Who Will Win the Super Bowl?

So here we have it: Super Bowl Weekend. Just two teams remaining: The Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints. Both were number one seeds in their conference, both had chances for undefeated seasons (although the Saints just lost a couple of games, whereas the Colts chose to lose their last two). The question remains: which team will win? Both teams have strong cases, and I’ll review them before making a final call.

The Case for the Colts

The Colts offense is incredibly potent this season. The best quarterback (sorry Tom Brady) in the game is having one of the best seasons of his career, as evidenced by his MVP award. And he has a phenomenal combination of wide receivers and especially tight ends to throw to. They have as dangerous an offense as they’ve ever had, and their two playoff games so far have shown they’re clicking on all cylinders. They also have a more than capable running back in Joseph Addai, so New Orleans won’t be able to sit on the pass as much. And Peyton Manning picks up the blitz better than anyone I’ve ever seen. It will be a trying day for the Saints defense, trying and tiring.

The Case for the Saints

The Saints have a slightly worse quarterback in Drew Brees, but they have a far more dangerous running back (and punt returner) in Reggie Bush. Running teams tend to do better in Super Bowls than passing teams do, so this gives an advantage to the Saints. They also will probably get a better fan turnout since New Orleans is close to Miami and the Saints fans are itching for a Super Bowl title. And while the Colts have the twin pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (Freeney, by the way, is hurt and might not play), New Orleans has the more dynamic secondary with players like Darren Sharper. New Orleans’ defense has more playmakers on it, so they may be able to keep the Colts at bay at least some of the time.

Unfortunately, the Colts Will Win

As much as my heart wants to pick the Saints, “America’s Team,” to win the whole thing, I just don’t see it happening. Peyton Manning is just playing too well this season. Not only that, but the Colts are better at playing from behind than New Orleans is playing with the lead. I see the Saints putting some points up, maybe even taking a lead. But then I see Manning leading the Colts back in the late stages of the game and winning the whole thing. The offenses and defenses are very equally matched, so it comes down to who wants it more. The Saints are certainly hungry for a victory, having never tasted championship champagne before. And America is definitely pulling for them to win as some symbolic way of redeeming New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. But that actually works in the COLTS’ favor. “Disrespect” is a powerful motivator in the NFL today. Teams will manufacture feelings of being disrespected even when there are none because it inspires players to play beyond their abilities. The Colts know that no one outside of Indiana wants them to win. So their backs are seemingly against the wall. But that makes them more dangerous, because they’ll be out to prove how much respect they deserve because of how good they really are. I see a close game, one with lots of scoring, but I think Indy is actually hungrier for a win than New Orleans is. Look for the defense to make a late-game play on the turnover-prone Saints, and look for it to be the game-winning play.

A Critique of Tommy Heinsohn

OK, so here’s Wikipedia’s definition of a color commentator: “A color commentator (color analyst, analyst) is a sports commentator who assists the play-by-play announcer by filling in any time when play is not in progress. The term is of North American origin. The color commentator provides expert analysis and background information, such as statistics, strategy and injury reports on the teams and athletes, and occasionally light humor. Color commentators are often former athletes or coaches of the sport being broadcast.” And this is mainly what we get out of our color commentators. Jerry Remy, for example, does an excellent job analyzing hitting strategy, whereas Dennis Eckersley is a master at explaining pitching choices. In basketball, however, we have a far more colorful commentator than either of them: Tommy Heinsohn.

What Tommy Does Well

There’s no doubt that Tommy Heinsohn, former Celtics player and coach, knows the game of basketball inside and out. When a player misses a free throw, Tommy’s gut reaction is usually confirmed by replays of the player’s shooting motion. When he sees a mismatch, the Celtics usually recognize it too and successfully exploit it. And when Tommy believes a player has hot hands, the player usually winds up having a monster game. Tommy also is very attuned to the feelings of the fans. If we’re frustrated about something- a lack of offense, poor play by a particular player- then chances are Heinsohn will also be frustrated. It’s when he vents that I think he gets himself into trouble.

Where Tommy Could Calm Down

What annoys me the most about Tommy Heinsohn is that he still believes he’s a coach and thus must defend the Celtics players. This is most evident when it comes to critiquing the referees of the game. Heinsohn goes off on rants against refereeing far too often and far too easily. They do not affect the outcome of the game, they simply rile up the fans to the point that they’re screaming for the refs’ heads. This is not fair to a bunch of people trying as hard as they can to officiate a fast-paced, physical game. Far fewer of them hold the kinds of grudges Heinsohn accuses them of than he thinks, and he goes into games assuming the refs are out to get the Celtics. Even if they were (and I don’t believe they are), as a commentator he should not feel as if this has anything to do with him. But he does, and it leads to rants and passive-aggressive snipes that sour what is otherwise strong commentating from him.

As a child, I was taught that referees don’t win or lose games for teams, and that if the game comes down to a blown call by the ref, chances are you didn’t do enough to win in the first place. While there are some problems with this argument, I believe it holds true most of the time. If the Celtics were clicking like they were before Christmas, it would take a truly egregious number of bad calls to swing games against the Celtics. But Heinsohn’s ranting suggests otherwise. Arguing that the refs are actively taking wins away from the Celtics, as he often does, just builds up bad blood in fans.

There’s also a sense of futility to Heinsohn’s ranting. While I’ll agree there are some issues with refereeing in the NBA this season, it is not likely to change without drastic action by David Stern. On the other hand, something as simple as a trade or a team meeting might turn the fortunes of the Celtics around. So while Tommy Heinsohn does on occasion criticize the Celtics for what they’re doing, he spends far too much energy criticizing the refs instead. Instead of helping fans to understand what the Celtics are doing wrong, Tommy Heinsohn seems content to just blame everything on the refs. This is not expert analysis, it is petty bitching. And it needs to stop.

Tommy Heinsohn contributes much as the Celtics color commentator. He just needs to calm down a little bit when it comes to refereeing. There’s not a game played where someone from each side thinks a call went the wrong way. Human error is part of  human-officiated sports. He needs to accept that and focus on what he does well: analyzing player form, recognizing mismatches, and explaining team strategy.

Celtics Defeat Wizards, Snap Three-Game Losing Streak

The Boston Celtics and the Washington Wizards faced off Monday night in Washington D.C. Coming into the game, both teams were on streaks. Washington had won two in a row, whereas Boston had lost the last three, including two tough losses against Orlando and Los Angeles (Lakers), games in which Boston held leads late in the game but eventually fell due mainly to stagnant offense. The game saw a reversal of both teams’ fortunes, however, as a strong fourth quarter powered the Celtics to victory, 99-88.

The Celtics on Offense

Boston’s offense was streaky tonight. At times, they were making passes, finding open men, and draining shots. At other times, they were committing turnovers, playing out of control, and making bad offensive decisions. For the first time in a long time, the best offense the Celtics played was in the fourth quarter. They minimized turnovers, sank free throws, and drove aggressively into the paint. This led to easier shots and several foul calls that put them on the line early and often. This helped them overcome what for three quarters was a large disparity in free throws taken.

The offensive star of the game, once again was, Rajon Rondo. He once again was the key to the offense, racking up 12 assists to go along with his 17 points. This strong distribution of the ball (24 total assists) enabled six different players to score in the double digits: every starter except for Kendrick Perkins, plus Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen . This was a team tonight that went inside early and often. They put up 36 points in the paint, as opposed to just 9 points from beyond the arch. Despite the Wizards’ apparent height advantages, the Celtics were content to right at them early and often.

The Celtics on Defense

The Celtics did two things really well tonight. First off, they defended well against the three-pointer, allowing only a single trey to fall, despite ten attempts. Additionally, they finally out-rebounded a team. Against as strong an offensive rebounding team as Washington, this is doubly impressive. While the Celtics had some early trouble with fouls, they bore down in the second half and greatly reduced their frequency of putting the Wizards on the free throw line. This was the first game in awhile were the defense did not falter in the fourth quarter. They held the Wizards to just 10 points in the final 12 minutes, and it helped them turn a small deficit into a big lead.

From the Stands

With any luck, this game saw the death of the January Celtics and the birth of the February Celtics. The January Celtics, as epitomized by the first half, were known for poor shooting, a lack of energy and aggression (particularly late in games), and an inability to close out games in which they held late leads. The February Celtics, as shown by the second half, are just the opposite. Hopefully this will be a team that gets stronger as the game goes on. This will be a team that comes into the fourth quarter and keeps the foot on the throat of the opposing team. This will be a team that does not back down, unafraid to either go into the paint or kick out to the perimeter. The early successes of the Celtics this season can be attributed to the unpredictability of the offense and the stiffness of the defense. We saw the return of that in the second half. The next step is to be able to do it on a nightly basis.