Saban handles defeat better than his team handled Clemson

By Art Spander
For Maven Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — He handled the defeat better than his secondary handled the Clemson receivers. This was a momentous defeat for Nick Saban, his worst at Alabama, his second worst as a college football coach, and yet he dealt with it forthright, candidly, if somewhat bewildered by his team’s failings.

Read the full story here.

Copyright 2019, The Maven


The game was great, but down the stretch the Warriors were not

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant studied the final stat sheet and listened to the questions. “I thought both teams played great,” he said, as much to himself as to the media facing him.

That they did. It was just that the Houston Rockets played a little greater.

Give Durant credit. He was out there, in the middle, so to speak, making baskets, missing shots, running, leaping, falling and, with his teammates, losing.

And yet he was moved by more than the final result, the Houston Rockets defeating the Warriors 135-134 on a 3-point basket with one second left by, whom else, James Harden.

Say what you want, that the Dubs, who were up by 20 in the first minute of the third quarter, blew the game; that Harden with yet another triple double (44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) is unstoppable; that Golden State will be in trouble in the playoffs.

But if you love basketball, you have to appreciate what took place in the Dubs’ first home appearance of the new year, a meeting of the two teams who battled for seven games in last year’s Western Conference final — the change in momentum, the big baskets down the stretch, the reminder that in sports nothing is certain, even a huge second-half lead by the back-to-back NBA champions.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was less magnanimous than Durant. “I thought we had control of the game,” said Kerr. “We had a six-point lead with the ball and would have liked to have seen us get better shots.”

And have liked to have seen the Rockets, who now have won both games on the season schedule, get less successful shots.

“They came out swinging,” Kerr said of the Rockets after intermission. “They scored, I think, 18 points in the first four minutes. Our defense was really poor. Our offensive execution was really lacking.” 

And Harden, the bearded wonder who had his fifth straight 40-point game and second triple double of the week, was really, well, being James Harden.

“He just did what he always does,” said Kerr. “He’s the master of isolation, the step-back three and drawing fouls. I thought we did a really good job of keeping him off the line (Harden was 8-of-9 on free throws) for the most part. He made an impossible shot at the end. Just an incredible performance. Give him all the credit he deserves.”

And give the Warriors another loss in a meaningful game at the Oracle, where in some two-plus months they’ve flopped against Oklahoma City, Toronto, Milwaukee, the Lakers and now Houston.

“Down the stretch we were missing shots,” said Durant, who scored 26 points but only two in the third quarter. Steph Curry led the Warriors with 35, while Klay Thompson had 26.

“But I don’t think down the stretch is the reason we lost,” Durant added. “I just felt we let our foot off the gas a little bit in the third quarter. They knocked down some shots. But James shot 23 threes tonight. That’s a lot of three pointers.”

Including the game winner. “James wouldn’t have had to make that shot,” said Thompson, “if we just played the way we were supposed to in the second half. The ball movement got stagnant.”

For the Rockets, the ball moves in Harden’s hands.

“He can get any shot he wants,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “His threat is getting to the rim any time he wants. I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of this offense and the explosion he has.”

Harden got pummeled in the first quarter and left the game for a few minutes. “I was a little dizzy in the beginning,” he said, “but it’s a big-time game for us.”

During the day, broadcasters at ESPN debated whether the game was more important for the Warriors or for the Rockets, a bit silly but time-filling.

Asked why he’s so difficult to guard, Harden candidly pointed out, “I think it’s the separation I create, and once I create the separation you can’t really recover. You have to let me shoot or hit my elbow. There’s not much you can do about it.”

Except, as did Kevin Durant, contend that you played in a great game.


Urban’s Rose Bowl: A lifetime dream fulfilled

By Art Spander

PASADENA, Calif. — Urban Meyer walked off the field at the Rose Bowl, and presumably away from coaching, with the win he cherished in the game he waited a career in which to take part.

If indeed Ohio State’s rather impressive and mostly one-sided 28-23 win over Washington on Tuesday in the 105th Rose Bowl was his final, last, ultimate game as a college coach, then he departs with considerable glory and one huge question — why did his Buckeyes flop against Purdue in October?

That was the only loss for Ohio State (13-1) in a year of tumult (Meyer was suspended for the team’s first three games) and change (the 54-year Meyer announcing he was retiring when the season game to an end, which it did the opening day of 2019).

Had Ohio State not stumbled, the Buckeyes would have played in one of two College Championship semifinals, probably in place of Oklahoma. Not that Ohio State would have done much better against top-ranked Alabama than the Sooners, who were pummeled, 35-34.

That left Ohio State in the “Granddaddy of Them All,” as the Rose Bowl bills itself in a copyrighted phrase, a game as a kid in Ohio Meyer watched on TV but a game in which as player or coach he never had appeared. Until Tuesday.

So there was a nice bit of closure for Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida (before retiring the first time) and another at Ohio State, where he’s retiring again.

“This has been a bucket list,” said Meyer. “We came so close, and I love all the other bowls, but being a Big Ten guy from Ohio and watching the Rose Bowl in the ‘70s with Archie Griffin playing, it’s everything everybody says it was. It was a great game, and I’ll tell you what, Washington is a hell of a team.”

It didn’t play like one for a long while, looking offensively challenged much like the other bowl teams from the Pac-12 conference, other than Washington State. The Huskies were in a 28-3 hole late in the third quarter, doing little while Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr., who would be named offensive player of the game, was throwing three touchdown passes.

Finally, as the evening chill worked its way down from the San Gabriel Mountains, which rise to more than 5,000 feet only a few miles from the stadium, the Huskies warmed up. They scored three fourth-quarter TDs (although wasting a precious minute earlier in the period), then failed to grab their onside kick with 42 seconds remaining.

Asked what was going through his head as Washington awoke on Myles Gaskin’s running (two TDs) and passing (a touchdown throw to Drew Sample), Meyer said, “Are you kidding me? Until we got the onside kick…”

“All credit to our opponent and the great defense we faced. But we got our 13th win. Time to move on.”
His 84th win against nine losses in his seasons at Ohio State.

Washington coach Chris Peterson was known for his unconventional style while at Boise State — remember that bowl upset of Oklahoma — but the Huskies for three quarters either didn’t do much or couldn’t do much.

“Tough one,” said Peterson. “Very frustrating when you start the first half like we started. I had no idea why. It's on me. It's not these kids. They practiced hard. They're ready to play. But we really didn't play with that edge and that chip that we normally play with, really, just, you know, across the whole squad.

“I don't know, being off that much time, it just didn't seem the same. I'm proud of them. A few adjustments at halftime, but really more than anything, just an attitude adjustment, make a few plays. And that breeds excitement when you make a few plays and kind of feed off each other.”

Too little, too late, but at least it turned tedium into fascination.

Someone said to Meyer that on Wednesday morning, he would no longer be a coach, and so what would he do?

“I have no idea, to be honest with you,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about that a little bit and trying not to think about it because it gets in the way of these players and the team.”

Nothing got in the way of that win in the long-awaited Rose Bowl.



Curry on rout by Lakers: ‘We just laid an egg’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The head coach said this is the normal NBA, good teams playing bad games, coming out on the home floor when the opponent is a huge rival — in a contest that had been advertised every 10 minutes by ESPN — and for the most part performing so poorly it bordered on embarrassment.

In fact, embarrassing is the term Steph Curry used after the Warriors, his team, coach Steve Kerr’s team, had been crushed 127-101 on Christmas night by the Lakers, who for most of the second half were without an injured LeBron James, supposedly their only star. Ha!

“It was just one of those nights we just got outplayed from the jump,” said Curry. “Pretty embarrassing. Tough night obviously in front of a national stage. Christmas Day. A lot of hype, playing the Lakers. We were looking forward to the opportunity to get out there and play a lot better.

“And we just laid an egg.”

Not for the first time this season at Oracle Arena, where in the three months the NBA has been going this 2018-19 season, the one Golden State again was going to dominate, the Warriors have been overwhelmed by Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Toronto and now the Lakers.

It can be shrugged off as just another game, one of 80 on the schedule, a game that in the great scheme of NBA things means little. Hey, the playoffs don’t begin until April. And in effect, that’s how Kerr judged it.

“We got off to a great start,” said Kerr, alluding to the year — the Dubs started out 6-0 — and not specifically to this game.

“But it’s a long year and a long haul. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs. What we did a few years was the exception. This is the rule. We are second place in the Western Conference. You lose some games. You lose some home games. The bar has been set exceptionally high by our players ... as a team, we have to fight through the adversity that hits, like a game like tonight, and keep moving forward.”

The Warriors played a few minutes of what has been known as Warriors basketball, rallying in the third quarter — yes, after James left with a groin injury — trimming a 12-point deficit to two points. But, wham, moments later they were behind by 18.

They shot terribly. There had to be at least five air balls, maybe six. On three-pointers they were 25 percent. The defense was worse than the offense. The Lakers shot 55 percent. Disgraceful.

James had 17 points in the 21 minutes he played, Kyle Kuzma 19, Ivica Zubec 18. The Lakers played the game the Warriors usually play, shooting and making threes, 13 of 33.

“We’ve definitely been inconsistent in our play,” said Kevin Durant. He scored 21 — two fewer than Andre Iguodala, who had his biggest point total since March 2017. You’d think any night Iguodala gets 23 points, the Warriors would be easy winners. Sure. And you’d think any time LeBron gets hurt, the Lakers would be finished.

Curry, who never does well in these Christmas games, made 5 of 17 and had 15 points. Klay Thompson, who hasn’t been scoring well since getting 52 against Chicago on Oct. 29, scored 5 points, taking only seven shots, making two.

“We can all play better,” said Curry. “Be more decisive.”

Luke Walton, the Lakers' coach, was once Kerr’s assistant. He knows what the Warriors can do. And can’t do. “I thought (the Lakers) had a great game plan tonight,” said Durant. “They used two players to guard Steph and Klay the majority of the night. I thought we made the right play and had some great shots. We just didn’t knock them down, and things snowballed from there.”

An apt description of a winter holiday game.

“We’ve definitely been inconsistent with our play,” agreed Durant, “and our record is 23-12. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. We can definitely be better communicating on defense, moving without the basketball, just being aggressive to score a little more than we are.”

Curry sounded unworried but at the same time concerned.

“You can feel terrible about it leaving the arena,” Curry commented about the loss, “but you got to understand it’s December. And we are in a decent spot. We got to get better though, and we know that. We are not going to win a championship playing like we did tonight.”


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.

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