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The San Antonio Spurs utilized a late 10-0 run to squeak by the Dallas Mavericks, 90-85. Tim Duncan led the way with 27 points and seven rebounds while Tony Parker chipped in with 21 points and six assists. Manu Ginobili, the third member of San Antonio’s ‘Big 3′, went for 17 points off the bench. While each of the Spurs top players got their points, Dallas’ top player, Dirk Nowitzki, struggled. Nowitzki only registered 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting. Monta Ellis and Devin Harris combined for 30 points in the loss, but Dallas will need a lot more from Dirk if they want to keep pace with the Spurs. 

The most impressive stat from Game 1 was Dallas’ 3-point defense. Dallas held San Antonio to just 3-of-17 shooting from 3-point range. Danny Green, Patty Mills, and Marco Bellinelli went o-for-7 from deep. The Spurs will need their sharp shooters to knock down shots in Game 2. 

The Spurs were able to get to the charity stripe 22 times compared to just 13 times from Dallas. Dallas won the turnover battle 10-8. They’ll need to keep limiting turnovers and transition points in Game 2. 

Some of the best sportsbooks have the Spurs installed as 8.5 point favorites. The Spurs failed to cover the eight point spread in Game 1, so I fully expect them to bounce back with a huge effort in Game 2. The Spurs shot over 35% from three during the regular season, so I’m expecting a huge bounce back performance. Lay the points and roll with the Spurs in Game 2

Pick: Spurs -8.5

The Brooklyn Nets finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and will face the upstart three seed Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. The Raptors haven’t made the playoffs in years and the Nets will look to rebound after last year’s first round exit against the Bulls. The match-ups alone are interesting. The Nets boast one of the NBA’s oldest rosters, but that old roster, which is led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Joe Johnson, has logged over 17,000 playoff minutes. The Raptors have one of the NBA’s most explosive back courts in point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Can the Nets slow down this dynamic duo?

Both teams have gone on impressive runs which makes this a very captivating playoff series. Since trading small forward Rudy Gay in December, the Raptors have gone 41-22, which is the best record in the Eastern Conference during that span. During this stretch, the Raptors rank 10th in turnover percentage, demonstrating a very diplomatic approach to offense. Center Jonas Valanciunas, who emerged late in the season by averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds, will be a critical player. The Nets have the second worst rebound percentage in the NBA, so Valancuinas will have opportunities around the rim. This Toronto team has a lot of talent, but lacks playoff experience. Can they come together?

On the flip side, the Brooklyn has the second best record in the East since January 1st (34-17). A season ending injury to center Brook Lopez forced Brooklyn into more a ‘small ball approach’ with Pierce playing the power forward position. Brooklyn boasts may grizzled veterans that have championship experience, but backup point guard Shaun Livingston may be their most important player. The 6’7″ Livingston perfectly fits Brooklyn’s small ball approach and his size will be critical to slowing down DeRozan. The Nets average three fewer points with Livingston on the court.

Current NBA odds have Toronto slotted as a 2-point favorite. Toronto opened as a 2.5 point favorite, but were quickly bet down to 2 points. I’m expecting an emotional, spirited opening game from the Raptors. I think Brooklyn will win this series, but Toronto will take Game 1. Lay the points and take the Raptors.

Pick: Toronto -2

The 2014 FIFA World Cup will not be an easy one for the United States soccer team. The U.S. has been placed into the ‘Group of Death’ with two power houses (Germany and Portugal) and the team that defeated them during the 2010 World Cup (Ghana). The U.S. will bring some veteran leadership in the form of Everton goalie, Tim Howard. Forward Jozy Alitdore of Sunderland will attempt to lead the offensive charge. The U.S. thrives in the counter attack, keying on its midfielders to help push offensive chances. The counter attack may run into a few speed bumps against Germany and Portugal. Both teams rely on strong midfielder play to limit chances and help power the offensive attack. After the jump, I’ll preview each U.S. opponent and present some official picks.

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The New York Mets kicked off their 2014 season Monday afternoon at Citi Field. The Mets drew a crowd in excess of 43,000 people. Many Met fans used ScoreBig to purchase tickets to attend the game. ScoreBig offers fans a very unique ticket buying experience. In short, here are some quick ScoreBig facts that make it the best ticket buying option:

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Less than 72 hours remain in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. I’ve written a scouting report, valuation study, and just some general thoughts.  Overall, I think a six-year, $120 million deal is pretty reasonable. However, two of baseball’s richest teams, the Yankees and Dodgers, as well as new regimes in Arizona and Chicago have also shelled out nine figure offers. When the competition is this fierce, someone is going to pay a premium. Tanaka’s agent, Casey Close, has done an excellent job keeping negotiations quiet, so we don’t know where each team stands.

When we compare Tanaka to the entire free agent pitching market, it’s not even close–and Close knows that. Based on age alone, Tanaka is three years younger than the next pitcher (Phil Hughes). Skill-wise, an argument can be made that Tanaka has the best ‘stuff’ among free agent pitchers. This article will show us why we shouldn’t be shocked when Tanaka signs a deal in excess of $140 million.

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Yesterday, we heard rumblings that the Yankees were ‘considering a run‘ at free agent shortstop, Stephen Drew. Drew, who turns 31-years-old in March, was the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox. In 124 games, Drew hit 13 HRs, drove in 67 runs, and put up a .253/.333/.443 slash. Defensively, Drew finished second among American League shortstops with a .984 fielding percentage. Drew finished the year with a 3.4 WAR, sixth best among shortstops. After making $9.5 million last season, Drew turned down Boston’s qualifying offer of one-year, $14.1 million, in hopes of securing a multi-year deal. Despite grading out as one of the better shortstops, Drew is having a tough time find suitors. Could the lack of demand for Drew create a market inefficiency that the Yankees can exploit?

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The Brooklyn Nets (37-32) are currently ranked fifth in the Eastern Conference with only 11 games to go. The Nets are only one game behind the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors for third and fourth place, but will need to fend off the upstart Charlotte Bobcats (34-37) who are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference. 

The Nets had their four-game winning streak snapped on Monday. The Nets blew a 22-point second half and lost 109-104 to the New Orleans Hornets. Despite the loss, the Nets posted an impressive 107-104 overtime win in Dallas on Sunday. The Nets shot 51 percent from the field during their four-game winning streak before shooting just 37 percent in their loss to New Orleans. The Nets were a staggering 10-for-40 from three-point range. 

Brooklyn has defeated Charlotte in nine of their last ten meetings. Charlotte’s lone victory occurred in November at home. Alike Brooklyn, Charlotte is coming off a poor shooting performance. Charlotte dropped a 100-89 home decision to Houston on Monday night. Charlotte made just four of their 21 3-pointers. Their 12 assists were also a season low. Kemba Walker scored 22 points in the loss. Walker has scored at least 20 points in four of his last five games.

This is a must win game for both teams and the odds makers expect a very tight contest. Current NBA odds state that this game is essentially a Pick’em. However, I disagree with the line makers on this one. Kemba Walker is starting to play really well and Brooklyn is a paltry 14-21 on the road. The Nets do not have an answer for Al Jefferson inside and I expect a big game from him. Take the home team at a discount for your NBA picks.

My Pick: Charlotte Bobcats -PK

With the Super Bowl just four days away, the Denver Broncos have settled in a slight favorite. Most Super Bowl odds have the Broncos pegged as a 2-point favorite with the over-under set at 47 points. Since a large sum of public money has come in on Denver, books have adjusted their lines and Peyton Manning (+100) has predictable become the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl MVP. The story of the entire season has been Manning and the Denver Broncos. Manning set the single season passing TD record (55), will likely win his fifth(!) MVP award, and is in search of his second Super Bowl ring. If the Broncos walk out of Metlife as Super Bowl champions, Manning will walk away with the MVP award. 

If Seattle can find a way to win, the defense will have a major influence. However, as we’ve seen in past Super Bowls, offensive personnel normally take home the award. Consider Seattle’s QB Russell Wilson (+320) who has flown under the radar. Wilson hasn’t played really well, but will likely need to make several big plays to keep up with Denver. Running the ball will be a priority as Seattle will want to keep Manning on the sidelines. RB Marshawn Lynch (+420) was instrumental in the NFC Championship as he rumbled for 100 yards and a score. Lynch may offer the best value among ‘favorites’ for the award.

Other Denver options include Demaryius Thomas (+2200), Knowshon Moreno (+2500), Eric Decker (+2800), Wes Welker (+3300), and Julius Thomas (+4000). Other Seattle options include the boisterous Richard Sherman (+2800). 

After months of speculation, the Super Bowl is set. The Denver Broncos handily beat the New England Patriots, 26-18 in the AFC Championship game. Peyton Manning led the way by throwing for 400 yards and 2 TDs. The Seattle Seahawks rallied to top the San Francisco 49ers, 23-17. Running back Marshawn Lynch grinded down San Franicsco tough Front 7 enroute to 109 yards and a touchdown. 

Prior to the championship games, most sports books installed the NFC as a one-point favorite against the AFC. After the Seahawks secured their victory against the 49ers, the Seahawks opened as one-point favorites against the Broncos. However, after Richard Sherman’s infamous post-game rant and the public sentiment behind Peyton Manning, heavy money came in on the Broncos and pushed the line up 2.5 or 3 points. Nearly 66 percent of bets have come in the Broncos, which puts the Super Bowl odds squarely in their favor. The Seahawks’ biggest strength is their home field advantage, something they won’t have in the Super Bowl. If Denver gets out to 10+ point lead, the Seahawks may have tough time recovering. Seattle offense, which is led by quarterback Russell Wilson, is not built to overcome massive deficits. The Seahawks want to feed Marshawn Lynch the ball and if he gets more than 20-25 carries, the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl. Denver’s defense played very well against the Patriots and if they can carry that over, they’ll be awfully hard to beat.

Ultimately, I believe weather conditions will make the difference in the game. If game conditions are rainy or snowy, Seattle will have a massive advantage. Seattle will be able to ride Marshawn Lynch and get the ball to Percy Harvin in space. If we get a nearly perfect day, Denver’s offense shouldn’t have any issues. Watching the Seattle secondary square off against Denver’s receivers will be a real treat. 

Expanded instant replay has been officially approved for the 2014 season. The protocol is a work in progress, but it can be summed up in the following steps:

  • To determine whether to challenge a play, managers will be permitted to communicate with a video specialist in the Clubhouse, who has access to the same video available to the Replay Officials. No video equipment will be available in the dugout;
  • Managers must verbally notify the Crew Chief in a ‘timely manner’ and indicate which portion of the play he’s challenging;
  • Once the replay review is invoked, the Crew Chief will signal to the official scorer that the play is under review;
  • The Crew Chief will have a designated communication area near home plate where they have hard-wired headset connected to the ‘Replay Command Center’ in New York;
  • MLB Umps will be staffed as ‘Replay Officials’ at the Replay Command Center which is located in New York City;
  • The Replay Command Center will have direct access to the video from most cameras in the ballpark in real-time;
  • If the Replay Official overturns a call, he must use his best judgement to determine where to place runner if the play was called correctly;
  • The field umpires will not have access to the video feed and cannot protest the Replay Official’s decision;
  • The home team can’t show replays on their scoreboard, which is a little weird. 

Alike most replay rules in the NFL, there are a few caveats:

  • Managers receive two challenges per game, but they lose the second challenge if the first one is unsuccessful;
  • Starting in the 7th inning, the Crew Chief may choose to invoke instant replay on any reviewable call; 
  • Home runs calls that are currently subject to instant replay review will continue to be reviewed at the Crew Chief’s discretion. Managers can request that umpires review a home run call, but managers cannot challenge home run calls. 

Here is a full list of reviewable plays:

  • Home runs;
  • Ground rule doubles;
  • Fan interference;
  • Stadium boundary calls (e.g. fielder into stands, ball into stands);
  • Force play (except the fielder’s touching of second base on a double play);
  • Tag play (including steals and pickoffs);
  • Fair/foul in outfield only;
  • Trap play in outfield;
  • Batter hit by pitch;
  • Timing play (whether a runner scores before a third out);
  • Touching a base (requires appeal);
  • Passing runners;
  • Record keeping (Ball-strike count to batter, outs, score, and substitutions)

MV Comments: Overall, I like the first set of rules. People are going to complain that the ‘neighborhood’ play at second during a double play isn’t reviewable. Robinson Cano abused this rule and I’m sure many other 2Bs and SS do it. I’m interested to see how quickly the verdict can be delivered from the Replay Command Center. Will it take them five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes? Which stall tactics will teams use to make sure their video specialist has enough time to review the play? I’m kind of bummed managers won’t have red flags like they do in the NFL. It’d be cool seeing that fly out of the dugout.

Seeing the ump’s interpretation of ‘timely manner’ will be interesting. For example, say a third out is incorrectly called (the outfielder trapped the line drive) and the teams switch. The video specialist reviews the play and tells the manager to challenge the call. While the video specialist is reviewing the play, the team switch and the pitcher begins warming up. Do all players stop what they’re doing when a play is challenged? Should the pitcher start throwing? It may be a little odd seeing the team switch again once the play is correctly changed. It may lead to a prolonged game, but the umps are getting the calls right. 

The Replay Command Center is a really smart thing. It’s something I think the NFL should adopt to help speed up the game. FOX has Mike Pereira that pretty much does this during telecasts. No reason why the NFL can’t have their own set of officials that do this in a central location.

This new system is a work in progress and no one is expecting perfection in Year 1. Baseball owes it to the teams and fans to get calls right. It may make games a little longer and it’ll be interesting to see which umps are more prone to replays following the 7th inning. Good job by the owners, umpire association, and players’ association to get this in place.