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March 10, 2009

West Coast Blowouts

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:39 pm

Spending last weekend in Boston, I had one obvious conclusion reinforced: Time zones really make it difficult to follow sports. Even with my body clock still largely on Pacific time, it was a challenge staying up for the end of the TNT Thursday and ESPN Friday double-headers. The experience convinced me to redouble my efforts to pay extra attention to games here on the Left Coast for the benefit of the rest of the country.

Last night featured two coastal games that interested me, and both of them ended up decided by the early second half. Still, they had important implications.

Let’s talk first about the West Coast Conference championship, played at a relatively East Coast-friendly start time of 9:00 p.m. Eastern, 6:00 Pacific. While Gonzaga, a sure tournament lock, had nothing more than seeding at stake, St. Mary’s was playing for an automatic bid or a chance to prove to the selection committee that they could compete with the Zags on a neutral court when healthy.

Alas, the Gaels fell well short on both counts in an 83-58 loss that was never especially close. In his second game back from a broken right hand sustained with St. Mary’s leading in the first half of a matchup at Gonzaga in January, Patrick Mills looked nothing like the superstar point guard who led last year’s tournament run. Mills shot 2-for-16 from the field and missed all seven of his attempts from three-point range.

Healthy Mills or no, the Gaels were unable to slow the Zags on offense. Gonzaga shot 54.8 percent from the field and had as many three-pointers as turnovers (nine apiece), all of it combining to allow them to score 83 points on 67 possessions, a 123.2 Offensive Rating. St. Mary’s was going to be hard-pressed to match that production, and Mills’ poor night made it impossible. Center Omar Samhan had 17 points, but the rest of the team combined to shoot 22.6 percent from the field.

For Gonzaga, a WCC title has become something of a formality more than anything to celebrate. The more interesting question is what kind of team Mark Few is taking into the NCAA Tournament. The Zags have been criticized for their soft nature and their defense, and a stretch of close WCC games midway through the season combined with a blowout loss in Spokane to Memphis cleared out the bandwagon. Yet by Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, Gonzaga still ranks fifth in the country, and 10th in adjusted Defensive Efficiency. I’ve seen plenty of the Zags this season, and I tend to lean toward conventional wisdom over Pomeroy’s stats, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of this team.

Turning to the NBA, the Portland Trail Blazers hosted the L.A. Lakers last night in another chance to prove their dominance at the Rose Garden. The Blazers blew open the game with hot shooting combined with strong defense in the second quarter, leading by 23 at the half. It was a 28-point game with mere seconds remaining in the third period when the game turned ugly. Rudy Fernandez, flying in for a transition score, was hit in the head by a trailing Trevor Ariza, sending him to the ground hard. Brandon Roy led a group of Portland players confronting Ariza, though fortunately the situation never got out of hand and no punches were thrown.

All along, Fernandez was lying relatively motionless where he had fallen, the situation quickly turning scary. For precautionary reasons, Fernandez was taken off on a stretcher with a neck brace. Reports indicate he had some soft tissue damage to his chest, but no serious injury, having been observed in a Portland hospital overnight.

As team doctors were attending to Fernandez, I could not help but think back to Saturday’s opening panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on the evolution of the fan experience. An incredulous Jeff Van Gundy railed against the Flagrant-2 foul assessed to Glen Davis during the previous evening’s Celtics game (which was in fairness subsequently reduced to a less serious Flagrant-1), and argued that fans get more enjoyment over the more physical style of basketball that the league has sought to mitigate if not eliminate. Fernandez’s fall illustrated exactly why I could not disagree more with Van Gundy. The league’s first obligation has to be the health of its players, for the benefit of all parties involved. I assure you no one left last night’s game feeling good about the game because of Ariza’s hard foul, and it served to dampen the enthusiasm of Blazers fans for what was an impressive victory over a hated rival.

It’s easy to act indignant when a player is injured, and I don’t think the outcome of a fall should have anything to do with our assessment of the play itself. Ariza’s foul was more reckless than dirty. But if the league coming down hard on players who commit borderline fouls even when nothing comes of it results in players thinking better of a dangerous effort to commit a hard foul in a situation like Ariza faced, I’m more than happy to accept the complaints from Van Gundy and his peers about the league making the game too soft in order to reduce the chances any player leaves the floor on a stretcher.

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