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Superstars = Super NBA Playoffs

Suns-Spurs started it all. Chris Paul took over from there. Dwight Howard really did become Superman. Then there are those Kobe, Lebron and Garnett guys. They looked pretty good too.

The playoffs have only been in session five days, but already the performances have superseded the hype. (For the record, before this season I could have never envisioned writing that last sentence in reference to the NBA.)

Seriously though, TNT’s annual, unrelenting “40 Games in 40 Nights” promo used to be a deterrent that bordered on a turnoff to the casual NBA viewer. 40 games! 40 nights! If you watch them all you are officially a loser! TNT!

Now I’m counting off the days like you do on vacation. Five down, only 35 left… %$&#!!! Must have more TNT!

Excuse me for being blunt but if you’re a sports fan not watching these playoffs, well then, there’s just something wrong with you.

Now, let’s look at the aforementioned super-duper-stars, and use a Q+A format to help clarify what they may have in store for us giddy basketball fans…

Kevin Garnett

What can already be determined? That KG can smell it. It doesn’t make a difference that the Celtics are playing a team 29 games worse than them. It’s of no significance that each of the first two games has been over by the six minute mark of the second quarter. And it’s utterly inconsequential that a few boneheads on the Atlanta Hawks have actually had the audacity to suggest that 1) Celtics fans are bandwagon hoppers, and 2) their 37-win team matches up well with the 66-win Celtics and is capable of pulling the biggest upset in NBA playoff history (hey there Mike Bibby and Joshes Childress and Smith … better get those 9-irons polished). Once again, all that means nothing. If you’ve watched the first two games of this series and seen Garnett pummel Leon Powe after a huge dunk and claw at his jersey in the waning minutes of 20 point blowouts, then you see what I see. The man has picked up the scent. He’s honing in on it.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 9.8 out of 10. KG doesn’t get the full 10 out of 10 because as dominant and intense as he is, he’s never been the go-to guy to take the last shot in a decisive playoff game. Part of that is because defenses collapse on him late in tight games. Another part is because he will have primetimers Pierce, Allen and Cassell lurking in his periphery when daggers must be dropped. But that doesn’t mean he can’t solely dictate a seven-game series. (Or four seven-game series’.)

What’s the verdict on the Celtics? (fingers experiencing uncontrollable spasms) N o .. Ba LL GAm E …. J I nX!!!!

Dwight Howard

What can already be determined? That Dwight Howard need not don the cape to validate his status as the hero reborn. What he did in the slam dunk contest this year transcended the event. What he is going to do to the rest of the league over the next decade may very well transcend the game (11-foot baskets?). What he has already done to Toronto is unkind. That would be score 54 points, beast 42 rebounds, and swat eight shots in two games. So… Yeah…

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 9.9 out of 10. A tiny notch ahead of Garnett because of his age but still lacking the perfect 10 because it is possible to get the ball out of his terrifying hands at the end of games. In fact, these playoffs will probably spawn the “hack-a-Howard” strategy because he only shoots 59% from the free throw line. Of course there’s always the chance that in crunch time he will shed would-be foulers like ants. He truly does have the power and quickness to unilaterally overrule futile foul attempts. That said, if you’re an opposing coach, you simply can’t let Dwight Howard throw one down in the last seconds of a tied playoff game. If it must entail lining up a wall of oversized pawns to thwart him, so be it. It must be noted that Howard’s options on the perimeter (Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis) for a game-winning kick-out are not as reliable as KG’s. That will inevitably mark Superman’s downfall (this year at least).

What’s the verdict on the Magic? A loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston (yes, that means the season-long anticipated showdown between the Pistons and Celtics will never happen because Dwight Howard says so).

Lebron James

What can already be determined? That the regular season means NADA to Lebron James, and that slights from alleged colleagues tend to rattle the King’s cage. I mean, is DeShawn Stevenson for real? Did he really go on record as calling Lebron “overrated”? The next time he gets posterized by King James with the quote “overrated” sprawled across the top does he get a copyrighted piece of the glossy-revenue? What–for goodness sake–was this guy thinking? Not a wise move considering Lebron has made it a habit of burning anyone who questions his greatness.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. I believe he addressed that matter in Game 5 against Detroit last year. He then closed the case in Game 6, and in doing so established the modern-day standard for “player who singlehandedly carries a team to a higher place in spite of omnipresent mediocrity”. He reiterated it for Stevenson and any other stupid loudmouths in the first two games against Washington, popping off for 32-6-4 and 30-9-12, respectively (against a solid and peaking Wizards team, no less). Lebron may have a new supporting cast of “Boobies”, and he may be trying to defend his Eastern Conference crown in a bracket that has the Celtics looming in round two, but don’t speak too soon about the fella. I believe DeShawn Stevenson already learned that lesson the difficult way.

What’s the verdict on the Cavs? Out in 6 against the Celtics, with Lebron achieving some superhuman feats to win Cleveland’s two games (obviously).

Chris Paul

What can already be determined? That Chris Paul fears not the playoff stage. He wasn’t just the best player on the court in the first two games against Dallas; he was by far the best (and Dirk Nowitzki has played well). In Game 1, with David West struggling to find a rhythm early on and Peja Stojakovic hoisting up bricks, the Hornets found themselves in a 12-point halftime hole. No sweat for CP3. He took over in the second half, turned a double digit deficit into a blowout opening win, and helped usher in the return of the “Mark Cuban Face”. Not bad for a playoff rookie.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. His 35 and 10 preceding 32 and 17 (plus a combined seven steals) in fact weren’t what stuck out the most. (And no, I’m not munching on the magic brownies.) It was the way he carried himself; the way he carried his team. In the tone-setting Game 1, each bucket he dropped and dime he dished was accompanied by a progressively meaner and more confident look in his eyes. Chest pounds and cries of “Let’s go!” had Hornets fans smelling blood and Mavs players anticipating the imminent (which was also the psychological precursor to the beating Paul gave them in Game 2). His intensity level was so high he appeared ready to take the contest into the parking lot after the game. We haven’t seen that from Dirk since Game 7 of the Spurs series in 2006. I’m surely not the first to say it, but I won’t be close to the last: We are witnessing the beginning of what may become the greatest career by a point guard all-time. His ceiling extends far beyond the bannerless rafters inside New Orleans Arena.

What’s the verdict on the Hornets? A Game 7 loss in the Western Conference Finals at Staples Center, and a born-legacy (not to be confused with “The Bourne Legacy”).

Kobe Bryant

What can already be determined? That Kobe Bryant was frustrated and wanted out of LA, then he was angry when he didn’t get moved, then he didn’t care, then he cared again, and now he’s on a mission that evokes memories of Denzel Washington in “Man on Fire”. There is no debate that Kobe has been the best player since MJ — when he has chosen to be. Somewhere along the way, a combination of scandal, a big head and a “diesel” Hollywood breakup temporarily stripped him of his unmatched talent and boyish love of the game. What a difference a “Pau” in the arm can make. Now Kobe has the Euro version of KG in Pau Gasol along with a young and eager supporting cast whose collective vibrancy must remind him of glory days past. Beware of the Black Mamba.

On a scale of 1 to 10, what is his “can win a series by himself” potential? 10 out of 10. See above: “best player since MJ.”

What’s the verdict on the Lakers? NBA Finals. Boston. Game 7. I will say no more.

Portrait of Portsmouth

The journey begins at an upscale condominium complex in North Jersey. Dick Kaner is already standing outside, ready to roll, ready to embark on his 37th consecutive trek down the Atlantic coast for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (PIT).

Like many in his profession of professional basketball scouting and representation, Kaner has just returned from the Final Four. Throughout the basketball spectrum, Portsmouth, Virginia is the next (and most out of the way) stop on the flexuous road that will end in New York for the NBA Draft on June 26.

Each year, 64 elite seniors from around the country are invited to partake in a four day tournament and showcase, which is attended by representatives from every NBA team, as well as scores of hungry, competing agents. Only a few players will be drafted, but all will be ostensibly coveted. “It’s a feeding frenzy down there,” says Stephen Percudani, an up and coming agent who is letting me accompany him. “The first time you get there, you feel it.”

I’m already feeling it—the sensation in your legs as they fall asleep, that is–laid out in the backseat of Percudani’s Volvo, listening as Kaner makes preliminary contacts and “Perc” further details the swarm of basketball bees simultaneously converging on the southernmost point of the Chesapeake Bay.

As we head down the New Jersey Turnpike and into Delaware, Kaner has only one thing on his mind — surprisingly, it’s not basketball. “Chick-fil-A,” he states with purpose. “Best chicken sandwich you just can’t get up north.”

After we locate the notorious poultry stop and chow on tasty chicken and seasoned waffle fries smothered in honey roasted barbeque sauce, it’s back to the road. The last leg of the trip entails shooting down the Eastern Shore of Virginia and over/through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

Kaner touches base with the European clubs he is scouting for at the tournament. Perc, meanwhile, opines on the pilgrimage-like nature of the trip. Portsmouth holds sentimental value to him, as it was the last place his father, Dick Percudani—a revered basketball mind and director of scouting for the Phoenix Suns—watched a game.

———————-

Marty Blake, director of NBA scouting, steps to center court of the Churchland High School basketball court. “Will Richard Percudani please report to the scorers’ table?” he asks over the public address system. Stephen Percudani knows that’s his cue and heads down to the floor to hand out the award for excellence in basketball scouting that is given in his father’s name each year.

With that, the 56th annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament signs on.

Churchland is easily the only venue you’ll ever see containing as many familiar faces as fans. On one baseline sits scouts row, a three-tiered hub of operations for all the major representatives of NBA teams.

Larry Bird, general manager of the Pacers, arrives in a cream colored button up shirt and takes his seat in the second row. He’s flanking his old partner in hardwood crime and fellow GM, Kevin McHale.

Moments after the opening tip of the first game, in walks Danny Ainge. Wearing a backpack and attired in a white long sleeved T-shirt with a green vest, Ainge spots McHale. Lighting up like a kid on the street court who sees his superstar friend arrive to join the team (We got Kevin!!!!), the Celtics GM does a beeline to his former teammate and recent trading partner.

He gives the Timberwolves’ general manager a playful pat on the back and the two exchange fraternal pleasantries. I wasn’t close enough to hear their conversation, but given Ainge’s animation (and the Celtics’ 66 wins), I would imagine it went something like this:

Ainge: (patting McHale on the shoulders) Who’s the man??

McHale: I am, Danny. I’m the man.

Ainge: You are THEEE man!!

McHale: You were right, Danny. Jefferson’s dropping 21 and 11. And Gomes is pretty good too.

Ainge: Told you it would look fair!!

The two buddies continue to mirthfully shoot the breeze, but they are the exception. Save for a bit of idle chit chat amongst evaluators, most of the scouts show they have long ago mastered the art of the poker face. Good play or bad, they exhibit no discernible change in demeanor or mood. Their most identifiable actions are the intermittent relocating of pen hands from underneath their chins to their notebooks in order to record an observation.

The vibe in the stands is quite different. The way Percudani had forecast it (“a feeding frenzy”) is apt. After a few jump shots and fast breaks, the intermingling of agents—engaging in a discourse that can best be characterized as hawkish—commences.

American agents (of which there are roughly 400) are scoping each other out; identifying and targeting the big shots (of which there are roughly 15-20), who may or may not also be their competition.

European representatives are numerous as well; their mission at Portsmouth is often times more important than the Birds and McHales. Since the PIT traditionally produces a handful of second round picks, NBA guys are evaluating everyone, but seeking out few. European agents, on the other hand, look at the PIT and see dozens of players ready to compete professionally overseas.

From Spain, France and other parts of Western Europe to Eastern European countries like Serbia and Montenegro and Bulgaria, scouts and agents from abroad are trying to strike deals with their American counterparts to increase the flow of ballplayers overseas. The growth of the sport in Europe has opened avenues for many ex-college athletes to make a living playing the game they love.

Walt Szczerbiak, father to Wally of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is plopped down in the bleachers, balancing an evaluation sheet on his right leg. He takes the time to shake hands with acquaintances during timeouts while telling me about his expansive basketball background.

As one of the earlier pioneers in bringing the sport to Europe, Szczerbiak played in the PIT in 1971 before going to Spain and winning three Euroleague titles with Real Madrid (1974, 1978 and 1980) in the country’s highest league, the ACB. He is now the official US representative of the ACB, and has been scouting talent at Portsmouth since he undertook the position in 1986.

He has seen things change over the years.

“In the old days you had a lot of guys that got to their senior year, but now since so many guys are leaving, you’re not getting that level [of talent],” says Szczerbiak. “They’re either in the NBA or they have potential to be a lot better than the kids that are here.”

Taking into consideration that trend, a lot of the time Szczerbiak’s task is to monitor the throng of agents and make sure the teams he is representing are getting a fair shake. “You know, agents are selling one thing,” he says. “My job is to utilize my contacts and put things in better perspective.”

Szczerbiak’s Portsmouth roots–like his array of contacts–run deep. In fact, when he participated in the PIT, there was only one person from the NBA there to evaluate him; a guy who opened the flood gates and helped turn Portsmouth into an annual destination for anyone associated with the league.

———————-

“If you’re with Dick Kaner, I don’t wanna talk to you,” Bob Ferry informs me. He pauses before looking up from his spot in the first row of the bleachers at center court. “I’m just kidding,” he says through a blank stare.

“But I’m not telling you anything.”

Ferry, twice the NBA Executive of the Year (1979 and 1982), was also the architect of the 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets. When he discovers I’m only probing his knowledge on the history of the PIT—and not trying to finagle sensitive player info out of him—he opens up.

“I came down here, I think it was about 1971. I heard about the tournament. I drove in from Baltimore. Then I drafted Kevin Porter, a very good player, and kept it secret. Then a couple of years later I drafted a kid by the name of Chuck Robinson, who was really a good player. And then the word got out that I was coming down here, and word went out to all these scouts.”

“It gradually just got bigger and bigger, more people found out about it and more scouts came, and a better quality of players started coming in and before you knew it, it basically worked its way to what it is today.”

While Ferry enjoyed having his own “pickins” for a period of time when the tournament was still a niche, he speaks with a justifiable sense of pride when detailing the evolution of the event. His one time diamond in the rough ultimately served as one of the launch pads to greatness for the likes of Rick Barry, Earl Monroe, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and John Stockton.

As we watch one of the consolation games– this one pitting former Tennessee teammates Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith against one another—Ferry talks about how the tournament has turned into a “job fair” of sorts. Watching the two ex-Volunteers go at it, matching threes while playing tight, aggressive defense, you can tell they are teammates no longer; only competitors vying and competing for the same looks.

Ferry sums it up: “These kinds of tournaments are it. These tournaments leave a strong impression on people. And for some of [the players], it’s the last one they got.”

———————-

The final buzzer sounds. A team led by Jamar Butler of Ohio State has just won the championship by a breezy 23 points. However, Butler, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, is not even one of the three athletes from Portsmouth that NBADraft.net projects to have their name called by David Stern in New York.

There are whispers that this year’s tournament is collectively one of the weaker fields in recent past. For many—even those who excelled over four days—the dream may be fading. There are only so many jobs to be had in the NBA, after all (450 to be exact). But for those kids willing to take a chance and head overseas, a career is waiting for them.

As I’m wrapping up, the European agents are desperately trying to make some final lasting impressions with the athletes. I find Percudani, and just as we are preparing to exit Churchland one more time and hit the road back to the Tri-State area, I see someone familiar walking toward us.

After breathing all things basketball for four days, it feels like we picked up Dick Kaner from his condo a month ago. We talk briefly about Lofton and Smith, and the upcoming Orlando Pre-Draft camp. Kaner’s taking off with a friend later on, so won’t be riding north with us, but he does have some parting advice.

“Chick-fil-A,” he reminds us.

“You won’t get it in New York!”

Manny’s Still Manny

Someone needs to pass Manny the memo. You know, the one that tells him how not every long fly ball he hits is going out of the park, ending a game, and moving the Red Sox one step closer to a World Series.

Ever since his walk-off home run in Game 2 of the ALDS, Manny has found it necessary to watch the ball travel — even if it’s not traveling into four-bagger territory.

Since that bomb off Francisco Rodriguez, Manny has become Narcissus reincarnated. However, instead of falling in love with his own reflection, he falls in love with each deep drive he strikes.

Crack! goes the bat on the ball. Only then does he spring to life. His body language is as clear as the sky is blue. Oh the beauty! The power! The elegance! Oh Manny!

Manny’s eyes–with a little help from the arms usually raised over his head–say it all. He is in awe of, enamored by and totally smitten with his God-given and rediscovered stroke. He simply can’t get enough of it.

The opposition kind of already has, though.

Only four games have elapsed this season, and Manny has twice stood in the batters box to gaze at and admire not home runs. The trend began in Japan, when Manny launched a go-ahead two-run double in the top of the 10th inning against Oakland. Thing was, he thought it was destined to be a three-run homer, and stood in the batters box, watching as it … didn’t clear the fence. But hey, the hit still proved to be the game winner.

When he replicated the act in the final game of the same series back in Oakland, it wasn’t as well received. Mainly because the ball was caught. That’s right. Manny–standing proud and erect at home plate–watched a ball get caught.

Of course that finality only further fueled the ensuing comedy, as Manny trekked back to the dugout and, through giggles, tried to explain to David Ortiz et al how he really thought that one was gone. He gestured and illustrated and justified, while getting poked fun at by his teammates through it all. Anyone watching had a laugh.

You know who didn’t? The Yankees. Be assured that new Yanks skipper Joe Girardi is both aware of and not amused by Manuel’s antics.

The whole Red Sox-Yankees thing has become watered down the last few years, mainly because the intensity/hatred that festered between the teams during the 2003-04 heyday no longer exists. The relocations of Pedro Martinez and Gary Sheffield have had a lot do with that.

Remember the so called “market correction” of a few years back? Well I have a feeling that this year we may be in store for a “rivalry correction”.

Girardi has brought a new mentality to the Bronx — or brought back an old mentality perhaps. Whichever way you look at it, the Bombers are the one team that will not sit back and watch the Red Sox show them up. Joba Chamberlain proved as much last September, when he nearly shaved the beard off Kevin Youkilis’ chin with some high and inside heat. And this spring Girardi showed he was prepared to get down and dirty when he (likely) ordered Shelley Duncan to slide cleat-first into the nether-region of Rays second basemen Akinori Iwamura. The result was a classy Grapefruit League dustup.

Taking that into consideration, along with Boston beginning defense of its second title in four years, we may be looking at Sox-Yanks redux in 2008.

Plus there’s Manny. The guy’s loving life and swinging a sweet tune at the plate once again.

As for that memo? It could say a million different things, but all that really matters is Manny’s still Manny.

MLB Points: Opening Day ’08

If you watched baseball on Opening Day 2008–or caught Baseball Tonight or looked at the day’s box scores for that matter–one thing stuck out above all else: bullpen implosions. Out of 12 games, five involved bullpens blowing leads. In four of those contests, one or both offenses put up crooked numbers on opposing relievers in the late innings. Sure, it was the first day of the season and weird stuff tends to happen. Lest we forget, baseball is a sport of odd routines woven into a complex methodology.

So yeah, on day one of 162, lot’s can go wrong, and a fair amount usually does.

However, the failure of many arms late in Monday’s games was more than just a 5 a.m. wakeup call to teams only marginally sweating their bullpen situations — it was the earliest possible indicator of a bigger problem that has spread throughout the league.

Relief pitching has become a dying breed.

There are a handful of dominant closers along with an assortment of overpowering setup men in the game today, but nowhere near enough productive arms to consistently record the final six to 12 outs of ballgames.

After the first full slate of ’08, that issue couldn’t have been any more evident.

Detroit lost to Kansas City because its bullpen failed to prevent Justin Verlander’s inherited runners from scoring in the sixth inning. Then Denny Bautista gave up the winning run in the 11th. The White Sox endured three eighth-inning runs when Octavio Dotel couldn’t hold down a tie game in Cleveland. The Brewers and Pirates watched leads of three and five, respectively, washed away in the ninth inning before rebounding to win in extra innings. And the Phillies saw something of a return to normalcy — a tie game entering the final frame turned into a five-run deficit and a loss when Tom Gordon could barely record an out.

This is a theme that is going to be revisited this year more frequently than any manager –real or fantasy–is comfortable with.

Speaking of fantasy, let’s throw the fantasy spotlight on three important names who played decisive roles on Opening Day.

Fantasy Spotlight No. 1Tom Gordon Flash was nothing short of awful on Opening Day. Sent in to preserve a 6-6 tie against Washington, Gordon gave up five runs in one-third of an inning. He may be old (40) but he’s still owned in 60% of ESPN fantasy leagues. More importantly, he’s not just being counted on to fill in for Brad Lidge until Lidge gets healthy (which should be sometime in the next week or two).

He’s also going to have to be the guy to close games on an interim basis if and when Lidge starts again losing the mental battle that has plagued him since “the Pujols blast” of October 2005. If Gordon can’t answer the call, the Phillies will have no choice but to return Brett Myers to a closing role. Judging from Gordon’s opening act of ’08, the Phils better hope Lidge can keep it together. The bottom line for fantasy owners is Lidge still has great stuff. Gordon does not.

Fantasy Spotlight No. 2 – Eric Gagne How the mighty have fallen. Gagne may have a ring as a result of his service in Boston last year, but it seems to have come at the cost of his mojo. He was so bad in a Red Sox uniform that Terry Francona used him only in mop up situations last October. In his first appearance since receiving an utterly ludicrous $10 million deal from Milwaukee, Gagne picked up right where he left off in Beantown. Entrusted with a three-run lead in the ninth, he promptly gave up a hit, a walk and a game-tying homer to a rookie (Kosuke Fukudome) playing his first game in the US.

The only thing about Gagne that has been more discouraging than his performance is his body language. He hasn’t looked like he’s had any confidence in himself since last July when he was still a member of the Texas Rangers. This is a major concern for the Brewers as well as for all those fantasy owners who are counting on 25+ saves from Gagne.

Fantasy Spotlight No. 3 – Kosuke Fukudome If we’re going to talk about Gagne, Fukudome can’t be left out of the conversation. The guy crossed the globe, came to an organization that happens to be entering its 100th season without a championship, and in his first big league game went 3-for-3 with a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth. Forget justifying his potential with comparisons to the Ichiros and Matsuis of the world. I’m already sold.

Of course he’s not going to do that everyday, and will surely go through some understandable transitional struggles, but the makeup is clearly there. Like his countrymen, Fukudome is a professional. You don’t need more than a tiny sample size to see that the latest hacking Japanese import possesses a distinct stoicism. That in itself should do wonders for the most losing franchise in American sports.