Balotelli Header Lifts Italy Over England In Group D Opener

Balotelli headed in the game-clinching goal in a battle of European powers. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Balotelli headed in the game-clinching goal in a battle against a fellow continental power. (Photo by Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

Out to recapture its country’s faith after a disgraceful 2010 World Cup, the Italian national team took a bold first step in the process, notching a 2-1 victory over fellow European heavyweight England to commence its tournament schedule.

As for the Englishmen, they had plenty of their own concerns as well–living up to their usual unrealistic expectations. Often times playing apprehensively on the international stage, the Three Lions have in fact shed this image through one match, taking an aggressive approach early with shots that tested fill-in goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu (Gianluigi Buffon out with an ankle injury). Finding openings in the Azzurri defense with deliberate and upfield ball movement, the English demonstrated much more opportunistic playmaking and forcefulness in their actions–and not exuding an attitude of hesitation, trepidation, or over-cautiousness. In addition to constructive activity both on and off the ball and a much more fast-paced flow to their offensive attacks than Italy’s, English players exhibited nice chemistry–in terms of passing and creation of chances–between each other; perhaps this shows early signs that coach Roy Hodgson selected the most compatible combination of his players.

Yet Italy quickly attained a stranglehold on possession to commence the game, its defenders comfortably exchanging the ball among each other, before attempting long-pass connections to Mario Balotelli and other players up top. Bolstering the growth of an attack, the Italian midfield deliberately pushed the ball forward throughout the first half, invading the opposing goalie box. These efforts were fruitless until the 35th minute, when Andrea Pirlo brilliantly and tactfully widened his legs to allow a pass–stemming from a corner kick ground-pass play–to find Claudio Marchisio at the top of the goalie box unchecked, who subsequently executed a clinical finish. It was fitting that Pirlo essentially created this goal-scoring opportunity, as the veteran offensive architetto (his Italian nickname meaning architect) settled his team’s psyche with his own composure, when, prior to their goal, his fellow teammates turned slightly restless after several close English chances. Pirlo’s presence continued to have this calming effect, as he dictated tempo the entire match.

Sturridge performed his distinctive goal celebration after the tying the game. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

Sturridge performed his distinctive goal celebration after tying the game. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)

But only two minutes later, England–in extracting only the best out of urgency in reaction to conceding a goal–ferociously pressed on a counterattack. Sprinting along the left side, Wayne Rooney centered a superb cross right into the path of a gliding Daniel Sturridge, who easily completed his clever run by knocking in the equalizer. Similar to the majority of the team’s threats, the 37th-minute goal emanated from a rapid but controlled run towards the net–embodying how the Three Lions flourished most when agility defined their game flow, having generally established a speedy and intense rhythm.

When the Italian attack clicked in the first half, it was a beauty to watch, made up of sharp, short, and ingenious ball movement compounded with an exquisite touch. The Italians nearly pulled ahead two more times in stoppage time of the first half–the leaping ability of English defender Phil Jagielka and a right-side goalpost the heroes in preventing goals.

However it didn’t take long after the start of the second half for the Azzurri to snatch back the lead. As the Italians pressured relatively quick down the right flank, midfielder Antonio Candreva produced space for himself with on-ball craftiness and fired a cross at the far post, to which Balotelli gravitated, gauging the trajectory of the ball better than his marker did and heading it into the back of the net.

Following the goal, England regained its offensive mentality and developed several dangerous chances, again showing desperation–but in a more useful sense of it–in response to facing a deficit. Despite an eventual defeat, it was very positive display of decisiveness by the English attackers. A group of fearless youngsters, once doubted prior to the tourney about how they would react to the spotlight, best expressed this idea of dispelling any hesitancy or timidity; so far, they’ve handled the stage expertly with a free-flowing and quick style.

Yielding a fair amount of shots on goal in early first half action, the experienced Italian defense gradually solidified throughout the course of the game, breaking down England’s inventiveness especially in one-on-one drives down the wings. Italy’s fullbacks simply shut down English attackers on the flanks and disallowed potentially dangerous crosses from entering the goalmouth, a development that became more and more clear as the match progressed into the last quarter of game-time.

Furthermore, late into the second half, the heat and humidity in Manaus eventually exhausted both teams, and especially weakened any remaining English onslaughts. Nevertheless, while the winner in Italy can rejoice in discovering the power of a creative offensive attack in conjunction with its traditional dominant defense, England should salvage some good from this game as well: a newfound electric and opportunistic style–arising from the effective mix of swiftness and explosiveness from younger players (particularly Sturridge and Raheem Sterling) and the leadership from older ones–was put on display Saturday, one that could certainly allow the Three Lions to prevail over their next two opponents in group competition.

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Kentucky Rides Post-Play, Late Emergence of Shooters to Outlast Michigan

It took a half for the Kentucky to truly realize its paint-presence potential, amidst a horrid performance by its shooters for the better part of the game. But domination of all that surpassed near the basket–on both ends of the court–in the second half set Wildcat shooters loose. One of them was star freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who blossomed in the final 10 minutes of play and drained a go-ahead three in the waning seconds to give Kentucky a 75-72 victory over the Michigan Wolverines, and an unexpected berth in the Final Four.

Before any last-second heroics though, the Midwest Regional final was determined by in-game developments in the low block, and with particular respect to how the Wildcats functioned in it. Going into the game, Kentucky seemingly possessed an advantage in the paint, but the absence of Willie Cauley-Stein (ankle injury) called this notion into question. Though Kentucky’s highly touted big man primarily makes his presence felt most around the basket, his athleticism gives him the ability to close out on opponents’ jump-shots–a skill that could have been especially useful against Michigan and its fantastic shooters.

But the emergence of the unheralded and lanky forward Marcus Lee–fittingly another freshman factor for the Wildcats–quickly dispelled any doubts about Kentucky’s potential for low-block supremacy. In filling the void created by Cauley-Stein, Lee first asserted himself with a put-back dunk at the 14:16 mark, that proved particularly important as Kentucky was already in a 11-4 hole. The rest of his scoring followed in similar fashion, as Lee tallied 10 points, four offensive boards, and a block at the half, and added four more rebounds and another block in the final 20 minutes of play.

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Marcus Lee (00) converts one of his several powerful dunks. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Lee’s first put-back dunk stimulated his team, as it continued to fight back against early-game deficits with effective scoring in the post; by 11:05, all eight of Kentucky’s baskets had come around the hoop, and the team did not even convert a shot outside the paint until 12 minutes and 48 seconds into the contest.

Yet in a 15-5 run by the Wildcats in the final five minutes of the half, the team relied on more than just its scoring in the paint to fuel a game-tying surge. A multifaceted approach to netting points–comprised of free throws, jumpers inside and beyond the arc, and of course post-scoring–showed early signs of the dominant post-game’s positive effect on other aspects of the offense.

Trailing for all of the opening half, Kentucky now entered the break knotted with the Wolverines at 37, and held advantages in rebounding totals (17-12) and momentum. A pivotal moment then occurred within the first minute of the next half, as Michigan’s top big man–Jordan Morgan–picked up his third foul at 19:35 and took a seat on the bench. Michigan knew well before the game that it could not afford such a loss due to its lack of size, and for the remainder of the first 10 minutes of the second half, its weaknesses were exploited, and worries realized.

During this span of time, Kentucky asserted itself in the paint stronger than it ever had before in the contest: the stretch consisted of 12 points in the paint, eight defensive rebounds, seven offensive boards, and three blocks. The Wildcats appeared to be on the brink of definitively pulling away at several points in this time, but Michigan’s shooting ability far from the low block allowed it to stay close and even grab a lead for 3:31.

After the Wolverines possessed a 55-53 lead, and what would eventually be their last one at the 8:54 mark, a basket by Julius Randle (who finished with a valuable 16 points and 11 rebounds) incited a 9-0 run that lasted for nearly three minutes. The streak was broken up by a three-pointer by Wolverine Glenn Robinson III, who played the central role in Michigan’s comeback charges, scoring eight points in the final six minutes.

Yet as the game winded down, it was Michigan’s defense that faltered more than any other unit on the floor, and in effect negated any productive efforts and surges by the team’s offense. Moreover, it became more than just yielding uncontested shots near the basket.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three.

Aaron Harrison (2) rises up for the game-winning three. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

As Kentucky’s post players affirmed their stranglehold in the paint, the team’s shooters–notably the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron–consequently settled into a shooting groove, and dictated the game’s flow late. Of course it’s impossible to truly quantify such a correlation, but it’s not far off to think that as Kentucky controlled the paint with an even greater force as the second half progressed, the team’s shooters were positively influenced and played more freely as a result.

As such, Andrew and Aaron Harrison appeared much more comfortable in the late stages of the game, and they combined for 14 points in the final 10 minutes. Aaron had the much more significant impact on the game of the two brothers, as in the final 8:08 he drained four three-pointers, none bigger than the one with three seconds left to win the game for his team. The cliched phrase “cool, calm, and collected” would not quite suffice for depicting Aaron late in the contest; only the highest form of basketball praise–the characterization as “clutch”–would do justice.

Lackey, Napoli Key Crucial Game 3 Victory

Lackey pitched a phenomenal game on Tuesday. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Lackey used his emotions to turn in a phenomenal outing. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

For the first three games of the American League Championship series, the margin of victory has yet to be greater than a run. And for the second game in a row, the Red Sox left with the better result after nine innings, edging their Tiger counterparts 1-0.

After looking to capitalize on its part last Sunday in one of the greatest Boston sports days in history, New England’s baseball team instead returned to its troublesome ways for the first six innings on Tuesday. Tigers superstar Justin Verlander stifled the Red Sox lineup in the first two-thirds of the game, yielding just two hits and a walk, while continuing Detroit’s strikeout onslaught with eight of his own.

Boston’s anxieties began to resurface, as its offense had posted goose eggs in 22 of its last 24 combined innings played. But after Jacoby Ellsbury shot a potential slump-breaking single into rightfield, the tides began to change. The centerfielder’s presence on the base path rattled the once-composed Verlander, as his base-stealing prowess forced the right-handed pitcher to nervously check the first base bag several times.

Though Verlander managed to eventually escape that sixth-inning, the damage was done. Ellsbury unnerved the seemingly untouchable pitcher just enough, to where Verlander threw a wild pitch—bouncing but a few feet from catcher Alex Avila—and allowed the first Red Sox player to grace an elusive scoring position. Thereafter, the feeling was palpable: Boston was itching for a run.

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Napoli caught all of the baseball in go-ahead home run. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Enter Mike Napoli, who before his pivotal seventh-inning at-bat seemed like a walking strikeout (going 0-6 with six strikeouts prior). Unable to follow up on David Ortiz’s grand slam on Sunday night, Napoli batted right after Ortiz once again (who grounded out to start the inning), but without all the pressure.

Faced with a 1-2 count, Napoli uncharacteristically passed on two more balls thrown outside the strike zone, bringing it to a full count. And even more unexpectedly, Napoli smashed the next pitch he saw from Verlander into left-center that traveled 402 feet, landing with a little more room for comfort than Sunday’s game-turning bomb.

In accordance with the run-scoring ways of this tight series, Napoli was the last player on either team to cross the plate. But above all, Tuesday’s low-scoring affair had more to do with John Lackey than anyone else.

While game delays usually disrupt the creatures of habit that are pitchers, John Lackey reacted to the power outage at Comerica Park during the middle of the second-inning with a fervent rage. The right-hander, endlessly maligned during his pre-2013 tenure in Boston, exuded a fiery attitude throughout the rest of the game, most noticeable in inning-end outs and later a reluctance to be pulled by manager John Farrell.

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

The game was delayed for 17 minutes because the lights went out. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Lackey simply pitched mad, and in this case, he extracted the absolute best from his emotions. After the 17-minute delay, Lackey yielded just two more hits, fanning eight Detroit batters, before reliever Craig Breslow replaced him two-thirds through the seventh-inning.

It only took 97 pitches, but Lackey also dispelled a looming, larger-scaled fear for Boston through his fantastic outing in Detroit.

After having been embarrassed by Anibal Sanchez on Saturday en route to a decisive Tigers victory, the Red Sox had yet to face the actual daunting part of playing Detroit in a playoff series: its two-headed pitching monster of Max Scherzer and Verlander. The series was shaped around games featuring these two excellent starters; if Boston couldn’t take the must-win games that did not showcase Detroit’s top weapons, how could it possibly gain any leverage whatsoever in this series?

The growing distress out of Game 1 was initially quelled in the subsequent tilt—and just barely. Scherzer overpowered the Red Sox just as Sanchez had done the night before, but clutch hitting in the latter innings saved the team from the disaster of going to Detroit with two losses. The series shifted to Comerica Park with the Tigers having won at least one game at Fenway Park, but also having squandered a tremendous start by their ace in another.

On Tuesday, Lackey’s sublime performance finished off what David Ortiz & Co. started on Sunday: the process of regaining the edge in the series, without letting the Scherzer/Verlander combination dictate its fate. John Lackey fiercely out-dueled his pitching opponent, Verlander, who on most days would seemingly possess the clear advantage. The tables have now turned Boston’s way, and part one of Detroit’s ace-pitching show has been nullified.

Balanced Showing Keys D-Back Sweep

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The D-Backs cruised through their weekend homestand sweep against the Rockies.

A wild pitch, an errant throw home, and a strained left hamstring. That’s all it took to knock Rockies starter Roy Oswalt out of the game, and awaken the Diamondback offense.

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Oswalt lasted less than 2 innings.

Oswalt, a veteran playing in his 13th year, heard his left hamstring pop after attempting to force a play at homeplate following his wild pitch. And though Edgmer Escalona, who relieved Oswalt, finished off the bottom of the 2nd inning, that damage soon came at Arizona’s next opportunity.

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Hill had a pivotal 2-RBI double in the 2nd inning.

After D-Backs starting pitcher Patrick Corbin and outfielder Gerardo Parra got on base, Aaron Hill smacked a double to chase both runners home. The next batter, Paul Goldschmidt, then verified his all-star status with another double to left, summing up the crucial, 3-run 3rd inning for Arizona.

The turning point in the game was clearly established: after Oswalt’s exit, four of the next five batters reached base. This initiated a decisive 3-run effort, as the inning served as the most impactful in Arizona’s 6-1 victory.

All that was left was for the Diamondbacks’ other all-star, Patrick Corbin, to sustain the lead and potentially reach an elusive 10th victory.

After yielding two baserunners in the 1st inning, Corbin was as sharp as ever: the southpaw retired the next 12 batters, and 20 of the following 21 Rockies he faced. And though Corbin allowed a surprising solo homer in the 8th inning, the impressive and reassuring outing had already been determined: only 4 Colorado hitters reached base in Corbin’s stellar 8 total innings.

Corbin stifled the Rockies.

Corbin stifled the Rockies.

Based on what could be seen in the 1st inning, it appeared as though Corbin would have some difficult with Colorado’s early to middle part of their lineup: fellow all-star Carlos Gonzalez and hot-hitting Michael Cuddyer would understandably present a problem. Yet Corbin still managed to easily thwart off the dangerous Rockie hitters, prohibiting the potent 3-4 spot of Gonzalez and Cuddyer to touch base again.

The number 10 was a key one for Corbin and Arizona: the starter fanned 10 batters, and after six starts, finally grasped his 10th victory of the season. Despite the month of June not taking kind to Corbin, Arizona has still won 16 of his 18 starts. And after a resounding Sunday matinee victory, Corbin’s WHIP dripped below 1.00 (now at 0.98).

The Diamondbacks added some run insurance in the 5th and 6th innings. Third baseman Eric Chavez, who knocked in a run in the bottom of the 5th, was part of the proficient display put on by Arizona’s first four hitters. The group–comprising of Parra, Hill, Goldschmidt, and Chavez–combined to go 8 for 15, scoring 4 runs, totaling for 4 RBI, 1 walk, and striking out just twice. Corbin even helped his own cause in the 6th inning, hitting a double into rightfield and chasing home a run.

Seventh Inning Rally Keys 5th Straight Win for PawSox

The tarp covered the McCoy Stadium field well before the game's starting time, which had to be pushed back due to rain.

The tarp covered the McCoy Stadium field well before the game’s starting time, which had to be pushed back due to rain.

For a grueling fifty minutes, an eager Pawtucket crowd had to watch the rain pour onto the McCoy Stadium field. And for another 6 innings, it saw its beloved home team manufacture just 4 hits. But when the 7th inning came, the PawSox—surprisingly led by the bottom third of the batting order—ferociously erupted for a 5-run effort to seize the lead.

The bottom half of the inning, which brought the animated PawSox faithful to its feet several times, started off on a familiar note for the team. In the 3 innings prior, PawSox players reached base just two times, as the Toledo Mudhens starter Derek Hankins needed just 41 total pitches to plow through those miserable 3 innings.

So when PawSox second baseman Justin Henry softly grounded out to second base on the 4th pitch that came to him, it appeared as though the team was in for another quick and pitiful inning. That notion quickly faded away when catcher Dan Butler, the unquestionable unsung hero of the game, smacked a line drive single into leftfield on the first pitch.

Butler, who was also forced to mitigate the damages from PawSox starter Steven Wright’s erratic pitching, initiated both of the team’s best scoring chances. The first came back in the bottom of the 5th inning, when he was the only player to cleanly record a hit on a single into center field. Any chance of cutting into the 2-run deficit at the time was foiled by groundballs that resulted in forceouts, and a fly-out by Drew Sutton to finish the inning.

Yet this time around, in the 7th inning, the PawSox players following Butler did not let the chance go away. Designated hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker sent another single into leftfield, and with men on 1st and 2nd base, the Toledo manager had to swap out his starter Hankins for relief pitcher Matt Hoffman. But the pitching change had no effect on the determined PawSox hitters: Jackie Bradley Jr. continued the barrage on leftfield, hitting a line drive double (his second) that reached the corner and sent Butler home for the team’s first run.

And if Mudhen leftfielder Mike Cervenak thought he had a good enough workout in the outfield up to this point, he was sorely mistaken—Sutton produced another run with a groundball single into leftfield.

With still only one out in the innings, the game was then amazingly tied on rightfielder Mitch Maier’s huge double into deep right-center field, a ball that looked like it had the distance to clear the outfield, but instead dropped in and reached the wall. Bradley Jr. and Sutton raced around the bases towards home, and with a throw but no true play at the plate, Maier advanced to 3rd base.

The stage was now perfectly set for Will Middlebrooks, who was sent down to Boston’s Triple-A affiliate just a few days ago, to not just provide the go-ahead score, but to potentially break out of his slump in the most sensational of ways. Even though the crowd “had his back” throughout the game and became overly excited each time he stepped to the plate, Middlebrooks had done nothing whatsoever to impress.

The third baseman received his first chance in the bottom of the 1st inning. After viciously fouling off a few pitches, Middlebrooks softly grounded out to the SS after being stuck in a 0-2 count. His body language coming off the poor at-bat was perhaps the greater concern, as he slowly walked back to the dugout with his head down. He ended the inning for the PawSox once again in the 3rd, as he weakly grounded out into a forceout on the first pitch he saw. It was clear he wasn’t fully invested in his new team’s effort, and the unenthusiastic attitude was again very noticeable. For the first time when he stepped to the plate, Middlebrooks saw no teammate/s on base during his at-bat in the 6th inning—unfortunately it resulted in a groundout once more.

But when the struggling third baseman saw his opportunity in the 7th inning, and with the Pawtucket fully enthused and still behind his back, he didn’t let it go to waste. After taking two balls, Middlebrooks smacked a ground ball single right up the middle—just grazing over the 2nd base bag—sending Maier easily home, and sending the energized PawSox crowd into a frenzy.

Mudhens pitcher Brayan Villarreal—who replaced Hoffman before Middlebrooks’ at-bat—retired the next two batter on 5 pitches. But the damage was done, and perhaps the beginning for Middlebrook’s resurgence had also been accomplished.

After producing 8 hits and 5 walks—resulting in 4 runs—prior to Pawtucket’s offensive explosion, the visiting Mudhens could only manage to put on 3 more baserunners for the remaining two innings. PawSox starter Steven Wright was perhaps the biggest reason for Toledo’s offensive efficiency through the first 7 innings. As the game progressed, Wright got more and more out of control, eventually yielding a total of 5 walks, 5 hits, 2 ERs, and plenty of passed balls and wild pitches. His erratic play truly hurt him in the 4th inning, when he started that frame with 7 straight balls thrown. After 18 of his 26 pitches thrown were balls, Wright and the PawSox emerged from the ugly inning with a 2-run deficit.

The Mudhens added to their total later on in the top half of the 7th inning, as 3 straight singles followed by a sacrifice fly—off PawSox reliever Brock Huntzinger—gave Toledo a 4-run lead.

In that same inning, though, the PawSox fiercely fought back with a 5-run effort, and eventually sustained that lead.

The classic comeback victory constitutes Pawtucket’s 5th straight, and their 10th win in the past 11 contests. The PawSox now own the second best winning percentage in the International League, and sit in 1st place and 8.5 games clear of their next competitor in the North division.

Chemistry, Hot-shooting, and a Blowout: Heat-Spurs Game 3 Recap

Heat team dynamic

For all the scrutiny surrounding LeBron James’ supporting cast in these playoffs, the superstar MVP finally received a considerable amount of assistance on Tuesday night. The ailing Dwayne Wade got off to a fantastic start, and after several efficient trips on the offensive end, the shooting guard frankly should have shouldered more of the ball control. Wade’s shot and distributive efforts were spot on to begin the night, a surprising and reassuring effort that could not be paralleled by his fellow teammate, LeBron, who converted on one measly 6-foot jumper at the 3:24 mark in all of the 1st quarter action. The MVP went on to net only 2 more points in the 1st half, and along with 4 assists, marked a gruesome 1st-half performance.

Wade’s production waned as the game progressed, but the fault is not necessarily directed at him. Chris Bosh prolonged his struggle on Tuesday, meaning Wade would receive all the defensive attention. Yet had LeBron averted his passive attitude (literally and figuratively), he may have provided essential support for Wade that would undoubtedly aid both of their play for the rest of the game. Even the sharp-shooting Mike Miller, as well as the ball of energy that is Norris Cole, pitched in valuable efforts in the first 2 1/2 quarters that kept Miami in the game–in spite of LeBron’s no-show. One could only imagine how Game 3 might have turned out if LeBron actually played like himself: the unstoppable, MVP force that takes control of contests like no other.

Shooting Spurs

If you happen to dabble in fantasy basketball, you couldn’t say the performances of Danny Green and Gary Neal were TOO surprising: their three-point totals and explosive scoring stretches caught many an eye during the regular season. Nevertheless, the play of Green and Neal on Tuesday is one for the ages, and certainly meets the lofty standards of Spurs playoff lore. The barrage of 3’s en route to taking a 2-1 series lead resonates on a level beyond the stat sheet, as it ignited an oftentimes dormant San Antonio crowd. With the majority of the punishing damage coming in the 3rd quarter, Green/Neal combined to shoot 18 for 32 (56%), and a gaudy 13 for 19 (68%) beyond the arc. Perhaps most importantly, their stellar performances nicely made up for mediocre play from their fellow teammates: the terrific trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, who surprisingly could only muster a paltry 10-23 combined shooting night. The three veterans could only convert on 1-5 3-PT field goals, and even went a horrid 4-9 at the charity stripe.

Keep in mind that these faces of the Spurs franchise are about as good as it gets as making adjustments from game to game, which will come of use in the NBA finals: in other words, don’t expect any more low-key performances from the trio, who will also definitely play more than 30 minutes in the coming games (a mark none of the three surpassed on Tuesday). And even if Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili don’t regroup in time to establish a significant impact on the series, they faithfully leave the reigns in young, potent (as we saw Game 3) hands.

Observations in a blowout

Perhaps Gregg Popovich was trying to send a message, through–gasp–allowing for his players to have a little fun by piling on the score in the 3rd quarter. Or maybe Miami already had one step outside of the AT&T Center and had no intentions on looking back until Thursday. Or it may have been that the explosive Danny Green/Gary Neal tandem was divinely possessed, and the continual onslaught of 3-pointers were simply a natural feat. Whatever the case may be, the blowout witnessed on Tuesday seemed a bit different.

Usually, in an telepathic act of mutual consent, opposing coaches take out their players–and toss out their will to compete any longer–once the scoring margin exceeds 20. But once a blowout was brewing towards the latter part of the 3rd quarter, the Spurs attack on the basket hardly ceased, as it seemed natural for the basketball to glide into the hoop. In most cases, in games following a blowout, any notion of a huge disparity between two teams halts going into the next game. Of course, that comes after the 4th quarter (and maybe even some of the 3rd) instantly transforms into garbage time: stars are benched, the crowd calms down, and the excitement ventilating throughout the stadium evaporates. That was clearly not the case on Tuesday, as the home crowd fervor only grew towards the end of the game, corresponding with a growth in San Antonio’s lead. Perhaps this means the Spurs’ momentous, blowout victory could have lasting effects in this series, as the aura surrounding the NBA Finals series could shift towards San Antonio’s advantage.

Another lesser point in this Game 3 eruption is how the Spurs’ heroes conducted themselves in light of a Miami blowout just days earlier. The NBA world surely has gotten to know LeBron’s overpowering stuff of Tiago Splitter’s dunk attempt on Sunday night, a point that really highlighted the Heat blowout. James, instead of sprinting back on defense like a non-egotistical person, gladly soaked in the moment, as he pretentiously observed his surroundings and happily gloated. This provided a stark contrast from how the likes of Game 3 stars Danny Green and Gary Neal carried themselves. After each one of their crowd-arousing 3-point shots went through the net, Green and Neal immediately scampered back on defense, and kept a blank, but intensely focused, expression on their face. The most you could get out of Green at least was a grin and a jump or two (going into timeouts), occurring towards the end of his shooting streak.

This serves as yet another reason of why so many despise the Miami Heat and all that its brand constantly expresses. So much for LeBron being a changed man, and experiencing his “epiphany” (a story that graced a Sports Illustrated cover a year ago). And if that’s not what he included under “change”, he might want to reconsider what truly defines him not just as a basketball player, but as a person and role model.

The Future Starts Now: Phoenix FC 5/23

The sport of soccer appeals to two large demographic groups in the greater Phoenix (Arizona) metropolitan area : the Mexican population, and upper-middle class suburban people. So the popularity and brand of Arizona’s first soccer club, Phoenix F.C. of the USL Pro, should only flourish.

On Thursday night, I attended my first “Wolves” game, who played host to the Charlotte Eagles at Sun Devil Soccer Stadium in Tempe. For an organization–and fanbase–in its inaugural year, I was quite impressed. The Phoenix players displayed a fiery passion and toughness in their play. The crowd was a tad sparse and hesitant, yet nonetheless devoted and enthusiastic (especially the “Furia Roja”, a congregation of soccer zealots on one end of the pitch).

At the onset of the match, one thing was clear: Charlotte was more talented and appeared as the favorites in the game. The Eagles concocted beautiful passes upfield, and after a few chances, converted on the 5th minute of the game. Phoenix’s chances seemed bleak thereon, but a sense of urgency developed at that point. On the 18th minute, after the Wolves finally settled into somewhat of a groove, Brazilian midfielder Netinho–who scored Phoenix’s first ever goal several weeks ago–earned a free kick about 30 yards out. What followed was a scorcher by defender Scott Morrison into the top-right corner.

Charlotte took the lead once again on the 35th minute, but Phoenix responded just 2 minutes later with another fantastic strike. Midfielder/forward Donny Toia intially lofted a 30-yard cross towards the goal, but it kept floating and glided right past the Charlotte goalkeeper.

Although these 4 first-half goals capped off the scoring for the entire night, the Wolves had plenty of more chances in the 2nd 45-minute half. The team was clearly more animated and motivated, and missed on great opportunities, with some shots bouncing off the post.

The Wolves may be at the bottom half of the USL Pro standings, but tonight’s and the whole season’s performance has been very promising. While observing the game, I developed a taste and dislike for the play of certain players (note that this is what just struck me in one game, and so this small sample size doesn’t really make anything really legitimate).

Even before his sensational free-kick strike, Scott Morrison established himself as the team leader and one of the best players on the pitch. The midfielder promoted essential communication throughout the game, which became extremely useful when the team was in the most dire need of it: after conceding goals. I don’t think I saw a single flawed pass by Morrison, who never unnecessarily pushed the ball forward–his methodical mix of short and long passes gradually developed a control of the game for Phoenix.

Although not always the case in soccer, the goal-scorers actually played the best for the entire–including midfielder/forward Donny Toia. He had great chemistry with Morrison on the left flank, which led to Toia’s 37th minute goal. Toia was a really effective cog in Phoenix’s offense, with spirited runs and as well as playing a part in generating a fluid passing game.

Goalkeeper Andrew Weber, rapidly becoming a fan favorite, played yet another crucial part in the Wolves’ effort. The goals he let in were more on the part of defensive breakdowns, and his saves during opportune moments for Charlotte allowed Phoenix to salvage a tie.

In addition to Netinho, Phoenix also has another Brazilian talent that turned heads: Diego Faria. The midfielder brought an important sense of stability, and played with a smoothness unmatched by any other player on the pitch.

I wasn’t really impressed by defender Renan Boufleur’s performance, or the play of forwards Aaron King and Darren Mackie. Boufleur appeared as though he had no true feel for the game, as we was disoriented and his touch was off. Playing at the top, Mackie and King each had seperate problems. For King, the pace and touch weren’t there (poor chemistry with teammates) and he didn’t really make the best of encouraging chances. And although Mackie played alright, as the first player Phoenix FC signed, the veteran Scottish striker should take more responsibility. I understand that he’s been out of the game for a long period, but he couldn’t convert on the best chances for either side, and overall played a bit too passive and apathetically.

Anyways, if I could ask one thing of soccer fans in the Tempe/Phoenix area, and even sports fans for that matter, is that you embrace this young franchise: the organization personnel are very courteous and welcoming, and the players vividly appreciate whatever spectators they receive.

Here’s the schedule for Phoenix FC.

PFC_2013 Schedule_8_5x11