Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is almost too good for words. After a seven-year championship drought, he's taking his already ethereal skill to a new stratospheric altitude. The team ain't bad, either. After game one, it can't feel good to be a Magic fan. Yeah, the shooting was terrible and can be expected to improve, but all the match-up advantages they held over Cleveland have dissipated and vanished. Pau made his living from mid-range, Bynum is way, way more effective on Howard, and the Laker guards simply outmatch their counterparts.
Also, I know Jameer Nelson is supposed to be great and everything, but isn't it a little questionable to screw with a winning dynamic at this late hour? I'm not saying Skip To My Lou or Old Man Carter are better players, but I do think a highly specific chemistry delivered the Magic through the Eastern Conference, and it can't be good voodoo to muddle it now.
But I'm not ready to call this one yet. I'm getting some of the same vibes I had during the UNC-Michigan State national title game this year, where after five minutes it was pretty clear the Spartans had no shot. But before I go whole hog into Lakertown, I want to see what happens when the Magic shoot a little better. Can their battle-tested mettle carry them through this final obstacle? The problem is this: in the NBA Finals, the home-away format is 2-3-2. So if the Lakers take game 2, all they have to do is win one of the next three in Orlando, and they're up 3-2 with two chances to clinch at home. Not ideal for Stan Van Gundy's bunch.
Other Magic problems: against better perimeter defenders, Hedo Turkoglu's push-and-pick slow-time offense looks pretty impotent. They still created open looks from 3, but unless they really, really catch fire (and history keeps proving that you can't survive forever on shooting alone), that's not going to cut the mustard. So who's going to penetrate? It won't be Hedo. It's not really Rashard's forte either. As I see it, the Magic have just one option:
Seriously, though, it looks like they might be toast. Only that ineffable, gritty quality they keep unveiling at opportune moments stops me from declaring the death sentence.
On to the French Open. Today, Roger Federer has his semi-final match against Juan Martin Del Potro, the fifth seed. It won't be a cakewalk, by any measure, and as I look ahead now I'll probably invoke the Seth Curry Saves Duke jinx, but consider this: if he makes the finals, he'll likely be playing Robin Soderling, the Swede who improbably beat Nadal. Soderling is playing in his semi now, and is up two sets to love on Fernando Gonzalez.
(By the way, if you ever wanted to know why they say "love" in tennis instead of 'zero,' here's the explanation, copied and pasted from Wiki Ansers: "Tennis originated in France, and for some reason the egg in french symbolizes having nothing. When a player's score is zero, they say "egg". To say "egg" in french (l'oeuf) it kind of sounds like you're saying "love". So when English-speaking people adopted the sport, the word stuck. Eventually the French abandoned saying EGG and instead used the traditional 'ZERO' while we still use the mispronunciation...talk about irony.")
I mentioned this in an earlier post (and I'll probably come back to it again), but if Roger does make the championship, it'll create a rare and somewhat monumental situation- he'll be playing one match for the undisputed honor of Greatest Player Ever. Beyond debate. He'll have fourteen grand slam titles, tying Pete Sampras, and unlike Sampras he'll have the career slam. Personally, I've never seen a moment like that. Tiger Woods might have the opportunity in the future, but it'll come within a general tournament rather than a single one-on-one duel. And besides that, who knows when we'll see anything similar? 'Never' is a real possibility.
In team sports, debates about the best ever can rage on end. Look at Jordan. He won six titles and many consider him the greatest, but then there's Bill Russell with his eleven titles, or Wilt Chamberlain averaging fifty points a game, or Kareem with his all-time scoring record. There can be no real consensus, and if Jordan can't attain that, who can? Baseball is bursting with ghosts who will always loom over any 'best ever' conversation, and football is too multi-faceted and regimented to yield just one name. Gretzky in hockey or Pele in soccer is as close as we might come, but it's still miles away from conclusive. That's why Federer is so special, and why Sunday's potential match is a legitimate, honest-to-God athletic milestone.
As I write this, Gonzalez took the third set against Soderling, so the next few paragraphs should be taken with a grain of salt, or at least a 'pending certain results' disclaimer. But if it's Federer-Soderling, what a fantastic story. Because not only is Fed one of the greatest; in contrast, Soderling seems like a pretty big asshole. You can check out a clip of him trying embarrass Nadal in this post, and here's a little blurb from a post-match article from this year's French:
For Nadal, losing his proud record could not have come at the hands of a worse opponent after he and Soderling - who are not on speaking terms - fell out after an acrimonious Wimbledon clash in 2007.
Nadal was irritated by the big Swede's on-court imitation of his habit of pulling at the rear of his shorts while Soderling dismissed the criticisms as "bullshit."
Soderling added that Nadal “must have been in his complaining mood."
It's an undisguised fact that Soderling is hugely unpopular with fellow pros for his on-court antics and his unfriendliness in the locker room. He also has a history of rage issues, tempered somewhat by his new coach, Magnus Norman. And check out this YouTube clip from his match against Nadal in the Rome Masters, where Soderling clearly tries to cheat. The whole thing is in French, but just watch the first two minutes or so: in the middle of a rally, Soderling yells "out!" and stops playing. Which is bizarre and hysterical, since, you know, only judges can do that.
The basketball equivalent would be if Kobe called a foul on Dwight Howard and started walking to the free throw line. But that's not the worst of it; next, Soderling actually makes a mark in the clay with his tennis racket, just beyond the baseline, which at first seems pretty innocuous. But as the line judge runs out, Soderling has the balls to point to that new mark as though it was the one made by Nadal's shot landing long. Seriously, how tacky is that? Unlucky for him, the judge sees the original mark, about six feet away and very much in play, and refutes the obvious attempt at cheating. So does Soderling cut his losses, retreat into a shell of utter shame, and play tennis? Nope. Of course not. He chooses instead to play the victim, scream at the line judge, follow him back to the chair while the French announcers go wild, and delay the match. I mean, can this guy be for real? This stuff is priceless.
To compound this utter lack of sportsmanship, Soderling was down 6-1, 5-0, just points away from defeat. Whatever the opposite of class is, this guy has it in spades. But say what you will, the fact remains that he's playing really, really good tennis in Paris. His draw has been nearly impossible, and to come through it without even being taken to a fifth set is remarkable. I don't imagine we're seeing the emergence of a new star, but sometimes in tennis a player can capture lightning in a bottle for a fortnight or more. And if that player is a villain, and happens to be challenging one of the greatest and classiest players of all-time in his quest for legendary status, what could be better?? I mean, Soderling even looks like an asshole:
And one more, before the goatee:
Did a weird little chill just run through your body? Shouldn't this guy be playing a perverse European assassin in some movie where Harrison Ford is trying to save a bunch of American kids? And he's the one standing in Federer's way! Get on board the hate train, folks. This is going to be awesome.
(Update: Incredible! After winning the first two sets, Soderling dropped the third and fourth, and fell down 4-1 in the deciding fifth before roaring back to win 6-4. Nice pressure performance there, and maybe a bit of a collapse by Gonzalez. We're only a Roger win away from the good vs. evil dream final. Follow his match here starting at 11.
Update 2: Incredible again! Federer rallies from down two sets to one and takes the fifth 6-4. Great semi-final matches, and Sunday's Federer-Soderling final is set. 9am, NBC.)
That'll do it for this week. Sunday morning, I'll live blog the French Open final if Federer wins, and post that sometime during the day. It'll serve as Monday's post. Tampa Bay comes to town tonight, the latest victim of the Yankee sturm und drang machine. Game 2 of the finals is Sunday. Oh, and Mine That Bird, the horse I couldn't motivate to win the Preakness, tries for the Belmont. Should be a great weekend of sports. Go Roger!