Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Game 6 Cliffhanger: The Great Miami Heat Escape

Ray Allen's Game Saving Big Trey 

With 28 seconds to go, defeat was staring at Lebron and the Heat. Pat Riley, the Heat's President and Hall of Fame coach, stood motionless. Around him was a sea of white shirted crowd seated in stunned silence.The Spurs leads by an insurmountable (almost) 5 points. Could this be the ghost of the 2011 Finals?

Flashback: 2011 Game 6 Finals. Dallas in Miami. The Mavs leads 3-2 in the series. Game 6 returned to the American Airlines Arena, Heat's home court. Exactly the same position Heat was in now. Back then, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks finished off the Heat. That was a painful and hurting defeat for James and company right in their home court. Will history then repeat itself?

Then James drilled in a trey to cut the lead to 2. After Lenard's ( had the Spurs won, Lenard could be the hero for his outstanding game all throughout) split, Miami was all set for their last play. It was a break or bust, there's no tomorrow situation. James fired a trey, missed, scramble for the ball, Bosh got it, passed it to Ray Allen. The veteran shot maker pulled a step back at the 3-point area and pulled a Hail Mary. Bang. T'was in. Pandemonium broke loose. The game was tied. It was heading to an overtime; giving a new lease in life to Miami. Gabo, on a quick lunch break, called up from school just as Allen threw his game changing shot. When the OT news came in to them, the whole canteen went in jubilation. Just like thousands, perhaps millions of Filipinos, the students in their school was also  monitoring the game. That's how big NBA is.

In the extension period, Duncan could barely buy a basket but still a force to reckon with. Parker and Ginobili come and go in an offense-defense substitution strategy but clearly to me a case of tiredness and exhaustion for the aging veterans. In the closing seconds, Allen scored Heat's final points when he converted his nerve wrecking foul throws, putting the Heat in a comfortable 3 point margin. The Spurs last play went muffed as Bosh blocked the desperation 3 pointer of Greene . We have a knock out Game 7 and obviously, the momentum should now shift in favor of the Heat. History is on their side. In more than 30 years, no home team lost in Game 7.

What's happening to James? I could almost label him a choker. For the first 3 quarters, he was not that aggressive. He was not the leader I thought he should be. Ironically, it was when he lost his head band in the 4th quarter that he began to take charge. The Lebron James we saw in the 4th was the Lebron James we knew who would lead the defending champs in retaining their title. He should do a repeat performance in Game 7. But for now, take a bow Ray Allen, one of the greatest shooters of all time.

Our crystal ball went murky since the playoffs. The only right thing we predicted was all about Heat. But even that, we missed. We said,  Heat in 5 or 6. It did not happen. Still, we would not mind if it is Heat in 7.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Can Anyone Beat Nadal?

Indeed, can anyone beat Nadal in clay?

His record 8 French Open titles may provide the answer. He did it these past 9 years; the first 4-peat came from 2005-2008 and the 2nd 4-peat from 2010 to the just concluded 2013 edition. The exception was in 2009 when he was beaten by Swedish Robin Soderling in the semis. In that year, Federer defeated Soderling in the finals to clinch his first and only French Open championship, thus completing his rare Grand Slam (Wimbledon, US Open and Australian Open being the other 3 grand slam events). Ironically, in that first 4-peat, Nadal's beaten finals opponent had been mostly Federer.

So what makes Nadal so impregnable in clay, the surface that was actually the curse of many past great champions? Pete Sampras, for all his greatness in his era with 14 Grand Slam titles has never won a French title, putting into doubt his being (then) the greatest ever. This tag was eventually erased when Federer surpassed his 14 slams and himself completed the grand slam. John McEnroe, another tennis great in the late 70's up to mid 80's likewise did not win any French, having won 4 US open and 3 Wimbledon titles. Last year, when Rafa was poised to equal the 7 French Open titles held by another past champion, that man, tennis legend, Bjorn Borg was invited to watch the historic changing of the guard. This year, Borg was not around to witness his French titles winning streak broken. Instead, the fastest man on earth, Jamaican Usain Bolt was accorded the honor of presenting the award to the champion. By what significance why Bolt was chosen over the traditional great champions normally doing the honors, I didn't know. I haven't read any explanation in the papers either.

I honestly did not think Nadal would soon recover in that grand fashion from a 7 month knee injury leave after an embarrassing early exit ( was it on the Ist round or 2nd round?) in last year's Wimbledon. But soon after he returned for active duty, winning mostly his matches in many minor tournaments as tune up for the greater stage of Roland Garros, all eyes again focused on his return. I watched him in  the Madrid Open, a clay court and a major tune up tournament. He was indeed back in form. When the French Open came, he had to survive 1st set losses in his first and second rounds. After that, he advanced easily, until the semis match against No.1 Novak Djokovich. It was the greatest ever French Open match according to McEnroe, now a tennis commentator. It was the semifinal match everybody concluded as the championship match, with due respect to finalist David Ferrer.

So we go back to our million dollar question. Can anybody beat Nadal in Roland Garros?

I believe that if there is one man who could do it, it should be Djokovich. He has the power, the speed, the stamina, the mental toughness, the shots, and a champion's heart that can match Rafa Nadal. They have met many times before and they know each other's game well. I guess in many occasions, it was breaks of the game that decided the winner. Their 6-hour Australian Open finals last year won by Djoko was not just exciting but exhilarating and exhausting even for us who just watched in TV. Their semis match here this time was also a repeat of their finals last year.

Back to that semis match. When Novak survived the 4th set to extend the match into the final 5th set, clearly the momentum was on his side. He was on the offense, practically dictating the game. But all the bombs he threw, Nadal diligently threw them all back, often converting his defense into offense and winners. This is why Nadal is hard to beat in clay. The slow surface of Roland Garros perfectly matches his style. He covers the court so well, be at the net on drop shots, or to the baselines, corners to corners, retrieving the balls even if it looks unretrievable. To him, it ain't over till its over. That unbelievable behind the back winner he fired desperately showed it. Unfortunately for Djokovich, those easy overhead smashes which he sorely missed were costly errors that could have perhaps spelled the difference.

Hail to the King of Clay, Rafa Nadal. His 12 Grand Slam titles is 3rd on the all time list- just 2 short of Sampras' 14 and 6 short of Federer's all time record of 18. With Wimbledon just 2 weeks away, we will be in again for more exciting and enjoyable tennis.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

French Open 2013: Sharapova vs. Williams: My Dream Finals Match

This will finally come later today at Roland Garros 2013. Whatever the outcome will be, surely, it is a blockbuster finals match; the kind which tennis fans, organizers, media, and  sponsors have been looking forward to for a long time.

I have lost track how many times they've met in the past. What I know is that Serena holds a very big advantage in their head to head match-up ( the papers say it's 13 out of 15). But what I cannot forget was the memorable and historic win of Sharapova over Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon finals. Maria was just 17 years old then, a stunning teener, and it was her first major trophy and the start of her tennis fame. That was also her coronation as the Queen of Tennis.

Serena will be the overwhelming favorite. She's on the roll, with a single season winning streak of 30 matches so far. On the way to the finals, she just demolished anybody who came in her path, making them short and easy more especially on her semis match against 5th seed Italian Errani, a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing in 46 minutes. Only tennis legend Stefi Graf (now known as Mrs. Andrei Agassi) beat her to this record when she beat Natasha Zvereva 6-0,6-0 in 32 minutes in the 1988 French Open final. In all these years, I have always believed that a healthy Serena will always be the person to beat in any major tournament. Add this today a big motivation. Of the 15 majors she has so far collected, she has only 1 French Open in that collection when she won it in 2002. That was a long time ago.

And Maria my idol? She struglled in her earlier matches. She even lost 0-6 in the first set in her quarterfinal match against former champ Jelena Jankovich of Serbia. Against another former champ in Victoria Azarenka in the semis, she has to dig deeper in her arsenal and checked her emotions before winning in 3 sets to set a date in the finals. In a way, they were good tune-up games. She will come into this match as a definite underdog. But I guess she has also many ways to beat the odds. To my mind, she should minimize her double faults. She should dish out those brilliant aces she showered in her match against Azarenka and put in those well placed power forehands and backhands she showed in her previous matches. Deep in the baseline, side to side, control unforced errors. Make Serena run; don't let her control the tempo of the game.Above all, stay focused and maintain that steely resolve. I've got the feeling that the fans will go for her.

The power and strength of Serena. The flair and grace of Maria. Top seed vs. 2nd seed. The defending champion vs the perennial top contender and champion. The top draws of ladies tennis. Everything  a script writer could ask for.

My heart goes to Maria. After all she's my idol. But my mind says it's gonna be Serena. Whichever, this is the dream finals match I have been waiting for.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The NBA 2013 Finals: It's Not All About Lebron

Photo credit: USA Today

Since the 2013  season opened 7 months ago, no doubt the main story has always been Lebron James. Will he again carry the Heat to the finals and the championship? That was the question. He obviously did on the road to the finals. But to the championship? Not yet.

Lebron dished out a stellar performance all season to cement his billing as the best player in the NBA today. No ifs, no doubts. But worth mentioning also is the performance of another great team in the West that should pose a great obstacle to Lebron's and the Heat's quest for a repeat this year. So this finals is not all Lebron and the Heat. It's also about the star of the West, the San Antonio Spurs.

There are a number of interesting similarities on both sides. Miami has its vaunted Big 3. San Antonio has also its formidable Big 3 . James, Wade, and Bosh against Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Youth vs. Experience. Lebron has 4 MVP's.  Duncan has 4 championships. The Spurs has a veteran champion coach in Greg Popovich. The Heat has a youthful mentor in Eric Spoelstra aiming for another championship trophy. The young Spo vs the veteran Pop. The Heat is out to build a dynasty. The Spurs is aiming for its last hurrah before its Big 3 fades into retirement. The NBA indeed never runs out of exciting finals match up.

Photo credit: National Post

Tomorrow, the world will be focused on the American Airlines Arena, the Heat' home court. That's courtesy of being the No.1 seed in the eliminations. That home advantage speaks a lot. Especially if it reaches all the way to Game 7; like the Indiana Pacers semis showdown. Veterans as they are, the Spurs surely will not like to be put in that precarious situation.

The last time James and Duncan met in the finals in 2007, the Spurs demolished young Lebron's Cavaliers. Tim consoled Lebron then, saying, "Your time will come". True enough, that time has come. But Tim could not have thought that when that day indeed would come, he still would be there to stand in the way of Lebron's coronation.

It's now time to take our pick. Before the season opened, I predicted the Heat to retain their crown. I stand by this prediction. Gabo sees it for Heat in 5 or 6. I agree.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

From Smart Araneta to SM MOA Arena

Yes, from basketball at Smart Araneta to volleyball at SM MOA Arena. That’s what preoccupied our recent Sundays. And what a good time we have had.

Basketball has always consumed our sports stories. Now volleyball is starting to be noticed. And I’m glad it is beginning to take its place again in our national consciousness. I say again because once upon a time, in my childhood years, volleyball (and I may add, baseball too) was our favorite national game. Be it in  town plazas to the sugar cane fields to the shores or beaches, volleyball was then a passion. During our summer fiesta, the volleyball league was the most awaited event. Whole barrios will come to the town poblacion to watch and cheer for their teams. Controversies were not uncommon then, as teams covet that most important victory. Obviously. I learned how to play volleyball before I went to school and long before I know how to shoot. Truth of the matter, as even my youngest Rago attests, volleyball is more exciting than basketball.

Then basketball came and volleyball faded. And now it's back and it is indeed a welcome development. Football owed  its popularity no doubt to the Fil-Euros/Fil-Ams of the Azkals. But I don’t know exactly what catalysed volleyballs popularity. Credit however should be given to the V-league organizers and its major sponsor, Shakey’s, who all these years continue to host this V-League tournament despite the fact that it was only relegated to small venues and motley crowds. But I think it was last year when its  popularity rose to unprecendented levels during the tough UAAP tournament, climaxed by a “dream” final between traditional rivals Ateneo and La Salle. From the small and lesser known San Juan Arena, they moved to the sports mecca of  Araneta and Arena to overflowing record breaking crowds. Suddenly, volley stars became instant hits to fans and their names becoming household names just like basketball stars. Credit this also to the fact they these stars look like pin up models who could one day end up either as showbiz stars or ramp up models or product endorsers.

We were there during the historic first finals game at Araneta. As usual, Araneta was divided between green and blue. Allysa Valdez, Gretchen Ho, Jem Ferrer, Faile Cainglet et al of the Lady Eagles vs. Michelle Gumabao, Mika Reyes, Ara Galang, of th Lady Archers. And last Sunday, Game 2 of the Shakey’s V league Finals between Ateneo Lady Eagles against first time finalist National University Lady Bulldogs of MVP Dindin Santiago, Myla Pablo, etc. Game 1 went to Ateneo in 3 straight sets and they looked formidable to close the tournament. But the gritty Lady Bulldogs came prepared and right on took the early lead, a signal that it’s going to be a tough match. It was indeed a Sunday thriller. Unfortunately, my wife and kids root for the Lady Eagles and they felt dejected seeing their team losing control and finally bowing to the Bulldogs.

Volleyball is back but it  has changed. Like basketball, it definitely is a game where height matters. We now have many six footer lady spikers.  It is now also a game of power and strength. More apparent however, it is also now a game of charm and beauty.

Watch the 3rd and final game tomorrow, live or on TV. You'll know what I mean.