An Arms Race…In the NL Central?

Yes, that’s right, not the AL East, but the NL Central is trade central for the big name, big money players this year. The times, they are a changing. Milwaukee grabs CC Sabathia, a day later the Cubs grab injury-riddled Rich Harden. Who wins out?

Well, both teams. Each squad improved with the trade. Sabathia and Harden are both ace-quality starters – when healthy at least. Put Sabathia, who has pitched lights out after a slow start, next to Ben Sheets to form arguably the best 1-2 in the NL. With apologies to Webb and Harden in Arizona, Zambrano-Harden is right there as a top starter combo. THe good news for Milwaukee and Chicago, the NL West is pathetic, and the NL East has only been one notch above pathetic. In other words, the wild-card is wide open for the taking.

Chicago arguably has the better team. The defending champs added Giovani Soto in the off-season, and successfully converted Kerry Wood to closer, before the Harden acquisition. The Brewers are probably not as strong in the bullpen, and not as deep in the lineup, top to bottom. However, the way Sheets and Sabathia have pitched over the past two months, they are liable to ring off a combined 15-20 consecutive wins between them. Seven or eight a piece, without losing a decision, not at all out of the realm. I still give the Cubs the edge in the division because they have the better team 1 through 25, and the better manager.

St. Louis is a great story that Milwaukee will end in the second half. No way the Cards can keep this up with that collection of players. They are not expected to make any moves. the Brewers should sail by them in the Central, and battle the Cubs head to head down the stretch with the loser earning the Wild Card.

Even if Sabathia leaves after the season, the trade makes perfect sense. They last made the playoffs in 1982, they have a healthy Ben Sheets pitching up to potential, are right in the race following a season where they came up just short. Milwaukee is at one of those go for it now or forever hold your peace positions, and they are going for it. The fans love it, and show it by packing in Miller Park. After last year’s collapse, with Sabathia on board, they must make the playoffs this year. Ned Yost’s job hangs in the balance.

If Harden stays healthy, the move works for both Chicago and Oakland. For once, I’d like to see Oakland hold on to one big name player. Try to be good with more than just arbitration players and retread veterans. Try, just once. If he’s on, Harden is as good as it gets. For everyone that believes in fate (all you Cubs fans), the powers that be owe the Cubs in the rising star pitching department. The injury gods haunted Mark Prior and Kerry Wood for years, perhaps they will now look over Rich Harden’s health to make-up for all the lost promise of Wood and Prior.

For Cub fans, it’s all about fate at this point, 100 years after the last title. At this point, go for Harden, it can’t get any worse than 100 years.

Celts Avoid Disaster, Hang On To Win

This column should start by welcoming Ray Allen to the playoffs – thanks for deciding to play on Wednesday, Ray. But the real story is Boston’s play down the stretch. Holding a 17 point second half lead at home in the playoffs, as much as 12 points in the fourth quarter, the Pistons had no right to even have a chance in the final minute. The Celtics fell apart down the stretch – again. Go to the Atlanta series, the Cleveland series, now against Detroit, each time closely contested game Boston plays in they struggle to finish out the game.In Game 7 against Cleveland they got a few big plays, just enough to stave off Lebron. Last night, they needed to rely on the big cushion they built early, and foul shots down the stretch. The problem: nobody wants to take the big shot late in the game.

Garnett led the way with 33 points, but each time he touched the ball in the fourth the Big Ticket looked pass first. The last few possessions, Detroit was able to lay off him on the perimeter since he didn’t even look to shoot.  Allen did most of his damage early, canning five three’s, none late in the game. Kendrick Perkins provided the big role player performance that teams need to win playoff games. His only contribution in the fourth – a technical foul. Trumping Rasheed Wallace to see who can make the biggest mental mistake as late in the game as possible.

Eventually the lack of mental toughness, that missing killer instinct that the champions have, will catch up with Boston. Surprisingly, it hasn’t yet. But this series is not over. Detroit rides a wave of confidence into Game 6, back at The Palace.

Chauncey Billups was back to his old tricks, 26 points and 6 assists, in a big game. Backup Rodney Stuckey continued to play solid off the bench, stepping up with a big three pointer late – clearly he’s not afraid to take a big shot. Detroit – the king of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – needs to bring the defensive intensity they showed in the fourth quarter, for the entire game. Boston finished over 50% shooting for the game, and dominated the rebounding battle. A vaunted defensive unit, Detroit cannot win giving up 100+ points, they need to play with urgency and intensity for four quarters.

Billups, Hamilton, even Wallace, played solid most of the game on offense. Yet, the sparkplug I keep mentioning, the Pistons equivalent to Ginobili, Tayshaun Prince, still has his head in the sand. Another non-descript performance. He needs to make his presence felt, defensively, offensively, on the glass, in some way. He’s multi-talented, its time to show some of those talents.

Anyone that says they can predict what will happen Friday is crazy. We’ve seen Boston fail to crack 70 on the road, and we saw them steal Game 3 in Detroit. We’ve seen Detroit look unbeatable and unworthy of being a playoff team from a game to game basis in this postseason. With Billups appearing healthy – though Rip Hamilton appeared to injure his elbow late in the game – the Pistons get the edge at home, especially since Boston still looks shaky on the road. If the game is close, or any game here on in is close, Boston has to prove they can hit a big shot and close out a game. Until then, the Celts are walking a dangerous line.

TNT-NBA Live Stream Not Ready for Primetime

Credit the NBA and TNT for taking the huge leap of faith by streaming a nationally televised playoff game on the Internet. Another sign the future of digital media is now. This particular partnership, after completing a groundbreaking television contract that included digital rights earlier this year, and building a dedicated Internet video portal during the season (TNT Overtime at NBA.com) has a chance to set the trend for the major leagues.

Trailblazers – not the kind from Portland – benefit from being ahead of the curve, and fail by being ahead of the credit, because they encounter problems. TNT’s experiment with the Western Conference Finals is filled with shortcomings that prevent the experience from fully engaging the user, frustrating enough to push experimental viewers back to the TV set, and just downright irritate users with no television option.

Video was solid, slightly jumpy and a touch grainy at times, but overall high quality. The multi-camera view immediately caught my attention when first announced. That’s what will separate the online experience – and eventually interactive TV – from regular television. Interactivity – allowing the user to create the experience – is at the crux of digital media. Rather than user’s choosing from using any camera deployed around the court, they picked from the regular feed, a player cam that followed one individual player from each team as voted by the fans each quarter, the “robo” cam from overhead, or a mosaic that had all four views. Alternatively, users could use a view from the Arena jumbotron. I see more options in the future, a good start nonetheless. Unlike most streaming video applications, no option exists to switch the view to full screen. Grainy screen or not, some users buy big screen monitors for a reason.

Multimedia means media from multiple sources – notably audio and video. TNT delivered the video, not the audio. Users are exposed to the ambient arena noise, enough to hear the fans and PA announcer. Without the broadcasters its difficult to follow the game, especially if you watch the player cam and can’t follow the ball. As annoying as some broadcasters can be, they are there for a reason. Hearing the foul situation, the coach’s strategy, the interviews between quarters, the numerous other stories that develop throughout a game, its part of the experience. TNT failed to deliver.

In-line with audio possibilities, TNT should consider using the player mic – a smashing success when used on an entertaining player like Rony Turiaf, evidenced with his various histrionics on Friday night. Give the fans something. The broadcasters, player mics, even fan commentary from people at the game. Delivering a combination of all three is optimal, again allowing the user at home to create the experience, something television cannot accomplish.

Compounding the lack of commentary, the player provided no access to stats or a boxscore. Instantaneous access to information is another cornerstone of digital media. Fans want stats, lots of them. More than just points and rebounds, shot charts, the ability to look up season stats, the interesting trends that broadcaster routinely cite (points in the paint, 10-0 runs, etc.). All that is possible online. TNT could replace the upcoming schedule on the left column with a box score and have miscellaneous stats pop up during the game, or provide links to get more detailed stats. At least give users the option to add a stats section somewhere on the screen.

Chat is another perfect application for streaming live games. Let the fans interact. TNT and the NBA got one part right, creating three channels, one each for fans of the two teams, and a general one. Only problem, users had to use a completely separate window to chat, preventing them from watching the game. Even though it required a separate window (or tab), the chat window only used the left quarter of the screen, leaving the entire middle blank. Chat and message boards during live events are tough to monitor and keep up with, making it difficult to use it as a forum to ask announcers questions, yet its a key interaction that people use. They are already online watching, engage them further, keep them on the site. This chat application was not user-friendly or as engaging as I envisioned.

Overall, nice to see a major league and major broadcaster take a stab at advancement. Now, the key is to learn from these shortcomings and continually make it better, and expand the coverage.

Spurs Give One Away

San Antonio had a myriad of excuses heading into this game. A tough seven game series ended with a draining road win only two nights earlier, the lack of rest, the wear and tear on the aging team, then throw in the airplane debacle that cost them a good night’s sleep before a cross-country flight. With the rested top seed Lakers waiting at home, why even play game one.

Well, they played, and San Antonio jumped Kobe’s crew, a 20 point blowout into the third quarter. Then the walls crumbled. LA mounted the second biggest playoff comeback since 1998, overcoming the deficit to win by four. Actually, LA did not comeback so much as the Spurs retreated and Kobe, by himself, charged ahead.

13 points in the fourth quarter in a playoff game is terrible. Call it fatigue, call it good defense, the reason the Spurs scored 13 points was Phil Jackson adjusted to Duncan’s dominance, and nobody stepped up. Ginobili, who carried the team in the New Orleans series as Duncan faced a tough matchup, played awful, shooting 3-13 for only 10 points. He missed big shots down the stretch, and turned it over four times. The Sixth Man of the Year turned starter must play well for San Antonio to win. Once LA adapted to Duncan inside, the Spurs offense shutdown.

Contrary to Game Seven on Monday night, the bench produced a meager 11 points for San Antonio. No clutch shots from the Finleys, the Horrys, and the Udokas of the world. No 3-point barrage. No big secondary performance. Duncan will not go quietly this series, proving last night with a vintage 30 point, 18 rebound effort that nobody on the Lakers can guard him in single coverage. The rest of the team needs to step up now. If Ginobili shoots 3-13 and can’t get to the line, San Antonio has no chance, none what so ever. He is the spark plug for this team.

Not to be outdone by Lebron, Kobe showed that he is still the best playoff performer in the league. After a quiet 2-point first half, he decided to take over – yes, he actually said, he knew he could just flip the switch on at will, how great is that. Bryant scored with ease in the second half, the Lakers as a team played under control but at their pace. They never panicked and they operated like a well oiled machine on both ends of the floor.

If any team can overcome blowing this game, its the Spurs. The same way we said the Spurs could overcome the 0-2 hole against New Orleans. The loss hurts, hurts a lot, Poppovich said as much. With Ginobili struggling the Spurs offense disappeared, reverting exclusively to Duncan in the post. When the Lakers finally took that away with double teams the Spurs fizzled – and it showed. The Argentine, and backcourt compadre Tony Parker hold the key. Bryant will get his every game, Duncan will get his, Parker and Ginobili need to make the difference or the Spurs are in trouble.

NHL

For a league that missed an entire season due to labor strife only three years ago, and already sat on the periphery of American sports prior to that, the NHL is thriving. Attendance is up, ratings are soaring, particularly in this season’s playoffs, now reports say league revenue is at an all-time high. The Stanley Cup finals features the biggest star in the game and the craziest hockey town in the country, a dream matchup for the league.

Last weekend, with two Stanley Cup berths on the line, NBC scored a 1.5 and 1.7 national rating on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Both increases over comparable games last season, neither a bonanza compared to other sports programming. The NBA destroyed it on Sunday with over 6 for the Celts and Cavs game. Saturday, the WNBA recorded a .9 for its opening game.

Versus ratings are up double-digit percents over last year, NBC is up, though not as much, but the ratings were so bad its not hard to go up. And even a big increase over a very small number still leaves ratings extremely low. Ratings in the local markets of teams playing are setting records, and interest is extremely high. The national ratings show hockey still has a long way to go on the national landscape.

The league needs to develop a better marketing campaign. Year after year the NBA rolls out marketing campaigns around both the season and the playoffs that leave an indelible mark on the public. Forget this season’s slogan, the two superstar talking heads reading an impressionable playoff “poem” is an eye catcher. Love it or hate it, the message leaves an impression. You spend a minute trying to figure out who the two players are – enough to catch the eye – then get drawn by the star power, the theatrical music, the sense of competition and drama. It sets the playoff scene and showcases the players.

The NHL playoffs has the tools to market – sudden death overtime, the handshake after the series, you can even go the blood, sweat, and tears route. They need to leverage that, be creative, get the message out. Maybe I miss it because I’m not a diehard, and don’t watch Versus all day, but the NHL needs to reach the casual fan to play in the national landscape. The sport deserves better.

Start by marketing the players. Sidney Crosby is young, polished, and destined for greatness – make him the NHL’s answer to Lebron and Kobe. He’s the first NHL player in a national advertising campaign (Gatorade) for quite some time, now the league needs to leverage it make sure everyone knows Crosby. That statement is nothing new for the league, they just have not done a good enough job yet.

The NHL is embarking on an aggressive merchandise marketing campaign to sell Stanley Cup oriented gear, even allowing fans to pre-order locker room championship shirts and hats. Good thought to push it now, while interest is peaking, however the merchandise end will score big locally, not nationally. Fans in Dallas might love hockey, but want nothing to do with a Pittsburgh or Detroit T-Shirt.

Last season NBC recorded the worst prime time rating in TV history for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. To prevent such embarrassments the league needs to market the game, the players, and the playoffs hard, and reach the right audience. Credit the league for its broadband innovation and success. They need it though, lagging behind other sports in other media areas.

It’s probably too late for this season. Hockey needs better and more marketing. One interesting concept, the NHL handles most of its marketing in-house, while other leagues will hire major marketing firms to help with branding – just a thought since it works for others.

Where’s the hockey game on?

Many fans living outside the local market of their favorite teams continue to ask that same question during weeknight games. Overtime playoff hockey, perhaps the most exciting part of sports, a concept the NHL should market like crazy in the US. Yet domestic viewers without the NHL PPV package missed out on the exciting overtime Game One in the Philadelphia-Montreal series last week, won by the Canadiens 4-3.

Hockey boggles the mind sometimes. Ratings go up, attendance goes up, fan interest has gained some momentum in the US, then the league makes it difficult to watch playoff games, exactly when content should be most accessible and marketable. Versus owns exclusive rights to two games per series. The NHL should avoid scheduling multiple games during the exclusive window, either stagger the start times, or use the other nights for double headers. Ratings on Versus for the first round increased from .3 to .4, NBC ratings climbed over the 1 threshold this weekend. Newly redesigned NHL.tv, featuring the NHL Online Network, garnered a 75% traffic increase since debuting before the playoffs.

Now is the time for the NHL to strike while the iron is out. The league needs to find a way to get on ESPN, or have NBC distribute weeknight games on one its cable outlets. Make the games accessible, and market the stories. Where the NBA excels with its memorable campaigns – this year the transposed faces of superstar players combined with the Where Amazing Happens moniker – the NHL fails to develop a presence. Playoff hockey is a great product, they need to reach the fans now while they have their attention. Make the games accessible, even if its streaming the games online, which comes with the ancillary benefit of drawing the international audience opening the door for new advertising and sponsorship deals, and market, market, market.

Better Than Advertised

Never has an entire conference playoff slate, first round through the conference finals, been more anticipated than this year’s Western playoffs. Consider the regular season brought the most tightly contested conference playoff race in NBA history, seven games separating the eight Western Conference playoff teams, all who finished with 50 or more wins. Throw in the defending champs, the top two MVP candidates, a 22-game win streak, surprise teams, mid-season acquisitions trying to justify themselves, the West has it all. Could the actual games can match the hype.

How about a 2-OT thriller, three game tying shots with under 20 seconds left in the respective stanzas, and a game winner with 1.2 seconds remaining to whet the appetite. Phoenix-San Antonio was billed as the series of the first round, and Game One was a heavyweight battle. Manu Ginobili capped off an 8 point outburst in the double overtime period with a driving layup over Shaq to grab a 117-115 Spurs win.

Ginobili’s double OT outburst was made possible by a game-tying 3-pointer with 3 seconds left in the first OT by an unlikely source, Tim Duncan, his first of the season. Duncan scored the final nine points in the first OT, in route to a game-high 40 points and 15 rebounds. The Big Fundamental simply would not let San Antonio lose, scoring seven down the stretch to erase a nine-point fourth quarter deficit, his eyes filled with focus and desire. Duncan truly becomes a different player in the post-season, elevating his game after coasting at times during the regular season. Critics wondered if this might be the year San Antonio shows its age, or vulnerabilities, in Game One Duncan would have none of it. Scoring almost at will inside, stepping out to can jumpers, even burying the clutch three.

Meanwhile, Ginobili answered any questions about his hamstring, chipping in with 24 off the bench, along with a clutch defensive play in overtime, tipping a pass away, leading to an Amare Stoudemire foul to prevent the steal. Tony Parker added 26 and buried a few clutch shots down the stretch, but none as big as Michael Finley, who nailed a three with 16 seconds left in regulation to send it to OT. Finley finished with 13 points.

Stoudemire carried Phoenix, continuing his torrid second half with 33 points and 7 rebounds before fouling in the first overtime. Losing Stoudemire may have been the difference. Without his partner in crime, the Spurs were able to pressure Nash on pick and rolls, forcing the rest of the team to beat them. With Stoudemire on the court, particularly in the fourth and first OT, the Spurs struggled to defend pick and roll, allowing Nash to use the screens for open jumpers, or to easy penetration. When San Antonio went after Nash, Stoudemire got one on one looks in the paint, almost automatic.

One year after a physical series marred with the infamous fight, the first half had its share of tough play. Both teams griped with the referees over almost every foul call, constantly flopping for charges. But things settled down in the second half, the intensity picked up to levels usually reserved for conference or NBA finals, and the stars stepped up – Nash, Stoudemire, Ginobili, Duncan, and Parker.

Kurt Thomas provided solid defense and rebounding off the Spurs bench, drawing the charge that sent Stoudemire to the bench for good, to go with 10 big rebounds. Relegated to the bench with foul trouble in the first, O’Neal was a non-factor on the offensive end in crunch time, instead focusing on defending Duncan. However, after picking up his fifth foul in double OT, Shaq became passive in the paint. Using Duncan primarily for screens, the Spurs turned to Ginobili, who attacked Shaq play after play with drives to the basket, knowing the big man did not want to pick up his sixth foul, especially with Stoudemire already gone.

If this is any indication, we may have the best first round series in NBA history. Buckle up, its going to be a doozy, round two set for Tuesday night in San Antonio. After what appears to be a grueling series ahead, will either of these teams have enough left in the tank to conquer the rest of the playoffs. The NBA’s playoff schedule, resembling a retiree’s work schedule, might be their only saving grace.