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Mean Vato of the Month: Greg Holland (Dos)

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By Asa Schuster

Sure, Houston’s Chris Carter swatted an MLB-best 12 long-balls over the 31 days of August, however only half of those blasts occurred in five of the 15 wins the Astros’ chalked up.

Over in Kansas City during the same period, something special was unfolding as the Royals rolled through 19 victories with 11 of those games being secured by their trusty closer Greg Holland.

Holland, a previous recipient of Mean Vato of the Month honors (July 2013), was virtually untouchable during August and just as he was staring down the barrel of a disheartening loss at the hands of the Cleveland Indians in the last game of the month, he was mysteriously spared.

After Alex Gordon tied the game at 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth with solo home-run lofted to right-center, Holland was given an opportunity to pave the way for a thrilling comeback win, providing he could lock down the Indians in the top of the tenth.

With two on and two out, Holland surrendered a long two-run double off the right-field wall to Lonnie Chisenhall, and before the Royals could reply in the bottom of the frame the elements in Kansas City conspired and intervened to suspend proceedings.

In the process, Holland’s impressive month remained unscathed (for the time being), showing an MLB-best line of 11 saves in 11 opportunities, while conceding only 10 hits, 5 runs at 1.32 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13.2 innings and one game in the balance that won’t be resolved until September 22 at Progressive Field.

Holland may be in line for a loss in this game, but the baseball Gods decided that the Royals’ run in August wasn’t ready to come to an end just yet.

The Royals entered August five games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central, their 19-9 romp over the next 31 days propelled them to as high as three games ahead atop the division, before closing with a lead of just 0.5 games.

Last season, the Royals finally logged a winning season for the first-time since 2003, they’re now 13 games over .500 and if Holland’s crew can continue to defer the taste of defeat they can reach the post-season for the first time since George Brett’s 1985 team.

Mean Vato of the Month: Sonny Gray

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This time it was more than the usual July whirlwind for the Oakland A’s.

They held the best record in baseball throughout the month, but so much changed during those 31 days of summer.

Oakland rolled into July holding a five-game buffer on division foes the Angels, early on they landed a pitching shark in a trade and shortly after their Home Run Derby champion defended his title he was dealt for another dependable left arm.

Despite the Angels setting the best record during July (19-8), the A’s still came out of the month with a two-game lead in the AL West, thanks in part to the right arm of Sonny Gray, who had a vital hand in exactly one-third of Oakland’s wins as they traversed through a 15-10 stretch.

Oakland’s most consistent arm this season led the A’s to their first victory of the month in seven innings of work for four hits and five strikeouts in a 4-1 victory over Toronto.

The A’s parlayed that win into a four-game sweep of the Blue Jays, and extended the run to six wins on Gray’s next start that saw the righty go for another seven digs with eight strikeouts in a 6-1 triumph over crosstown rivals San Francisco.

In his next start, Gray capped the first-half of the season with five strikeouts in 7.2 innings of work to push the A’s past the Mariners 4-1.

Six of Gray’s team mates then represented the A’s in Minnesota for the mid-summer classic, while the 10-game winner rested up for the second half of the season and his next opponent, the Baltimore Orioles on July 20.

Against the O’s Gray scratched through his toughest start of the month, conceding two runs (one earned), however his team’s bats racked up 10 runs to ensure another win.

In his final outing of the month, Gray once again allowed just one run in 6.2 digs in a 5-1 win against the Rangers.

Gray was the only pitcher in the Majors to notch a perfect 5-0 record in July, over 35 innings he boasted a 1.03 ERA with 31strikeouts an opponent batting average of .200 BA and just one long-ball blemish at the hands of Tyler Colvin of the Giants.

Since the turn of the century the A’s have often impressed in the second-half of the regular season, however this year they’ve made renovations to help progress further into October.

The situation for the Athletics has flipped, what once seemed gray in Oakland is now looking on the Sonny side.

Mean Vato of the Month: Clayton Kershaw

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By Asa Schuster

After a physically taxing holiday to Australia and using May as an extended preseason, Clayton Kershaw finally shook off the lingering effects of jet lag and started earning the paychecks of his $22 million season during a dominant June.

Despite the Los Angeles Dodgers taking extra precautions to curb the impact of the long-haul flights across the Pacific Ocean for their season opening series in Sydney in March, the whole process left Kershaw with a sore left shoulder.

Kershaw was inactive in April and 2-2 in May, but perked up for his start on June 2 when he went eight digs deep (97 pitches) with nine strikeouts to lead the Dodgers to a 5-2 win over the White Sox.

Six days later, he was credited with a complete game for his rain-shortened five-inning effort (nine strikeouts again) that saw LA beat the Rockies 6-1 at Coors Field.

He followed that short outing by striking out seven over seven-innings in a 4-3 win over the Diamondbacks.

Aaron Hill’s RBI double in the third dig would be the last run Kershaw would give up in the month.

In his next start, Kerhsaw crafted a no-hitter against the Rockies that was just a seventh-inning Hanley Ramírez throwing error away from being a perfect game.

Kershaw fanned 15 (career-high) during the course of his 107-pitch masterpiece, earning a 102 ‘game score’ on the Bill James baseball nerd scale.

The Royals were his next victim, getting a taste of 108 pitches over eight scoreless frames to see the Dodgers triumph 2-0.

He then capped the month with seventh scoreless digs on 109 pitches as part of a 6-0 victory against the Cardinals.

Kershaw ran his scoreless run to 28 innings, while leading the Majors with 61 strikeouts in June with just four runs and four walks to go along with an 0.82 ERA and restricting hitters to just .165 from the plate.

Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen put in work in the NL Central in June, but as the Dodgers surged in the NL West from three games below .500 to 11 games above, they were carried in part on the sturdy and well-compensated shoulders of the meanest vato in baseball.

All about the Kevins

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By Asa Schuster

In 2014, the NBA awarded the second ever league MVP ‘Kevin’ in Mr. Durant, ten years after Mr. Garnett was crowned as the first MVP ‘Kevin’.

Durant posted career highs in points and assists per game, but fell short in his quest to be the first Kevin to win a championship since Garnett in 2008.

[Before that, Kevin Willis jagged a ring as a member of the Spurs in 2003.]

'Kevins' placed first and fourth in scoring average (as they also did in 2011-12), with Mr. Love posting 26.1ppg.

Love was actually a member of the highest scoring ‘Kevin’ tandem in the history of the NBA this season, teaming up in Minnesota with Kevin Martin, who’s 19.1ppg lifted the Kevins to a combined 45.2ppg.

In 2012-13, Martin (14ppg) was paired with Durant (28.1ppg) at Oklahoma City to create one of the most prolific Kevin combos in a long-time, joining forces to the tune of 42.1ppg.

The story of NBA ‘Kevins’ as team mates stems back to the 1987-88 Portland Trailblazers, where rookie Kevin Gamble played alongside Kevin Duckworth, who was an integral part of the team contributing 15.8 points (4th on the team) and 7.4 rebounds (2nd on the team), while the greenhorn Gamble saw action in only nine games for a total of 19 minutes played without registering a point.

Gamble was then waived by Portland and signed with the Boston Celtics the next season, where he played alongside the great Kevin McHale; still in his gangly herky-jerky awkward prime.

The pair of Celtic Kevins played together for five seasons, with their most productive campaign being in 1990-91, when McHale provided 18.4ppg to go along with Gamble’s career-high output of 15.6ppg, while the duo also combined for 10.4 boards and five dimes per game.

The Kevin convention in Boston was adjourned when McHale couldn’t continue the grind of playing on his creaky knees and back and retired following the 1992-93 season, while Gamble signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat for the 1994-95 season.

Serendipitously, Gamble instantly linked up with another Kevin, the evergreen Mr. Willis, who racked up 17.1ppg and 10.7rpg on the season to go with Gamble’s 7.4ppg.

[And the coach of that team was Kevin Loughery, in his fourth and final season with Miami, and last year in the NBA. However, Loughery had previous Kevin-coaching experience with Kevin Porter on the 1977-78 New Jersey Nets. Porter later played alongside Kevin Grevey on the Washington Bullets for two seasons (1978-80 & 1980-81) and the next season Grevey became the second Kevin to win a title after Kevin Stacom on the 1976 Celtics.]

Unfortunately, the Willis/Gamble partnership was short-lived.

Gamble and Willis played together in 1994-95 and at the start of the next season, before both being traded away in two separate transactions on February 22nd, 1996.

Gamble went to Sacramento for Billy Owens and retired after the next season, while Willis went on to complete his decorated 17-year career in multiple stops across the league.

Along the way, Willis was part of of two honorary ‘Kevin-worthy’ tandems.

He and Kelvin Cato linked up in Houston in 2001-02 and then in 2006-07 he was paired with Devin Harris (Devean George was also on the team) at Dallas for five games, with the pair playing in two of those games together.

McHale and Gamble played alongside Kelvin Upshaw for parts of the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, and Upshaw was also on the 1988-89 Miami Heat with Kevin Edwards, while Kevin McKenna who was on the Lakers 1982 championship team as a rookie later played with Kelvin Ransey on the 1984-85 Nets.

As for some of those other ‘Kevins’; back in 1987-88 the great Kevin Johnson began his rookie campaign playing for Cleveland, and after he was traded to Phoenix later that season, the Cavs then acquired Kevin Henderson.

Current UConn coach Kevin Ollie played alongside Kevin Edwards at the Orlando Magic during the tale end of the 1997-98 season, after Ollie signed with the team and Edwards was traded to Orlando.

Towards the end of Ollie’s career years later he played alongside Love as a rookie in Minnesota in 2008-09 and Durant at Oklahoma City in 2009-10.

Apart from Kevin Ollie and Kevin Martin, the other common link between Love and Durant is that they became ‘Gold Medal Kevins’ together in London in 2012.

With one Kevin already in the Hall of Fame (McHale) and three likely to follow (Garnett, Durant and Love), the name is destined to continually appear throughout the history of the NBA.

And if you look a little further down this season’s scoring list, it becomes clear what new style of names are sure to feature in the future of the NBA, with LaMarcus, DeMarcus and DeMar incredibly appearing consecutively as the eighth, ninth and tenth leading scorers.

Spurs rise to fifth title in Game 5 rout

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By Asa Schuster

There would be no Game 6 for the San Antonio Spurs in 2014.

It all came down to a righteous run that transformed the second-quarter of Game 5 into the start of their fifth championship procession.

The Spurs then used the next quarter to emphatically shake monkeys off backs and chips off shoulders to redeem and right themselves and dethrone the ‘King’.

Tim Duncan paved the way for the second-quarter surge by posting consecutive baskets to pull within a point, before Kawhi Leonard sealed his ascent to MVP of the Finals when he grabbed a miss from LeBron James, darted down court and drained a demoralizing transition three.

That lifted the Spurs the their last lead of the season as the entire mood of the building shifted.

Miami was hit with a wall of noise and momentum when they brought the ball back down court.

Chris Bosh was met with Boris Diaw in a defensive stance swinging his arms violently like E. Honda, and seconds later Patty Mills extracted an offensive foul from Dwyane Wade.

Manu Ginóbili capped the incredible wave of 14 unanswered points with a ferocious drive, fending off Ray Allen and powerfully rising above Bosh to slam and punctuate a fresh seven-point lead.

There was a peculiar stalemate in the early stages of the third quarter, until Tiago Splitter denied Wade at the rim, much like he was denied by James in Game 2 of last year’s Finals.

The Heat then caught hell from San Antonio, as Mills buried a quartet of long-range bombs over a devastating five-minute stretch that opened up a 20-point margin and saw the virtual surrender of Miami in the form of Mario Chalmers and Michael Beasley inserted into the game for the first time.

Earlier, James had thrown everything at the Spurs in the opening quarter and owned 17 of his team’s 29 points as they led by seven.

But that would be James’ last hurrah for the season.

Ginóbili had woken the Spurs up from a slumbering 6-22 deficit to start the game and sparked a crucial 12-0 revival with a three-point play, then drawing an offensive foul and following with a three before Leonard and Mills also added triples to extend the run.

Much has changed since this manifestation of the Heat was conjured up and reached the first of their four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals in 2011.

Where it once began with James, hesitant, isolated and unengaged as the championship eluded the Heat in Dallas, he was now left gunslinging on his lonesome in a last stand at the Alamo.

The first edition of these Heat included Mike Bibby, Eddie House and the 38-year-old version of Juwan Howard.

You know who else is 38?

Tim Duncan, the picture of consistency, who surpassed the all-time greats of the game in playoff minutes and playoff double-doubles to share his fifth championship on court with David Robinson, Sean Elliot and Avery Johnson as he did with his first title in 1999.

Along the way, Duncan always provided a vital rock solid foundation for the Spurs throughout the years and won titles alongside Stephen Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Speedy Claxton, Nazr Mohammed and Robert Horry.

Marco Belineli, Danny Green, Diaw, Splitter, Mills and Leonard can now be added to the list.

Spurs display their international style to take Game 4

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By Asa Schuster

The pieces all fell into place as key contributions across the board paced the well-oiled Spurs to a resounding Game 4 victory in Miami.

San Antonio fired in all phases to defeat the Heat by 21 points, hallmarked by their unprecedented spacing, sharing and movement; all perfectly typified by the play of Boris Diaw, who crafted one of the finest ‘triple-singles’ in Finals history.

Diaw (eight points, nine rebounds and nine assists) shared the love and the rest of the Spurs followed his lead as they moved the ball with the cadence and beauty of French poetry.

Deep into the second-quarter that fluent execution had systematically sliced open a gaping 20-point deficit for Miami.

Down in Australia, it was the afternoon of Friday the 13th while the game was being played, but Patty Mills brightened the winter day for those fans across the globe with 14 vital points and two assists in 16 minutes of court time.

Mills made it a Throwback Thursday performance as the most meaningful contribution in the Finals by an Aussie since Lucien Longley chimed in with 12 points during Michael Jordan’s ‘Food Poisoning Game’ in 1997.

LeBron James may or may not have been 100 percent, but that was irrelevant, this would be no ‘Flu Game’ for him.

For the second consecutive game James was out-played by Kawhi Leonard, who quietly put together 20 points, 14 rebounds and triple helpings of blocks, steals and assists to anchor the Spurs.

Danny Green triggered San Antonio in the opening moments and they got out to a nine-point advantage at quarter-time thanks to five late points from Mills.

Mills featured early in the second, first linking up with Tiago Splitter on a baseline drive and crafty bounce-pass, before finding Green for a corner three.

The passing fancy became contagious, perhaps the Spurs international contingent had already contracted World Cup fever, sharing the ball to create their own version of The Beautiful Game.

Diaw cleverly coaxed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh into a double-team whilst dribbling on the high post and found Splitter down low with a gorgeous around-the-back bounce pass.

Moments later, Manu Ginóbili threaded a left-handed catch and release bullet in one motion from the top of the key to Tim Duncan inside to create a pair of free-throws.

The Spurs then cracked the game open in the final two minutes of the half with Mills’ three creating a brief 20-point buffer, eventually heading into the break up by 19 points.

Little changed in the final 24 minutes, as James continued to operate on his own island, Wade continued to trudge through a 3-of-13 outing as the Heat seized up, ceased to trust their usual ball movement and the Spurs capped a perfect trip to Miami.

The Heat are cold, the finger had been pointed at Mario Chalmers to warm up, but the blame is no longer in his hands; and besides he’s from Anchorage it’s no wonder he’s been ice-cold.

Udonis Haslem unleashed some pent-up energy in the final minutes of garbage time, he’s got the right idea and at the very least the rest of his team can adopt his fiery attitude from this point on.

However, for Miami it all starts with their Big Three clicking, and the finger is now firmly pointed at Wade and Bosh to spark something in response to their 1-3 series deficit.

The Spurs’ Big Three have been supported and buoyed by key performances from their entire roster, all of whom are hungry to become champions.

After four long campaigns to the Finals, how much do the two-time defending champs have left in the tank?

Leonard leads the way as Spurs grab Game 3

By Asa Schuster

Throughout the opening two games of the NBA Finals, San Antonio’s most dynamic two-way player and most important player that doesn’t own a ring had been lost.

Lost on the back of a pair of subpar individual showings and lost amongst all the LeBron James-dominated hoopla, yet the series was tied at 1-1 with the Spurs eagerly awaiting his arrival.

Kawhi Leonard arrived in Game 3, right when his team needed him to step up and emerge and right when the Spurs needed to respond on the road in these playoffs.

He answered the call and placed his huge hands all over the game from end-to-end resulting in a career-high 29-point outburst and a 19-point victory that handed San Antonio the series edge.

Leonard got started from the free-throw line in the opening two minutes of the game and had ten of his team’s first 18 points as San Antonio quickly led by eight.

By quarter-time Leonard had amassed 16 (without a miss) of his team’s 41 points as the Spurs jumped out to a 16-point lead.

He missed just three shots on the night, and up until midway through the second quarter the Spurs had only missed two shots as a team, as San Antonio parlayed their outrageous start into a 71-50 buffer at the half.

Things dried up for the Spurs during their 15-25 third-quarter, where the Heat rallied thanks to long-range makes by Rashard Lewis and a 10-0 run capped by Norris Cole’s drive to the hoop to pull within seven points.

Marco Belinelli only made a brief cameo in the game, but his three-pointer to halt the Heat’s surge was enough to sway the momentum back into San Antonio’s favor.

Last year, it was Gary Neal making his presence felt in the series in Game 3, when he drained six threes for 24 points off the bench to help fuel the Spurs’ home rout of Miami.

Leonard had 14 points and 12 rebounds in that game and the last time the Finals were in Miami he posted 19 and 16, but a 17-23 final quarter saw the Heat defend their championship in Game 7.

This time, it was the Spurs carving out a similar 25-17 final quarter, which dwindled down to Aron Baynes up against Greg Oden in the final minute.

Leonard’s impact was evident at both ends of the floor, as he also played significant role in slowing and limiting James, who committed seven turnovers whilst seemingly riding solo.

For the second straight year Mario Chalmers was 0-for-5 in Game 3, while Cole was clearly more effective and emulated his output of eight points off the bench.

The Heat have the weapons and the experience to once again wrestle back the series advantage, but who will step up and emerge for them this time?

Because as always, James can’t do this alone.

LeBron and temperature in control as Heat level series in Game 2

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By Asa Schuster

After the absence of LeBron James in the final stages of the sauna session that was Game 1, Tony Parker said he wanted ‘the real Miami Heat, the two time champs, with LeBron back’ in Game 2.

He and the Spurs got exactly that and Parker was even given a bonus elbow to the ribs from Mario Chalmers midway through the fourth quarter just to show that the defending champions meant business.

As for James, he checked back into the game for his final stint with 9:22 remaining in the fourth, his team up by three and his line reading 27 points (12-of-18), 10 boards, and the highest plus/minus of anybody in the game at +12.

He had exited the game on a third quarter heater, but bore little physical evidence of any exertion; returning looking fresh, hydrated, dry and devoid of perspiration.

Less than three minutes later, Danny Green had connected from deep, and a pair of free-throws by Manu Ginóbili saw the Spurs up two and seemingly poised to pull away, but they suddenly stumbled when Parker and Tim Duncan combined to miss four consecutive free-throws.

From there, James posted the next five points (finishing with a game-high 35 points and game-high +11) and later fed Chris Bosh in the corner for the go-ahead three-pointer with just over a minute remaining.

In the process, James cemented his new status as the best player in the world in temperature-controlled environments, while giving meme creators the day off and temporarily keeping the trolling social interwebs quiet.

Bosh featured in the final two minutes to offer James a vital helping hand of 18 points, and his awkward drive and dish to Dwyane Wade in the paint with nine ticks to play sealed the result.

Early on, Duncan and the Spurs jumped ahead by seven at quarter-time and the scores wound up locked 43-apiece at the half as Duncan was unable to squeeze in a close-range bucket in the dying seconds.

James particularly enjoyed the conditions throughout the free-flowing third period, where he single-handedly flipped a six-point deficit instantly into a two-point lead with an individual 8-0 run book-ended by a pair of triples.

Despite the officiating crew’s inability to consistently identify and interpret the differing styles of European faux fouls and traditional NBA fouls being acted out by the players in the middle quarters, the quality of the game wasn’t hampered and the Spurs had a one-point edge heading into the fourth.

After two games, either way you cut it; both teams let one slip away and also seized the moment to snatch a victory, however the Spurs had a golden opportunity to gain a fortuitous 2-0 advantage thanks to the favorable circumstances of their home court.

As the series moves to Miami for the next two games, the Heat are rising; can the Spurs keep pace?