Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 7 Recap

One of my favorite debates is whether or not Breaking Bad or Mad Men is the superior television series.  I’ve always argued for the latter because while Breaking Bad might be a better show in terms of the form and execution, the content being delved into on Mad Men has always been, in my opinion, far more important. Whereas Breaking Bad always seemed to just be one of my favorite ways to spend an hour, Mad Men was busy deconstructing the myth that America used to be a better place in the 1950s or proving why the revolutions of the 1960s were so necessary for the social fabric of our country.  Last night was the first time I ever felt Breaking Bad might be trying to make a statement about the United States of America. 

Stick with me on this. 

For whatever reason, our country and our pop culture in the US is obsessed with the folklore of organized crime.  Almost all of the stories tap into the idea of the American dream and the criminal achieving the own version of it by rising to be the overlord of some type of criminal empire.  Tony Soprano, Vito Corleone, Tony Montana…all were in search of the idea that it means something to be somebody in this country and that anyone can achieve wealth and success if only they put in the effort.  And you know what, audiences loved it.  All of these men are still worshipped, despite their many character flaws.  It’s not surprising given the lavish and glorious fashion in which they were presented.

So last night I had this idea as I watched the latest episode “Say My Name.”  Is it in any way possible that Vince Gilligan’s is submitting a five season criticism of the American dream?  Furthermore, is he making it a point to show Americans just how ugly a man would really have to become in order to run an organized crime outfit?  Whereas the predecessors sort of gave a romantic quality to these dons, I think it’s time we start considering the possibility that Gilligan is lashing out at the very culture that helped create Walter White.

The last thing I want to say about all that is that when discussing Mad Men against Breaking Bad I often brought up what I call the Oliver Stone problem.  Stone famously directed the movie Wall Street back in 1987 with the hope that personifying greed in Gordon Gecko would inspire a generation to clean up our financial system.  In fact it had the opposite effect and actually inspired a generation to try to imitate Gecko’s greedy ways.  I feel Mad Men has a similar crisis on its hands in that many of its biggest fans enjoy the show because they actually desire the world presented by the show, totally going against the point of the show in the first place.

Well, the Oliver Stone problem might just have touched a nerve with Gilligan.  Scarface, you might remember, was written by Stone.  Like Wall Street, it has inspired a generation of wannabe Tony Montanas.  To this day the character is glorified in song and art.  It’s like Vince Gilligan just finally had enough of all the romanticism about criminals and decided to show us what it’s really like to be that delusional.  And last night’s episode was the perfect example.  Onto the recap…

“Say My Name” opens up with Walt asking the Phoenix meth king Declan to do just that while debating the terms of a proposed business deal.  One of the themes of any great crime boss is that a name must mean something.  It has to ring out in the streets and command fear and respect.  You can’t help but love the irony that in Walt’s case it’s not even his real name (lending more credibility to my theory that Gilligan is blowing up the romantic qualities of organized crime–there will be no sympathy or love for Walter White when it is all said and done).

We then find out Walt’s hiding place for the methylamine.  He left it in the freaking car wash and heads over with Jesse to remove it.  Skyler, looking troubled as ever attempts to ask Walt questions about it.  Walt quickly dismisses her in dickish, alpha dog fashion showing the crazy levels his ego is reaching.

My personal favorite scene of the episode then unfolds as Walt and Jesse finally have their falling out.  Jesse makes it clear that he wants out and Walt foolishly believes he can manipulate him into staying again.  He then launches into a tirade when Jesse proves to be impervious to his assault.  Walt tries every possible manipulation on him and Jesse dismisses them all, his wide eyes an indicator of just how open he is to the monster in front of him.

It turns out Mike uses a different lawyer than Saul to distribute the money to the famous nine members of “the list.”  The man heads into a bank where he deposits predetermined amounts of cash into safety deposit boxes while leaving the majority of the cash to Mike’s granddaughter.  This will turn out to be problematic.  The scene is followed by Walt doing a new cook with Landry instead of Jesse after the break up.  One can’t help but feel this will end up being problematic as well, what with Landry taking a novel’s worth of notes and all.

Mike’s world then gets blown to pieces.  First the DEA busts his lawyer friend for shelling out the dirty cash.  The lawyer then agrees to flip on him.  And finally, the cops show up at the park in an attempt to arrest Mike.  He’s forced to make an extremely painful decision in that he must leave his granddaughter behind without ever having said goodbye.  It’s a cruel fate but in the moral world of Breaking Bad it makes sense.  Mike did horrible things.  Mike must pay the consequences.  Action. Reaction.  Breaking Bad.

The final sequence has been a bit of contention among television critics.  Many believe that Mike relenting and allowing Walt to bring him his getaway bag was simply too unrealistic, given how flawless Mike has always been in his execution.  It’s understandable that it came off as a bit unbelievable that Mike would make two mistakes in two weeks with regards to Walt, most especially because he loathes him so badly.  This week’s mistake costs him his life.

When Walt shows up an argument of course ensues and Walt absolutely blows his gasket.  He catches Mike off guard and helplessly strapped into the front seat of his car and shoots him with his own gun, a shot which proves to be fatal.  Ever the minimalist, Mike tells Walt to shut the f— up when he tries to apologize for how things turned out.  The episode leaves us with a gorgeous shot of Mike falling over next to a flowing river.  RIP to one the best characters in the show’s history.

The bodies are stacking up though, and as of yet Walt hasn’t paid the consequences.

Best Quote(s):

1. “Shut the f— up, and let me die in peace.” -Mike to Walt (after the latter shoots him)

2. “Say my name.” -Walt to Declan (in proving his alpha dog-ness over his rival druglord)

Best Scenes(s):

1. Walt and Jesse’s breakup

2. Mike’s death

3. The opening meeting between Walt and Declan

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Why You Shouldn’t Care About Lance Armstrong

Every professional athlete is cheating, in some capacity. 

I’m not saying that every successful athlete is taking testosterone shots to their back side three times a week.  I’m not saying that all pros are ingesting HGH at carefully selected points during the month.  But on some small level, every modern athlete is cheating. The level at which that cheating is crosses over from “strong work ethic” to “performance enhancing” is arbitrary.  Sports science and sports medicine have both developed to the point that we need to consider the possibility that we need to get rid of the idea of cheating via PEDs all together. 

That Lance Armstrong allegedly was “blood doping” during his seven Tour de France titles matters not.  After all, as was pointed out today, 41 of the 70 riders who finished in the top tens of those races has been busted for PEDs as well. This is a sport where one could argue that you weren’t even really competing unless you were cheating.  And that’s pretty much true for all sports in the modern era.

While the extent of the cheating varies from sport to sport, it exists in every major professional sport.  It’s a product of the unquenchable thirst to push the boundaries of the human body farther and faster than they’ve ever gone before.  A wide receiver loses a step or two, get him off the field!  An outfielder only has warning track power, cut him!  Shooting guard X can’t even dunk anymore, leave him on the bench! We’re all to blame for it which is why we shouldn’t care that it exists in any capacity.  These athletes are obligated to cheat if they want to compete at the insane levels required of professional sports.

Let’s just get this over with really quick. The common misconception with PEDs is that athletes use them primarily to get stronger.  While getting stronger can be considered a nice consilation prize, the primary purpose of using PEDs is to recover more quickly from injury, however major or minor that injury might be.  Basic excercise “injures” the muscles in some small capacity and through the body’s natural processes, the muscle rebuilds itself stronger for the next time.  The faster that rebuilding process takes place, the better.  By having muscles that aren’t injured, the body is more responsive in athletic activity.

Ask yourself an honest question, at what point does an athlete’s use of a foreign substance constitute cheating in your mind?

How can a person honestly argue that ingesting a protein shake after a workout is any different than using HGH?  The desired outcome is the same.  Both protein and HGH work to help the body recover from the workout.  Why is one substance perfectly normal and accepted as a legal rehabilitation method while the other is not?  Protein powder is a manufactured substance, mass produced for the sole purpose of helping people recover from workouts.  Why isn’t HGH available in the same capacity?

The ONLY, and there is only one, ONLY argument that can be used to stymie the use of performance enhancing drugs is with regards to the safety of the human body.  To which I’d counter, regulate it!  Regulate it like alcohol.  Regulate it like tobacco.  Make people aware of any health problems that come with its abuse but then let them have at it.  To come up with an explanation that some substances provide individuals a significant advantage while others do not is as asinine as the NCAA trying to justify the existence of amateur athletics.  There is no point anymore.  Let’s get rid of the hypocrisy all together and just admit it happens and try to regulate it so that some teenager doesn’t cause long-term damage to his kidneys by secretly shooting himself up too often with anabolic steroids.

And this doesn’t even get into the really ground-breaking area of PEDs, the type which Armstrong’s case ventured into.  What if performance enhancing drugs come from the very body with which they will eventually go back in to?  That’s sort of complex.  Here’s the easy way of saying it: how do we feel about guys like Kobe Bryant having their blood withdrawn, spun in a centrifuge, and then shot back into parts of their body?  It’s not a natural process but the ingredients, if you will, are all natural.  Are we as a society really going to try to sit down at a table and figure out which procedures like this are okay and which ones constitute cheating?  I don’t see columnists and sports anchors across the country crying foul over Kobe, but I’ll be god damned if Lance Armstrong dropped a little EPO into his blood!  That’s a god damn shame I tell you!  A shame!  And, oh yeah, what does EPO stand for again?

Exactly.

If there’s one thing that history has taught us during steroid scandals, it’s that the scientists and the athletes are always three steps ahead of the people trying to regulate it.  There are vastly superior resources devoted towards always pushing the bounds of sports science as opposed to regulating it. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and emotions to keep insisting that we need to continue persecuting the alleged “cheaters.”  Instead of having another pointless Salem Witch Trial, why don’t we take a proactive step and actually encourage safe experimentation and consumption of these products?  End the charade once and for all and I promise we’ll all be a lot happier as sports fans.

So seriously, sit down today and try to come up with “the line” at which you consider an athlete cheating today.  Hit me back in the comments even at which point I’ll dissect your argument 1,000 times over for its flaws and hypocrisies.  And if you still think PEDs are the devil, well, you’re probably a fan of the BCS and Skip Bayless.

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Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 5 Recap

One of the more fascinating developments in recent years with regard to television shows is the rise of genre fiction. By this I mean shows that are dedicated to a very specific type of story that appeals to a very specific type of consumer. The Walking Dead (zombies), Hell On Wheels (western), and Game Of Thrones (fantasy) are all perfect examples of this. Whereas in the past a channel never would have given these types of stories the time of day, much less a fully funded television program, shows like these are among the most popular on cable now. Who knew that appealing to the tastes of the audience and creating original stories would be so successful? Apparently not everyone. I’m pretty sure five cop dramas were just green-lighted for pilots in the time it took to right this sentence. This is me face palming myself.

I bring this up because Breaking Bad delved into a bit of genre fiction of its own last night in “Dead Freight,” choosing to go with the heist story, a sort of sub-genre of action films. It was wildly entertaining and tense throughout, even before Landry Clarke went back to his old murderous habits.

The episode opens with a previously unknown child riding his dirt bike through the New Mexico desert. He pulls over when he discovers a tarantula and immediately picks it up and marvels at it. As the audience braces for the inevitable poisonous bite, the boy reveals a glass jar in his coat pocket which he uses to trap the spider as a new pet. Crisis seemingly averted with said deadly creature now locked away in hiding.

Walt then shows up at Hank’s office to go over the extended sleepover plans for his children. Using acting skills that Bryan Cranston would be proud of, Walt reveals to Hank that Skyler no longer loves him and thinks he’s a bad influence on the children. He breaks down in tears and Hank, caught up in the awkwardness of the subject matter, demands to go get coffee for them both. While Hank steps out, a suddenly emotionless Walt places a bug on his computer as well as planting a listening device inside a picture frame.

My guess is that this is a clever bit of foreshadowing. It likely hints back to the season opener when the magnet scheme, while destroying the computer, actually caused them more problems by breaking Gus’ picture frame that revealed the foreign bank accounts. Could a picture frame spell disaster yet again?

The partnership of White, Pinkman, and Ehrmantraut then gets together for their weekly meeting, this time bringing a hostage in Lydia. Mike announces to her that she will complete a phone call to the DEA to find the source of the bugs she “discovered” last week. Hank isn’t sure but promises to look into it at which point Mike announces that it’s time for Lydia to die. She is saved only by the recently planted listening device which reveals that a sloppy DEA agent planted them in a rush. Lydia survives yet again and in a bargain for her continued safety promises to reveal an ocean of methylamine.

The episode returns to the White house which is still in desperate need of a visit from an electrician. The lighting has all but disappeared. Skyler and Walt engage in their latest back-and-forth regarding the state of their marriage and family and a sort of truce is reached. The kids will stay at Hank and Marie’s and Skyler will continue as Walt’s accomplice in laundering the money. And oh by the way Skyler, did Walt mention he was planning a train heist? He did? Good.

Because god damn if we don’t talk about the great train robbery of 2012.

Lydia tells the three guys that while getting barrels of their favorite ingredient is now out of the question, she can reveal a whole train car carrying the stuff. Wouldn’t you know it but the train just so happens to go through a dead area near Albuquerque which leaves them pretty much impervious to police involvement and external communication. Huge action movie plot assumptions aside, the heist scene was one of the more enjoyable scenes on television all year.

Mike advises the guys that their best course of action is to kill the two railroad employees that will be driving the train and in the biggest shocker of the season, Walt doesn’t challenge him on it. Jesse, ever the pacifist, urges them to pull off the robbery sans murder, coming up with his second brilliant “plan” of the season. The guys will create a diversion that forces the train to stop, at which time they’ll pump out the methylmine and pump in water, so as not to screw with the weight of the car. It seems they’ve thought of everything!

Like any good action fan knows though, it’s impossible to account for every variable involved with a good old-fashioned robbery. In this case, who knew another driver might want to use the public roadways that the crew used to clog the railroad crossing? And furthermore, who knew he’d be driving a Texas-sized pickup truck (super high lift and bumper guard included!) that could push the work truck out of the way? Well, everything can’t go smoothly. There is no such thing as the perfect robbery.

While the audience sweats out the good Samaritan and the eventual re-starting of the train, Walt refuses to quit pumping until he meets his quota. The gauge of their pump is cut in between shots of the massive locomotive coming to life. He pushes it to its absolute limit, forcing Landry (real name in this episode is Todd, apologies for the continued Friday Night Lights references) to jump off a moving vehicle and Jesse to wait it out laying flat on the tracks.

Celebration time! They pulled it off and no one even noticed their thievery! Right? Right? Right…

Wrong.

Poor spider-wielding dirt bike kid rides up to say hi. Landry pulls out a pistol. Jesse screams. Landry kills dirt bike kid, the latest victim of the poisonous cancer of Walter White.

The ending was shocking and completely unexpected. It was hard not to feel some sort of joy for our villains after they pulled off the heist successfully. That’s the point of every heist flick after all. Despite knowing that what the characters are doing is wrong, there’s some sort of awesome thrill in watching a complex plan get executed flawlessly. Vince Gilligan then immediately flipped this emotion on its head with the shocking death of the child. Cut to credits. Wow.

The powerful ending unleashes yet another series of problems for the guys to deal with. What to do with the body? What to do with Landry? Can Jesse hold together his emotions or is he about to go on a binge Chris Farley would be proud of? They all can’t continue to run from the consequences of their actions. Science and nature demand equal and opposite reactions.

Best Quote(s):

1. “No one, other than us, can ever know this robbery went down.” – Jesse to Landry, I mean Todd (not knowing just how zealously Todd would follow the order)

2. “Robbing a train” -Walt to Skyler (replying to her sarcastic inquiry into what he’s been doing lately)

3. YEAH BITCH! -Jesse (his latest celebratory chant, this time after they pull off the robbery)

4. “There are two kinds of heist. Those where the guys get away with it and those who leave witnesses.” -Mike to Jesse and Walt (while they plan the train robbery)

Best Scene(s):

1. The train heist

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Dwight Howard Trade Reaction

Hey! By now you probably know that some man who formerly played center for the Orlando Magic is going to play center for the Los Angeles Lakers next season.  Obviously this topic has been dissected on various horrible radio and television programs across the country, but that doesn’t mean you should skip this article!  Where else will you find blatant homerism for the Denver Nuggets in a Dwight Howard trade column?  That’s what I thought.

So, Dwight Howard, LA Laker…but what does it mean?

Los Angeles Lakers:

It’s no secret, so let’s just get this over with first.  The Lakers immediately go from a has-been team to the favorites to win the title this season.  Their starting lineup ranks among the greatest ever assembled and provides perfect balance to each of their stars’ talents.  So many options for them, here are just a few of the possibilities: Nash/Dwight pick-and-rolls, Nash/Gasol pick-and-rolls, Nash being able to dump to Gasol or Dwight after penetrating the lane, Nash throwing alley-oops to Gasol or Dwight, and did I mention they have Kobe Bryant?  Yikes. 

In addition to this, Dwight provides the perfect balance to Nash and Kobe’s deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball.  By being able to protect the rim after they get beat, the back court will be able to conserve all their energy towards offense.  It’s also perfect because Dwight never was comfortable being the go-to guy on offense.  He’s more than capable on the offensive end, but he just doesn’t possess the offensive skills of a guy like Shaq or Hakeem.  So long as he doesn’t pull an Andrew Bynum and demand to take 20-30 shots a game, they could conceivably win three or four more titles before Kobe retires.

The Lakers deserve considerable credit for pulling this off while retaining Gasol.  Simply amazing.  It’s worth mentioning the unlikely chain of events that led to this happening:

-Lakers trade Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in three-team deal for Chris Paul

-David Stern pulls a Vince McMahon and vetoes the trade

-Lamar Odom feels the Lakers disrespected him, demands trade

-Lakers trade Lamar Odom to Mavericks for a trade exception

-Lakers refuse to budge on Magic’s demand for both Gasol and Bynum during the season

-Dwight panics at the deadline and refuses to execute his early termination option, sabotaging his free agency chance this summer where he would have signed with Brooklyn

-Ramon Sessions agent convinces him not to execute his player option to stay with the Lakers, ends up getting less money to play for the last-place Bobcats

-Lakers convince division rival Suns to give them Steve Nash using trade exception from Lamar Odom trade and cap space from Sessions’ departure

-Brooklyn panics about opening arena without a superstar, overpays Brook Lopez, sabotages their chances at trading for Dwight

-Magic panic and take what on paper seems like the worst offer that the public is aware of, trading their second consecutive franchise center to the Lakers

This is your sad reminder that this could only happen to the Los Angeles Lakers.  I will now slam my head against the monitor for the next two hours.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly hit a home run.  They dumped their two biggest salaries from last season by amnestying Brand and then trading Iguodala.  Iguodala is a great player who fits a very specific need (more on him later), but he doesn’t justify his superstar salary and never wanted to be “the guy” on his team.  In addition to that they gain the second best center in the league and a player who is desperate for a shot at being “the guy.”  Jason Richardson is also a great fit with franchise centers, as the last couple years in Orlando have proven.  While Bynum has a lot of maturity issues, there are several reasons to believe this is going to work out really well for them. 

First, Bynum is from New Jersey and thus an east coast guy.  The move back east should please him, given that he will be closer to family.  Second, Doug Collins is a great, great coach with a ton of experience at getting immature players to buy into his system, most especially on defense.  Finally, Philly has one of the best young rosters in the game right now which is perfectly constructed to take advantage of his skill set.  They’ll be a salty team for the second consecutive year.

Philly isn’t going to win a title, but there’s no reason to think they can’t assume Atlanta’s old role as the team that you can count on to lose in the second round of the playoffs.

Orlando Magic

Most writers are (rightfully) bashing the way Orlando handled this Dwight trade.  By every account, they accepted the worst possible deal. Houston was willing to give up every asset they had and take on every bad Magic contract simply for the chance to rent Dwight for a season.  Sadly, even the Nets paltry offer would have made more sense. The Magic arguably got the three worst players in this deal with Afflalo, Harrington, and Vucevic and their haul of draft picks is in no way impressive. 

The recipe on trading away franchise players has always been to dump salary, get young players, and receive a nice collection of draft picks in return. Somehow, in a trade in which they gave up the best player, they made out the worst of the four teams involved.  This could only happen in the NBA.

However, I’ll offer one brief defense for their new GM,  Rob Hennigan.  The only proven way to win a championship in the NBA is to have a top ten talent.  There are only two ways to acquire a top ten talent.  Either you have to draft one and hold onto him as long as possible or you have to be one of the fortunate teams in a big market city who are able to sway free agents into signing there.  Orlando is not a big market city.

As much success as the Nuggets have had since the Carmelo trade, perfecting the blueprint for how to successfully trade away your franchise superstar, they will never win a title.  Sure they’ll compete and maybe even make a conference championship, but a title is out of the question. It makes sense that a team would rather risk futility for the chance at being great again rather than remain in the trap of mediocrity for the next ten years.

The only way Orlando can win a title is to go into absolute Charlotte Bobcats tank mode and hope that they’re fortunate enough to draft the next Dwight Howard.  It’s a frustrating business model that makes absolutely no sense, but that’s the modern day NBA.  A small market team needs to literally and figuratively win the lottery so that they can get the next Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard.

Denver Nuggets

I still have no idea how Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri pulled this off, but it’s worth mentioning that I memorized how to spell his name because of how impressed I am.  Every move he’s made since taking over the team has worked out in the Nuggets favor, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he should now be considered one of the five best GMs in the sport.  Consider: the Nuggets dumped two large and undesirable contracts and somehow got a superior player in return. That just doesn’t happen in professional basketball, well not since Isiah Thomas retired from the front office.

The best part is that Iguodala perfectly fits into the Nuggets system.  As Kelly Dwyer remarked on Ball Don’t Lie this morning, “Andre Iguodala is just about the most Denver Nuggets player in the NBA.” PERFECT.  There is no better way of explaining it.  Iguodala is an elite transition player, among the five best finishers in basketball according to the advanced stats.  It just so happens that the Nuggets love to push the ball in the open court.  Get used to seeing Lawson to Iguodala fast break highlights this year. George Karl has to be smirking somewhere right now imagining the possibilities.

In addition to his elite transition game, Iguodala also brings in a much desired defensive presence that the Nuggets lacked last year.  He’s one of the five best isolation defenders in the NBA and is the perfect candidate to match up with division foe Kevin Durant.  Denver just didn’t have a lock down defender that they could throw on the other team’s “guy” last year and there is perhaps no one better suited for that task than Iguodala.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that LeBron James might be the only better defender in the game.

It’s a great fit for team and player and Iguodala was always more content with being the number two or three option.  It’s no secret that Ty Lawson wants this to be his team and with Iguodala and Gallinari running the wings, the Nuggets will be a tough out for any team in the playoffs next year, assuming they stay healthy.  What’s disappointing though is that they’ll still fail to crack the West’s elite with the static top three of LA, OKC, and San Antonio.  None of those teams will want to face Denver though.

Nuggets fans can’t help but hope that this trade for AI from Philly works out better than the last one.  There is a lot of optimism to believe it will.

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Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 4 Recap

Immediately prior to Breaking Bad‘s coming on TV last night, AMC was showing Goodfellas.  I found this fitting because 1) Walter White is building his own resume in the conversation for best gangster ever depicted in television/film and 2) because the movie ends with the main character Henry Hill becoming self-aware of the audience and addressing them in a monologue.  This device, called meta reference, is clever and unique and it’s basically akin to a wrestler breaking down the fabled “fourth wall.”  Watch it here, in case you’ve forgotten it or somehow have yet to see the movie:

I bring this up because I can’t remember a show ever having characters that seem so self aware of the audience. The list of meta references in Breaking Bad is piling up a startling rate right now, so much so that I can’t help but feel that Vince Gilligan and company are developing a new genre of television fiction that will become increasingly popular in years to come.  This of course was first experimented with by the cast and crew of ABC’s Lost which used the internet and message boards as a way to shape (and sometimes, salvage) the direction of the show. Breaking Bad is perfecting the art.

How else to explain the show’s insistence on visiting familiar settings in this show like Walt Jr. only being involved in breakfast scenes, or the show clearly admitting it knows why people were critical of Skyler’s character, or Walt’s laughably invincible SUV?  And that’s just in this episode.  This meta referencing is worthy of an entire discussion all together (which I might just have to tackle later this week), but onto the episode itself…

“Fifty-One” opens with Walt and Walt Jr. again picking up his Pontiac Aztek from the mechanic after the latest round of repairs.  Upon finding his infamous black Heisenberg hat in the backseat, Walt promptly sells the thing for fifty bucks in a show of arrogance only then outdone by his purchase of not one but two new muscle cars, including a replica of the orange Dodge Challenger that was purchased once before for Jr. and later fire bombed.  The whole sideshow leaves the men morphing into pigs and mom without a parking spot for her humble wagon.  It’s worth noting that the black hat is a staple of Walt’s wardrobe now rather than something he dons as a disguise.  Transformation complete.

The pig metaphor is then thrown directly into the viewer’s face at breakfast when Skyler fails to shape the bacon into a “51” on Walt’s plate, a tradition from back at Walt’s 50th birthday in an earlier season.  It’s again referenced in the teaser from the beginning of this season in which Walt shapes them into a “52” on his plate at Denny’s. The depiction of men as pigs is reinforced when the two White men treat Skyler like a servant and force her to make the bacon shape herself while they watch on and smirk.  Skyler somehow is able to get the last laugh though when she steals a larger piece of bacon off Jr.’s plate to complete the “1” on Walt’s plate.  So many meanings, such a good scene.

The continued revisiting of scenes like the White family breakfast is never more apparent than this one and is used to show just how polluted the family is now.  What was once the symbol of safety and health for the Whites is now extremely ugly and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, Hank is on such a role since returning to the DEA that he is awarded a promotion as the head of the Albuquerque field office.  The scene shows the remarkable maturity of Hank’s character since the cocky agent we first met at the beginning of season one.  It’s a parallel to Carver on The Wire in which both characters start to realize that their arrogant first instincts aren’t always right and that the best approach usually involves taking in as much information as possible to come to reasoned conclusions. Good on Hank.  Given the logical nature of  Breaking Bad as a series, it seems more and more that it will be him who first outs Walt as a drug lord.

What happened next will likely be one of the “I-should-have-seen-the-signs” moments for Hank after Walt’s empire lays in ruin.  Skyler organizes a get together to celebrate Walt’s birthday, if it can even be called celebrating, with Hank and Marie as the only invited guests.  As the four sit on the back patio discussing how much their lives have changed over the past year, a memorable scenes develops. 

Walt launches into a disgusting monologue about his life over the past year in which those who are unaware (Hank and Marie) think he’s talking about overcoming cancer while those who are aware (Walt, Skyler, and the audience) know he’s actually referencing his rise to drug lord.  Skyler can’t take it and seemingly tries to drown herself in the back pool.  It’s beautifully shot so that Walt’s back is facing Skyler as it all unfolds and he’s 100% unaware of the damage going on behind him.  Blatant metaphor number 485 of the episode. 

Whether this plunge was meant to signify a cry for help or a symbolic attempt at washing away sins doesn’t really matter.  The haunting shot of Skyler floating in the water refusing to save herself will not be forgotten.

Business must go on though.  Mike and Lydia are forced intro improvising after the DEA picks up another one of the 11 members of their former crew.  Lydia is so distraught over the state of affairs in her life that she can’t even wear matching shoes to work.  She then hatches a plan to try to get out of the game.  When Jesse arrives to secure the latest barrel of methylene, Lydia plants a fake tracking device on the barrel and points it out to Jesse.  Mike quickly sniffs out the BS move at a meeting of the partners at which it is decided that business goes on, no matter what the cost.  Whether this references Lydia surviving a Mike assassination attempt yet again or facing death soon remains to be seen.

The episode will best be remembered though for the confrontation between Walt and Skyler after the pool incident.  In that spat, Skyler reveals that she will no longer let their children into the house while Walt is still there.  She demonstrates an awareness that she is beyond saving but that she will do whatever it takes to keep her children out of the mess.  Walt attempts to mock her failed logic by using his superior brain power, and only then is he made aware of her real plan.  She’s going to wait out his inevitable death from cancer.  It was probably the best-ever scene for Skyler in the series history and very reminiscent of the scene in Godfather II where Kay reveals to Michael Corleone that she had an abortion to prevent him from continuing to spread his evil seed on the earth. Powerful, to say the least. 

Although she seems to be right that the cancer will return, it no longer seems that she’ll be the one to bring down the empire.  Her mental state is too unstable and the bacon trick seems to reveal that she won’t be around for Walt’s 52nd birthday.

Walt clearly is the personification of cancer at this point.  He pollutes, uses, destroys, and disposes of every person he comes in contact with, so much so that the only logical conclusion is death.  Unlike more minor forms, there is no chemotherapy or radiation treatment to temper the cancer that is Walter White though.

And finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the show’s incredible amount of references towards famous mob scenes in television and film.  Whether this was a great conspiracy (AMC ran a “Mob Week” theme the past seven days) or a grand coincidence is unknown as of now.  However, it was hard not to recall that famous scene with Kay and Michael from Godfather II I already mentioned.  Additionally, the pink Cadillac scene from Goodfellas (the muscle cars in this episode), the plethora of Scarface nods, and even the fade to black at the end of this episode which obviously seems to be a reference to the notorious ending of Sopranos.

Like the ticking on Walt’s new watch from Jesse, everything is coming to an end, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t happen like the explosion of a bomb as Mike predicted.

Best Scene(s): 1. The confrontation between Walt and Skyler

2. The pool scene

Best Quote(s): 1. “For the cancer to come back.” -Skyler to Walt (revealing what she’s waiting for and her plan to defeat Walt and save their children)

2. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler. And so will you.” -Walt to Skyler (explaining the watch gift he received from Jesse, not realizing he can’t control Skyler’s mind like he does Jesse’s)

3. “But then someone, or something, would come through for me.” -Walt to Hank and Marie (in the double meaning scene at the pool)

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Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 3 Recap

Fans of Breaking Bad are aware that the show’s famous pitch line is that they’re going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.  It’s with avid curiosity then that many have started to look for references that Walter White is in fact turning into Tony Montana.  While season five’s premier “Live Free Or Die” gave a subtle reference with a future Walt purchasing a massive machine gun reminiscent of Montana’s, episode three decided to be completely blatant.  Skyler White is awakened from an afternoon nap by machine gun fire from Scarface’s most famous scene, playing a slight meta trick on the viewer.  She heads into the living room to find her family watching the film. While walking away Skyler hears Walt tell Walter Jr. that, “everyone dies in this movie.”  It’s likely the most cringe-inducing foreshadowing in the series history.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you how it got there though.  This is Breaking Bad, afterall.  Every element that’s responsible for “getting there” must be explained.

“Hazard Pay” begins with a lawyer going to visit one of his clients in prison.  Immediately it becomes apparent that he’s brought Mike with him, telling the guard that it’s his own personal paralegal. They’re brought into a room while Mike discusses his business plan with the inmate.  The lawyer intentionally tunes out the conversation with an iPod.  Mike ensures the man that old promises will be kept.  Keep that in mind.

The episode heads back to the White household which at this point may as well be renamed to the Black household given the poisonous relationship of the married couple.  The set crew is making a very intentional attempt to give the house less lighting, an obvious tell that the happiness of the house has packed it’s bag and skipped town, something the Whites should have done a long time ago.

Skyler finds Walt moving his things back into the house, without her consent, and she realizes how helpless she is to stop the monster of a man that used to be her husband.

Moving back to business, Walt, Jesse, Mike and Saul set out to find a new place in which they can conceal their operation.  It’s a classic scene in which each of the characters is free to exhibit their personality quirks.  Saul cracks bad jokes about how uncomfortable he is.  Mike speaks little but is keenly aware of his surroundings.  Walt lets everyone know how smart he is by dismissing each of the potential cook sites with the precision of a master scientist.  And Jesse proves that he’s way more intelligent than anyone in the operation gives him credit for, while hilariously swiping a free tortilla.

Walt eventually hatches what seems right now to be a brilliant plan whereby the new trio will cook at houses that are being treated for pest control.  Logistics are coordinated and later they’re introduced to the pest controllers which just so happen to include Landry from Friday Night Lights.  As if I needed another reason to love this show.  It seems Landry dropped out of Rice and is now working as a member of the pest crew that fronts for a burglary operation.  Matt Saracen’s grandma would be so disappointed.

After a successful cook, Walt and Jesse sit down for what can only be described as a father-son talk in which the former advises the latter on relationships.  Although his advice to Jesse is true and based on experience, it’s so very clear that Walt is toying with his young accomplice again, implying that he needs to get out of the only healthy relationship he’s ever had.  It’s also an eerily similar shot to a scene earlier in the episode when Walt is forced to share a couch with Andrea’s son Brock that he poisoned last season. 

Back to Skyler now.  Mrs. White is quite simply caving under the stress of their new life.  At a lunch with her sister, she has a complete mental breakdown in which she breaks the New Mexico state record for most times saying “shut up” in succession.  While she does bear some responsibility at this point, it’s hard not to feel for Skyler.  Many a critic has pointed out that one of the most satisfying endings for the show would be if it was her who ends Walt’s reign of terror by turning state’s witness, rather than the equally expected shootout death. A radical decision like a suicide can’t be ruled out either.

It’s after all of this that the most tense scene takes place.  The fruits of doing business aren’t as plentiful as Walter White originally calculated.  Everyone in the supply chain must be compensated, only there’s bunches more people this go around, given that none of the trio have a fast food chain to cover their distribution network.  Mike also reveals to his partners that he’ll be compensating the infamous 11 who had their nest eggs seized by the US government last week.  And thus begins the first of what will surely be many stare downs between the two gigantic egos of White, Pinkman, and Ehrmantraut LLP.  Jesse is so broken by the two father figures fighting that he offers to cover all the costs himself.

While the gesture does soften the mood, Walt is clearly pissed that Jesse didn’t take his side.  He ends the episode comparing the now deceased Victor to Icarus of Greek mythology fame.  The intention of this parable is as of yet unclear and no one can really agree what it means.  There seems to be only two potential meanings though.  The first is that Walt is trying to plant a seed inside Jesse that Mike will need to go, somewhere down the line.  The other possibility is that Walt is pretty much telling Jesse to never cross him in public again, less he also go the way of Victor (which, if you need reminding, was to have Gus Fring slit his throat).

Walt’s ego is so bruised by the betrayal that he doesn’t even notice Jesse attempting to talk out his emotions after breaking up with Andrea, based on Walt’s advice on the couch.  Seems like this was a huge miscalculation by Walt, which will surely have severe repercussions down the road. 

A rather tame episode that was all about setting up what is to come.  The viewer by now trusts Gilligan with what he’s doing, but as a whole “Hazard Pay” can only be described as a time filler.

Best Quote(s): 1. “I think everyone dies in this movie.” -Walt to Walt Jr. (while watching Scarface, a possible reference to the White family’s future)

2. “Shut up, Shut Up, SHUT UP….” -Skyler to Marie (while having a nervous breakdown)

3. “Yes, he handles the business. And I handle him.” – Walt to Saul (about his new partnership with Mike and also as a potential foreshadowing)

4. “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.” -Mike to Walt (and yes I realize I mistakenly included this last week, my apologies)

Best Scene(s): 1. Skyler’s panic attack

2. Walt’s couch scene with Jesse

3. The distribution of the cash to the three partners

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A Word Of Caution On The Penn State Ruling

A rare double column day at Gen Y!  I’m overextending myself, obviously.  I promise not to write again for three weeks…

It’s hard not to be fascinated by what took place this very morning when NCAA president Mark Emmert took unprecedented measures against Penn State University. The school will be forced to pay $60 million to be given to child abuse causes, will be banned from bowls for four years, and will slowly vacate increasing numbers of football scholarships over that time period. Furthermore, the NCAA erased all of Joe Paterno’s wins from 1998 until 2011 meaning he will no longer go down in record books as the all-time winning-est coach in college football history.

I even dare to broach this subject in the first place because of the shocking reactions I’ve seen on both sides of the fence on this issue. You’re either really, really happy about what the NCAA did this morning or you’re really, really pissed off about it.

Admittedly I’m a weak person and can’t really decide what side I want to side with on this one.

I confess that I felt a sick sort of pleasure this morning knowing that all of the Penn Staters out there basically suffered the post-modern version of the NCAA death penalty. By all accounts, one could easily argue that what Emmert did was far worse than anything suffered by SMU back in the 80s. I smiled when he read his penalties out loud. I do believe that this was a problem with a college, a city, and an overall culture. Whatever side you agree with, you have to admit that the NCAA did make an attempt to punish that whole community with this ruling. I liked that, sadly.

On the flip side though, I can’t stand the idea of the NCAA as an entity in the first place. If you ask me, the whole notion of college athletics really is a modern day version of slavery. It’s a bunch of rich white dudes making vast amounts of cash for doing nothing whatsoever and not deserving any of the ridiculous amounts of money that they earn.

If you’re not familiar with the history of the NCAA, you may not know that they used to wield almost no power whatsoever. They only gained their modern day authority thanks to Walter Byers doing some savvy political moving back in the 1950s. It was then that the schools kind of agreed without knowing it to let the NCAA have authoritative powers.

For the first time since those early days when none of the schools actually paid attention to the NCAA, these last five years have seemed to finally show the general public that we need to get rid of the idea of amateurism and the NCAA once and for all. College sports, bowl games, all of it. Until the athletes are compensated there is simply no justification for its existence, no matter how enjoyable it is to root for your alma mater.

My fear is that what we just witnessed this morning is the second most important event in the history of the NCAA since Walter Byers was hired all the way back in the 1950s. I’m afraid that Mark Emmert just rebranded the NCAA as a moral authority in the eyes of the public and that they’ll use this new position to continue an unjustified existence. So long as they keep the blood-thirsty public satisfied, the public will drop this notion that the organization needs to be terminated.

The sad reality is that those saps at the NCAA don’t care about the victims at Penn State. The only thing they’ve proven to care about in their entire history is self preservation. As satisfying as it was this morning to see that program get what it deserved, there’s a danger in the amount of power the NCAA just attempted to demonstrate. So I urge you all caution.

Don’t be fooled by their sudden amount of empathy for the plights of the student athletes in letting all the kids transfer immediately and without penalty. Don’t be fooled by the NCAA using the fine money for charitable causes. And don’t be fooled by Mark freaking Emmert who once used his power as NCAA president to prevent a kid from playing at Kentucky, simply because the kid reneged on an offer to play at Washington while Emmert was the president there. He’s a petty sap who makes $1.6 million for the stupidest, most pointless job in the entire country.

This is the NCAA version 2.0 and they’re coming to a campus near you.

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Second Half Fantasy Baseball Advice

If you’re anything like me, you’re addicted to any and all fantasy sports.  Thus, the All-Star break officially marks the start of the stretch run towards winning the fantasy baseball championship.  While I can’t claim to be a fantasy expert in the way that Matthew Berry can claim to be a fantasy expert, I can vouch that I most certainly participate in an unhealthy amount of fantasy sports and have been for about fifteen years now.   Because of this, I can safely say with an overwhelming amount of confidence that I know more about fantasy sports than you, or pretty much any person I’ve ever met. 

Let me then counter my arrogance by saying that this doesn’t mean that I just win every league that I join.  As any experienced fantasy player knows, winning a league requires an extraordinary amount of luck.  The trick is to reduce your amount of luck required as much as possible.  As is oft repeated by fantasy columnists around the world, the advice I’m about to give is not a one-stop shop for fantasy advice.  Like any subject, you should be consuming a variety of content from a variety of different sources so that you don’t become ignorant and stubborn. My final disclaimer is that I don’t pretend to have an advanced understanding of statistics, mathematics, modeling, or any of the other fancy words attached to the analytics movement in sports.  I have a basic understanding and know how to use these advanced metrics to my advantage though, with quantifiable results.  With all that said, let’s see if I can’t help you find some value in the last half of the season to help you eventually win your league trophy.

There is no doubt that the biggest competitive advantage to be had right now in fantasy sports is still the under-usage of sabermetrics by owners.  While this is great for stats-obsessed losers like myself, it still astounds me how little the average fantasy player knows about advanced stats, given that we’re about a decade removed from Michael Lewis releasing Moneyball.  More importantly, it astounds me that they don’t know how to use advanced stats to help them build a solid squad.  A fantasy owner in 2012 doesn’t need to be able to explain how to calculate a stat like WAR or xFIP, but at a bare minimum they need to know how to use them to aid in building and tooling their team.

I’ll save long explanations on using the advanced stats for another column.  Basically what I’ve done here is compiled the players who have either gotten extremely unlucky or extremely lucky in the first half.  Based on this knowledge you can either find some undervalued guys to target in trades or you can look to sell high on players before they start to suck.  Here’s the list, based on what the advanced stats are telling us.

Pitchers You Should Target

1. Tim Lincecum – Take a quick look at Lincecum’s first half numbers and it’s quite clear that it was a disaster.  A shocking 3-10 record, an alarming 6.42 ERA, and a sky-high 1.58 WHIP aren’t exactly helping out his owners.  Many of them would have ditched him by now, if his name wasn’t Tim Lincecum.  This is exactly the kind of guy you should be looking to grab, while his value is at an all-time low.  While I can’t promise that he’ll return to the Cy Young form of old, Lincecum is due to start getting luckier.  In fact, he’s pretty much been the unluckiest pitcher in all of baseball thus far.  The advanced stats say he’s getting extremely unlucky on balls hit into play and that his fielders are letting him down right now.  He also has the second lowest left-on-base percentage among qualified starters.  These are all things that tend to average out over time so cash in now and enjoy Lincecum’s return to normalcy, especially when he dials it as the Giants shoot for the NL West Crown.  You can also take satisfaction in that he still delivers one of the best strikeout rates in MLB while you wait for the other numbers to come down.

2. Adam Wainwright

3. Josh Johnson

4. Max Scherzer

5. Jon Lester

Pitchers You Should Consider Trading

1. Ryan Vogelsong – Tim Lincecum’s lesser-known teammate enjoyed a second consecutive year of proving the critics wrong before the All-Star Gane.  He boasts one of the lowest ERAs in all of baseball and won a very respectable seven games.  The time is now to get as much as you can in return for him.  The numbers suggest that Vogelsong is unusually lucky in situations with runners on-base and that he’s getting extremely lucky on balls that get hit into the field of play.  There is some sucker in your league who has been salivating all year about his ERA and you should be able to rope him into a deal where you can fix another weakness on your roster.

2. C.J. Wilson 

3. Jeremy Hellickson

4. Ryan Dempster

5. Kyle Loshe

Hitters You Should Target

1. Jose Bautista – Okay so it’s not exactly an open secret that Bautista is the man.  It’s far from likely that you’ll be able to get him on the cheap either, given that he’s leading the league in home runs.  Let me defend this by saying that it’s possible Bautista is still due to see his numbers go up across the board after getting extremely unlucky in the first half with balls he hit into play.  So despite having league-leading power numbers, he still technically may have underachieved.  If you have an owner out there with Bautista who is desperate for some pitching, make the Blue Jays slugger your primary target.

2. Eric Hosmer

3. Cameron Maybin

4. Brian McCann

5. Rickie Weeks

Hitters You Should Consider Trading

1. Carlos Ruiz – If you were one of the lucky few who grabbed Ruiz with the last pick in the draft only to enjoy perhaps the finest offensive first-half by any catcher offensively, give yourself a pat on the back.  Now, start trying to move Ruiz, like yesterday.  If it seems like his numbers came out of nowhere, that’s because they did.  Ruiz is not only going for career-high numbers in all the traditional categories, but the advanced stats also suggest he’s getting the luckiest breaks of his career too.  He’s also bound to be hurt by the returns of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard which will push him back in the order.

2. Alex Rios

3. Jason Kubel

4. Austin Jackson

5. Edwin Encarnacion

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NBA Finals Game Five Recap

“It’s about damn time” -LeBron James

LeBron James couldn’t contain his happiness. Pulled from the game with three minutes remaining and the victory well in hand, James began his championship celebration on the bench. It’s hard to remember a Finals MVP who was that visibly happy, that willing to let the world get a glimpse inside. So many times a star player will collapse in exhaustion or cry like a baby, unable to speak to anyone. That’s not LeBron James, never has been. As he admitted after the game to Stuart Scott, he plays the game of basketball to be happy. He was never meant to play the game with the anger that drove people like Jordan. At long last, the King has a crown. LeBron James is a three-time MVP, a Finals MVP, and most importantly, he’s a champion. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t deserve it.

To think how far LeBron James has come is to take a journey. Who can forget the immaturity, the overconfidence, and the failures that have plagued his career? There was the early promise, the game against the Pistons, the way he consistently carried the worst rosters in the NBA to the cusp of greatness. Then there was the failure of Cleveland management to find him a reliable teammate, the fourth quarter let downs, and the ugly way he seemingly quit on his teammates in the playoffs. And finally there was The Decision, the premature championship celebration/introduction, the douchey way he reminded the rest of America last year that they were not LeBron James. Some how, through all of that mess, LeBron James grew up and became the best damn basketball player since Michael Jordan. And now, he has the first of what will surely be many rings to go with the reputation.

If only all the games had been as easy as this one.

It was apparent from the opening whistle that something was off in this game. Both teams came out in sloppy fashion. They failed to take care of the basketball and it was made all the worse that the refs were calling the softest of fouls. Fans were hard pressed to tell whether Oklahoma City was ready to begin the most legendary of NBA Finals comebacks or if the Heat were going to shut the door on their last hopes.

It didn’t become clear until a graduate of the University of Florida by the name of Mike Miller made the most of what might be his last opportunity to play professional basketball. It’s been rumored throughout the playoffs that he might be forced to retire because of injuries after this season ended. Miller, who was pegged as the fourth wheel during the summer of the Big Three’s construction, has largely been viewed as a disappointment up until this game. Many around the league feel that the Heat devoted way too much money to him when that salary cap room might have been better spent on a serviceable big man. It doesn’t help that he also seems to have been injured his entire two years in South Beach. But after this performance, it all seems worth it.

To put it simply, Mike Miller did not miss.

He finished the game with 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three. LeBron James may have slowly eroded the spirit of the Thunder over time, but Miller appeared in a Mariano Rivera fashion to absolutely suck the life out of the Heat’s opponent. The way he so effortlessly drained those seven long-range shots completely closed out any chance the Thunder had of winning the basketball game and forcing the series back to Oklahoma City. It’s impossible to overstate just how profound an impact they had on the Thunder’s confidence. It was the sign of a player giving absolutely everything he had. He left it all out on the floor.

From there, it was simply a matter of time till the Heat got back to doing what they do best under LeBron James–having fun. The lead exploded in the third quarter when Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier got in on the festival of three-pointers that Miller started. It’s important to point out that all of this long-range shooting was possible because of the surgical manner with which LeBron James picked apart the Thunder’s defensive game plan.

For how many years now have LeBron’s critics wondered what was possible, if only he would embrace the low-post game? James finally bought into the style of play and it completely decided the series. The Thunder had no player who could match him in isolation and James punished them for it, scoring at will. When they brought help on a double team, he simply kicked it out to the above three-point shooters who found themselves more than wide-open on almost every single attempt.

He was so effective during these Finals that it was hard not to make comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki last year or, dare I say it, Larry Bird. What’s terrifying is that LeBron brings even more things to the table than either of those guys. He’s a better defender, he’s far more athletic, he’s way stronger, and he can play every position on the floor. It’s as if LeBron James is a perfect athletic hybrid of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, with a little of Karl Malone’s freakish body mixed in for good measure.

By the time all of those threes swished through the nets it was over, and the Heat’s style of play reflected it. LeBron and Wade began throwing risky passes that belong more in ESPN’s Top Ten than the NBA Finals. Alley oops started going down. The team began to have that funny problem where they actually overpass because they want each other to succeed so badly. And most of all, they were visibly having fun. Wade and Bosh joined LeBron in being unable to contain their smiles.

It’s hard not to be happy for them. The great fear when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach was that the Heat would cheapen the value of championships in professional sports. What was the point of tuning in anymore if all the star players were just going to end up on the same team one day and hold a monopoly on all the titles? America feared that it would lose the romantic aspects of winning such as grit, toughness, the value of team play, defense, and the special way in which a player and a city can be completely defined by each other. If you asked the Heat players now, that probably was the original plan.

They found that it wasn’t that easy though. Dallas exposed them last year simply because they wanted it more. The Mavericks used the timing of having a perfectly constructed roster and the desperation of veterans late in their careers to steal a title that by all rights should have belonged to the far more talented Heat. It revealed something and it nearly happened again this year with a Boston Celtics team that simply wasn’t ready to give up despite being in the fifth year of a three-year plan.

And that’s how basketball works. There is nothing lost in this championship, no shame in any of it. Great basketball teams and great basketball players don’t break through until their elders teach them just exactly what it takes to win a championship. It’s the circle of life of the NBA and it still holds true to this day. Where would Chris Bosh be without Kevin Garnett taunting him mercilessly the last two years? Where would LeBron James be without the likes of DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Paul Pierce? The cycle repeated itself once again and all is right in the NBA.

Like any good cliffhanger at the end of an action movie, it’s worth mentioning that four of the Thunder’s stars are less than 23-years old. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a free agent head coach available by the name of Phil Jackson who would like nothing more in this world than to wipe the smug look off of Pat Riley’s face, his only living peer. And finally, it’s worth mentioning that the final shot of Kevin Durant completely losing control of his emotions in the arms of his parents is one of the biggest tell-tale signs of great things to come in basketball. Durant has now tasted disappointment. He’s currently in that darkest of dark place that so often inspires so much greatness. The first fight went to LeBron sure, but Durant will be back and as any good fight fan knows, the greatest rivalries always come in threes.

Congratulations to the Miami Heat, your 2012 NBA Champions.

The real work starts now.

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NBA Finals Game Four Recap

LeBron James sat and watched from the bench as his Miami teammates put the Heat within one win of an NBA title. He wasn’t in foul trouble, he wasn’t having a bad game, nor was he shrouded in shame. No, ill-timed leg cramps prevented the Heat’s MVP from playing the final minute of an outstanding Game 4 battle with the Thunder which was easily the best game of these NBA Finals. How fitting for James, after all these years of carrying awful lineups deep into the NBA playoffs, that it was his teammates who stepped up and carried him, both literally and figuratively to victory.

And what a game it was.

The Thunder exploded out of the opening whistle for by far their best first quarter of the Finals. They hit a barrage of jump shots from all over the court, led by Russell Westbrook. The talented Thunder guard had 8 points in the first 3:45 of the game, sending a message to the Heat that no one could change the style of his game, or stop it for that matter. Before the Heat knew what hit them they were down 10 in a shocking role reversal for the script that the first quarters have followed thus far.

Miami would cut the lead to five, but again the Thunder responded with terrific play. In a surprising break, the Thunder actually had a ton of success when Serge Ibaka left the floor with two quick fouls. It forced the Thunder into a small ball lineup featuring Nick Collison at center. This was the exact lineup Scott Brook’s critics had been begging for all series. You’re never going to believe this, but it worked! It worked so damn well that the Thunder rode Collison to a 14-point lead after one, which could have been 17 if not for a near buzzer beater.

As this series has taught NBA fans though, no big lead is safe. These teams are so talented, so quick to convert lazy passes into fast break layups, so good at finding the open man. By the second quarter Miami realized that LeBron James would have to resort back to the distributor role that fans are so used to seeing him in rather than the rebounding force of nature fans have witnessed thus far. Oklahoma City had made the decision to force the other Heat players to beat them, doubling LeBron any time he tried to get the ball in the post.

In the past these were the type of moments that frustrated James. He has the best passing vision of his generation and yet so many times his open teammates would let him down. When Mario Chalmers struggled to hit much of anything in the first quarter, many wondered whether it was all happening again. And then something funny happened. A rookie out of Cleveland State named Norris Cole hit a pair of threes, one to close the first, one to open the second, and suddenly Miami found its groove.

They cut the lead to a single point within four minutes and it would take the Thunder almost that same amount of time before they scored their first point of the quarter. From there a sort of hesitant back-and-forth ensued between the two teams. Miami would seem to be seizing the momentum of the game only to see Westbrook drive with ease to the hoop and hush the crowd. Punch. Counterpunch. The Heat would never get the lead before halftime but they trailed by only three at the break.

So many fans and analysts are currently attempting to hijack the NBA Finals and turning it into a narrative of dubious officiating and the ethics of the block/charge conundrum. These myopic fools are missing the best Finals since Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The third quarter proved it.

The great signature of a legendary Finals matchup is when two teams begin executing at such a high level that it leaves the fans wondering which team will miss first. One stretch in the third quarter saw seven straight possessions end with points, six of which were field goals. It’s the type of back-and-forth that can only be described by using language out of boxing. First Chris Bosh hit the Thunder with a driving and-one layup. Serge Ibaka countered with a fadeaway around the free throw line. Dwyane Wade crossed the Thunder with a jumper of his own. Thabo Sefolosha then counterpunched with a jumper fed by Kevin Durant. LeBron James then got inside and hit them with a layup. Russell Westbrook then bobbed and weaved to one of his patented two-pointers . It seemed no one would break. And finally Dwyane Wade slipped his way to the foul line while the basketball world could only stand and catch its breath. Wow.

And there was still a quarter to play.

LeBron James came within a single rebound of a triple-double, finishing with a 26-9-12 line. Dwyane Wade contributed a very solid 25-5-3. Mario Chalmers came back from the dead and chipped in a much-needed 25 points. And yet for all of those remarkable contributions, this game should have been remembered as the Russell Westbrook game.

How to explain a player that is so uniquely talented, yet so unanimously criticized by the mainstream media? Westbrook certainly exorcised many, if not all of the demons unfairly thrown upon him by the talking heads on this night. He was easily the most dominant player on the floor, and if not for his heroics, the Thunder probably would have faced an embarrassing loss that could have haunted them for years down the road. To measure his impact, consider that Westbrook scored THIRTEEN straight points for the Thunder during a five minute stretch to begin the fourth quarter to tie the game at 90-90.

The physical nature with which he was getting his baskets was something the Finals hasn’t seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal being simply unguardable in the low post. Westbrook is light years faster than every single player in the arena, even LeBron James is helpless to attempt staying in front of him. His violent attacks to the basket paired with his silky touch on mid-range jumpers is a set of skills that no other player in the league can lay claim to at the moment. He finished with 43 of the bravest points of the season but sadly, it was not enough.

For all of Westbrook’s gallantry, Oklahoma City’s two goats stole the show. James Harden failed to crack the double digit mark in points for the third time, finishing with a nightmarish 2/10 shooting line. One shot in particular gave fans insight into just how far he’s fallen. Harden found himself wide open with about two minutes left and the Thunder trailing by five, needing a bucket to stay in the game. He was so wide open that he had time to catch, hesitate, scan all four of his teammate’s positions on the court, and then fire off a shot before the Heat defense got around to covering him. It was the mark of a player afraid to pull the trigger, the biggest sign of a lack of confidence. This game should be the symbolic passing of the torch from Westbrook to Harden as the go-to player on which radio hosts can place their blame. And for once I don’t pity the player, not after rumors floated around on Twitter all week that Harden has been seen partying late into the night before these big games.

And finally there was Scott Brooks, he of the stubborn devotion and loyalty to his veterans. As awful as Harden has been, if the Oklahoma City Thunder do go on to lose the NBA Finals, Brooks needs to accept the overwhelming majority of the criticism. How else to explain the Kendrick Perkins lineups in spite of visual evidence that the Thunder play excellent small ball? How else to explain his decision tonight to leave Derek Fisher in late into the fourth quarter when the Thunder so desperately needed Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? And finally, how else to explain Brook’s ultimate brain fart, the lack of coaching he provided to his players following the bizarre jump ball sequence that decided the game.

On the play in the final minute of the game, the Thunder trailed by three and forced a jump ball with less than a second remaining on the shot clock in Miami’s possession. NBA rules state that the shot clock is to be set at five in that situation, but none of the Thunder players on the court were aware of this as it is such a rare situation. Brooks should have been screaming this at the top of his lungs to his players. Instead, Miami won the tip, and Russell Westbrook committed a cringe-inducing foul that was straight out of the Chris Webber playbook on dumb plays in clutch moments. But again, this was the fault of the head coach, not of the player. For all the talk of Phil Jackson coaching rumors, one can’t help but think he’s a potential candidate to land with this team after the awful performance of Brooks.

It’s worth mentioning that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title. It seems a foregone conclusion that by the end of the week we will be living in a world in which we say LeBron James, NBA Finals MVP or LeBron James, NBA Champion. His biggest critics will laugh that he was on the bench while his team sealed the deal, but there was something poetic about it all. For once, James could let someone else shoulder the burden.  For once, he wasn’t on his own.

Finally, he has a real team.

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NBA Finals Game Three Recap

A dream series for NBA fans was bound to produce one stinker of a game. Game 3 smelled of desperation, tension and anxiety. Miami took an all important 2-1 series lead in what traditionally turns out to be the deciding game in the seven-game playoff format. But gosh if it wasn’t a sloppy victory.

Nerves were bound to take over at some point. After both teams executed at the highest of levels in the first two games, it was clear that the Thunder and Heat both knew that the stakes were now raised. The heavyweight fighters had seen the other’s best punches, knew exactly what their opponent was capable of doing. And the best part about it is that both know that they’re equally talented. As tends to be the case in nervous bouts, fundamentals were the deciding factor.

How many times do NBA fans hear that rebounding and free throw shooting win basketball games? It’s a tiresome cliche and yet so often the team that prevails in those two statistical categories ends up going home with rings instead of disappointment. It should surprise no one then that the Heat won the rebounding battle 45-38. They also went an incredible 31-of-35 from the line while the Thunder struggled and finished 15-of-24.

This was not the Thunder team the basketball world is used to seeing.

For the second consecutive game Kevin Durant found himself in foul trouble and the irritation was written all over the Thunder star’s body language. For what seemed like the first time in this year’s playoffs, he began to force bad shots, attempting to get the Thunder back in the game all by himself. He was met by the surprising length of Chris Bosh and his terrific help defense as he struggled to convert baskets that he’s so used to making.

Then there was James Harden. For the third straight game the bearded third of the Oklahoma City Thunder big three failed to make an impact. He finished with an alarming 2-of-10 shooting performance and failed to crack the double-digit mark in points for the second time in the series. What’s frustrating for the Thunder is that there seems to be no particular reason for his recent poor play. So often it’s the slower Dwyane Wade in front of him on defense, a player that Harden should be feasting on with his quick dribble penetration. A chorus that is so quick to blame Russell Westbrook might soon be turning its critical gaze on Harden. And deservingly so.

And then there was Scott Brooks. The Thunder head coach made a bold decision prior to the game to keep Kendrick Perkins in the starting lineup. This despite all factual evidence proving that the Thunder would be far better off without him on the floor. It was a calculated decision with the clear intent of delivering a message to his team that they weren’t going to change their style for anyone. The Thunder way or the highway, if you will.

The message was well received as the Thunder didn’t find themselves with a double-digit deficit heading out of the first quarter for the first time this Finals. Unfortunately for them, it made them incredibly susceptible to Chris Bosh’s skillful cuts to the baskets and the Miami pick-and-roll. He made them pay with a quick six points in the first quarter despite an overall performance that would fall well short of what the Heat will continue to need out of him in this series. His final line was 10 points and 11 rebounds. That wasn’t the last time Brooks would make the wrong decision though.

Any bizarre game needs a bizarre quarter. The third quarter was just that. Both teams turned in poor performances in the first two periods. The Thunder allowed the Heat to stay in the game by failing to protect the rim (the Heat converted only three shot attempts outside the paint in that whole half). Miami allowed the Thunder to hang in the game when they had another opportunity to take a decisive lead. One team would surely come out in the second half and execute at the levels expected of them. Oklahoma City seemed to be the team.

The Thunder immediately turned a halftime deficit into a ten-point lead and looked to be taking over the game after Derek Fisher polished off a four-point play at the 4:33 mark. Right before that though, Kevin Durant was hit with his fourth foul and had to sit nearly the final six minutes of the third quarter. It would turn out to change the course of the game, and possibly the series.

For the final five minutes of the third quarter the Thunder fielded a lineup without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the results were devastating. They scored only three points after the Fisher four-point play and trailed by two entering the fourth quarter. This young team cannot afford such large mistakes by their head coach when the stakes are so high.

While it’s obvious Durant had to sit because of the fouls, there was no explanation as to why Westbrook wasn’t charged with keeping the Thunder lead. He wasn’t in foul trouble, was having rather a good game up to that point and as any NBA fan knows, he just doesn’t get tired. Miami took advantage of the weak Thunder lineup and got to the free throw line twice after James Jones and Shane Battier were fouled behind the three-point line.

The decision to pair Westbrook with Durant on the bench cost Oklahoma City Game 3.

Durant and Westbrook would rise from their seats and attempt a Thunder rally, but it never materialized. The long period on the bench took its toll on both players and robbed them of their shooting rhythm. Durant, who seemingly never misses free throws, missed a crucial pair in the fourth quarter. Westbrook was only able to contribute four points in the fourth.

Free throws and rebounding. LeBron James accomplished both of those down the stretch. He grabbed four boards in the fourth. He also hit the latest biggest free throw of his career to create a two-possession lead with only 16 seconds left in the game. It’s worth adding that he’s looking remarkably poised and mature when compared with the detached player from last year. Fitting then that his 29-14 line was something straight out of the Dirk Nowitzki playbook. His success as a power forward in this series has many wondering whether the latter stages of his career will see him there instead of the point-forward position he’s played thus far.

Alas, the series heads on to Game 4. Fans can surely expect the high level of play to resume. What team will make the better adjustment though? Can the Heat continue to make the Thunder pay with their small ball lineup? Will James Harden finally realize he’s playing in the NBA Finals? Game 4 will no doubt be the best game of the series. The Thunder can’t afford to fall behind 3-1. The Heat have to capitalize on their momentum in the last two games.

As has been the case so many times in NBA history, it’s now decision time for LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Both have a chance to seize the title from Kobe Bryant as the alpha dog and face of the league. One player will enjoy a year as reigning NBA Finals MVP, while the other will have to deal with a calendar year of critics wondering if he’ll ever really be a champion. Quite frankly, neither can afford the latter.

Give this round to LeBron, but the title is still up for grabs.

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