Another exciting week in sports, as a full week of Euro 2008 led to plenty of additional opportunities for drama. Gianluigi Buffon’s save against Romania had to be the play of the week.
But, when you put yourself in a commanding position in the NBA Finals while recording the largest comeback in Finals history, all in the same game, it’s pretty hard not to earn the top spot.
5. NBA Finals Game 5: Lakers 103, Celtics 98 (6/15).
Once again, the Lakers found themselves on the verge of blowing a huge lead in front of their home crowd. This time, a second straight devastating loss would have meant the end of their season.
But L.A. lived to fight another day, in no small part due to the performances of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Lakers’ much maligned complimentary stars finally played up to expectations, putting up 19 points and 13 rebounds and 20 points and 11 boards respectively.
The play of Gasol and Odom was critical, as league MVP Kobe Bryant had a poor day by his standards. After scoring 15 points in the first quarter, Bryant was extremely quiet throughout the rest of the game, often deferring to Gasol. Aside from his game-winning strip of Paul Pierce late, Kobe was a relative non-factor in the fourth quarter, and he finished the game with only 25 points.
Also notable was the poor play of Kevin Garnett. Not only did the Big Ticket find himself in foul trouble early, playing only 11 minutes in the second half, but KG missed two free throws that would have tied the game at 95 and later missed an easy tip-in that would have cut the L.A. lead to two. Garnett’s energy has been crucial to the Celtics’ success, but at times it seems as though the moment is getting to him.
The moment, however, is not getting to Paul Pierce, who had 38 points and eight assists in the loss. There is no reason to believe Pierce’s stellar play will end anytime soon. He hardly received any support tonight (Sam Cassell’s three-minute aberration hot streak in the fourth quarter notwithstanding) and Boston still almost won the game.
It seems the Celtics have nowhere to go but up, and the Lakers showed Sunday night that they have large defensive issues that need to be tackled in a day’s time. Thus, few analysts—if any—are picking L.A. to even extend the series to seven games.
But there is hope for the Lakers.
In the words of Michael Wilbon, “you don’t give a team extra outs.” Translation: Kobe Bryant, the best basketball player in the world, has still yet to go off in this series, and the Celtics haven’t finished the Lakers off.
If Kobe can take over the next two games, there’s a chance all of the Lakers’ flaws won’t matter.
4. MLB: Mets 5, Diamondbacks 3 (6/11).
It could have been a banner night in the New York Mets’ season, perhaps the start of a turnaround.
Through eight innings, the Mets led Arizona, 3-0. Young pitcher Mike Pelfrey had out-dueled Brandon Webb (albeit not by much—the game’s sole runs at the time were the result of a rally that began with consecutive singles that did not go further than the pitcher’s mound) and took the hill in the top of the ninth to the sound of Shea Stadium chanting his name.
Then, everything went downhill. Quickly.
Pelfrey allowed a Stephen Drew single to lead off the inning, and New York manager Willie Randolph emerged from the dugout, summoning closer Billy Wagner to a chorus of boos.
Wagner looked like he would redeem his boss, recording the first two outs of the ninth while only allowing one hit. His fastball at peak velocity, Wagner was simply overpowering hitters, getting two quick strikeouts and well on his way to making Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds his third victim.
Reynolds wasn’t supposed to catch up to Wagner’s fastball. But he did, and suddenly the ball was in the left-field bleachers and the game was tied at three. The boos came thundering down.
That Carlos Beltran won the game with a 13th-inning home run was irrelevant. By then, the stadium was practically empty—it was as if the Mets had already lost the game in the ninth.
The chance for a real positive spark, for the start of a turnaround, had been squandered. Randolph took a lot of heat for how he handled the ninth inning, and now it looks like he won’t last the week.
One can only wonder how different things might be if Wagner had blown one more fastball by Reynolds.
3. Soccer, Euro 2008: Italy 1, Romania 1 (6/13).
After two games of group play, World Cup champions Italy find themselves on the cusp of an early return home.
If not for keeper Gianluigi Buffon, they might already be booking their tickets.
Buffon’s incredible hand-to-foot save of an Adrian Mutu penalty kick kept the Azurri alive—had the Romanians won the game, it would have been mathematically impossible for Italy to advance to the knockout stage.
It would have been a devastating result for Italy, who sure deserved better than the 0-0 halftime score-line indicated. The first half was a tale of missed opportunity for Italian striker Luca Toni, who saw headers both miss the net high and wide and find the outstretched arms of Romanian keeper Bogdan Lobont, who had a fantastic game in his own right.
When Toni finally did put the ball in the back of the net just before the halftime whistle, it was for naught. A questionable, almost certainly incorrect offside ruling preserved Lobont’s clean sheet for the time being.
The “Group of Death” remains wide open heading into the third and final game, as only the Netherlands have guaranteed themselves a spot in the quarter-finals.
The upstart Romanians may actually now find themselves slight favorites to go through, especially if they face a Dutch side that lacks several of its key players, as the Oranje have clinched the group and have nothing to play for.
2. Soccer, Euro 2008: Turkey 3, Czech Republic 2 (6/15).
Both nations entered this final game of Group A with all to play for, a quarter-final berth on the line. Neither would disappoint.
The slightly favored Czechs were in control for much of the game, leading 2-0 past the 70th minute thanks to strikes from the legendary Jan Koller and Jaroslav Pasil.
But, despite their poor early play, the Turks were not ready to throw in the towel yet, and a goal from young midfielder Arda Turan halved the deficit in the 75th minute.
Then, in the game’s waning minutes, the Turks snatched the game from their opponent’s grasp.
Or perhaps it was handed to them.
The unlikely goat was Czech goalkeeper Peter Cech, who uncharacteristically dropped a cross in the 86th minute, enabling Nihat Kahveci to easily slot home the game-tying goal. For Cech, widely considered one of the best keepers in the world, it was an unconscionable error, one not at all befitting his lofty status.
When Nihat struck again two minutes later, taking advantage of a quick break against dreadful defending, the Czech side that had looked so dominant in the first half were suddenly out.
For Turkey, who began their miraculous run with a come-from-behind victory over the host Swiss side, they now turn to the quarter-finals, hoping to continue their magical second half play against Group B winners Croatia.
1. NBA Finals Game 4: Celtics 97, Lakers 91 (6/12).
At the end of the first quarter, the Lakers led 35-14.
At the end of the second quarter, the Lakers led 58-40.
Sounds like a game the Lakers should have won.
And it was, as only an epic Boston comeback—the 21-point first quarter deficit is the largest ever overcome in an NBA Finals—could prevent this series from being tied 2-2 at the end of the night. And on the road, no less.
But an epic comeback would take place. The Celtics were buoyed by their defense, as they held the Lakers to only 33 points in the second half. Ray Allen also played a huge role, playing all 48 minutes and sealing the victory by blowing by Sasha Vujacic for a lay-up to extend the Boston lead to five with less than 30 seconds remaining.
For a while, it looked as if the Lakers would hang on, as Boston repeated squandered opportunities to take the lead in the middle of the fourth quarter.
But when Eddie House’s jumper put the Celtics ahead by one with just over four minutes remaining, the Lakers were suddenly the team who needed to respond.
And they couldn’t respond—at least not enough. Thus, they found themselves facing a glaring 3-1 deficit, and even after Sunday’s victory will need to win consecutive games in Boston if they are to become NBA champions.