June 12, 2004

Detroit 88, Lakers 68: If the Lakers were a stock, this would be the perfect time to buy. In one week, they have gone from being prohibitive favorites to washed-up prima donnas, and they are still one game away from snatching back the home court advantage. Two one-sided losses, including the debacle on Thursday, will do much to diminish one's standing with the public. Yet this has been a fairly routine part of their season. It's hard to believe now, but the Lakers looked even worse in their two losses to San Antonio, and their collective effort in the two defeats in Minnesota was equally atrocious. Each time, they came back inspired, just as they did in Game 2 of this series.

If the series somehow does head back to L.A., fans might harken back to one of the bleaker moments in Laker history, when the team lost in seven to Boston in 1984. In that series, the Lakers went in as the underdog, then pulled away late to win Game 1 in Boston. After being outplayed for most of Game 2, they made a late run to take a lead, and seemingly had the series in the bag, especially after 85% free throw shooter Kevin McHale missed a pair with less than twenty seconds left and the Celtics down by two. But after a timeout, James Worthy threw a dreadful pass that was picked off by Gerald Henderson, who hit a lay-up to tie. The Lakers had the ball for the final shot, but their star, Magic Johnson, inexplicably dribbled out the clock, and they went on to lose in overtime.

And of course, in Game 3, the Lakers blew out the Celtics, and had seemingly regained control of the series, only to have McHale cheapshot Kurt Rambis in Game 4, and change the entire tone of the rivalry. In any event, the Pistons should win this series, especially with the Mailman and the Fisher King hurt, but the Lakers have already overcome enough self-inflicted adversity to get to the Finals. Anything less than two more complete defensive efforts by Detroit, and the Lakers will give Jackson his ninth title.

June 11, 2004

After a week of relentless hagiography, and genuinely classless and buffoonish antics by the media and my fellow citizens, I would be remiss if I didn't point out how genuinely moving the private ceremony at the Reagan Library was this evening. I had managed to avoid most of the remembrances the past week, busy as I was with work and Finals, but I did catch the sunset memorial. Anyone who has ever lost a family member or friend (and I would assume that would encompass almost everyone reading this post) can appreciate the dignity and charm the Reagan children revealed in their eulogies for their father. I delivered the eulogy for my late father, and it was one of the most difficult "performances" of my life; drafting and rehearsing the speech took a lot out of me, and knowing that I helped other people get a sense of who my dad really was still fills me with a sense of accomplishment. Hearing the recollections, and sharing the grief, of those who actually knew the man as a father and family member, rather than some stock political character, enables those of us who didn't share his views an opportunity to pay our respects as well.

June 09, 2004

Lakers 99, Detriot 91 [O.T.]: In defending Tom Lasorda from second-guessing following his decision to pitch to Jack Clark rather than Andy Van Slyke in Game 6 of the 1985 NLCS, Bill James once wrote that it is always easier to take the test after you know the answers. This morning, Larry Brown's decision to not foul any of the Lakers in the final fifteen seconds has raised hackles in every newspaper, radio show and barstool in the country, and the criticism is equally unfair.

The reasoning of Brown's attackers goes something like this: fouling a player immediately sends him to the line to shoot two, and the Pistons maintain the lead for at least two possessions. Much has been said about the supposed "unwritten rule" that teams never intentionally foul a player when that team is ahead by more than two points at the end of the game. What that obscures is the context of that decision. Even for a great player like Kobe Bryant, the likelihood of hitting a trey is ordinarily close to 33%; during the playoffs, when the opposing defense is, almost by definition, tougher, that percentage dips into the mid-to-high twenties.

On the other hand, Bryant is an 85% free throw shooter, so sending him to the line is a likely two-point gift. In order to have fouled Bryant before he was in the act of shooting would have required Rip Hamilton to have been almost on top of him by the time he got the ball, so the probable result in that situation would have been to stop the clock with about nine seconds to play (any hesitation on Hamilton's part in getting over to Bryant would have resulted in a shot attempt, sending Kobe to the line for three frees and a chance to tie, or even a chance for a four-point play). If he makes both free throws, the lead is one, Pistons' ball, but plenty of time to foul or cause a turnover. The Lakers still get another chance to tie or win the game. And that assumes Kobe makes both shots; if he misses the second, the Lakers happen to have the most dominant inside player in the game poised to get an offensive board and put-back, and you're looking at the same situation all over again.

And that, of course, assumes that Bryant gets fouled before he can get off a shot. But what if the Pistons had fouled O'Neal when he caught the in-bounds pass, twenty feet from the basket. Shaq gave up the ball almost immediately, so any attempt at playing Hack-a-Shaq would have been risky; if he had been fouled a millisecond after passing the ball to Walton, the Pistons would have been called for an intentional foul, sending Shaq to the line and giving the Lakers the ball out of bounds. Even with the Lakers' star's proclivity for inept free throw shooting, that would not have been a worthwhile risk for the Pistons.

So under the circumstances, Brown made the right call. The clock is the greatest ally for the team that's ahead in that situation. Each additional possession increases the chances for disaster, so the last thing a coach wants to do is stop the clock. Ten days ago, the Lakers had turned a nine-point deficit in Minnesota into a two-point deficit in the final ten seconds, using a maddening diet of threes and time outs. Playing for their lives, it is safe to say that the Lakers would have pulled out all the stops again in the final seconds, even with no timeouts remaining, had Detroit chosen to foul early. Only seconds earlier, when the Lakers were down by six, Bryant had bricked a wide-open three, and his fourth quarter shooting percentage from outside during the playoffs was mediocre, to say the least. By contesting Bryant but not fouling him, the odds were heavily in the Pistons' favor that he would miss, and the game (and series) would be over. It just didn't work out that way.

June 08, 2004

The first poll to be released since the death of former President Reagan shows John Kerry moving out to a six-point lead over George Bush. According to Gallup, perhaps the most surprising aspect is that Kerry is within four points of Bush in the so-called "Red States", ie., states that the President won last time by more than five points. [link via Atrios]

June 06, 2004

The first draft of history: Juan Cole has an excellent recounting of Ronald Reagan's legacy, here. For all the talk of how Reagan, unlike the current occupant of the White House, was an optimist who could unite the public, not enough has been said this weekend about what a small, narrowminded hack he could be at times. His civil rights record, in particular, was dreadful; not only did he oppose the major legislation Congress passed during the 1960's, he infamously fought the extension of the Voting Rights Act during his Presidency, and attempted to extend tax breaks to segregated colleges such as Bob Jones U. His campaign for the Presidency in 1976 was based largely on attacking a fictitious "welfare queen" (wink, wink), an issue which encapsulated wedge politics during that era. The riots that ensued from the Rodney King trial in 1992 were an indirect result of Reagan's policies.

Perhaps his most significant political legacy was that the Republican Party became an unapologetically white movement during his administration, a triumph of Kevin Phillips' "Southern Strategy". When asked about the perception among many African-Americans that he was a bigot, he would defensively reply that, far from being a racist, he had always been a supporter of civil rights: in fact, back in the day when he recreated baseball games in Iowa, he claimed that he frequently pontificated against the color line from the broadcasting booth. It was perhaps a symptom of how obsequious the media was during that period that no one believed him, yet no one called him on that laughable assertion. He deserves enormous credit for joining with Gorbachev to end the Cold War; by treating the Soviet leader as a man that the West could do business with, he went against his own party, as well as many of the neo-conservatives that now dominate the current regime. But his domestic policies damaged the country irreparably, leading to the divisions that afflict us today.
Detroit 87, Lakers 75: I have a feeling that the Lakers might need a couple of games to wake up in this series. Maybe Kobe needs to be falsely accused of murder....