All Star Draft: Funhouse Mirror Edition

So the NBA All Star rosters have been announced and now we wait for King James and Steph to pick their teams. Everybody on the Internet is doing a Mock Draft and I can’t resist joining the herd. One little wrinkle, though. Since the NBA seems to be sticking to its guns on not televising the inaugural All Star draft, a missed opportunity that I’m confident they’ll rectify in years to come, the potential exists for some real head scratchers. With less accountability in play, James and Curry have the freedom to get weird. The picks below would create absolute havoc in the NBA world should they come to fruition. Let’s get to it. But first, from ESPN.com, here are the ground rules:

STARTERS

LeBron #1 – First of all, a bummer that LBJ can’t select any of his super friends in this spot. That’s because Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony have had the GOAT lockdown defender, Father Time, on their heels lately, while Chris Paul missed too much time due to injury to make it. So that leaves his newest frenemy as the WTF number one overall pick. That’s right, Kyrie and LBJ reunited and it feels so…awkward. Methinks James misses his old running mate every time he’s on the bench watching Isaiah Thomas or Derrick Rose try to run the Cavs offense. Plus, Kyrie seems much happier in Boston. So in a petty move, LeBron gets to take the ball out of his old teammate’s hand once more. [Logical world – Kevin Durant]

Steph #1 – Anthony Davis. Ever the shrewd operator, Curry and his Warriors buddies begin the courtship of AD as the next super cog in their unstoppable Death Star. You might think this pick would piss off KD, but rest assured, it’s all part of the larger plan. “Light years ahead” and all that. [Logical world – James Harden]

LeBron #2 – ABR, Always Be Recruiting. The second Pelican comes off the board as LeBron shows some love to Boogie, in a Hail Mary attempt to get the mercurial big man to demand a trade deadline deal to the Cavs. LeBron’s squad is sinking fast and he’s never played with a truly dominant center. I doubt the Brooklyn pick, Kevin Love and whatever else is enough to get Boogie right now, but GM LeBron is grasping at straws. Might as well try to feed the big man’s ego while you’ve got the chance. Hell, he can even tell Demarcus he picked him No. 1. [Logical world – Giannis]

Steph #2 – Giannis. Curry’s claim that he might pick all guards was a total smokescreen. Give him all the near 7-footers he can get (mostly for offensive rebounding purposes) and hence, a monopoly on his team’s 3-point attempts. [Logical world – AD]

LeBron #3 – Durant. He is sure to be the heir to the throne, so James will force Durant to address him as “Captain” all weekend. Plus he will be drawn to KD’s defensive prowess, given the Cavs’ sieve-like D. Not that any defense will be played in the ASG, but bear with me. [Logical world – Cousins]

Steph #3 – Steph goes for more height and all the memes with Joel Embiid. I have a feeling these two will have a lot of fun together. [Logical world – Embiid]

LeBron #4 – James Harden. Steph’s gamble on size leaves a gift on Team LeBron’s doorstep. With this pick, a well-rounded starting five is in place for the King to work with. [Logical world – DeRozan]

Steph #4 – DeRozan by default. A great year for DeMar, but he’s clearly the lowest starter on this totem pole. His slashing combined with a newfound proficiency for the 3-ball could make for an intriguing backcourt pairing with Curry, though. [Logical world – Kyrie]

RESERVES

Steph #5 – Call it Stephen and the Unicorns, as Kristaps Porzingis comes off the board, joining the towering freakishness of Giannis and Embiid. Man, this would be fun. [Logical world – Russ]

LeBron #5 – Draymond Green. A charitable LeBron forgives all nut punches and bolsters his team’s defense. He now has two Warriors to Steph’s zero. Eyebrows are raising in the Bay. [Logical world – Jimmy Buckets]

Steph #6 – Curry goes for another freak in Russell Westbrook. The catch is Russ only gets to play when Steph is off the floor. [Logical world – Draymond]

LeBron #6 – Klay Thompson. And LeBron’s troll job is complete as he ends up with all of Steph’s teammates. Effectively he tells Steph, “You look pretty good with these guys. Just wait til you watch me work.” [Logical world – Towns]

Steph #7 – A now-worried Steph realizing he has to face Klay and, more disconcerting, Draymond, quintuples down on unicorns. He’s taking Karl-Anthony Towns, and hoping his Dubs teammates forgive his “go big” strategy. [Logical world – Klay]

LeBron #7 – More defense. He snubs Kevin Love and his fake-cough for Jimmy Butler. Now with Jimmy, Klay, Dray and KD, he can once again feel what it’s like to be formidable on both ends of the court. Best believe he’ll be subtweeting the Cavs in the lead up to All Star weekend because of this. [Logical world – Beal]

Steph #8 – Kevin Love. This is an attempt to get back at LeBron by picking his teammate, but it falls flat, since LeBron is already working on trading Love for Boogie. Foiled again, at least Steph has added some more shooting. [Logical world – Porzingis]

LeBron #8 – Needing another point guard, Bron takes Kyle Lowry, the best defender remaining at the position. More subtweeting, specifically directed at Isaiah, ensues. [Logical world – Aldridge]

Steph #9 – Bradley Beal gives Team Unicorn some more needed shooting. This one isn’t all that weird, petty or funny. Just a solid pick. [Logical world – Dame Lillard]

LeBron #9 – Victor Oladipo. Another defender and a chance to snub conference rival John Wall. Win-win for Bron-Bron. [Logical world – Love]

Steph # 10 – Steph looks at Dame long and hard, but says “gimme more size!” and takes Lillard’s former Blazers teammate LaMarcus Aldridge. [Logical world – Oladipo]

LeBron #10 – With a deadeye shooter like Lillard available and another chance to snub Wall, Lebron says “Yes sir.” Team LeBron will win the pregame rap battle. [Logical world – Wall]

Steph #11 – John Wall comes off the board, finally. [Logical world – Kyle Lowry]

LeBron #11 – And Al Horford is Mr. Irrelevant in this version of events. But another elite defender for Team James. [Logical world – Horford]

Funhouse Mirror/Weird/Twitter Explodes Teams:

LeBron – Kyrie – Boogie – KD – Harden – Draymond – Klay – Butler – Lowry – Oladipo – Lillard – Horford

Scouting report: Well-rounded, can play a lot of D and boasts LeBron, KD and Harden. Vegas has Team LeBron opening at -7.

Steph – Brow – Giannis – Embiid – DeRozan – Russ – Porzingis – KAT – Love – Beal – Aldridge – Wall

Scouting report: A truly weird team but frightening in its potential. A big lineup of KP, Embiid, Giannis and Davis with Russ running point? How about a Curry-DeRozan-KAT-AD-Giannis spread offense? These guys are underdogs, but would you bet against them?

Logical/More Likely Teams:

LeBron – KD – Giannis – Boogie – DeRozan – Butler – KAT – Beal – Lillard – Aldridge – Love – Wall

Steph – Harden – AD – Embiid – Kyrie – Russ – Draymond – Klay – Porzingis – Oladipo – Lowry – Horford

We’ll check back in once the real picks are made. May weirdness carry the day over boring logic.

Rio Semis: Team USA Faces Biggest Challenge Yet

United States basketball enthusiasts took a collective deep breath after Team USA’s convincing win over Argentina in Wednesday’s quarterfinals. But the sense of relief was short-lived. Spain awaits, today at 1:30 pm (Central), a foe that suddenly looks tough as ever. Team USA is undefeated in the Rio Olympics but three straight close calls against Serbia, France and Australia brought about chatter that the Americans are beatable. We were seemingly in desperate need of stars like LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. A better defensive showing and standout scoring performances from Kevin Durant and Paul George quieted those concerns somewhat.

But Argentina is an aging team that lacked the depth to really pose a threat to Team USA. Spain might be different. Fresh off a 92-67 thrashing of France, Spain’s 0-2 Group stage start is a distant memory. The Spaniards lost by seven to Team USA in the 2012 Gold Medal game and much of that team is still here for the rematch this afternoon. Two notable exceptions are Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, leaving Spain measurably weaker in terms of post defense. The United States needs to be able to exploit that weakness. Centers DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan have had uneven performances in Rio, Cousins limited by foul trouble and weak pick-and-roll defense and Jordan by his one-dimensional attack down low. One of the two needs to show out today for the Americans. Cousins in particular should be able to get his against Pau Gasol and Willy Hernangomez.

Coach K’s team fixed many  of its defensive issues against Argentina, after allowing a 120 defensive rating in their three previous games. Nikola Mirotic has been red-hot, especially from three. Team USA needs to throw a relentless combination of George, Durant and Draymond Green at him. That is, if Green even gets meaningful playing time for once, one of the big head scratchers of these Olympics. We can expect Ricky Rubio to be glued to Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry, so the USA’s wing scorers will be key to the team’s scoring. Klay Thompson followed up his 30-point outburst against France with just four points in the Argentina game. He needs to be better today. Thompson, George and Jimmy Butler have an opportunity to go off, as Spain keys in on Durant and doubles in the post.

Much of the concern facing the USA in this game stems from Spain’s demolition of France. It’s important, however, to remember that France is not Team USA. Nicolas Batum no-showed, Tony Parker is on his last legs and Evan Fournier was left off the French roster. The Americans should absolutely win today’s game, if they simply play to their strengths and with the tenacity they showed against Argentina. Oh, and Coach K needs to continue to rely on his transcendent star (Durant), versatile wings (Butler, Thompson, George) and maybe give Draymond a chance.

Prediction: USA 96, Spain 82

Cavs Ruin the Warriors’ Dream Season

Last week, before Game 6 of the NBA Finals, I had a vivid dream. The kind that, though absurd, felt so intensely real. The dream took place in Game 7, which the Cavs had forced despite losing a majority of their players to (unspecified) injury in Game 6. Since the Cavs couldn’t field a full lineup due to those injuries, the league allowed the Oklahoma City Thunder to play Game 7 on behalf of Cleveland. And the Thunder were kicking Golden State’s ass. That’s when I woke up.

Subconsciously, I think I had recognized that the Cavs found the formula the Thunder briefly uncovered in the Western Conference Finals and that spelled doom for the Warriors. The bully ball of Steven Adams and Serge Ibaka that imposed its will on the defending champs was now being played by LeBron James and Tristan Thompson. The swagger of Dion Waiters and Russell Westbrook that shook Golden State’s famous confidence, brought to you by James, JR Smith and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. The otherworldly performance by a transcendent player, in Kevin Durant, was being surpassed by James. OKC would fumble it away, this elusive Warriors kryptonite, but the Cavs wouldn’t. In my dream, the Thunder were allowed another try to come back from the abyss and finish off the Warriors. In real life, it turned out, Cleveland’s transcendent superhero only needed one chance.

Stephen Curry and the Warriors, meanwhile, learned how cruel the NBA Finals can be, and also how quickly the cheerleaders morph into vultures. LeBron is all too familiar with those cruelties. Cleveland’s Game 7 victory and come-from-behind series win will rightfully be remembered as the King’s coronation, the final level of his redemption tour. We all remember when The Chosen One, the child prodigy, the next Jordan became a selfish, presumptive, entitled brat in the eyes of many overnight in the summer of 2010 with the ‘Decision.’ For the first time in LeBron’s life, he was the villain, a role he embraced more as a coping mechanism than a fundamental identity. His Heat team would win two titles, but lose two others as the stain on his legacy seemed to be written in permanent ink.

It wasn’t long ago that the Warriors were the darlings of the NBA. Remember when Draymond Green was the scrappy second-round pick, passed over due to his lack of size and ironically now using that unique body to anchor the best lineup we’ve ever seen? After two months of playoffs he’s a nut-punching pariah, heir to the throne of professional heels Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman. Remember the Baby-Faced Assassin, whose proficiency from long range was overshadowed only by his affability and boyish charm? Now in the eyes of many, Curry is a fraud. How dare you fool us into believing you were the best player in the world? LeBron reclaimed that title, while denying Steph his repeat championship and crushing the MVP’s pride with blocked shot after blocked shot:

How quickly the script gets flipped. In this zero-sum game, the prodigal King and his band of underdogs from the sad sack sports town of Cleveland reach the peak of the NBA mountain while the greatest regular season team of all time gets tossed down the stairs, everything they stand for repeatedly kicked on the way down. I’d be shocked if there wasn’t some secret rendezvous last night, where the likes of Charles Barkley, Tracy McGrady, Scottie Pippen and Oscar Robertson toasted to the death of the Warriors’ brand of basketball.

At one point it seemed Golden State had found the cheat code to the NBA, quickly skipping all the steps it is assumed must be taken before becoming elite. Michael Jordan took his lumps from the Pistons, who had to overcome the Celtics and Lakers before being crowned. The Warriors’ rapid success under Steve Kerr helped sour many who never snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy (ahem, Barkley). Golden State won the title last year without ever tasting the pain of being so close, yet so far away. The Warriors now have their “almost” moment. As Curry said afterward, that pain will stick with them for a long, long time. It will be fascinating to see how they respond next season, and also whether the grumpy commentariat suddenly show them some respect now that they’ve been humbled.

No doubt the Warriors made mistakes. It seems they took the Cavs lightly after jumping out to 2-0 and 3-1 series leads. Green’s suspension likely cost them Game 5. Kerr’s knack for playing too many guys came back to bite him, as Anderson Varejao and Festus Ezeli were given atrocious Game 7 minutes. Both Ezeli and Harrison Barnes cratered their earning potential this offseason by no-showing through most of the Finals. Curry was never the same after slipping on Donatas Motiejunas’ sweat puddle in the Houston series. Steph’s balky knee is not an excuse, it’s a plain fact. He was noticeably slower with the ball in his hands, lacked quickness on defense and struggled to gain his usual separation behind the 3-point line. Be it hubris, injury, poor clutch play or loss of composure, there is plenty of blame to go around in Oakland. They had the better team, which almost always means victory in a seven-game series in the NBA.

But in the end, this was all about LeBron. He led all players in the series in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He followed up two straight 41-point elimination game outings with a triple-double in Game 7. Multiple times during the last three games I exclaimed to whoever I was with, “He’s EVERYWHERE.” The chase-down blocks will live on in NBA promotional footage for decades, but the consistent rim protection even in the half court had the once-cocky Warriors afraid to attempt a layup. He went home to Cleveland, heavily influenced the makeup of the team and made himself responsible for whatever ended up happening on the court. When the Cavs’ season looked to be destined for another Cleveland ending, James played the best basketball of his life, beating the Warriors twice in Oracle Arena and handing them their first three-game losing streak of the entire season. His partner Kyrie’s step-back three over Curry in a “How does your medicine taste?” move was the cherry on top.

LeBron showed his teammates and the city of Cleveland it’s OK to believe in dreams.

For the Warriors, who matched their regular season loss total (9) in the playoffs, the nightmare endures.

Draymond is Tommy from Goodfellas

“It was revenge for Billy Batts…and a lot of other things.”

The retroactive Flagrant 1 ruling that came down yesterday on Draymond Green, leading to his suspension from Game 5 tonight, was questionable and unfortunate. But at least it gives me an excuse to reference “Goodfellas.” My all-time favorite movie, and Martin Scorsese’s most egregious Oscar snub – “Dances With Wolves” really, Academy?

You see the suspension is really payback for Steven Adams’ kiwis, the trip on Enes Kanter and plenty of other Draymond playoff indiscretions. The NBA let him dance on the edge for weeks, but he just couldn’t help himself. Similarly, Tommy was whacked years later for killing Billy Batts – a made guy – something that couldn’t be forgiven since he continued to behave like a sociopathic jerk, albeit a hilarious one. Accordingly, Draymond was whacked from Game 5. “And that’s that.”

Even most Cavs fans would agree that on its own merit, this LeBron James incident was trivial. If anything, Bron was the more flagrant of the two, the aggressor and the instigator during a frustrating time of the game for Cleveland. He slammed Green to the hardwood then deliberately teabagged him in a move that must’ve had his coach Tyronn Lue getting combat flashbacks. In the second video below, it’s clear Green made contact with the royal jewels, but not enough to elicit even a painful wince from James.

It can be difficult not to make contact with that part of a man’s body when he’s treating you like the bachelorette, he the naughty police officer. I mean, I’m guessing here.

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Draymond Pesci: “Alright, so he got hit in the nuts, what is it, a big fuckin’ deal? You got a problem with what I did, Channing?”

But Adam Silver and the NBA, with perhaps some nudging by James himself, have put their foot down and Golden State is forced to try to close out the series without their ace in the hole. This sets up a fascinating game tonight. From both an emotional and strategic standpoint, we may be in for a classic playoff showdown.

Prior to Green’s suspension, this game had the potential to be a snoozer, where the Cavs get discouraged after the first big Steph Curry-fueled Golden State run as a frenzied crowd smells an imminent title. That scenario is much less likely, now. Cleveland has a sliver of hope to win the series by beating a stripped-down Warriors team tonight, protecting home court in Game 6 and leaving it all up to Game 7. It’s tough to imagine the Cavs winning two straight in Oracle, but no doubt this suspension breathes life into that locker room. I highly doubt Cleveland no-shows tonight. Hope is powerful.

On the other side of the emotional spectrum sit the Warriors. If Klay Thompson’s comments yesterday represent the team’s collective mood, they are both incredulous and irate.

This 2015-16 Warriors team has thrived on slights, real and imagined, using them as fuel for their basketball fury to torch the league. Draymond’s suspension should be a galvanizing force; adding insult to injury the guy can’t even set foot in the arena (“What am I, a mirage?”). Through his many dramas, no one on the Warriors has publicly criticized Green. Instead, they rally behind him, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Expect them to come out firing, hoping to stomp out the Cavs’ flame even without their emotional leader. A championship-clinching win under these circumstances would, in a way, be so Warriors.

But do they have enough firepower now to beat this Cavs team? That question will be answered tonight, making Steve Kerr’s strategic adjustments must-see TV. The only game Green missed during the regular season was a loss to the Lottery-bound Nuggets. The Warriors’ defense, so critical to their success, can become a sieve without Green. He allows them to get away with playing small, which drives their turnover-causing, up-tempo, 3-point heavy style.

Cleveland wants to make this a half court game. That’s so much easier to do when Golden State is forced to play a traditional center. The Warriors offense seems to get less and less potent with each second that ticks off the shot clock. That’s when the Cavs’ wings can fly around and get in the faces of 3-point shooters and send help on the Splash Brothers.

Compounding the challenges, Kerr also has to make a player inactive tonight, since Green has to be listed as officially active even though he won’t be in the building. For most teams at this time of year, that’s no big deal. But Kerr uses every part of the buffalo when it comes to his roster. My guess is Ian Clark gets the axe. Marreese Speights is too good at home and James Michael McAdoo (inactive for the first three games) gives them now much-needed defensive versatility. Anderson Varejao also has to be out there thanks to his size and surprising production against his old team in these Finals. That leaves Clark, Brandon Rush and Leandro Barbosa. After Barbosa’s sizzling Game 1 I don’t see him getting left out of tonight’s game – he’s another player that can get hot at home. I can’t fathom Kerr making Festus Ezeli inactive, although it could be the natural progression of his continued obsolescence. To me, the decision comes down to Rush and Clark.

Will Kerr go super-big in a complete about-face? Will he double-down on small-ball even without Green, rotating in McAdoo, Barbosa and Rush while sitting Bogut? Will Harrison Barnes have to play the whole game? Clipboards beware!

In the end, it may simply come down to the superstars. This is the NBA, after all. LeBron vs. Curry. Four-time MVP vs. back-to-back MVP. Steph and Klay will be counted on to make it rain more than ever. LeBron needs to summon another iconic playoff game out of his well-worn body. The Cavs need Kyrie Irving to have a huge game and for Kevin Love to exploit a weakened Warriors defense.

The crowd will be venomous; one team desperate, the other resentful; both pissed; and the stars will be out. It’s the Finals, baby.

“It’s gonna be a good summer!”

Olympic Roster Rapidly Dwindling

Be it due to injury, fears of mosquitoes carrying Zika Virus or just summer vacation, big names continue to drop from the once-astonishing Men’s National Team roster. Just this past week, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have taken their names out of consideration for the 12-player squad looking for another gold medal in Rio this summer.

In January  I mused about the potential this team had to rival the 1992 Dream Team in talent and star power with my proposed final roster. I revised it a couple months later after  Anthony Davis got hurt and Chris Paul pulled out. Just take a look at what could have been, before we get into picking the actual, more watered-down (h/t Tracy McGrady) roster:

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Can We Get a Competitive Finals Game?

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It’s been a long week of analyzing the NBA – check out my various posts on Hashtag Basketball and BSN Denver – so I’m going to approach this with the same intensity the Warriors approached Game 3.

On Tuesday I wrote about three ways the Cavs could make this series interesting. It boiled down to playing bully ball, containing the Splash Brothers and jumping out to a big early lead. Not to toot my own horn but all three of these things happened and the Cavs blew out the Warriors 120-90. After losing by 33 in Game 2, the Cavs improbably turned the tables with a 63-point swing. This was great for the Cavs’ chances in the series, but awful for fans of NBA basketball. There’s nothing better than edge-of-your-seat fourth quarters in the playoffs and little worse than a 30-point blowout.

For whatever reason, and it’s been well-documented, this year’s playoffs have featured more blowouts than close games and it’s gotten very old at this point. I turned off Game 3 with five minutes left, choosing sleep over Ian Clark and Brandon Rush starring in garbage time. I don’t turn off NBA Finals games. This pattern needs to change, quickly.

Whether Steph Curry is hurt or not, he’s undeniably frustrated by the physicality teams are using to contain him. He can’t move anywhere on offense without a Cavalier shoving or grabbing him, and refs aren’t calling the fouls they called in the regular season. It’s thrown him off his game. Don’t count on the officials suddenly having a change of heart during Game 4 in Cleveland. So Steph either needs to rise above it, or Klay Thompson will need to pick up a massive chunk of the scoring load. Thompson was bad in Game 3 even before the flying knee from Timofey Mozgov, throwing up threes without his feet set, which always leads to bad misses. This team doesn’t have the same punch when it doesn’t consistently hit the three ball.

They also don’t strike fear in opponents when they’re not creating havoc on defense. For all the ink that the Warriors offense gets, it’s their defense that starts everything. So much of their identity and trademark scoring runs come from turnovers and opponent misses. Kyrie Irving and JR Smith were given more room to operate than in Games 1 and 2 and took advantage, kickstarting that enormous early lead. LeBron James finished the job, looking like the 2012 version of himself and finally knocking down jump shots.

Speaking of, if LeBron’s shot is back and it wasn’t just a one-game aberration, the Warriors could be in big trouble. So much of their approach to the King has been based on a total lack of respect for his jumper. Andre Iguodala will be forced to play him close at the 3-point line if he comes out hot in Game 4, opening up everything else the Cavs want to do on offense. Suddenly Smith, Irving, Kevin Love, even Iman Shumpert become exponentially more dangerous if the Warriors can’t sag off LeBron.

Ah, yes, I mentioned Kevin Love. It will be fascinating to see how Tyronn Lue uses Love if he’s all the way back from his concussion. There’s a cottage industry growing around Love hot takes and whether the Cavs are better off without him. It does seem that he can’t share the court with Irving in this series because that means 40 percent of the team’s defense is exploitable. Is it a coincidence that the Cavs played like a completely different and more intense team on the defensive end with Love out and Richard Jefferson starting? We should find out tonight, whether Love is back in the starting lineup or relegated to a bench role. If you’re the Warriors, I think you want him back as a starter, which says a lot about Love’s game in 2016.

There could be lineup intrigue on the other side, as Andrew Bogut was rendered completely useless on Wednesday against the smaller Cavs lineup. Steve Kerr could choose to start the Death Lineup with Iguodala from the opening tip, matching up Draymond Green with Tristan Thompson at center. Thompson played like a man possessed in Game 3, so that could put a lot of strain on Green trying to keep him off the glass. My bet is Kerr sticks with his normal starting five but has a quicker hook on Bogut if things start going south early.

Hopefully after three games, these teams have learned enough about one another that they make the kind of adjustments that will give us our first competitive game in this series. It would be a shame to see another blowout – in either direction – after we invest so much time and thought into two months of playoffs. Both teams took turns embarrassing themselves on national TV in the last two games.

So it’d be nice if the defending champs show up tonight. Just not all the way up – let’s keep this baby close.