By DERON SNYDER
The Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox played in an empty stadium Wednesday for no good reason.
An MLB game with no spectators was unprecedented. It also was totally unnecessary and easily avoidable. A simple solution stared the O’s in the face, an obvious remedy that would’ve accommodated fans who wished to escape the civic unrest roiling Baltimore.
Many of those same fans could’ve returned for the Orioles’ games this weekend against Tampa Bay. But that series was moved to Tropicana Field, nearly 1,000 miles away from Charm City.
Meanwhile, perfectly fine Nationals Park sits perfectly empty, a mere 40 miles south of Camden Yards.
If the O’s really cared about their fans and citizens, really wanted to offer some temporary relief through the distraction of a ballgame, the team would’ve played the White Sox and the Rays in Washington.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, in Baltimore Monday on a previously-scheduled trip, spoke to reporters after violent protests led officials to postpone the series-opener and eventually Tuesday’s game. He suggested the O’s homestand might continue in other venues and he didn’t rule out Nationals Park, which will remain dark through the weekend.
“We’re looking at every possible alternative in terms of completing the schedule in a timely way and making sure the games are played in a secured situation that’s safe for the fans,” he told reporters Monday night. “We’re going to look at every alternative at this point.”
But they didn’t choose the one under their nose.
Instead of playing nice and working with the Nats for a change, the O’s let the teams’ ongoing legal dispute get in the way. The Baltimore Sun reported that Nationals Park was considered for the relocated games but the Nats weren’t approached. The Washington Post reported that the Nats didn’t offer and MLB didn’t try to force the issue.
That’s a shame.
The Orioles should’ve put aside their differences with the Nationals. Co-owners of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the teams are fighting over how to divide revenue and they’re nearly $300 million apart. A trial in New York Supreme Court is scheduled for May 18.
By DERON SNYDER
We live in a sports era where you’re supposed to have “a take” – preferably a hot one – on every issue that arises.
Steph Curry or James Harden for MVP? Top 16 or eight teams per conference for playoffs? Cutting-edge boldness or flat-out weirdness for certain players’ fashions?
But every now and then, it’s OK to admit you’re not 100 percent one way or the other. It’s acceptable to acknowledge mixed emotions that cause an opinion to ping-pong. Saying “I don’t know” isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a confession that smart people aren’t afraid to make.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver is a pretty sharp guy. And he’s as conflicted as yours truly on the controversy over “Hack-a-Shaq,” or more aptly, in honor of the Spurs-Clippers playoff series, “Hack-a-D.J.”
The Spurs employed the intentional-foul strategy to send brick-laying DeAndre Jordan to the free throw line 29 times in the first two games. He converted 38 percent and San Antonio came away with a split.
Silver once favored a rule change that would eliminate the foul-a-thons some teams employ when facing notoriously bad free-throw shooters like Jordan (.412 for his career) or Houston’s Dwight Howard (.573).
But now the commish is in the middle.
“I’ve gone back and forth,” Silver told the Associated Press recently. “I’ve sat in meetings with some of the greatest players like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird who said that players should learn to make their free throws and it’s part of the game.
“At the same time, it doesn’t make for great television. So I’m on the fence right now.”
A slew of whistles followed by tortured free throws makes for painful viewing. And whether it makes for brilliant strategy is debatable.
By DERON SNYDER
Grizzled veteran Paul Pierce reached the playoffs in 11 of 15 NBA campaigns entering this season, his first with the Wizards.
In his previous postseason trips, Pierce’s team managed just one sweep, whisking the Knicks in 2011. He twice was on the broom’s wrong end, as New Jersey swept his Celtics in 2003 and Indiana did likewise in 2004.
After the Wizards beat Toronto Friday for a 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven series, Pierce told his teammates that closing out to complete the sweep would be their hardest contest yet.
Turns out that was far from the truth.
The last game was a laugher as they throttled Toronto, 125-94, for the first 4-0 sweep in franchise history. The Wizards jumped on them from the start, extinguishing the Raptors’ hope and choking their competitive spirit.
Washington stepped on their back, punched them in the throat and snatched their heart. From Paul Pierce’s block on the game’s first shot, to Bradley Beal’s three free throws that produced a 102-70 lead at the end of three quarters, the Wizards displayed a killer spirit heretofore unseen on Verizon Center hardwood (or ice).
That Wizards team that limped down the stretch? Nowhere to be found. The outfit that blew big leads and fumbled away victories? Just a bad memory. The Wizards we saw throughout this series were better than the pre-All Star version and Sunday night’s performance was the best all year.
“We just came out ready to play,” forward Marcin Gortat said after another strong outing (21 points and a game-high 11 rebounds). “Everyone contributed and we were really focused from the first minute to the last minute.”
Gortat was 8-for-9 from the floor to pace his torrid teammates. The Wizards connected on 55 percent of their field goals overall and a ridiculous 58 percent on 3-pointers (15 of 26). Every player who attempted at least one 3-pointer shot 50 percent or better except for Rasual Butler, who was 0-for-1 in garbage time.
“I’m really proud of our group,” coach Randy Wittman said. “They’ve been locked in and in tune with what we had to do. Very business-like. I challenged them the last two games that I needed to see us play like we were the desperate, come out like our backs were against the all and lay it on the line. These guys did it right from the start.”
By DERON SNYDER
When Wizards coach Randy Wittman talked about the difficult task of winning four games in a seven-game series, he wasn’t spouting an old coaching cliché.
He knew the Toronto Raptors would come out Friday with a sense of desperation they didn’t exhibit during the first two games at Air Canada Centre. He also remembered last season, when the Wizards returned from Chicago after winning a pair of series-opening contests and promptly dropped Game 3 at Verizon Center.
“(This) is going to be harder to play than the first two games (in Toronto),” Wittman warned prior to the Wizards’ 106-99 nail-biter in front of a frenzied sellout crowd. “It just gets that way as the series moves on.”
Moving on was at the forefront of everyone’s mind – except the Raptors – as fans streamed into the arena, where they found either a red, white or blue shirt draped over their back. But the visitors weren’t ready to face the brink of elimination just yet.
The Raptors had everything to lose, yet it was the Wizards who seemingly faced more pressure, the burden of playing as if they weren’t up 2-0. Because winning the first two games at Toronto was great, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much if the Raptors ensured a return trip at their first opportunity.
A loss would only increase the intensity on Sunday. The scenario worked out fine against the Bulls last season, but taking unnecessary backward steps is a nerve-wracking way to make progress.
As long as Toronto kept the game close, the Wizards would be unable to relax. And the Raptors did just that, leading by two points after the first quarter and trailing by two points entering the final quarter.
“We knew they were going to come in and try to knock us out,” Wittman said. “I told the guys I’m proud that we took some punches. We stayed focused and did what we wanted to do.”
If the Wizards were going to fold they had the perfect opportunity. The crowd was pumped and had numerous opportunities to roar all night thanks to the exploits of Marcin Gortat (24 points and 13 rebounds) and John Wall (19 points and 15 assists).
But the Raptors were down by a mere three points when Paul Pierce hit a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 16.3 seconds left in the game.
“That’s why I’m here,” Pierce mouthed to the crowd as he walked toward the opposite baseline and soaked in the adulation with arms raised overhead. “Give it to me.”
By DERON SNYDER
All of the sudden, the Washington Wizards have gone from nice guys to Bad Boys II.
Clean-cut and soft-spoken figures such as Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., have morphed into snarling, flexing and trash-talking players who draw energy from boos on the road. John Wall has added another level of nastiness to his toolbox.
Nene has never been stingy with his scowls, but we’re seeing more sneers from Kevin Seraphin, too. Martin Gortat is hammering the opposition in machine-like fashion, while Drew Gooden is getting on Toronto’s nerves with his pesky ways and Ramon Sessions is proudly wearing the chip he brought to town in February.
The Wizards’ insolence was so evident in Tuesday’s 117-106 victory at Toronto, their ringleader could take a backseat and marvel at what he instigated.
“I think a lot of the stuff y’all see coming out, it’s always been there,” Paul Pierce laughed as he told reporters after the game. “I just think, I kind of manifest it to another level.”
Ain’t that the truth.
Two games into the Wizards’ second consecutive playoff appearance – and NBA history with two road victories to open postseason play in back-to-back years – Pierce has been exactly what team president Ernie Grunfeld ordered last summer. The veteran leadership and pressure-packed production in championship moments has coated the Wizards with a swagger that was nonexistent last year.
He was simply being honest before the playoffs began when he told ESPN that Toronto lacked “the ‘It’ that makes you worry.” He said the same thing about would-be second-round opponent Atlanta: “As good as they are, they just don’t give off that aura where we’re afraid of them.”
It should be noted that Washington was 0-3 against Toronto and 1-3 against Atlanta in the regular season. The Wizards also were 1-3 against the Cavaliers, who could await in the Eastern Conference finals. But that doesn’t faze Pierce.
By DERON SNYDER
Once again, it’s time to check off some items on my “TIDU List” – Things I don’t Understand:
*WHY COACH RANDY WITTMAN WAITED SO LONG.
Paul Pierce played just 4 percent of his regular-season minutes at power forward, even though he was outstanding there with the Brooklyn Nets. But in Game 1 of the Wizards’ series against Toronto, Pierce spent extended portions of his 36 minutes at the four, a key to Washington’s win. He had a game-high 20 points was 4 for 7 on threes.
Maybe Wittman’s coaching chops become sharper in the postseason.
*HOW THE CAPITALS HAVE FAILED TO CAPITALIZE.
The franchise has gone from Young Guns to Semi-Old Hammers with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the marquee. But the era has little to show besides a bevy of awards for goals and points. Down two games to one against the Islanders, the Caps could face their fourth first-round exit in seven postseason trips with the dynamic duo.
Overall, this thrilling experience has been a dud.
*WHY APRIL IS SO BRUTAL FOR IAN DESMOND.
With eight errors in 13 games, the Nats’ shortstop is on pace for 100, which would be the most since Joe Sullivan (102) with the White Sox in 1893. Desmond won’t come close (his career high is 34), but he’ll be glad when May arrives. He had a stretch of eight errors in 12 games last April, a notoriously rough month for him.
At least it’s not affecting him at the bank … er, the plate.
By DERON SNYDER
And the winners are …
… the No. 9 seed in each NBA conference, who earn lottery picks instead of likely first-round beatdowns!
If my team messed up and missed the lottery, they still could net a Giannis Adetokunbo, Kwahi Leonard or Robin Lopez at No. 15 or 16 provided the scouts are sharp. But I’d rather take my chances, slim as they might be, at gaining a Top 3 draft pick.
Top-seeded Golden State and Atlanta could lose in the opening round but you wouldn’t bet on it. There have been only five such 1-vs.-8 upsets, most recently in 2012 when Philadelphia took advantage of Derrick Rose’s absence and beat Chicago in six games.
The Miami Heat, coming off four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, tried to scratch and claw into the postseason but missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. That “failure” could result in a Top 10 pick, moving the franchise ahead much further than a best-of-seven series against the Hawks.
At the other end of the spectrum are teams like the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers, which engaged in a season-long version of “Race to the Top” for the No. 1 pick. But the Knicks faltered and failed to keep the big picture, winning back-to-back contests recently – their first two-game win streak since Feb. 27-28 – and thereby jeopardizing their odds of having the most ping-pong balls in the draft lottery.
“I’m sure people are upset with us,’ coach Derek Fisher told reporters Monday after the Knicks beat Atlanta. “But I don’t think you can ever go out there and basically try and not play your best. Those two things don’t go together.”
In this case, winning games and improving the outlook don’t go hand-in-hand, either.
On Saturday, the Knicks owned the league’s worst record and best odds of getting the No. 1 pick; they would pick no lower than fourth. Entering Wednesday, they had an outside shot of dropping all the way to No. 6, a doomsday scenario that would mirror their season but be less rewarding.
By DERON SNYDER
One year removed from an exciting, unexpected playoff run, the Washington Wizards are back in the same position – fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a first-round match-up against the Chicago Bulls.
That doesn’t sound like progress. You might argue that it isn’t progress at all.
It certainly doesn’t feel like a significant stride.
The Wizards have won 46 games – two more than last year – with a shot at another pair as they close the regular season at Indianapolis on Tuesday and Cleveland on Wednesday. If they succeed in reaching 48 wins, they’ll tie the 1975-76 and 1976-77 teams for sixth-most victories in franchise history.
The 46 wins represent the most victories in a season since 1978-79. One more will give Washington its winningest regular season since 1973-74.
But the success is oddly unfulfilling because more was expected. And the Wizards’ postseason prospects aren’t particularly promising.
A year ago, they advanced by roughing up the Bulls in five games, winning three times in Chicago. Then they stole the opener at top-seeded Indy in the conference semifinals, but blew the series with three losses at Verizon Center.
That experience plus the addition of wizened veteran Paul Pierce was supposed to result in noticeable improvement this season. It worked for a while. The Wizards were 28-13 at the halfway mark, boasting the East’s second-best record.
Skeptics warned that the team had gotten fat on a preponderance of home games against soft opponents. Sure enough, a swoon soon followed.
By DERON SNYDER
You don’t have to be a women’s basketball fan to appreciate UConn and coach Geno Auriemma.
You just have to appreciate impressive accomplishments, sustained excellence and remarkable success.
The sport or level of competition doesn’t matter … unless a team’s opponents are playing a different game at a lower classification. If one squad is dominant under the same rules against peers in the same division, league or association, that team is worthy of praise. Period.
We readily acknowledge greatness on the most well-lit stages. Mike Krzyzewski is lauded at Duke like John Wooden was extolled at UCLA. Bill Belichick is celebrated in the NFL like Phil Jackson was revered in the NBA. Nick Saban has been immortalized at Alabama.
Lance Leipold doesn’t enjoy nearly the same acclaim because he coached football at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater until leaving for Buffalo in December. But few runs are as stunning as the one he left behind: six national titles in eight seasons, a 32-game winning streak and an overall record of 109-6.
Or consider Anson Dorrance, the North Carolina women’s soccer coach who built an incomprehensible dynasty when the program was founded in 1979. All he’s done is win 21 of the 33 national titles since the NCAA began bestowing them. His career record is 625-28-20, a brisk .943 winning percentage.
Only the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded wouldn’t consider Dorrance and Leipold – and Auriemma – among the coaching profession’s best and brightest, regardless of sport, gender or level.
Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of the incredibly dim-witted and thickheaded.
By DERON SNYDER
Michael Taylor led off and played center field for the Nationals on Opening Day.
That’s a year ahead of schedule but he’s not complaining.
Taylor stepped in against New York Mets starter Bartolo Colon and produced a two-strike single up the middle for the Nats’ first hit. Unfortunately, only Bryce Harper joined in that column as the Washington lost the opener, 3-1, in front of a sellout crowd at Nationals Park.
The Mets were the opponent when Taylor made his major-league debut, too, but everything was different last year. On Aug. 12, Taylor played right field and batted eighth while Denard Span led off and played center as usual.
You would never know Taylor felt any nerves last summer as he singled and homered, but he said they were less noticeable Monday.
“I definitely was more comfortable out there,” Taylor said Monday after going 1-for-4 and just missing a spectacular grab at the wall on an RBI triple. “The game seemed a little faster last year. Looking in the stands was a different atmosphere, which can kind of change things a little bit.
“But I felt pretty comfortable out there today.”
He should get used it. Playing center and leading off is his probable job description next season. Span’s abdominal injury just forced the Nats ’ hand, giving Taylor a jumpstart on. Span is among several key Nats expected to be elsewhere next season, which works out fine.
The 24-year-old Taylor should be ready to assume the fulltime job by then.
Even if it turns out he isn’t ready just yet.
Ideally, Turner would’ve begun the 2015 season in Triple-A, where he has only 12 games to his credit. He could play every day at Syracuse without the pressure of performing for a team widely predicted to win the World Series. Another year of seasoning and a few hundred more at-bats away from the bright lights definitely wouldn’t hurt.
But reality held the trump card in this case and Nats manager Matt Williams wasn’t hesitant to play Taylor in the opener.