timbersfan's WunderBlog

Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 2: 'The Night Lands'

By: timbersfan, 9:07 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

“I don’t imagine it’ll be a story fit for children,” the grim, Greta Gerwig-ish warrioress Yara Greyjoy declares, while being Littlefingered by her fancy brother on horseback. The savage babycide of last week certainly should have made that clear for the viewer and, if not, last night’s glimpse of male birth control measures beyond the wall was an unwelcome reminder: Game of Thrones is most certainly not suitable for all ages. But the dark “The Night Lands” made me consider Yara’s pronouncement in a different way. It’s not just that children shouldn’t watch this story. It’s that it’s incredibly hard to be someone’s child within the story as well. Parents in the Seven Kingdoms appear to be as cruel and capricious as kings. Worse, it’s a lifetime position.

Ned Stark was the only good father we’ve seen, and in return for his self-abasing attempt to protect his children last season, he ended up with his head on a pike. Now his orphans are scattered like so many action figures on Stannis’s Great Iron Sex Table. Arya is attempting to hide her second X chromosome by hanging out with the XXX vulgarians en route to the Night’s Watch, but I’m glad her bull-helmeted bastard buddy called her on it because, really, how could she be fooling anyone? Maisie Williams’s peepers are large and luminous enough to be worn as jewelery by that dandy Theon! She looks like she’s trying out for the role of Cosette in the world’s least sanitary production of Les Miserables! Anyway, after the commander chases some royal goons back to Crotch Landing by pointing a sword at their king (or the other way around), Gendry calls Arya on her reverse-Tootsie act. But when he finds out who she really is, he’s abashed. “All that about cocks, I should never have said it. I’ve been pissing in front of you and everything.” Flirtatious banter! (Fun fact: These same lines of dialogue were spoken by Katherine Heigl in 27 Dresses.) But it turns out Gendry’s parenting history is no less sad: His bar-wench mom passed on when he was a kid. And though the goons were after him, he has no idea that it’s because his father was the wine-drunk, boar-averse King Robert.

Combine these two twisted family trees and you get Jon Snow: His father was Ned Stark, but his mother is as mysterious as whatever huffing-and-puffing snow beast made off with Craster’s latest grandson/son. (Early guesses include a Yeti, a Minotaur, or a Nick Nolte.) With such a bad backstory it’s no wonder that Jon’s unable to act tough in the face of his buddy Sam’s puppy love for Gilly, one of Craster’s pregnant daughter/wives (played with toothy gravity by the great Skins veteran Hannah Murray). It’s Jon’s curiosity about what will happen to Gilly’s baby that leads him out of the camp (although, really, is it so hard to figure out?) and what earns him a concussion at the hands of his monstrous host at episode’s end.

Over on the Iron Islands — picture that on a holiday brochure! — Theon has an undressed party below the decks for the season’s first instance of pure sexposition, and then is promptly dressed down by his craggy would-be king of a father. He’s been gone nine years in the care/captivity of the Starks, and he doesn’t even get complimented on his well-groomed Vandyke, let alone a hug. Balon barely turns from his ornate octopus fireplace to greet his wayward son. Instead, he reintroduces Theon to his riding partner/sister (more multihyphenates on this show than on IMDB, amirite?) and announces, ironically, that it will be Yara leading the Iron ships into battle. Oh, and it seems like they’ll be taking their Kingdom back from the Starks directly, thank you very much, not helping them take King’s Landing. This is terribly rough for Theon and his dual loyalties (and for us, to be honest: Did his family know he was coming? Or were they really delaying their own battle plans for a little convenient comeuppance?). All parents disparage their kids’ fashion, but there aren’t many that allow their sons to almost screw their daughters before screwing them over so completely.

The only quasi-sweet parent-child relationship on display was over in Dragonstone, where Davos (the smuggler turned knight, not the global economic conference) tries to help his moon-faced son see beyond the fire-god worship that’s consumed him. Davos is a likable sort, and not only because he has cool pirate friends like Salladhor Saan, the first person of color to grace snow-white Westeros. (Salladhor is a man with simple dreams, including gold, glory, and having Queen Cersei walk his gangplank.) Davos seems devoted to Stannis — even though Stannis still seems more overwhelmed than deserving — but equally interested in teaching his son some hard-earned wisdom about the way the world works: A life can’t be saved by lighting a candle and whispering words. Sometimes more aggressive action is required. Davos is illiterate, but he can read a situation better than most. (Though it’s almost tragic that the best parenting we’ve seen comes from a man who was absent for most of his son’s life. No wonder the kid needs a higher power.) Stannis is childless (his sick wife is Rapunzeled away in a tower somewhere, apparently) but when his Wiccan consigliere offers her body instead of advice, he’s quick to take it: Everyone on the “safe” side of the wall is desperate for a son, but for all the wrong reasons.

So maybe it’s not a surprise that the smartest guy in the room is the one who no one wanted at all. Peter Dinklage is really taking Tyrion to an entirely different level this season, tempering the jokes with grace notes of patience and potent displays of soft power. He may be half his size, but he’s twice the player Ned Stark ever was, nimbly disarming both Lord Varys — whose social call was immediately understood as a friendly act of frontstabbing — and Lord Slynt, the suddenly former head of the City Watch. Tyrion’s scenes with Cersei were delightful, not only because Lena Headey has also kicked it into a far more interesting gear this season (how is it possible to feel this much sympathy for an incestuous, power-grabbing Lady Macbeth?), but because they reminded us of the great ocean of pain that lurks beneath his 24 Hour Party Person exterior. “You’ve always been funny,” Cersei mumurs, cruelly. “But none of your jokes will ever match the first one. Back when you ripped my mother open on your way out of her and she bled to death.” Motherless and blamed for it by his preening Aryan siblings, Tyrion was always going to be removed from normalcy. But his size seems to be something of a blessing: Not only does it give him a different point of view, but it gives him a different perspective altogether. Being blindly bound to family can be as fatal as pledging allegiance to the wrong king.

Acolytes of George R.R. Martin like to trumpet the ways in which their hero has subverted the typical genre expectations of fantasy, but a lot of the evidence tends to focus on the boinking and the bawdy language. Could it be that the most insidious of all Martin’s tweaks lies in upending the traditional primacy of family loyalty? Every sword-’n’-sorcery saga, from Tolkien to Camelot, is stuffed with page after page stressing the importance of bloodlines. Yet everyone always seems to end up bloody. Maybe Martin is suggesting that the only smart way to stay alive is either to be a bastard or to act like one.


It Does Not Matter Who Is the Manager of Chelsea

By: timbersfan, 9:06 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

England abolished beheading as a method of execution for traitors in 1973. As a method of execution for Chelsea managers? Not so much. Running a soccer team for Roman Abramovich is like being a high-profile death-row inmate convicted on a shaky case. Right down to the final moment, your supporters are hoping, protesting, staging vigils, reviewing evidence. Injustice is decried; websites are thrown up. Doesn't matter. Sooner or later your moment arrives, a finger lifts in a shadowy stateroom, and the ax comes down.

Current Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo, unlike previous Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas, is only a caretaker, but then all Chelsea managers are only caretakers; some of them are just aren't told. (Noted Chelsea fan Drake tried to warn them!)

Di Matteo has won seven of his first nine matches and landed Chelsea in the semifinals of the Champions League, and the vigils-and-websites phase is officially under way. In the last couple of weeks, just about every soccer publication in English has run its version of the "Di Matteo deserves a chance" op-ed, ranging from the Mail's "Give Di Matteo the job, Roman!" to Fox's "Di Matteo curing all Chelsea's ills" to Soccernet's "Di Matteo a man for all seasons?" Ex-Chelsea stalwarts like Marcel Desailly and Mark Bosnich are vaulting themselves into headlines by publicly urging Abramovich to hire Di Matteo full time. Rumors are circulating that if Chelsea win the Champions League, Abramovich will relent and offer Di Matteo a contract. So, you know, all you need to do to get a one-year extension at Chelsea is take over an aging, demoralized team mid-season, beat Barcelona, and win the European Championship. No biggie!

You know what I'm sick of? This whole process. It's not that I don't think Di Matteo deserves the job. He does, probably; but if Chelsea had kept all the managers who probably deserved the job, Avram Grant's jowls would still be swinging in London. Because Jose Mourinho was successful and charismatic at Stamford Bridge, and because Abramovich has lured (to their dooms!) big-name managers ranging from Phil Scolari to Carlo Ancelotti (not to leave out Guus Hiddink, the only boss to leave the club with his head still attached, and that only because he pre-offed himself by refusing to consider a long-term contract), we've gotten the idea that the manager of Chelsea is a position that matters, and that who occupies the chair is a question that's worth worrying about.

Here's the thing, though: Chelsea is a high-profile club with the resources to burn through famous coaches, but — really — who has less power than the manager of Chelsea? The manager of Chelsea is subject not only to Abramovich's maelstrom-class whims but also to the pretty deadly and expert political maneuvering of the Lampard/Terry/Cole old guard, which has knifed out multiple probably-deserving managers over the last five years, including, depending on which dark-alley whispers you believe, Mourinho himself. Think about all the ways in which the Chelsea manager's freedom to act is limited by outside pressures. He gets killed if he picks the wrong team-sheet, killed if he plays in the wrong style, killed if he gives a bad press conference, killed if he doesn't fulfill his boss's deranged expectations, killed if he doesn't satisfy a half-dozen unhinged egos, and killed, obviously, if he loses the wrong games (i.e., any of them). Could anybody really do this job, short of deploying the Hiddink tactic of genuinely not wanting it? Maybe Pep Guardiola could saunter into Stamford Bridge, recite a sestina about butterflies, and inspire the culture of the club to a happier place. I don't know. It seems just as likely that Pep Guardiola, like everybody else, would be roadkill.

So, sure, give Di Matteo a chance. Or (as is vastly more likely) punt him off the edge of a pier when he loses to Barcelona. But as long as Chelsea remains a hybrid of loopy owner tyranny and runaway player power, just don't tell me it makes all that much difference.


Valencia deserves your respect

By: timbersfan, 9:04 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

A few years ago, Valencia was being governed by a man, Juan Soler, who I'm sure was not a total idiot but whose decisions, attitude and manner gave every indication that he was at least doing a good imitation. Among his many (many) follies was a decision that he would force some of the old guard out of the club by making their lives increasingly difficult, unsatisfactory and unrewarding.

This is a depressingly normal tactic in football, and for legal niceties Soler explained that the three players -- David Albelda, Miguel Angel Angulo and Santi Canizares -- were neither sacked nor were they being isolated from the rest of the squad. But he made clear to his coach, Ronald Koeman, and Koeman made clear to the players that it was time for the three musketeers to seek new pastures.

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Clive Rose/Getty Images
David Albelda said Valencia's fans can root against the team all they want, but that's sending the wrong message.
"It's a strong decision and one which needs the total backing and involvement of the president," Koeman confirmed at the time.

By and by, the situation got so bad that it went in front of legal tribunals during which Albelda alleged that Koeman told him, "You'll never wear the Valencia first-team shirt again."

It was a dark period in the history of a proud club. At the same time, Soler was running up a large chunk of the debt, which to this day is hung like a millstone around Valencia's neck.

I remember explaining the situation on Revista de la Liga, Sky's Spanish football magazine program. Right after we went off air, the producer called me and said, "That's an incredible story, can we get Albelda to talk about it." Within 12 hours it was arranged; I was in Valencia and Albelda discussed the impotence and rage he felt at being treated with such disdain by a club that he loved and where he had spent 99 percent of his career. He was hurt, angry and articulate.

Five years later, Albelda, now 34, remains a key footballer at Valencia while Koeman and Soler have long gone, a fact that denotes that they not only treated Albelda and his fellow players horribly but that they read the technical situation poorly.

Not surprisingly, I won a friend in Albelda that day I interviewed him, but I find myself having to disagree with him this week. And again, it's all about having the right to disagree or criticize, but the manner of doing so being all important. But let's back up a minute.

Valencia, I state again without hesitation, is a little miracle club right now.

Its horrendous debt that was touching 500 million euros should have foreclosed the club, but the local council and banks fought to keep their emblematic La Liga club alive.

The club has sold stars at a massive profit, which helps reduce the debt but also constitutes a massive hemorrhaging of talent. Valencia has also produced an austerity program that has helped cut nearly 200 million euros off that global debt when sales are taken into account.

Yet despite that, Valencia has consistently qualified for the Champions League -- which earns the club 30 million euros in revenue for group-stage qualification -- in which it has continued to look relatively competitive. In La Liga this season, it has spent months in third place behind massive spenders Barcelona and Real Madrid, and it's in the semifinals of the Europa League.

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Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Fans have unfairly turned on Unai Emery.
Valencia's coach, Unai Emery, is a man in whom God seems to have invested more than his share of energy, electricity and intensity -- he's like a tornado in a milk bottle. Not all his players, not all the local media and by no means not all of the Valencia fans like or appreciate him. However, his achievements in buying well and blending new players into the squad and teaching them how to mature (I'm talking about Jonas, Sofiane Feghouli, Jordi Alba, Roberto Soldado, Vicente Guaita, Adil Rami, Tino Costa and Ever Banega) have been exceptional.

Over the past few weeks, the team has played with a touch of tiredness and dullness, resulting in the club falling to fourth place behind Malaga. Chances have been missed and leads have been tossed away, and on at least two key occasions the crowd at the Mestalla has turned against Emery (although it has been short-tempered with his decisions for some time), showing the traditional Spanish Panolada, with everyone standing up and waving a white hankie in the air as the ultimate gesture of unhappiness.

At this point, it is widely expected that Emery won't keep his job at the end of the season. Crazy, but there you have it.

So the coach took to the media and said, without bitterness, he expected and needed better support for the team at this critical time of the season, when some players are running on empty and the noise of loyal fans can be like an intravenous drip of energy and commitment.

Albelda took a different tone in an interview and suggested, without too much malice, the fans were not to be brought into this and were, more or less, entitled to do what they pleased. It was breaking ranks, and Emery dropped him from the starting lineup. That decision is between the coach and the experienced, hard-nosed player. Happens every week of every year in football.

Where I take issue is with the fans. Emery was correct. It is literally beyond belief that there are some so mono-browed and Cyclops of vision at that stadium that they aren't genuflecting with gratitude at what this coach and his players are (over) achieving. If they want a different coach, fine. If they want to win the title, fine. If they think that they should be developing a Lionel Messi in the cantera and signing Wayne Rooney, fine, again. Football fans need to dream. But they also need to support.

Barcelona's Brilliance
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.

The time and place for that would be in the media, in forums, when the club opens itself up for feedback -- not when the team is trying to drag itself into the financial safety of third position and to win the UEFA Europa League.

An example would be last week, when the Mestalla crowd loudly chanted in support from start to finish of what was an absolutely magnificent performance by Emery's team to thrash AZ Alkmaar 4-0 and qualify for a semifinal against Atletico Madrid. The team was absolutely brimming with confidence and energy, and it was an utter joy to watch. Alkmaar was blitzed.

The crowd can't win you the match, but it can be a massive help. Every time I ask senior players about this factor, they almost unanimously admit that they need to do their job, but in moments of doubt or flagging energy loyal support is worth its weight in gold.

Off the back of its five-star European night, Valencia traveled to the Santiago Bernabeu. Emery left out key players such as Soldado and Jonas, yet the team put on another jaw-dropping performance after which Iker Casillas admitted Real Madrid might have lost to the plethora of good chances Los Che produced.

Had the fans been as rabidly with Valencia in recent weeks as they were against Alkmaar, then, who knows, an extra winning goal or two might have been produced by legs that thought they couldn't run another yard. It's an imponderable, but there is evidence enough to suggest that those who were booing and waving white hankies were doing nothing to help.

What Valencia is achieving is a football miracle and, to boot, it sometimes plays wonderfully. Those among its support who cannot temporarily set aside their dislike of Emery or their frustration that, for the moment, Valencia can't win this league don't deserve the good things being done for their club.

If nobody else agrees with me, Jose Ramon Sandoval, the exceptional coach of Rayo Vallecano, does. Before Vallecano's visit to the Mestalla, he pointed out that Emery is a brilliant coach, very methodical, and a guy who draws the very best out of every group of players of which he takes charge. "He's easily one of the best Spanish coaches," Sandoval said.

Sandoval also represents this week's theme -- that of the dull of mind who don't appreciate what's in front of them.

His club is in administration and, talking of miracles, won promotion to the top division last year with the vast majority of the squad and technical staff either not being paid or having their salaries hugely delayed.

At the time of writing, Rayo sits six points off qualification for a European place for next season and ended a run of three consecutive defeats with a 6-0 destruction of Osasuna. The strange thing about that mega-win is that in the couple days before, poor old Sandoval, who wept with joy when Rayo won its first game of the season, received a letter from the administrators claiming that he owed them, and should repay, a six-figure sum.

Just ahead of the Osasuna win, the coach admitted that he was in pieces. Instead of being proffered a new contract, a raise or even a wee note of gratitude, he was being sued.

The details are both complicated and not the main issue. Paid only a minor part of his wages over the past two seasons, the previous administration, just before handing over control of the club, found a way to pay some of its debt to Sandoval to prevent him from leaving in the summer. Almost immediately, the administrators were brought in and they judged that Sandoval, only one of the creditors, has had too big a slice of the overall debt paid to him and that other creditors have lost out.

What isn't contested is that Sandoval has done an absolutely immense job, helping the club in its drive to defeat debt by keeping it in La Liga this season. You get a feel for the size of the achievement in knowing that only in 13 of Rayo's 87 years has the club been in the top flight, and its best-ever finishing position is ninth.

How it is possible for a club to treat one of the most important employees in its entire history with such disdain is beyond description.

When Rayo loses Sandoval, as it surely will, and when it is relegated next season without him, then let the administrators and the current board look at each other and play "find the dolt." There will be some candidates from which to choose.

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Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola refuses to commit his future to Barcelona.
Now just a couple addenda on the subject of appreciation. At the time of writing, Barcelona's brilliant coach, Pep Guardiola, still hasn't announced whether he will renew his contract or leave in the summer. But the subject has died down a little in the media as the crucial part of the season reaches us and the importance of every single match rises.

What is important to note is that the appreciation his players feel for him has helped Barca go on a sequence of major victories in the league and Champions League. They are not only unaffected by Guardiola's uncertain future but also demonstrating on the pitch that they want him to stay.

The coach explained why he is dithering over a new deal while he was promoting one of the companies he sponsors, Banco Sabadell. "When you are a manager you need to be conscious of the fact that you could leave tomorrow," Guardiola said. "I work better when I feel that I have control over my own future. Being tied to a contract for a long time makes me very nervous and it's the very thing that can end up causing you to lose your passion."

Guardiola's unusual stance has led to offer after offer from clubs such as Chelsea and Inter Milan, and I'm certain it must, from time to time, drive the Barca board to distraction. But it's working.

Just like when Guardiola moved Messi to center forward, opted to play three at the back, produced a "Gladiator" video before the 2009 Champions League final and traveled to away matches on the day of the game -- what he's doing now is unorthodox.

But it's Pep.

President Sandro Rosell and his directors need to continue appreciating, for the moment, that whether they have him until June 2012 or June 2015, Guardiola is exceptional and should be appreciated, idiosyncrasies and all.

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To close this column, there's one person in La Liga for whom it's difficult to feel any appreciation or respect. Real Madrid's Pepe has a list of football crimes long enough to engage the interest of Interpol. Yet he won't learn, he won't repent and he continues to besmirch the name of his great club.

This past weekend, he kicked his teammate Alvaro Arbeloa, and whether it was a mistake (because he thought he was kicking an opponent) or in a fit of pique interests me not. Pepe is a disgrace to himself and to Real Madrid. The sooner he's gone from La Liga the better for everyone.


The Reducer, Week 32: City's a Sucker

By: timbersfan, 9:02 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

Manchester United 2, Queens Park Rangers 1
Arsenal 1, Manchester City 0

In the 13th minute of Manchester United's game with QPR at Old Trafford, a slashing Ashley Young felt a creaky, possibly arthritic old hand on his back. Considering the hand belonged to QPR defender Shaun Derry, who looks like he punches tree trunks for fun, it was a relatively light touch. And considering that Young was offside, Derry probably thought his contact would be forgiven by the wave of the linesman's flag. But no matter; Young, in his first season playing with United, knew what he felt and knew where he was on the pitch. And he went down.

Mark Hughes, who played many years at Old Trafford, could do nothing but suck his teeth and stare into the middle distance. Later, the QPR manager would say that he had lost faith in Premier League refereeing. But he, as much as anyone else, should know to abandon faith when entering the Theater of Dreams. Forget it, Sparky. It's Fergietown.

Derry was sent off, QPR went down to 10 men, Wayne Rooney (a floppy-haired Wayne Rooney, no less) stepped up to the spot and buried the penalty. 1-0.

Was it a dive? Was it luck? It was United. It was opportunistic, cynical, and smart. It's how you apparently win the Premier League. Young was lucky to be where he was with an oaf like Derry riding his shoulder, but he knew exactly what he should do. That's been the way for United since their New Year's stumble to Newcastle and Blackburn. Their supply of luck has always met their demand, because they make their own.

If Young's well-timed topple was an example of why United would win the title (and on Sunday, they did win it, pretty much in every way but mathematically), Mario Balotelli's performance at the Emirates later that afternoon showed why City would not.

City desperately needed three points from the match to stay within touching distance of United. With one more Manchester derby looming at the end of April, and with United eight points clear after their win against QPR, City's title challenge was looking increasingly fragile. It needed someone with a sure grip and an even temperament to protect it. So, naturally, they put their faith in the hands of the 21-year-old with a Mohawk and an anger-management problem. If Balotelli handled City's title chances half as well as he maneuvered his Bentley just days before, everything would be fine.

In second half stoppage time, trailing 1-0 after Arsenal's Mikel Arteta buried a long-range shot to put the Gunners in the lead, Balotelli dove into Bacary Sagna while attempting to win back possession in the Arsenal half. As Sagna rolled on the ground, referee Martin Atkinson pulled out his second yellow card and then a red, sending Balotelli off. It was one of several kamikaze tackles Balotelli tried executing (with an emphasis on execute). His sending off was probably about an hour late, as he could have broken Alex Song's leg in half earlier in the match. A man down and lacking any kind of momentum, City fell to Arsenal and more or less conceded the title to United, who they once led in the table by five points and more than a dozen goals in goal difference.

Thus ended one of the more bizarre cases of sporting loyalty and betrayal that I have ever seen. Over the last few weeks, with Sergio Agüero suffering from an allergic reaction to a pain-killing spray, David Silva looking increasingly spent, Carlos Tévez slowly playing his way into shape, and Edin Dzeko playing his way out of it (or doing whatever it is that Edin Dzeko does instead of playing football consistenly), Mario Balotelli, against all logic, became the center of the City attack.

Watching Manchester United over the course of this run — eight wins in a row, unbeaten since their match with Newcastle in early January — everything was under control. A team that was that defined by its youth in the beginning of the season was under the stewardship of wise veterans like Ryan Giggs, a fit Rio Ferdinand, and a back-from-the-dead Paul Scholes. Steady passing, calm composure on the ball, nothing spectacular, no massive mistakes;1 once QPR went down a man, ice filled United's veins.

On the other hand, City's last few weeks have been a lesson in mismanagement. Where Sir Alex Ferguson added just the right amount of Scholes and Giggs to the youthful mix of Young, Rooney, Paul Pogba, Tom Cleverley, and Phil Jones, City's manager, Roberto Mancini, made an obscenely irresponsible bet that an incredibly talented but wildly erratic player would all of a sudden perform professionally under the most extreme of circumstances.

I get it. If Balotelli went on a tear, Mancini and all his pampering of the Italian's partying, reckless driving, and fight- and fire-starting would look like a stroke of genius. If he wound up acting like, well, Balotelli, then Mancini had an easy scapegoat.

After the Arsenal match, Mancini tried to pass the buck. Agreeing with Balotelli's former Inter Milan boss (and possible Manchester City 2012-13 manager) Jose Mourinho that the player was possibly "unmanageable," Mancini told the press, "I'm finished. We have six games left and he will not play. It's not sure he'll [be available] because he could get a three- or four-game ban. Now, I need to be sure that I have always 11 players on the pitch. With Mario, it's always a big risk. Every time we risk one [man] being sent off, even if he can also score in the last minute."

What absolute crap. And tardy crap at that. This revelation is weeks late. Things have been coming apart at the seams for Balotelli for a while now, with reports of bust-ups, trysts, and "rows" populating the English press. Forget perception versus reality. I know not everything I read in the Daily Mail is true, but it was still obvious that Balotelli wasn't rising to the occasion, he was crumbling under it.

He should have been sent off after 20 minutes on Sunday. Mancini said as much. So why he was left on the pitch, throwing in tackles and kicking the woodwork when he missed chances, is down to one man and one man only: Mancini. Carlos Tévez and Edin Dzeko were sitting right there. If Mancini saw Balotelli's meltdown coming — and everyone watching the game did — is leaving him on the pitch, Yaya Touré's injury-forced exit or no, anything less than negligent?

Manchester City knew going into the match with Arsenal that it was three points or face an Etihad-hosted coronation of United on April 30. What's insane is that Mancini is a dreadfully conservative manager; his style of football, last season especially, was far more galling than the obscene amounts of money City's owners spent this past offseason.2 He could have played it safe, boring, and drab and hoped to eke out a win in the end. Instead, perhaps because he is such a notorious hothead himself, he rode his luck with Balotelli. And when it blew up in his face he walked away from the wreckage, acting as if someone else had lit the fuse.

The universe working the way it does, Manchester City will win a Premier League title one of these years. But on Sunday, as another Ferguson team inched closer to another Premier League trophy on the back of another mid-range hammer swing from Paul F'ing Scholes, you had to ask if there really is something to be said for institutional experience. I'm not talking about the been-in-the-trenches, thousand-yard-stare veterans; City could buy them, too, and probably will. I'm talking about the kind of thing that makes wind blow a certain way, that teaches Ashley Young to go down when he feels a hand on his back, that grows Wayne Rooney's hair back and (even more magically) regenerates the muscles and drive of aging veterans.3 It's something you just can't buy, at least not in the two transfer windows. In the end, as much as it seems like mystical mind games and bullying and bluster, I guess I'm talking about Ferguson.

Step Overs

• Clint Dempsey scored his 20th goal for Fulham (in all competitions) on Saturday, sending a wonderful free kick past Bolton's Adam Bogdan in one of the more egregious acts of anti-redhead behavior I've seen since M.I.A.'s "Born Free" video.

Dempsey has yet to sign a new deal with the Cottagers, and many have speculated that it is now or never if Deuce wants to make the jump to a "big club." I would love to see Dempsey competing for more trophies and playing in the Champions League. Insert all the attendant language about how great it would be to see an American playing in the Champions League with some regularity. But the way Dempsey has been utilized this season, in Martin Jol's attack-heavy scheme (I know I'm wrong, but sometimes it feels like Fulham is going 4-2-4), should not be ignored. The inherent problem with moving to a new team is the tactical change that comes with it. If Dempsey goes to a Liverpool or Arsenal, he would be part of a totally different system — one that might not allow the current freedom he has to bomb in from the wing or get more forward. He's obviously earned his place in Fulham fans' hearts, but he's also established himself in the tactical pecking order.

UPDATE: As I was writing this, on Monday, Dempsey scored against Chelsea to take a point for Fulham. Forget all that nonsense I just said. FERGIE, SIGN HIM UP.

• While all this title deciding was going on, Norwich and Everton played a wonderful 2-2 draw that suited both sides just fine.

Special mention to Nikica Jelavic for a classic fox-in-the-box goal for Everton's first and a composed strike off a cutback for the second. Everton signed Jelavic from Rangers in January, and it was a another scrap-heap gem of a personnel move by David Moyes. Another January signing, Jonny Howson, was equally impressive for the Canaries. For English football fetishists (Hi, my name is Chris and I'm … ), this was a romantic game. Dirty, brown patches in front of goal, Tony Hibbert looking like a guy lighting a cigarette from the cherry of another outside of a William Hill, just felt like classic blighty clash. I don't even think the sun actually bothered to come out.

• Watching Aston Villa's Barry Bannan tear into Luis Suarez at the end of the first half of Liverpool was telling.

Suarez has a stink on him, and he might have to leave the Premier League to get it off. I thought Alan Hutton made significant enough contact with Suarez, but when Barry Bannan is standing over you and making "diving" gestures with his hands, you know you've lost the respect of your fellow players. Cristiano Ronaldo used to go down pretty easily, too, but opposing players feared him. You don't get the impression that Suarez's eight goals in 27 League games gives defenders the vapors.

Goal of the Week: Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle United

In case you were wondering why I am smitten with this kid:

Quote of the Week: Mario Balotelli

"I'm really sorry for what happened and for the disappointment I've caused Manchester City, and particularly to Roberto Mancini, whom I respect and whom I love."


NBA Rookie Rankings XIII

By: timbersfan, 8:57 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

The top of the rookie rankings is a dangerous place. First, Ricky Rubio was knocked off the list by a season-ending ACL injury, and now a sprained shoulder has taken Kyrie Irving out of commission. Irving's body of work this season will make him the Rookie of the Year even if he doesn't play another game, but on a week-to-week basis, his injury allows us to highlight other first-year players who've excelled.

1. Isaiah Thomas

Undersized point guards like Thomas are supposed to struggle on defense. But Thomas has been one of the NBA's better on-ball defenders this season. According to Synergy Sports, Irving gives up 0.658 points per possession against isolation offenses, placing him in the league's 79th percentile. Thomas's opponents shoot 33.9 percent when they go one-on-one against him. Even better, Thomas forces turnovers 19 percent of the time when he guards isolation possessions. The key to his defense is speed.

Thomas is quick enough to stay in front of just about any guard in the league. So instead of trying to blow by Thomas, many bigger guards will try to out-muscle him. But Thomas has learned to get position, absorb contact, and take charges, and this negates some of the size advantage opposing players have on him.

2. Klay Thompson

Last week, we looked at Thompson's ability to move without the ball. Given how well he gets himself open for shots, you'd think that Thompson would be more aware of shooters working off the ball when he defends them. But alas, it isn't so. Thompson guards other players in catch-and-shoot situations 40.9 percent of the time on defense, and in those possessions he allows 1.02 points per possession. That leaves him in the NBA's 29th percentile. Thompson tends to lose his man because he ball-watches too much.

When Thompson's attention becomes fixated on the ball, he tends to shift too far off his man. Then, when he has to close out on a kick-out pass, Thompson has to cover too much ground. This leads to either an open shot or an out-of-control, full-speed close out, which usually leads to an easy layup for Thompson's man.

3. Kenneth Faried

One of the most important defensive skills for big men is showing against the pick-and-roll. Point guards in today's NBA execute the pick-and-roll very well, and every big must learn to hedge properly and according to his team's defensive philosophy. Right now, Faried struggles with that. According to Synergy Sports, on possessions where Faried was responsible for hedging out on ball screens, opponents scored 0.885 points per possession. That puts Faried in the bottom third of all NBA players at hedging on ball screens.

The Nuggets' pick-and-roll defense with Faried asks him to "drop and plug." This means that Faried doesn't show hard against the ball handler. Instead, he backs up to prevent dribble penetration while also preparing to challenge a pull-up jump shot. When Denver's other defender works around the screen and gets back in front of the ball handler, Faried recovers to his man. This is a smart strategy for an athletic big like Faried, who seems quick enough to stay in front of point guards (for a few seconds at a time), challenge shots, and then return to his man. But Faried is struggling with the drop-and-plug because he gives too much space to the ball handler and hasn't figured out how long to stay in front of the point guard and when to return to his man. He's been dropping too far off the ball handler and switching back to his man a little too early, and this has led to open shots for the ball handler.

4. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard has the skills to be a very good defender, but his defensive technique isn't quite good enough for him to get consistent stops. Last week, we looked at Leonard's struggles against isolation offense. He also needs to improve his defense in ball-screen situations. On possessions where Leonard covers the ball handler in a pick-and-roll (these make up 25.7 percent of his defensive possessions), Leonard gives up a PPP of 0.877, placing him in the bottom 25 percent of all NBA players. To improve, Leonard needs to do a better job of getting through screens.

Leonard is a gambler. He often reaches in to try to force turnovers, but when he does that before a ball screen is set against him, he takes himself out of position to get around the screens. This gives the screener a better angle to set a hard pick. Because Leonard gets hit squarely by these screens, he does a poor job of getting around them and gives ball handlers an open lane to attack the basket.

5. Chandler Parsons

Parsons is a very good defender in isolation situations. He holds opponents to 22.9 percent shooting and 0.622 points per possession in one-on-one spots, placing him in the top 13 percent among all NBA players. Parsons is such a good defender because he does a good job of taking away jump shots. His opponents shoot jumpers on 36.7 percent of their isolation possessions against Parsons, and he forces lots of misses when they attack him off the dribble.

Parsons uses his length very effectively on defense. He takes away the jumper with his long arms, and that allows him to play a step back on ball handlers, so he can stay in front of them without giving up open looks.

6. Iman Shumpert

We focused on defense for this week's top five, but now it's time to switch gears and examine Shumpert's offense. Although he's an extremely skilled defender, Shumpert has struggled on offense for most of this season. He is improving, however, and his isolation numbers show it. Shumpert's PPP of 0.845 in isolation situations places him among the top 30 percent of all NBA players, and his isolation success results from his ability to get to the front of the rim. Shumpert drives to the basket on 64.2 percent of his isolation possessions. This is a wise decision, since he shoots 46.7 percent on drives and just 37.5 percent on jump shots.

7. Derrick Williams

For a player who spent most of the season running alongside an elite passer like Ricky Rubio, Williams's numbers in transition are not very good. According to Synergy Sports, in 75 transition opportunities Williams has scored just 77 points, posting just 1.027 points per possession, which places him in the NBA's bottom 25 percent. The problem is that Williams commits turnovers on 13.3 percent of his transition touches. The turnovers are especially costly because transition opportunities are almost guaranteed points. Losing the ball gives those points away.

8. Tristan Thompson

With Thompson's rookie season almost over, it's disheartening to see him still struggling to score in the post. Thompson has scored just 49 points on 80 post-up opportunities, according to Synergy Sports. His PPP of 0.612 places him in the bottom 17 percent of all NBA players. Thompson likes to face up in the post, but he struggles to score when he turns and faces the basket. Thompson faced up on more than half of his post-up possessions and shot 34.5 percent when he did. When Thompson faces up, he should use his quickness to get to the basket, but instead he settles for jump shots way too often.

9. Bismack Biyombo

Biyombo is a raw offensive player who has a lot of talent on defense. To improve his scoring numbers, he should work on moving without the ball. According to Synergy Sports, cuts away from the ball make up 23.7 percent of Biyombo's total possessions. His PPP of 1.04 in these situations puts him in the bottom quarter percent of all NBA players. Usually, bigs who struggle creating on their own thrive at finishing scoring opportunities set up by their teammates. Biyombo's problem on cuts is that he hesitates after he catches the ball. This allows defenders to recover and challenge his shots. If Biyombo can learn to make the catch and go straight up, his performance will improve.

10. Markieff Morris

Earlier in the season, Morris was the NBA's best spot-up shooter in terms of PPP. Of course, there was no way he could maintain that pace. Now, Morris's PPP of 1.097 on spot-up possessions places him in the league's 84th percentile. Morris is doing a nice job of developing moves around his shooting ability. Instead of shooting spot-up jumpers every time he gets an open look, he will sometimes mix in a pump fake and attack the rim. Morris does this 10.5 percent of the time during his spot-up possessions, and he's posting a PPP of 1.385 on 60 percent shooting when he does. These additional moves make it harder for the defense to close out hard on Morris, and eventually it will allow him to get more open jump shots.

The Rest: Brandon Knight, Alec Burks, Kemba Walker

Injured List: Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving


The Rebirth of the Celtics

By: timbersfan, 8:55 PM GMT on April 11, 2012

You know what happens when you're rooting for a creaky but lovable basketball contender? You relish the big victories. All of them. Every single one. You know the season could collapse at any time, and you're perfectly aware that a torn meniscus, calf tear or herniated disk might sucker punch your season when you least expect it. It's a little liberating, actually. Your expectations are low because you shouldn't expect anything at all.

And with that said … I actually expected the Celtics to prevail in Miami last night. I really did. Had you told me as recently as six weeks ago, "The Celtics are going to win in Miami in mid-April, and by the way, you will expect it to happen," I would have assumed that LeBron and Wade had crashed on Bobby Petrino's motorcycle or something. Miami IN Miami? No way.

How did we get here? It wasn't that long ago that the great Bob Ryan described Boston's situation as "Year Five of a Three-Year Plan." A five-game losing streak had dropped the C's to a measly 15-17, as a-hole writers like myself were grabbing shovels and burying the team. With trade rumors swirling around All-Star Rajon Rondo — planted by other teams hoping to cause chemistry problems and drive down his price, by the way — the Celtics won three straight, then throttled the Knicks on a Sunday ABC home game that we'll always remember as Rondo's "Look, You're Not Effing Trading Me, You'd Be Insane" game (18 points, 20 assists, 17 rebounds).1

The next two weeks were fairly fascinating: The Celtics hoping to rebuild around Rondo and cap space, while steadfastly refusing to give away their valuable veterans. Before the Clippers game at Staples, less than three days before the deadline, I spent 25 minutes talking to Ainge and fellow BYU grad Michael Smith, now a broadcaster for the Clippers. It was becoming more and more clear that Ainge should keep the team intact; the day before, they played extremely well in a last-minute Lakers loss, and it's not like anyone in the East was pulling away from them. Making the decision easier: Nobody was offering anything decent for Pierce (owed $32 million total in 2013 and 2014) or Garnett (whose $21 million cap figure made it near impossible just to match salaries in a trade). Allen's expiring contract and crunch-time pedigree made him more appealing, but no contender had the right assets to pursue him. At one point, Smith brought up a young player who could, conceivably, have been the centerpiece of an Allen trade. Danny just started laughing.

"We're not trading Ray Allen for [the player's last name]," Danny said. "Come on! It's Ray Allen!"

You need to know two things about Danny Ainge. First, he's probably the most confident person currently running an NBA team. Any and all criticisms bounce right off him. He just doesn't care. As someone close to him explained (I'm paraphrasing), Danny has won at everything his whole life. He was an incredible high school athlete. He was a star in college and married the prettiest girl there. He played TWO professional sports. He played on those championship teams with Larry and Kevin. He pulled off the KG trade and won in 2008. This is not someone who worries about what other people are saying.2 So even if "What the hell is Danny doing?" became a permanent conversation after last year's Kendrick Perkins trade, that groundswell never intimidated him into making a panic deal. Second (and this ties into the first point), Danny has no fear whatsoever. Of anything. The joke within Celtic circles is that Danny would trade his mother if it helped the team.

Anyway, I left our conversation thinking that Danny honestly didn't know how the deadline would play out. Chatting with Wyc Grousbeck a few minutes later, the Celtics' owner seemed similarly confused. Why break these guys up without a really good reason? What's the point? After the Celtics played a superb game against the Clippers, I came to my own conclusion: "The Celtics are what they are: old, proud, stubborn and (mostly) fun to watch simply because they know each other so well … Leave them alone and the 2012 Boston Celtics will go down swinging. That's all we know, and frankly, that's good enough for me."

I flew to Oakland for the Warriors game two nights later, if only because the trade deadline was the following day, and, I mean … not to sound corny, but you never know with this stuff. If this happened to be the last night for the Pierce/Rondo/Garnett/Allen foursome, I wanted to be there. They prevailed by two behind another throwback KG game (24 points, 11-of-15 shooting), which made little sense because Garnett looked salad-fork-in-the-back-finished as recently as January. I remember when Bird's body collapsed (a four-year spiral that started during the '88 Detroit series and crested in the 1992 playoffs, when he could barely move), when McHale's ankles slowly betrayed him (1991), when Parish just couldn't fight off younger leapers anymore (1993). You usually know with these things. You just do. And I would have wagered anything that Garnett was more finished than Desperate Housewives.

Guys were jumping over him (shades of Parish), his jumper was flat, and worst of all, he looked absolutely miserable. Like he didn't want to play basketball anymore. Even during his signature staredown/pointing routine before tip-offs at home games, you never felt like his heart was totally in it. When his game inexplicably rebounded in February (17.6 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 54% shooting), everyone attributed it to Rivers moving him to center. News flash: Garnett had been playing center since the Perkins trade. Everyone was just pretending otherwise for KG's sake. He's weird about this stuff. It's the same reason Garnett likes to be listed at 6-foot-11 when he's really 7-foot-1, or Tim Duncan always wants to be listed as a forward even though he's been playing center for the past seven years. You don't ask questions with big men; you just do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

You know what really fueled Garnett's resurgence? He's a competitive MF'er. That's really it. The lockout ended, he couldn't get going those first few weeks … and then, suddenly, the "KG is done" talk started, and even worse, opponents started treating him differently. They stared him down after dunks, talked shit to him, accorded him little to no respect. He probably remembered doing the same to Patrick Ewing, Derrick Coleman, Chris Webber or whomever over the years and thought to himself, I'm not ready to be That Guy yet. The flame started flickering again. As he told WEEI's Paul Flannery two weeks ago, "I hear you all calling me old. I hear you calling me, um, older. Weathered. I'm motivated. It don't really take much to motivate me, man. I'm older in basketball years, but in life I'm thirtysomething."

The trade deadline passed with Rondo reinvested and Garnett reenergized. You know who else stuck around? The second-leading scorer in Celtics history, Paul Pierce, who stunk in February (16.4 PPG, 39.5% FG) and inadvertently murdered his own trade value. Remember when New Jersey's bid for Dwight Howard fell through, then they panicked and swapped a top-three protected 2012 pick to Portland for Gerald Wallace, and everyone said, "Wait a second, why would someone give up a top-three protected pick for the third-best player on a sub-.500 team?" Not reported at the time: New Jersey could have landed Pierce for that same pick, only they chose Wallace because he was a full five years younger.3

Little did they know no. 34 was slowly morphing into Paul Pierce again: In 23 games since March 2, he's averaging a 22-6-3 with 46/38/85 shooting splits and looking no different than the Pierce from 2008-11. If you're scoring at home, suddenly Pierce, Rondo AND Garnett were playing their best basketball again. But this still-creaky Celtics team wouldn't have morphed into a contender without three other developments.

1. The league's six best perimeter defenders right now, in some order, are LeBron, Tony Allen, Andre Iguodala, Shawn Marion, Iman Shumpert and … (drumroll please) … Avery Bradley. You might remember me writing on February 10 that "I watched Trick or Treat Tony for the first five years of his career. I watched (Bruce) Bowen for the first three years of his career. Bradley is just as good of a one-on-one defender as they were at the same point in their careers. All Bradley needs to do is learn how to shoot corner 3s and he'll have a 15-year NBA career and play a significant role for at least one contender. I swear, I'm not going Heinsohn on you."4 So the defense wasn't a shock.

But when those jumpers started going in? That was a shock. Doc started playing him. Everything snowballed. Avery started driving to the basket and making plays. Celtic diehards started glancing at each other and saying, "Wait a second, is Avery Bradley good or am I crazy?" Near the end of March, Allen missed a few games and inadvertently transformed Bradley's career; with the kid playing 40 minutes a game, suddenly the Celtics were causing turnovers, getting easy fast-break points, locking dudes down and basically wreaking havoc. They haven't played defense like that in three years. And it's contagious. People were taking charges, switching at the perfect time, flying from the weak side to block shots … everything just snowballed. And it happened because of Garnett and Avery Bradley. He's for real. Do I trust the kid defending Rose or Wade in a playoff series? Yes. Yes I do. So there.

2. Bradley's coming-out party can be explained — it came down to confidence and minutes. But Stiemsanity? I have no answers. Greg Stiemsma never averaged more than 12 minutes per game in any of his four Big Ten seasons. (Seriously. Look it up.) He bounced around for four solid years after college. He looked decent in the preseason, earned the Tommy Heinsohn Seal of Approval (getting compared to Bill Russell), quickly lost his mojo and seemed headed for a low spot in the All-Time White Celtics Rankings right between Andrew DeClercq and Brett Szabo. Then, Jermaine O'Neal went down, and so did Chris Wilcox … and just like that, the Stiemer was playing 19 minutes a game, blocking shots (he's averaging two a game since the All-Star break), running the floor, making open 15-footers, taking charges, banging bodies and doing everything you'd ever want from a backup center, with the added bonus that Boston fans loved him more than horny middle-aged housewives love Fifty Shades of Grey.

Does any of this make sense? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! It makes no sense whatsoever! Again, he's playing 19 minutes a game in the NBA when he never played more than 12 minutes a game in college. Did I mention that he's doing this with a badly sprained foot? And that he can't practice? And that he was wearing a walking boot for a couple of weeks? Let's just move on before we jinx Stiemsanity.

3. I already made Doc Rivers's case as "Coach of the Year" in last week's column, a moment that gave the Mayans extra conviction that 2012 is going to be their year. But you know what's been even more incredible than Bradley morphing into a young Joe Dumars, Rondo shrugging over trade rumors and somehow raising his game, Pierce and Garnett playing like they just flew to Germany with Kobe, or Stiemsanity sweeping the nation? What about Doc finally (and belatedly, but whatever) figuring out the value of a locked-in playing rotation?

Even when they won the 2008 title, Doc was routinely playing 11 guys in one half — he just couldn't grasp the concept of "stick to eight or nine guys, make sure everyone knows their minutes, don't deviate from this" (or as Vinny Del Negro calls it, "The Opposite of What I Do"). Now, you might say Doc didn't have a choice this year — after a few putrid Danny signings, the Celtics have seven reliable players (Rondo, Pierce, Garnett, Allen, Bradley, Stiemsma and Brandon Bass), with three key bench guys (Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal's Corpse5) missing and Mickael Pietrus still recuperating from a scary concussion last month. You can't play fewer than eight guys, so Sasha Pavlovic has gotten Pietrus's "Backup Perimeter Guy" minutes by default.

But here's the thing about the NBA … you only need eight guys every night. Just look at how Doc handled Tuesday night's Miami game. Pierce and Rondo played 40 minutes each; Bass played 39; the old guys (Allen and KG) played 35 and 33, respectively; Bradley played 25; Stiemsanity played 20; and Pavlovic played eight. Nobody else played. Doc never had fewer than two of the Pierce/Rondo/Allen/Garnett quartet out there at all times. With Rondo and Pierce sitting in the fourth quarter, Miami made a charge as I was muttering, "Uh-oh … Doc's going to wait two minutes too long … we're about to give this game away … " when BOOM! Doc felt the game slipping and brought back the starters at the 9:30 mark. Allen made a backbreaking three, then Garnett headed down to Bosh's Pit and started swishing old-school KG jumpers — not one, not two, not three (copyright: LeBron), but four in a row! — and before you knew it, the Celtics were ahead by double digits again. They never really looked back.

How are they playing defense this well?6 Why aren't their jumpers flat anymore? Why is Rondo clicking so well with the vets again? Can they really be peaking during the most brutal part of their schedule (11 games in 15 nights)? Are they evolving into this year's version of the '99 Knicks, the late bloomer who meshed at the perfect time and sneaked into the Finals? I'm prepared for anything. The players looked like they were drifting apart in January and February; in Miami, they were hugging and slapping palms like a team that (a) totally believed in themselves, and (b) absolutely, unequivocally believed that they were winning that game.

Now, if you're a Miami fan, you come away from that game thinking, That's a fluke loss, there's no way they can shoot 61 percent against us four times in a playoff series. And you'd be right. But that wasn't the lesson from that game. The Celtics know who they are. It's Year 5. They trust each other. They trust their coach. They trust the three newer guys, and when Pietrus comes back, they'll trust him again, too. They know where to go and what to do. They can score and get stops. They will fight. They will keep coming.7

What does Miami know about itself? Let's start backward. LeBron and Wade are having superb individual seasons. In the open floor, they rank among the most breathtaking combinations ever (if not no. 1 all-time), but in the half court? It's still "Dueling Banjos," something that hasn't changed since day one. Meanwhile, poor Chris Bosh got eviscerated by Garnett last night, yet another ignominious moment for someone who had already squandered any and all "Big Three" privileges. He's just not that good.8 Their veterans (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier) all peaked three to four years ago, especially the 33-year-old Battier (December's most overrated signing), who can't even crack 35 percent from 3 (all of them wide open, by the way). Their 2011 point guard situation is just as messy as 2011's situation; sometimes Mario Chalmers shows up, sometimes he doesn't, and their two rookie backups (Norris Cole and Terrel Harris) can't be trusted. And just last week, Erik Spoelstra benched Joel Anthony for Ronny Turiaf. Yeeesh.

So if you're scoring at home, we're less than three weeks from the playoffs and Spoelstra has no idea …

A. Which six guys he can trust after LeBron, Wade and (by default) Bosh.
B. Which five guys should be finishing every game.

Seems like two pretty big questions, no? The latest media narrative has been, "Maybe Miami should just play LeBron at point guard," something the numbers back up (especially Tuesday night's stats). Really, the narrative should be, "How the heck does this team not have an identity yet?" Last night, they played their butts off and STILL lost. I remember thinking that Boston couldn't beat Miami if LeBron had one of those Mega-LeBron games — you know, 36 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, a couple of fast break dunks/blocks, a couple of 3s, some post-up moves, just one of those games when he's involved — and that's exactly what happened last night. Guess what? They still lost.

We'll remember it as one of the single most meaningful victories of the Three-Year Plan That Lasted Five Years: the night Boston officially threw its hat into the 2012 title race. It doesn't totally make sense, but then again, none of this makes sense. Rondo could be playing for the Hornets. Pierce could be stuck on the Nets. Doc could be announcing games with Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy. Bradley could still be buried on the bench. Danny could have panicked right before the deadline and had a fire sale for Garnett and Allen. It's a swollen list of "what ifs," and just about every one of them went Boston's way.

At least for now. You never know with those creaky but lovable basketball contenders. We've reached this specific point six other times in Celtics history. Russell's last two squads ('68 and '69) won consecutive titles while running on fumes. The same thing happened with the last good Havlicek-Cowens team ('76). The last two Bird-McHale-Parish efforts ('91 and '92, two severely underrated teams) fell short because the Legend just couldn't stay healthy. More recently, the 2010 squad came within Perkins's knee injury and Artest's improbable no-no-yes 3 from stealing a championship. Now, the fellas from 2012 are making a run. Nobody saw this coming. And really, that's the single best thing about it.


Tim Ream settles in at Bolton

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on April 07, 2012

How busy has Tim Ream's 2012 been? Let's just say that by the time he sends out a holiday card in December, he may need a few extra pages to sum up the year. Since New Year's the 24-year-old U.S. defender has gotten married; been sold from New York to Bolton Wanderers; survived a touch-and-go UK work-permit application; earned near-instant playing time in the Barclays Premier League; gone up against Didier Drogba, Edin Dzeko and Emmanuel Adebayor; and been thrust into the crucible of a relegation battle worth tens of millions of dollars.
And it's only April.
Bolton is one point clear of the drop zone with eight games to play, and Ream is right in the middle of the Darwinian struggle. "It's definitely an interesting dynamic," he told me this week, "much different from playing in New York and not having to worry about relegation. But as a player I enjoy the extra pressure. You want to perform under the best and worst conditions, and fighting relegation is something you just have to do. So far, so good. But with eight games to go, it's really coming down to the wire."
So far, so good is an apt way to describe Ream's adjustment to the Premier League. The Saint Louis U. product says he didn't expect to become a fulltime player so soon after his arrival, but Ream hasn't looked out of place as a center back, and he has even pulled spot duty as a defensive midfielder under manager Owen Coyle.
Though Ream hasn't played as a midfielder for the U.S. or New York, his fitness, defensive skills and ability on the ball led to Coyle's decision. "I think the manager sees my test results from when I first came in, and I'm able to run and my fitness is really high," Ream says. "So he thought I'd do well and be able to play there on a need-be basis." That said, Ream says his regular position will remain on the back line.
The magnitude of Ream's opportunity may well be determined by the outcome of the relegation fight. On the high end of the scale, he could follow the path of the man he replaced, ex-Bolton defender Gary Cahill, who was sold for $11 million to Chelsea in January. On the low end, Ream could find himself toiling in the second tier of English soccer next season.
Either way, he appears to have earned the trust of Coyle, who has won a reputation for giving U.S. players a chance (see Stuart Holden). "He's a players coach," Ream says of Coyle. "He's a good motivator, even when guys are maybe feeling a little down because of a result. And I think he sees that Americans can succeed if put in the right situation."
As busy as Ream has been this year, most of his changes have been the result of typical events in the career of a soccer player. Yet nothing prepared him for the horrific scene last month when Bolton teammate Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field and nearly died of a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup game against Tottenham. Muamba survived and is recovering in a hospital, but Ream won't ever forget the feeling of helplessness watching it unfold from the Bolton bench that day.
"It was shocking, surreal," Ream says. "For two or three days after that you felt like you were in a trance almost. It was a freak thing that you don't want to see happen to anybody, especially to a guy who's loved by everyone. It really makes you appreciate what you have and what you've been given."
And Ream is quick to say that after just two seasons as a pro in New York he has been given a great opportunity in England. A cool character by nature, he admits he was "just a wreck" on the day he sat in a cafe waiting for the verdict on his work permit appeal, "with my stomach inside-out and my hands and legs shaking." Once the good news arrived, he issued a fist pump and a "hell yes" -- what qualifies as an emotional response for the Midwesterner.
Now Ream's goals are to stay up with Bolton, continue getting playing time and earn back his spot with the U.S. national team, which he lost last year after some conspicuous miscues against Panama and Ecuador. "You always want to be in the picture and being called in," he says, "but at the same time you don't get there without working hard and playing for your club. I'd like to think I've played my way back in, but you don't really know."
Just in case he gets called in to the U.S. camp for upcoming friendlies and World Cup qualifiers, Ream has postponed his long-awaited honeymoon to Bora Bora with his wife, Kristen, until late June. Staying three more days in the South Pacific than they had originally scheduled in January is one of the few minor upgrades the Reams have indulged in despite Tim's sizable salary increase from the $62,625 he made in MLS last year. "We haven't gone crazy with the spending. That's not who we are," explains Ream, who says the healthier paycheck has allowed them to have two cars instead of one and to rent a house instead of the small apartment they had in New Jersey.
The way his year has been going, Ream will have earned a few days in an overwater bungalow at the end of June.
• Kansas City-Los Angeles is must-see TV. How often do we get a genuinely buzz-worthy MLS game this early in the season? That's what's ahead on Saturday when Kansas City hosts Los Angeles (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) at a sold-out Livestrong Sporting Park. KC is the only perfect team in MLS (4-0), but it still needs a marquee victory. Meanwhile, the defending-champ Galaxy is reeling after a 1-2 MLS start, a Champions League flop and questions about David Beckham, who was removed at halftime of last week's 3-1 loss to New England. The only big question is whether we'll see Landon Donovan, who was out injured last week.
• Thumbs up for the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Give the committee some credit: MLS said it would take a tougher stance using retro-punishments for reckless play, and that's exactly what has happened. The league issued three more midweek suspensions to Vancouver's Atiba Harris, D.C.'s Brandon McDonald and Dallas's Jair Benítez. There's going to be plenty of debate over who does and who doesn't draw their attention (no Osvaldo Alonso this week?), but I happen to like the new get-tough policy, which should have a positive impact on making MLS a league where skill matters more than physical play.
• Hérculez Gómez just keeps on going. The U.S. sniper has now scored in eight straight games for Santos Laguna, the first-place team in Mexico, with 11 goals over that span. The latest victim was Toronto, which gave up two Gómez goals as TFC was eliminated in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals. It will be stunning if Gómez isn't called in for the U.S. camp starting next month, but my question is whether an MLS team in need of scoring might try to acquire him as a DP in July.
He wouldn't come cheaply: Gómez has a two-and-a-half-year deal, and a source tells me Santos would be unlikely to accept a transfer fee less than the $1.8 million it paid for him before this season. (Gómez's Santos salary is estimated to be in the high six-figures, too.) But Gómez would potentially be interested in an MLS return, and a DP added in midseason only counts for $175,000 on a team's salary budget. Teams that could use him: Columbus, Houston, Chicago, Philly, Montreal, Seattle, Dallas and Chivas.
Keep in mind, too, that Kansas City still has the right of first refusal on Gómez, who turned down a contract offer from KC before trying his fortunes in Mexico. Any MLS team that would want to sign Gómez would have to work out a deal with Kansas City to get his rights.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/soccer/news/20120 405/ream/#ixzz1rJG8eNUI


The Death of Ricky Rubio

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on April 07, 2012

On August 27, 1946, in a minor bullring in Linares, a Podunk lead-mining town in southern Spain, Manuel Laureano Rodriguez, known as Manolete, was mortally wounded, gored in the right leg by a nasty bull that insisted on radically departing from the script. Manolete was the son, grandson, nephew, and great-nephew of toreros, but as a child he was a bookworm mama's boy with little interest in going outside, much less in staring down bulls with a cape and a sword. But from 1939 on, he became a legend. He had affairs with beautiful actresses, palled around with both Picasso and Franco (separately; Picasso and Franco were not pals), and captivated a nation with old-school "passing." He brought back classics like the "manoletina," where he turned his back to the bull and used his muleta to bring the animal into his body, spinning away as the horns rushed within centimeters of his waist. Even dolled up in pink silk with bespoke socks from Barcelona, Manolete embodied the ideal of the true Spaniard: sangfroid punctuated with a magician's flair when confronted with angry beasts 10 times his size. But it was all over when Islero caught him in the Andalusian heat of that August afternoon. The crowd yelped and then fell into a guilty silence. Manolete was dragged away to the ring infirmary. The finest horn doctor in Spain came down from Madrid to lead an all-night vigil. At 5 a.m. a priest delivered last rites. Manolete died later in the day on the 28th. He was 30 years old. On the orders of Generalissimo Franco himself, state radio played only funeral dirges for days afterward. It was the end of an era. The last great bullfighter was dead. A nation mourned.

And that's exactly how every basketball fan in Minnesota felt when Ricky Rubio tore the ACL in his left knee on March 9, 2012:1 Wolves Nation mourned. With Kevin Love playing out of his mind in Ricky's absence, the team clung to the frame of the playoff picture for two weeks after The Injury, before completely falling off by the end of the month. But losing Ricky goes deeper than the lost chance to sneak into the postseason as an 8-seed.
Minnesotans may not have that exact same Spanish duende — we don't have the same aficionados, like a Lorca or a Hemingway, to put this into context — but we can feel sorry for ourselves with the best of them. We're the home of the Minnesota Vikings. Native son Bob Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks, the greatest breakup album of all time, in a south Minneapolis studio. And we gave the world F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote fatalist shit like, "The sentimental person thinks things will last — the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't." So in a way, we're strangely equipped for this kind of mini-tragedy.

Beyond the Wolves, it's been a terrible stretch for Minnesota sports.2 We've been waiting for a savior, and we waited for this particular savior for more than two years, since we drafted Rubio fifth overall in 2009.3 I mean, it was shocking that the sexy pick in the draft fell to us in the first place: At this point, T-Wolves lottery disappointment is kind of a thing around here, like snow in April, or unresolved stadium debates. Finally, some good fortune, or at least a GM arrogant enough to say fuck it, we'll take him. And then we found out he wasn't coming after all, and then there were the inevitable rumors that his mother believed it was too cold up here, and that he wanted to play in a bigger market. It instantly brought up our collective Midwestern abandonment issues. Of course the beautiful boy from Barcelona didn't want to come here. Nobody that pretty or talented or unusual ever wants to be here, the home of unbearable Scandinavian conformity and nasty winter.4

And then on June 2, in the middle of an unexpectedly early swoon by the Twins, the Wolves actually signed Ricky Rubio, seemingly out of nowhere. It's not exactly that we had forgotten about him, but Kurt Rambis's terrible coaching made it really hard to keep the faith alive. But ladies and gentlemen … we got him! So despite the initial Twitter shrug from Kevin Love, and the reports from abroad that Ricky was no longer any good, and the delay caused by the lockout, by the time the Wolves' preseason rolled around, the coming of Rubio verged on the messianic.5

We didn't know exactly what we were expecting from a player who most of us had only seen on YouTube, but when he got here, Ricky definitely approximated it. Even new coach Rick Adelman admitted that he didn't know what he was getting until he saw Ricky in training camp — and then he figured it out quickly. On opening night, Luke Ridnour started, but Ricky played the entire fourth quarter against the Thunder in a surprisingly back-and-forth game. He did the same thing against LeBron James and the Heat a couple nights later. "He earned that from me," Adelman said about riding Ricky during crunch time. "He's the type of guy you want to have the ball in the fourth quarter."

Rubio's Ricky Jay-like passing became a regular on SportsCenter and NBA.com. The team looked like it was having fun — sharing the ball, congratulating each other after big plays. Sports Illustrated wrote a big feature on Rubio. The Minnesota Timberwolves were getting national pub and nobody in the locker room was grumbling about the Spanish rookie getting all the attention — instead, the team seemed to be basking in it.6 Then, in an inadvertent nod to Minnesota's hockey heritage, when the Wolves beat the world champs in their second week, Ricky found Anthony Tolliver for the dagger 3 on a bounce pass right through Dirk Nowitzki's five hole. He handled the ball most of the time (his 38 percent assist percentage ranked eighth in the league among point guards at the time of his injury), and in the first month of the season his shot looked better than advertised, but it was his defense that was the biggest difference maker.7 His ability to anticipate on offense translates to the other end of the court — he was among the leaders in steals before he went out. And his length (6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and technique allow him to stay off his man an extra step and contest straight up on both jump shots and drives. He made tough fourth-quarter stops against opposing guards like Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups — guys who've torched the Wolves in the past. The anti-JaVale McGee, he just looks like he knows what he's doing out there. But don't take my word for it: On the Sports Guy's podcast Larry Bird himself copped to "watching him every night."

But Rubio's draw goes beyond the alley-oops and the defense, even the winning. This wasn't just about basketball — we already had Kevin Love, whom Charles Barkley has called "the best power forward in the game," after all. But Rubio, with his indie-band mop top and his Spanish nose and his Maybelline-ready eyelashes, had something else.8 Women loved him. Hipsters loved him. Rich Republican courtside types loved him. When the newspapers quoted him (they didn't even bother to correct his English) you could hear his soft immigrant accent and feel his formal Spanish politeness. Once, when I asked if there was a specific coach who helped teach him defensive fundamentals, he demurred, "We had a lot of coaches there. It was like four or five from my young teams. And they all teach me good things, especially on defense." His clichés (example: "You try to run to try to have freedom and try to have fun and sometimes you have to take care of the ball") seemed right from a Lonely Planet: NBA phrase book. In the fourth quarter, when the scoreboard ran the video of him yelling "Let's goooooooooooooo!," there's a collective two-second delay to suppress our giggling before we roar approval. He became our adopted son, our surrogate little brother. When he tossed the ball three rows into the stands (rarely), or missed four jumpers in a row (not as rarely as you'd like — Ricky was a 34 percent shooter in February), the Target Center fans didn't groan or admonish him, they felt protective, the way you'd feel watching your Little Leaguer whiff. For those first 41 games, we tolerated mistakes, like flopping on a layup, or making a horrible turnover, as growing pains.

Rubio's flashy passing never seemed to be in service to himself, only an attempt to help the team using the element of surprise. (David Kahn, Rubio's no. 1 fan, characterizes it as "efficient flair, not superficial flair.") He seemed like an antidote to the self-centered AAU-ness of not only present-day professional basketball, but to present-day kids, present-day life. As Wolves assistant coach Bill Bayno told me after practice one time, because of video games and iPads and cable TV, "I don't think as many kids in this era truly love to play the game as they did 20 years ago. But Ricky's different."

So when Rubio went down, it felt operatically tragic. This wasn't a dying bullfighter, or even a dead bull, but this was our golden boy who lived to play. In that way, the whole thing felt inevitable, a tragedy more ancient than just a torn-up knee. The ritualized beats of that Friday night were evocative of Hemingway's death in the afternoon. First, the outraged roar of the crowd dissipating into quiet shock. Then, the instantly rendered irrelevance of the game's outcome along with the play-by-play man's postgame analysis (just another Wolves loss to the Lakers, after all). Later, the "rare trip" by the father figure, in this case Coach Adelman, to the training room after the game (according to a tweet from Wolves beat writer Jerry Zgoda, "he emerged quickly, looking glum"). Finally, the stiff upper lip on the part of the beatified victim (Ricky sent out a hopeful tweet about his obviously doomed MRI to come, followed by a link to the Kony 2012 Internet video). And the terrible certainty of the worst radiating from everybody else, from inner sanctum out to the general public (my fellow press-row buddies leaked grim assessments from Wolves staffers, and every other Rubio fan on Twitter, from Dwyane Wade to Marc Stein to my brother Kevin, just generally freaked the fuck out).

Where were you when Rubio went down? To my great personal shame, I wasn't even in the building that night. I was traveling north on a freeway that runs parallel to Highway 61 — missing my first home game of the year, in a van with my girlfriend, headed north to Hayward, Wisconsin, for my birthday, listening to Wolves-Lakers on the radio. Here I was, feeling doubly, maybe even triply, guilty, feeling sorry for myself and sorry for Ricky and sorry for myself for feeling more sorry for myself than sorry for Ricky: basically struggling not to ruin my (and, crucially, my girlfriend's) weekend over an injured basketball player. Why did I feel this way? Was it because I'd been working on this story for a long time and I missed the night the kid went down? Was that why? That didn't seem noble. Was this a lesson in karma? Did this happen because I abandoned him? Was it somehow my fault that the matador was gored in the bullring? I wondered how Kevin Love felt. Because of back spasms, the Timberwolves MVP was sitting out the Lakers game, home in his condo downtown. Was he wondering if things would've been different if he had played? Strangely, Alejandro "Aito" Reneses was also at the game that night. This was Ricky's first head coach, the first guy to totally believe in the kid: Aito gave Ricky his first professional minutes at the age of 14, and as Olympic coach, he started Ricky in the gold medal game in Beijing when he was only 17. Aito was in the Target Center because the Spanish Coaches Association was holding its convention this week in Minneapolis. Did Aito feel responsible? Was his presence some weird cosmic weight, too much weight for that fragile ligament? The New Yorker had a writer on press row for the game, in town all week to do a big story on Rubio — did he feel guilty? SLAM Magazine had just hit newsstands, and Ricky and Kevin were on the cover (the cover image mirrors a pose that KG and Stephon Marbury struck on a SLAM cover in '99),9 the writer of that piece was at home watching the NBA League Pass darlings. And he actually copped to the SLAM cover curse on Twitter. So there's denial and bargaining, all jumbled together and twisted in your stomach. And then in our first game without Ricky, we lost to New Orleans at home: yup, depression.

On Wednesday, March 21, Ricky went under Dr. Richard Steadman's knife in Vail. He's been updating his Facebook with the most adorable candid photography of post-op major reconstructive knee surgery in human history. Maybe it's time for acceptance: He's not a dead matador, but he's not coming back this season either. The team has gravely missed him on both ends of the floor. We still have nearly enough guys to suit up and play out the season, and we can still score — see Love's 51 against the Thunder on March 23 — but we can't stop anybody and the ball distribution was shaky enough in a blowout loss to Sacramento that J.J. Barea and Kevin had to be separated before coming to blows. (The anger stage, obviously.)

But here's the thing: There's been so much emotional tumult surrounding St. Ricky, all this love and anxiety and heartbreak, and it's all been compressed into this four-game-a-week, no-time-for-practice season, with the schedule serving as the official reason the team has refused to provide much access to him or his family or his friends. We still don't know much about this guy. We don't really understand exactly what we've lost. And that might be romantic enough for The Great Gatsby, but now that we're finally past the initial euphoria of the 2009 NBA draft, and the weird two-season interregnum, and this final burst of crushing disappointment, now that Ricky is gone for awhile, maybe we can begin to penetrate all this exotic Spanish mystique and figure out why he can consistently put the ball within a centimeter of the rim on an alley-oop, while consistently going 1-for-7 from the field. Or why he seems so friendly and cute while being so closed off and wary of the media. How exactly did Ricky Rubio become Ricky Rubio?

It's not a surprise; Rubio has been a pro since he was 14 years old." Without fail, that's what every opposing player answers when you ask him about how the young Spaniard is doing so well in the NBA. LeBron said it, Dirk said it, Kobe said it.10 If you hear this answer enough times, you get the impression that the now 21-year-old Rubio was once a Bieber-like prodigy who was out there wrapping the basketball around his back at a full sprint and dishing it to a trailing wing between his legs as a toddler.

And it turns out that yes, Ricky really was a basketball prodigy, but it turns out that being a basketball prodigy in Spain, especially in Catalonia, is dramatically different than being a prodigy in America. You can tell from the arenas: When I went to Barcelona's Palau Blaugrana to see Ricky in a playoff game against Real Madrid in 2010, it felt like a big college game at a place like Cameron Indoor. It was packed with around 8,000 fans, and the crowd was fuming with anti-Madrid hatred,11 complete with the separatist Catalonian flag and antagonistic songs and chants, but the scoreboard, with those big red digital numbers, looked like it was handed down from my old high school gym in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The second thing I noticed is that Ricky stunk: He scored five points, with two assists and three turnovers, without playing at all in crunch time. But these players were much bigger and hairier than college kids — Ricky looked like a 19-year-old playing with grown men. The only way I was able to console myself was to think about all the 19-year-olds that have stunk in the NBA.

In fact, by the time Ricky was draft eligible, all those teenage busts seemed to be finally registering with NBA front offices: Finally, there was some stigma attached to the childlike part of childlike geniuses. And Ricky not only looked like a child, he appeared to be hanging on to his childhood. The Sports Illustrated story from the first month of this season made it a point to mention both his obsession with The Lion King and the teddy bear collection he kept in his apartment in El Masnou. Before the '09 draft, there was a rumor going around that the Sacramento Kings passed on Ricky because his mother, Tona, cut his steak for him during a meeting with the GM.12 His parents didn't even allow the media to talk to him until he was 18, and other than that SI story, this season Wolves brass has limited access to Ricky to 10-minute interviews after practice. You get the sense that they are trying to keep their prodigy happy. When encountering the initial resistance, I asked David Kahn why the team is so protective of Ricky. And he responded in typically pugnacious style: He blamed it on Bill Simmons. "Neither of us are listening to any of the bullshit right now," Kahn says. "It's kind of ironic, the founder of your site has probably been the most hysterical, overdramatic poster child for why people should pay no mind to people who don't know."

What we do know is that Ricky grew up in El Masnou, a pretty bedroom community on the Mediterranean about 25 minutes from downtown Barcelona. With three ACB teams in Barcelona proper, and 27 clubs at various levels throughout Catalonia, this is far and away the most fertile basketball region in Spain;13 it's produced the Gasol brothers and Rudy Fernandez in addition to Rubio. Rubio himself hails from a basketball family, sort of a laid-back Catalan version of the Hurleys; his father, Esteve Rubio, coached girls and boys at Montmelo, another small club about 15 minutes inland from El Masnou.14 But when Esteve started working nights as a mechanic at Alcon, the giant eye-care chemical lab in El Masnou, he took a long break from coaching. Marc Rubio, Ricky's older brother by two and a half years, was also a basketball whiz kid — he went pro when he was 16.15 But back when Marc was an 8-year-old, he started playing for the El Masnou minis. Even though he was only 5, Marc's little brother didn't want to be left out.

Josep Maria Margall, a swingman on the 1984 Spanish national team that won silver in Los Angeles, was the technical director of El Masnou when Ricky played there. He remembers Rubio's first practice: "Tona [Ricky's mother] brought him to the gym with Marc," he says. "Little Ricky was 5. I was surprised, but I told her, 'All right, as long as he doesn't cry, I'll take care of him on the court.'" Ricky didn't cry. "He actually played the same level or better than the children Marc was playing." His older brother was a bigger player — "a little chubby," according to Margall — and a much better shooter (still is), but Ricky quickly learned how to play a more complete game in order to compete with the older, stronger kids. By the time Ricky was 8, he was dribbling through his legs and passing behind his back. And his defense stood out back then too: On some Saturday afternoon games he would have 22 or 23 steals against the other infantils.

There was one hiccup in the young Rubio's rapid development at El Masnou. "He was so good with both hands," Margall says. "But I told Esteve that you're going to have to decide which hand he shoots with." According to Margall, Ricky decided on his right hand, but his dominant eye is left. "This might have been the beginning of his problems."

Ricky Rubio's jump shot is his fatal flaw, and it has to be a much clearer window into his basketball psychology than why he loves The Lion King or a teddy bear collection or the time that his mommy cut his steak in Sacramento. For two years before his arrival in Minnesota, the Spanish press deconstructed the physics of Ricky's J the way conservative legal scholars have deconstructed Obamacare. They broke down the positioning of Ricky's left hand, the angle of his release, where he held the ball in relation to his head. The tabloids fabricated stories about the friction between Ricky's personal shooting coach and the Barcelona head coach, Xavi Pascual. And if Ricky's NBA season hadn't ended so abruptly, the same thing would have happened here — in the six games coming out of the All-Star break, Ricky was shooting just over 25 percent, and that's including going 5-for-12 the night he got hurt against the Lakers.

Margall believes that Ricky has never worked out the kink that this natural lefty problem creates because of two reasons: (1) Ricky's overall game was so great so quickly that he skipped an important developmental level. At the age of 14 — when most Spanish kids are playing "juniors" — he was called up to the pro team at Joventut Badalona in the ACB League, the top level of Spanish ball. "In the pros, winning and losing is tantamount," Margall says. "And Ricky wasn't a good enough shooter to take 15 shots a game and miss a majority of them." And (2), Badalona was a young team, but most of the players were still at least six years older than Ricky, and many of them much older than that, and he wanted to fit in, and the best way to fit in was to get these guys shots.

But what really exacerbated the flaw in his game were his two years in Barcelona. After Regal Barcelona bought out his weird Badalona contract for $5 million (the Wolves were limited by NBA rules to a $500,000 contribution), he found himself on a veteran, championship-contending club, and the pressure on winning now was even greater (in fact, they won the Euroleague Finals in Ricky's first season). Barcelona coach Pascual, in contrast to the no-drama Aito, was a 37-year-old half-court control freak who likes calling a play every possession. After bringing the ball upcourt and making the first pass to initiate the offense, Ricky was often found spotting up in the corner for a chance to brick another 3. He was up and down that first season in Barcelona, and then mostly down the second. Barcelona turned on its favorite son.

Jarinn Akana is Ricky Rubio's personal shooting coach. He's an L.A.-based trainer and scout who worked in the Bucks organization before superagent Dan Fegan hired him to work with European ballplayers signed with the massive Lagardère sports agency. Akana has been working with Rubio the last several offseasons, both in L.A. and at Ricky's basketball camp in the mountains around Girona in northern Catalonia. He also serves as sort of a general counsel and go-between — he accompanied Ricky and his father on their first trip to Minneapolis to meet with Kahn and owner Glen Taylor after the draft in '09. He's the only one in Ricky's inner circle who's made himself available for extensive interviews this season.

"You have to understand, man," Akana says in his Hawaiian drawl, "in Spain, Ricky was hyped up to be the Second Coming. You know how it is in the media, when you're good you're good and they're all over you, and when you're bad you're bad they're all over you too." According to Akana, when the Spanish media started going crypto-fascist tea party on Ricky's shot, he started to resent them. And then when he blew up this year, and every ink-stained wretch in every locker room in America wanted their five minutes, well, it must have brought up bad memories, in a second language.

But Akana does corroborate my assessment of Ricky's J. "Ricky tends to get two hands on the ball shooting it," he says. "So we work on a lot of one-hand shooting and keeping the ball on the right side of the face or your head instead of in the middle." To correct that, Akana has Ricky work on simply getting close to the hoop and shooting with one hand, focusing on putting a lot of arc on the ball — a drill that happened to result in a bizarre Guinness World Record on All-Star Saturday, when Ricky made 18 shots in 60 seconds from behind the backboard.

"Yeah! I was right there," Akana says. "I've been in shooting workouts with Ricky where he doesn't miss." He says the biggest issue isn't mechanics, but rather Ricky's psychology. "The number-one important thing in the U.S. for any kid — I don't care who you are or where you come from — is to shoot the ball and score. When you play pickup, that's all you do." But in Catalonia, it's more about organized ball, and less about pickup. "Ricky is not an individual player. His first thought is, 'I wanna win, and how do I do that? If I score 30 points, and we don't win, it really doesn't matter. If I can get that guy 20 points and that guy 10 and the other guy 15, we're going to win games that way.' And now he understands the game a little more and sometimes he shoots 15 times, 16 times. Because they're forcing them to do it and he realizes that he has to do it. Even if he's missing all those shots, it's still helping to get guys open. You know, in a crazy way."

All of Ricky's coaches talk about this: how much Ricky thinks about the game. Bayno says that Ricky's obsession with basketball isn't confined to the court: He has an insatiable appetite for film. Adelman points out that Ricky knows not only what he should be doing on any given offensive read, but what his four teammates should be doing and in turn, what the players defending them should be doing. "You see a cutter go through the lane," Adelman says, "and some guys just see that cutter — they don't see what's around that cutter." Ricky sees that that cutter created space for somebody else, or even tipped off a cascade of problems that will eventually create even more space, as the defense rushes to rectify the system. It's how grand masters exploit a mistake in chess: Once your offensive system is a step ahead of the defensive system, it's important to keep the bad guys guessing on where you're going next. "You can't make the obvious play," Adelman says. "And guys like Ricky, they understand that."

So maybe Ricky's wonky jump shot is just an unfortunate symptom of how much he thinks about everything. A great bounce pass is often about vision and touch combined with a feel for what's going to happen next — it's where instinct and basketball IQ intersect most naturally. But a jump shot is more like a golfer's putting stroke — the most unnatural basketball act, its perfection is more dependent on individual, mechanical repetition than any other coordinated movement in the game. And when it's learned, it's learned. A study from (Grantland's own) Jonah Lehrer's book on neuroscience, How We Decide, shows that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. So maybe Ricky's decision to stymie any significant investigation into the weakest part of his game is a prudent one.

But this is America, not Spain, and in America we are even more focused on who takes the shot and who doesn't. We're always arguing with each other about who has the courage to shoot the big one, even if the percentages aren't in that shooter's favor. In some ways, a shot that Ricky took against the Clippers in a game in L.A. on January 20 looms larger than any of his passes or steals this season. It was Ricky's cherry-tree moment, his ESPN instant parable. He had been 0-for-10 from the field, but in the waning moments, Luke Ridnour drove the lane and kicked to Derrick Williams, who hit Ricky with the extra pass on the wing — and he swished a 3 to tie the game. The Wolves ended up winning on a Kevin Love buzzer-beater. 0-for-10 and frustrated, but he forgot about the frustration and took the big shot. "It just shows you that he's not afraid to take the shot," Coach Adelman says. "He's not afraid to keep playing; that's just who he is."

But does it tell you if he'll overcome his knee injury? Or does it tell you that he'll stay in Minnesota for a contract that doesn't make Kevin Love any angrier at David Kahn than he already is?16 Or does it tell you if Ricky has it in him to be the type of point guard where playoff victories will eventually mean more to him than being buddies with his teammates? Is Ricky Rubio anything like his hero Magic Johnson, the type of point guard who will make the Timberwolves championship contenders?

And what if he had missed that shot?

Maybe someday Rubio will sit down and allow some reporter to dig deep. Until then we're forced to draw our psychological conclusions from case history like that shot against the Clippers. But Coach Aito believes there may be a better, perhaps more instructive folk hero moment that we can deconstruct. Sure, it's another one from the old country, but maybe it will translate in time. Aito tells an anecdote about a famous Ricky moment in the Under-16 European championship in 2006. Ricky's line against Russia was especially gaudy that night — in a 110-106 double-overtime win, Ricky scored 51 points, with 24 rebounds and seven steals — but it was a play at the end of the second overtime that encapsulated how his brain works. Back then, under FIBA rules, the 24-second clock didn't start until possession. "With 27 seconds left," Aito says, "they inbounded the ball to Ricky." But instead of grabbing the ball with his hands, Aito says, "Ricky took the ball with his chest," like a soccer player, nudging it upcourt; the ball indisputably in his control, but maybe not quite in his possession. Ricky Rubio: half 14-year-old point guard, half slimy defense attorney. "After three seconds," Aito says, "he grabbed the ball. In this way, he was thinking that they have the last possession if they don't make foul."

Aito says two weeks later, when Ricky reported to Badalona, Aito's starting point guard Elmer Bennett asked him about the play. "Bennett asked, "Por que piensas tanto?" Aito says. "Or, 'Why do you think so much?'"

"This is an important concept for Ricky."

The last time I spoke to Ricky Rubio was in the locker room after the Portland game, on the Wednesday before fate gored his knee. All of his teammates had showered, dressed, and dipped out, and after quietly fielding questions from the scrum of usual suspects, the Timberwolves PR guy opened the floor for questions in Spanish. After Canal Plus asked a couple questions, my translator brought up that play in the Russia game. He repeated Bennett's inquiry: "Por que piensas tanto?" Ricky's response wasn't just another basketball cliché (especially in Spanish).

In other words, "I like to think and to be intelligent. I always try to take the maximum advantage of all of the opportunities in the game and push the rules to the limit. I believe that, you know, that it was an option, and at the end of the quarter it was just a way to put all of it into practice."


Olympic team's failure leaves U.S. still searching for new stars

By: timbersfan, 11:23 PM GMT on April 04, 2012

The dateline on this piece was supposed to be "Kansas City." If all had gone according to plan, I was supposed to be covering the U.S. men's Olympic qualifying tournament as the under-23 Yanks, who'd looked so promising beating Mexico last month, got ready to earn a berth in the London Games on Saturday.
You already know what happened. The U.S. lost to Canada, tied El Salvador and exited the tournament at the group stage on Monday. I'm not in Kansas City, but I am here to answer your questions in today's Mailbag, so let's dive in:
Is the U.S.'s failure to qualify for the Olympics just a blip or a sign of major issues regarding the future of the national team?
-- @bloodhoundmuse
It's a lot easier and fairer to draw conclusions about the performance of this U.S. team, so let's do that first. Words like fiasco and failure and embarrassing are entirely appropriate here. Even in comparison to recent U.S. and Mexican teams that have failed to qualify for the Olympics, this '12 U.S. team stands apart. Unlike the '08 Mexico team that failed to advance beyond the group stage, the '12 U.S. outfit failed on home soil, which had been a true gift from CONCACAF since the U.S. had hosted the '08 qualifying tournament as well. And unlike the '04 U.S. team, which missed out on Athens thanks to a loss to Mexico, this U.S. crew came up short against much less powerful CONCACAF foes Canada and El Salvador.
If you're just looking at this U.S. team, there were plenty of reasons for the flameout. The back line, particularly Ike Opara and Jorge Villafaña, played poorly. The goalkeepers, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, both let in soft goals. The midfield was often outnumbered (in its 4-3-3 formation), and the fluidity that style requires often went missing as the Americans hoofed the ball upfield. Moreover, coach Caleb Porter showed a surprising tactical naiveté, failing to come up with the changes necessary to deal with Canada's unexpected 4-3-2-1 or to make the U.S. approach more conservative after the team had gone up on El Salvador in the second half on Monday.
That said, I find it hard to make any bold pronouncements about the future of the U.S. senior national team, except that following the Olympic qualifying snafu the question still remains: Who are the gifted attacking players that are going to be the next Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan? It's likely that Brazil 2014 will be the third straight World Cup in which Dempsey and Donovan are the U.S.'s top attacking threats, and while they have been great servants to the national team you would hope that someone would have stepped in by the time 2014 rolls around.
Those superior talents are going to best reveal themselves not in age-group tournaments, however, but rather through their success at the club level. Which brings us to ...
Despite the results, do you think Freddy Adu did enough to get a shot at the USMNT?
-- @ninerboy14
In a word: No. What Adu needs to do more than anything is to establish himself as a consistent threat at the club level, which he has yet to do in his nine years as a professional. Adu is the rare player who has shown more talent and effectiveness at the international level than the club level, including his periods with U.S. youth teams and even his brief stint with the senior team during the 2011 Gold Cup. But sustained performance for Philadelphia will be the key if Adu wants to be a part of Jurgen Klinsmann's team. Besides, the Union needs Adu, having gotten off to a brutal 0-3 start. Adu's performance in Olympic qualifying came down to a very good second half against El Salvador, in which he assisted on both U.S. goals, and pedestrian stuff otherwise.
Is there a goalkeeper crisis looming for the U.S. national team after the Howard/Guzan era?
-- @midemac
I think there's reason for concern, considering Hamid and Johnson are the leading prospects for the future and had tough Olympic qualifying tournaments. But I wouldn't say there's a crisis looming. Brad Guzan is still just 27, and while Tim Howard is now 33, it's possible both could play for several more years. Nor do I think we should write off Hamid and Johnson, who are in the right spots in MLS and could both move to Europe in the not-too-distant future. I laughed recently when I heard suggestions that Brad Friedel should come out of his seven-year-long U.S. retirement due to concerns about U.S. goalkeeping. I recently asked Friedel if he had been approached in recent years to come out of retirement, and he told me Bob Bradley had spoken to him before World Cup 2010 and asked if he'd accept a call-up. Friedel said no, explaining that it wouldn't be fair to the guys who'd gone through qualifying, but he added that if all three goalkeepers were injured or sick, he'd come in in an emergency.
How can MLS become a more technical league? I feel tactics don't matter as much as in other leagues.
-- @cjkxx
It's funny that you ask this now, because I feel like MLS is starting to get more tactical variety these days after a lot of 4-4-2 over the years. Kansas City has had the most success with a swashbuckling 4-3-3, but we're seeing other teams stray from the 4-4-2 as well, from Toronto to Vancouver to Colorado. As for technical skills taking a higher priority over a more physical style of play, that will come as more domestic players are developed to value skills over athleticism and as more money can be spent on bringing technical foreign players to the league.
How much of a chance does Toronto FC have in winning against Santos in the away leg?
-- @robgreeneII
Count me as one of the people who was impressed with Toronto's 1-1 opening-leg tie against Santos earlier this week. TFC has played at a higher level in the CCL than it has at any point in MLS, and the team deserves to be here. But I'll still be stunned if Toronto can get the result it needs in Torreon. Seattle got smacked there, and Toronto isn't Seattle. That's OK; the Reds have already overachieved in this tournament.
Do you think that, by failing to find the net in Milan, Barcelona has dug itself a hole? Giving up one in the Nou Camp will be very costly.
-- @colinhofenomeno
In the wake of Milan's 0-0 tie with Barça this week, I'm hearing from some quarters that Milan is now the favorite in the Champions League quarterfinal. But that seems wildly off-base to me. All Barcelona has to do here is to win at home. I'm not saying Milan won't score -- we've seen it happen before at the Nou Camp -- but Barcelona knows what it's doing and should find away to get what it needs.
Despite how awful his tweet was, Liam Stacey does not deserve jail time. Free speech! Thoughts?
-- @sabofpa
For those who aren't aware, Stacey is a British university student who was sentenced to 56 days in jail for deplorably racist tweets about Patrice Muamba, the Bolton player who had a cardiac arrest on the field during a recent FA Cup game. I was surprised at the jail sentence too, but it's clear that the laws regarding free speech are different in Britain than they are in the United States. It's a topic that has come up a few times in soccer recently. Chelsea's John Terry is facing not just a Premier League ban but a criminal complaint for his alleged racist abuse of Anton Ferdinand on the field of play. And a Scottish man was criminally punished for the racist abuse on Twitter of Rangers and U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu.
I have to admit, I'm uncomfortable with criminal prosecutions of what is normally considered government-protected free speech in the U.S., even if I hate the content of that speech. But I also wish that people in the U.S. would have a better understanding of what government-protected free speech really is. Example: Last week some readers complained that Houston's Colin Clark shouldn't be punished by MLS for his anti-gay slur to a Seattle ball boy because the first amendment protects free speech. But Clark's slur was in fact government-protected: He wasn't prosecuted for it. He was given a three-game suspension and fined by MLS, however, which was perfectly within the league's rights (and was the correct response).

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/03/30/soccer-mailbag/index.html#ixzz1r7JaLv 28


Barca looks to make Euro history

By: timbersfan, 11:21 PM GMT on April 04, 2012

BARCELONA -- If you boil down the facts of this extraordinary Champions League game between AC Milan and Barcelona, then it's evident that even with the Italian champions playing at, or perhaps above, their best, FC Barcelona could, and should, have won by four or five clear goals -- a score line which would have sent shock waves around the world. As it was, Barcelona won 3-1 on aggregate in the quarterfinals.

As Pep Guardiola and his troops now confront the semifinals, which will surely be against their 2009 final four rival Chelsea, there will be two cups -- one of which will be half full, the other half empty.

At this stage of the season, having been playing with big peaks and troughs in their sharpness and level of concentration, it is of primeval importance for the defending European champions (no club has ever retained the Champions League) to look as quick, determined, creative and dominant as this if they are to make history.

Cup half full.

However, in the recent matches against Milan (twice) and Athletic Club, Guardiola's boys have managed to miss a hatful of chances.

Tuesday night at Camp Nou, Lionel Messi (once when it looked much easier for him to score), Thiago and Dani Alves all missed the kind of glaring opportunities they would normally gobble up. Then there was a constant stream of cutbacks, crosses which were cleared by a Milan boot and saves from the excellent Christian Abbiati.

Cup half empty.

In the postmatch news conference, Guardiola pointed out, "We had 21 shots on goal and we could easily have scored seven times."

Talking of cups, however, a couple of things will go a long, long way to determining whether this squad can lift the Cup with the Big Ears, as the European Champion Clubs' Trophy is nicknamed.

Gerard Pique has had his ups and downs with his manager this season, but recently has returned to his combative, elegant, competitive best. Let there be no doubt of that. But not only did he limp off, it was the 25-year-old World Cup winner who signaled to the bench that he couldn't continue in the 75th minute against Milan. As he sat down in his own penalty area, he began to massage the ligaments of his left knee -- an ominous sign for club and country.

The semifinal first leg is in two weeks' time, and Barca are already missing a key defender in Eric Abidal, who is due to undergo his liver transplant imminently. How quickly Pique recovers is vital: He's a leader, a winner and adds height to a side which is prone to conceding aerial goals.

The other key factor is how long Messi can continue to score (and perform) at this sublime, almost inhuman level. His past 12 club matches are an average of two goals per outing. The last couple of performances have, perhaps, been slightly less outlandishly stunning, but he has made winning contributions nonetheless.

I remember interviewing him back in autumn 2006. He had just returned from a snow holiday (he was forbidden by contract from getting on skis, Jet Skis and the like, but I'm certain he secretly built the odd snowman and such) in Bariloche, Patagonia. He had been given some extra time off because of the World Cup while the majority of his teammates were sweating in preseason training. Messi fulfilled the custom of every Argentinian who finishes high school and has a couple of bucks in his pocket -- the wild trip to that South American winter resort. A kind of rite of passage like spring break, say.

Back to work, healthy and happy, Messi explained to me that his anger in Paris that May, when he refused to come down and celebrate showing the European Cup off on the pitch with his teammates because he was so hurt at not being in the squad chosen for the match, was just a sudden burst of immaturity.

"But I think that, God willing, I'll go on to lift this cup and believe me I want it very much indeed."

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Lluis Gene/Getty Images
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had some choice words for the ref after Milan's defeat.
Since then, Messi has been the main architect of this side reaching five consecutive Champions League semifinals, he has scored in each of his two finals, and he is currently in a position to finish his fourth consecutive UEFA season as the tournament's top scorer.

Compare him with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Yet another chance to win the tournament gone. Despite one clever goal assist pass versus the Catalans on Tuesday, the Swede again showed why it was important to shift him out of Barcelona in order to ensure that Messi's footballing dominance was not stunted.

Ibrahimovic complained postmatch that "I am disgusted. Without the referee [he awarded two penalties in the first half, both of which Messi converted] the game would have been 50-50, and now I understand better why [Jose] Mourinho gets upset every time he plays here."

Ibrahimovic's comments were dealt with disdainfully by Guardiola. "I don't have to answer to what Mr. Ibrahimovic says, but I will point out that we have now reached five semifinals consecutively," Guardiola said. "We do our talking on the pitch."

On Tuesday night, it was more like roaring than talking. Barcelona is regal and it wants to retain its European crown.

Time to salute Los Blancos

Only a couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that Round 31 of La Liga's games was shaping up as pivotal. Barcelona's home game against Athletic looked easier than it should be because of the Basque club's horrible European-Liga schedule, which meant Bilbao flying home from the Schalke match in Germany on Friday morning, then playing at Camp Nou on Saturday night. That's how it proved: a straightforward 2-0 Barcelona win against a good side that put in a dignified performance (and showed an enormous work ethic) -- but not the contest we'd have liked to see.

But the key game was Madrid at Osasuna. Pamplona has proved a stumbling block for Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao and Levante this season, and Los Blancos had lost two and drawn one of their previous three visits.

Which is why I think that those who find it hard to give due credit to the way Madrid is setting the pace in this league need to find the dignity and honesty to speak with admiration about performances like this one.

OK, Osasuna has played with more ferocity on other occasions this season and made fewer errors, but those are the breaks and if you are a potential league winner you beat what is in front of you.

Karim Benzema's goal was not only absolutely stunning, it was the product of a man who has found both inspiration and discipline under the tutelage of Jose Mourinho. The Frenchman was a big fish in a small pond for the past couple of his years at Lyon, but then found that his fins and gills didn't equip him well for the new school at Madrid. A little overweight, not as clinical in front of goal as he once was, embroiled in various controversies and slow to master Spanish -- Benzema had his share of challenges.

For months and months now, he's been dripping with confidence, lean like a top middleweight boxer, clever in his use of the ball and super confident in his finishing. In recent weeks, Benzema has missed a couple of glaring chances but remained absolutely confident that the next one will go in. That is one of the fundamental skills of a top striker.

Beyond Benzema, Madrid played utterly ruthlessly at the Reyno de Navarra and won 5-1 in the stadium where Barcelona lost 3-2.

It continued a sequence of results where Barca, the defending league champions, have lost or drawn on their travels and Madrid has visited the same place in order to register a win -- sometimes by hook or by crook, but usually with the firmness of a champion.

One of Madrid's all-time great players, and a wonderful ambassador for the club, Emilio Butragueno, recently made the startling statement that "at the moment we have the best team in the history of the club."

The history of Real Madrid? Wow! That's a statement of some power. Whether or not he's correct, it gives you an idea of why Pep Guardiola, unlike some Catalan commentators, is happy to point out that Barcelona faces an impressive and worthy adversary. Of course, Butragueno has laid the ground for a hard set of questions to Mourinho if, by the end of May, Real Madrid hasn't won the title and perhaps the Champions League.

If this, in fact, is the greatest in his mighty club's existence, there should be no stumbles.

All of Real's internal politics aside, and with many tense moments undoubtedly to come before the end of the season, it's time for friend and foe alike to accept that this version of Real Madrid is powerful, brave, clever, skilled and one hell of a rival.

The Ant seems to be working

Ernesto Valverde is a name to watch. He also has a nickname to watch out for. The little Basque winger who starred for both Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao in his playing days is known as "txingurri," which means "The Ant."

Valverde used to scurry and work, and work and scurry -- he was a pain to play against. As a coach, he has had very interesting and successful spells with both Athletic Bilbao and Espanyol. He did exceptional work in the Athletic youth system, winning what is effectively the youth world cup, known then as the Nike Cup, ahead of over 3,224 entrants -- all of them being rewarded with seats at the 1998 World Cup final between France and Brazil. As the head coach there, Valverde took the senior team to the UEFA Cup and the Copa del Rey semifinal, leaving only because of disagreements with the president. He led Espanyol to the final of the UEFA Cup, losing only on penalties to that mighty Sevilla side. And now he has just won his third Greek title with Olympiakos.

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I don't claim to be able to state that Guardiola will definitely leave Barcelona this season, but it's clear he doesn't intend to be at Barcelona for another five, still less 10, years. Nor would I be certain that Barca president Sandro Rosell might not return to his roots as a Nike executive in the Brazilian game when looking for a replacement. However, I do know that Valverde was interviewed by the then board at Barcelona (as were Jose Mourinho and Laurent Blanc) when it came to replacing Frank Rijkaard in 2008. Barca didn't go far wrong in preferring Guardiola, but Valverde's credentials have done nothing but increase since that day.

Watch out for the hardworking Ant.


NBA Rookie Rankings XII

By: timbersfan, 11:14 PM GMT on April 04, 2012

At the beginning of the NBA season, I worried that the 2012 rookie class might not be deep enough to sustain a weekly rankings column. Were there really 10 rookies good enough to be profiled every week? As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. There have been so many good rookies this season that each time one of them gets left off the list, that player's fan base goes nuts. This week, a few players shifted near the top of the rankings while other rookies played their way back into the top 10.

1. Kyrie Irving

As great as Irving is on offense, he might be just as bad on defense, and at times he looks like a liability at that side of the court. Irving struggles most when guarding isolation plays. In those situations, opponents shoot 47.5 percent against him and he gives up 1.04 points per possession (PPP). That's bad enough to be in the bottom 8 percent of all NBA players. Irving also fouls too much — 15.3 percent of the time in isolation situations. His problem is that he reacts too slowly to his opponents' moves.

Irving is extremely quick on offense, so seeing him look so slow-footed on defense is a little confusing and definitely troubling. He allows opponents to drive 82.7 percent of the time while forcing them into jump shots just 13.3 percent of the time (his opponents shoot 49 percent on drives and 40 percent on dribble jumpers). The more Irving can stay in front of opposing guards, the more jump shots he can force, and that alone will make him a better defender.

2. Isaiah Thomas

Thomas has been a great spark for the Sacramento Kings, who may have missed on their first-round pick with Jimmer Fredette but who scored big time with Thomas, the last player drafted in 2011. Thomas excels at pick-and-roll and isolation plays. He scores most effectively in these situations, when his jump shot is falling, as opposed to driving to the rim. In fact, 64.2 percent of Thomas's shots are jumpers, according to Synergy Sports. On those shots, Thomas posts a PPP of 0.938, placing him in the 73rd percentile among all NBA players.

While Thomas is great at knocking down outside shots, he struggles near the hoop. On shot attempts near the basket, which make up 26.6 percent of his total attempts, Thomas posts 1.097 points per possession, placing him in the bottom half of the league. What makes Thomas a below-average finisher? His size is a factor, but there is also something else.

Little guys can have success finishing around the rim, but they can't shy away from contact. That's something Thomas does too often. Thomas gets to the free throw line on just 2.7 percent of his shot attempts around the basket, and a big reason is that it seems he jumps away from the defense. At his size, Thomas needs to jump into the defense, draw the contact, and then attempt a shot. If he does that, he'll draw more fouls and actually make it harder for defenders to get the space and timing needed to block his shot.

3. Klay Thompson

Thompson continues to be a lights-out shooter (I feel like I start every blurb on him with this statement), posting 1.23 points per possession on spot-up opportunities, which places him in the 96th percentile among all NBA players. Defenses know how good a shooter Thompson is and try to take away his jumper, but he still finds ways to get shots up. This means that Thompson isn't just standing in the corner waiting for the basketball to come to him. Instead, he's moving to get open and create looks for himself.

Thompson has a knack for moving without the ball, finding open space on the court, and creating passing lanes for his teammates. This skill, combined with his quick release in catch-and-shoot situations, means that he will always get scoring opportunities, even when the defense is committed to denying him clean looks at the basket.

4. Kawhi Leonard

When Leonard got drafted, a lot of people compared him to Bruce Bowen. In his rookie season, however, Leonard has played like the exact opposite of Bowen. Instead of standing in the corner and knocking down 3s like Bowen did, Leonard moves well without the ball and gets to the front of the rim. More than half of his shot attempts come around the rim. And unlike Bowen, who was one of the best perimeter defenders of the past 20 years, Leonard has struggled on defense. Against isolation plays, Leonard allows opponents to score 0.945 points per possession, placing him in the 17th percentile among NBA players. What's interesting is that Leonard does a good job of forcing turnovers, something he does 12.3 percent of the time. But this might cause more harm than good, because it suggests that Leonard gambles too much when he defends in one-on-one situations. When he goes for a steal and doesn't force a turnover, that usually means his man will get an easy opportunity to score.

Leonard has the size and athletic ability to become a very good defender, but at the moment he doesn't seem to trust those skills. Instead of staying in front of his man, contesting shots, and preventing offensive players from getting to the rim, Leonard gambles. When he reaches in on ball handlers or tries to jump into passing lanes, he puts himself out of position and gives offensive players an advantage.

5. Kenneth Faried

What impresses me most about Faried's offense is his post game. Faried was raw in the post last year in college. He simply used his size to bully defenders and get to the rim. That doesn't work in the NBA, so Faried has developed a nice little move on the left block. Faried has gotten so good at this move that he has turned into one of the best post players in terms of PPP in those situations. Faried has scored 24 points on 21 post-up possessions on the left block. His 1.143 PPP places him in the 97th percentile of NBA players in that limited category. So what's Faried's unstoppable post move? One or two dribbles into the middle followed by a right-handed hook shot.

For a player as big as Faried, his touch on that hook shot requires lots of skill. Thanks to his strength, Faried can get to the middle of the lane whenever he wants, and from there he just rises and shoots. As teams begin to recognize how effective Faried's hook is, they will find ways to force him away from it. Soon Faried will need a countermove, and once he gets that going he'll be really tough to guard in the post.

6. Derrick Williams

In a past rankings column, I looked at how Williams keeps defenders guessing in isolation situations. Sometimes he goes baseline, sometimes he goes middle, and sometimes he pulls up for a quick jumper, and defenders can't overplay any single option. Williams posts a respectable PPP of 0.824, good for the 65th percentile, in isolation situations. When he goes one-on-one, Williams shoots jumpers 33.8 percent of the time and drives 66.2 percent of the time. This shot-to-drive ratio allows Williams to keep defenses honest. When defenders respect the shot, he drives. When they play him for the drive, he shoots. Being able to do both at his size is an important skill, and Williams is on his way to mastering it.

7. Chandler Parsons

Parsons is a versatile big who has the potential to be effective in a number of ways. That said, Houston might be rushing him along in some respects. According to Synergy Sports, the Rockets have used Parsons as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations on 10 percent of his possessions. While he might have the skills to master this in the future, right now he's struggling with a 0.623 PPP, placing him among the bottom quarter of NBA players. In addition, Parsons commits turnovers 28.3 percent of the time when he handles the ball in a pick-and-roll. If he can learn to take better care of the ball, his size and skill could make him very difficult to defend.

8. Iman Shumpert

Shumpert is a tremendous on-ball defender. In fact, according to Synergy Sports, he is in the 88th percentile in terms of PPP allowed. However, Shumpert was left off this list last week and remains near the bottom this week because he's still a poor offensive player. Like so many rookies, his biggest problem is committing turnovers. Shumpert gives away the ball on 17.8 percent of his half-court possessions. Such frequent turnovers really hurt his efficiency. Once Shumpert learns to protect the ball, he could become one of the finest players of the 2011 draft.

9. Tristan Thompson

Thompson moves very well without the ball. According to Synergy Sports, 20.7 percent of his possessions are cuts. However, getting open and converting those opportunities are two different stories, and right now, Thompson is struggling with the second part. On 88 cut possessions, Thompson has scored 78 points, resulting in a 0.886 PPP that is among the bottom 10 percent of all NBA players. Thompson has a tendency to bring down the ball after he catches it. This allows the defense to recover, get in position to contest his shot, and force him to miss.

10. Alec Burks

Burks is a great team defender. He finds himself in the top of team defensive categories in terms of PPP allowed, according to Synergy Sports. He's in the 91st percentile at defending spot-up jumpers, he's in the 83rd percentile at defending ball handlers in pick-and-roll situations, and he's in the 96th percentile in defending shooters off screens. But when it comes to one-on-one defense, Burks struggles mightily. He allows 1.091 points per possession on isolations, placing him in the bottom 2 percent of all NBA players. Much like Kyrie Irving, Burks allows too much dribble penetration. Offensive players drive against him on 83.3 percent of isolations.

The Rest: Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, Markieff Morris

Injured List: Ricky Rubio


Can Sean Payton Win His Appeal?

By: timbersfan, 11:13 PM GMT on April 04, 2012

The Super Bowl host-city curse lives on. In the 2010-11 season, the Super Bowl was coming to Dallas, and Tony Romo broke his collarbone, the team finished 6-10, and their new stadium wasn’t quite ready yet. In 2011-12, the Super Bowl was coming to Indianapolis, and during that season, Peyton Manning was sidelined with a neck injury, the Colts finished 2-14, and Adam Sandler released Jack and Jill. (The curse works in mysterious ways.) In 2012-13, the Super Bowl is on its way to New Orleans, and the NFL has dropped the hammer on the Saints for their involvement in Bountygate — a full year suspension for coach Sean Payton, an eight-game suspension for general manager Mickey Loomis, a six-game suspension for assistant coach Joe Vitt, a $500,000 fine, the loss of second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013, and player suspensions likely to follow soon. (Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely.) Payton & Co. are making one last-ditch effort to beg for mercy by filing an appeal with Commissioner Roger Goodell. (Yes, they are strenuously objecting to their suspensions.)

Plenty has already been said about the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal and the severity of the punishments, but I want to step back and give you a quick Sports Law 101 look at what gives the commissioner the right to suspend the Bountygaters, and what rights the Bountygaters have to challenge the suspensions.

The commissioner derives his power from three primary sources — the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (Article 46), the NFL Constitution and Bylaws (Article VIII), and the NFL Conduct Policy. These rules give the commissioner virtually complete authority to protect the best interests of the game. For example, the conduct policy explains that “[a]ll persons associated with the NFL are required to avoid ‘conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.’” The commissioner is empowered to investigate “conduct detrimental” and is given “full authority to impose discipline as warranted. Discipline may take the form of fines, suspension, or banishment from the League.” The conduct policy is all-encompassing. It “applies to players, coaches, other team employees, owners, game officials and all others privileged to work in the National Football League,” and NFL teams “are strongly encouraged to communicate this policy to independent contractors and consultants and to make clear that violations of this policy will be grounds for terminating a business relationship.”

Players, coaches, etc., who are subject to discipline by the commissioner under the conduct policy do have a right to appeal, but that appeal is not heard by a neutral third party. Instead, the appeal is heard by the commissioner himself. (The policy gives Williams the right to seek reinstatement beginning one month prior to the one-year anniversary of his suspension.)

So, Goodell is empowered to define the crime, investigate it, punish it, and then hear the appeal on it. What kind of system allows an appeal only back to the person who originally punished you? The system that the players (and coaches) themselves agreed to. It does not have to be this way, as the NBA and Major League Baseball have proven. In those leagues, the players have the right to appeal suspensions handed down by their respective commissioners for “conduct detrimental” to an impartial arbitrator. NBA, MLB, and NHL players also have the right to appeal to an independent arbitrator for discipline that stems from positive drug tests. NFL players do not. It might seem unfair, but it’s what the players and coaches signed up for.

So Payton’s fate will be decided by the man who already decided his fate. That doesn’t mean that his appeal is completely futile. It might be highly, highly unlikely, but there are at least three reasons why Goodell might reduce the suspensions on appeal.

First, he has (sort of) done it in the past. After Goodell suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for six games for violating the conduct policy, he said that he would consider reducing the suspension if Roethlisberger stayed clear of any trouble off the field and complied with a number of league-imposed conditions. Roethlisberger met those conditions, and Goodell reduced the suspension to four games. Goodell hasn’t made any promises regarding Payton’s suspension, but he has at least shown a willingness to give time off for good behavior.

Second, it cannot be a foregone conclusion that the suspensions will not be reduced. After all, the conduct policy does promise a right of appeal (even if it’s just back to the commissioner). If it’s a foregone conclusion that the suspension will be held, then the appeal is no appeal at all. If the right to appeal means anything, it must mean that a coach or player can come forward with new evidence or new arguments that can persuade the commissioner to reduce the suspension. Whether Payton and the Saints have anything up their sleeves that might persuade Goodell obviously remains to be seen.

Third, Goodell can prove that this is in fact a real right of appeal by reducing the suspensions. What better way to diminish the perception of futility, unfairness, and lack of due process (and ward off potential litigation) than by reconsidering Payton’s arguments and evidence? It’s certainly a long shot, but it’s certainly not inconceivable that Goodell might show some leniency.

And, what about the players who could eventually be disciplined for their participation in Bountygate? Are they subject to the same fate? Well, here’s where it gets more complicated and actually presents a scenario that would make for a pretty good exam question for my sports law class. (Note to my students — do not read past this point until after you turn in your final exam in May.)

The NFL conduct policy only applies to commissioner discipline for off-field misconduct. On-field misconduct is covered by a different policy with different procedures. Pursuant to the on-field discipline policy, the NFL officiating department reviews every play of every game. Ray Anderson, the NFL executive vice president of football operations, and Merton Hanks, the director of football operations, then decide whether a player should be disciplined for any on-field violations that have been identified. Discipline handed down pursuant to this policy is appealable to Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are jointly appointed and paid by the NFL and the NFLPA. In other words, if a player is disciplined for off-field misconduct, his only right to appeal is to the commissioner. If a player is disciplined for on-field misconduct, his right to appeal is to someone other than the commissioner.

So, how do we classify a hybrid situation where players have arguably (and allegedly) engaged in misconduct off the field (conspiring to engage in a bounty scheme to injure players) and on the field (intentionally trying to injure players on the field)? If we classify it as on-field, any players disciplined for Bountygate will have the opportunity to appeal to Shell and Cottrell. If we classify it as off-field, the players are back with Goodell. A similar issue actually came up during the Pacers-Pistons Malice at the Palace, where a fight that started between Ron Artest and Ben Wallace ended up with players fighting with fans in the stands. Commissioner David Stern suspended a number of players for the incident, including Jermaine O’Neal.

The players appealed their suspensions to an arbitrator, who reduced O’Neal’s from 25 to 15 games. (He upheld all of the other suspensions.) The NBA challenged the arbitrator’s decision in court, arguing that Stern, and not the arbitrator, had the power to hear the appeals. The issue in that case was whether the fight took place “on the court” or “off the court.” If the fight was on the court, Stern had Goodell-like authority to suspend and to hear the appeal of the suspension. If the fight was off the court, Stern had the authority to suspend, but an arbitrator had the right to hear the appeal. The arbitrator, and the court, ultimately concluded that the fight occurred off the court, thus giving the right of appeal to the arbitrator. There is no real precedent in the NFL to help us with the issue, but we do know that Goodell considers cell phone use by Troy Polamalu on the sidelines of a game to be off-field misconduct. So we’ve got that going for us. (Which is nice.)

How will it play out here? Given the seriousness of the sanctions and Goodell’s clear message that the Bounty scandal impacted both player safety and the integrity of the game, in dealing with the players’ involvement in Bountygate it is likely that he will again exercise his broad powers under the conduct policy, which will lead to an appeal right back to the commissioner. Right where he wants it.


The Reducer, Week 31: Imperfect 10s

By: timbersfan, 8:46 AM GMT on April 04, 2012

e striker" or "in the hole," I make the mental translation that this is a guy who pretty much does what he wants. And I immediately make a note to focus in on him the next time I see him play. These are men who lurk on the borders, playing behind forwards, in front of the midfielders, flitting off the flanks and swapping wings at will. This is the position of Maradona, where a team places its undisciplined but mouthwatering talent, its temperamental star, its unfocused little prodigy. With a swing of his favored foot he can win you a game; just don't ask him to work too hard to prevent you from losing one.

These players aren't expected to score as much as the striker, and if they were expected to defend, they'd be central midfielders. They are not there to make you feel better about a mistake, pull you up from the ground after Jamie Carragher has kicked you in the calf, or cover your position when you make a daring run forward. They don't roll on Shabbos. Defending is somebody else's problem. If they play in the no. 10 role, 1 they are expected to be brilliant. And with brilliance usually comes a bit of difficulty.

English football has historically placed a higher value on attributes like industry, endless running, getting stuck in, and screaming while pointing. The big fellas played up front, the fellas who ran played in the middle, and the fellas who kicked the other fellas played in back. Crafty playmakers were a thing of far-off lands. Like Spain.

More and more, though, we are seeing the rise of the no. 10 in English football. This weekend's Premier League action saw Arsenal and City stumble, United move closer to title, Bolton and Wigan continue to scrape, and Liverpool continue their swan dive into post-Carling misery. But aside from the results, we saw noteworthy performances from several temperamental, streaky no. 10s, all of whom showed flashes of genius and rewarded their managers for putting up with their occasional lapses in communication. Each of these four players has made circuitous journeys to the league, plying their trade in the top flights of France, Spain, or Germany. They've fallen out with managers and often found their names in the transfer rumor gossip columns. But they are here now, and their presence makes the Premier League a much richer and more entertaining competition.

Sunderland 3, Manchester City 3

Against a stuttering Manchester City, Stephane Sessegnon, while displaying the creativity and occasional temperament of a no. 10, showed us a more industrious way to play the role, doing so in a fashion befitting a Martin O'Neill–managed team. 2 Sharing the field with City's hundreds of millions of dollars in talent, the man in the hole for the Black Cats was the dominant player in a thrilling match that Sunderland players rather vocally expressed their disappointment to draw rather than win.

The edge of the Manchester City "D" to the edge of the Sunderland half of the midfield circle was Sessegnon territory, and he was seemingly always on patrol, popping wherever the ball was and wherever the ball might be. The 27-year-old from Benin — who joined Sunderland from Paris-St. Germain at the beginning of the season — was the decisive player in the first half.

For Sunderland's first goal, Sessegnon beat Micah Richards one-on-one, torched James Milner, and practically read Mario Balotelli a bedtime story as he dumped the ball off to Seb Larsson, who then pulled off one of the snooker shots he scores about half a dozen times per season. Therein lies the rub when trying to defend against no. 10s: How do you mark a player that has the freedom to play everywhere?

Sessegnon struck again right before halftime. Coming off several stoppages, the game was sputtering into the break when Sessegnon popped up on the ball, this time on the right flank. His dribbling drew three defenders, but he was still able to find Nicklas Bendtner with an inch-perfect pass, allowing the on-loan Arsenal striker to easily head it past Joe Hart (special citation for the defense of Kolo Touré, the 400-year-old man, for not even jumping).

Larsson's second, coming early in the second half, was the product of another brilliant creative act by Sessegnon. Bendtner will get the assist on the goal, but it was born from a seeing-eye pass from Sessegnon, who pulled the trigger on a through ball at exactly the right moment — catching Bendtner, who is not exactly Edwin Moses on his best day, perfectly in stride.

Whether passing the ball from a deep-lying position, defending in the middle of the park, or making aggressive runs at defenders and attacking on either flank, Sessegnon was everywhere. Remember when Chris Paul practically filmed a video on how to play point guard during the Hornets' playoff series with the Lakers last season? You could do worse than to box and sell a tape of Sessegnon's shift against Man City.

Some other quick notes on this game:

• I like Stephane Sessegnon's chant. It's pretty real.

• Squad rotation used to drive Liverpool fans crazy when Rafa Benitez was in charge, but I'm starting to appreciate the art after watching David Silva slowly sputter into the gas station over the last few weeks. He's played the most games of any City outfield player and it's really starting to show. Neither he nor Yaya Touré looks like he has anything left in the tank.

• Balotelli and Aleksandar Kolarov arguing over who should take the free kick in 63rd minute might remind City fans a little too much of Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack's similar disagreement in 2008. Ironically, it was mid-range goals, from around the same area as where the free kick was placed, from Kolarov and Balotelli that got City its desperately needed point. Incidentally, Kolarov looks like someone who gets killed in the first act of a Connery-era Bond movie.

• This was an interesting study in contrasting managerial styles. Neither O'Neill nor Roberto Mancini are known for beautiful football, 3 but watching the way their respective teams play is fascinating. O'Neill is known to inspire his players (at least initially), making even the most pedestrian, journeyman midfielder feel like Michael Laudrup. Mancini, on the other hand … well, I don't know that he even knows how to say inspiration in English (much less in his native Italian). You could see these different styles in the team spirit of the two sides. Sure, they were winning, but Sunderland seemed to be pulling in the same direction, wildly celebrating their goals with one another, while City, even when they scored, were a band of recriminating stepbrothers.

Queens Park Rangers 2, Arsenal 1

Every time Adel Taarabt passes the ball, a little part of him dies. When he moves on from this mortal coil and goes to heaven, the Moroccan attacking player will see nothing but an endless stretch of defenders for him to weave, step over, dummy, feint, and bulldoze through. And somewhere on the streets of paradise, Bobby Zamora will be waving his hands screaming, "I'M OPEN, YOU PRICK!"

If all you needed to be a great player was self-belief, Taarabt would be better than Lionel Messi. To watch him slalom (or attempt to slalom) through opposing players is to watch a man who obviously thinks YouTube crashes every time he touches the ball. And after watching him dazzle in the second division last season, grabbing 19 goals, 16 assists, and winning the Championship Player of the Year Award, you might have thought he was onto something. But his first tour in the Premier League with QPR has been miserable, with Taarabt coming back down to earth going right through the floor, past the basement, and setting up shop underground like some goal-allergic mole man. Coming into Saturday's match with Arsenal, he had yet to score a goal in the top flight.

Lining up, officially at least, on the left side of midfield but drifting toward the center, right … pretty much wherever he pleased, Taarabt was ever-present in the first half at Loftus Road. You can sometimes tell how effective a playmaker is being by the frequency with which you hear his name called by the announcer; they're usually not involved in defense (if they are, watch out), so the more you hear about them, the more it means they are getting into the flow of the game and dictating its proceedings.

In the opening minutes of Arsenal-QPR, we heard Taarabt's name a lot. This was largely due to several free kicks and corners, all of which were handled by him, of course. Free kicks allow Taarabt to show off and require no running, so they are basically his preferred platform. On Saturday he was in the zone, whipping in curving entry passes like someone flamboyantly writing the letter "D" in cursive.

Where Sessegnon showed how to play the no. 10 role in an industrious way, Taarabt was way more feast-or-famine. In the 17th minute he took off down the left flank with the ball and slid what he obviously thought was going to be the first part of a one-two pass toward Zamora, who mishandled the ball. Instead of tracking back, Taarabt spent a moment flapping his arms in anger at Zamora, all while the Arsenal player he was supposed to be covering, Bacary Sagna, took off downfield.

The feast came moments later, when Taarabt pulled a move so cold that it humiliated Thomas Vermaelen's unborn great-grandchildren. In the 22nd minute, he received the ball outside the Arsenal "D," spun the Belgian central defender, took two dribbles, and sent a cut fastball sinking, away from Wojciech Szczesny. It's the kind of play only a handful of players in the world can pull off, and it goes a long way toward explaining why notorious hardcases like Neil Warnock and Mark Hughes put up with all the plays he doesn't make.

Some notes:

• If I ever get back over to England, I definitely want to ask Clint Hill and Shaun Derry about what it was like to be there for the invention of soccer.

• Mikel Arteta kicked Joey Barton in the face. That was pretty great.

Newcastle 2, Liverpool 0

To read the headlines in the English press, this game was about Liverpool losing, not Newcastle winning. The story was Pepe Reina's red-card insanity and the ensuing Steven Gerrard/Kenny Dalglish on-field conference (which, yes, heat of the moment and all that, certainly was not a good look for King Kenny — see 5:40 of this video). That's kind of a crime, because Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa put in one of the more subtly influential performances of the season. Playing as an inverted winger, working off of the Senegalese strike partnership of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse, Ben Arfa was the main upfield creative force, linking Newcastle's ferocious midfield trio of Danny Guthrie, Yohan Cabaye, and Cheick Tiote with the forwards. The former Marseille player, whose career was seriously jeopardized when Nigel de Jong broke his leg last season, has really started to regain his form, almost single-handedly putting down West Brom on March 25 and torturing Liverpool on Sunday.

When defenders see one of their teammates get beat, they naturally lose focus on their own jobs and worry about helping. Against good teams, this loss of attention can result in a goal. It's exactly what happened with Newcastle's first. Ben Arfa roasted Jay Spearing, switching directions on the Liverpool local, gaining just enough space and grabbing the attention of the Liverpool backline. With just that small window, Ben Arfa lofted a perfectly weighted pass to the head of Cisse. It was a perfect connection between a no. 10 and a no. 9.

That goal was somewhat telling because it exposed just how much Liverpool is missing Lucas and Daniel Agger. This team looks entirely out of sorts, out of ideas, and just generally crabby. According to the Liverpool blog Bass Tuned to Red (with stats from EPL Index), when Agger is on the pitch, Liverpool concede a goal every 129.7 minutes; without him they give up a goal every 58.9. Lucas provides similar stability (108 minutes per goal with Lucas, 80.3 without).

Ben Arfa played an equally influential role in the second goal, as well. In the 59th minute, picking up the ball deep, on the right side of the center circle, the Frenchman — now fully on Liverpool's defensive radar — drew the longing looks of no less than three Reds, creating all sorts of space behind the jumpy trio of Jose Enrique, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jay Spearing. Perhaps it's team spirit, maybe it's the Yoda-like teachings of the distinguished gray manager Alan Pardew, but Ben Arfa, critically, kept running after dumping off a pass to the flank, galloping into the box, getting the ball back from Ba, and making the lightest of touches into the path of the oncoming Cisse: 2-0, thanks for coming. It was a great example of what can happen when brilliant individual players work within a team passing game.

Tottenham 3, Swansea 1

Rafael van der Vaart is perhaps the most prototypical no. 10 playing in the Premier League right now. Ben Arfa and Taarabt play within far more structured systems, David Silva and Samir Nasri start their attacks from wing positions, Sessegnon functions a bit more like a central midfielder, and Wayne Rooney plays more like a striker who drops deep (or a "false 9," as it is sometimes called). Watching van der Vaart against Swansea, in what was one of the most technically proficient (just wonderful passing going on) games of the season, you could see why he makes Spurs boss Harry Redknapp equally delighted and agitated.

Van der Vaart has the most important characteristic of a no. 10: He's an opportunist. Spurs' first goal, in the 19th minute, took 19 seconds to get from Brad Friedel's hands to the back of the Swansea net. Most of this involved Gareth Bale's dead sprint down the left wing. He did the work, but Rafa got the glory. The Dutch international picked up a deflected ball and side-footed the shot past his countryman Michel Vorm. He was in the right place at the right time. You can't drill for that.

On the other hand, when van der Vaart defends he does so out of embarrassment rather than responsibility. In the 55th minute he lost the ball on the right side of the center of the park, and proceeded to chase the ball for the next 20 seconds or so, clearly looking to right the cosmic wrong done to him. The hustle was admirable (and uncommon from van der Vaart), but it threw off Spurs' shape, putting an extra man on the left-hand flank and requiring his teammates to shuffle around to cover while Rafa searched for vengeance.

For as "Fuck it, we'll do it live" as Tottenham can be, the idea of balance has been essential to its success this season.

When Aaron Lennon stepped onto the field at White Hart Lane in the 71st minute of Tottenham's match against Swansea, it was the first time he had played for Spurs since March 7 (when he limped off the field in the first half of Spurs' FA Cup match versus Stevenage). Tottenham scored twice within 15 minutes of his introduction, with the on-again-off-again England international assisting on one. It showed just how crucial Lennon's presence is and how damaging his absence was. It's not just his high-performance engine pace on the right wing, it's the balance he provides the team; when Lennon plays, everyone else seems to slot into their preferred position: Luka Modric in central midfield with Scott Parker, Bale on the left, van der Vaart off the central striker.

Some notes:

• Rafael van der Vaart has a pretty boring song.

• Swansea's Gylfi Sigurdsson is the most exciting new addition to the Premier League no. 10 club. His off-the-turf goal in the second half of the Spurs match made it six in 11 for the Hoffenheim loanee. The big question surrounding this slick Icelandic player is whether or not he can keep up this pace. He was Hoffenheim's 2010-11 player of the year (based on fan voting), but wound up fading out of the team, leading to this admittedly random loan spell in Wales.

Goal of the Week: Samba Diakité, Queens Park Rangers

Tottenham's first was fantastic and Taarabt put on a goddamn fez while celebrating the QPR opener, but I really love a mid-range thunderbolt.

Quote of the Week: Martin O'Neill

On Nicklas Bendtner's performance against Manchester City: "I thought he played like a proper centre-forward. When he plays like that, he justifies his own self-vaunted opinion."


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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