Ray Ratto

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

Raiders' magic dissipates, but valuable lesson about contending learned

So the Oakland Raiders are good, but not magical, let alone soaked in destiny. So they can make every game a hard slog for the opponent, but they are not invulnerable. So they can be inefficient, and too sure of themselves, and terribly wasteful when they’re cold.

In other words, they are part of the National Football League – no longer too good to be true.

Their performance against the Chiefs in Kansas City was a pyramid of blown opportunities, opportunities made necessary by a terrible start. A week ago, against a borderline playoff team, they could get away with it. Thursday, on hostile ground, against a team that has lost three of its previous 23 regular season games and has a defense that specializes in standing on your chest until you whistle Yankee Doodle through your navel, they couldn’t.

The result of the 21-13 loss in a game with 12 more points than degrees of temperature is that the Raiders are now the fifth-best team in the American Football Conference rather than the first-best team with four more chances to change that position.

In other words, Thursday’s defeat only provided this much wisdom: The Raiders are a good team vulnerable to other good teams with an iron-plated sense of purpose, stubborn defenses that can apply and maintain a chokehold for hours on end, and offenses that don’t feel compelled to imitate Oakland’s offense by getting into a shootout.

And also this: There is nothing that would necessarily prevent them from beating the Chiefs in case of a third match, even though Kansas City held them to fewer points in two games than they scored in every other game save one. They are still, as the pedants say, “in the argument.”

But they have flaws to be exposed against the right team in the right situation. Kansas City has been that team twice, and New England probably is, but there the list probably stops. Nobody in the AFC North or South seems terribly capable of matching them in neutral conditions, but here’s the other bone spur:

The playoffs are not about neutral conditions.

The Raiders have come a long way in what most people think is a long time, but in fact in terms of team construction, you can throw out everything before 2013, and almost everything before 2015. They are just now getting a full understanding of the hardest part of becoming a Super Bowl contender – the other Super Bowl contenders.

Yes, Kansas City has an indifferent playoff history under Andy Reid, but it is clear that under current conditions the Chiefs are serious players. And while we have no link to how the Raiders would fare against new England, we are pretty sure that they wouldn’t want to play the second weekend of January arse-deep in snow in Foxborough.

The point? Now they get how hard this contender stuff really is. They could not have learned that lesson any other way – not anyone they’ve played yet save Kansas City.

Their next lessons come in Weeks 16 and 17, when they face the frantically desperate Indianapolis Colts in Oakland and then the Broncos in Denver the week after. Desperate teams can be very difficult indeed, especially to teams that are safe and dry and home, playoff-wise.

And then there are the actual playoffs, which if they were played today would have the Raiders traveling to Houston for a very winnable game against the stultifying Texans. The week after, they could be either in Kansas City again or in New England, getting a gut full of visiting field disadvantage.

But as a learning experience, the Raiders may have come out very well indeed. They now know in very real and personal ways the real difference between where they think they should be and where they are, as well as how many ways this can go terribly wrong between now and then.

And also how well it can go, if they learn what the Chiefs taught them again Thursday.

Sharks slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run


Sharks slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run

We put a lot of stock in “being under the radar,” as though the defining metric for anything is whether or not we pay attention to them.

This, of course, is insane, but it is a tribute to our ability to define all things based on the narcissism that comes with believing the galactic central point. It’s a lot like “he or she is the best player I ever saw,” as though you’re the one who defines such things.

That said, I give you the San Jose Sharks, who are slowly sneaking onto the list of off-brand teams that could make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not deep enough to get them a parade or even a reprise of their 2016 Finals run, in all likelihood, but deeper than you thought when Joe Thornton crumpled two months ago.

It wasn’t just their 2-1 overtime win against Vegas, the NHL’s version of America’s Sweethearts, though that didn’t hurt. It wasn’t just their secondary metrics, which put them smack dab in the middle of the league, if not slightly below. And it isn’t as though they are radically different with Evander Kane, their trade deadline rental-with-an-option-to-buy.

No, San Jose has readjusted on the fly to deal with its changed circumstances, at least enough to establish one noteworthy advantage over its competitors.

They own their division more completely than any other team (20-4-3, and given the NHL’s playoff format they wouldn’t have to play outside their division until the Western Conference Final. And since their first two opponents will be Pacific Division opponents, the Sharks have a way to establish their mode of play that they would not have were they playing a team from the Central.

They match up best against Los Angeles, against which they are currently matched, with a convincing 3-1 record; against Anaheim, the other first-round alternative, they are also 3-1, though two of the wins and the loss occurred in a shootout.

Then if they get around that hurdle, they would draw Vegas, which is essentially The Team The Entire Hockey World Is Rooting For. Vegas has won two of the three matches with one to go, but each team has won an overtime game.

In other words, the Sharks’ first two opponents would likely be some combination of teams they have beaten seven times in eight regulation games, and are 3-2 in coin-flip games.

You’d take those odds, a hell of a lot sooner than a first-rounder against Nashville, Winnipeg or Minnesota, and maybe even Colorado. It is therefore helpful that the Sharks play each of them once before the regular season ends, to provide a bit more input for our pending miscalculations.

Series are not macro, after all, and matchups against individual teams matter more than records against whole divisions. Moreover, the Stanley Cup Playoffs do not necessarily go to the team with the best record but to the healthiest team with the goaltender playing the best. In that way, they more routinely represent your 2018 NCAA bracket than your NBA Playoff bracket, where the chalk prevails an inordinate amount of time.

Point is, the Sharks haven’t really inspired the outside world much – that under-the-radar thing again – but they represent the solid counterpuncher who ought to at the bare minimum punish the team that beats them sufficiently to make that team’s passage through the subsequent rounds considerably more difficult. That is more than anyone thought they would do once Thornton went down, but less than the level of notoriety of about eight other teams. They are not invisible, but they are hard to find.

But maybe if they hired a nonagenarian member of the clergy to hang around and offer scouting reports to Peter DeBoer, they could become media darlings, for what that may be worth. And let’s face it, you mock Sister Jean at your peril.

Vivek Ranadive didn't stick to sports, has his defining moment as Kings owner

Vivek Ranadive didn't stick to sports, has his defining moment as Kings owner

Vivek Ranadive has been looking for that moment that defines him as a sports owner since the day he bought the Sacramento Kings, and for the longest time he hung his hat on two hooks:

One, helping convince David Stern to lay in the tracks that were leading the team to Seattle, and two, getting a new arena built.

But those enriched him. What he did Thursday night ennobled him.

In the wake of the police shooting of Stephon Clark while he sat in his grandfather’s backyard and Sacramento’s ensuing outrage, Ranadive was presented with a difficult situation. A protest had led to the doors of the Golden 1 Center, essentially blocking the entrances for that night’s Kings-Atlanta Hawks game, and rather than insist that the police clear the entrances so an essentially meaningless game could be played without inconvenience, Ranadive decided to err on the side of the community rather than his own perquisites.

The protesters stayed, the game was played (albeit before maybe 1,500 people rather than the usual 17,583), and after consulting with his players and other employees in search of the proper tone, he spoke eloquently and acted firmly and sensitively about the Clark's family’s pain, and the town’s pain.

This became his moment to show what he stood for, and what he stood against.

This is not typically a place to find owner praise – they act in their own self-interest to such an extraordinary degree that no caricature of them as money-eating oligarchs is accurate enough. Nor is this the place to call Vivek Ranadive a hero in a tragic time – not when the issues are so much broader and the wound done to a family and the city in which they live is still so fresh. In a practical sense, what he did was relatively insignificant.

But he gave a calming voice to a volatile situation, and more than that, he was confronted by a choice between his business and that of the town in which he does it, and unambiguously chose the second option.

In that moment, he wasn’t a sports owner, he was a concerned citizen. In that moment, he could have chosen to take care of himself and instead chose the people around him. He wasn’t “the guy who owns the goofy basketball team,” he was a Sacramentan.

And in that moment, the city needed him to be the second one more than the first. It needed to vent its rage a lot more than it needed Hawks-Kings.

Again, this is a small thing, and the people who live in Sacramento and are confronting this full-on are much better equipped to explain how Ranadive’s choice fits in the city’s greater psychic landscape.

But as a member of the entertainment world’s ruling class, Ranadive chose not to act that way. He didn’t stick to sports, and in a metaphorical way, he took his knee. That is his defining moment as an owner.

And to the extent that that sort of thing matters, he chose his moment well.