Rockets Jazz preview

Rockets vs. Jazz series preview

The 2018 NBA Playoffs are off and running, and the second-round matchups are starting to take shape. There has been a mix of surprises and predictability thus far, and the second round should hold more of the same.

The second and final Western Conference semifinal round was set following Utah’s win over Oklahoma City on Friday. The Rockets have been waiting since Wednesday to see who they would be facing in the second round.

With the matchup official, here are some predictions and analysis of what this series could hold.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets made short work of the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. Winning in just five games, Houston clearly overmatched and outclassed the Wolves.

Second halves were particularly strong for the Rockets. This includes a 50-point third quarter in Game 4. Every time it seemed like Minnesota had momentum, it was stomped out by the Rockets’ hot shooting and solid defense.

Rockets Jazz preview

Chris Paul dribbles against Derrick Rose during their first-round series. (Photo by Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports)

Only one of the five games was decided by single digits, as Game 1 ended 104-101 in favor of the Rockets. The rest were either blowouts or not hotly contested. The closeout game was decided by 18 points, which is indicative of the what the Wolves were able to muster against the best team in the NBA, in the face of elimination, no less.

The Rockets have scored an average of 110.4 points per game through their five contests. They are first in 3-pointers made and attempted, leading the second place teams by a wide margin. Despite their high-scoring ways, Houston’s field goal percentage sits at 44.5 percent. This is probably due to their offensive style of play, relying on threes rather than high-percentage looks.

The focal point of that offense, James Harden, sits at 29 points per game in the playoffs. His 3-point percentage is sky high, at 38.5 percent. Chris Paul, his backcourt teammate, is scoring at a clip of 19 points per game, while dishing out 6.6 assists. Those assists actually sit 0.8 lower than Harden’s.

Houston just keeps solidifying itself as the best team in the NBA. But with a relatively easy first-round matchup over, now the real tests begin.

Utah Jazz

One of the best stories in the 2018 playoffs has been this Utah Jazz team. Led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell, Utah took down a team led by three potential future Hall of Fame talents in the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In six games, the Jazz were able to ride their brand of defense-oriented basketball to a series win that not many saw coming. The combination of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was supposed to be built for playoff basketball. But the team fell flat against a potential new Western Conference powerhouse.

Rockets Jazz preview

Donovan Mitchell drives against Corey Brewer during the first round of the 2018 playoffs. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)

Mitchell has been putting up numbers not seen by a rookie in the playoffs since Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Averaging 28.5 points per game while also grabbing 7.2 rebounds, Mitchell has continued his dominance. Ricky Rubio has also been playing very well, scoring at a clip of 14 points per game and dishing out seven assists. Rubio also had a triple-double in Utah’s Game 3 win in Salt Lake City.

Coach Quin Snyder’s team has arguably over-achieved this season on the back of a possible Rookie of the Year campaign by Mitchell. But their undeniable performances against Oklahoma City and their big three may paint this team in a different light. The defense is some of the best in the league, and the scoring is confusing and frustrating of opposing teams.

Utah is a team that struggles to draw free agents, but if the team continues to play like this, then Western Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances are certainly on the horizon.

Preview and predictions

Utah will be an interesting challenge for the NBA’s best regular season team. Houston has a historically high-powered offense, but NBA fans just saw the Jazz’s defense shut down some of the premiere scorers in the league in the first round.

With Rudy Gobert locking down the paint, he might neutralize Clint Capela in the post. His two blocks per game are tied for fourth in the playoffs, and he can guard smaller players as well. Rubio has never been known for his defense, but his offense has nearly matched that of Chris Paul’s lately. Plus, his passing ability rivals Paul’s own.

The matchup to watch, however, will be Harden versus Mitchell. The defensive end of the floor will be irrelevant, but the offensive show these two players can put on will be ridiculously exciting. Look for Mitchell to do his best to match Harden’s performance, while Harden looks to show up the rookie at all costs. Plus, NBA fans have seen Harden go cold in the playoffs in the past, whereas Mitchell just keeps on delivering.

In the end, though, it is hard to bet against this Houston team. Their regular season pedigree speaks for itself, and in the NBA, more so than any other sport, great offense can beat great defense.

This one will be close, and a new rivalry might be born. But expect the Rockets’ push towards the finals to continue.

Rockets in six

 

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Game 7

Playoff teams most likely to win a Game 7

“The two best words in sports,” is the cliche often used to describe a Game 7.

A winner-take-all game is always exciting. Whether it is in the first round of the playoffs, or for the championship. Whether a person considers themselves a casual or rabid sports fan, it always feels like must-watch TV. A moment that will allow you to say “I was there when…”

With the NBA playoffs heating up, and the games getting more and more important as teams climb the ladder towards the NBA Finals, it is time to take a look at the teams most likely to win those games.

Here are the teams with the rosters most suited to win a Game 7, if a series should come down to it.

Golden State Warriors

Saying the Warriors can win one game is a little like saying that the sky is blue. But for sake of the argument, let’s look at their credentials.

As the dynasty has taken shape, the Warriors have only had to play two seven game series. Back to back, no less. Both series were infamous in their own ways.

The first was in the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder, before Kevin Durant switched sides. The second was the NBA Finals, as the best regular season team of all time fell to LeBron and the Cavaliers in Game 7.

The difference here is the aforementioned Kevin Durant acquisition. The Cavaliers proved to be too much for the Warriors in Oakland in 2016, but Golden State “only” had two prolific scorers back then, not three.

Game 7

Draymond Green drives to the hoop against Manu Ginobili during Tuesday’s Game 5 win. (Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)

Stephen Curry is slated for a return in the second round, assuming the Warriors finish off San Antonio. With him, Durant, Thompson, Green and their fantastic bench, it is going to take a fantastic team to take them to seven games, let alone win the series.

It seems as if the Warriors and the Rockets are on a collision course for Western Conference dominance. If that happens, then a potential Game 7 would take place in Houston, as the Rockets had the best record in the NBA. Against any other team, a Game 7 would be in Oakland.

Golden State, though, had the same record at home and on the road during the regular season, at 29-12. Obviously, the Warriors would like to play in front of their own fans, but a road game does not necessarily put the team at a disadvantage.

The Warriors can beat any given team, and have. With a fully healthy squad and the multitudes of playoff experience, betting against them in a winner-take-all game might be a fool’s errand.

Houston Rockets

Speaking of the Rockets, it is hard to deny that their offensive capabilities can overtake any team on any given night.

There is one obvious and pressing question facing Houston, however. Can they shrug off the idea that they are chokers, or that they lay down when the playoffs roll around?

Game 7

Paul and Harden celebrate during a game against the Denver Nuggets. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/Getty Images)

This is clearly a different Rockets team than we have seen in the past. The efficiency and shooting is off the charts, and they play legitimate defense. Chris Paul and James Harden have ditched their ball-hogging ways in favor of pacing and rhythm. Their three point shooting is historic, but does not hamstring their mid-range or low-post games.

The problem, though, is that if a team is going to commit to the jump shot, then they have to fall to stand a chance. Any and every team can go cold on a given night, and it will be especially memorable and demoralizing if that happens in a Game 7.

Houston’s home record is three games better than their road record (34-7 versus 31-10). That is good news, considering they will probably have home court advantage, regardless of their opponent.

The key to winning a Game 7 for Houston is to bury the opposing team early. As the Timberwolves have been well aware during their series with the Rockets, no lead is a comfortable one. When almost every player on the floor can score in bunches, problems arise for opposing defenses.

Riding their shooting abilities and continuing to play their brand of fast-paced basketball on both ends on the floor is their bread and butter. If the Rockets find themselves in a Game 7 situation, their opposing team will be preaching that every other statistic and record is irrelevant, and that anything can happen in a one game series.

That should not be Houston’s approach. The Rockets would need to go into that game remembering that they are the number one overall seed for a reason.

Toronto Raptors

Toronto is also on a quest to shake off some preconceived notions about their playoff performances. For the first time in franchise playoff history, the Raptors won a Game 1. So far, so good, but this team still has some proving of itself to do.

Not unlike the Rockets, the Raptors also seem to be different this year than in years past. In 2016, they lost in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2017, they were swept in the second round. Both series losses were to the Cavaliers, as they made their way to the NBA Finals.

Since 1996, the Raptors have played just two seven game series. The most recent was in 2016, as they beat the Pacers in Game 7 to earn their first-ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Game 7

DeRozan hangs on the rim after a dunk. (Photo by Steve Russell/Toronto Star)

This is a much, different team, though. DeRozan and Lowry are a dangerous backcourt duo when they are both on, and the role players have never been this good. Between those two and Valanciunas, Ibaka, and one of the most productive benches in the NBA, it seems as if Toronto can take on any team in the league at their best.

Coach Dwane Casey has balanced star power with fundamentals as well as any coach in the league, including Steve Kerr. Toronto rode that game plan to the East’s best record, and a chance to disprove doubters once and for all.

Toronto is much better at home than on the road. Considering they are the East’s number one seed, that should work out just fine. Unless they face a Game 7 matchup if they are able to reach the NBA Finals. At 25-16, their road record is a full nine games worse than their home record. Considering the Raptors’ rabid fanbase, that is not very surprising.

Much has been made of Lowry’s postseason struggles, and DeRozan’s feast or famine performances. But the fantastic bench and great defense can mask those issues in a single game. Sometimes, bench performance can be the difference in those games. Although, stars playing to their fullest potential is always the goal.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Here, it would probably be sufficient to write the words “LeBron James” and be done with it. But, while he is the heart and soul of the team, he is not the only player on the floor.

Cleveland’s struggles this year have largely been the focal point of the entire season. At the end of the day, though, this team can win close games.

Game 7

James embraces Love after their Game 7 NBA Finals win. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

J.R. Smith is a spotty shooter. Kevin Love essentially disappears if the team does not feed him the ball enough. Nance, Jr., Hood, and Green are all good complimentary pieces, but tend to shrivel under the spotlight. At any point, though, everyone just mentioned could play second fiddle to LeBron’s heroics. If they are all on, then teams are going to have a hard time figuring out what to do with the Cavaliers.

Lest we forget, the LeBron-led Cavs dethroned the Warriors in that historic Game 7. James also won a Game 7 against the Spurs in 2013. He is, without much argument, the best player in the world, and he can take over games at will.

Nothing would will James to a victory like a championship-or-bust one game series.

Tyronn Lue and the Cavs have beaten the best regular season team in NBA history in a Game 7. And while this iteration is much different, and not without its glaring issues, if the Cavaliers find themselves in this position again, it is hard to bet against The King.

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first round

NBA playoff roundup: Summaries and analysis after two games

The first round of the NBA playoffs is here.

With every series shifting to the lower seeded team’s home court, it is time to take a look at where each team stands matching up with their opponent, some potential focus changes and predictions on how the next games will shake out.

Here is a summary of every series now that the first two games are in the books.

Eastern Conference

Raptors vs. Wizards

The Toronto Raptors finally shook the first game monkey off of their backs.

Up until Saturday, the franchise had never won the first game of a playoff series. Now, they hold their first-ever 2-0 lead.

Game 1 ended in a 116-104 win for the Raptors, although the final score does not quite tell the whole story. Toronto started off well, and got out to an early lead. By the end of the third, though, they only lead by one point. The bench players sealed the win in the fourth quarter, which is unsurprising, as Toronto’s bench has been fantastic all season.

first round

Lowry guards Wall during Game 1. (Photo by Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Game 2 was all Raptors, as the Wizards could not keep up after Toronto put up a 44-point first quarter. DeRozan led all scorers with 37 points, as the game wrapped with a 130-119 final score.

Although players like Serge Ibaka and Mike Scott have been terrific, the real story here is the battle of the backcourts. DeRozan and Lowry are winning this battle handily. Lowry is averaging 12 points and 10.5 assists, and DeRozan is giving the Raptors 27 points and 5 assists.

Wall seems to have no more rust to shake off, however, as he is putting up 26 points per game, and distributing at a clip of 12.5 assists per game. While Beal, who has played all year and earned his first All-Star appearance, can only muster 14 points and 3.5 assists.

The series is now shifting to Washington, but that is not necessarily a gigantic advantage. The Raptors away record is two games better than the Wizards’ home record. Expect the home crowd to give the Wiz a boost, but if the Raptors continue their trend of incredibly timely scoring, this series could be over in four or five games.

Celtics vs. Bucks

Although the Celtics are up 2-0 in the series, it has not been as lopsided as the record indicates.

In Game 1, Boston needed overtime to beat the seventh-seeded Bucks, after Khris Middleton knocked down a Hail Mary 3-pointer with 0.5 on the clock. It was a game of runs, as Boston had a 15-0 run to end the first quarter, with Milwaukee answering with a 21-5 run in the second. It was only fitting that a game that back and forth got an extra period.

As the old adage goes, though, better teams win in overtime. The Celtics outscored the Bucks 14-8 in bonus time, and took the win.

Game 2 ended with a 120-106 Celtics victory, but the Bucks were not hopelessly behind for the entire game. Rather, they hung around, but just could not muster the defense necessary to hold off Boston’s balanced attack.

As expected, Antetokounmpo has been the driving force behind Milwaukee, averaging 32.5 points and 11 rebounds in the two games. Middleton, the Game 1 hero, has been a scoring machine, giving the Bucks 31 points in the first game and 25 in the second. Outside of the Greek Freak’s 13 rebound performance in Game 1, though, no other Buck has had a double-digit rebound game. This likely has contributed to their 0-2 hole.

Without Kyrie Irving, the Celtics have looked just fine. In Game 1, four Celtics scored 20 or more, with Jayson Tatum only being one point shy of making it five. Six of Boston’s players had double-digit scoring games in Game 2. Not bad for an injury-laden team whose offense was written off after the All-Star break.

If the Bucks can break out of some bad habits and lackluster defense, they could even this series at home. But look for the Celtics to take the series with their more complete team and better coaching. Biding time until Marcus Smart can return in May, Boston has a lot to play for.

76ers vs. Heat

This series has been great, and will likely stay that way.

The “watchability” factor is due in part to the fact that Game 1 was an absolute blowout. The 76ers carried their cocky attitude and potent offensive attack into the playoffs to the tune of a 130-103 win. Even without Embiid locking down the paint, this young Sixers team found ways to score and keep Miami from doing much offensively.

Veterans and newbies stepped up for Philadelphia in the 27-point drubbing of Miami. Redick and Belinelli contributed 28 and 25 points, respectively, while Saric gave a 20-point performance. Ben Simmons, the possible Rookie of the Year, was one rebound shy of a triple-double, and Ilyasova turned in a double-double. There is not much an opposing team can do about that.

first round

Wade against Simmons in Game 2. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

The story of Game 2 was vintage Dwyane Wade rearing his head. Wade played outside of his mind, scoring 28 points. He was playing off of the ball, however, only tallying three assists. Five other Miami players scored in double figures, including Dragic’s 20-point performance.

Saric and Simmons both had good second games, but while they received support scoring-wise, the defense was not enough to stop the Heat.

As the series moves to Miami, it will be the talk of the NBA if Wade can keep playing at this level. With Embiid still out, the series is up for grabs, as the mixed veteran and young talent of Miami tries to take advantage of the 76ers’ mostly inexperienced roster.

Hopefully, we are looking at a classic seven-game first round series.

Cavaliers vs. Pacers

The Pacers put an end to LeBron’s historic 21-game first round winning streak in Game 1 of this series. Considering all of Cleveland’s struggles this season, it is not really that surprising this is the year it came to an end.

In Game 1, the Pacers were on a mission to earn some respect. In the first quarter, they outscored the Cavs 33-14, and did not look back. Victor Oladipo, as he has been all year, was the focal point of Indiana’s offense. He scored 32 easily, while Stephenson, Turner and Bogdanovic all had double-digit scoring games.

LeBron had a triple-double, putting the Cavs on his back. It was not nearly enough, however, as they lost by 18 points on their home court. Only two other Cavaliers scored more than nine points, which cued the calls of “LeBron needs more help.”

Game 2 was a full-fledged LeBron takeover, though, as he was determined to not go down 0-2. James had 46 points and 12 rebounds, and outscored the entire Pacers team in the first quarter. As the Pacers cut an 18-point lead down to just four, more LeBron heroics sealed the win, as the Cavs came away with the three-point victory.

Any series featuring this Cavaliers team will be put under a microscope. The issues this team has had are not only well-documented but numerous. The second half of their season was less tumultuous, but it is generally agreed upon that 2018 could possibly put an end to LeBron’s streak of seven straight NBA Finals appearances.

Are the Pacers good enough to knock this battle-tested Cleveland team out in the first round, though? Probably not. Especially if LeBron continues his ageless 2018 campaign. Indiana does have a six-game advantage at home, versus Cleveland’s road record. But the Pacers continue to lean heavily on Oladipo.

Averaging 26 points in these first two games, probable Most Improved Player, Victor Oladipo, has no choice but to keep playing this well if the Pacers want to keep winning. Everyone knows what the Cavaliers can do when they put it all together, so, even though NBA pundits will say otherwise, the pressure is on Indiana to continue to impress.

 

Western Conference

Trail Blazers vs. Pelicans

The Pelicans have taken a surprising 2-0 lead in this third versus sixth seed first round series. It is magnified by the fact that both of these games have taken place in Portland, which features a fantastic home court advantage.

The first game was close, but the margin of victory would have been two possessions, if McCollum did not hit a prayer of a three-pointer at the buzzer. As with many NBA games, the final two minutes were the most exciting of the game. The Trail Blazers were within one point with one minute left, after a McCollum three.

The last minute was punctuated by poor decisions and turnovers by Portland. Not to be overshadowed, though, was some excellent defense by Jrue Holliday, which included a massive block with nine seconds left.

Another bad second half cost Portland Game 2 as well. The Pelicans dominated the turnover game and took advantage of every opportunity handed to them. Playoff Rondo is back in full force, falling one assist shy of a triple-double in Game 2, and had a massive 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter. He even stole the spotlight from Anthony Davis, which is no easy task.

first round

Jrue Holliday celebrates after a late foul was called against Portland. (Photo by Sean Meagher/Oregon Live)

It is hard to pick the brightest spot on the Pelicans roster over the first two games. Mirotic has proven to be an important addition, averaging 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. Jrue Holliday, as mentioned earlier, is playing well on both ends of the floor. Rondo contributed with his passing in Game 1, with 17 assists, and in all areas in Game 2. And of course, Davis has gotten his, with a 35-point, 14 rebound first game, and a 22-point, 13 rebound second game.

On the flip side, it is easy to pick out the problems for the Blazers. Lillard and McCollum have outright failed to carry the team the way that they did during the regular season.

Lillard is averaging 17.5 points, and McCollum has just a 15 point average. This is a far cry from Lillard’s 26.9 point and McCollum’s 21.4 point regular season average. These two simply need to play better, because when they do, the rest of the team feeds off of them. This is not an easy task, however, if Holliday and Rondo are going to continue to guard them as well as they are.

Yet another problem for the Blazers, is that the series now shifts to New Orleans. Not having the home court fans behind them has been a problem for Portland. The team is only one game above .500 on the road. The Pelicans only hold a three-game advantage at home, so expect the series to stay hotly contested.

Thunder vs. Jazz

Back-and-forth games have been the calling card of this series. Both games have been closer than their final scores indicate, due to late-game fouls and free throws. Lead changes are at a premium, and it appears that these two teams are evenly matched.

Game 1 featured two of the “OK3” have terrific nights. Paul George and Russell Westbrook combined for 65 points and 20 assists by themselves. Carmelo Anthony added 15 points and 7 rebounds, which helped carry the Thunder to a win.

Donovan Mitchell continued his dismantling of NBA defenses, with a 27-point night. He was also good for a double-double as he notched 10 rebounds. Six other Jazz players were in double figures in the scoring column, but the OK3’s 80 points were too much for the rookie-led Utah team. Both teams scored over 100, setting the stage for, possibly, the most exciting first-round series, depending on preference.

Continuing that trend, Mitchell did it again on Wednesday, earning 28 points. Derrick Favors turned in a double-double, and Ricky Rubio flirted with a triple-double. There were 13 lead changes in the game, but the last one in the fourth quarter belonged to the Jazz.

Westbrook, George and Anthony combined for 54 in Game 2. But Utah’s scoring was much more timely. The Thunder played well on the offensive end, as they usually do, but the defense that the Jazz are known for kept them ahead when it counted.

If the Thunder’s big three can continue averaging 67 points per game, it simply will be up to the Thunder’s bench to outscore Mitchell. The other big obstacle is Rudy Gobert, who locks down the paint with the best of them.

Utah’s home court advantage is significant, but the Thunder can score anywhere. Westbrook will have to continue to get his teammates involved, and Mitchell will have to play his brand of basketball to keep this series as fascinating as it has been.

Much like the Sixers-Heat series, we could be in line for a seven-game shootout here in the first round.

Warriors vs. Spurs

It seems as if the Warriors are doing just fine without Stephen Curry.

This is looking like the most lopsided series in the first round of the playoffs, because neither Game 1 nor Game 2 were close. The Spurs took minimal leads during Game 2, but they were short-lived. Other than those few instances, it has been all Warriors.

Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are showing their age, and the absence of Kawhi Leonard is glaring. Even the Warriors’ bench is looking to be too much for San Antonio. The Spurs have lost both games by 21 and 15, respectively.

first round

McGee and Thompson both go up for a block on Dejounte Murray. (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

They allowed Durant and Thompson to score over 30 in Game 2. Their only real scoring threat on a consistent basis is LaMarcus Aldridge. Even so, the Warriors can allow him to score whatever he wants as long as they continue to lock down the rest of the offense.

Meanwhile, the Warriors are playing so well that they have managed to take over the series despite just one double-double from any player in either game (Draymond Green, 12 points, 11 assists). Steve Kerr and this Warriors team are not only accustomed to the playoffs, but they have grown used to playing without Curry. Playing without the two-time MVP may not even cost them a game in this round.

The Warriors might perform sweeps of the Spurs in back to back years. Their only hope of salvaging a game is hoping Aldridge can keep repeating his 34 point, 12 rebound performance he put up in Game 2. Along with that, they will need Rudy Gay, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili to score 15 or more while playing good defense.

Other than that, all the Spurs have to look forward to is the trip home, where they play well. But it is very likely the advantage will not mean much.

Rockets vs. Timberwolves

Game 1 of this series saw what is probably the closest the Timberwolves will come to snatching a victory away from the best team in the NBA.

Losing by only three points, the Wolves lost their chance to tie on an abysmal final possession that ended with Andrew Wiggins losing the ball out of bounds with less than a second remaining on the clock. Minnesota played well, and Houston played as poorly as they are going to, and it still was not enough.

James Harden went off for 44 points, as he essentially scores at will. Only Capela and Paul could muster offense worth mentioning, as Harden was option number one, two and three for the Rockets.

Burgeoning star Karl-Anthony Towns only took nine shots in the entire game, making three of them. That is not winning basketball for the Wolves. It seems as if their only hope is to overpower the Rockets with Towns in the paint, as Capela makes his shots, but gets no plays ran for him.

Game 2 was the kind of blowout one might expect for the one seed versus eight seed matchups.

The Rockets won by 20, and only needed 12 points from James Harden to do it. Chris Paul was the standout in this game, backed up by Gerald Green. Only three Wolves scored in double-digits, none of them scoring 20 or more.

Frankly, the Timberwolves are outmatched and outclassed. As the series moves to Minneapolis, a crowd that has not seen a playoff game in 14 years may shake the Rockets enough to allow Minnesota to steal a game away, though.

It is going to take more than 6.5 points per game from Towns to do it, though.

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Jets look to fly past

Series outlook: Jets look to fly past Minnesota

This series is looking like it will be one of the most lopsided matchups of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Wild lost defensemen Ryan Suter before the end of the regular season, thinning an already thin defensive unit in Minnesota. The Winnipeg Jets are a team that plays fast and physical, but they do not have experience on their side.

Connor Hellebuyck Dominating In Net

Connor Hellebuyck was one of the best goalies in the entire NHL for the 2017-18 season. Since the new year began, Hellebuyck has been one of, if not the best goalie in the whole NHL. Since January 1st Hellebuyck had a 23-7-4 record with a .924 save percentage and a 2.35 goals against average.

Hellebuyck has made it incredibly hard for opponents to score and in turn, it has put the Winnipeg Jets on a different level. The Jets finished the season with the fifth lowest goals against average in the entire NHL, and a lot of it is due to the play of Connor Hellebuyck.

Jets Milestone Season

The 2017-18 season for the Winnipeg Jets is the best in their history to date, and it is not close. Their 114 points are the highest total they have ever had, and now the team looks forward to trying to get out of the west. Winnipeg has never made it passed the Conference Quarterfinals, and they have not been in the postseason since the 2014-15 season.

Patrik Laine’s Goal Scoring

jets look to fly past

(Photo By: (AOP))

Patrik Laine’s goal scoring in the 2017-18 season was an incredible thing to watch. At just 19-years old Laine finished second in the NHL with 44 goals. Laine is the first European born player to score more than 40 goals before he turned 20.

Patrik has established himself as one of the best goal scorers in the entire NHL, and he is only getting better. Laine now will have the opportunity to develop his playoff abilities. No playoff series is easy, but the matchup against the Minnesota Wild will make the transition a bit easier. Laine has played well against the Wild, but not his best. In four games against Minnesota, this season Laine has two goals and zero assists, but he has a plus/minus of +2.

If Laine gets hot in the postseason, the Winnipeg Jets will be an incredibly scary team to watch. They have the goaltending that can carry on its own, but they also have an offense that can score at will. This series will be a fun test to see just how good this team is.

The Wild Underdogs

It is clear that the Wild are significant underdogs against the Winnipeg Jets in this series. If Minnesota wants to win this series, they are most likely going to have to play some of the best hockey they have played all year. Winnipeg has had the Wild’s number so far this season as they hold a 3-1-0 record against them this season.

It Starts With Dubnyk

Even though the Wild are underdogs, the Predators were in the same situation as Minnesota was last year. If the Wild want to shock the hockey world and upset the Winnipeg Jets, it is going to start with goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Strong goaltending wins in the playoffs and Dubnyk has shown he can be that, but he is going to have to outplay one of the best goalies in the NHL. Dubnyk’s numbers in the 2017-18 season were about average for all goalies. He finished the season 35-16-7 with a .918 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average. Of course, if the Wild are going to make a run, these numbers are going to have to be better, but he has shown he can play like that.

The Fountain Of Youth: Featuring Eric Staal

Jets look to fly past

(Photo By: NHL.com)

Eric Staal returned to his old ways this season and the Minnesota Wild are reaping the rewards. Staal’s 76 points this season are his highest total since 2010-2011. Staal was in the hunt for the Maurice Richard Trophy late in the year, and his surprise goal scoring has caught the entire NHL off guard.

Staal has shown he can carry this Minnesota team and going into a massive series against the Jets he may be called upon to do just that. Eric scored multiple points in 17 different games this season, but none of them came against the Jets, in fact, Staal has only scored one point in his four games against Winnipeg this season.

The Wild are going to need production from Staal if they are going to steal this series from the hopeful Jets. The Wild are going to need a lot of things to go their way, but they definitely should not be counted out of this series.

Series Prediction

This series is going to be a lot closer than people think. The Wild are a beaten up team, but they do play with a lot of heart. I expect Devan Dubnyk to rise to the occasion and play some of the best hockey he has ever played.

Ultimately I do not think it will be enough. The Jets are a speedy and physical team, and even if Dubnyk plays well, they will wear down the Minnesota skaters. This series will be done in six, maybe seven games, but the Jets will take down the Wild in the end.

 

Jets win the series: 4-2

Featured image by CBS Sports

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“From Our Haus to Yours

Minnesota Wild All-Star break

Why the Wild will be benefiting greatly from the All-Star break

The All-Star break is here, and it gives teams and players a chance to rest up and think about how they are going to function in the second half of the season. Sometimes teams come out of the break slumping, but often there are always teams benefiting greatly from the break in the season.

The NHL season has been exhilarating so far. The Lightning can’t stop scoring and are playing some of the best hockey of the decade so far. The Golden Knights have come out of nowhere as an expansion team and currently are first place in the entire Western Conference. Out in the Metropolitan, the third-place division team and last place are only separated by five points.

This NHL season is proving that in hockey, any team can win if they play together. It is making for an entertaining season so far. As we go down the final leg of the season, a team’s final adjustments will either make or break its season. I have a feeling that the Wild will use this as a chance to enhance their level of play.

The Wild are one year removed from one of the best seasons in franchise history. Currently, they sit at sixth place in the Central Division with 57 points. So far this season, the Wild just haven’t been able to find the “It” factor. Forward Zach Parise has been sidelined with an injury the entire year, but that is not the issue for this team.

Defensive struggles

Minnesota is a team that has struggled on defense this season. They have been getting pucks in the net, but they just haven’t been able to stop them from getting into theirs. This break is good for this team because it will give coach Bruce Boudreau a chance to come up with a defensive scheme that fits his team.

As stated earlier, the Wild’s issue is not on the offensive end. So far this year, the Wild have scored 142 goals, which has them right up there with teams like Washington, Nashville, Philadelphia and San Jose. The struggles come on the defensive side as they have given up 139 goals. The Wild’s goal differential of +3 ranks 15th in the league.

This is why the Wild need to go and trade for a scorer, but they may not need to make a trade at all. Perhaps if they were going to, it should be for a defender. Adding a defender to go in front of Devan Dubnyk could be the difference maker for the Wild. The solution should not be to try and score more goals, but instead try and stop the other team from scoring. It’s a winning method in the playoffs, and that is what this team is all about.

Stop with the penalties

Penalties are a difference maker in every game in the NHL. It’s simple. If you let the other team play against you five on four for a majority of the game, chances are you will not win. Minnesota has had to defend the second most power plays this season and are ranked 10th on the penalty kill.

While this ranking is good, the Wild could see that ranking rise if they can merely stop committing so many penalties in the second part of the season. Adding a veteran defender could help stop the bleeding on the penalty crisis a little bit. It could take the pressure off some of the young forwards that have struggled defensively this season.

Dubnyk is human

A significant difference between this season and last season is that Devan Dubynk has come back down to earth with his play. Last season, Dubnyk had a stretch of play that was out of this world, but injuries have decreased his level of play this year.

Minnesota Wild All-Star break

(Photo by Stacy Bengs)

Dubnyk’s goals against average of 2.68 has him ranked 21st in the NHL, and his .916 save percentage has him 22nd. The decline in play from Dubnyk has hurt the Wild mightily, but the struggles of the Wild cannot go strictly on him.

What Dubnyk gave the Wild last season was abnormal, but there is no saying he will never play like that again. There is no reason to make any rash decisions in the net for this team. Alex Stalock has proved that he is a capable backup, and Dubnyk has shown flashes of his old self. His three shutouts have him tied for sixth in the league.

Dubnyk can win the games for the Wild, he just needs the play of his defense to elevate.

Benefiting from the All-Star break

Minnesota is a team that will be benefiting greatly from All-Star weekend. Boudreau can evaluate his team and decide what he wants to do in the second half of the season.

Adding a veteran defenseman could help with what has been an average at best defense this season, but they do not necessarily have to. This team has a solid balance of young and old players. The right scheme in the second half of the year from Boudreau could do wonders for this team.

They are a team on the outside looking in at the moment, but they are nowhere near being out of it. Currently, the Wild are six points behind the Blues for the last division spot and are tied with Colorado for the final Wild Card spot in the West. Colorado may cool down after the break, so the door is wide open for the Wild. They just need to walk through it.

 

Featured image by Trevor Hogan

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Timberwovles

How the Timberwolves can carve out a niche in the West

THE PUZZLE

The Timberwolves have an identity crisis.

It’s gotten so noticeable that Kenny Smith didn’t really have an answer for Charles Barkley when he was asked about the team’s direction going forward during the Wolves-Lakers Christmas night game on TNT.

Here’s the kicker, though: They’ve lost their starting point guard since then.  And with Jeff Teague out, the Timberwolves need to find and hone in on their strengths now more than ever.

It’s not a five-alarm fire just yet, as the Wolves would be the No. 4 seed at 22-14 if the playoffs started today. But don’t forget, Minnesota is trying to shake the longest playoff drought in the NBA (2004), and the third-longest active drought in American professional sports (behind the Buffalo Bills at 17 years and the Seattle Mariners at 16 years). When a team has been dealt that particular hand, things like this have to be treated with a certain sense of urgency.

THE PIECES

Let’s look at the pieces of this puzzle:

First and foremost we have Karl-Anthony Towns. Now, Towns can do everything on the court, including shoot 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip on the season as a 7-footer. He does everything well, and he will be a super-elite player within the next 3-5 years in the NBA, the only problem is, he cannot do everything alone. Towns needs whatever holes he brought with him to the arena on a given night to be stopped up by role-players, which is a small nit to pick, but not out of bounds considering the nature of this exercise.

Andrew Wiggins is wildly athletic, and can slash to the basket as well as anybody in the NBA. But the jump-shooting woes will inevitably start conversations about whether or not he was worth the $150 million price tag. If he is only going to shoot 43.2 percent from the field and 33.1 percent from distance (as this season’s numbers show), then he needs to be collecting more than 3.9 rebounds and dishing out 1.7 assists per game. His strength is his quickness, and he needs to be using it to find lanes to the basket with more frequency if he wants to catch defenses off-guard when he does shoot a jump shot.

Jimmy Butler is a premier player in the NBA. His spot-up shooting ability, defensive prowess and on-court presence is something all 30 teams would like to say they have in one package. Alas, Jimmy can only play for one team, and it’s the one coached by his former Bulls skipper, Tom Thibodeau. He has had to serve as more of the defensive anchor on a young team (because he knows Thibodeau’s system), but if the load on that end of the floor can be lifted in the future, watch out, because Jimmy loves to fill it up.

Jeff Teague is another slasher with streaky shooting ability. The difference between he and Wiggins, however, is that Teague is always simultaneously looking for his shot and looking to distribute the ball. 7.3 assists per game this season is not super flashy, but factor in the 13.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and you have yourself a piece that is going to be sorely missed. All initial reports on his sprained MCL suggest he’ll be sidelined 2-4 weeks, so the question is: Will Tyus Jones mimic Teague’s trademark aggressiveness, or take a back seat to Butler and Towns? Either scenario could help and hurt the Wolves in different ways.

Taj Gibson, another of Thibodeau’s old Bulls, has finally found his stride. Every one of his important statistics are up this year: Points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and he’s been working on his 3-point game as well. An odd story for a 32-year-old defensive-minded power forward, but a welcome presence in the starting five.

Minnesota’s bench plays less minutes than any other bench in the entire league, at only 13 minutes per game. They are 27th in PPG, 26th in APG and dead last in RPG. These numbers sound bad because they are bad, but what they are not is unsalvageable.

Thibodeau is a player’s coach, and has never been shy about putting in the players he think will him the game. The problem is, that this translates into leaning too heavily on his starters, when his bench is full of decent role-players.

Aaron Brooks is a pure shooter who will give you points if you give him minutes and an open spot. Jamaal Crawford is one of the most historic sixth men of all time, and can still bury his shot with a hand in his face. Nemanja Bjelica is your prototypical European big man with decent feet and a better long-range game. Gorgui Dieng is a fine true center with length and mobility to clean up the glass and give the team some putbacks. He also has championship experience from his days at Louisville, which is always something to take into account when determining a player’s value.

THE PICTURE ON THE BOX

Now that we have all of our pieces together in front of us, let’s try and solve the puzzle.

It’s no coincidence that the Wolves have been marred by fourth quarter collapses so far during the season. The latest of these coming at the hands of the Bucks on December 28. Antetokounmpo and his squad erased a 20 point third quarter deficit on their way to a win in Milwaukee.  So, let’s not overthink this one.

Fixing the fourth quarter yips is as simple as getting the starters off the floor. If Thibodeau starts believing in his bench more, instead of making his starters play 35 minutes per game, then they can be rested for the home stretch. A tired KAT is better than no KAT, but a rested KAT beats both of them.  Case closed.

This does not fix the identity crisis, however. Should the Wolves adopt the run-and-gun style of the Houston Rockets? Probably not, they don’t have the shooters that Houston does. Should they thrive on quick offense and turnover defense like the Warriors do?  No, the quickness is lacking and the Warriors feast on opponents who try to play their game.

The team they should emulate is none other than the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs play to their strengths, and shake up lineups constantly to cover up their weaknesses. They ask each player to do the thing at which they are best, and play within the system otherwise. True, NBA fans and non-NBA fans alike have called their style “boring” since 1999, but all their “boring” style has done is win them six conference titles and five championships.

Kawhi Leonard is a terrific talent, and they still have pieces to make a playoff run. But even with the best coach in the NBA, their glory days are behind them. Whether they rebuild or reload is irrelevant to the Wolves, however. The Timberwolves have the pieces now. And now is the time to emulate and tweak the Spurs’ style, and ride it to a potential championship.

Laid out above are the strengths of the key players on the team. Instead of throwing the starters at the wall to see what sticks, Thibodeau should mask the weaknesses by highlighting these strengths. Imagine Teague (when he returns) and Crawford at the guard spots chucking it down to Dieng and Towns when the opposition is playing small.  When they figure that out, throw in Butler, Brooks and Bjelica and pull the rip-cord on the 3-point game. When those stop falling, substitute for Wiggins and let him provide a one-man slashing exhibition.

The point is, Minnesota finally has the talent, the coach, and the superstar to break the drought. That will be good enough for now.  But no team’s goal is to fold in the first or second rounds. That is why the Wolves need to start implementing a system that will pay dividends down the road. Implement it now, and in earnest to see what the shopping list will be before the All-Star break or next summer.

Besides, it’s about time we see some lime green jerseys in the finals.

 

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MLB Postseason 2017 Wild Card Bonanza

MLB Postseason 2017 wild card bonanza

As the final chapter of MLB’s regular season comes to a close, a new chapter in baseball’s postseason lore is about to be written. Baseball fans are about to witness the MLB Postseason 2017 wild card bonanza!

The one game “play in” scenario is in its sixth season and there is no shortage of drama. We have an upstart young group in Minnesota heading in to Ruth’s house. Then we have division foes Colorado traveling to the desert to face the Diamondbacks. In the match-ups between slugger and pitcher, something’s got to give.

Before we turn the page to both the ALDS and NLDS however, we must first crown our two fully fledged members of the playoff court. When the dust settles, who will have slain the wild card dragon?

Minnesota @ New York  

Probable starters:

Minnesota: Ervin Santana (16-8) 3.28 ERA 7.1 K/9

New York: Luis Severino (14-6) 2.98 ERA 10.7 K/9

During the regular season the Yankees owned the head to head match up with four wins from six games. Each team bagged the home series as Minnesota took two of three from New York in Minneapolis, while New York swept the Twins right out of Yankee Stadium.

Why Minnesota wins:

MLB Postseason 2017 Wild Card Bonanza

The Minnesota Twins are hoping to ride another 85-win season to Wold Series glory like in 1987. (Photo courtesy of: sportslogos.net)

Minnesota, while not being world beaters by any stretch of the imagination, are a team that just finds a way to get it done. Finishing in the final wild card spot on the back of an 85-win season is a heck of a turnabout from their diabolical 59-win output a year ago. Included in those 85 wins is a (44-37) road record, which is better than how they fared at Target Field (41-40).

This is the Twins’ saving grace. They have been a slightly better road team this year than they have played at home. In a one game do or die situation on the road they will rely on their best pitcher, Ervin Santana, put together a strong outing. Last time he faced New York, Santana pitched 5.1 innings of two run ball, but the Twins found themselves on the wrong end of the box score losing 2-1.

If the Twins can get to Severino early and Santana can use his veteran guile and steady hand to silence the Yankee bats, they will win this game. The good news for the Twins is that all the pressure is off of them and lies squarely at the feet of New York.

Why New York wins:

Because… well, they are New York. They have a team that is loaded to bear and could do some tremendous damage in the postseason. They have a pitching staff anchored by the amazing young righthander, Luis Severino and a lineup bolstered by baseball bashing phenom, Aaron Judge.

Let’s face it. Most people probably expect the Yankees to walk away with this game and they might be right to think that come Wednesday.The Yankees are better in almost every category, though these teams offensively are much closer than you might expect.

MLB Postseason 2017 Wild Card Bonanza

Luis Severino will challenge any hitter brave enough to dig in against him. (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)

The true difference that separates these clubs is pitching. New York has the fifth ranked pitching staff in all of MLB, and the Twins will get a taste of that when they face Severino on Tuesday. This young hurler is a strikeout artist in the making, and the Twins will most certainly be on their heels (or swinging from them).

And then there is Aaron Judge. What hasn’t already been said about this guy? He’s probably put together the greatest (arguably!) rookie season in the history of baseball. He will be looking to double down on his already growing reputation by stamping his name on Yankee postseason history like the greats that came before him.

My pick:

Look, I love an underdog and Minnesota is just that. New York will be heavy favorites but I’m taking Minnesota to win 5-4. On the back of a big day for the returning Miguel Sano, the Twins will find enough juice to do the unthinkable; break the Yankee Mystique.

 

Colorado @ Arizona

Probable Starters:

Colorado: Jon Gray (10-4) 3.67 ERA 9.1 K/9

Arizona: Zack Greinke (17-7) 3.20 ERA 9.6 K/9

Colorado edged out the Milwaukee Brewers by a slim margin to set up a fateful meeting between two teamsthat see each other often. Arizona leads the 19-game season series (11-8), but the teams split the season in Arizona winning five games each. The Rockies will be looking to turn the tables on Cy Young candidate Zack Grienke and his Diamondbacks teammates.

Why Colorado wins:

MLB Postseason 2017 Wild Card Bonanza

Charlie Blackmon runs the bases in his spare time… probably. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Their offense. Colorado has some nice young pitchers who may well bloom in to a fine staff, but the name of the game for the Rockies is scoring runs and they do it well.

It’s not often you will see a lineup that boasts not one but two candidates for league MVP, but this is exactly what Colorado has in 3B Nolan Arenado and CF Charlie Blackmon. Arenado (.309/.373/.586) mashed 37 long balls and drove in 130 runs to keep with the tradition of strong seasons he’s already compiled. While Blackmon (.331/.399/.601) sent his own set of 37 baseballs into the lucky arms of those ball-wanting bleacher bums in the outfield cheap seats.

Jon Gray has been the best pitcher in Colorado’s (shaky at times) rotation. This 25-year-old hurler is the best chance they have at beating Arizona in a one-off game at Chase Field. In his last 11 starts, Gray is (7-2) with a 2.44 ERA.

Why Arizona wins:

Zack Greinke. If Greinke has his best stuff, it’s going to take a Harvey Haddix-esque fluke to derail Arizona’s hopes in this game. Greinke dominates with a heavy heater and a knee buckling curve that, year after year, make the best look weak. Over his last 11 starts though, he’s been a tad shaky at (4-3) with a 3.95 ERA. Of course, when those competitive juices get going though, Greinke should be able to get dialed right in.

MLB Postseason 2017 Wild Card Bonanza

Few are as overpowering as the hard throwing Zack Greinke, but hey batter,
watch out for the hammer. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Also in Arizona, you will find an offense that can score at will. If they are feeling the groove at the plate, look out. Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldshchmidt has put together a MVP caliber (.297/.404/.563) season in the arid climes of Phoenix. In a crowded field though, Goldschmidt is a dark horse contender for the NL MVP. He likely won’t take home that hardware, but it doesn’t make his 120 RBI any less valuable to the fans or his team.

For those that don’t know, Arizona won it all in 2001. Backed by a pitching staff bolstered by Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Diamondback fans will be hoping to catch a little of that lightning in a bottle once again in 2017.

My pick:

Greinke is too tough to solve for the Rockies. Zack’s recent run of performances haven’t looked that great, but giving up eight runs in a four inning outing will tend to do that. At any rate, Greinke rebounds with a dominant seven innings and the Diamnondbacks win 6-3 on a late Goldschmidt three-run tater.

 

 

(feature photo courtesy of: Boston CBS)

 

 

 

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Minnesota Twins

Minnesota Twins playoffs: Nobody saw this coming

Seven years ago, the Minnesota Twins headed in to the 2010 postseason as the 94-win AL Central champions. It was their last playoff appearance.

Even the most optimistic of Minnesota Twins fans could not have foreseen what this season had in store. Sure, there are probably a select few who were predicting the postseason in April, but then again, every year is a World Series year for those people. It’s adorable. And as someone who has spent the better part of 30 years rooting for Milwaukee, I get it. We had our own improbable run this year.

The Manager

Minnesota Twins

Twins Manager Paul Molitor has done a lot more smiling this year than he did in 2016. (Photo courtesy of: KARE TV)

Unlike the upstart Brewers (who cling to just the faintest of life), you have succeeded in stamping your ticket to the postseason. Although, it did require the help of a legendary Milwaukee Brewer “Igniter” piloting that ship and steadying it through turbulent waters. Obviously, this is tongue in cheek, but let’s face it, Paul Molitor has done a heckuva job with this ball club.

I’ve heard grumblings from Twins fans on social media questioning how Molly runs a pitching staff. I find that a lot of the time, however, you can’t please everyone. The differences in this year’s Twins twirlers compared to that 2016 abomination are something you should be celebrating.

Don’t misunderstand, nobody is saying the Twins staff is dominant, but improvements in team pitching are why you’re here. Last season you finished dead last in the American League in pitching and that had to be painful to watch; 59-win seasons do tend to be pretty awful.

This season however, the Twins pitching staff ranks 10th of 15 in American League total team pitching. This team has shaved close to half-a-run off their team ERA (4.63) in 2017, down from a revolting (5.08) ERA in 2016. It must be at least a little depressing to average giving up five-plus runs per game. What am I talking about? It is depressing, I’ve been there and done that with some of those fine collections of soft-tossing beach ball dealers the Brewers have collected over the years. Doug Davis anyone?

Ask yourself one question: Would you rather have another season where you endure giving up 889 runs, or would you rather give up over 100 fewer runs and play October baseball? This is more than enough reason to get behind your club and your manager in my estimation. Forget about the questionable pitching management, you’re in the playoff club!

Byron Buxton

Minnesota Twins

Byron Buxton, at age 23, already makes center field look way too simple. He should win the Gold Glove in 2017. (Photo Courtesy of: Twincities.com)

It doesn’t hurt a team’s fortunes either when one of your top youngsters flips the switch and begins to figure out the Major League game. This is exactly what Byron Buxton has done in 2017 for the Minnesota Twins.

I’m going to say this right now. Minnesota Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton is a Gold Glove winner. Should he not win the award bestowed upon the season’s best fielders in the AL this year, it will be an injustice.

He is just glove-ly. He uses that blazing speed to his advantage to become the predator lying in wait for any unsuspecting line drive looking only for clean grass to nest in. Even the best hitters regularly find the deep pocket of his cavernous glove.

And you can forget about burning this man. You’re not going to. He gets such an unbelievable jump on the ball and his read off the bat is so sharp, balls that would eat up most normal centerfielders find Buxton effortlessly tracking them down.

Long story short, he makes center field look easy. His (dWAR), or defensive wins above replacement, rating of 2.9 is second best in the majors this year to only all-world short stop, Andrelton Simmons who sits at a not too shabby 4.2 dWAR. And I do say that sarcastically by the way. Simmons is a man-god at short for Los Angeles.

Since the beginning of August, Buxton has been absolutely raking. As we have hit the dog days of summer, Buxton seems to be playing his best baseball at the right time stroking a (.303/.349/.556) line. Down the stretch, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a scorching (.380). This suggests he will almost certainly cool off. Twins fans however, hope that happens after the World Series.

It doesn’t matter what way you slice it, Buxton has been  great this year for the Twins. At 23 years old, the best is almost certainly yet to come. But for now, this is a young player on the rise and seemingly coming into his own. Buxton will not be a free agent until 2022, so enjoy your defensive stalwart in centerfield while he’s there.

Please, Not New York… Again

With Boston again losing to the Astros last night 3-2 and the Yankees shutting out the Blue Jays 4-0, the AL East is still in play. New York is sitting two back with a pair left to play entering Saturday.

While it is still mathematically possible the Yankees could walk away with the East, they need to win out. They also need Boston to lose out. And then they would need to win a one game playoff at Yankee Stadium to send Boston into the Wild Card matchup with the Twins. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? No.

The Minnesota Twins are most likely going to New York, folks.

Minnesota Twins playoffs

The 85-win Minnesota Twins record the final out in the 1987 World Series, overcoming a stacked St. Louis Cardinals team. (Photo courtesy of: Minnpost.com)

If you’re a Twins fan, you don’t need to be reminded of the tough luck in October since the 1991 dream season. The Twins successfully went from dead last in 1990 to champs in 1991. Since that season, which culminated in arguably the best World Series of all time, Minnesota’s fortunes have been much different. The New York Yankees have been a main culprit.

In four of the last seven playoff series the Twins have played, the Yankees have been their opponent. The results have been far from resembling competent baseball. In four Division Series hookups, the Minnesota Twins have played to a (2-12) record. The Twins were also swept out of October in each of the last two playoff series they played (2009 & 2010).

Over those 14 games, the Yankees have regularly out-slugged the Twins. Take Derek Jeter for instance, as he hit at a .351 clip through that stretch while also adding eight RBIs to further his team’s cause.

This type of performance wasn’t limited to just Jeter though, because the Yankees also hit 20 homers to Minnesota’s eight. That’s a lot of runs to be giving up over one swing of a bat, so it’s really not surprising they have only taken two wins in 14 games.

Although Jeter has since ascended in to baseball mythology, the Yankees have a new batch of talented players. Of course, this is including Rookie of the Year shoe-in and notorious baseball abuser Aaron Judge.

Here’s the good news though Twins fans, this is a one-off matchup. We all know that on any given day in MLB literally any team can win. This my friends, is the great equalizer. You don’t need to be consistent over a series of games. You only need one performance to pass your first test.

Granted, it’s a big test going on the road with a pitching staff that can be prone to giving up some runs. On top of that, you are facing a good slugging Yankee team.

But, there is always one of those, right? If you can get to the Yankees early and allow defenders like Byron Buxton to salt the game away in the field, you might just pull this baby out. And you might just start exercising some of those historical demons.

Just remember this, in 1987, the Minnesota Twins went 85-77 and won the whole dang thing. Anything is possible, dreamers!

 

(feature photo: KMSP TV)

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10-year peak WAR

What is 10-Year Peak WAR?

Just when you thought you had enough stats to last a lifetime someone had to come along and muck up the works with 10-year peak WAR.

As the most rabid of baseball stat junkies will tell you, wins above replacement (WAR) is a measure of performance that sets a player against the cumulative league averages to determine how much better or worse that player is compared to the “next best” option. Examining peak WAR as it is used currently, raises questions with about the validity of a player’s “peak” seasons as expressed through the 7-year peak WAR statistic.

My problem with 7-year peak WAR is that it does not give you a player’s peak production. It only tells you what his seven best statistical seasons were regarding wins above replacement. This is wrong for a couple of reasons. Allow me to explain my reasoning.

Peak is Prime

10-year peak WAR

Statistical anomaly, Brett Favre. (Photo courtesy of: The Guardian)

To me, peak is synonymous with a player’s physical prime. I would like to find common ground here because I hate to break it to the hardcore stat guys, peak does not mean seven best seasons. The definition of peak should be the same as talking about a player’s prime years, or when he is at his physical apex.

Settle down and let me finish before you go dusting off those torches. Don’t go thinking problems with peak WAR as it is currently considered is a challenge to WAR itself. Wins above replacement is very useful, especially when gauging a player’s Cooperstown credentials. My problem is with the way it is calculated with respects to a player’s peak.

I have spent countless hours poring over player data and calculating my own version of “peak WAR” and my application isn’t what might be usually expected. It’s hardly an attempt at reinventing the wheel though. Think of it as a minor tweak in how we view a player’s peak production. I must also add; the Cooperstown inductees have nothing to fear.

When looking at the peak of a pro-ballplayer, I don’t need to know what his seven best WAR seasons are, nor do I care. No, what I need to know is how well he performed through his physical peak. Here’s an example showing exactly what’s trying to be conveyed. Brett Favre in 2009 put up the greatest season of his entire career at 40-years old. Now tell me this, is this a guy in his peak? Or, is this an outlier of a season that happened outside of his physical peak? I’m going with the latter folks.

Let me get to the nuts and bolts. What I mean by physical peak is this: what is the player(s) production over his age 23-33 seasons when he is the strongest, fastest and fittest that he will ever be?

10-Year Peak WAR

10-year peak WAR

Not even Dave “Mr. May” Winfield had a higher 10-year peak than Koufax. (Photo courtesy of: Sports Illustrated)

Why pick 10 years as a sample? Firstly, this examination of peak WAR should only be used as a measure for Hall of Fame standards. The way I apply WAR should never be used on active players, unless you are comparing them with the career trajectory of a legend.

As I look at more and more data, those 10 years (23-33) look to be the general peak ages a player does his most damage. Granted there are players that don’t fit that criteria exactly, but these standards of peak envisioned here don’t care about that. If you enter the game at 24 years of age, like Kirby Puckett did for example, I take that as being a peak season. The reasoning is this, Hall of Fame players generally get to the bigs earlier and they stay longer.

Players should be rewarded for their production in their “non-peak” years as well. In my application of WAR, I generate two classes: 10-year peak WAR and Non-peak WAR. All 11 seasons that fall between a player’s age 23-33 seasons are his 10-year peak, and all other seasons up to age 22, and all seasons post-age 33 are calculated to be his non-peak WAR.

These calculations of 10-year peak WAR vs. Non-peak WAR speaks to one thing. Career Longevity. This is not to say that a player cannot be Hall of Fame worthy after playing a limited number of years, but generally, we all know that you need at least a decade of dominant play on your resume to get in to Cooperstown.

There are exceptions to every rule of course, but how many Sandy Koufax’s are there exactly? Koufax, by my system, had eight seasons of his 10-year prime only, and yet still managed a (50.2) WAR over that stretch.

It only becomes more impressive when you realize that in eight seasons from age 23-30, Koufax still put up better 10-year peak WAR than did Molitor, Stargell, Winfield and Puckett along with many more.

Non-peak WAR

10-year peak WAR

Paul Molitor has the highest non-peak WAR among HOF third basemen. (Photo courtesy of: Star Tribune)

This is where examining peak WAR takes a twist. A player should be rewarded for his length of career. If a player makes it to the bigs at 21 for instance, those first two seasons while he’s developing are tacked on to whatever production he shows from age 34 until retirement. This is what I call Non-peak WAR.

Consider my application of WAR as I have outlined it so far. What I am essentially doing, is saying how good were these guys, and for how long? I am favoring career length as much as I am favoring the player’s overall production and worth to his team. Trust me, the Hall of Famers still stand out. Start doing some calculations if you don’t believe me.

If you are a purest like me, Cooperstown isn’t for those that burn out after five seasons (unless you’re ridiculous like Koufax), Cooperstown is for those that do it better and do it longer. In case you are wondering what Sandy’s Non-peak WAR was, it was (3) and that’s not a typo either. The fact that Koufax made the Hall is a testament to how great he actually was.

Consider Paul Molitor. From 1980 through 1990, Molitor posted a (41.3) WAR. That’s damn good. But it’s also off the pace of Hall of Fame standards for third basemen using this version of 10-year peak WAR by nearly 10-points. It’s what Molitor did in those other 10 of his 21 big league seasons that truly sets him apart. His Non-peak WAR (34.2) is over two-times higher than Hall standard at his position (15.9). Molitor’s Non-peak WAR is so good, it puts him as the best of all time at third base in Non-peak WAR by nearly 9-points over Mike Schmidt’s (25.6) Non-peak WAR.

What it Means

10-year peak WAR

Larry Walker breaks toward first after making contact. (Photo courtesy of: Denver Post)

There really is no solid indicator for career longevity. Especially when you isolate a player’s seven best seasons irrespective of when they occurred in a player’s career chronologically. Those who play a shorter amount of time are going to have to be so good they won’t be denied. Like Koufax.

Falling short on one end of these WAR calculations isn’t scuttling a player’s shot at the Hall. But it is putting them to a higher standard to truly dominate for the brief moments they are playing.

What is harsh though, is Larry Walker only getting 21.9 percent of the vote in the most recent Hall of Fame voting. On his seventh ballot, mind you. Here’s a guy that finished with a 10-year peak WAR of (49.4) and a Non-peak WAR of (23.3). Not bad considering Hall average for RF is (52.6/20.6) by my system.

Walker is off the 10-year peak WAR of right fielders by 3-points, but he’s above Non-peak production by nearly 3-points. How is Walker not getting more than 1 in 5 Hall votes? And please, do not give me that, “He played in Colorado!” crap either. I’m not having it, where a player takes the field for their home games should not be looked upon as a sin. Furthermore, if that’s the standard we’re going by I feel bad for any great player that calls Coors Field home. Let’s not make Larry Walker another snub job that the Veterans Committee is going to have to fix.

Like the Alan Trammell debacle.

 

 

(feature photo courtesy of: Sports Illustrated)

 

 

 

 

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2017 NFC East division

2017 NFC East division preview

The NFL regular season is fast approaching. In the blink of an eye, Sep. 7 will arrive and the Chiefs and Patriots will be kicking off. In the meantime, Hagan’s Haus will be bringing you the divisional previews and predictions of how teams will finish in their respective divisions. Without further adu, here is the 2017 NFC East division preview.

4. Washington Redskins

Last season: 8-7-1

Strength of Schedule: 7

Last season was an up and down one for the Redskins. This year the schedule makers didn’t make it any easier on them. Aside from playing in the tough NFC East, Washington must also play the AFC West. The AFC West is arguably the best division in football. As if the tough schedule wasn’t enough to deal with, the Redskins have glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball.

2017 NFC East division preview

(Photo Credit: AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Offensively, their line is average but consistent. The running back situation is somewhat of a mess. None of Washington’s running backs had more than 750 yards last season.

Rob Kelley, Matt Jones and Chris Thompson all got significant carries and return this season. Washington also drafted Samaje Perine from Oklahoma. Without a clear cut go-to running back, the offense will be one dimensional.

The strength of the offense is the passing attack, but it isn’t even all that great on paper. Kirk Cousins is an average NFL quarterback who will not lead a team to a Super Bowl. In their division, he won’t even be able to get them into the playoffs this season.

He doesn’t have the best of receivers either. His number one receiver is a converted quarterback. Cousins’ other viable offensive weapon is tight end Jordan Reed who has had nagging injuries keeping him out of the lineup.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Redskins are going to struggle. The Redskins gave up 23.9 points per game last season because they couldn’t stop the run. Teams ran for an average of 119.8 yards per game. This problem wasn’t addressed in the draft or in free agency. Washington did draft Jonathan Allen, but are playing him at defensive end and his strength is against the pass.

With the lack of a running game and a defense that can’t stop the run, teams will control the flow of the game and the clock against the Redskins. Washington will be playing from behind and Kirk Cousins will have a higher interception total this season. Their seventh ranked schedule is also a major reason on why they will have a rough year.

Prediction: 5-11 (3-3), miss the playoffs

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Last season: 7-9

Strength of Schedule: (T) 10

The Eagles made a lot of moves in the offseason to help out second-year quarterback Carson Wentz. They made it a point to do so because the second season is the most important in the development of a quarterback.

2017 NFC East division preview

(Photo Credit: http://www.csnphilly.com)

Heading into the season the Eagles have the best ranked offensive line according to Pro Football Focus. That line should pave the way for a solid year by LeGarrette Blount, who led the league in rushing touchdowns last season.

Wentz was also given a new huge weapon at receiver in Alshon Jeffery. Jordan Mathews, who had 73 receptions in 2016, returns to play alongside Jeffery. Carson Wentz is also blessed with a really good tight end, Zach Ertz, who led the team in catches with 78.

The Eagles have a very talented defense that allowed 20.7 points per game last season. The defense hasn’t changed much and should play similar to the way they did last season.

Philly has road games outside the division against the Chiefs, Panthers and Seahawks. They also have home games against the Cardinals, Broncos and Raiders. A tough division and tough schedule are what may hold Philadelphia back this season.

Prediction: 7-9 (3-3), miss the playoffs

2. New York Giants

Last season: 11-5

Strength of Schedule: 8

2017 NFC East division preview

(Photo Credit: https://rukkus.com/)

New York’s season came to an abrupt end in the playoffs against the Packers after a 38-13 thrashing. It was just a bad game for the Giants and not a true indication of how good they really are. In reality, the Giants are a team capable of winning the Super Bowl and it starts with their defense.

Quietly, the Giants had one of the best defenses in the league last season. They gave up just 17.8 points per game, which was second best in the NFL. Their defensive line got lots of pressure and the amazing secondary put fear into opposing quarterbacks.

The weak spot of the defense is the linebacking corp and if they can just be average, then the Giants will have an elite defense yet again.

Offensively, the Giants can sleep easy knowing Eli Manning is still under center. He doesn’t get the shine like most Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, but he hasn’t missed a game since before Nov. 21, 2004. Manning is consistent and the team knows they will be able to get 4,000 yards and 25 or more touchdowns from him.

He has Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram as targets for 2017. This is going to make his job easy.

The only question mark on the offense is at running back. Paul Perkins is the man but can he shoulder the load for an entire season? He only carried the ball 112 times for 456 yards last season and will be taking over for Rashad Jennings. If he can be the workhorse, the Giants will have a dangerous offense that can win them a lot of games.

New York has talent on both sides of the ball. They will continue to build off of last season’s success and have another solid campaign in 2017 but it won’t be good enough to knock off the Cowboys for the division title.

Prediction: 10-6 (3-3), wildcard candidate

1. Dallas

Last season: 13-3

Strength of Schedule: (T) 10

2016 was a great year for Dallas as they ran out to a 13-3 record and a first-round bye. Unfortunately, their defense let them down against one of the game’s best quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers. Dallas fell to the Packers 34-31 in the divisional round of the playoffs and their surprising season came to end. This year there are Super Bowl expectations for America’s team.

2017 NFC East division preview

(Photo Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

The entire team is led by their running game. It is no secret how talented the offensive line is in Dallas and the Cowboys used it to their advantage. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards with 1,631 yards last season. The success of their running game took pressure off rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.

Prescott should take a leap this year as the Cowboys will attempt to open up the playbook. Dak threw for 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. The formula for success is still to run the ball, but with a better understanding of the offense and solid weapons around him, Dak could have an even better sophomore season.

The issue with the Cowboys is their defense but more specifically, their pass defense. Dallas addressed their defense by adding Taco Charlton to try and create quick pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They also drafted Jourdan Lewis out of Michigan, who was one of the best corners in the nation. To improve the secondary even further, they signed Nolan Carroll from the division rival Eagles.

All these moves should improve the defense but there is a potential superstar, who isn’t a new acquisition, waiting to be unleashed.

Jaylon Smith was a consensus top five pick last season before he blew his knee out in a bowl game. Smith sat out last season after the Cowboys drafted him in the second round. If Smith can stay healthy, he will be a Pro-Bowl caliber player. Adding him to this defense could be the difference in losing to Green Bay and heading to Minnesota for Super Bowl LII.

With all the talent the Cowboys have on offense, the defense just needs to be average. They will be better than average with the moves they made in the offseason and the Cowboys will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season.

Prediction: 12-4, division champion

 

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