Wolves vs. Kings, full Game 7 of 2004 playoffs is on YouTube

In an effort to help you get through these sports-free days (months), I’m combing the Internet archives to bring you OPTIONS.

This week is all about playing the hits. We started with Gophers vs. Clemson in the 1997 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and now there’s this: The full Game 7 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals between the Wolves and Kings is on YouTube.

There will be several clues immediately that this game is 16 years old — from the production quality to the style of play to the fact that there were 163 points scored in the whole (redacted) thing instead of with 5 minutes left in the third quarter.

If for some reason you do not know the outcome of this game, I won’t spoil it for you entirely. Suffice to say it was one of the most intense sporting events I’ve ever attended/covered — right up there with Game 163 in 2009 for the Twins vs. the Tigers — and still there are many things about it that I didn’t remember.

Kevin Garnett is an absolute beast, but you probably would have guessed that even if I didn’t tell you.

The Carlos Gonzalez photo (above) probably gives it away, but it’s worth it because 1) It’s such a great shot and 2) Sid is in the picture, back when he was only 84.

Music, video games and boredom: How athletes and coaches are coping

Perhaps the most jarring thing among a million jarring things regarding our new (temporary, have to keep writing that) coronavirus-related normal is the pace at which all of this accelerated.

A week ago, for instance, every player in every major U.S. league was preparing to play games. Sure, there were adjustments such as locker rooms being closed to media and there was talk of large batches of games being played in empty arenas and stadiums, but it wasn’t until Wednesday night — when Rudy Gobert tested positive — that the NBA postponed its season.

Others quickly followed suit from there: among them MLB, Major League Soccer, the NHL and all NCAA sports, including March Madness — the last of which was canceled altogether instead of just delayed.

If you feel like you are operating in a hazy mixture of apprehension, boredom and — in fits and spurts — resourcefulness, Twitter is reinforcing that athletes and coaches are very much in the same head space. At a time when everything has been put on hold, including practices, here’s a rundown of what some of those who planned to be playing or coaching are up to now:

MUSIC

Let’s start upbeat. We’re finding out that a good number of athletes have musical interests and varying degrees of talent.

Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie posted on Twitter a short video (just 14 seconds) of him playing a keyboard. “Day 4 w/o basketball. Guess imma be a producer. Who tryna hop on this beat?” he tweeted along with an admittedly catchy sequence.

The best part? Someone wrote lyrics for it and someone else actually put a beat to it and it sounds good. These are the heroes we need right now.

Giannis Antetokounmpo played a VERY rudimentary opening riff of “Smoke on the Water,” but he gets 1 million points for trying.

That seems to have inspired fellow NBA player Patty Mills to post his own guitar video. “I’m also free and available for any group in need of a guitarist. In box me for booking @Giannis_An34.”

Golfer Erik van Rooyen can legitimately shred. “No golf……. Might as well have some @foofighters in your life!” he wrote.

FUN AND GAMES

Karl-Anthony Towns, a known video game enthusiast, posted a video on an Instagram story with teammate and buddy D’Angelo Russell dominating a game of FIFA soccer — with 20 pushups on the line.

Giannis prefers to take his gaming offline. He posted a picture of a chess board and a late night game (1:59 a.m.).

BOREDOM SETTING IN

Alas, sometimes the down time gets the best of all of us. Under the ideal circumstances, with a bunch of unexpected time off, we could all be our best selves. Social distancing, closures and travel restrictions — all of them necessary in the battle against a global pandemic — create less-than-ideal circumstances and in many cases isolation.

Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino tweeted Tuesday night at KFAN’s Justin Gaard and Dan Barreiro: “You guys free this week? I’ll talk about anything. You can make fun of my contract, career, ….anything. Give me an excuse to drive around Edina for a few minutes.”

That made me actually laugh out loud, which is a nice feeling.

Twins pitcher Randy Dobnak tweeted: “Hey Alexa, what do people typically do during the spring months?”

And just a few hours after Okogie posted the video of his piano skills, he admitted on Twitter: “Took three naps today. … Don’t got nothing else to do.”

The pandemic is creating FAR more serious health and economic problems, but these examples illustrate some fundamental, less serious every day struggles that are natural offshoots of our new (temporary, still have to keep writing that) reality.

Stefon Diggs trade is a reminder that things are often exactly as they seem

All throughout the fall and winter, evidence continued to mount that Stefon Diggs and the Vikings were in a relationship that wouldn’t last. Tensions, in fact, had been building for close to a year before Monday’s blockbuster trade with the Bills.

As our Ben Goessling wrote a while back, after Diggs was fined $200,000 for missing practices after a Week 4 loss to the Bears: “His absence, sources told the Star Tribune at the time, stemmed from frustrations that had been building since the spring over the direction of the offense and his role in it.

Diggs returned and addressed the media, but it hardly cleared the air. Among the most concrete things he said was this in response to whether he wanted to be traded: “I feel like there’s truth to all rumors, no matter how you dress it up. I won’t be saying nothing on it. I won’t be speaking on it all. But there is truth to all rumors, I guess.”

He blamed a minor, cold-like illness on his practice absence, which was clearly not true. A few days later, when I asked if he was feeling better, he smiled and produced a fake cough.

The Vikings managed to finesse a productive final 12 games from Diggs — a huge deal in propelling the team to a playoff berth while preserving the job security of Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer and paving the way for Kirk Cousins’ extension, which also happened Monday.

But once the offseason started, the veiled quotes became veiled tweets. Among the gems Diggs left on Twitter over the past couple months:

“Some things are better left unsaid …”

“I don’t forget or forgive …”

“I hate people that do you wrong then try to play the victim …”

“People don’t appreciate things until they’re gone …”

That led to the scouting combine, where Spielman infamously said, “there’s no reason to anticipate [Diggs] is not going to be a Minnesota Viking.”

A lot of Vikings fans and observers agreed with Spielman: nothing to see here, Diggs is just loving the drama.

But all of this is a lesson in two parts.

First, it’s an application of Occam’s razor, which is often described in shorthand as “the simplest answer is most often correct.” Even in its more intended use a “process of paring down information to make finding the truth easier,” it applies here.

The simplest answer if we weighed all the evidence is that Diggs wasn’t happy and that he was likely to be traded. We could construct counter-arguments, but they didn’t seem to carry as much weight.

The second part: heed the warning of George Orwell, who wrote in 1984, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

In this case, the Vikings are “the party,” though obviously Spielman’s objective wasn’t anywhere near as sinister as that in the Orwell’s Dystopian novel.

Teams create leverage, or a least markets, all the time by insisting they aren’t going to trade players who clearly seem to be headed toward that resolution. Desperation collapses the market, and it looks like enough teams — or at least one, the Buffalo Bills — believed the Vikings weren’t desperate to trade Diggs.

Spielman, then, was able to get a very nice haul — four total draft picks, including a first-rounder this year — for Diggs. He threaded the needle quite nicely, in fact, by getting valuable production out of Diggs in 2019 amid the turmoil and still managing to find value in a trade as the Vikings realign for 2020. He did his job well.

If you trusted your eyes and ears, though, your senses told you that Diggs was actually quite likely to be traded.

Things were, as they often are, exactly as they seemed — a good reminder in football and life in 2020.

Coronavirus won’t stop Stefon Diggs from making cryptic trade tweets

Different people are responding to the coronavirus pandemic in different ways, and Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs seems to have settled on this: He’s going to tweet through it.

Diggs had a rocky 2019 season with the Vikings and has spent much of the offseason penning a series of cryptic tweets. Then he turned up the volume Monday – amid a flurry of reported NFL trades with the official start of the new league year approaching Wednesday – by appearing to distance himself (socially or otherwise) from the Vikings even more.

It’s time for a new beginning,” he tweeted shortly before 2 p.m. Monday (Central time).

Hmmm, OK that seems pretty clear but maybe he was just alluding to the start of the new NFL calendar year?

Well … about 30 minutes later, he replied to a Patriots fan who accused him of being a “drama queen” looking for attention by tweeting: “Nah this ain’t one of those times champ. Something’s going to happen.” (The fan later deleted his part of the exchange).

Nothing has happened – yet. But those of us who didn’t believe Rick Spielman last month when he downplayed Diggs trade rumors (my hand is raised so high it hurts) are feeling even better about that position at this point.

No live sports on TV? Watch Gophers vs. Clemson, 1997 NCAA tournament

From this point in March through early April is usually one of the most glorious times of the year for a sports fan to watch games on TV. Between March Madness, the Masters, the start of MLB and MLS and the ongoing NHL and NBA seasons, it offers a convergence unlike any other. Going from 100 to zero in the last few days as leagues and events have shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic has been jarring for a lot of fans. While not having live sports on TV is about a million places down on the list of serious problems connected coronavirus, it is nonetheless a very real part of our new social distancing reality. Sports serve an important community-building role — both in-person and on TV — and taking that away from people inevitably leaves a hole in lives that are getting smaller by the day. What I’d like to do in this space every weekday, then, is provide you with a gem from the internet archives that might brighten your day with a well-timed re-watch. If people enjoy this enough, I *might* even see if we could all set a time on a certain day to watch one of these at the same time — all while tweeting about it, a thing that I strangely miss already. Perhaps that last part might be most easily achieved with something that is already being shown on a major channel at a fixed time — such as Fox Sports North going to a steady diet of replayed Twins games with MLB on hold. Monday’s offering: A Twins vs. Yankees game from last season. ESPN is also doing some replays, but most of their initial strategy seems to be focused on around-the-clock studio shows like SportsCenter and NFL Live. In any event, the recommendation for Monday is this: Gophers vs. Clemson, 1997 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. This is the game from that special Gophers season that I remember the most. If you’ve forgotten some of the details, I won’t spoil it for you — after all, to me part of the fun of re-watching a game is discovering things that you might have forgotten (or, if you are watching for the first time, discovering as new). The full game was uploaded to YouTube a couple years back by Tiger TV, and I came to it randomly while searching for good options for this feature. As time goes on, I’ll probably search for even more obscure games for which most people would have very little idea of the outcome. For now, though, as we plow forward a day after what would have been Selection Sunday, this one felt apt.

A Kirk Cousins extension — and the strangeness of regular NFL news

On Friday, as the rest of the sports world was focused on cancellations, event postponements and entire major sports seasons put on hold, the NFL … continued to churn out news as usual.

The biggest headline to emerge that day from the Vikings: Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph had been cut, giving the Vikings $18.5 million in cap space. Two defensive mainstays and Pro Bowl players, both of whom had been here for the entire Mike Zimmer tenure, were gone just like that — a Friday news dump in the midst of a global pandemic, albeit two moves that were not entirely unexpected.

It continued Monday morning with news that quarterback Kirk Cousins had agreed to a two-year extension with the Vikings, a move announced without much ceremony on Twitter by Cousins’ agent. For as much as I’ve wondered if the Vikings might be better off drafting a quarterback and letting Cousins go after this upcoming season, the decision to give him at least a short extension makes a good amount of sense and was unsurprising. Maybe the bigger surprise is that it was such a short extension.

More than anything, all of the NFL news that keeps coming out is a strange mix of both normal and jarring — even though all those Vikings moves are things we’ve been discussing and speculating about for months. They just happened, and they suddenly don’t feel nearly as important as we made them out to be.

As leagues like the NBA continue to look like they will be on hiatus for at least the next few months — ESPN reports that mid-to-late-June is a best-case scenario for the league’s return — and the rest of the world continues to adjust to the new temporary normal of social distancing, the NFL is very close to business as usual. The biggest piece of league-wide news, of course, was the approval of a new collective bargaining agreement.

This is not a critique so much as an observation, and obviously the major difference between the NFL and the collective of MLB, MLS, the NBA and NHL is that those other sports are in-season and the NFL still has more than four months before training camps would even open.

It wouldn’t really make much sense for the NFL to shut down its offseason; doing that would only lead to problems down the road whenever sports resume. It only figures to ramp up in coming days, since Monday is the first day teams can contact external free agents and Wednesday is the day signings will start becoming official.

Maybe it’s a nice escape or comfort in a world where so many headlines — sports and otherwise — are consumed by the coronavirus. It’s a reminder that our current reality isn’t forever.

But that doesn’t make it any less strange, I guess, to scroll through a sports feed that feels like 80% virus news and 20% regular NFL news.

Coronavirus and sports: The day things went from abstract to real

Officials leave the court before an NBA basketball game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz was postponed in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.(Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman via AP)

 

For many of us over the last month or two, the term “coronavirus” has been humming along somewhere between the fronts and backs of our brains.

It felt far away at first, then closer, but still not altogether present — an abstraction, a thing we weren’t quite sure how to mitigate in the context of daily lives and routines.

Wednesday, then, felt like a huge pivot point in an abstraction suddenly feeling very much more real — and sports, as they often do, played a significant role.

It is probably not great when we realize how many cues we take from sports and what a major part of society they are — having some years ago jumped from the category of pleasant temporary distractions to all-consuming escape mechanisms.

But if that’s what it takes to get us all to at least pay more attention, in a big-picture way instead of just a personal way, to a global health pandemic … then so be it.

One by one Wednesday, the announcements came.

The NCAA decided to hold all of its events — including the men’s basketball tournament and the upcoming wrestling tournament in Minneapolis — without fans.

The NBA suspended its season abruptly after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive.

You can barely go 15 minutes without another update, alteration or cancellation from around the globe, including the World Cup ski event that was supposed to happen here next week but has been called off now.

Until Wednesday, if you’re like me at least, you were probably reading a fair amount about COVID-19 and doing the basic things like taking extra care with hand washing or sanitizing. Maybe you had crossed a few places or events off your list or even had to alter some travel plans.

But people have a hard time conceiving of things that haven’t happened before — at least not on a certain scale or to and around them personally.

Even if a lot of what happened Wednesday in sports falls under the “abundance of caution” category, it was dramatic enough to send a signal to many of us: This is serious.

We shouldn’t panic, become overly stressed or stay up glued to Twitter all night instead of sleeping because, of course, all of those things can weaken our immune systems.

But we need to take this coronavirus seriously — a lot more seriously, at least, than we treat the outcomes of games.

If hitting pause on or altering some of our endless distractions can slow or even halt the spread of a virus that is particularly dangerous to those most vulnerable, history will clearly show who was on the winning side of these decisions.

One month later, Wild has changed narrative on its present — and future

A month ago, the Wild was mired in about the worst place in the standings — barely on the fringes of the playoff race, but more likely to both miss the postseason and not get a high draft pick than any other outcome.

In February, the franchise fired the head coach, Bruce Boudreau, the man the Wild hoped would lead it to playoff success when hired four years. The Wild was in the midst of exploring a trade involving Zach Parise — one of two cornerstones signed another four years before Boudreau’s arrival in hopes of bringing a Stanley Cup to Minnesota.

There was very little about the Wild that was interesting. Mostly Minnesota just seemed stuck, with very few prospects for getting out of its rut.

And then three things happened — offering another reminder of just how quickly a narrative can change in sports and that while there’s no changing the past there is a certain measure of influence over the present and future.

1 — Kevin Fiala started playing like a superstar. Now, I want to be careful here not to say Fiala is a star. We need to see more than a five-week burst before that word enters the conversation on a permanent basis. But he is playing like one right now: 14 goals and 12 assists in his last 18 games starting Feb. 4, during which time the Wild is 12-5-1.

Just as important is that from an aesthetic standpoint, Fiala plays with the type of fluidity, creativity and skill that make games fun to watch. I’ll admit to being far more interested in tuning in to watch over the last month, and Fiala is a big part of that. When was the last time the Wild had a player that made you say, “I should watch this game because I want to see what Player X does?”

2 — Parise looks like he’s playing with a new energy since the trade deadline, when reports indicated a deal involving the Islanders was close to happening before falling through. In eight games since then, Parise has four goals and five assists — with the Wild going 6-2 in those games.

Always a dogged worker, Parise’s effort level jumps out even more lately — as does his joy when he puts a puck in the net. Whether it’s relief that a trade didn’t happen or a sense that as long as he’s here he should make the most of it, the energy is working for Parise and it’s helping the Wild.

And that’s on top of what was already a solid year for him. Let’s not forget that in the midst of Fiala-mania, Parise is still the team leader with 25 goals (to Fiala’s 23) and has played all 69 games this season.

3 — Kirill Kaprizov continues to provide even more hope for the future. The Wild prospect is dominating the KHL again for CSKA Moscow, and ESPN just named him the No. 1 NHL-affiliated prospect among all teams. That same report listed 2019 first-round pick Matthew Boldy as the No. 13 prospect. Both rankings were a jump seven spots up from the last time players were ranked.

If Karpizov arrives next season as expected and Fiala continues to rise, that would give the Wild two potentially dynamic players on a roster that has sorely lacked high-end skill. Those are the types of players who not only provide a buzz but make a difference in the postseason.

It’s not hard to imagine the Wild being competitive for at least one round this year if it can get in. And it’s much easier to picture bigger future success than it was just a month ago.

Vikings question: Is Dalvin Cook special enough to warrant long extension?

NFL free agency starts next week, giving the Vikings a chance to retool a roster that was good enough to win 10 games and upset the Saints in the NFC playoffs. We’ll be rolling out a new Access Vikings podcast every day this week to preview the week ahead, focusing on different sets of players each day.

Monday’s initial effort, on offensive skilled position players, was interesting as a means of clarifying just how many important decisions the Vikings have to make with that group this offeason — even though the biggest decisions don’t really have anything to do with 2020 free agency.

The three big ones:

*Decide if they are going to trade wide receiver Stefon Diggs — a question some of us (me) have been focused on even while the Vikings insist there’s nothing going on.

*Decide the future of Kirk Cousins, given that he has one year left on his contract and an extension could ease their salary cap burden.

*Decide the future of Dalvin Cook, who has one year left on his rookie deal and will be looking for a lucrative extension.

The Diggs question is a fun one, but it’s the most speculative and least urgent. He’s under contract for four seasons, and as long as everyone is happy the Vikings can just keep paying him to produce.

The Cousins question is interesting, but we’re probably overthinking it. Thinking like the Vikings: If the goal is to make the playoffs year after year, giving yourself a chance in the postseason, a Cousins extension makes sense. He’s an above-average player at a position where the Vikings haven’t had above-average stability in a long time.

Cook? It seems obvious on the surface, but it’s more layered than it appears. So let’s spend a little time on it. (Above photo of Cook by the Star Tribune’s Jerry Holt).

As recently as 10 years ago, this would be a slam dunk decision. Running backs were workhorses and the focal points of offenses. Twenty years ago the decision would be even easier. Thirty years ago the Vikings gave up a million pieces to get one (Herschel Walker) that they thought could put them over the top.

These days, though, it’s not so simple. First, the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011 instituted a rookie wage scale — setting a fixed cost for players in the first four years of their careers based on their draft slots. Cook, a second-round pick in 2017, signed a four-year deal worth $6.26 million total.

Because running backs tend to be more NFL-ready than players at other positions, they tend to offer a lot of value on their initial deals. Then they get A LOT more expensive when they hit free agency.

They also take a lot of hits and are exposed to a sort of physical wear and tear that gives them a shorter peak shelf life than players at other positions. The main takeaway from a Pro Football Reference study of running backs is thatas a group, running backs under 27 tend to improve, and running backs over 27 tend to decline.

Cook will turn 25 just before the start of next season. Let’s say the Vikings gave him an extension somewhere in the neighborhood of what Ezekiel Elliott got with the Cowboys — adding six years and $90 million to his existing contract. Cook would be 26 when the extension started and 31 in the final year of the deal. Theoretically, at least in terms of the average running back, the Vikings would be paying for 2-3 years of Cook’s peak and 3-4 years of his decline if the contract was played out in full.

No position has been squeezed more by analytics and the current NFL salary structure than running backs. And it doesn’t help Cook’s case when teams like the Steelers and Chargers almost seamlessly move on from standouts Le’Veon Bell and Melvin Gordon with cheaper options in James Conner (in 2018) and Austin Ekeler (in 2019).

On Monday’s podcast, we raised a simple question: How good is Cook in relation to other options on the team? If the Vikings decided to let Cook walk after this season and ride the younger and cheaper Alexander Mattison or Mike Boone (or someone else they draft in the next two years) in 2021, are they 90% of what Cook is? 75% Less?

Pro Football Focus at least gives us some objective measure. Cook was graded No. 14 out of all qualified NFL running backs last season — good, but perhaps not as high as one might imagine. As a pure rusher he graded much higher, but he was dinged with relatively low grades as a receiver and pass blocker as well as for his four fumbles.

Boone, though not qualified to be ranked because he didn’t play enough, actually had a higher overall grade than Cook (78.1 vs. 76.2) while Mattison was a respectable 70.0 in 212 snaps as Cook’s primary backup when healthy.

That last part is important, too, when it comes to Cook. He’s played in just 29 of 48 career regular season games in his three seasons with the Vikings because of a variety of injuries.

All that said: Cook was at one point the NFL’s leading rusher last season and was a clear focal point of the offense. The Vikings were 10-4 when he played last season, 0-2 when he didn’t — including an ugly home loss to the Packers in which the Vikings struggled mightily to move the ball. He bounced back with 94 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win over New Orleans.

As a threat to break a long one every time he touches the ball, Cook stresses a defense in a way that a replacement might not — opening up the play action passing game the Vikings leaned on heavily last season and figure to lean on again in 2020.

Cook is a Vikings draft success story as a second-round pick and one that GM Rick Spielman included among “those core group of players that we definitely want to try and keep,” when addressing the media at the Scouting Combine late last month.

Still, it’s fair to wonder: When the money gets tight, as it inevitably will for the cap-strapped Vikings, will the Vikings look at Cook as a player they can’t afford to lose or can’t afford to keep?

Judge overturns convictions of Jonathan Irons — the man Maya Moore has been working to set free

Jonathan Irons, the man Lynx star Maya Moore has been working to help free from prison while she has been taking time away from the WNBA, had his convictions overturned on Monday by a judge in Cole County, Mo. — and Moore was the one who delivered the life-altering news by phone, according to a report from the Jefferson City News Tribune.

Moore announced in February 2019 that she was sitting out last year’s WNBA season to focus on her faith and social justice goals. A main part of that focused on Irons — a family friend of Moore who was serving a 50-year sentence in connection to a burglary and shooting in the St. Louis area.

Irons was 16 at the time; on Monday, while still in state prison, he took a call from Moore after “his defense had provided enough evidence to prove he was wrongfully convicted” in a ruling from Judge Dan Green.

“It doesn’t feel real. It’s sad that it has taken this long for us to get to this point and he’s still not home yet,” Moore said, per the Jefferson City News Tribune. “We’re happy, though, that the truth is out there.”

Irons’ attorney told the paper that it would likely be at least a couple of weeks before Irons is released.

Earlier this year, Moore announced her intention to miss the upcoming WNBA season while continuing to fight for Irons. It’s unclear what impact Monday’s ruling might have on Moore’s playing status in the future, though clearly that’s not the most important part of Monday’s ruling.

“We’re still fighting because he is still behind bars, but we hope that the momentum and the commitment we’ve had for truth in this case, from Johnathan, to our lawyers, to our family, we hope inspires others and inspires change along with accountability and prosecutorial reform,” Moore told the newspaper. “This is something that didn’t have to happen.”

Lynx head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve continued her message of support for Moore’s fight by tweeting Monday: “Congratulations @MooreMaya, Jonathan Irons, and the families involved on this incredible news of Jonathan’s conviction being overturned. We are so proud of your resilience in this fight and your passion for criminal justice reform. #WinnerInCourt #WinnerOnCourt.”