By DERON SNYDER
Where Robert Griffin III once brought promise, now the offer is hope.
Our confidence has been replaced by optimism, assuredness exchanged for wishfulness. A battle rages in our head, where doubt and skepticism threaten to drown out more-positive inner voices.
Rookie-of-the-Year campaigns followed by two mediocre, injury-ravaged years can have that effect.
But Washington’s NFL team has doubled down on RG3, picking up his fifth-year option and naming him the starter entering training camp, actions that were uncertain if not unlikely when last season ended.
Like 2012, it’s all history now as RG3 enters his fourth year overall and second season under coach Jay Gruden. Griffin left an indelible impression on Gruden but has an opportunity to counteract that bad memory.
“Playing in the same system for the second year, usually the second year you have a little bit more confidence,” Gruden told reporters Tuesday after the first official practice this year. “There’s a little bit more of an air about you that you should show improvement, lots of improvement – hearing the concepts and seeing the plays over and over again and dealing with the pressure and all that good stuff. I think Robert’s going to be fine.”
We don’t know if that’s the whole truth or a half-lie, but Gruden can’t say anything else. He went too far in publicly dissecting the QB’s performance last season and must offer full support to soothe RG3’s psyche.
Griffin undoubtedly has talent; Gruden’s job – along with new quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh – is to extract it and develop it. Helping him set goals and boundaries is one step that, apparently, needs a little more direction.
For instance, RG3’s main focus should be evolving as a passer in the pocket. That’s where the vast majority of his success will be found. Conversely, he should be judicious in the number of times he runs. Scampering is a fine option when all else fails but not as the first or second choice.
It’s unclear whether RG3 totally grasps that.
By DERON SNYDER
“Who’s got LeBron?”
That’s the central question and perplexing problem for Cleveland Cavaliers’ opponents. And none have come up with a good answer yet.
Watching LeBron James dismantle the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals leads you to wonder how the Wizards would’ve handled the 6-foot-8, 250-pound force of nature. Paul Pierce was abused by the Hawks’ Paul Millsap in Game 6 of the semifinals. Otto Porter gives up 50 pounds to James; Garrett Temple gives up the same weight plus two inches.
The Wizards can worry about that next season, as the eastern road to the NBA Finals will run through Cleveland. Atlanta can begin looking forward to next year as well, facing a 3-0 deficit entering Game 4 Tuesday night. No NBA team has ever overcome such a hole and only three teams were able to force a Game 7.
Golden State offers a strong candidate to defend James in Draymond Green, a nimble 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward who was runner-up to San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard as Defensive Player of the Year. Green is the rare NBA player in history who can legitimately guard all five positions.
Actually, that works out perfectly, because James is one of a handful who can play all five positions, often at the same time.
The Warriors and Cavaliers split during the regular season, with Golden State winning at home in a January game that didn’t feature James. He was in the midst of an eight-game absence as he recovered from knee and back injuries. Newly-acquired J.R. Smith torched the Warriors for 27 points but the hosts prevailed and pulled away late in the fourth quarter for a 112-94 victory.
However, James was in uniform when the Warriors’ visited Cleveland in February and Green’s presence wasn’t a deterrent. James had game-highs in points (42) and rebounds (11), totally outplaying Steph Curry on national TV. The four-time MVP asserted his case as his name was dropping from the discussion.
Curry won the award but James is still the planet’s best player. Anyone who forgot could look at his performance against Atlanta in Game 3.
BY 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.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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.
By 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.