Subscribe to Bleacher Report feed
Updated: 1 hour 17 min ago

Sylvain Distin Criticised on Twitter After Everton Lose, Gives Epic Response

1 hour 41 min ago

Everton's run of seven straight wins came to an abrupt end with a 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace on Wednesday night, and the defeat at Goodison Park could prove costly in the race for fourth place.

Sylvain Distin took to Twitter to chat to fans after the match, and got told to "f---ing leg it" by one angry supporter, because he wasn't "good enough."

Distin's response was sensational:

@MickHanEfc maybe not mate but you can't afford better at the minutes so stop moaning kid

— Sylvain Distin (@sylvaind15tin) April 16, 2014

The 36-year-old from France has spent the majority of his career in the English top flight, and he has been at Everton since 2009.

His answer was disarmingly honest—and probably, given his years of service, unduly harsh on himself.

[H/T Balls.ie]

Paper News and Gossip: Manchester City Lose Ground, Gareth Bale Wonder Goal

1 hour 49 min ago

The fallout from two crucial Premier League matches dominates the back pages on Thursday.

Manchester City saw their title challenge flounder on the back of the 2-2 draw with Sunderland at the Etihad Stadium, while Everton's hopes of a top-four finish were dented by a home defeat to Crystal Palace.

Elsewhere, Gareth Bale has earned the plaudits for his goal to win the Copa del Rey for Real Madrid against Barcelona.

But who else is making the headlines on Thursday? Read on to find out more.

Begin Slideshow

Cristiano Ronaldo Comforts Lionel Messi After Real Madrid's Copa Del Rey Win

1 hour 54 min ago

Real Madrid sealed the Copa del Rey title with a 2-1 victory over Barcelona, and although Cristiano Ronaldo wasn't on the field he still took a moment to comfort Lionel Messi as the celebrations began.

The pair are the standout stars of the division, and both have won Clasicos almost single-handedly in the past.

This time, however, the difference in emotions between the pair at full time could scarcely have been starker.

[Vine h/t @Vine_Football]

FIFA World Cup 2014: 50 Players with 20 Caps or Fewer Who Could Star in Brazil

2 hours 4 min ago

The 2014 FIFA World Cup is a little under two months away, and most of the column inches over the coming weeks will likely be devoted to those established star names who could have a big say in how far their nation goes in the tournament.

With the likes of Gigi Buffon, Steven Gerrard, Xavi Hernandez and Bastian Schweinsteiger all having more than a century of caps for their respective countries, there's a reason they receive more attention than most: they're very, very good and have been for a long time.

But what of those supporting acts, the players who have only recently established themselves on the international scene?

There are always a few who manage to find a place in the squad despite not having a wealth of international experience behind them, and it's those players who—perhaps less prepared for by the opposition or simply coming into form at the right time—can sometimes be the ones who make the biggest difference.

Here are 50 such players who could easily make a huge impact at the finals in Brazil.

Begin Slideshow

What's Keeping Kyle Busch from Living Up to His Incredible Talent?

2 hours 9 min ago

While doing some research on next Saturday's Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway, I stumbled upon an amazing stat:

Kyle Busch is just 30 laps shy of hitting 10,000 laps led in his Cup career.

Think about that for a minute.

At the still-young age of 28 (he turns 29 on May 2), the younger Busch brother has led more laps in his nine-plus year Sprint Cup career than former Cup champ Matt Kenseth (9,160 laps led), older brother and former Cup champ Kurt Busch (7,683), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7,599), Denny Hamlin (6,761), Greg Biffle (5,683), Kevin Harvick (4,941), Carl Edwards (4,795), Clint Bowyer (2,240) and Brad Keselowski (1,795), among others.

In fact, the only active full-time drivers in Sprint Cup who have more than 10,000 laps led are Jeff Gordon (23,656), Jimmie Johnson (16,342) and Tony Stewart (12,708).

Add those numbers up and you come up with 52,706 laps led, along with 202 wins and 13 championships between the three drivers.

What's more, Busch is already fifth among all active drivers in wins (29), trailing Gordon (88), Johnson (66), Stewart (48) and Kenseth (31).

So with 9,970 laps led to date, along with 29 wins in NASCAR's most elite series, why hasn't Kyle Busch won a Sprint Cup championship yet?

How can such a dominating driver keep falling short year after year as he closes in on a full decade as one of Sprint Cup's brightest stars?

Older brother Kurt has a championship to his credit. So does a relative newcomer, Keselowski.

But not the guy Kurt calls "Shrub."

Here are more stats to consider: KyBusch also has led 13,479 laps in the Nationwide Series (plus 65 wins) and 4,711 laps in the Camping World Truck Series (plus 36 wins).

Add all those numbers from NASCAR's three premier series together and Busch has led an incredible 28,160 total laps, earned 130 wins and one championship (Nationwide Series) in his outstanding career to date.

But the closest Busch has come to winning a Cup championship was fourth in 2013, fifth in 2007 and sixth last season.

How can that be?

Or as the headline on this story asks, what's keeping young Kyle from living up to his incredible talent?

That's a question no one can seem to answer. I know I can't, and I bet you can't either.

I don't even know if Busch himself can answer it.

How does someone with such immense talent and so much success so early in a career that could likely go on for another 20-plus years—on the career level of a Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, the late Dale Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson and Stewart—still have not been able to win his first Sprint Cup championship by now?

Better yet, why hasn't Busch won two or three or even four titles by now?

Sure, Johnson has been a major impediment with his six titles during Busch's Sprint Cup run. But with a talent level that comes close to, if not occasionally exceeds Johnson's at certain times and in certain situations, there's no logical explanation for why Johnson keeps winning championships while Busch comes close but just can't get over that hump.

I'm not giving up on Busch. I'm still convinced he'll win a championship, perhaps as early as this year, or maybe next year. If not by then, surely by 2016, right?

But haven't NASCAR fans been saying the same thing about Earnhardt Jr. since he made his Cup debut in 2000? Nearly 15 years later, he still has yet to win his first Cup crown.

Sure, Junior is off to the best start of his career this season, and he is arguably in the best position he's ever been to finally win that elusive championship at season's end.

But at the same time, Earnhardt still may come up short at the end of this season and ultimately go on to never win his first—if only—Cup title.

About the only thing I can think of why Busch hasn't achieved the success he should have by now—i.e., multiple Cup championships—is that he oftentimes folds at the wrong time, or makes too many costly mistakes in the Chase, much like Earnhardt has done in his career.

One other driver also comes to mind, someone who had great talent in his heyday, much like Busch. In 882 career Cup starts, he won 40 races and led 12,879 laps, had five runner-up season finishes, yet never won even one Cup crown.

Of course, I'm talking about the great Mark Martin. As each season of Martin's great career passed without a championship, it eventually got to the point that a crown would simply never be in the cards for him.

Will it be the same for Busch? Time will tell. And fortunately for him (and maybe not so fortunate for Earnhardt, who turns 40 in October), time is one thing Busch still has plenty of ahead of him.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

Twitter and Media Reaction to Gareth Bale's Wonder Goal for Real Madrid

2 hours 25 min ago

Gareth Bale became the latest player to write his name into Clasico folklore with a wonderful late goal to secure Real Madrid's 2-1 Copa del Rey victory over Barcelona.

The Welshman's bursting run and prodded shot left the Blaugrana defence with little chance of stopping the inevitable. Understandably, reaction across the internet and footballing press has lavished the former Tottenham star with praise. Here, we take a look at the best.

If you haven't seen the goal, Tekkers Vines has you covered:

Former Spurs striker Gary Lineker playfully pointed toward the sceptics with a tweet that confirmed what many already knew:

Graham Hunter, Sky Sports' Spanish football expert, utilised words made famous by Nina Simone when trying to capture the moment Bale netted against Jose Manuel Pinto:

The Times' Oliver Kay remained grounded during his assessment of the goal. He believes that, although Bale has scored better, it could be the watershed moment he needs to halt criticism from those who say he isn't good enough for Madrid:

Carlo Ancelotti, the man who has seamlessly slotted Bale into his Los Blancos side this season, hailed the forward for his match-winning display. The Italian boss confirmed he had the "perfect view" of Bale's "fantastic goal," labelling the former Southampton left-back an "extraordinary player," reported by David Kent of the Daily Mail.

Barca boss Gerardo Martino acknowledged the physical feat of Bale's performance, saying, "It is difficult to see a player be able to sprint like that at that stage of the game," per Kent's report.

Mark Pougatch of BBC 5Live also focused on Bale's energy, suggesting only a handful of players possess the afterburners to accelerate so quickly in the 85th minute:

Dani Alves' take on the goal was far more frank. The Brazilian full-back understands the passionate response of supporters and suggests Barca players could be in for a rough ride, reported by TomConn of Inside Spanish Football (NSFW):

We had several good moments but after Bale's goal, we weren't able to react.  All we can do now is ask for forgiveness. They're going to rain a lot of criticism on us, but I think we're above all that. We're like the stock market; if we win, we have value and if we don't...That's how I feel about this profession.  In football, if you win you're great and if you lose, you're s--t.

BBC Sporf, one of Twitter's most followed spoof feeds, posted an image that highlights the conflicting emotions of football. While Bale celebrated arguably the most important goal of his career, Barca fans looked on in disgust:

As one of Madrid's stars lapped up the plaudits, others didn't appear through injury. Although Cristiano Ronaldo's absence emerged as one of the night's big talking points, the winning squad had 21-year-old Jese Rodriguez in its thoughts.

With Jese recently ruled out for the season after sustaining a serious knee injury, per Sky Sports, Sergio Ramos reminded us about a starlet who could have significantly influenced the final if he was fit, noted by Inside La Liga:

Even so, it was Bale who announced himself in a fixture that is so often headlined by the individual battle of Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo. It was almost perfect that, after Bale netted the late strike, Neymar was only able to hit the post from a simple opportunity at the other end. Beyond each side's Ballon d'Or winners, Bale and Neymar are set to define many more Clasico fixtures in the future.

The 2014 Copa del Rey final was Bale's moment. His pace, power and athleticism won Madrid a game that looked to be getting away from them, producing a moment of magic that etches itself into the club's bulging history book.

Bale's strike may become more important as time passes. If his winner inspires a famous treble win, Madrid fans will surely point to the night their latest superstar thrust his side to cup victory with a piece of individual brilliance.

Dunk of the Night: Wednesday, April 16

2 hours 29 min ago

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant will likely win this season's Most Valuable Player award. It is only fitting, then, that he win the final Dunk of the Night prize of the 2013-14 regular season.

The Detroit Pistons do little to contest Durant's dunk...which may be part of the reason why they'll be watching the playoffs on TV.

Manuel Pellegrini Admits Liverpool Destroyed Manchester City's Title Bid

2 hours 31 min ago

One week ago Manchester City looked to be favourites to claim the 2013-14 Premier League title, but Manuel Pellegrini admits Sunday's 3-2 loss at the hands of Liverpool completely turned the title race on its head.

As reported by The Daily Mail's Chris Wheeler, City manager Pellegrini is convinced the defeat at Anfield affected his players in such a way that it directly influenced Wednesday's shock 2-2 draw against bottom club Sunderland, putting a major dent in the Citizens' title hopes.

After the match, Pellegrini said:

We couldn't take the Liverpool game out of our minds. It was very difficult for the players to do that after three days. At this moment it is more mental than physical. Mentally it was very difficult to play this game after Liverpool. We needed more intensity but our minds maybe were not right to do it. 

We had a low performance at the beginning of February but after that we recovered and have had very good results until we lost against Liverpool.

City could ill afford to drop points against last-placed Sunderland, but the hosts needed a late equaliser from Samir Nasri (with a little help from Sunderland's Vito Mannone) to even preserve a single point at the Etihad Stadium.

The Citizens now trail league leaders Liverpool by six points with a game in hand, and with just four matches left, the title might have slipped beyond City's grasp.

The team's main hope now has to be for both of the other two contenders, Liverpool and Chelsea, to slip up during the final weeks of the season, a sentiment that is echoed by ESPN FC's David Mooney:

Two swings of two boots look to have left the Blues with very little chance of winning the league—indeed, if they do go on to clinch the title from this position, it will surely have to go down as mistakes from their rivals rather than good play of their own. With the chance in their own hands on Sunday morning, City now need favours from elsewhere on both Liverpool and Chelsea.

[...]And that's assuming that City win all of their remaining games—on a display like Wednesday evening's, that would seem as likely as finding a dog that was fluent in Latin. 

Chelsea and Liverpool will still play each other in the final week of April, and while the eventual champions will most likely be featuring in that fixture, a favourable result and one or two mistakes by the winners of that tie could open the door for the Citizens to come in and steal the title away.

The Telegraph's Paul Hayward isn't a believer, however:

The same goes for former player Joey Barton:

It would seem most pundits agree with Pellegrini's statement that the title is now lost for the Blues, and with just a handful of matches left to play, the loss to Liverpool may indeed have ended City's once promising season.

As shared by Indy Kaila, a trophy-less season is not something that corresponds with the team's financial structure:

Pellegrini shouldn't (and won't) be replaced in a hurry, but with the amount of talent he has at his disposal, losing the title race in this fashion is not something that will be tolerated by the owners or the fans.

If the Chilean can somehow turn the situation around and still deliver his club the title, he would be a folk hero in the blue part of Manchester. But he looks increasingly likely to fail, so the pressure will be on for the team to win some silverware next season.

If the start of the 2014-15 season is in any way a disappointment for the Citizens, Pellegrini will have even more reason to rue that loss at Anfield.

 

How Might Liverpool and Everton Fare in the Champions League as Low Seeds?

2 hours 34 min ago

Before last night, when it came to the current performances of its two Premier League football teams, Merseyside remained in fervent.

Liverpool and Everton had won 17 straight Premier League matches between them until the latter lost at home to Crystal Palace, a staggering run and one which could hardly have come at a better time given the duo’s respective goals.  

In the red corner, the delirious Premier League title charge that Liverpool are on means that it has been pretty much forgotten that they are within touching distance of achieving their initial aim for the campaign, a finish in the top four places and a return to Champions League football after five years away.

In the blue corner things are a little less clear, but despite the defeat to Palace they remain hopeful of finishing in the top four of the Premier League. Win their remaining four matches, and they’ll have a great chance to do it.

The Champions League could soon be making a home on Merseyside then, but both Liverpool and Everton will know that they’ll pay the price for what happened the last time they were in it.

The Reds’ exit from the group stages in the 2009/10 season was the final shuddering blow in a deteriorating record in the competition which over the previous five years had seen them win it, be beaten finalists and reach the last four, whilst the Blues didn't even get past the qualification stages on their only appearance in 2005.

David Moyes’ side were beaten by eventual semi-finalists Villarreal back then, and given their weak UEFA coefficient they are likely to have to face a similarly tough task this time, with a two-legged play-off certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Let’s assume that they make it through though, and that they join their neighbours in the competition proper. Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers, both former managers of Swansea City in the Championship, would suddenly be thrust into the Champions League.

The qualities of both men and the confidence they possess would ensure that they would meet such challenges head on, and they would certainly need that confidence given the tough tasks they’d face.

Earlier this month, Mark Ogden of the Daily Telegraph wrote that Liverpool can expect a tough draw in European football’s premier competition next season, even if they were to win the Premier League title.

The Reds’ recent absence from the Champions League and European football altogether has seen their UEFA coefficient crumble, and so a position in the third pot of seeds for the four-team groups would be the best that they could hope for.

That raises the mouth-watering possibility of a Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich heading to Anfield next season, but the fearless nature with which Rodgers has got his team performing would ensure that the Reds would be up for such challenges.

Whether or not they’d beat them though, is another matter.

The Reds may be having a lot of fun showcasing their incredible attacking abilities in the Premier League week after week—and indeed those of us who are watching them are, too—but taking them into a clash with, say, Bayern Munich could leave them horribly exposed and ripe for a big defeat.

What would be much more interesting spectacles would be matches against the likes of Roma or Borussia Dortmund, attack-minded sides who still have flaws that you can expose, very much like Liverpool themselves.

You could even throw Barcelona into that argument, as the Catalans wouldn't much be up for a trip to a hostile Anfield after recent experiences or grounds such as the Vicente Calderon or even Celtic Park last season.

Rodgers and the Reds will need the group stage draw to be kind then. But there is nothing to suggest that, with a couple of good summer additions, a bigger squad and the maintenance of the staggering rate of improvement in some of the Liverpool players that they can’t fare well in the Champions League.

As Manchester City showed though, the tough groups that you can be presented with upon arrival in the competition mean that it can sometimes take you a year or two to make your mark.

City went out in the group stages in their first two Champions League campaigns before making it to the second round this time, something which is likely to secure them a place in pot two next season, according to that article from Ogden.

Everton’s case is somewhat different to Liverpool’s, and will depend entirely on how they would view their participation in the tournament.

Having borrowed players from Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester City to reach the cusp of the Champions League, whether or not they’ll be able to do the same again next season remains to be seen, as suddenly the elite clubs they’d be loaning from might see the Blues as more of a threat.

Indeed, in allowing Everton temporary ownership of Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry this season, Chelsea and Manchester City may have gone a long way toward ensuring that Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham won’t get into the Champions League in 2014/15, perhaps significantly weakening them as a result. They won’t want the same thing to happen to them.

Of course Barry will be available on a free transfer in the summer and Jose Mourinho doesn't seem overly keen on Lukaku, so there is a strong possibility that Everton could use their Champions League riches to finance moves for both. Sadly for them, Gerard Deulofeu will return to Barcelona.

Happily for them, though, they’ll have money to buy a top-class replacement, and although the discussion of money in football can often lead us toward a greed-filled or vulgar direction, that really is what will be most important for Everton were they to get into the Champions League.

The riches on offer would ensure that, after years of scrambling around for cheap moves or loans and being forced to sell their best players, Everton would have the money to consistently compete with the bigger clubs in the land.

In terms of how they’d do against the bigger clubs on the continent though, then they may well need to be very patient.

Likely to be below Liverpool in pot four for the draw, the Blues would be certain to face at least one of European football’s superpowers during a group stage that they would do very well to qualify from.

Of course qualification isn't out of the question, especially not when you play the type of exhilarating football that the Blues do under Martinez, but the current Everton side have sometimes struggled when facing the bigger sides in this season’s Premier League. They were hammered 4-0 at Liverpool, lost at Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham and were beaten 4-1 at Arsenal in the FA Cup.

They’d show no fear in the Champions League obviously, but their campaign might really be more about just enjoying themselves before the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United make renewed assaults to try and get back into the competition.

You could almost say the same about Liverpool, too, although the Reds look better equipped to go on a decent run.

How decent? Well maybe repeating their success of 2005 is a little too much to ask, but no-one expected that Liverpool team to win it back then.

As this season’s Red and Blue vintages have shown though, anything seems possible on Merseyside at the moment.  

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors Is Best Matchup of 1st Round

2 hours 53 min ago

All season long, we NBA acolytes have remained steadfast in our conviction that this year’s playoffs would demand a buckling of basketball seat belts.

Just make sure you have an extra spool of rope at the ready for when the Golden State Warriors meet the Los Angeles Clippers.

Not only do the two teams represent the only Western Conference pairing to split its season slate; not only do they boast a bevy of electric, switch-flipping talents; not only are state bragging rights at stake—with California, that of a country.

Not only can the two teams' respective point guards and coaches be seen as mirrors of one another—Stephen Curry the Chris Paul training protege, Mark Jackson the young coach devoid of experience, just like Doc Rivers once was.

After all of that, there was this.

And this.

And you'd better believe some of the Warriors have thoughts on Blake Griffin:

For the Warriors, more than much was expected of the team that took eventual Western Conference champion the San Antonio Spurs to six games in last year’s conference semifinals. At the very least, the offseason addition of Andre Iguodala to a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut was treated as a next-step guarantor.

Instead, a combination of heightened expectations and a somewhat atrophied offense managed to turn an inevitable leap into a mere four-win improvement—in the eyes of one of the NBA’s most lovably loyal fanbases, nothing short of a disappointment.

Add to that the loss of Bogut—broken rib suffered in Sunday’s already-heartbreaking 119-117 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers—the Warriors would seem the definition of walking-wounded, first-round chum for Chris Paul’s predacious designs.

Los Angeles enters the postseason in conspicuous contrast, having won 20 of its last 25. They’re one of only three teams—the others being the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder—to finish the season as a two-way top-10 team.

As if those weren’t bright enough bellwethers, L.A. is now marshaled by a master in head coach Doc Rivers—the team’s sideline-straddled answer to Golden State’s on-court coup.

Those looking for a succinct summation of the Clippers’ promising postseason prospects could do far worse than the preview USA Today’s Adi Joseph had to offer:

The Clippers arguably have two of the five best players in the NBA, making them a legitimate threat to beat anyone. And unlike last season, they have surrounded Griffin and Paul with sharpshooting, defensive-oriented role players who can get the job done. Also, Warriors center Andrew Bogut may be out for the series with a broken rib, so Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan can dominate the paint.

At this point it’s fair to ask: If the Clippers seem such clear-cut favorites, how is this the must-see series?

L.A. may have at its disposal the game’s most tenaciously tactful player-coach combo in Rivers and Paul—an advantage akin to high ground in a holy war.

What it doesn’t have is Golden State’s unrivaled aerial assault—the kamikaze chaos of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry.

In four games against the Clippers, Curry put up an average of 22 points and 9.5 assists on 53 percent shooting, including a staggering 59 percent from downtown.

Though not quite as scintillating, Thompson was superbly effective as well: 18.8 points on 47 percent shooting, including 43 percent from beyond the arc.

All this against a defense that finished the season first in the NBA in three-point percentage allowed (33 percent), per NBA.com (account required).

A pair of deadeye studs does not make an upset, of course. But so long as they can keep the games close, the Warriors can at least rest easy knowing their core scorers are no strangers to late-game dramatics.

Will the loss of Bogut be too much to overcome for Golden State’s third-ranked defense, particularly in light of its foe’s richly refined attack?

Will the Clippers exert too much effort attempting to exploit the Warriors’ weakness down low, thereby putting their offensive flow in jeopardy?

How will the series’ superlative point-guard matchup—the prowess as well as the potential pitfalls—dictate the tone, tempo and tenor of the series?

Do the Dubs have an answer for Blake Griffin? Griffin for a sure-to-be-physical Jermaine O'Neal? A limited O'Neal for the fleet-footed Clippers frontcourt? The Clippers for Iguodala? Iguodala for L.A.’s distinct perimeter spacing? Will good basketball be undermined by bitter blood?

That the series surrenders this many questions might drive a feebler fan for the exit. Us? We’d just as soon keep the seat belts on and enjoy the ride.

 

NBA.com media stats require a subscription. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 17, unless otherwise noted.

Dallas Mavericks vs. San Antonio Spurs: Western Conference Round 1 Preview

3 hours 50 sec ago

Following a 106-105 overtime loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 82 of the regular season, the Dallas Mavericks will square off against the NBA's top-seeded San Antonio Spurs beginning on Sunday, April 20.

Playing a first-round matchup against the in-state rival Spurs was something Dallas had hoped to avoid. San Antonio swept the 2013-14 season series against the Mavs, 4-0, and has won its past nine contests against Dirk Nowitzki and Co. overall.

Drawing the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been a much more favorable outcome for the Mavericks, as they posted a 2-1 record against head coach Scott Brooks' crew during the regular season. Instead, Dallas will have to face the only team in the Association that reached the 60-win plateau.

Mark Cuban's team still has a former MVP and proven champion in Nowitzki, but the Mavericks will certainly have their hands full with head coach Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the juggernaut Spurs—who are eying a return to the NBA Finals.

 

Seeds: Dallas Mavericks No. 8; San Antonio Spurs No. 1

Records: Dallas Mavericks 49-33; San Antonio Spurs 62-20

Season Series: San Antonio Spurs swept Dallas Mavericks 4-0

Schedule for Series: Game 1 Sunday, April 20, 1 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 TBD; Game 3 TBD; Game 4 TBD; Game 5 TBD; Game 6 TBD; Game 7 TBD

 

Key Storyline for Dallas Mavericks

Can the Dallas Mavericks pull off an astounding first-round upset?

That's truly what everything boils down to for the Mavs—who were considered a fringe-playoff team heading into 2013-14. Nowitzki is still a bona fide alpha dog and one of the best players in the game, but he'll need to play at an elite level to win a seven-game series against San Antonio.

Dallas is looking to accomplish a feat that rarely happens in the NBA—upsetting a No. 1 seed as a No. 8 seed.

Ironically, the Mavericks have been on the opposite end of this spectrum before. In 2006-07, Dallas finished with the league’s best overall record at 67-15 and faced off with the underdog Golden State Warriors in Round 1.

Golden State beat Dallas convincingly, 4-2, behind outstanding performances from Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson. The Warriors’ small-ball lineups and overall athleticism doomed the Mavericks to an early exit after a special regular-season showing.

So can the Mavericks flip the script they were once victimized by all those years ago?

Well, the matchup certainly doesn’t favor them. In fact, Matt Mosley of Fox Sports went so far as to write, "The Spurs have won nine consecutive games against the Mavs. Their ball movement and ability to rain 3-pointers from all over the court would make a sweep highly likely."

Nowitzki is no stranger to big performances during postseason play, though, and he pointed out that the Mavericks have nothing to lose as the underdog.

"We’ll just let it all hang out,” the All-Star said, per Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News. “But they’re a great team. After the All-Star break, they’ve been rolling. They’re definitely the favorites in the series. That’s pretty obvious. But we’re going in there to compete and we’ll see what happens.”

 

Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs

After winning 19 straight games from Feb. 26 through April 2 and locking up the league's best record, the Spurs are simply going to continue marching to the beat of their own drum.

The Spurs dominated the Mavericks by winning all four head-to-head meetings during the regular season. The Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili still receive the bulk of the credit for San Antonio's success. However, a big part of what makes the Spurs so dangerous is the fact that a variety of role players have the ability to step up and produce.

In the first game of the season against Dallas on Dec. 26, Danny Green drained all five of his three-point attempts off the bench en route to 22 points.

On Jan. 8, it was Marco Belinelli who did the damage—dropping 17 points as part of the second unit.

In the final meeting between these two squads on April 10, Patty Mills stepped in for the injured Parker and scored a game-high 26 points.

Simply put, the Spurs can beat teams in a variety of different ways through ball movement and unselfish play.

That doesn't mean San Antonio can get complacent by any stretch of the imagination, because Dallas is still a very talented team. Nevertheless, complacency is never a worry under Coach Pop, who always keeps his guys focused and prepared.

 

The X-Factors

While big-name stars like Nowitzki, Duncan and Parker are expected to lead the way for their respective squads, X-factors in the supporting cast will help decide the outcome of this series.

For Dallas, the biggest X-factor is shooting guard Monta Ellis. He's head coach Rick Carlisle's main scoring threat not named Dirk, and he'll have to take pressure off his teammates by attacking the rim and scoring the rock.

At the very least, Ellis will head into the playoffs riding a bit of a hot streak. The 28-year-old struggled against Memphis on April 16—scoring 18 points on 8-of-21 shooting—but managed to win NBA Player of the Week honors for his stretch during three games prior.

Ellis was rewarded for his 37-point explosion in a win against the Phoenix Suns—which clinched Dallas a playoff berth. His scoring output will be paramount to the Mavericks' success in this series.

For the Spurs, the interior presence of Tiago Splitter is something to keep an eye on.

The 29-year-old Brazilian regressed in nearly every statistical category during 2013-14, but the big man has provided a good barometer to the Spurs' success.

During the 2013-14 campaign, Splitter averaged 9.2 points on 55.8 percent shooting in wins and 4.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting in losses, according to NBA.com.

If he's able to produce on offense and neutralize the contributions of DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert on the glass, then San Antonio should have no trouble winning this series.

 

Key Matchup: Dirk Nowitzki vs. Tim Duncan

Even at 37 and 35 years old, respectively, Duncan and Nowitzki are still playing at an extremely high level.

The two were evenly matched from a scoring standpoint during their four regular-season meetings, but Duncan held a distinct advantage over his worthy opponent by hauling down boards.

Stats aside, Duncan's Spurs came away with four victories against Nowitzki's Mavs during the regular season—which is all that will matter in a playoff setting. If Nowitzki doesn't find a way to outplay Duncan in the first round, the Mavs' chances for an upset will dwindle.

Although TD doesn't step out and drain three-pointers like Dirk does, his well-rounded, fundamental game has given his team the edge this season. As a result, Nowitzki will have to hope he still has some MVP-caliber performances ready to go.

 

Predictions

As Nowitzki said himself, the Spurs are "definitely the favorites in the series." You have to admire his honesty, but that doesn't sound as if he's confident Dallas will pull an upset.

The Spurs have been clicking on all cylinders again this season after a stellar campaign and NBA Finals run in 2012-13. Their overall success is one thing, but a 4-0 regular-season record against the Mavs is pretty damning for the No. 8 seed's upset chances.

Ultimately, the Spurs' harmonious balance of offense and defense will be the difference. They ranked fifth in the NBA by scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions and fourth with a defensive rating of 100, per ESPN.

Dallas, meanwhile, ranked third in offensive efficiency but 22nd in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.

San Antonio is simply too talented on both sides of the ball to lose this series. Nowitzki and Ellis may have something to say about getting swept, but winning four games out of seven? Color me skeptical.

Spurs win series 4-1

Nick Young Was Lakers' Bright Spot On and Off Court in Otherwise Dismal Season

3 hours 15 min ago

SAN ANTONIO — On the last day of school, even the kid who got bullied might smile that it’s finally over.

The worst team in Los Angeles Lakers history divided 27 by 82, got a very small .392 winning percentage, shut the math books and packed up for the final time Wednesday night.

And they did smile that it was over.

Part of it was that the NBA-best San Antonio Spurs were so good this season that the game didn’t matter for playoff positioning, so the Spurs let the Lakers win, 113-100.

There were actual good vibrations running through the very same visiting locker room where Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, gimpy Steve Nash and injured Kobe Bryant sat together (well, sat in the same room, I mean) the first two games of the short-lived Lakers postseason a year ago.

None of those guys played for the Lakers in this season finale Wednesday night. It was such a sad assemblage of talent that there was nothing about which to be disappointed.

All hope had washed away long ago—to the point that the sunshine of the Lakers’ locker room, Nick Young, wore a light blue fishing hat with tropical images on it after the game…fully on board with the NBA on TNT elimination concept that the Lakers had “Gone fishin’”—though Young referred to it more as his “J.J. from Good Times” fishing hat.

Thank goodness for Young’s smile and humor in this dismal season, for the sake of players, fans and reporters. He wasn’t in rare form on this night; he was just in his usual form—and that introduced joy all over the room.

He came out of the shower to see a group of reporters (including Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s John Ireland as part of the Lakers' postgame show) interviewing Robert Sacre. Although I can’t duplicate here the exact intonation in Young’s voice that made it so funny, Young simply said: “F—k Rob.”

And so triggered a whole round of entertaining dialogue for Sacre and Ireland about Young. There might not have been a funnier moment all season than when Young was ribbing Sacre after practice one day and Sacre smiled and referred to the high-haired Young as “the Screech of Basketball,” alluding to the most ridiculous of characters from the old Saved by the Bell kids’ TV show.

Young is actually the ideal class clown, one who can prank very well and be pranked to the joy of all. His spirit with it is clean, so his fun doesn’t come across in a ridiculous way like Howard’s or mean-spirited style like Bryant’s. Metta World Peace was always seeking a spotlight to promote himself, and Young does it, too, but Young’s desire for attention seems somehow innocent.

Although the whole “Swaggy P” identity seemed ridiculous when Young arrived to the Lakers with his reputation as a selfish player, it became too fun to resist after he got on a camel in China and recorded his own spectacular crash riding a toboggan at the Great Wall: “I crashed!”

It’s fun because Young isn’t trying to be too cool for school. He wants to be cool, but he’s happy, he’s happy to be ridiculous, he’s inclusive and he countered his cavalier approach by playing pretty hard and well for the Lakers. Young’s pride was palpable this season, to the point that Bryant began mentoring him early on, and he fought all the way to the end by persevering through a knee injury.

Here was Young’s postgame quote before moving that fishing hat from around his neck to on top of his head:

“I just hope y’all saw that I went out there and played my heart out and you got the best Swaggy. I hope you liked it.”

After the penultimate game in Utah two days before, Young had said, smiling: “I hope y’all know Swaggy P can play a little.”

Young’s 41 points and energy that game had lifted the Lakers to that victory.

And when Lakers TV sideline reporter Mike Trudell had to try to communicate from a platform down to Lakers Vice President of Public Relations John Black on the court in the final minutes that the station wanted Young for the postgame victory interview, Black couldn’t understand Trudell mouthing words or signaling “0” with his fingers for Young’s number.

So Trudell wound up imitating Young’s low-three-finger celebration after he hits a three to get the point across. (I was so amused watching it live that I had Trudell reenact it before the game in San Antonio.)

After the game in San Antonio, Trudell asked Young, with Black standing nearby, where Black ranks among NBA PR guys. Young said in his sing-song way: “John Black’s top five!”

To which Trudell asked, “How many teams have you played for?”

Young’s deadpan reply: “Four.”

Really, it was more like “Fo’ ”—but I wanted to get the joke across to you clearly. Young felt a little bad about it, so he said he was just clowning around and said: “John Black’s top three!”

Black smiled.

Young is his own sort of leader, bringing this team together through good times. On a day when New York Knicks President Phil Jackson officially signed Lamar Odom to give him a chance to work with Knicks trainers this summer and earn a spot on the Knicks next season, it was a perfect time to stop and appreciate how valuable it is to have a guy around all his teammates enjoy.

Odom was that guy for the Lakers’ great recent teams. Young was that guy for his Lakers injury-riddled, talent-poor team.

Sacre had tried to do the same inclusive thing a moment earlier by talking on camera about Chris Kaman while Kaman sat nearby—but Kaman ignored him and just kept looking at his phone.

Young just has a way about him, and whereas many around the team privately hoped Howard wouldn’t return, the vast majority would love Young to be back.

He is expected to opt out of his contract and get more than the minimum salary of $1.2 million due him currently from the Lakers. He hopes to return to the Lakers, but much is up in the air—including how ball-stoppers Young and Bryant would work together on the court at the same time, which rarely happened this season.

For now, all there is to know about them is that this disappointing season ended with smiles Wednesday night after Young scored 16 points in a Lakers victory and yukked it up postgame. Bryant was in France, snapping a photo of wife Vanessa and designer Christian Louboutin. (Friday is the Bryants’ 13th wedding anniversary.)

Bryant might not want anything to do with this season, tweeting Wednesday that he’s looking forward and his training begins Monday.

Here’s what Young posted to Twitter, staying positive: “Love y’all thanks for all the support all yr #LakerNation#TeamSwaggy LA the home team ... I love my city no matter what ... LA Baby.”

 

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

Manchester City's Switch from Mancini to Pellegrini Ultimately a Waste of Time

3 hours 19 min ago

In the wake of Liverpool 3-2 Manchester City and Manchester City 2-2 Sunderland, the long knives are sure to come out on City boss Manuel Pellegrini now.

It was not that long ago that City supporters were dreaming of a quadruple. Look at the patent absurdity of those dreams in the harsh light of mid-April.

City fielded a weakened side against Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup quarter-final round in hopes of overturning a two-goal deficit at Barcelona in the Champions League days shortly thereafter. They lost both matches and half the quadruple was gone in a matter of days.

Left only with the Premier League to chase once the Champions League pursuit died, Pellegrini's side dropped points in three of their next seven matches—the worst damage coming in a loss at table-topping Liverpool, with honorable mention going to the draw against Sunderland that essentially ended their race.

If the season ended today, City would have the Capital One Cup, a first-round knockout stage exit in the Champions League, a quarter-final loss in the FA Cup and third place in the Premier League to show for Pellegrini's first season as City's manager.

Which begs the question: Why exactly did they fire Roberto Mancini?

The two biggest reasons why City sacked Mancini were supposedly that he did not achieve sufficient results (particularly in the Champions League) and that a player revolt was fomenting.

On the first point, Mancini's last season at City was not appreciably worse than Pellegrini's first at the helm. In 2012-13, City finished second in the Premier League table, reached the FA Cup final, and they did not reach the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Unless you consider the Capital One Cup a significant prize (City's bosses don't), then Pellegrini's results are not appreciably better than what Mancini achieved in the season that cost him his job.

On the second point, while it is swell that Pellegrini's players are not planning a changing room coup, who really cares what the players think of the manager? Football players are paid absurd amounts of money to play their best for whoever calls their number whenever he calls it.

City's players tacitly demanded a manager whose style suited their collective temperament. Presumably, City's brass gave them Pellegrini in hopes that those players would reward that gesture with performance.

It has not worked out that way. This is what too often happens when you let players dictate who should manage them; they get what they want but do not deliver on the promise of improved play based on a happier side.

None of this is to say that Pellegrini should be fired. That would be a ridiculous action by a club that has professed patience and a desire to improve with calculated decision-making.

In further defense of Pellegrini, the side he inherited was Mancini's side. Only this summer will we know whether Pellegrini really has the vision and the freedom to mold City through the long transfer period into a club capable of playing entertaining football that also wins crucial matches.

All that said, these players Pellegrini underachieved with were not pub leaguers. Plus, City's failures this season were not small failures. They were dire.

Pellegrini's City were undressed by an ultimately underwhelming Barcelona in the Champions League.

They are about to lose the Premier League either to a Liverpool side that did not have Luis Suarez for the first eight games of the league season or to a Chelsea side that does not have a competent striker.

In retrospect, it is possible that all City accomplished this season was wasting another year in the primes of Yaya Toure (30), Pablo Zabaleta (29), Vincent Kompany (28) and David Silva (28). None of them figure to improve in the coming years.

Pellegrini purportedly had five years to win five trophies. Now one must guess that he has four years to do it; if he lasts that long in Manchester.

It is difficult for City fans to reconcile how they felt watching City trounce Newcastle United in the season opener with how they feel today. Pellegrini came to City promising entertaining football.

Were you entertained as City dropped five of six possible points in the past four days with the league title on the line?

And tell me again why City fired Mancini?

San Francisco Giants' Biggest Early-Season Surprises and Disappointments

3 hours 28 min ago

The San Francisco Giants are off to a good start in the 2014 season. With a record of 10-5, the Giants are one game ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

Manager Bruce Bochy has done a masterful job of guiding the team and utilizing every player on the Giants' 25-man roster. 

Injuries to second baseman Marco Scutaro and relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt also had to be addressed. Bochy and the Giants have done a great job filling these holes.

There have already been some surprises in these first 15 games of the regular season. Let's take a look at three of the biggest surprises on both the positive and negative side of the ledger.

 

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference

All contract details courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

 

Begin Slideshow

Anthony Crolla vs. John Murray: Fight Time, Date, Live Stream, TV Info and More

3 hours 34 min ago

After losing a shot at the WBA lightweight title in his second consecutive loss, John Murray has fought back to win his past two boxing matches, riding some momentum into his Saturday bout versus Anthony Crolla.

Both orthodox fighters hail from Manchester and have been British lightweight champions in the past, so there should be plenty of impassioned fans cheering them on at Phones 4u Arena. Murray enters with a record of 33-2, while Crolla owns a mark of 27-4-1.

Three-time ABA heavyweight champion Tony Bellew provided his analysis on the fight, believing that the more seasoned Murray has something to prove:

It should be a captivating 12-round showcase in which a great contrast of styles will be on display. Crolla's quickness and technical brilliance will clash with Murray's methodical but powerful approach.

Before getting into a preview and prediction of what to perhaps expect in this Manchester derby spectacle, let's take a look at when and where to catch the action on April 19. This will be a battle fans of the sweet science won't want to miss.

 

When: Saturday, April 19

Where: Phones 4u Arena in Manchester, England

TV: Sky Sports 2 (beginning at 7:30 p.m. BST)

Live Stream: Sky Sports (subscription required)

 

Fight Preview and Prediction

Murray took a two-year hiatus from the ring following his WBA title loss to Brandon Rios but has been revitalized by a better diet. The 29-year-old veteran discussed his changed lifestyle in a report by James Robson for the Manchester Evening News:

Nutrition is a massive part of boxing. You need to put the right fuel in it. It has taken me this long to get it right. The break has done me the world of good. Two years was a long time and I had to keep busy. ... I look at the mistakes I made. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat for three days. It’s a massive, massive change. I used to eat beans on toast and Pot Noodle. It’s about eating the right food at the right times. I’ve nailed it. It doesn’t feel like I’m making weight for a fight.

Technical knockout triumphs over Michael Escobar and most recently John Simpson on March 1 suggest that Murray has indeed found a mix of foods that works. However, he faces a formidable opponent in Crolla, who has a chance to wear down even a fitter Murray with his energy and improvement.

The two are friends, but Crolla won't be in a compassionate mood when he enters the ring, acknowledging this fight has far different circumstances than his perfect previous four triumphs in all-Manchester fights, per MancunianMatters.com's Tim Hyde:

I’ve been in four Manchester derbies and won all four, but this is different because that are lots of factors involved. John and I are good mates, we used to train together under Joe Gallagher and we support United and City. There is no problem between John and I, we will go out for a drink after the fight, but once that bell goes there won’t be any friendship. We both have the same friends so there might be a few neutrals in there on the night, but I hope to have the red side of Manchester in my corner.

That Crolla brings up the English Premier League football clubs he and Murray support should add to the stakes of this fight in terms of how popular it promises to be. These fighters can bridge football and boxing with their rooting interests, thus creating factions among fans who should take their sides.

City or United. Murray or "Million Dollar" Crolla.

As for who will come out on top, there is a definite chip on Murray's shoulder that should serve him well. The changes he's made both inside and outside of the ropes should serve him well in stretching this into a long fight that goes the distance.

But as explosive as Crolla has proved to be, he's also shown that he can endure lengthy bouts. Crolla drew to Derry Mathews and won an impressive majority decision over Gavin Rees before dominating Stephen Foster in his last appearance, as the fight was stopped in the sixth round.

This is going to be a Manchester derby for the ages, but look for the younger, sprier Crolla to come out on top in a close call.

Prediction: Crolla wins via split decision.

With how exceptional Murray has looked in his comeback, he could very well emerge victorious, as the fight with Crolla is just about as even as they come. However, a loss would set back his bid for a world title shot and likely push him toward retirement. If it is indeed a split decision, though, perhaps Murray will be driven to continue training hard and prolong his boxing days.

A prospective triumph for Crolla, by any margin, is going to aid his efforts in landing even higher-profile fights in the future. At age 27 and without too much mileage on him, there is no question Crolla has the potential to excel for the next decade or so, but he must become more consistent. Now that he's on a good roll, beating Murray could be the boost Crolla needs to keep him on a steady ascent in the British boxing ranks.

Scott Quigg vs. Tshifhiwa Munyai: Fight Time, Date, Live Stream, TV Info, More

3 hours 34 min ago

WBA super bantamweight champion Scott Quigg is back in action on Saturday, defending his title against South African Tshifhiwa Munyai.

The Bury-born star was originally set to take on Venezuelan hard-hitter Nehomar Cermeno, but he was forced to withdraw due to visa issues.

According to BoxRec, Quigg will be looking to take his unbeaten record to 30 fights with victory over Munyai in Manchester, but he’ll face a tough test against the man nicknamed the Atomic Spider.

 

Venue: Phones 4u Arena, Manchester

Date: Saturday, 19 April

Time: 7:30 p.m. BST/2:30 p.m. ET

TV Info: Sky Sports 2 (UK only)

Live Stream: Sky Go (UK only)

 

Quigg’s last fight came back in November, again at the Phones 4u Arena, where he demolished Diego Oscar Silva after just two rounds.

It was the 25-year-old’s second fight as the WBA super bantamweight champion, and he breezed through the bout with consummate professionalism as the chief-support to Carl Froch and George Groves’ battle, as bet365 reported:

He’s looking to take similar form into Saturday’s fight with Munyai and said that he’s in the best possible shape to do that, according to Sky Sports:

"This is the best Scott Quigg there has ever been. I have improved as a fighter skill-wise, I am physically more mature and mentally I am in a good place. Every box is ticked and this is the best Scott Quigg anybody will have ever seen."

His opponent, meanwhile, Munyai, has won worldwide plaudits for the way that he’s matured as a fighter over the past few years.

Per BoxRec, the 28-year-old has lost just two fights during his 11 years as a professional and was praised by Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn ahead of his meeting with Quigg—as Dan Rafael via ESPN.co.uk revealed:

"It's a great fight for Scott and in my opinion a much tougher test than Cermeno. Munyai is no stranger to these shores and is in impressive form coming into the fight.”

Indeed, Munyai has fought six times in the UK, with his most recent bout against Osumanu Akaba in 2008 the only time that he’s failed to record a win on British soil.

While Munyai packs a strong punch and has improved his agility of late, Quigg should have no issue in disposing of the South African in Manchester.

In front of a home crowd, with 20,000-plus fans cheering him on, Quigg with be looking to enjoy himself on Saturday; and you may see another quickly decided bout as the Englishman’s title defence goes on.

David Moyes' Faith in Wayne Rooney Could Cost Him His Manchester United Job

3 hours 34 min ago

When David Moyes walked into Sir Alex Ferguson's office at Carrington to discuss all things Manchester United last summer, there is little doubt that Wayne Rooney was one of the first subject matters they discussed. 

Of course, at the time Rooney was not Ferguson's flavour of the month, and with Robin van Persie banging in the goals and leading United to a 20th league championship, the Merseysider's stock was at an all-time low.

Everything seemed perfect for Rooney to exit Old Trafford. Replacing Fergie was a manager who knew Rooney better than anyone else in the game and a man who had sued the player for libel in 2007, as reported by The Telegraph

It was questionable whether Moyes and Rooney could work together, or whether Sir Alex would make it clear to his replacement that keeping Wazza at United was not an acceptable outcome.

However, it soon became clear that Moyes still loved Wayne, and that Wayne was going to be infinitely happier being loved by Moyes, than dancing to Ferguson's tune. 

Before we knew it, Rooney was signing a new five-year deal with United worth a reported £300,000 a week, per BBC Sport

BBC Sport reported that Moyes said at the time:

We're all delighted. It's part of the rebuilding and part of it is also to make sure you keep the players you really want to keep. Everybody would want him [Rooney], you could see the clubs who did want him but there was never a chance he was going to leave Manchester United, certainly not on my watch.

Indeed, capturing Rooney's signature was a small victory for Moyes and a boost at a time when things on the football pitch looked very bleak. 

Moyes knew that losing Rooney would weaken his position in the public eye greatly and he had set about initiating a charm offensive on his former Everton player the second he stepped into the Old Trafford job. 

But BBC Sport's chief football writer Phil McNulty said it best when he wrote:

Manchester United's decision to award Wayne Rooney the most expensive long-term contract in the club's history is more than about just keeping one of their most influential players at Old Trafford.

This is about a demonstration—some might even say desperation—to show that United under David Moyes can still keep their best players even at a time when their own status in the domestic and European game is reduced, no matter how temporarily.

The key word here is desperation.

The desperation for Moyes to find a way to succeed. The desperation to retain the club's biggest star. The desperation to not appear weaker than a predecessor. 

What it did not address is how the football team will play over the next few years, and it did not underline what kind of philosophy that Moyes has for his version of Manchester United. It was conservation, rather than creativity. 

The personal statistics of Rooney cannot be argued with this season. The 28-year-old has 15 goals from his 27 Premier League matches this term, per Squawka, and a bagful of assists.

However, it is worth considering that Rooney has only missed six games in the league during United's winter of discontent. He has been present in the side for seven of United's 10 league defeats this campaign, unable to positively influence games as he once did.

This is not to suggest that Rooney was to blame for these defeats but as United's "best player" you would expect more impact for £300,000 a week. 

Moyes came to Old Trafford thinking that if he resolved the issues that Rooney had with the club, that his job would be easier. But United's issues lie as much with style as it does with substance.

Moyes' preference for a 4-4-1-1 with Rooney in the hole has led to much of United's misfiring this season.

Rooney has always been one to roam around a pitch, playing deeper than the normal archetypal attacker. But the truth is he is no trequartista, despite the number on his back. He does not have the creative ability of a David Silva or Eden Hazard

Rooney does not link the midfield and striker successfully in normal play. He comes alive in the penalty area but spends a large portion of his time in a deeper position so he can stay involved. 

This type of play ends up isolating the striker, relying on width to service the attack. As we have seen for a long period now, United's wingers are poor. This makes 4-4-2 a non-starter for the club. 

United need a truly creative individual, or two, behind the striker and the bitter irony is that they have it.

Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa are perfect to play in either a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, or a continental style 4-2-3-1. These are the formations that Moyes should be working towards philosophically and physically. 

Rooney also has the ability to play in these formations but he might have to fight it out with Van Persie for the single slot at the top of the attack. 

What if the Dutchman's form dictates that he plays as the striker rather than Rooney, as last season? What if Mata and Kagawa prove they are the right combination to play more centrally behind RvP? Does this leave Rooney on the bench?

The issue here is that the scenario will not happen because Moyes already has his eggs in the Rooney basket. 

Rooney is the one outfield player at United whose position is guaranteed and this is very bad for the team. Yes, he earns the most and he is the most famous player, but is he the right player to lead United forward away from the tradition of 4-4-2?

I do not think he is.

In my opinion, Rooney is a goalscorer but not a creative dynamo. He is a very good No. 9. However, his first touch is simply not good enough to be the No. 10 at one of the biggest clubs in the world. It is an issue he has had throughout his career. 

His focus should be scoring goals and assisting in the penalty area, and not wandering into deeper areas just because he is impatient for the ball. He does not have the creativity or first touch of Mata or Kagawa, so it is not in the team's best interest to play him automatically in their positions. 

Looking into a crystal ball, it feels like this is a lesson that Moyes will never learn. He should play players in their best positions and not rotate a core around a solitary player. Rooney's work-rate is usually impressive and this is why he is loved by so many but modern football dictates something extra from deep-lying attackers.

Wazza should have to accept that maybe now and then he has to play second fiddle to others, as he did in last year's championship-winning season. 

But he will not. 

Manchester United and David Moyes are now slaves to Rooney and his performance levels. If he pulls it off and wins trophies, then great. If he fails, there is nothing anyone can do about it because he will automatically be picked for the team under Moyes' current strategy. 

The next few weeks will be interesting for United as Rooney recovers from a toe injury, forcing Moyes to play a different team to his first choice. The forms of Kagawa and Mata have been exciting, and the reintroduction of Adnan Januzaj has been welcomed by all.

Danny Welbeck has also shown that he has the tools to force his way into the team in Van Persie's absence. 

Hopefully we will see United play a more technical style, as they did without Rooney against Newcastle, with the match ending 4-0 to the Reds. 

But if Moyes enters the upcoming summer transfer window, ready to purchase a new team around the lifeblood of Wayne Rooney, he might just find that he crashes head first into a new level of failure, and ultimately loses his job. 

Atlanta Hawks vs. Milwaukee Bucks 4/16/14: Video Highlights and Recap

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 23:58

The Atlanta Hawks looked to end their regular season on a high note Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks had won three of four and five of seven, and faced a Bucks squad that had lost two straight and eight of ten.

What's at the Core of Tigers Miguel Cabrera's Slow Start?

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 23:57

This sentence is not the official kickoff of the 2014 Miguel Cabrera Doom Watch.

Nor this one. Or this one. Or thi...all right, look. It's not happening right now. All we're here to do is ask a question that's appropriate to ask in light of recent events:

Why is Cabrera not hitting like Cabrera?

Though he drove in the only two runs the Detroit Tigers got in their 3-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, Wednesday's game at Comerica Park was another tough one for the two-time defending American League MVP. Cabrera's 1-for-4 day actually dropped his OPS from .654 to a very un-Miggy-like .640 through his first 11 games.

For the record, Cabrera's not typically a slow starter. At least not in recent seasons, as his OPS has dipped no lower than .850 through his first 11 games in any of the last four years. 

And it's hard to chalk Miggy's slow start up to bad luck, as he just hasn't looked like himself. Rather than the man who's been the most feared hitter in the league in recent years, he's looked more like the hitter who was rendered ordinary by injuries in the fall months of 2013.

It turns out this is because those injuries aren't 100 percent in Cabrera's rearview mirror just yet, and they're impacting him in much the same way they impacted him when we last saw him in 2013.

When Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com went looking for answers on Wednesday, he found that Cabrera is still "rebuilding core muscle strength" following the hernia surgery he had late last October. As a result, he's dealing with the following complications:

  • Cabrera's swing mechanics aren't where he wants them to be. Notably, he doesn't quite have the strength to explode through the zone and finish with his usual one-handed follow-through.
  • The cold weather isn't helping, as Cabrera told Morosi that the low temperatures result in his core muscles feeling "weird."
  • Since he can't use his usual explosive swing, he's vulnerable to hard stuff.

If you've watched Cabrera this year, you might have noticed that his swing mechanics are off. If not, what he seeks is this:

And all he can do is this:

Though Cabrera was able to hit this second ball out of the yard, the difference in his mechanics is hard to miss. You can see him put his whole body into his swing and finish with one hand in the video from 2013, whereas in the second one it's mainly upper-body strength with a two-handed finish.

Cabrera just can't have the same kind of explosiveness with the latter swing mechanics, and it's unfortunately nothing new. We saw the same thing from him when he was playing through his injuries last fall, and it was a swing that practically invited opponents to attack him with hard stuff.

Which they did, and with great success to boot. And as this data from Brooks Baseball can show, it's been the same story thus far in 2014:

It wasn't impossible to get a fastball by Cabrera through the first five months of 2013. But it was pretty darn hard, and the ones he hit stay hit. That stopped in September and October when his injuries were at their worst, and the problem has yet to correct itself in the early goings this year.

An inability to destroy fastballs isn't the only way in which Cabrera hasn't been himself. I'd like to direct your attention to a few key plate approach statistics from FanGraphs:

Note: These are figures not yet updated to include Wednesday's game.

Those first two columns are first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%) and the percentage of pitches Cabrera has seen inside the strike zone (Zone%). Relative to the previous four seasons, pitchers have been coming right at him so far in 2014.

Those next two columns tell us the percentage of pitches inside the zone Cabrera has swung at (Z-Swing%) and the percentage he's made contact with (Z-Contact%). So far in 2014, his aggressiveness inside the zone is way down and his contact rate is slightly down.

After that, we have the percentage of pitches outside the zone Cabrera has swung at (O-Swing%) and the percentage he's made contact with (O-Contact%). He's actually been a tad less aggressive this year, which is good. But for a guy known for his plate coverage, that Miggy's O-Contact% is down that far is not good.

Between this, what we know about Miggy's swing mechanics and about his ongoing inability to hit fast-moving pitches, what we're looking at is anything but a hitter who has everything clicking for him. Cabrera hasn't hit like himself so far in 2014 because he simply hasn't been himself.

If you're looking for a reason to be optimistic, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus liked what he saw on the RBI single that Cabrera hit on Wednesday. Via Catherine Slonksnis of Bless You Boys:

If you're looking for another, Cabrera's gripe about the weather having an impact on him might not be him just making an excuse. Cold has been known to make muscles tighten up, after all, and it should be noted that Cabrera has looked like himself in warm weather already this year.

It was pretty warm during spring training, and that's when he was able to do this against a Daisuke Matsuzaka pitch:

That's a knee-high fastball that Cabrera was able to drive over the wall in right-center, and you'll notice the Miggy-like one-handed follow-through. 

That it's still so early in 2014 is a good enough reason not to worry too much about Cabrera. That it's not going to be cold forever (knock on wood) is another reason. That he's presumably only going to get stronger as he gets further away from his surgery is another reason still.

This is why we're not starting the 2014 Miguel Cabrera Doom Watch just yet. What's happened early on in the season is good enough for a step toward the device, but not nearly enough to push the button.

We'll reconvene in the event that it's been weeks since the weather warmed up and yet Cabrera is still struggling with his approach, his swing and anything hard, at which point the larger sample size and thoughts of Cabrera's looming $248 million extension will have us feeling justifiably nervous.

Here's hoping it doesn't come to that. Life is more fun when the best hitter in baseball is hitting like the best hitter in baseball.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Miami Heat 4/16/14: Video Highlights and Recap

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 23:57

The Miami Heat looked to end the regular season on a high note Wednesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Heat had dropped two straight and four of five, and they faced a Sixers squad that had lost four of five.