 rebounds/48 to opposing PF/C’s), and has grabbed 11+ boards in three of his last four home games against the Sixers, including 11 this past St. Paddy’s Day.

Judging by these teams previous meetings, the Bulls’ approach to stopping the Sixers is forcibly casting Jrue Holiday as primary scorer. In three meetings this season, Holiday averaged 21 points (and 4.7 assists), but required a whopping 20 shots per game to do so. Given the prevailing market (pts+assts lines have ranged from 18.5 and 20.5), Holiday would look to be in play in Round 1. As a result, however, anyone looking at Holiday as an upside play will be paying full retail.

Looking under the radar a bit, Thaddeus Young presents an intriguing opportunity. In three regular season meetings with the Bulls (against whom frontcourt players have shot an uncharacteristic 45%+ this season), Young averaged 14.7 points (including games of 19 and 17), shot better than 50% from the field and grabbed eight rebounds per game, including… 4.7 offensive rebounds (!!) per game. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Thad has fared fairly well at the United Center. Prior to this season’s eight-point showing (which came on 4-of-8 and was accompanied by five offensive rebounds), in his previous four trips to Chicago, Young has averaged 16.5 points (on just under 50% shooting) and 6.8 rebounds per game, three times grabbing at least three offensive boards. Lines for Thad may prove a tad challenging to find, but assuming they’re based on his season averages of 12.8 and 5, could provide decent value.

Look To Fade: The phonetic brothers, Luol and Lou Will. This matchup (read Andre Iguodala) has been a disaster of late for Deng, who’s shot 3-for-11 each of the last three times he’s suited up against the Sixers (last March 28, and twice this year, plus a DNP), and promises to have his hands full against Iggy, if not actually keeping him from scoring, then keeping him off the boards and actually getting free for a shot of his own.

On the flipside, we have Lou Williams, Philly’s bench spark, for whom this matchup is an absolute nightmare. In three outings against the Bulls this season Lou shot a putrid 25% (7-of-28) from the field and managed just 9.7 points per game. Only against the Hawks (against whom he at least made a third of his shots) did Williams take the floor multiple times this season with a lower scoring average. Throw in the fact that he’s topped 14 points (his 2011-12 season average was 14.9) just twice in his last seven outings against Chicago, along with the Bulls allowing a mere 17.2 points per 48 to opposing two guards, and Lou’s inevitable 14.5-15.5 scoring lines look a bit inflated.

The Call: Bulls in 5. The Sixers lacks the consistency, cohesion and, over the past couple of months, confidence to hang with the Bulls. They are, however, healthy and still boast an impressive stable of athletes, led by arguably the league’s best (no worse than top-3) perimeter defenders. The Bulls depth and stifling defense are sufficient for easy entry into the conference semis, but there’s liable to be at least a minor hiccup in Rose’s reintegration into the lineup. This, combined with the inability of either Boozer or Deng to generate much offense against the Philly frontcourt will allow the Sixers to steal one.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mad Props! #PointGod

That is more like it. Now I’m smart! Totally saw that backdoor cover coming.

Or sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. I've heard it both ways. 

Chris Paul did not have the best game his career last night. Hell, he needed a pair of late free throws and an irrelevant breakaway dunk with a second left to get to 29 points and assists (21 & 8). But last night, as he frequently does, he put on full display why he is a top-three MVP candidate and would not be a travesty as an upset winner of the award.

In the waning moments of Wednesday night’s game in Denver, a vaguely familiar sound began to rain down from the Pepsi Center rafters…

BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!

Born in Boston in 1982, unifying sworn enemies against a common foe, the battle cry permeated the NBA in the 1980s, making a cameo any time a lesser opponent pushed Magic Johnson and the visiting Showtime Lakers to the brink and rocking packed arenas at playoff time. Respect. A tip-of-the-cap to the NBA’s preeminent Western power, it accompanied the Lakers on virtually every road trip for the remainder of the decade. It was the ultimate legitimizer.

BEAT L.A.! BEAT L.A.!

On Wednesday night, it was bestowed upon the Clippers. This is, of course, not to say that the Clippers own the Western Conference, or that they ever will. Nor is it my goal to say that the Clippers are inherently unworthy (though there is fair bit of historical failure to contend with) of the respect of opposing fans. I’m not even saying the gesture carries the same weight it did 30 years ago. But it was weird.

And it was all because of Chris Paul.

This season, statistically, Paul is your average, run-of-the-mill #pointgod. Down a bit from his incomprehensibly dominant 2007-08 and 2008-09 form, Paul’s 2011-12 performance is the third best of his career and ranks in the very top tier of the NBA’s elite.

His 29.2 ranks second to LeBron’s 31.6 in Hoopdata’s Adjusted PER. Only LeBron (11.2) and Kevin Love (10.07) have more Adjusted Win Shares than Paul’s 9.98. Among point guards, only Lou Williams, Brandon Jennings and Gary Neal turn the ball over less frequently than Paul, who is coughing the ball up a career-low 11.06 times per 100 possessions. He ranks third in the league (behind Rajon Rondo and Nash) in assists per game (9.0), Assists+ (adjusted for 3-pointers; 10.2) and trials only Steve Nash and Mario Chalmers in True Shooting Percentage. He leads the league in steals (141), steals per game (2.5) and steals Steal Rate (3.7 per 100 possessions). Still brilliant. Historic, actually.

He is the reason the Clippers are one pace for the best winning percentage in franchise history (currently .629; the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves hold the current mark of .598) nearly six percentage points better than 2005-06 team that holds the mark for the L.A. era.

Despite his sometimes maddening (but let’s honest, sometimes funny and awe-inspiring) penchant for the dark arts, Chris Paul is every bit the genius maestro that we’ve come to expect. He controls time and space on a basketball court better than anyone alive today and owns property near the very top of the historical list. He is the only reason that a Los Angeles Clippers jersey has ever heard a “Beat L.A.” chant in person.

He is, as always, the very pulse of his team. And the circumstances under which he’s become the unequivocal soul of the Clippers – just four months after his arrival – put this season’s effort on par with anything he’s ever done. In a season in which he’s been shorthanded in terms of both on-court production (I’m not going to get into it here, but Blake Griffin has shown shockingly little, if any growth in either his skill set or maturity) and leadership (Chauncey Billups' absence, combined with Blake’s aforementioned developmental hiccup), Paul has a carried a monumental laughingstock to within half a game of a first-ever division crown. 


As it did a year ago, the annual race for NBA’s top individual honor will come down to a photo finish between one of the NBA’s young, shining lights, a beacon of all that is good about today’s game (and yes, Kevin Durant absolutely is all of that) and the most overpowering physical force and greatest statistical wonder of our time. As with last year, I feel that LeBron James is the award’s most deserving recipient. However, in the event that LeBron’s time in the corner is not yet up, I hope Chris Paul receives the honor. This will not happen of course, but give it a thought the next time you watch Chris Paul – flanked by a supporting cast that is above average, but by no means elite, and not quite the headiest crew– makes a fairly important regular season game feel like something more.

Looking ahead, proper lines will be harder to find in these final days of the regular season, with wild swings in playing time impacting matchups all over the court. But if a palatable number on Chris Paul (in Phoenix) were to pop up, it’d certainly be worth a look. I don’t think his pedal comes up from the floor the rest of the way.

Until next time...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mad Props! Back To Basics

“Don’t make a habit of betting against greatness.”
- Me, yesterday 


Chance are, at one time or another, you have embarked on a quest to shed a few extra pounds. No, no, no ladies! Please don’t leave! I didn’t say you were fat, I was just… aw, c’mon!

Sigh.

For those of you still in attendance, if this has ever been you, it’s also likely that at some point you’ve received the single most maddening piece of “encouragement” imaginable on this front: “All you’ve got to do is eat well and exercise.”

You don’t say. Is that all?

While ignoring the box of Oreo cupcakes in the office break room, the possibility that your wife might whip up some bacon jam (seriously) or order goat cheese-stuffed, pancetta-wrapped dates (every bit as good as they sound), this is perfectly sound advice. At its core, a reduction in consumption, combined with increased physical exertion will result in weight loss and improved conditioning. Simple.

So what’s this got to do with one man’s mission to deliver the gospel of the prop bet to the world?

It’s time to get back to basics.

Not that it’s even remotely apparent based on the early returns, but I do in fact have a clue as to what I am doing here, and rules by which I abide the vast majority of the time. For starters, there is no need to get cute. A win is a win. They are every bit as sweet when you ride the obvious greatness of Kobe, LeBron or Chris Paul to payday, as when you get lucky with Nick Young, Darren Collison or an off night from Kevin Durant. In addition to aligning yourself with the best in the business, these plays have the potential to be as much fun as anything you’ll do with your clothes on, because if you're on board during one of those games (I had "Kobe over 35.5 points" on the night of 81), it is special. There's no bonus for showing off how freaking smart you are.

On a night when a red hot Carmelo Anthony (28+ in 7 of 11 games before last night; five games of 30+; 47% or better nine times), at home, with playoff position on the line – admittedly against an elite defense, but one against which he’s scored 25+ three times this season, and one more concerned with arriving at the postseason rested and in good health than anything else – hangs obscene 35-12-10 (Over 27 points or Over 9.5 rebounds + assists were available in the -120 range), you want to be on board. Conversely, there is no feeling more demoralizing than watching said torching and marveling, “wow, I’d sorta forgotten just how devastating ‘Melo is when he’s rolling,” while simultaneously praying for Landry Fields, your “contrarian value play,” to miraculously eclipse 8.5 points.

Keep it simple.

Align your interests with those of legitimately good, in-form players, who’ve got something to play for, against favorable matchups. Simple.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Mad Props! Inauspicious


Well, that was awesome.

I am choosing to view inauspicious debut of Mad Props not as a portend of imminent disaster, but as a test of discipline and resolve, administered by a pair of all-time greats. A possible payday undone by an overwhelming finish in Newark, driving home a stark reminder of my “don't make a habit of betting against greatness” policy, followed immediately by the encouragement of a foul-plagued first quarter that transformed suddenly into a no-effin-way-your-under-is-winning first half, topped off by a just-for-good-measure three overtimes – good times all around.

First, the fans in Newark, deprived of seeing both Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams, received value for their entertainment dollar in the form of a magnificent fourth quarter from LBJ. Actually, not even a full quarter. It wasn’t even half a quarter. In the game’s final 4:48, having received a “in two weeks these guys are Brooklyn’s problem” reception, LeBron went full 48-Special, scoring Miami’s last 17 points (bringing his total for the evening to an Under-27.5-busting 37) to seal the 101-98 win over the shorthanded-but-game Nets. Hell, if I’d known Miami’s game plan would involve more than simply paying for postage I’d have coughed up the cash to be in the Pru. Even on TV, it was awe-inspiring.

With that said, I am unclear as to the objective of Erik Spoelstra’s game plan. Sure, the genesis of this complaint is largely self-interest, but even the impartial observer in me is slightly puzzled by the decision to rest the perpetually nicked-up D-Wade but run Chris Bosh and LeBron– the latter only a day removed from a minor ankle tweak – for 35 minutes apiece in the interest of securing an inconsequential regular season victory against a lotto-bound opponent.

Make no mistake, Spo did right by the fans, his superstar (LeBron clearly felt like being out there) and the immortalized words of Herm Edwards, and all’s well that ends well… but why?

Meanwhile in Utah, two first quarter fouls in roughly 9:30 – again, on the road in the second half of a back-to-back – appeared to place Dirk Nowiztki’s bid for 24+ (he had 6 in the quarter) in jeopardy. Yeah, about that…

Dirk returned a couple of minutes into the second quarter and, thanks to a whopping eight free throw attempts (and makes), 3-of-6 from the field and no more personal fouls, proceeded to hang 14 on the Jazz in the stanza, and took 20 points into the locker room at the half. Dirk did little to inspire hope after the break, peppering the dream with a pair of 15-foot daggers before ending the misery with the first of two freebies with just over three minutes remaining.

I say the following in all honesty – be it LeBron extending hope before extinguishing it with a blinding nightcap or the efficient steamroller that is Dirk requiring neither fourth quarter nor THREE OVERTIMES to lay waste what was frankly an aggressive line – if you’re going to go down in flames, there are more maddening way to have it happen than that Monday night smackdown. One logical theory. Two prime opportunities. No bad calls. No hard luck. Two gameplans zagging where I thought they’d zig. Two of the greats doing what they do. That you can live with.

Let’s move on, shall we?

On a fairly light Tuesday slate (5 games) – one highlighted by a Celtics-Knicks/Spurs-Lakers TNT doubleheader (tips off at MSG at 8:00 Eastern) – I say we keep it local (to me, at least) with a contrarian value play (tread lightly; no need to bet the farm here) on a team still battling for playoff seeding, squaring off against an aging (elderly) opponent whose playoff position is pretty well set in stone. At The Garden, where the rejuvenated post-D’Antoni Knicks – locked in battle with the 76ers for the East’s bottom two spots, take on the set-in-stone Celtics, who are part of the 3-way logjam at 4-5-6, but, thanks to a 4.5-game lead on both the Sixers and Knicks, are a virtual lock to finish as the #4 seed by virtue of winning the Atlantic Division. I’m hesitant to predict a full-blown Boston mail-in… but I’m not sure why.

Ray Allen and Paul Pierce – both of whom will apparently suit up Tuesday night – were listed as questionable until well into the afternoon and are unlikely to see particularly heavy minutes. As a result, increased responsibility for checking a red-hot Carmelo Anthony will fall to Mickael Pietrus, with double-team help where appropriate. This, along with some possible added rest for Melo (I’m avoiding both his scoring line of 27 and Reb/Asst line of 9.5, with both over’s at -125) in what ought to be a fairly easily winnable game against the C’s second unit, should open up opportunities – both in the form of minutes and touches for one Landry Fields. Fields has been decidedly less-than stellar of late, but getting plus odds (+105) on his reaching 9 points – a mark he reached in four straight games prior to the last two – in a game that could feature a lot of sitting stars epitomizes the ugly contrarian play (seriously, I don’t even feel good about it, which tells me there is something there) that stealthily pays.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Mad Props! The Maiden Voyage

What if your performance at work was scrutinized similarly to that of a professional athlete? I’m not talking annual, semiannual or ever quarterly assessments, but having your effort, attitude, consistency, (of course) performance, hell, even your body language dissected… not even daily, but in real-time. In granular detail. Publicly. Like, on TV. National TV. Multiple channels. What if an army of finely coiffed talking heads was perpetually lying in wait to scrutinize your every move?

“I’ve been around this game for years and from where I sit, it’s clear that his effort on that last interoffice memo was NOT where it needed to be”…total BrickBreaker immersion in each of the last six staff meetings? You tell me he’s not quitting on his team… another failure to circle back and touch base subsequent to the offsite symposium highlighting the synergistic dovetailing of best practices? Unacceptable!” (I count 9 in that last one. Challenge extended)

Skip Bayless falsifying achievements in his youth at endeavors which you regularly neglect. Colin Cowherd inquiring about the identity and whereabouts of your father. Repeated assertions that you are “more Vince Carter than Kobe Bryant.” It would be awkward.

I shudder at the thought.

With that said, however, I can only imagine that the resulting hypervigilance – born, if not out of a genuine desire to scale the ranks of one’s profession, at least out of a desire to be left the hell alone – has a decidedly positive effect on a person’s “game.” Thus despite multiple half-starts and failures to launch (let’s see, off the top of my head, there are the short-lived “Hardwood Hype’s As Yet Unnamed Links Collection,” later reincarnated as the too-easy-to-neglect weekly “Plays of the Week,” “Lines of the Night” and “What To Watch For”), as part of a longstanding and ongoing effort to address issues relating to consistency, I ambitiously lob another idea at the wall with the Mad Props, a regular look at the day that was and the night that will be in the NBA troposphere. (I'm making this a thing - just watch!)


If you’ve crossed paths at any point with the wellspring of short-form brilliance (I've heard other, less effusive descriptions as well) that is my Twitter feed, you’re likely aware of my undying affection for the sports betting, namely NBA player propositions (props). Being an incorrigible dork, one immersed in the statistics and day-to-day goings-on of the NBA, I view player prop lines the way a trader does a quote on any financial asset. For more than 3 years I have regularly placed these “a la carte” wagers – and actually done so at a moderately profitable clip.

In the coming days, I will kick off a twice weekly column focused on the “prop market” on the website (stay tuned for the details) of a respected member of the sports gaming industry in Las Vegas. As an accompaniment to the column, which will be more concerned with trends and developments than personal results, and in the interest of holding myself accountable for both solid research and fiscal discipline, Mad Props will provide a forum for me to talk out the one or two prop bet(s) (if it's more, I'm doing it wrong) I make on a nightly(ish) basis, while assessing the results and rationale from the evening prior.

Shall we get started?

With many playoff-bound teams' positions already set (if not in stone, at least in hardening glue), in light of the events of Sunday afternoon, it's not unreasonable to expect that some stars, particularly those nursing minor nicks or with a lot of miles on the odometer, will see limited burn. On this, the second in a pair a of back-to-backs, two stars in particular – both playing away from their loyal, gate-revenue-generating home fans – jump out as prime "1 & 3" (1st/3rd quarter only) candidates, and thus less likely than one might expect to rack up big numbers:

LeBron James Under 27½ Points (-115) at New Jersey. (UPDATE: by the time I posted, he'd scored 8 in the first quarter against the Deron-less Nets.) Troubling though the early productivity may seem, he'd need to play all four quarters (yeah right!) at roughly this clip to eclipse this number. The Heat are essentially locked in to the East’s #2 spot, and again it’s the second half of a road back-to-back, on  the heels of LeBron tweaking his ankle yesterday at MSG – after which he was not quite the same. Even if the ankle is fine, with the playoffs approaching, it’s likely that Spo will value rest over a victory over the lottery-bound Nets.

AND...

Dirk Nowitzki Under 24 Points (-120) at Utah. A scenario similar to that of LeBron James, sans the fresh injury. Any kind of pre-playoff rejuvination is the most valuable commodity for veteran stars these days. Sure, the Mavs seemingly have a bit to play for yet (1.5 out of #5 spot), but with the teams immediately beneath them in the standings (#7 Nuggets; .5 game behind & #8 Rockets, 1.5 back) squaring off for the second consecutive night, the negative impact of a loss is somewhat mitigated. Plus, a bit of downward mobility might be welcome in Big-D, with the alternative being a first-round matchup against a Laker team that in all likelihood will secure the West's #3 seed and, without Kobe Bryant, just put the finishing touches on a four-game season series sweep of the Mavs.


It’s impossible to say whether this is the one that’s going to stick – and last I checked, Vegas is offering +240 on my reaching the one-month milestone – but I humbly ask that you humor me. Any and all feedback on these posts will be considered, and I iron some wrinkles myself, the flow of the posts will go in the only direction possible from here.

Cool? Thanks! Until tomorrow...

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Magic and Bird Take Broadway - A Review



From Francios Battiste’s comically squeaky Bryant Gumbel (seriously, that’s either an inside joke or BG really ticked someone off) to Tug Coker’s almost cartoonishly awkward Larry Bird to a whirlwind of scenes that at times feels rushed, the six-person production of “Magic/Bird” is certainly not without flaw. With that said, however, the play does well to highlight the major milestones (accompanied beautifully by a backdrop of video screens for game footage) in the NBA’s most fascinating rivalry-turned-friendship-turned-brotherhood. In doing so, the production simultaneously informs from a high level those unfamiliar with the tale while engaging the hardcore fan through personal encounters (lunch at Ms. Bird’s house during the Converse shoot is awesome) that exist only in secondhand accounts and the memories of the legendary participants.

On Thursday night, ahead of the show’s official April 11 launch, I had the privilege of attending a preview performance of “Magic/Bird,” the stage adapted retrospective chronicling the evolution of the relationship between the most inextricably linked NBA superstars of the past 40 years. Written (Eric Simonson), produced (Tony Ponturo and Fran Kirmser) and directed (Thomas Kail) by the team responsible for delivering the story of legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi to Broadway, “Magic/Bird” admirably attempts to encapsulate in 90 minutes a tale of for which ten times the allotment would likely have proven insufficient.

The greatest challenge the play faces is one of balance, as it strives to delve deep enough into the minutiae of the NBA and the subjects’ lives to appease the longtime hoops fan while remaining relatable to the casual fan (or non-NBA fan theater-goer). In striving to serves these two masters, the play tends to skew toward the mainstream attendee more so than toward the NBA junkie – understandably, since the production is ultimately a for-profit commercial venture – but is reluctant to fully commit to a side of the fence.

The issues of race, HIV and the increased influence of national television interests on the NBA are touched upon but never fully explored. Whether due to time constraints (again, comprehensively telling this story in 90 minutes is one ambitious undertaking) or a desire to stick to the middle of the road in the interest of not alienating potential customers, “Magic/Bird” passes on the opportunity to genuinely dive into the hearts and minds of Magic and Bird – both of whom, along with the NBA, were involved in the production of the play – and the word they inhabited.

I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I was accompanied Thursday night by considerable baggage. If this were jury duty, I’d have been among the first eliminated from the pool. There are few topics on which I am better versed, more invested, and less capable of emotionally disentangling myself. Thus, I entered the Longacre Theater (click here for tickets) with immense expectations that realistically would only have been met by an actual 1980s NBA game breaking out onstage.

“Magic/Bird” does, however showcase a number of performances, devices and moments that make the production, on balance, very honest and a lot of fun. For starters, we have Magic Johnson and Larry Bird themselves – Kevin Daniels and Tug Coker, respectively. Contradictory though this may seem, at no point does either actor’s performance grip the viewer in such a way that the line between actor and character is blurred – however, Daniels and Coker do successfully embody the overall persona of the men they portray. Nowhere is this more evident than in their appearances on stage together. This interplay is fascinating, ironically not because of any dialogue or delivery, but rather in its absence. I have seen countless interviews, not to mention HBO’s spectacular “Courtship of Rivals” documentary (against which, fairly or not, this play will ultimately be measured) in which Magic and Bird attempt to describe the experience of living their rivalry, of being them for that period of time. The more I hear these greats discuss the years and head-to-head clashes that define their legacies and permanently fused them in NBA lore, the more convinced I am of one takeaway – unless you know, you really don’t know.  As an onstage team Daniels and Coker do an excellent job of conveying this element of the relationship – the incredible familiarity, knowing looks and silences that speak volumes.

Individually, Daniels puts forth a strong effort in his portrayal of Magic. He is engaging, enthusiastic and likeable, flashing the trademark grin and addressing “the media” with familiarity and playfulness. When necessary, he is genuine and succeeds in hitting the appropriate emotional chords. In contemplating the biggest shortcoming in Daniels’ performance, I ultimately concluded the worst that can be held against him is that while he convincingly portrays a Los Angeles Laker whose experiences mirror those of Magic Johnson, he simply is not Magic. Given the paucity of Magic-level charisma not only in sports, but all walks of life, it would be unfair to penalize an otherwise solid performance for the inability to command a room like few in history ever have.

As mentioned previously, Tug Coker’s Larry Bird left something to be desired. He goes too far in attempting to capture the introverted demeanor and deliberate speaking cadence with which Bird is synonymous. These elements of Bird’s personality are presumably overdone by design, in order to quickly and decisively establish the character for the uninitiated. Though strategically understandable, the end result misses the mark, with Bird – one of NBA history’s most intelligent, compelling and tortured characters – coming off painfully slow and awkward, almost a cartoonish dullard.

The shortcomings of Bird’s character in the play are not solely attributed to Coker, but in part to the script with which he had to work. As part of an extended scene that takes place at the home of Bird’s mother, in which Bird and Magic (now famously) share a home-cooked meal and the seeds of future friendship take root, the men take a moment to discuss their respective upbringings. A significant chunk of this conversation is spent reflecting upon the relationship each shared with their fathers. For one reason or another – perhaps at the request of Larry Bird (if so, I totally understand), or in a misguided attempt to anesthetize the story, not a mention is made of Bird’s father’s suicide in 1975, which, needless to say, was a monumental defining moment in his life.

Speaking of lunch at Ms. Bird’s (my personal highlight), Deirdre O’Connell (who also portrays reporter Patricia Moore and generic 1980s Boston barkeep “Shelly” – both extremely well) is outstanding (and very funny) as Dinah Bird. She does an excellent job of toeing the line between zealous NBA fan and “friend’s mom” in her conversations with Magic, and speaking to Larry (the awkwardness here was spot on) like an unapologetic mother that doesn’t give a damn how many MVPs you’ve got.

Other highlights include not-Tom-Hanks-the-other-Bosom-Buddy Peter Scolari, who portrays Red Auerbach, Pat Riley (great physical resemblance, very minor role) and Jerry Buss (cartoonish, in a car salesman sort of way). Though a bit spry and muscled (seriously, we’d all do well to look like that at almost 57) to cut the figure of an aging Auerbach, Scolari’s combination of mannerisms and accent are a lot of fun and sell the character well. Finally, a shout out to Robert Manning, Jr., who portrayed among others (Cornbread Maxwell, Norm Nixon) Lakers’ defensive ace, and one of Magic’s close friends of the Showtime era, Michael Cooper. Between the voice (really close to genuine article), the familiar warmup-jacket-and-shorts in the layup line and a really cool restaurant scene with Magic that I like to imagine actually went down in late-80s L.A., Coop heads the list of secondary characters.

In adapting an incredibly rich and complex story to pique the interest of both non- and hardcore fan, “Magic/Bird’s” 90-minute run time makes for something of a snug fit. As a result, the play fails to capitalize on opportunities to engage in some truly meaningful dialogue. However, in recognizing the immense challenge of attempting to engage such disparate audiences, a number of well-executed scenes and performances, combined with the headline duo’s chemistry in their onstage interactions, “Magic/Bird” succeeds in educating the uninitiated while striking a chord with those that lived and died with the NBA of the 1980s.

Whether you are looking to teach a young child about the most vital period in the history of the game or simply looking to take short stroll through history, “Magic/Bird” will deliver the goods. At the end of the day, I guess that can’t be too far off the mark.