NBA Western Conference Finals: Babyface versus The Beard

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Stephen Curry, James HardenBY DERON SNYDER

The NBA’s Western Conference finals – aka, the MVP vs. the runner-up – is off to a scintillating start. And, thankfully, more folks on this coast will get to see games end, as weeknight contests in California tip-off  90 minutes earlier than in previous rounds.

Top-seeded Golden State and No. 2-seed Houston lived up to the billing Monday as the Warriors hung on for a 110-106 victory. The Rockets led by 16 points in the second quarter before Golden State stormed back with a small-ball lineup led by reserve point guard (and former Wizard) Shaun Livingstone.

But the biggest stars were the luminaries everyone focused on, Steph Curry and James Harden. It was Curry’s opportunity to prove he really is more valuable than Harden.

Given a vote, my ballot would’ve read 1) Harden and 2) Curry. That said, it’s impossible to mount a strenuous argument that Curry was unworthy of the honor.

The race is over and but neither man did anything in Game 1 to cause second thoughts.

Harden messed around and nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists. He began as a diistributor (eight assists in the first half) and ended as a cashier (21 points in the second half). His step-back jumper with 5:28 remaining produced the game’s final tie at 97-all.

The MVP took over from there, scoring the Warriors’ last nine points, including a ridiculous pull-up 3-pointer (that later drew him a fine for flopping on a no-call foul). Curry was 6-for-11 from behind the arc and finished with a game-high 34 points.

Warriors 1-0; Curry 1-0.

“It’s entertaining basketball,” Curry said of the Harden matchup in a postgame news conference. “But we’re both supposed to help our team win and do what we can to impact the game.  There’s going to be stretches where he plays well and obviously he did that for his team in the third quarter, to really keep them close and keep them in it.

“He made some crazy plays that we defended well and we’ll live with those shots. Hopefully we both have a big impact and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

While the Atlanta Hawks go against the league’s biggest superstar, trying to prove they don’t need one to reach the finals, Curry and Harden are the exceptional singular talents who drive ticket sales and TV ratings. When all else fails, teammates give them the ball and watch them go to work.

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Wizards and Capitals are losers … like everyone else in the 97 percent

WizCapsLosersBy DERON SNYDER

“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby.

Actor Will Ferrell played a “big, hairy, American winning machine” in the NASCAR-themed movie, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”  The main character would just as soon wreck his car as come in second or worse.

He obviously wasn’t a big fan of  points systems or Matt Kenseth, who won the 2003 NASCAR championship despite winning only one race. Kenseth’s success led to organization’s “Chase for the Cup.”

But the pursuit of any title, whether in individual or group sports, always results in more disappointment than satisfaction. Only one driver, golfer, tennis player or team gets to hoist the trophy. All others in the field are losers – figuratively in some minds, literally in others.

If you fall in the latter camp, Chris Paul is a loser. The Los Angeles Clippers point guard has postseason averages of 20.9 points, 9.5 assists and 2.3 steals. But he has failed to reach a conference finals – let alone win an NBA championship – in his spectacular 10-year career. The Houston Rockets won Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals Sunday, sending Paul into yet another offseason unfulfilled.

In the postgame news conference, Paul was asked about being so close to advancing (the Clippers blew a 19-point second-half lead in Game 6).

“‘So close,’ I don’t even know what that means anymore,” he said. “… Being close ain’t good enough.”

Washington fans know that feeling all too well at this moment, having watched the Wizards and Capitals brush against rare conference-final appearances. But instead of being one step away from the championship round, the teams are where we’re used to seeing them – in the scrap pile with other also-rans.

The win-or-bust attitude is great in theory, as a philosophical approach and motivational tool. But it’s demeaning in practical terms when runs come up short. It devalues success and denigrates the pursuers, obscuring their accomplishments by highlighting their failure.

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Here’s the truth: Pierce did what he came to Washington to do

TruthBy DERON SNYDER

Paul Pierce came to Washington to do a job.

He came to infuse the Wizards with his brazen confidence, his veteran experience and his championship moxie. He came to show a budding young backcourt how to ignore the pressure of late-game situations and use the opponent’s crowd like an energy drink.

Pierce is near the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, but he signed with the Wizards to show his tank isn’t empty and his tires aren’t bald. He signed to take another stab at a championship – a long shot at best – but a chance nonetheless.

A shot is all you can ask for, like the 3-pointer Pierce took at the  buzzer Friday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Falling out of the left corner with Kyle Korver draped all over him, Pierce’s jumper found the bottom of the net, seemingly forcing overtime, adding another chapter to his legend and sending the Verizon Center crowd into delirium.

But officials went to the replay and ultimately waved off the basket, ruling that Pierce released the ball a millisecond after the clock expired. The Atlanta Hawks advanced to the conference finals and the Wizard advanced to their offseason.

“I was just hoping to get a 3 off,” said Pierce, exhausted and emotional after the 94-91 defeat. “I just tried to make sure I was behind the line and make sure I got it off it on time. Unfortunately I didn’t. I wish I could’ve done more and delivered for them.”

In hindsight, Pierce delivered plenty and not just the buzzer-beater that won Game 4 or the big shots against Toronto in the first round.

The Wizards exited this postseason at the same point as last postseason – Game 6 of the second round. But it would be shortsighted to conclude they’re no further ahead. They swept the Raptors after losing all three regular-season games against them. And Washington gave top-seeded Atlanta all it could handle. A fully healthy John Wall easily could’ve been the difference.

Wall said the two endings feel the same to him but he’s in the minority. There’s a sense about the Wizards now Pierce is a big reason, even if the young’uns have to go on without him.

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Lesson on Terps’ tranfers: Looks can be deceiving

RasheedSuliamonBy DERON SNYDER

The comparisons are unavoidable and unfortunate.

Throw in unfair, too.

Three years ago, the Maryland Terrapins signed Dez Wells after he was expelled from Xavier team for alleged sexual assault. On Monday, Maryland signed Rasheed Sulaimon, who was dismissed from Duke’s basketball team and later accused of sexual assault.

Sadly, we have reached a point where claims can carry as much weight as convictions in the public’s eye. The taint never goes away completely, regardless of a case’s merits. The scarlet letter is “A” for accused and it’s virtually branded on foreheads.

Wells was never charged with assault – the county prosecutor argued he never should’ve been expelled – and he reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the school. Yet he was subject to “No means no” chants during road games and taunted by West Virginia coach Bob Huggins’ daughters.

Sulaimon was neither formally charged nor formally accused. A month after he became the first player dismissed in Mike Krzykewski’s 35 seasons as Duke coach, a story in the student newspaper suggested Sulaimon was booted because two female students said he sexually assaulted them. But no allegations were filed with the school or the police.

“My being dismissed from the team had nothing to do with the allegation,” Sulaimon told ESPN two weeks ago. “… The university investigated the sexual assault allegation, and they knew it was unsubstantiated so Coach K knew that, too, because I told him.”

Coach K announced in March that Sulaimon was dropped because he couldn’t “consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program.” But the junior guard remained in school and in good academic standing, on track to graduate in August.

Duke kicked him off the team but let him remain in the family.

Now coach Mike Turgeon welcomes Sulaimon to Maryland’s family, a move he couldn’t take lightly.

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Jameis Winston: Good player, bad rep. Bad rap?

jameisBy DERON SNYDER

Most folks have made up their minds about quarterback Jameis Winston, having read and heard enough about misbehavior and alleged misdeeds by the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State. They have been inundated by reports of the silly stuff – stolen crab legs and soda, obscenities screamed in public, BB gun battles – and the gravely serious matter of a sexual assault accusation.

For those who remain undecided, they have only short intervals to ponder their thoughts before another witness for the prosecution speaks up.

The Internet was ablaze Tuesday with more brusing testimony. Paul Finebaum, a popular sports radio host, tweeted a quote attributed to Bobby Bowden, the legendary coach who led Winston’s alma mater for three decades before retiring in 2010.

“I think it’s a consensus among FSU fans and boosters that he was an embarrassment to the university,” Bowden said, according to Finebaum.

That assertion was re-tweeted nearly 3,600 times and favorited nearly 2,200 times. But it was a tad misleading. First, Finebaum led the 85-year-old, prefacing a question with “many people felt like (Winston) was an embarrassment … what are your thoughts?”

Then Finebaum left off a qualifier that would’ve deadened the sensational impact. Bowden said Winston was an embarrassment “IN A LOT OF WAYS” (my emphasis). Finebaum cleaned it up by retweeting the full quote two hours later, but it was retweeted just 188 times and favorited 170 times.

The damage was done, though it hardly matters at this point.

Winston, whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted two weeks ago with the No.1 overall pick, is virtually a corpse when it comes to his public image. Diehard Florida State fans and newfound Tampa Bay fans are about the only folks in his corner.

He’s fortunate to have that many supporters if he’s guilty of rape. The other antics can be written off as immaturity not uncommon among 20-year-olds. But if/when a man forces himself on a woman, he deserves to be beat up (figuratively and literally).

The New York Times landed a bunch of shots, many in a 5,200-word article in October that excoriated Florida State and the Tallahassee police department for shoddy work and jock-sniffing during the investigation in 2013. In “The Hunting Ground,” a recent documentary on sexual assaults on college campuses, Eric Kinsman broke her silence and came forward as Winston’s accuser, painting him ugly.

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In best-of-seven series, Wizards must learn lessons, move on

Hawks_Wizards_G4By DERON SNYDER

Here’s the thing about seven-game series: One night doesn’t necessarily carry over to the next.

What worked in Game 1 might be futile in Game 2. The would-be trend in Game 3 can disappear  in Game 4.

Besides shifts in how the  X’s and O’s blow, wildcard factors can arise. Like Wizards All-Star  John Wall suffering an injury that sidelines him after the first game. Or Atlanta All-Star Paul Millsap coming down with flu-like smyptons that limited him in the third game.

It also doesn’t help matters that the opposition grows progressively tougher the further a team advances. The Wizards won four consecutive games in the opening round against Toronto. They now twice have failed to win back-to-back games in the Eastern Conference semifinals against Atlanta.

However, Washington once again was competitive without its speedy point guard, finding itself down by three points with a few seconds left and Paul Pierce going up for an uncontested 3-pointer. But there would be no encore of his heroics on Saturday as the Wizards lost, 106-101

The burden of playing without Wall more evident in Game 4. Washington committed 17 turnovers that led to 19 points and failed to apply the defensive pressure that was crucial in Game 3. There were breakdowns galore as Atlanta scored 65 points in the first half, 32 in the paint.

The Wizards never fully overcame the 10-point deficit they faced at intermission, getting to within one point early in the second half but no closer.

“We can’t give up 60 points in the first half, period,” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said. “We weren’t mentally focused. We weren’t following our concepts. We have to come out with a better mindset.”

Beal’s mindset would be one to emulate. He gave his teammates a pep talk at the break and implored them to keep fighting. Then he invited them to jump on his back and he nearly carried the team to victory, scoring 19 points in the second half, 13 in the fourth quarter.

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Tom Brady’s suspension more outrageous than the ‘crime’

Brady_SuspensionBy DERON SNYDER

For an entity that does so much so well, transforming its brand into a 24/7, year-round fixture, the NFL can be incredibly ham-handed at times.

The league botched the concussion issue for years. When it hasn’t overreached in player discipline cases, it has under-reacted. Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone on an ill-conceived  crusade to make his league a leading social arbiter.

There are plenty of openings to criticize the NFL, partly because enterprises with $9 billion in annual revenue are easy targets. But the league also brings a lot of heat on itself, whether the issue is player safety, domestic abuse, stadium extortion or oversaturation.

Now we have a new piñata that deserves to be whacked as hard and often as possible: the NFL’s four-game suspension of Tom Brady, along with the New Patriots’ $1 million fine and forfeiture of a two draft picks, including a first-rounder.

It’s bad enough that “Deflategate” was deemed worthy of a four-month special investigation that produced a 243-page report.

But Brady should be suspended for four games because he likes his footballs a little softer than standard? Ridiculous. His Hall of Fame legacy is somehow tarnished because his footballs had a less air in them? Insane.

The fact that we’re still discussing the AFC Championship Game is ludicrous. The New England Patriots whipped the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, and Brady’s slightly underinflated footballs didn’t have a thing to do with the outcome. The league’s “integrity” didn’t suffer any damage either.

Customization is standard operating procedure in the NFL. Peyton Manning, with assistance from Brady, led the charge and successfully lobbied for the 2006 rule change that allowed teams to provide their own footballs on offense. Each quarterback has his own personal preferences and equipment staffers who aim to accommodate.

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Wizards had no Wall, but a will and a way

NoWallBy DERON SNYDER

The Washington Wizards came close to winning Game 2 without John Wall.

They came even closer to losing Game 3 without him.

All things considered, they prefer their All-Star point guard in the lineup rather than in a suit. But after building a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead Saturday night against Atlanta – and holding on to avert a disastrous collapse – the Wizards feel pretty good about their chances when Wall is out.

Even if it took a tie-breaking, unintentional bank shot at the buzzer to seal Game 3, 103-101.

“I wish it didn’t come down to that,” Paul Pierce said. “I like to save those shots for later rounds.”

Advancing seemed doubtful, at best, 24 hours earlier. Virtually everyone with a microphone or keyboard wrote off the Wizards upon learning Wall would miss Game 3 and possibly the rest of the postseason.

He’s the engine that makes Washington go, responsible for  about 40 percent of the offense when you factor in scoring and assists. But with five non-displaced factures in his left hand, he’s  powerless to help his teammates.

They barely missed him Saturday. To compensate for his absence – and perhaps show solidarity based on the number of breaks he suffered – the Wizards had five players with double figures in scoring, five players with at least five rebounds and five players with at least three assists.

Washington thoroughly outplayed the Eastern Conference’s top seed for 38 minutes, enjoying a 91-70 lead. Coach Randy Wittman coaxed nine points out of reserve Will Bynum in 13 minutes. Wall watched and cheered. The sellout crowd roared and relaxed.

The Wizards did no wrong through three quarters, shooting 51 percent from the floor, including  42 percent on 3-pointers. Everyone was involved, especially Nene, who hadn’t scored a field in the first two games.

Instead of becoming stagnant and lethargic without its floor general, Washington was fluid and energized. The Wizards’ offense became a keyless-ignition system. No single player could make up for Wall and no single player tried.

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Tiger Woods’ trade-off: Worse golfer but better man

Tiger and SamBy DERON SNYDER

If the number seven represents completion, Tiger Woods has about 18 months until his roller-coaster comes to an end.

Considering all that has occurred since that fateful Thanksgiving in 2009 – when then-wife Elin Nordegren chased Woods out the house and he crashed his Escalade into a fire hydrant – you might think the last year-and-a-half of his season would be drama-free.

For one thing, the period has been relatively free of victories. Prior to being outed as a serial adulterer, Woods could point to three years when won at least eight tournaments. But he has won just eight times total since 2009.

That must not be enough suffering to please the penance police. In addition to not winning on the golf course, Woods is losing when he’s off it.

The latest indignity arrived last Sunday when his girlfriend, Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, broke up with him after three years. Making life worse, the relationship ended around the same time his father died (May 3) in 2006.

“This three-day window is really hard,” Woods told reporters Tuesday as he practiced for this weekend’s Players Championship. “I haven’t slept. These three days, May 3rd through the 5th, is just brutal on me. And then with obviously what happened on Sunday, it just adds to it.”

Woods could lament everything he has lost. The No.1 ranking. His wife and kids. A chance to tie Jack Nicklaus’ record for major championships. Millions of dollars in endorsements.

But a funny thing happened during his fall. No longer the world’s best golfer, he’s arguably become a better man.

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Without Wall, Wizards must resort to keyless-ignition system

WallHurtBy DERON SNYDER

With John Wall sidelined in a dark suit with matching soft cast Tuesday night, the Washington Wizards lost their mojo and first playoff game this season. An excellent chance to return home with a 2-0 series lead died a slow death in the Atlanta Hawks’ 106-90 victory.

Whether the Hawks played better because it was inevitable, because they were desperate or because Wall was absent, they reminded us how they won 60 games to become the East’s No.1 seed. Atlanta flashed the San Antonian ways that second-year coach Mike Budenholzer instilled after spending 19 years under coach Gregg Popovich.

The Hawks were labeled “Spurs of the East” for good reason and they showed why with unselfish play and 30 assistss on 37 field goals.

“If we keep moving the ball, keep attacking and keep finding the open man,” Budenholzer told reporters after the game, “good things will happen.”

On a team with four All-Stars and no superstars, the coach might be the brightest luminary. The task in Game 2 was easier without worrying about Wall pushing on offense and pestering on defense, but Budenholzer got his team to play the beautiful style that has become a San Antonio trademark.

The Wizards also have displayed stretches of alluring basketball in the playoffs, but they’ve accomplished it one of the league’s top point guards. Wall’s breathtaking speed and breakneck forays on the rim are unique, impossible to duplicate and difficult to replicate.

His backup, Ramon Sessions, had an outstanding outing. He scored 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting with four assists and just two turnovers in 40 minutes of action. With Sessions running the point, Washington stayed close throughout, trailing by three points with 8:17 remaining in the game.

But the Hawks’ aesthetically pleasing play went up a notch the rest of the way, as they shot 53 percent from the floor and recorded six assists on eight field goals. Atlanta closed the contest with a 22-9 run.

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