Beautiful and bittersweet; Raiders win their Oakland finale

  OAKLAND, Calif.—It was wet and wild, beautiful and bittersweet, a last hurrah for the Raiders in the city that with its characters and character has been as much a part of their psyche and history as the wins and losses.

  Such sweet sorrow on this  Christmas Eve Monday of rain and reverie, when the fans, Raider Nation if you will, showed their loyalty and, like their team did with a stunning 27-14 win  over the Denver Broncos, their resiliency.

  Big time sports is built on caring,  by the athletes of course, but no less by the fans, who, as on this damp evening, turned the Oakland Coliseum parking lot into the international festival of food and music, and not surprisingly when the alcohol flowed, perhaps with some tears, turned the stands into a raucous arena.

  Yes, a few brawls, as some in the celebratory crowd of 53,850 lost control. More significant were the cheers, as fans—even knowing this probably was their final appearance in Oakland, maybe in California—stayed to what was the end of the game and could be the end of an era.

  They were given what they were owed, a victory that was set off five minutes after the opening kickoff on a 99-yard yard punt return for a touchdown by Dwayne Harris.

  The Raiders because of a disgraceful money-grabbing, egotistical move by owner Mark Davis are moving to Las Vegas where in 2020 a multi-billion pleasure dome of a stadium will be ready. But until then they are without a definite place to play, and whether they set up camp in San Francisco or Nevada or—heaven help us, London—it won’t be the same.

    Won’t be the festivities and tacos and joyful greetings that have preceded every game, including Monday night’s, in the big parking lots off 66th Avenue.

  Won’t be the same without the Black Hole, the fanatics—and that’s meant in the highest regard—who stand and yell in the sections directly behind the south goal posts.

   “I am thankful for  our fans,” said Jon Gruden, who in his return as Raiders coach this season now has a 4-11 record, with one game left, at Kansas City

“They were there every game for us. I really appreciate the support. Our fans really fueled us.”

  But the Raiders are leaving those fans, leaving the Coliseum, leaving Oakland—maybe something can be worked out for 2019, but all that does is extend the pain of waiting—departing at the whim and greed of their owner.

  Asked his thoughts on the idea this was the ultimate game in the Coliseum, Gruden, who coached the Raiders some 20 years ago, said, “I don’t like it. It’s too sentimental tonight. It’s for other people to decide. The love affair for the fans here goes way back, and when we get this result like we did tonight, it is a Merry Christmas for everybody.”

  The Raiders performed the way they were supposed —or at least Gruden and management  planned —making big plays, grabbing the momentum, playing superb defense.

   The sad thing for these Raider partisans, the guys in the skull masks, and the shoulder pads, the playful attire, is the team, with all those first-round draft picks (including those from the trade of the team’s best player, Khalil Mack, and one of its most exciting players, Amari Cooper) should be a champion by the time it gets to Vegas.

  The Broncos had more total net yards, 300 to 273 for Oakland—yeah, thought I’d throw in the city’s name once more—but that doesn’t include the 99-yard punt return.

   Quarterback Derek Carr who took a victory lap at game’s end, waving to fans from whom he doesn’t wish to be separated, completed 19 of 26 passes for 167 yards. Doug Martin ran 21 times for 107 yards, including a 24-yarder for the Raiders second touchdown.

  “This was different,”  Carr could be heard saying to backup AJ McCarron. “Last year we were on the road. Two years ago I broke my ankle. This was great.”

  In front of the media, Carr, being asked what it was like the last two minutes with a big lead, said, “I can’t wait to not have to win a game with two minutes left. Can we please just enjoy one? . . .What a perfect way to do it on Christmas Eve. This might possibly be the last game in Oakland,  at the Coliseum. It was really nice. It was different. I love Oakland. This is home. We have the best fans the world. They were on fire.”

  A fire even a rainstorm couldn’t put out.


Niners say they came close, but Bears were better team

   SANTA CLARA, Calif.—They’re better than they were a month ago, which makes the 49ers feel somewhat satisfied. But they’re not better than the Chicago Bears. Oh maybe, as the echoes from the Niners locker room advised, they were close and they could have won, could have beaten the Bears.

  You always hear that refrain when the underdog, the team with the losing record, puts up a fight—and that doesn’t mean the literal one that erupted on the Bears sideline in the fourth quarter—and makes a game of it.

  Which is what the Niners did, but the Bears (11-4 and NFC North champions) made a win of it, 14-9, to nobody’s surprise. 

  Yes, the Niners, as they told us, had chances, including after they recovered a Chicago fumble with 1:52 left, the  second takeaway of the game for a Niners team that hadn’t had a single one in two months, However, they lost the ball on downs.

  It these Bears aren’t monsters of the NFL, much less of the Midway (circa 1940s) or ready to shuffle to a Super Bowl victory as the 1985 team, they’re strong enough, particularly on defense.

  “They’ve got a very good front four, probably the best in the league,” Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said of the Bears. “Very good inside rushers.”

  A major part of that defense is linebacker Khalil Mack, stupidly traded to Chicago by the Oakland Raiders just before the start of the season. It he isn’t the best in the league, he’s no worse than second. He’s the type of player who makes everyone else on his defense better—and that defense was effective anyway.

 So, the 49ers could only get 279 yards offense, all but 54 passing. Nick Mullens, the Niners quarterback, threw 38 times. He did complete 22 for 241 yards but none for touchdowns—and one for an interception.
‘It was more a function of what we’re going against,” Shanahan said of the imbalanced run-pass ratio. “You would love to just run every play, to reverse that pass rush and everything. But the only thing they do better than stopping the pass is stopping the run . . . It’s tough.

  “You get a gut feeling in what they’re doing .I definitely thought throwing the ball gave us the best chance to win.”

 For a while, after three first-half field goals by Robbie Gould (an ex-Bear) the Niners had a 9-7 lead. But they lost opportunities to get touchdowns.

Early in the third period, Chicago looking very much the playoff team it is, drove 90 yards in 12 plays, over 7 minutes 43 seconds, in effect  half the entire period. In the sequence quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed eight consecutive passes (he reached 10 in a row after the TD).

  That’s what winning teams do, take the ball and stuff it and throw it successfully, in the less than half-filled stands at Levi’s Stadium the chant resounded, “Let’s go Bears.” Presumably they didn’t mean Cal, up the road in Berkeley.

 What Niners cornerback Richard Sherman meant when he threw a one-two punch during a sideline melee with 5:39 to play was, “Don’t try to push us around.”  He was ejected as were two Bears receivers. That didn’t have an effect on the game, except to drag out what because of penalties and reviews seemed endless.

  Trubisky was tackled on the sideline. “It got chippy,” said Sherman, acting as the overseer. “I’m not going to let our guys get pushed around. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I couldn’t let the whole sideline go against one of my teammates. You have to go in there regardless of the circumstances.”

  He went in and subsequently got thrown out, but as tight end George Kittle pointed out that sort of support builds unity for a 4-11 team which has one game left, next Sunday against the Rams in Los Angeles.

  “We’ve got guys who are aggressive,” said Shanahan. “You make a lot of plays being aggressive. “That’s (Chicago) a real good team. I was happy and proud of how hard of how our guys fought in all three phases.

  “I was hoping we would finish this year with a winning record a home (They were 4-4), so that was disappointing.”

  Defeat invariably is, even against a better team.


After finally beating Seahawks, Shanahan doesn’t have to answer

   SANTA CLARA, Calif.—This was as much a statement as it was game, a statement in which the San Francisco 49ers proved they had resilience as well as talent, a statement which told us the Niners can make plays against the team that had made them look bad.

  A statement that had gone unspoken but in effect was shouted loudly when head coach Kyle Shanahan,  having escaped the routine of how it feels never to win against Seattle-- a streak of 10 games which included three of his predecessors—said “I hated having to answer those questions.”

  And now, after the Niners, 26-23, victory over the Seahawks Sunday in the rain at Levi’s Stadium, the winning points coming with 3:06 left in overtime on Robbie Gould’s fourth field goal of the game, this from 36 yards, he won’t be required to answer.

  Two weeks ago, in Seattle, the Seahawks crushed the 49ers, 43-16.

“I took it personally,” said 49ers defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. “They flat out embarrassed us.”

  In a way, they did more than that. They made us question whether this Shanahan thing was going to work. Sure he only was in his second year. Sure he and the Niners had had lost their starting quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, in the third game of the season. But 43-16? Please.

  What you find out in sports, in life, is how people, how teams, individuals respond to adversity. What we found out about the Niners, now 4-10, is they have both the skills and the toughness to show they are a real NFL franchise.

  The way things fell apart in Seattle, they came together in Santa Clara. Richie James Jr. returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, the Niners first “he could go all the way” in years. Buckner got two sacks against the Seahawks elusive quarterback, Russell Wilson. Nick Mullens, once more at quarterback, was efficient—that’s the yardstick of a QB—completing 20 of 29 for 275 yards and a touchdown.

   The Seahawks, 8-6, and still strong for the playoffs, made the mistakes, called for penalties 14 times, many of those negating big runs, for 148 yards.  The 49ers, the underdogs, the team trying to avoid having the worst record in pro football, kept their poise.

  “This was a really clear game,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the onetime Niners assistant and USC head coach, “and we just hurt ourselves so much with this penalty thing that it took our chances away.

 “We ran the football. We converted on third down, held them on third down, (had) time of possession. So many things we were plus in—the turnover ratio. We really, uncharacteristically, had 148 yards in penalties, 10 (penalties) in the second half, which is crazy. I don’t know how that could happen.”

  The Niners don’t care how it happened. They only cared that for the first time since 2013, they were not on the short end when facing Seattle.

  “It means a ton,” said Richard Sherman. He’s the cornerback who came to the Niners this year after seven years with the Seahawks, so he knows both sides now.

   “It means more that the guys showed up the way they did. Honestly it means a lot beating Seattle for me . . . Those guys played their hearts out. We’ve got an incredibly young team, three rookie receivers, a second-year quarterback. They stepped up to the moment.”

  Shanahan was no less emphatic.

  “Not all of us have been here since 2013,” said the coach, “but a lot of us have been here last year. We were all definitely here two weeks ago. It’s a division rival. We also were very sick of the way we lost two weeks ago.”

   Wilson, the Seattle quarterback, did complete 23 of 31 for 237 yards and two touchdowns. “I thought they played really well today,” he said of the 49ers. “We played well. It really came down to some penalties here and there.”

  Penalties Seattle made, maybe because it couldn’t handle Buckner and the Niners defense.

“Getting to double-digit sacks definitely is gratifying,” said Buckner. “I’d like to thank my teammates. It’s not one guy. It’s the whole unit up front rushing as a team. I’m proud of my teammates.”

  He has a right to be.


Kerr on Warriors' effort in huge loss: ‘I can’t explain it’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Maybe this is the year the Dubs become the flubs. Maybe they’ve lost a little something — for sure Wednesday night, they lost something in a big way, a game.

Or maybe what happens in November and December doesn’t matter all that much, even when you get overwhelmed.

Tim Legler, the onetime player and now an NBA analyst for ESPN, pointed out that for the Warriors, champions three of the past four years, what counts is how they play in April and May, the playoffs. And June, certainly.

And yet the way the Toronto Raptors, with the best record in the league, crushed the Warriors 113-93 has to mean something, to the Raptors and the rest of the NBA — and perhaps the Warriors. Ouch!

“I can’t explain it,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, alluding to what he perceived was a lack of effort.

A couple of weeks ago on the other side of the border, Toronto edged the Warriors in overtime, and one could argue that, hey, you get to OT on the other team’s home court, just wait ‘til they meet in Oakland. OK, we waited. Wow!

The Warriors couldn’t score — they were 6 of 26 on three-point attempts. The Warriors couldn’t stop the other team from scoring. The Raptors shot 48 percent overall and were 9 of 28 on threes.

This was the Dubs' single worst game since Kevin Durant signed up in the summer of ’16. And a good thing he was there. Kevin was the only one of the Dubs able to do anything offensively, going 13 of 22 for 30 points.

Steph Curry? He was 3 of 12, 10 points; Klay Thompson, 7 of 17, 14 points.

“Came out with right intentions,” said Curry. And the right history. The Warriors had won 13 straight over Toronto at the Oracle. But outside of a brief 7-4 lead, they didn’t have a chance.

“Didn’t make shots early in the game,” said Steph, “and I think it affected our energy a little bit. We tried to talk our way through it, but they played well. They played aggressive. They got into us early. Most of our open shots didn’t go down. We didn’t have any rhythm.”

Or much else.

“We really didn’t bring the level of intensity that we needed until the start of the third quarter,” said Kerr. “That was the first sign of life with our defense, but at that point we were swimming upstream.”

Lifeguard, help.

The Raptors didn’t even have their best player, Kawhi Leonard, who was ill, and someone wondered if the Dubs let their guard down, albeit Leonard is a forward.

“No, I don’t think that was the case,” said Kerr. “I just think we didn’t quite have it. I was just one of those nights you would hope you would be more engaged and more energetic playing against this team.

“We are in a place where we are defending a title and defending sort of a mantle that we have had for several years. It’s a different vibe. It’s a different feeling when you are on the climb like Toronto is, like Milwaukee is.”

Indeed, the Milwaukee Bucks also were able to destroy the Dubs, 134-111, also at Oracle, at the beginning of November. Draymond Green was missing from that one. He was present and accounted for Wednesday.

“They played better,” said Green, who had only two points but also seven assists against Toronto. “They made shots. We were taking the ball out of the net every time. It’s kind of hard to get pace that way. Their defense was really good. A big part of their defense was the offense.

“They just broke our defense down. We just got to be a little better making an adjustment. That’s not on the coaching. That’s on us as players.”

The assumption is that, by defeating the Warriors in the only two games they’ll play during the regular schedule, the Raptors would have the advantage if they meet in the NBA finals.

“I would think we had the edge at this point,” countered Kerr, “now that they kicked our butts twice.”

Maybe when swimming upstream, one loses a sense of perspective.


Of moonshots, awards, Draymond and a Warriors win

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Steph doesn’t believe America ever made it to the moon. Yes, Mr. Curry, who launches his own figurative moonshots, said he doubts the United States reached the lunar surface.

Just like the movie, “Capricorn One,” starring, back in the days before he went on trial and to prison, O.J. Simpson.

The film was built on skepticism, that what we saw on TV one July day in 1969, Neil Armstrong strolling on the moon, was in fact a video fraud, created on a sound stage in Hollywood.

That was long before Steph was born, but on a podcast with some other NBA types the other day, Curry just happened to ask, “We ever been to the moon?” Others on the panel, including technologically minded Andre Iguodala, answered in unison, “No.”

The guess is they were joking. But there’s no joking about Curry’s game. On Monday night, with the Warriors back to the Oracle after a five-game road trip, and with Draymond Green back in the lineup, Curry was back to, well, being Curry.

He started slowly, missing six of his first nine shots, but by the end he had 38 points, and the Warriors, whole again and roiling again, had a 116-108 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, their fourth in a row.

“He’s good at basketball,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr wonderfully understated when asked to describe Curry. “I get asked that every day, and I don’t know how to answer it anymore. Nothing he does surprises me. I guess I can say that. Even on a night he gets off to a slow start, he always finds a way.”

These are heady times for a notable team, a team — as Curry said, “is as close to full strength as we’ve been all year” — that has been chosen as Sports Illustrated’s “Sports Person of the Year,” even though it is not one person but many.

In the 65 occasions since the award was given, beginning with Roger Bannister in 1954, a team has been chosen four times — the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey champs; the 1999 U.S. women’s World Cup champs; the 2004 Boston Red Sox World Series winners; and now the Dubs.

For all the individual brilliance of Steph Curry — a selection whom few would have protested — the Warriors have always been most delightfully viewed through a collective prism,” said Sports Illustrated.

“There have been superteams that have forced us to reimagine how the game is played, but none perhaps in a generation, maybe two, are so beautifully choreographed as the Warriors. At the Dubs’ most golden, their movements and pieces seamlessly blur into each other to the point where it impossible to distinguish the magic of one player from another, even magic so singular as that of Curry or KD.” 

In the blur Monday night, KD, Kevin Durant, had 22 points and Klay Thompson had 26. And Draymond Green, out the previous 11 games because of a right toe sprain, had 10 rebounds, 7 assists and 7 points.

The Warriors agreed that Green’s return brought revitalization. So did Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau, who insisted, “I’ve always said this about Draymond: he’s probably the most unique player in the league in terms of what he means to this team.”

What the team, the game of basketball, means to Draymond is clear.

“I miss the trash talking,” said Green, “the getting on the court. I felt like a kid in a candy store. That’s what we all miss when we leave the game, yelling at the guys, the refs.”

Asked his favorite play of the night, Green said it was just before the half. He took a pass, “but I was gassed. Not interested in going for a layup. I saw Klay was open. So I took the road less traveled. One more dribble probably would have taken me out.”

Durant said what he noticed with Draymond again in the lineup was not any disagreement such as the one when Green yelled at Durant to pass and Durant did not, but Draymond pushing the ball up and talking defense.

Four All-Stars once more together, one common goal.

“I think we play with a faster pace,” Kerr said, talking about how Draymond improves the Warriors. “That’s the main thing. He gives us a different dimension. I think we’re going to get much better. It was a good first step.”

You might say a small step for man, but not if you didn’t think we ever got to the moon. Come on, Steph.