Thursday, April 26, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 5 summary"

After being shocked by Denver in Game 1 of their first round series, one might have thought the San Antonio Spurs would change their game plan heading into Game 2.

After all, another home loss to the Nuggets, and the Spurs would be in deep dodo.

But, no, there was nothing different about the Spurs who lost Sunday night and the Spurs who won Wednesday night, 97-88, to even the series at 1-1. Except that they were better. Except that their Big Three - Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli - came to play. Except that their defense held Denver's dangerous duo - Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony - to a miserable 17-for-46 shooting performance.

Sorry, folks, these were the same old Spurs.

When Denver made a valiant run in the fourth quarter, Ginobli embarked on one of his characteristic drives to the basket - between at least three defenders - to extend San Antonio's lead to six. When Iverson responded with a 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game, the Spurs didn't panic (despite Robert Horry's wild arm gestures toward coach Gregg Popovich). Instead they simply threw the ball into Duncan, who backed down Nene and hit one of his very characteristic bank shots.

Game over. Series tied 1-1.

Don't get me wrong. This is going to be a great series that lasts at least six games, and I’m guessing seven. But Wednesday night had to be refreshing to San Antonio fans, because the team they saw in front of them was basically the same team that won an NBA championship about 23 months ago.

After being outplayed by Nene in Game 1, Duncan responded (like he usually does), scoring an efficient 22 points on 9-for-17 shooting. Parker still struggled a bit from the field, hitting six of 15 shots, but an 8-for-8 performance from the free throw line gave him 20 points, and he dished out six assists. Ginobli, coming off the bench, contributed 17 points, including eight in the fourth quarter.

San Antonio's chances of getting back to the Finals rest on Ginobli's shoulders. He's always the X-factor. When he's on his game, he can get to the rim - or free throw line - on any possession. It's just a question of how aggressive and hungry he is. As he said after Wednesday's game, he was playing with a sense of urgency.

And that's the other thing about the Spurs. That's what made Sunday night's loss so confounding. No matter who they're playing in the playoffs, the Spurs always play with energy and passion. There are no letdowns, no letting up on the gas. They methodically beat one team, then the next, then another... and they're in the NBA Finals (where they're 3-0).

If Wednesday was any indication, the Spurs are back. After a one-game reprieve, they're ready to show why they've been the best team in the NBA over the past half-decade.

Duncan's steadiness. Ginobli's slashing drives. Parker's mid-range jumpers and teardrops in the lane. Bruce Bowen's virulent defense.

We saw it all Wednesday night.

Which has to have the Nuggets a bit concerned heading into Saturday's Game 3 in Denver.

Other insights
LeBron James looking (for the most part) like himself isn't the only big positive Cleveland can take out of its 109-102 Game 2 win over Washington Wednesday night.

How about the play of Drew Gooden? The power forward scored 24 points - three less than James' 27 - on nine fewer field goal attempts and also grabbed 14 rebounds.

The first two games of the series have been very encouraging for Cleveland not just because they've beaten the atrophied Wizards, but because of the contributions of their non-LeBrons. In Game 1 Larry Hughes broke out for 27 points, and on Wednesday it was Gooden's turn to share center stage with James, scoring 19 of his 24 in the first half to help Cleveland grab a double-digit lead that would just barely hold up at the end.

Hughes didn't have a bad Game 2 either, scoring 19 points in 44 minutes of action, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas also was solid, contributing 16 points and nine rebounds.

If James can get this kind of help on the offensive end on a consistent basis, Cleveland shouldn't have a problem making it through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

We'll see how the non-LeBrons fare on the road, however. That's where true playoff warriors earn their stripes.


What was Baron Davis thinking?

With Golden State trailing Dallas by a manageable 11 points with 0.2 seconds remaining in the third quarter Wednesday night, Davis picked up his second technical foul for arguing - and laughing, and clapping his hands about - a call against him. He was ejected and Dallas went on to win 112-99 to even the series at a game apiece.

Sure, it would have been difficult for Golden State to come back in the fourth quarter of a game Dallas needed. But Davis, the Warriors' audacious leader, should have checked himself. He knows his team has the firepower to make up 11 or 13 points in a matter of minutes. He shouldn't have lost his cool.

With that said, the Warriors have to feel good about themselves heading back to the Bay Area for Game 3 Friday night. With the exception of a 15-2 third quarter run by Dallas, Golden State played the Mavericks evenly. It's pretty obvious, now, that this series will be no cakewalk for Dallas.

As long as the Warriors' stars are able to stay in the games.

Thursday's must-see game
Houston at Utah, 9 p.m., NBA-TV
I am real interested to see how this one goes. Before the series, my thinking was that the home team would win every game, and so far that's held true. But Utah has looked really bad. Can the Jazz turn it around?

It will have to start with Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams, whose play was mediocre in Houston. Utah needs this game to stay alive. Expect a dogfight.

I'm out. Enjoy staying up late to watch Kobe vs. Raja.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 4 summary"

If you look at the majority of teams in these NBA playoffs, they have the following.

A solid starting lineup, usually featuring a star player.

And a couple role players off the bench who can provide 10 to 20 serviceable minutes.

And then there's Leandro Barbosa. It would have been a crime for the Phoenix Suns' guard not to have won the Sixth Man of the Year award (thankfully, Barbosa received the honor, and decorum remained intact).

Barbosa actually isn't a backup. He's a starting point guard. The only problem is, he's on the same team as Steve Nash, so he's relegated to the bench (at least at the start of games). But when he gets into the game, he's a force - much more than a "role player."

Just look at Barbosa's numbers in the first two games of Phoenix's series against Los Angeles. In the Suns' Game 1 win, Barbosa scored a team-high 26 points in 35 minutes of action (not exactly normal minutes for a bench guy). Then, Tuesday night, Barbosa led Phoenix's 126-98 demolition of LA with another 26 points, this time a game-high.

While Nash runs the show for the Suns, Barbosa provides quite an encore when it's time for the star to rest his back. And it is obvious that Nash is very comfortable with Barbosa in the game. Tuesday night he lied on the sideline, about as sanguine as a yoga instructor, while Barbosa dropped shots from all over the court (he finished 11-for-18 from the field).

Barbosa's play may turn out to be the key to Phoenix finally getting over the hump and making the NBA Finals, because with the way he's playing, the Suns don't miss a beat at the point guard position. Every other team in the playoffs has a drop-off from their starting PG to their backup. It is very minimal with Phoenix.

Yes, Nash dishes the ball better (he settled for 14 assists Tuesday), but Barbosa is a more explosive scorer and he can also find his teammates - just not as frequently as Nash or with as much grace and ease. Because they're different players, it's not uncommon to see them on the floor at the same time - and a lineup featuring Nash, Barbosa, Raja Bell, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire is downright scary.

Despite Barbosa's play, I still think the Suns don't play enough defense to get by San Antonio in a seven-game series, but if Denver can find a way to defeat the Spurs, the Suns would be able to outrun the Nuggets.

The Spurs are the main hurdle between Phoenix and the NBA Finals. They won two of the teams' three regular-season meetings, including a 92-85 win in April during which Phoenix's usually smooth offense looked confused. If the Suns can avoid San Antonio, however, they will have a decent shot at making the finals. They're more experienced and have better depth than the Nuggets, and they split the season series with Dallas.

Of course I'm looking way ahead. Phoenix still has to win two games against the Lakers. But if Barbosa keeps playing the way he did the first two games, Phoenix will invariably make the second round and possibly keep running from there.

Other insights
The Chicago Bulls are quickly ruining my prediction of a Detroit-Miami rematch in the second round. The Bulls dominated the Heat Tuesday night, 107-89, to take a 2-0 lead in the series.

Miami's players say they're not concerned, and they have a right to this outlook considering they're the NBA champs and they came back from an 0-2 deficit in the Finals last year.

But don't forget what happened to Detroit a year ago. After a phenomenal regular season, the Pistons became overly cocky in the playoffs, pushing aside losses like they were nothing... until they were eliminated. The Heat better start guarding Luol Deng and Ben Gordon better, otherwise its players could be sitting on the beach wondering what went wrong.

And one other thing: This is Miami's final run with its current nucleus. Next year – with the exception of D-Wade and Shaq - we will see a different Miami team.


I didn't see any of Toronto's 89-83 win over New Jersey Tuesday (the NBA TV factor), but I'm not worried about missing the early games in this series, because it's going at least six or seven games. These teams are very evenly matched - the first two games were decided by a combined 11 points - and will battle each other down to the wire of each contest.

One positive for New Jersey. It got the split despite two poor-shooting games from Vince Carter against his former team. In the two games he combined to shoot 13-for-43 from the field for a combined 35 points. Expect him to heat up back in New Jersey.

Wednesday's must-see game
Warriors at Mavericks, 9:30 p.m. EST, TNT
This is the second game of what should be an interesting doubleheader. Denver tries to take a 2-0 series lead in the opener against the Spurs. Obviously the Mavericks will come out with a lot of energy after losing Game 1 at home, but don't expect the high-flying Warriors to stand down against the No. 1 seed.

The closer this game is, the more pressure there will be on Dallas. Golden State simply needs to stay in the contest until the fourth quarter and then make its push.

I'm out. Enjoy LeBron owning Washington.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 3 summary"

Chauncey Billups is the most clutch outside shooter in the NBA.

There, I said it. After watching Billups stop cold another late-game surge by Orlando Monday to seal a 98-90 victory for a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series, I am convinced.

No player in the NBA makes more big 3-pointers than Billups. His ability to drill contested triples when his team needs points is reminiscent of Reggie Miller. The only difference, of course, is in the position the two play. Miller ran off screens, caught the ball in rhythm and went straight into his shooting motion. For the most part, Billups has to create his 3-point attempts, which isn't easy considering he stands a modest 6 feet, 3 inches.

Billups is able to create space from his defender despite everyone in the building knowing he's going to shoot from behind the arc. That is one reason he's so special. The other, obviously, is that he sinks the difficult shots, which have a tendency to rip out the opponent's heart.

Monday was just another day at The Palace for Mr. Big Shot, as he's appropriately called. After Orlando cut a 15-point deficit to seven in just over two minutes midway through the final quarter, Billups hit a 28-foot triple over the arm of an outstretched defender to extend Detroit's lead back to 10 points. Later, following an Orlando basket that narrowed the margin to six with just over a minute to play, Billups showed off his versatility, driving to the basket, drawing a foul and making a twisting left-handed layup.

After the free throw, the game was as good as over.

Billups had done it again.

Everybody knows about Gilbert "Hibachi" Arenas and Kobe Bryant. Their heroics are shown on sports highlight shows - and even non-sports news shows - over and over. Billups, on the other hand, doesn't get the exposure simply because often times his shots aren't as dramatic as Arenas' 30-footers at the buzzer or Bryant's made shots while falling out of bounds.

But Billups is the most consistently clutch of the three - and of anyone else in the NBA. Dwyane Wade may be the best at getting to the free throw line. Tim Duncan may be the most clutch post threat late in a game. When it comes to hitting a big shot for three points, however, Billups is the man.

I'm sure we'll see a lot more "clutchness" from him as the playoffs continue.

Other insights
Don't count Utah out in its series against the Houston Rockets.

Yes, the Jazz trail 2-0 now after falling 98-90 in Houston Monday night. But now they're headed home. And almost nobody is better at home than the Jazz. Utah finished the regular season an impressive 31-10 at home. It will be very difficult to beat there.

Expect the home fans to spark Mehmet Okur and Deron Williams, who have struggled the first two games. Utah will win at least one of the next two games, but if Houston is able to steal a game, it should close out this series on its home floor in Game 5.


An interesting side note. We've had three days of the playoffs, and on two of the days there have been identical scores in games. On Saturday, the first two games - New Jersey over Toronto and Chicago over Miami - were 96-91. On Sunday, three of the scores were nearly identical: 95-87, 95-89 and 97-85. Finally, on Monday both games were decided by a 98-90 score.

One other thing to notice about those scores: Teams are scoring under 100 points. Seven of the nine highest scoring teams this season are in the playoffs - and they all averaged 100-plus points during the regular season. The decreased point totals in the playoffs is just another pieces of evidence that teams simply exert more energy on defense in the postseason.

Tuesday's must-see game
Miami at Chicago, 8 p.m. EST, TNT
This will be a battle. The teams fought back and forth in the opener before Chicago pulled it out in the final minutes. I expect the opposite in this one. It will be close all the way, but Shaquille O'Neal will stay on the floor for the Heat, creating more space for Dwyane Wade, who will be the hero for Miami.

I'm out. Enjoy Chris Bosh’s dominance and Vince Carter getting booed.

Monday, April 23, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 2 summary"

It was fun Sunday night watching the Red Sox sweep the Yankees at Fenway Park for the first time in 17 years (they even won a World Series during that span!), but that momentous event couldn't compare to the upsets that broke up the decorum of the NBA playoffs.

After watching just one home team lose in the first six playoff games (Toronto to New Jersey), Denver and Golden State shocked what I consider the two best teams in the NBA, San Antonio and Dallas, respectively, last night.

First, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson combined for 61 points as the Nuggets upended the Spurs 95-89, then the Warriors refused to be intimidated by the mighty Mavs (or Mark Cuban), winning convincingly 97-85 in Dallas to improve to 4-0 on the season against the Mavericks.

What a night!

Let's start with Denver.

Entering the playoffs, we knew this. We knew that Denver could score droves of points. We knew Anthony and Iverson could create shots for themselves at anytime. We knew that Steve Blake is one of the most underrated point guards in the league (the fact that he can keep the aforementioned pair happy consistently is very impressive).

But here's what we also (thought we) knew. Denver - outside of Marcus Camby - doesn't play defense.

Until Sunday night. The Nuggets played alike a completely different team. I'm sure if George Karl had been asked how many points he thought his team needed to win, he'd have said at least 100. Granted, San Antonio isn't a high-scoring team. But in the Spurs' two regular-season wins over Denver, they scored 90-plus points. If not for a last-minute flurry of points, they would have ended up in the low 80s Sunday night.

And the game was in San Antonio.

Nene was the key for the Nuggets. He outplayed Tim Duncan. Will this happen again in the series? I highly doubt it. But if he can come close to performing like he did in Game 1, the Nuggets might be able to steal the series. Duncan scored 14 points. Nene had 13. Duncan grabbed 10 rebounds. Nene had 12. Duncan played 40 minutes. Nene played 38.

Overall, it was a superb effort by the often criticized big man who up to this point hasn't lived up to his contract.

Of course the Nuggets are run by Anthony and Iverson, and on Sunday they looked like Jordan and Pippen, Frazier and Monroe, Havlicek and Sam Jones. Both players shot better than 50 percent from the field and they were each 8-for-8 from the free throw line. They were unselfish but assertive. They took several shots, but mostly good shots. And they made the big shots down the stretch to help Denver pull away.

Speaking of hitting big shots, how about Golden State's Baron Davis? The point guard was close to unstoppable in Game 1, lighting up the Mavericks for a game-high 33 points, not to mention 14 rebounds, eight assists and three steals.

Maybe more importantly, Davis is the leader of an absolutely fearless bunch of Warriors whose confidence is sky-high right now. They haven't lost to Dallas yet this season, and until that happens, no one on that team is going to believe it's possible. Their body language is almost cocky, but at the same time, they're a No. 8 seed, so there's no looking ahead.

They have the perfect mindset. They're loose. They have nothing to lose. But they also are hungry, as Davis said after the win, and they're not content to simply be in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

And their coach, Don Nelson, knows their opponent and most of their opponent's personnel. The Warriors did an excellent job on MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, holding him to 14 points on a horrible 4-for-16 from the field. Whenever he tried to spin off his defender, another Warrior was there to either knock the ball from his grasp or oppose Nowitzki's shot.

Golden State's defense of Nowitzki exemplified their overall game plan. They wanted to be the aggressors. They didn't sit back and let Dallas run its offense unperturbed. They got in passing lanes - forcing 13 turnovers - and they pushed the tempo. Despite being undersized, their leapers battled Dallas' stalwarts, and they were only outrebounded 50-45. The fact that Davis - at 6-foot-3 - was able to grab 14 rebounds speaks to the kind of intensity the Warriors played with.

And if their play on Sunday night was any indication, they're not going to settle for one win in Dallas. They're going to fight just as hard to win Game 2.

Other insights...

Expect a much larger column on this after the Lakers are eliminated from the playoffs, but Kobe Bryant is becoming the next Wilt Chamberlain. The Michael Jordan comparisons are dead. So it's time to start the Kobe-Wilt comparisons. Yes, they're a guard and a center, but their inability to win and mold well with their teammates is where they're similar

Bryant was explosive for three quarters Sunday in the Lakers' 95-87 loss to Phoenix, but he was a pitiful 1-for-10 in the all-important fourth quarter, which allowed the Suns to come back and steal the victory in a game they didn't deserve.


Much of Cleveland's success in these playoffs will ride on the shoulders of... Larry Hughes. That's right. We all know LeBron James will do his thing, but Hughes needs to be effective in order for Cleveland to advance to the NBA Finals (they could feasibly get to the Eastern Conference finals on LeBron's shoulders because of an easy draw).

Hughes was very effective Sunday in Cleveland's 97-82 pasting of Washington. He scored a team-high 27 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field and 8-for-8 shooting from the free throw line. He took smart shots instead of ill-advised shots - a vice of his - and let the game come to him.

It was a positive sign for the Cavs.

Monday's game to watch
Utah at Houston, 9:30 p.m., TNT. Expect another hard-fought close game in the 80s. This series personifies what these playoffs will likely be - low-scoring defensive battles. I expect a similar result to Game 1, with Yao Ming asserting himself and Tracy McGrady taking over down the stretch.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

"NBA playoffs day 1 summary"

The matchup of Texas might actually occur in the second round before a possible Dallas-San Antonio showdown.

Because on Saturday night, the No. 5 seeded Houston Rockets showed why they're a championship contender. Up by just two points in the fourth quarter, the Rockets went into lockdown mode, giving Utah no easy shots and blowing the game wide open.

They went on to win 84-75.

Tracy McGrady showed that he's capable of being a lockdown defender, blocking Utah's Matt Harpring twice in a span of a couple minutes. Chuck Hayes and Juwan Howard banged down low against the bigger and supposedly stronger Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur.

Houston was dominating the game. And Yao Ming wasn't even on the floor.

Of course when Yao was present, he was the force I expect him to be throughout these playoffs. He scored a game-high 28 points to go along with 13 rebounds. He gives Houston a post presence who can be thrown the ball at any time and create a pretty decent shot opportunity for himself.

And then there was McGrady, who scored 22 of his 23 points in the second half. It was mentioned during the telecast that McGrady has never been more focused on basketball. He turned off all his cell phones and pagers (and whatever else NBA players carry these days to communicate) and is not helping out friends and family members with ticket requests. He has one focus, and that was clear in the second half Saturday.

The Rockets are going to need McGrady to make big shots for them when they're struggling offensively. McGrady showed that he can do just that, sinking a huge 3-pointer and then getting fouled on a 3-point attempt in the fourth quarter. He was, on both ends of the floor, the catalyst for Houston's huge run to put the game out of reach.

And he could be the catalyst in the Rockets not only getting past Utah, but giving Dallas a run for its money in a possible second-round series.

Other insights...
Once again the Pistons showed their inability to put away a team when it's down Saturday night. They led by double figures for almost the entire game against Orlando, but they let the Magic get within three points in the final minute before a Tayshaun Prince dunk helped seal a 100-92 victory.

Detroit has to develop a killer instinct. It can afford to mess around with the Magic. But not against the Heat or Bulls, its second round opponent.


Speaking of the Heat and Bulls, I must say I was surprised by the outcome of Game 1. When I saw that the game was very close in the final minutes - Chicago led 78-76 with just over five minutes remaining - I thought for sure the Heat would pull out the contest because they have Dwyane Wade, one of the game's most clutch players.

But Chicago proved me wrong, making all the key plays down the stretch to hold on for a 96-91 win. This is a great sign for Bulls fans. We all know they're a tough, physical team that isn't going to get blown out of a lot of games. If it can also become a team that finishes games strongly, watch out.

Sunday's game to watch
I know it's nice outside (at least here in Michigan) and you probably won't get to watch all four games today. But at least catch the Lakers-Suns game (3:30 p.m. EST; ABC). It will be very interesting to see how Kobe Bryant comes out in this series. Will he be too selfish? Will he be too unselfish? Or will he find the perfect medium and be able to lead the Lakers to an upset win? We'll see. I'm out.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

"As A-Rod relaxes, Sheffield tenses up"

A lot of the time, movies are simply what they are... fictional stories that rarely bare much truth in everyday life.

But not always (and I'm not talking about flicks based on true stories). Remember the film, "The Fan"? It is about a great baseball player whom a fan is so obsessed with that he will do anything to see the player succeed. When the player starts doing well, the fan finds him and asks about the reason for his newfound success.

The player replies, nonchalantly, that he simply stopped trying so hard, ceased putting so much pressure on himself. That's when the movie takes its Hollywood route, with the fan kidnapping the player's kid, and yada, yada, yada.

But from watching Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield the first few weeks of the season, I think there is some truth to what Wesley Snipes' character says in "The Fan." I don't think Rodriguez necessarily stopped trying so hard – there aren’t many harder workers in the game. I do think he relaxed. He stopped trying to be someone he wasn't (hence his comments about not being best buds with Derek Jeter); he stopped worrying about the boo birds in Yankee Stadium (which explains how twice this week he struck out his first two times up before homering later in the game).

He's not killing himself out there. He's having a lot of fun, and after jacking two more home runs Friday night against Boston, he's got 12 - two shy of Albert Pujols' April record of 14.

Even after lining out in the ninth inning against the Red Sox, who held on for a 7-6 comeback victory, there was no helmet-hitting or cussing. Rodriguez simply shook his head, as if to say, "Bummer. He jammed me. I'll get him next time."

He moved on. He's probably already forgotten about the at-bat and the game, getting ready for a Saturday afternoon game at Fenway.

Also on Friday night, Sheffield looked the exact opposite of Rodriguez. Sheffield always loved playing in Yankee Stadium, in front of the tough-love fans. He never minded getting booed. But now he can't seem to find himself in Detroit.

With the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth, Sheffield gripped the bat as tight as Tiger Woods grips his driver. And then he watched strike three settle in the lowest part of the strike zone. He gave the home plate umpire a "What the??" look and shook his head on the way back to the dugout.

It seems quite apparent that Sheffield is trying just a bit too hard to please the Detroit fans, who are much more loving than New York fans. He's hitting a paltry .125 and has just one home run and five RBIs. He needs to call his old teammate. A-Rod could probably help him out (“just relax, just breathe”).

Granted, it's April, which means that in two months Yankees fans will probably be mercilessly booing A-Rod and Sheffield will be batting .290. But for now, A-Rod is as cool as the other side of the pillow, and his hits are finding the other side of the fence. Meanwhile, Sheffield is overly psyched up - as if he's on the Yankees, playing the Red Sox in front of a sellout crowd at Fenway - and he's putting too much pressure on each swing he takes (or doesn't take).

Who knew a movie about a crazed fan could hold some water in real major league ballparks?

Friday, April 20, 2007

"NBA playoffs first-round preview"

I have to say this.

I'm feeling good about my chances at picking the NBA playoffs' winners. On a whim, I looked back at my regular season predictions today and was surprised to find that I correctly picked 14 of the 16 playoff teams - I was wrong about the Clippers and Pacers, leaving the Warriors and Raptors out of the mix. But I did pretty well, picking the top two teams in the East (Pistons and Cavaliers) and getting the West's top three, although I had Phoenix No. 1 and Dallas No. 2.

So it's nice outside, I’ve got a new haircut, and I'm feeling good. And with that said, here are my first-round playoff picks.


No. 1 Detroit vs. No. 8 Orlando
The most interesting thing about this series will be the return of both Grant Hill and Darko Milicic to Detroit. Other than that, it won't be very competitive. The Pistons always seem to drop Game 3 in their opening series, so I'll stick with the trend, but they'll take the series in five games. Detroit's wealth of big bodies will wear down Dwight Howard, and Chauncey Billups will post up Jameer Neslson all day long.
- Prediction: Detroit in 5 games

No. 2 Cleveland vs. No. 7 Washington
It's a shame Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler are out, otherwise this would be one heck of a series (remember last year?). Instead, it will only be mildly competitive because the Cavs suffer from "off-game" syndrome, meaning they don't always show up to play. LeBron James will dominate a couple games. Washington's Antawn Jamison will have his way in one game. But in the end - and I can't believe I'm saying this - James' supporting cast will lead the Cavaliers to an easy series win.
- Prediction: Cleveland in 5 games

No. 3 Toronto vs. No. 6 New Jersey
This is a very intriguing matchup, as Vince Carter returns to the city he left (expect boos). New Jersey obviously has much, much more playoff experience than the Raptors, but I don't put too much stock into that. Chris Bosh will have a huge series against the Nets' inferior post players, but New Jersey will dominate the perimeter. Carter, playing the final games before his contract is up, will have a huge series, and Jason Kidd will outplay up-and-coming point guard T.J. Ford. It will be a competitive series, but the Nets survive.
- Prediction: New Jersey in 6 games

No. 4 Miami vs. No. 5 Chicago
It is important to note that Chicago has homecourt advantage, and that last year the Bulls won two of three home games as a No. 7 seed against the Heat. Still, the result will be the same this year. How can you possible go against Dwyane Wade (regardless of his shoulder problems) and Shaquille O'Neal in the playoffs? You can't. The Bulls will play hard-nosed basketball, throwing bodies at both of Miami's stars, but it won't be enough. The Heat is rested and ready for the only part of the season it cares about. O'Neal showed when Wade went out what he can do when he's motivated. He'll dominate Ben Wallace. The Bulls' outside shooters will win a couple games for them. But just a couple.
- Prediction: Miami in 6 games


No. 1 Dallas vs. No. 8 Golden State
This is the most intriguing 1-8 matchup in quite sometime. The Warriors owned Dallas during the regular season, winning all three games, including two when Dallas played its big guns. So there will be no lack of confidence on the Warriors' bench. Plus, they have Don Nelson, the former Dallas coach, who knows everything about his former team. But Dallas has worked way too hard after last year's heartbreaker in the Finals to lose this early in the playoffs. The first few games, the offenses will rule as the teams run up and down the court, but then the Mavericks will lock up on defense, winning the final two games to take the series.
- Prediction: Dallas in 6 games

No. 2 Phoenix vs. No. 7 Los Angeles
Another rematch from last year's first round (there are a total of three rematches). This one probably won't have the drama of last year's, when Phoenix rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to take the series in seven games. Phoenix should overwhelm Los Angeles, especially with Amare Stoudemire playing well down low. The key for the Lakers will be how well Andrew Bynum can stand his ground against Stoudemire. And then, of course, there's the Kobe Factor. If Kobe Bryant goes off, scoring 50 points a game and making all the right decisions, anything is possible. But I just don't see it. Phoenix has much more talent all around.
- Prediction: Phoenix in 5 games

No. 3 San Antonio vs. No. 6 Denver
This one's just as intriguing as the first two Western Conference matchups. On paper, Denver is as talented as San Antonio. It can score tons of points with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony running the show, and Marcus Camby has had a great comeback year after all the injury-plagued seasons. But the Spurs are a great playoff team, and they have all the key pieces back from their championship team of 2005 and their squad last year that lost in the seventh game of the conference semifinals to Dallas. As long as the Spurs make the series into a slowdown, half-court matchup, they'll have no problems. Denver needs to run as much as possible.
- Prediction: San Antonio in 6 games

No. 4 Utah vs. No. 5 Houston
Houston, with the better record, has homecourt advantage in this one, and that could turn out to be the difference, because this is going to be a back-and-fourth, bruising series. It's also going to mark the emergence of Yao Ming as a strong playoff player. Yao, while healthy, has had a very auspicious year, and it's going to carry over into this series. Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer will have problems with Yao, Tracy McGrady will draw the key fouls, and Shane Battier and Luther Head will combine to hit the huge 3s. The home team will win every game in this series.
- Prediction: Houston in 7 games

And there you have it. The first round of the NBA playoffs. It's going to be hard to match last year's first round, which featured Phoenix's great comeback and the LeBron-Gilbert showdown. But who really knows what will happen?

I'm just hoping my success from my preseason picks carries over.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"No Legion for Beilein"

The first major blip in John Beilein's coaching tenure as Michigan basketball coach occurred Monday when star recruit Alex Legion decided to back out of his commitment to become a Wolverine.

Except this one can't be blamed on Beilein. In fact, the only person it can be put on is Tommy Amaker, who is now teaching Harvard students how to play basketball (I think).

Not even Legion can be blamed. Sources say he's now looking at Connecticut, UCLA, Kentucky and Kansas. In the past nine years those schools have won two national titles and made the Final Four six times - and if you go back three additional years, you can add two national titles (won by Kentucky in 1996 and '98). Michigan hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 1998.

What's confusing is why Legion committed to Michigan in the first place. He actually committed, decommitted, recommitted last summer... and now has decommitted again. I know - a lot of M's and T's. Did Amaker tell him Michigan would be his team? Did Amaker promise him 20 shots a game?

Who knows what Amaker told him?

What can be taken from this is that Beilein isn't going to change his system for anybody. And possibly as a result, big-name, only-stay-a-year recruits will stay away from Ann Arbor.

If you look at all of Beilein's "star" players from his tenure at West Virginia - especially from 2005 when he took the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight - none of them were future NBA studs. None of them were picked in the NBA Draft.

Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia's most crowned player, wasn't even selected in last year's draft after four impressive years in Morgantown, and played this past year in the CBA.

Despite the wealth of talent in Michigan, don't be surprised if many of Michigan's recruits are low-profile guys. Players who might not be going to the NBA after college. But players who can shoot the 3-pointer, are unselfish, and will stay four years.

If Beilein puts together enough of those players, he won't have to worry about losing studs like Legion.

A team of good players with impressive chemistry will almost always run over a team with a couple big names trying to do their own thing.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"No longer can we stand in the dark"

As I'm sure most of you have heard, a man on the campus of Virginia Tech University went on a killing rampage Monday morning, killing 33 V-Tech students and injuring several more.

It was the worst school shooting in U.S. history - even worse than Columbine, Colo., in 1999.

And, in a way, it was probably tied to sports. Believe it or not, a lot of national issues can be connected to the sports world.

In most cases, the individuals who commit heinous crimes like these are people who have been shut out or have locked themselves away from mainstream America. They don't read the news; they don't have conversations with friends about various issues facing our country; they don't have many friends, period.

In one word, they are lonely.

We need open dialogue
The last two and a half months have been both groundbreaking and depressing when it comes to race relations in the sports world.

On the first Sunday of February, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith became the first black men to face off in a Super Bowl. That was a huge milestone, and as much as people said it shouldn't have been made a big deal, it was. It couldn’t be ignored (and shouldn’t have been).

More recently, as in the past two weeks, things have not been so felicitous. Don Imus spoke out on his CBS Radio show, calling the Rutgers University women's basketball players' "nappy-headed hos" after the Scarlet Knights lost to Tennessee in the women's basketball national title game.

Then, just this past week, all the charges were finally dropped in the sexual assault case against three Duke University lacrosse players - all white - who were accused last spring by a black woman from North Carolina Central University of sexual assault. The case caused an uproar in Durham, a city with much racial tension, motivated Jesse Jackson to make an appearance, and many of us in the media were quick to jump on the alleged victim's side. After all, who could possibly like three privileged white men over a young black woman working as a stripper to pay for college.

Mike Nifong, the former Durham County District Attorney, certainly felt that way, going to ridiculous lengths to try to prove a case that held no water. He withdrew from the case in January following a charge by the North Carolina bar of making misleading and inflammatory comments to the media about the three athletes. Later, he was charged with withholding evidence from defense attorneys and lying to the court.

Obviously, he had an agenda, which he relentlessly followed despite no evidence that the three young men were guilty.

While the situation in Durham is resolved, the three indicted men will always have a shadow hanging over them. They won't be able to forget about the past year.

The Rutgers' players, on the other hand, have an enhanced image because of Imus' comments. Last week they, along with their coach C. Vivian Stringer, held an hour-long press conference to denounce Imus' comment and present themselves as anything but "nappy-headed hos."

Sure, it would be nice to think that everyone in this country knew Imus was full of crap. But let's be honest: There were probably people who tuned into the press conference thinking that they'd see a bunch of young women talking like the uneducated rappers that pollute BET and MTV on a daily basis. Those people were probably shocked by what they saw. But more importantly, maybe they were educated. Maybe they realized that 1) Imus often says things that are baseless and 2) The majority of college athletes, both black and white, are educated young adults who represent their universities to the best of their ability (no, not all college athletes leave early for the various pro sports drafts).

And they have humility. This was evidenced by the coach and players accepting Imus' apology, even though I doubt it was sincere. This was also shown by them saying they didn’t want Imus to lose his job. Unlike Nifong, Stringer and her players had no agenda other than to show the nation who they are: Dignified, multi-talented young women with good hearts.

While Imus' comments initially sparked a controversy, now the only remnant of the case is that he no longer holds his job. And he's expected to meet with the team on Tuesday to discuss what he said.

Hopefully his views will be changed by what Stringer and her players have to say to him.

Positive dialogue. Needed dialogue.

Lying begets negativity

Thank goodness the San Francisco Giants' doubleheader against Pittsburgh was rained out on Sunday. If not, Barry Bonds would have taken the field wearing No. 42 to "honor" Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball 60 years ago from Sunday.

The day was a marvelous one around the country, as several players and even a couple entire teams honored Robinson by wearing his No. 42, which was retired from the league in 1997.

But Bonds' wearing No. 42 would have almost single-handedly ruined the day because Bonds represents absolutely nothing that Robinson did. While Robinson always did what was best for his race, Bonds has lied countless times about taking steroids. While Robinson never put himself above his teammates and opponents, despite the magnitude of his accomplishment, Bonds has always put himself on the ultimate pedestal, bringing his own brigade of trainers into the locker room and isolating himself from teammates.

Most importantly, Robinson put himself out there, didn't hide anything. Bonds only cares about himself and breaking Hank Aaron's home run record. After that he'll probably retire to a life of solidarity.

Aaron has repeatedly said recently that he would not be on hand to see Bonds break his record of 755. He's made excuses about travel, but it is obvious that he doesn't want to be there because he believes Bonds' numbers are tainted. He was on hand in Los Angeles Sunday night to honor Robinson, so it is obvious he can hop on a plane. But only when it's to honor one of the game's true heroes.

Bonds, as Jeff Pearlman's book cover reads, is the "Antihero." If he had come out five years ago and admitted his steroid use, he probably would have been forgiven by now. Many of us would be cheering his race at history this season.

But, no. Bonds is not a fan of open dialogue, except to say that he'll only talk about baseball. And that's a shame. He could have been a "Hero."

So what now?
So here we stand, as a nation, mourning the deaths of 33 young, bright individuals at Virginia Tech. It is still unknown what the motive(s) of the shooter was. I'm not going to make any conjectures.

But one of this country's main issues causes much of this unnecessary violence.


People make assumptions about other groups of people. Maybe they see an isolated case that portrays a black athlete as a thug (say Pacman Jones), and from that one, single, isolated incident, they come to the conclusion that black football players are criminals.

In Durham, it worked the other way. The three white lacrosse players were condemned and repeatedly bashed because of their race and background. They were portrayed as spoiled, racist young men who thought they could take advantage of a poor black stripper.


As a college student, I know for a fact that nothing can resolve these kinds of situations better than open dialogue. People with differences can either ignore each other and continue to hold onto their deluded perception of their counterparts. Or they can get together with those in the other room and discuss their beliefs.

That's what Stringer and her players are giving Imus the chance to do on Tuesday. It might actually bring about some positives.

Now - more than ever - we need to be open with each other. It's unrealistic to believe that was can simply ignore race, and sexual orientation, and all the other touchy subjects in this country. Maybe in the future, but for now we need to talk with each other about what angers us, about what forms our views of one another.

And about what drives a man on a college campus to go on a killing rampage.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

"East Coast sorryness"

Quick question.

How the Knicks been doing lately?

Not bad, my man. Not bad at all. They been tanking. That's right, tanking. Just like the Celtics.

Unfortunately, the Sixers didn't show up for the party, ginknat (the opposite of tanking) instead. Not cool at all. But then again, Philly's never been considered "East Coast" anyway.

And the city hasn't seen a sports team win a title since 1983. So obviously its franchises are clueless on how to be successful.

New York and Boston on the other hand? They know exactly what they’re up to. They're both tanking, both of their sorry coaches are returning next year (for inexplicable reasons) and both of them (mostly just Boston, but don't count out New York) have a shot at landing one of the first two picks in the NBA draft (which would mean - almost positively at this point - Greg Oden or Kevin Durant; Oden's father said Friday that Oden will join Durant in the draft).

On a side note, you have to love parents stepping up and helping their adolescent kids make decisions (because despite Oden's beard and all the "he's gotta be 44!" commentary out there, the truth is he's still a kid; ditto with Durant). Both of these players had to go, and their parents showed them the way.

But back to the ugly side of things. About a month ago, with the Knicks in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, owner James Dolan gave coach and team president Isiah Thomas a new contract. There are only two possible explanations. Either Dolan is the stupidest man alive outside of Matt Millen and Danny Ainge (more on that in a minute). Or he is close to the smartest man alive.

Yeah, I know, sounds confusing. But don't shut down the computer yet. When Dolan made the move, the date was March 12. March Madness was two days away. As busy as Dolan is with his aspiring guitar career, he must have at least filled out a bracket or watched a little commentary on the NCAA tournament. After all, everyone except for my mom, sister, half of my fraternity brothers and every other country in the world cares about the Big Dance.

Most importantly, I'm sure that as Dolan browsed his bracket over a hot cup of New York coffee, his pencil stopped on the words "Texas" and "Ohio State," aka "Durant" and "Oden." Dolan probably strummed his goatee and thought, OK, my team is going nowhere this year. The best we could do is make the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and get spanked by Isiah's old team, which would only create bad publicity going into the postseason. After all, everyone knows that the Pistons have refused to hire Zeke in any capacity, instead opting for the more capable Joe D - a heavy punch to Thomas' ego.

If the Knicks had done that, they like would have ended up with a mid first-round pick, resulting in the drafting of another Renaldo Balkman (who, by the way, hasn't been bad; but comparing him to Oden is like comparing a mouse to an elephant).

So - and remember, we're following the second theory about Thomas’ extension here - Dolan considered the best way to tank. He could have fired Thomas. But that wouldn't have worked, because young players always initially rally around new coaches, sensing that there's a renewed hope when in reality the coach will be out of a job within weeks. He could have sent a subtle message to Thomas that losing games would be just dandy. But the problem there would have been that Thomas, without any sort of job security, would have been hesitant to go along with the plan. So Dolan came up with the best idea: give Thomas a contract extension.

That way Thomas would relax. He'd stop working so hard with his players. Basically, his competitive juices would calm down. And the players, who enjoy Thomas as coach, would have relaxed as well, not fearing for their coach's job.

So that's one of the explanations for the contract extension. The other one isn't so complicated. Dolan might have actually thought that Thomas is the answer for the Knicks and will lead them to the promised land. He might have gotten so excited watching Eddie Curry turn into a 20-point scorer that he just couldn't wait until the end of the season. He didn't want Zeke to get a bunch of new offers and roll outta town on him. So he hooked his man up.

And now Thomas is executing a perfect tanking job. The Knicks are tied for eighth right now in the Oden/Durant Sweepstakes. Not exactly an auspicious spot, but crazier things have happened (just look at the 2000, 2001 and 2005 drafts listed), and they could move up to as high as fifth by the end of the season (three games to go) if they continue to tank and Portland, Seattle and Charlotte don't.

Good thinking, James. Yeah, I'm not calling you stupid quite yet. Just dumb, sick and diluted.

A little north of the Big Apple, in the city that used to have the most celebrated franchise in sports, the situation is even worse. While the Knicks have only been tanking for a month, the Celtics have been going strong for most of 2007. Paul Pierce has missed a great deal of the season. Players have been put in games at the wrong times (and some, particularly talented point guard Rajon Rondo, not at all). And coach Doc Rivers got a contract extension.

WOW. Red Auerbach must be turning over in his grave right now. Or maybe he's the smartest man on the earth, having known how ugly things were going to get. Maybe he just needed to get out before these Celtics gave him a heart attack. You know those snowouts the Cleveland Indians hosted last weekend? There's no way they would have been tolerated at Fenway Park this week. Baseball couldn't have come soon enough for Boston sports fans. It's been that bad.

Then again, you could also say it's been that good. A superb tanking job. I've got a couple numbers for you. First of all, there was the franchise-record 18-game losing streak in January and February. That got things rolling. And now, with just three games remaining on the schedule, the Celtics have lost six consecutive games and have clinched the No. 2 spot in the lottery (which means they'll try to win the final three games to make this look like a young team plagued by injuries; not a team whose coach and general manager gave up on).

It should be said that when I mention "tanking," in no way am I referring to the players. As polluted as professional sports are, generally athletes who compete in them play hard and play to win. Especially young players like the Celtics' core group who are trying to earn minutes and the trust of Rivers (not that'd he play them anyway during a tanking mission).

But if a coach and GM put their minds to it, they can run a team into the ground, which has certainly been the case in Boston. Watching the Georgetown-North Carolina regional final last month, the TV cameras found Rivers in the crowd watching his son, Jeremiah Rivers, play for the Hoyas. As I watched the epic UNC collapse, I couldn't help thinking what was going through Rivers' mind (besides, of course, thoughts about his son's team's amazing accomplishment). It must have hit him, as the Tar Heels bricked their way back to Chapel Hill, that his Hoyas would be playing Greg Oden’s team in the Final Four. That Oden could play against his son in one game and for him in the next (if OSU had lost to Georgetown).

And I'm sure Rivers wasn't worrying about his Celtics at that moment (or even that night). He hasn't had to do much fretting lately. He's set for a while in Boston. All his team needs from him is some poor coaching (even David Hasselhoff could coach the Celtics better than Rivers, unless, of course, he had to take on the Mavericks and his beloved Dirk Nowitzki).

As it stands, two East Coast coaches are sitting pretty right now. One has a good chance of landing an amazing talent come May 22. The other has an outside shot. Both will be back on the bench come November (although there are no guarantees in today's coaching business, where contracts are disrespected more often than Snoop Dogg smokes weed). And both are making plenty of money.

The coach who could be out by season's end? Definitely Indiana's Rick Carlisle. He had a chance a couple weeks back to sink his Pacers. Instead they've clawed and fought for that final playoff spot in the East, are now on the brink of being eliminated and will have a dismal chance at lottery success.

Now that’s stupid for you.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"2007 Detroit Lions prediction"

Hey, good news if you're a Lions fan.

The Detroit Lions will start the season 2-0. Yeah, that's right, you heard it here first. They'll be on top of the NFC North. They might even get an article in a prominent magazine after defeating Oakland and Minnesota. Fans will stop yelling for Matt Millen's head, instead praising him for drafting all those wide receivers and putting together such a "complete" team. The team will be the toast of the town (Tigers??? Puh-lease. They'll be in last place by then) for those two weeks.

Then everything will return to normal.

With that said, here is my always fun Lions prediction (which, as you may notice, is made before the NFL draft/free agent acquisitions because not even LaDanian Tomlinson could save this franchise).

Week 1: Detroit at Oakland
Randy Moss left Oakland for Green Bay. The Raiders have no quarterback. Warren Sapp has food poisoning.
- Lions 13, Raiders 6

Week 2: Minnesota at Detroit
Who's Minnesota's quarterback? Tarvaris Jackson? And do the Vikings even have a running back? Jason Hanson - who should have left town 12 years ago - kicks four field goals.
- Lions 19, Vikings 10

Week 3: Detroit at Philadelphia
The losing begins, and this will be ugly.
- Eagles 35, Lions 6

Week 4: Chicago at Detroit
No Roy Williams prediction before this one. But does it really matter?? Nope. Not unless Grossman throws six INTs (which, I guess, is possible).
- Bears 20, Lions 10

Week 5: Detroit at Washington
Yes, Washington will be bad. But not as bad as Detroit. Get outside instead of watching this barnburner.
- Redskins 17, Lions 9

Week 6: Bye week
Huge off week for the Lions. Plenty of quotes about regrouping and refocusing. Maybe a prediction from Williams.
- No wins, no losses

Week 7: Tampa Bay at Detroit
Yay!! Back on the winning side of things. Lions do a great job of preparing two weeks for the Bucs' vaunted offensive attack led by the aging Jeff Garcia. They even knock him out of the game, riling up the city's stupid fans.
- Lions 24, Bucs 13

Week 8: Detroit at Chicago
Lions start their annual streak of losing close games and blaming each one on something different. This one's on the wind that forked a Hanson field goal wide left.
- Bears 16, Lions 13

Week 9: Denver at Detroit
This time second-year man Jay Cutler engineers a last-minute drive for the Broncos.
- Broncos 21, Lions 17

Week 10: Detroit at Arizona
The backbreaker of the season. Lions lead 21-3 in the third quarter, but Matt Leinart leads a feisty comeback, bringing the Cardinals all the way back. Then Kitna throws an INT in OT, and the season is as good as done.
- Cardinals 30, Lions 24

Week 11: NY Giants at Detroit
Hah, hah. Lions get burned by Eli. On the bright side, there's something positive for Detroit's columnists to write about as former Michigan State player Plaxico Burress has 10 catches for 189 yards and two touchdowns.
- Giants 24, Lions 13

Week 12: Green Bay at Detroit (Thanksgiving)
Relish it while you can, Lions fans. It'll be your last positive moment of the season (besides realizing in late December that you've got the No. 2 pick again). Lions rough up Favre in his final game in Detroit.
- Lions 31, Packers 21

Week 13: Detroit at Minnesota
Are you kidding me? When was the last time Lions won in the dome? 1979? I'm not even looking it up.
- Vikings 20, Lions 16

Week 14: Dallas at Detroit
Another close one. This time Romo (check that, it's some obscure backup quarterback now) handles the snap and the winning field goals is GOOD!
- Cowboys 20, Lions 17

Week 15: Detroit at San Diego
Oh, boy. This one ain't close to close. The Chargers lock up homefield advantage in the AFC.
- Chargers 42, Lions 10

Week 16: Kansas City at Detroit
Big game for Chiefs, who are fighting for that final wild card. Big game for Detroit's fans, who finally stage a "Fire Millen" walkout, not that it's gonna work.
- Chiefs 16, Lions 13

Week 17: Detroit at Green Bay
Man, this is cruel. It's hard enough for the Lions to play the Pack in early December. Now late December? And Favre's last game as a Packer?? WOW.
- Packers 34, Lions 17

So there you have it. A 4-12 season. A one-win improvement over last season. And another No. 2 draft pick. And remember, I'm not changing this even if they get Tomlinson, or Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning or...

It doesn’t matter. These are the Lions, the worst franchise in professional sports, and this is a tradition.

No one loses like the Lions.

Monday, April 09, 2007

"Appreciating the games' pioneers"

I’m not sure how long ago it was. But there was a day way earlier in his career – when he was hitting home runs effortlessly – when Ken Griffey Jr. was asked about the impact of Jackie Robinson on the game of baseball.

The youngster replied that he’d never heard of Robinson, who was major league baseball’s first black player. I remember thinking, are you kidding me? You don’t remember the man who made what you’re doing for a living today possible?

I added Griffey to the list of modern-day athletes who have no appreciation for those who set the foundation for their success and wealth (a fairly big list, by the way).

That was then, this is now.

On Sunday Griffey will be the Cincinnati Reds’ representative to wear No. 42 as MLB celebrates the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s breakthrough by having one player from every team wear No. 42 and the entire Los Angeles Dodgers roster sport the historic number.

Griffey also wore No. 42 on the 50th anniversary 10 years ago, so it is clear that he didn’t just learn about the American hero recently. He most likely educated himself soon after his ignorant comment.

Kudos to Griffey.

There are way too many athletes at all levels of sports today who have no knowledge of the history of their sport. This is a disservice to those who made possible their amazing opportunity.

Also, how can someone be great – or even the greatest ever – if they haven’t watched or read about the greats from the past, the men or women who took their sport to new heights?

Athletes today are so talented, they don’t think they need to know their sport’s history to be successful. For the most part, they are right. A lot of the time they can get by on their phenomenal ability. But at the same time, they can learn from those who had the experience of playing for a long time. Whether it’s in person (such as Patrick Ewing working with Yao Ming) or through another source, such as a book or a video.

It’s not uncommon to hear today’s superstars, the players who transcend the game, talk about watching their heroes growing up and mimicking what they did on TV.

One reason I’ll always respect Shaquille O’Neal is because when George Mikan, the NBA’s first great big man from the 1950s, died, O’Neal not only paid his respects to Mikan. He also paid for the funeral, which Mikan’s family couldn’t afford.

O’Neal knew that if not for Mikan and the game’s other pioneers, there might not be a thriving NBA today.

Just like Griffey now fully understands the impact Robinson had on professional baseball.

"Race in sports can't be ignored"

In the last 54 days, thanks to the genius invention of the radio some 100 to 200 years ago, I've learned a couple things.

I've learned that Tim Hardaway hates gay people (even on Valentines Day, which is when those words escaped his mouth).

And now I've learned that Don Imus, a nationally syndicated radio personality, thinks Rutgers' women's basketball players, most of whom are black, are "nappy-headed hoes."


Both men, of course, gave heartfelt apologies. Both are full of crap.

The similarities end there. Hardaway has been rightfully banned from NBA events and will have a difficult time finding decent work to supplant the decent income he earned while crossing over point guards in the NBA. Imus, on the other hand, won't even lose his radio show. And even if he did, he'd have no problems getting a new gig on satellite radio or whatever the new brand of radio is these days.

Heck, Imus might even be celebrated by some for finally speaking out about those "napppy-headed hos." No wonder no one watched the women's Final Four. Who wants to see some NHs running up and down the court?

So here we stand, in 2007, and race is as big an issue as it was 10 years ago. People say that the only way to eliminate racism and prejudice is to ignore it, to ignore the differences in one another. I used to follow this altruistic method, but that truth is, it's as unrealistic as the Lions winning the Super Bowl.

Race is here. And will always be here. And there's no ignoring it.

It's especially on the forefront of the sports world. As I clicked between the Masters and the Lakers-Suns game Sunday afternoon, I couldn't help but wonder about the ethnic breakdown of each viewing audience. I doubted there were many people like me switching between the white golfers (minus a guy named Tiger) and the black basketball players (minus a guy named Nash).

David Stern has made several efforts to separate the NBA from its hip-hop image. He should stop. You can't stop people from being themselves. Yes, of course punish players for going outside the law or running into the stands or getting technical fouls, but how they dress and what's on their iPod is their choice. Period.

And people who watch the NBA don't do so because there's a dress code now, I can guarantee you that.

People have questioned whether Tiger has had a big enough impact on minorities in terms of getting them interested in the game of golf. The answer? He's done what he can. The academies, the clinics, the inner-city programs. That's all Tiger can do, unless he wants to drop millions of dollars to buy every kid in every poor neighborhood in every city a set of golf clubs.

But then the question would be, where would they play?

Kids are going to do what they want to do. Yes, they can be influenced. But if their friends are playing hoops at the park, they're more likely to follow suit than try to find their way to the nearest (which may be far) golf course.

As far as another black golfer making the PGA Tour, I'm sure it'll happen someday. But people need to stop sweating it. You can't push people to be who they're not.

Racism, as much as I hate to say this, is rampant in this country, even if people don't think they're acting racist. Just the other day I was watching Cold Pizza with a fraternity brother of mine when Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors was being interviewed. Ellis was far from voluble or outspoken. He talked slow and deliberately. Immediately my brother said Ellis, who is black, wasn't "well-spoken."

Would he have said that about a white athlete? I highly doubt it. At that time, I'm sure, he didn't think he was being racist. But he was.

People need to be corrected on things like this. This afternoon Imus will go on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show, and I'm sure he'll be lit into. People all over the country will listen. Some good will come out of the interview. Maybe people will realize that whether you're on the radio or not, calling a group of accomplished black women "nappy-headed hos" is about as acceptable as blowing up a building.

But millions of people won't be listening, and they'll continue to live their private lives, talking about the NBA as a league of thugs (when, in truth, it's far from that) and celebrating the PGA Tour like it's a league of saints just because players' transgressions off the course (especially DUIs) don't get close to the attention mistakes made by professional basketball players do.

And everything will seem blissful until the next radio racist can't hold his tongue, makes a discriminatory mark, apologizes, goes on a black man's radio show, then continues to run his show (albeit sans racist remarks).

With the support of his quiet followers.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

"Now this is golf"

As great as the Masters and its tradition is, it's never been on the same plateau to me as the U.S. Open and British Open.

It's always been the third best major.

The reason? Quite simply, the course at Augusta National has never been as difficult as the majority of courses the best two majors are played on. While players at the U.S. and British opens - especially the US Open - often struggle to stay in the red, traditionally at the Masters there are several players below par.

And that's not as exciting as seeing players have to battle to stay under par. Additionally, in those tournaments the best players – the champion players - find a way to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in amazing displays of guts and near-perfect play (Tiger Woods’ performance in last year’s British Open was a perfect example).

There have been a few cases where courses wavered on the edge of unfair. Where greens weren't sufficiently watered or holes were made too long for even today's prototype pro.
But those were isolated cases. For the most part, the U.S. Open and British Open courses players struggled to navigate have just been very, very difficult.

Well, now I am watching the third round of the Masters and see just one player at the moment - Stuart Appleby - under par, and it's a beautiful sight. Almost as picturesque as the course at Augusta.

It's not that the players are performing poorly. It's not that they didn't show up ready to conquer the course this week. It's a combination of a more difficult course - each year over the past handful of years, holes have been lengthened and obstacles added - and the kind of conditions that we're used to seeing at the British Open. Chilly temperatures (the wind chill, according to CBS, is in the 40s on a sunny afternoon) and plenty of wind.

It's great golf. It's what separates the majors from the other tournaments during the year. It's like a defensive battle in football, like a pitchers' dual in baseball. If you're a true fan of the game, you're loving this.

Nobody's out of it. Phil Mickelson just completed his round. He's six over, but he's not out of it, because when conditions like these hit, anything can happen. Anything.

That's not something we'd normally say about the Masters.

Even Woods, arguably the world's greatest athlete, is suffering his bumps and bruises. He just had to hit a hook shot around a grove of trees on the 17th hole, suffering a bogey.

Yet Woods, at the moment, is just three shots back. And no one will deny that a tournament has all the more drama when he's in the mix.

Regardless of what happens in the next two hours, as the players finish off their third rounds, we'll know this much when we wake up tomorrow morning.

We'll know that the fourth round at Augusta might be the craziest, most dramatic final round in quite sometime (think Norman's collapse; Faldo's theft).

We'll know that 20 or 30 players will still have a chance at winning the thing (just post a low number and watch the poor beings left on the course suffer their fate).

We'll know that Tiger, and Phil, and Vijay will all be in the running (which, I'm sure, is much to the liking of CBS).

And we'll know nothing - absolutely nothing - about what is about to transpire.

Except that the scores will likely be high. The temperature will be much lower than normal. The winds will likely be gusting.

And we’ll know that whoever gets fitted with the Green Jacket Sunday evening will have earned it like never before.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"U-M hires Beilein, Martin learns his lesson"

Well, you can't say Bill Martin is cheap anymore. You can't say the University of Michigan athletic director isn't willing to spend money on the basketball program. And, most importantly, you can't say he wasn’t able to lure one of the nation's best available coaches to Ann Arbor.

On Monday it was reported that John Beilein had accepted Martin's offer to become Michigan's new head coach. In order to sign Beilein, Martin had to either pay off a $2.5 million buyout on Beilein's West Virginia contract or reach "some type of agreement" on the buyout, the “Detroit Free Press” reported.

Either way, it's pretty clear that Martin spent a boatload of money to bring the 54-year-old to campus.

If only he had been willing to put forth this kind of dough six years ago.

In March of 2001, Rick Pitino came thisclose to signing on to become Michigan's head coach. If that had happened, undoubtedly, we wouldn't be talking about a nine-year NCAA tournament drought. Heck, the Wolverines might have already had a Sweet 16 appearance.

But, according to a "Michigan Daily" article from March 2001, Martin only offered Pitino a base salary of $900,000, and the great - but very arrogant - coach fled for Louisville, in the state he loved, for a contract worth $1 million a year.

According to reports, Pitino said money wasn't a factor in his decision and that his wife, Joanne, changed his mind. But don't tell me if Michigan had upped its offer to, say, $1.5 million annually, he would have let some Bluegrass Lovin' keep him from Ann Arbor. Granted, in 2001 $1.5 million would have been a LOT of money (no one was talking about contracts worth $3 million a year, like they are today at with the Billy Donovan situation). But, it also would have turned the program around. Pitino is one of the top 10 coaches in America.

Tommy Amaker isn't one of the top 100 coaches in the country. For six years under Amaker, the Michigan program wallowed in mediocrity while Pitino took Louisville to the Final Four in 2005. Just think about what coulda been.

Yes, it's time to move on. Yes, Beilein is a good hire. He's had winning records in 26 of 29 seasons as a head coach (he never was an assistant); he's taken LeMoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia to the NCAA tournament, including the Mountaineers to the Elite Eight in 2005.

Where they lost to... Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino.

It is clear Martin learned his lesson. He learned that it's worth a few extra hundred thousand dollars - from Michigan's fat athletic budget - to bring in a quality coach who won't just run a clean program (about the only thing Amaker was successful at doing), but also win a lot of games.

That's what Beilein will do.

That's what Pitino would have done. And still be doing.

And if Michigan and Louisville meet up in the Big Dance in the next few years?

Well, that 2005 game went to overtime.

"2006-07 Gators: One of the best teams ever"

One more year?

Why not? A year ago Florida juniors Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer shocked the basketball establishment by returning for their junior year - along with junior Taurean Green and senior Lee Humphrey.

Now they have two national championships in a row and plenty of love from Gator Nation.

So why not come back for a senior year? They've already stunned us once. Another shock wouldn't hurt. They could become the only team besides John Wooden's dominant Bruins to win three consecutive titles. And surely if the players returned, there'd be no way Billy Donovan could bolt for Kentucky.

It's fun to think about, even though it's very unrealistic.

On Monday night the Gators showed exactly why they've been the best college basketball team each of the past two years. They played as one. They didn't play like a group of future first-round draft picks (that was Greg Oden's job); they played like a scrappy group of college kids just having a blast in the gym.

Horford exemplified this best. He was literally all over the 94-foot hardwood, getting every single loose ball, especially on the offensive end. If the Gators took a bad shot, there would be Horford to collect the rebound. And almost every time this occurred, Florida hit a 3-pointer, whether it was Humphrey (four 3s), or Brewer or Green (three 3s apiece), which absolutely broke Ohio State’s back.

Florida outrebounded Ohio State 38-27, a similar margin to when the Gators trounced the Buckeyes 86-60 in December.

Throughout the game, Ohio State hung around, and you had to think the Buckeyes had a run in them. After all, they came back from a 20-point deficit against Tennessee in the regional semifinals. But every time they got within six or seven points - the closest they got in the second half - Florida responded with a big shot. It wasn't one particular player (even freshman Marreese Speights, who didn't play the last three games, hit a key second-half jumper). Just a player in a white uniform giving Buckeyes’ fans another national championship game headache.

And that was the thing about these Gators. If the opponent focused on one, or even two guys, someone else was going to burn it. Noah had his worst game of the NCAA tournament, scoring just eight points - including one field goal - and grabbing three rebounds in 21 minutes. But did he care that his teammate Brewer got he MOP award for the Final Four or that his teammate Horford will be remembered as the big man who had the splendid game?

Of course not. After the game, Noah was his jubilant self, forecasting a crazy, long-lasting party down in Gainesville in the coming weeks.

Should be wild.

Following the game, Donovan said these Gators should go down as one of the greatest college teams of all time. These were strong words, considering the teams at the top of this list: The 1945-46 Oklahoma A&M Cowboys; the 1955-56 San Francisco Dons led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones; the 1961-62 Cincinnati Bearcats; obviously Wooden's Bruins, who won 10 titles in 12 years; and Christian Laettner's Blue Devils in the early 1990s.

But Donovan is right. As far as being a championship team, no one did it better than the Gators. With the exception of the Bearcats, who featured a balanced attack, all of the other repeat champions had a star player. Oklahoma A&M had Bob Kurland, basketball's first 7-footer. The Dons, of course, had Russell. The Bruins had a wealth of talent, but it was highlighted by Lew Alcindor in the later 1960s and Bill Walton in the early '70s. And Laettner is considered one of the best college players of all time.

None of these Gators will go down as one of college basketball's greatest players. Heck, a couple decades from now we may not even recall their names. But as a group, as a unit, they will never be forgotten.

Sure, the thought of one more year must be enticing. A third national title, and they could really throw a party in Gainesville, a Mardi Gras of sorts.

But don't expect this crew to return. After all, Humphrey is graduating, and you know what they say about puzzles.

If you lose one piece, they just aren't the same.

Monday, April 02, 2007

"Title game preview: OSU's other guys"

The best thing that happened to the Ohio State basketball team this season actually happened last season – on Feb. 28 - when Greg Oden, then a precocious high school senior, tore a ligament in his wrist, which kept him on the Buckeyes' bench for the season's first seven games and limited his playing time and versatility until late in the season.

At the time, of course, Buckeyes' fans lamented the bad break, thinking, "Man, we only get this guy for a year to begin with (assuming he turns pro after the season), and now we don't even get to see him?"

But the truth is Ohio State would not be where it is today - preparing for the national title game against defending champion Florida - had Oden been healthy from the start of the season, playing big minutes every game.

Oden's injury allowed Ohio State's reserve forwards - Othello Hunter, Matt Terwilliger and David Lighty - to get much-needed experience, and it has paid big dividends in this NCAA tournament.

Oden, for all the hype surrounding him, hasn't had the best Big Dance. He's constantly been in foul trouble and on the bench - a similar situation to when he was hurt. This has opened the door for those same three guys - who all come off the bench - to make their presence felt.

And they've done this in a big way.

Whenever Oden has gone out of a game for a long stretch of time, such as the first half Saturday against Georgetown when he picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and didn't score a point until the second half, the three reserves have done an admirable job of filling his shoes. While they didn't exactly light it up in the scoring column against the Hoyas (nine combined points), they did a tremendous job of rebounding (10 combined boards) and playing defense, holding Hoyas' stud Jeff Green in check. Green, who played all 40 minutes, finished with just nine points.

Oden came back in the second half to score 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, but his effort would have been a waste had his backups not helped Ohio State to a 27-23 halftime advantage.

After the win, Oden, as diplomatic as ever, said, "I just sat back and watched my teammates take over."


It's perfect that Lighty, Terwilliger and Hunter will play against Florida tonight, because they resemble, on a smaller level, the makeup of the Gators. They are role players who do what they're asked to do. No questions asked. Hunter and Terwilliger are bangers down low, who aren't asked to score - the Buckeyes have a wealth of guys who can do that - but simply play solid defense and rebound. At the same time, however, if they receive a pass and see an opening to the basket, they're reactive enough to make the play for the score. Lighty is one of the most versatile players on a team that could be renamed the Versatile Buckeyes. Not only can he make the tough shots down low - such as his converted layup plus a foul in the final minutes Saturday - but he can also shoot the 3-pointer, giving Ohio State yet another deadly long-range bomber (they've got about 57 of them).

Much like UCLA's big men needed to play well against Florida on Saturday to win (they did for a half, then got dominated in the second half), Ohio State's big men will have to continue their stellar play against Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Chris Richard, who has been Florida's key guy off the bench, not to mention 6-foot-9 swingman Corey Brewer.

It's a huge challenge. The toughest three inside players the Buckeyes have faced all season. And while Oden's good, he's not going to be able to contain them by himself. Just look at Florida's 86-60 pasting of Ohio State in December, when Oden struggled mightily, scoring seven points and grabbing six rebounds, and the three forwards off the bench weren't much better with a combined four and seven. Meanwhile, Horford, who didn't even start because of an injury, scored 11 points and had 11 boards and Noah added seven and eight.

It wasn't the most dominating performance by Florida's bigs, but it was more than enough, considering Taurean Green scored 24 points and Brewer added 18. Most importantly, Florida outrebounded Ohio State 37-23. That cannot happen tonight if the Buckeyes want a chance to win.

It's a big test for some big men, and, ultimately, it will be a big factor in whether the Buckeyes can win their 23rd consecutive game.

I personally like Florida to win. I think Florida's bigs will wear down their counterparts in red and white. But, then again, all tournament long - when Oden's gone down to foul trouble - these guys have proven the masses wrong, not missing a step and keeping the Buckeyes in games.

No, they don't block potential game-winning shots and nearly complete dunks from just inside the free throw line (see: Oden, against Tennessee and Georgetown), but they make quieter contributions that affect the game almost as much.

And that's really all that matters.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"My alternative baseball preview"

Three hours and 24 minutes...

That's how long until the baseball season officially begins as defending World Series champion St. Louis takes on the Mets. And I have no idea what to expect this year.

Predicting the baseball season is like trying to figure out Michigan weather patterns. For three days it's sunny and in the 60s and you think you've got it figured out. It's spring time. Then, six hours later, you come out of a building and there's snow on the ground.

That's the baseball season. In May we might be lauding the Cardinals. By August they could be out of the playoff race.

Who really knows?

So, no, I'm not going to try to predict the champion, or even the division winners, or even the wild cards. I'm not going to try to analyze who will finish where in each division. I don't feel like looking at my picks come October and shaking my head in disgust.

Instead I'll give you the certainties. All these things will happen. I'll bet you a ballpark frank and an $8 beer on it.

The Kansas City Royals will finish in last place regardless of how many Minnesota pitchers get injured.

Daisuke will win 15 games.

A-Rod will get booed.

Kenny Rogers won't win 10 games.

The D-Rays will be in first place... in April (and probably just for a day).

A manager will be fired by the end of June.

Jim Leyland will smoke a lot of cigarettes.

And he'll remain the most loved manager in the game.

Ryan Howard will hit 50 homers again.

Big Papi will not.

Speaking of the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez will sit out a few games for an "undisclosed injury."

And there will be the usual talk of trading Manny.

And he'll remain in a Red Sox uniform.

The Blue Jays will battle the Sox and Yankees into September for the East Division title.

And fall short.

And with a new contract in his back pocket, Vernon Wells will have a bit of a down year, only hitting 27 homers and only driving in 95 runs.

Speaking of new contracts, Garry Matthews Jr. has one in Los Angeles. And with the steroid investigation ongoing, he'll struggle in his new home.

His team, however, will still play well enough to make a push for the division in September.

And Jered Weaver will pick up where he left off a year ago, winning 15 games this year.

Other pitchers who will win 15: Jeremy Bonderman (Detroit), Brandon Webb (Arizona), Carlos Zambrano (Chicago Cubs), Andy Pettite (New York Yankees), Johan Santana (Minnesota), Roy Halladay (Toronto), Chris Carpenter (St. Louis), Scott Kazmir (Tampa Bay), Jake Westbrook (Cleveland), Jason Schmidt (LA Dodgers)...

And a few others.

Pitcher most people think will win 15, but won't: Barry Zito (Oakland), Freddy Garcia (Philadelphia), Jason Verlander (Detroit)...

And a few others.

Moving to the batter’s box, Barry Bonds will not break Hank Aaron's record until September.

And when he does, Bud Selig will not be there.

But Bonds will still get plenty of love.

And then we'll all talk about it for 739 straight days.

Speaking of records, A-Rod will hit his 500th homer, becoming the youngest player to reach the milestone.

And then he'll get booed some more.

He'll also be in consideration for the AL MVP.

And then he'll get booed some more.

Some other players will get booed. But I'm really not sure who.

Gary Sheffield will have a monster season with the Tigers, hitting 30-plus home runs. And his book will sell well. I, for one, can't wait to pick it up.

Players who will hit 40-plus home runs: Howard, Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Big Papi, Troy Glaus, Alfonso Soriano, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Jermaine Dye, Travis Hafner.

And maybe a few others...

Players who will fall short of 40 jacks: Adam Dunn, Frank Thomas, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, A-Rod, Aramis Ramirez, Jim Thome, Andruw Jones, Derrek Lee.

And a lot of others.

A player will garner great attention by taking a hit streak into the 30s.

But we all know he won't get close to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, one record that will never fall.

Joe Mauer will have a solid season, but his average will linger around .300 instead of .350.

And no player will come close to hitting .400, although Ichiro will get 200 hits again.

And the Twins will surprise everyone again by challenging Detroit, Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox for the Central Division.

Which will go down to the wire, with no team winning more than 95 games.

The Yankees will be good (no surprise).

The Red Sox will be good (no surprise).

And every game they play against each other will be played in a postseason atmosphere.

This just in: My friend, Tyler, says A-Rod will hit 37 home runs. So I'm going with that.

And finally...

A-Rod will get booed.

Two hours and 39 minutes...