Jimmy ‘my name isn’t James’ Butler carries 76ers to playoff win


Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The Cooler, where you can call me Mike or Michael. Let’s get to it:

*Jimmy Butler was the best player on the floor by far for a normally balanced 76ers squad Monday as they evened their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Raptors by taking a 94-89 victory in Toronto.

Butler had 30 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, while no other teammate topped 13 points. Three Raptors had at least 20, including 35 from Kawhi Leonard. So Butler was basically the reason Philadelphia prevailed.

Head coach Brett Brown said as much after the game, saying Butler was the “adult in the gym” and attempting to compliment him by saying that he was “James Butler” instead of Jimmy.

The only problem with that? Butler’s name, literally, is Jimmy. He’s not James. And Butler felt compelled to correct his coach with that information when it was his turn to talk postgame.

Maybe James could be an unofficial nickname? It’s a lot better, after all, than General Soreness. And being called the adult in the gym is certainly better than his toddler routine with the Wolves.

*As noted by Phil Miller, Ehire Adrianza only has 12 career home runs, but his blast off of Justin Verlander on Monday — the only run in a 1-0 Twins win — continued a trend of impressive quality if not quantity from those dingers.

Adrianza added Verlander to a list that includes Yankees great Andy Pettitte (Adrianza’s first career homer in 2013), Clayton Kershaw (his second career homer), 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell and Cleveland standout Mike Clevinger. Here’s the full list of guys Adrianza has taken deep.

*Jake Odorizzi, meanwhile, beat Houston for the second time in a seven-day span. He’s allowed just two runs over 12.2 innings against a potent Astros lineup this season.

*It sounds like Clay Matthews isn’t thrilled that draft pick Rashan Gary was given No. 52 — the jersey Matthews wore for a decade with the Packers before moving onto the Rams this season. In response to seeing a tweet with Gary pictured in that number, Matthews quipped:

John Focke leaving Lynx and Wolves radio for job with NBA’s Hornets

The Twin Cities radio market is losing a good broadcaster and all-around nice guy.

John Focke, who has done studio work for Timberwolves radio broadcasts since 2007 and took over as the play-by-play voice of the Lynx in 2012, is leaving the market for a job as the radio play-by-play broadcaster for the NBA’s Hornets.

Focke, a native Minnesotan and an ultra-marathoner, also hosted Wolves Weekly on FSN — and his busy schedule across different forms of media proved attractive to the Hornets.

“John has proven to be a very versatile, experienced and talented broadcaster during his time with the NBA and WNBA,” Hornets President Fred Whitfield said in a news release. “His multi-faceted skill set is a perfect fit for our radio broadcasts and all across our digital platforms.”

Plans to replace Focke locally are not immediately known, though the Lynx duties are the most urgent. That season starts May 25, less than four weeks from now.

 

 

Whalen’s Gophers make scholarship ‘offer’ to Arya Stark

In case you’re wondering how much of a foothold Game of Thrones has over our culture right now …

Gophers women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen made a scholarship offer to Arya Stark, a fictional character from the show. (And no, I don’t think NCAA recruiting violation rules extend to coaches talking about fiction).

Perhaps more importantly: As someone who has never watched a minute of the show, I still knew exactly what Whalen was talking about because of how much GoT dominates my Twitter feed.

Stark, per Wiki, is “the third child and second daughter of Lord Eddard Stark and his wife, Lady Catelyn Stark. After narrowly escaping the persecution of House Stark by House Lannister, Arya is trained as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White in Braavos, and uses her new skills to bring those who have wronged her family to justice.”

Sounds like Whalen’s kind of player, to be honest.

Whalen’s tweet has been “liked” more than 1,000 times and drew the interest of Business Insider. That’s some savvy recruiting P.R. right there — all for a tweet about a fictional character.

Vikings draft grades: Most say Vikings did well — with one big exception

NFL draft grades are the opposite of Avengers: Endgame or Game of Thrones spoilers. Everyone is looking for them, even if in the end they don’t tell you a whole lot.

But they’re also like political polls in a way. One draft grade (just like one poll) doesn’t necessarily tell you much. But a bunch of them put together? You can start to at least build a consensus, even if a lot of that consensus is built around similar data.

With that in mind, here is a look at six sites that graded the Vikings’ full seven-round, 12-pick draft. The consensus seems to be that Rick Spielman’s haul was somewhere between solid and very good — with one notable exception.

The very good

Both NFL.com and SI.com gave the Vikings grades of “A” for the whole draft. It should be noted here that NFL.com doled out grades of at least A-minus to 21 of the 32 teams. Still, those are good grades and reflect those sites’ confidence not only in the Vikings’ first-round pick (center Garrett Bradbury) but the depth of the class.

The solid

Three sites gave the Vikings either a B (ESPN’s Mel Kiper [Insider] and SB Nation) or a B-plus (CBS Sports). Out of all of these, I think Kiper summed things up the best and probably provided the best overall snapshot of the Vikings’ reality.  He wrote:

With (Kirk) Cousins in Year 2 of a three-year deal, the Vikings need to win now. This is a solid class with a few pieces to help do that.”

That about sums it up. The Vikings picked offense. They picked some guys who will be counted upon to help right away. They drafted to their 2019 reality.

The ugly

OK, ugly is probably too strong but fits the trilogy. Pro Football Focus (subscription) actually seems to like several of the players the Vikings picked, but the analytics-based site gives Minnesota an overall grade of “below average” — perhaps in part because it thinks the Vikings could have gotten more value from the spots it picked.

The site overall gave out 6 grades of excellent, 12 grades of above average, 8 grades of average and 6 of below average. So the Vikings were in the bottom group.

My overall take: You have to draft to your current needs and philosophy, but if there’s one concern I have it’s that the offensive line being constructed is very scheme-specific — a lot of mobile, agile guys. If it doesn’t work and/or if a new regime comes in, will the entire line need to be overhauled later?

That said, the Vikings’ picks made sense. And if you think it’s strange that they went away from their strength (defense) in the draft, consider this: Kiper notes the Packers have now used their last EIGHT first-round picks on defense. Indeed, it’s been since they took offensive tackle Derek Sherrod in the first round in 2011. Aaron Rodgers might be shaking his head at that one.

And the last time they spent a first round pick on an offensive skill position player? That was 2005, with Rodgers himself.

Wild fans putting support behind ex-players — especially Nino Niederreiter

Welcome to the Monday edition of The Cooler, where you never know what you’re going to get from Minnesota fans. Let’s get to it:

*Three key Wild players were traded leading up to this year’s deadline, and all three ended up in the playoffs. Mikael Granlund and Nashville are done after a first-round elimination, but Charlie Coyle’s Bruins and Nino Niederreiter’s Hurricanes are very much alive.

Coyle had the overtime game winner for Boston against Columbus in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semis (the series is now 1-1), while Niederreiter scored the game-winner Sunday in the third period against the Islanders to give Carolina a 2-0 series lead.

In times like this, I’m always curious: Are Minnesota fans hoping for good things for players they used to root for, or is it painful to watch them succeed elsewhere while the Wild sits idly after missing the postseason?

Not all situations are created equal, but my theory in this case was that more Wild fans than not were rooting for the guys who used to be here — and that if there was a preference for any of them, it was Niederreiter, whose Carolina squad has been adopted by several folks in these unpredictable playoffs.

It’s nice when data — even the unscientific kind found on Twitter — helps support hunches.

Per a poll I ran Monday morning, the majority of you are either rooting for one or both of the former Wild players to succeed rather than not. After 2 hours of voting, 41 percent of you said you’re rooting for both players/teams, while 29 percent said you’re rooting for neither. Another 23 percent of you said you’re rooting for just Nino, while 7 percent said just Coyle.

On that last part, I suspect it has little to do with a dislike for Coyle and more to do with Boston’s tradition of recycling former Minnesota players (David Ortiz … Kevin Garnett …) and turning them into champions.

There’s a decent chance one of those two players/teams will reach the Stanley Cup Finals, which would take this to another level.

*James Harden is pleading for officials to give the Rockets a “fair chance” after what he believes were several missed calls in a close Game 1 loss on Sunday. Here’s another idea: Don’t make getting fouled on a three-pointer part of your game plan.

*There were a lot of intriguing stories to emerge from the NFL Draft, but my favorite might be the one about all the bachelorette parties in Nashville who had no idea the draft was there and were bummed that all the football craziness cramped their style.

*The most amazing stat of the weekend came via Phil Miller’s story from Sunday’s Twins game. The Twins hit 23 home runs in six games against Baltimore this season, a team record for a single season vs. the Orioles. They hit 22 twice — but both of those were in seasons they played the Orioles EIGHTEEN times. So yeah, they set the record in one-third the number of games.

Experts agree: Vikings nailed first round pick with Bradbury

Welcome to the Friday edition of The Cooler, where this is only the beginning. Let’s get to it:

*NFL first-round draft grades tend to be viewed through only the most optimistic lens. I think of them the same way I think of the 10-day forecast on a weather app: I only agree with it if I like the forecast, and I immediately disregard the bad news with the notion that “nobody really knows what the weather will be like until about 24-48 hours out” just like we won’t really know how drafted players fare until a ways down the road.

With that in mind, the 10-day forecast in Minneapolis is pretty much trash and I’m ignoring it. But the first-round draft grades for the Vikings’ No. 18 overall pick Garrett Bradbury: They’re good! Very good! So they must be right. Let’s take a look at a few:

CBS Sports. Grade: B+. Comment: “I like this pick. The Vikings couldn’t move anybody off the line of scrimmage last year. Bradbury is very athletic, not a very big kid, but he can move. ”

NFL.com. Grade: A. Comment: “Bradbury is athletic and tough, considered one of the best center prospects to be picked in some time. Minnesota’s offensive line was in dire need of improvement so this selection will make quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook extremely happy.”

SI.com: Grade. A+. Comment: However it shakes out, this is case of player and need meeting together perfectly.

Of note contextually: CBS Sports (Pete Prisco) is a tougher grader than a lot of others, so his B+ is meaningful. And the A+ from SI.com’s Andy Benoit was the only one doled out to any team in the first round.

It’s like Ralphie’s dream came true for Rick Spielman.

*For what it’s worth, ESPN’s Mel Kiper included the Packers in his list of biggest head-scratching moves in Round 1 — mostly because he was baffled by Green Bay going with two defensive players instead of grabbing offensive help for Aaron Rodgers.

And also for what it’s worth: Rick Spielman is getting closer to shedding the label of not doing enough to improve the offensive line, at least via the draft. The Vikings have spent a pick in the top three rounds on the line each of the last three years — third-rounder Pat Elflein in 2017 (a year when the Vikings didn’t have a first-round pick), a second-rounder on Brian O’Neill in 2018 and now Bradbury. I’d still like the Vikings to grab another O-lineman today — maybe a tackle in the second or third round, and a defensive tackle with their other second day pick.

*Charlie Coyle scored the overtime winner for Boston in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Thursday against Columbus.

Coyle’s Bruins could be on a collision course with Nino Niederreiter’s Hurricanes. If both teams advance to the Eastern Conference finals, Wild GM Paul Fenton will be assured of helping at least one team to the Stanley Cup finals this season — just not the Wild.

*The NBA playoffs are getting interesting. San Antonio forced a Game 7 against Denver with a win Thursday. The Clippers could shockingly do the same with a home victory over Golden State on Friday night.

The Warriors will go down in meme history if they blow another 3-1 series lead — especially since it would include a Clippers victory in which L.A. trailed by 31 points.

Meet Cori Kennedy: Minnesota State’s viral video softball sensation

Cori Kennedy was almost not famous.

Kennedy, a Minnesota State softball player whose “instructional” videos have made her a Twitter star with millions of views, made the first one in December as a joke to send to her five siblings.

“They were unimpressed,” she said. “They thought it was just, ‘Cori doing Cori things.’”

She forgot about it for a while, then added it to an Instagram story a couple weeks ago. A graduate assistant with MSU softball saw it, thought it was hilarious and told her she needed to put it on Twitter.

In the 40-second video, recorded during some down time while Kennedy worked at a batting cage in Rochester, she advertises hitting tips. The biggest piece of advice: “Swing at every pitch. Don’t care where it is. We’re here for a good time, not a long time.” She then proceeds to show off a way to intimidate pitchers: by pointing your bat straight at them. (Mild language warning in the video).

The Twitter-world agreed it was hilarious almost immediately after she posted it on April 10.

“I posted it and let my phone charge. I was watching a movie with teammates and roommates, and checked my notifications and saw it had 45,000 views,” Kennedy said. “I went to bed and woke up and it had like 600,000 views.”

Now it has more than 2 million views and the tweet has been “liked” almost 75,000 times as of Thursday afternoon. Another subsequent video has more than 2 million views as well.

We probably shouldn’t blame her siblings for almost squashing the viral videos, though. The Kennedy family is so used to Cori’s sense of humor that the videos didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

“That’s how I am and it’s a family thing. I’m one of 6 kids. My grandma is a hoot. Hilarious. My friends are surprised she’s not the one who’s gone viral,” Kennedy said. “We’re kind of a goofy bunch. If you can survive the Kennedy household you can survive anything. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Another thing that defines the household: toughness. The Kennedy kids – Cori is the second oldest of six, and there are three each of girls and boys – went to or still attend Kasson-Mantorville High School; her brother, Patrick Kennedy is a junior and is one of the top high school wrestlers in the nation. He’s an Iowa commit.

And Cori Kennedy’s legend already grew two years ago, when as a sophomore catcher she caught all 71 games the Mavericks played in their NCAA Division II Championship season. Oh, and she did it while battling a torn rotator cuff and torn meniscus in her knee.

“I mean that year required a lot of mental toughness,” she said. “I’m really feeling it now that I’m a senior two years later. I definitely feel like a senior – a senior citizen, if you will. But I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

But the videos? It’s a whole new level of fame.

In the last two weeks, he’s been asked to prom on Twitter. Players all over the country are duplicating her bat point and sending her videos. Opponents are recognizing her and giving her shout-outs during games.

“After I made the first video, I had players coming up to me saying ‘You’re the Twitter girl! We love your stuff,’” Kennedy said. “And in Sioux Falls (Wednesday), one girl got in the box and in the middle of the at bat she says, ‘I’m a huge fan, by the way.’”

Kennedy, a mass media major, has a summer job lined up doing commentary for National Pro Fastpitch – the professional women’s softball league in the United States.

Until then, Minnesota State has more softball left. The regular season ends this weekend, and the Mavericks are hoping to embark on another playoff run.

As for videos? It’s hard to duplicate viral success, but Kennedy has already done it once. Her second video, a spoof on slap hitting, has her running through various points on campus.

People keep giving her advice and telling her not to try too hard – which shouldn’t be a problem. When inspiration strikes, Kennedy lets it rip.

“I’m trying to film something today,” Kennedy said Thursday afternoon. “We’ll see what happens.”

Poor Ricky Rubio airballed key 3-pointer in perhaps his final game with Jazz

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where some things never change even if you want them to. Let’s get to it:

*A few years ago, I wrote about how Ricky Rubio was the worst shooter in modern NBA history based on some simple criteria: Of all players as of December 2015 who had played at least 5,000 career minutes since the 1979-80 season, when the NBA adopted the three-point line, Rubio had the worst shooting percentage of all of them.

He has since made a pretty significant amount of improvement — shooting better than 40 percent each of the last three seasons after never doing that previously — and stands as just the 13th-worst of all-time. His shooting percentage the last three years (.409) would barely crack the top 100 worst all-time). But most of us would still agree that even an improved Rubio is still not a very good shooter.

His unreliable shot was the primary reason Tom Thibodeau traded him after the 2016-17 season away from the Wolves to the Jazz (for the first-round pick that became Josh Okogie). There are countless things to miss about Rubio — front and center of which are his joy, passion and vision — but as a calculated decision about how Rubio’s skill set translated to crunch time of games, Thibodeau was not wrong.

With that as a preamble, let’s turn our attention to Game 5 of the Jazz’s playoff series Wednesday against Houston. It was an elimination game with Utah trailing 3 games to 1.

Rubio played a very good overall game, finishing with 17 points (on a respectable 7 for 15 shooting) and 11 assists. He made a short jumper late in the fourth quarter to pull Utah within one point of the Rockets at 94-93. But then, after a defensive stop, Rubio found himself in transition wide open in the left corner. He took the pass, loaded up the perfect look, and with the chance to give his team the lead with just over a minute left … missed everything.

The Jazz never scored again, losing 100-93 and getting eliminated. It was possible in that exact moment to feel very badly for Rubio and also to deeply understand the trade at the same time. That the airball became a punch line is unfortunate but understandable.

The sad part is that the air ball might be the last memory of Rubio in Utah. He’s a free agent after this season, and it’s highly questionable whether the Jazz will re-sign him. Rubio missed 14 games this season; the Jazz won the first 8 and was 10-4 overall without him. Donovan Mitchell had the ball in his hands a lot more when Rubio didn’t play, and the results were quite good.

Rubio is unsurprisingly a fan favorite in Utah, much as he largely was in Minnesota. He’ll be loved wherever he winds up, and he’ll probably keep shooting better than he ever did here. But with the game on the line, he’ll never be the guy you want taking the shot.

*I won’t pretend to know who the Vikings will or should take in the draft, but I have a preference: two offensive linemen and a defensive tackle in the first three rounds.

*A night after having two pitches sail behind his head from Mets reliever Jacob Rhame, the Phillies Rhys Hoskins took Rhame deep Wednesday and proceeded to take 34 seconds to trot around the bases — the slowest home run trot in MLB this season, per ESPN.

If a ball goes over your head the night before, the best way to get back at the pitcher is by putting the ball in the seats,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “So I thought it was worthy of him having that moment and really taking it all in, soaking it all in. He deserved that.”

*The Twins are now No. 22 in MLB in bullpen ERA at an unsightly 4.90. Their primary guys have generally done a pretty good job, but it’s becoming even more apparent that they’re an arm or two short. Maybe that’s a problem that will smooth itself out. Maybe it doesn’t need to be addressed immediately. But it’s not great right now.

 

In praise of Damian Lillard and his loyalty in the modern NBA

The moment was almost too perfect.

Portland guard Damian Lillard dribbled on the perimeter – just inside half court, really – with the game clock winding down and his team tied with Oklahoma City. Lillard already had 47 points. The Blazers already had a 3-1 lead in the series.

He launched from an estimated 37 feet … and drilled it Tuesday night in front of his home crowd. A nice even 50 points and a first-round series win punctuated by Lillard waving good-bye to the Thunder and star guard Russell Westbrook.

In the process of burying the shot, Lillard also buried doubt. When he waved good-bye, it was a reminder of how he refused to do the same to his own teammates.

Before the series started, the Blazers had lost 10 consecutive playoff games, including first-round sweeps each of the past two years.

After the first of those sweeps, Lillard did a Twitter Q&A with fans in which it was suggested to him that he would need to leave Portland for someplace like Golden State if he ever wanted to win a championship. He replied, “I’m willing to not win it if I can’t build it where I am.”

He’s reiterated that message multiple times since then, including in February when talking to Yahoo Sports. Lillard said: “I do want to win a championship, but there’s other stuff that means more to me. … It’s almost like I’m not willing to sell myself out for that.”

I’m a sucker for Lillard’s perseverance and his staunch refusal to request a trade (or sign as a free agent) in search of a ring.

I don’t necessarily begrudge guys like Kevin Durant and LeBron James for actively seeking a better chance to win a championship on another team (and succeeding in doing so). They put in 16 combined seasons in Seattle/Oklahoma City and Cleveland (first go-round for James), respectively, trying to carry those franchises to success.

LeBron formed a superteam. Durant joined one. Both were in desirable markets. To each their own.

But the story of a well-won triumph after a struggle speaks to me in a more meaningful way. It’s a little old-fashioned, and it’s certainly a novel concept in an NBA filled with forced trades and a very active free agent market.

Maybe it’s a simple as a distinction between earned and obtained. Part of it is probably generational, as I feel every bit my 42 years when I feel myself pulling for Lillard – in his seventh year with Portland – because of his line in the sand.

The interesting part is the journey is far from complete, and Lillard’s Blazers aren’t any further than they’ve been in the past. They also reached the second round in 2014 and 2016 before bowing out quickly.

This year’s Blazers will face either Denver or San Antonio in the second round, and I would like their chances in either case of advancing to the conference finals.

There, they quite possibly would be tasked with trying to dethrone Durant’s Warriors – quite possibly in the last gasp before Durant moves on to yet another team.

It would be easy and even understandable for Lillard – an Oakland native, no less – to covet playing for the Warriors, especially if Portland bows out this year short of a title.

The fact that he won’t is as impressive as any trophy.

NFL teams that spend too much on non-elite QBs end up paying

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The Cooler, where sometimes it’s nice when research confirms conventional wisdom. Let’s get to it:

*Pro Football Focus has a long and interesting piece about NFL quarterback spending and relative value. It’s built largely around the question of whether the Seahawks were wise to pay Russell Wilson a big-money extension but there is a lot of data included that gets to the heart of a big question in Minnesota: “The point of the discussion is whether paying quarterbacks top dollar leaves too little in the way of additional spending to compete – due to a lack of talent on the rest of the roster.

The conclusion, while not surprising, is sobering: Paying elite quarterbacks big money is a good idea and translates into wins. Paying comparable money for good but not great QBs is a much bigger risk. Per the story: “Scarcity is real in the NFL; every dollar that is spent on one player cannot be spent on another, and while the quarterback is the most important position, there are even diminishing returns to paying them too much money. … If he’s a true superstar, pay him. If not, move on.”

This is, of course, the big question about Kirk Cousins. He ranked No. 14 in PFF’s rankings last season — better than average, but not great. The year before that with Washington he was No. 20. The year before that, he was No. 13. The Vikings of course were in a unique position last offseason. They craved QB stability and landed Cousins — the best QB on the open market.

They had to pay a hefty sum — $84 million guaranteed over three years — to get him. They likely knew that was a market-driven overpay at the time, but they either figured it was worth it anyway or thought Cousins with the right structure and team around him could move into another echelon and live up to the contract.

One year in, the results were mixed at best. Cousins put up good numbers and was durable. But you could also argue that his big contract kept the Vikings from being able to adequately protect him, negating his value. Unless the Vikings improve on the offensive line via the draft, free agency and internal improvement/coaching, 2019 figures to be more of the same.

Where the Vikings were smart was in the length of the deal. If Cousins moves into the top 8-10, say, of NFL QBs this season then the Vikings might be proven right and should consider a long-term extension.

If 2019 plays out similarly to 2018, the Vikings by PFF logic (and sound logic overall) should be ready to move on with a younger and much cheaper QB after the 2020 season when his deal expires. Doing so is a risk, as the Vikings’ quest for a franchise QB in past years has shown. But overpaying a good-but-not-great QB is an even bigger risk.

*The Blazers’ Damian Lillard has been dynamite all series against Oklahoma City, but his night Tuesday was otherworldly. He scored 50 points, including the game-winning 37-foot three-pointer as time expired to end the game and series. Then he waved good-bye to the Thunder after his follow through. That’s cold. Here’s a cool view of it:

*By the way, since I wrote last week that the NBA playoffs have been less predictable because the lower seeds were holding their own, the higher seeded teams have gone a combined 24-3. Five of the eight higher seeds have already won their series, and the other three are a game away from clinching.

*In the NHL, on the other hand, four of the seven first-round series have been won by the lower seeds — including the second wild card in both conferences. Only higher-seeded San Jose’s Game 7 win over Vegas on Tuesday kept the West from having a clean sweep of lower seeds winning all four first-round series.