Skip to content

Archive for

Are the Lebrons Overmatched?

For a fleeting moment, it seemed like Lebron James’ buzzer-beater in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals was going to alter (or restore, depending on how you view it) the future of basketball.

Cleveland would not be heading to Orlando, inexplicable losers of two straight in a building they had gone 43-2 — and essentially 43-1 — in up until this series, their dreams all but doomed.  The mammoth “WE ARE ALL WITNESSES” billboard in downtown Cleveland was not going to be suddenly interpreted as a cruel confirmation of another heart-wrenching letdown in the City that Rocks.  A 23-point lead, along with the Cavs season, would not evaporate into the  air over Lake Erie.

Those things were not meant to be, because in case anyone forgot, the Chosen One was wearing one of the white jerseys with red trim.  And He would not allow destiny to be derailed.

It took one ridiculous, high-arcing jay for Lebron to steal back a stolen game.  With it, the delicate notion of momentum returned to the Cavaliers side.

Yet less than 48 hours later, the Magic came out in Game 3 and wiped away every bit of that momentum Cleveland had amassed.

And you had to think: Maybe Lebron, who’s averaging nearly 42 points in the series, just isn’t enough.

Is there really any denying that three of the best four players in this tilt are Orlando’s to claim?

Dwight Howard poses huge matchup problems for Cleveland’s either underprepared (Anderson Varejao), overly soft (Zydrunas Ilgauskas) or undersized (Ben Wallace) front line.

Rashard Lewis is a nightmare cover for big men (who he can make follow him outside) or small forwards (who he can post up).

Hedo Turkoglu is 6-10 and does a little of everything, from running point to rebounding to dropping daggers.

On the Cavs, only Mo Williams even belongs in the discussion with Orlando’s top three.  And he’s shooting just 32 percent so far in the series.

Add it all up, and it’s fairly easy to understand how close Cleveland is to facing an insurmountable 0-3 deficit.

However, if there is a silver lining to all this, it’s that 1) the league clearly prefers a Lebron-Kobe Finals, and the refs have reflected this preference, and 2) Stan Van Gundy has professed out loud that he has no clue what to do about James, which should be a grave concern for Magic faithful going forward.

More on that point: On three occasions these playoffs Orlando has given up buzzer-beaters — to Andre Iguodala vs. Philadelphia; to Glen Davis vs. the Celtics; and to Lebron.  After the two most recent walk-off shots Van Gundy shouldered the blame.

The funny thing is that against Boston, Coach Stan drew up the perfect play — doubling Paul Pierce and impeding his passing lane to Ray Allen — but Pierce had the confidence in Davis to defer to him, and Big Baby had the confidence to knock down the shot.  That was championship swagger pure and simple, something that can’t be defensed.

Moving forward to the Lebron shot, for some reason Van Gundy opted not to double team James, and got burned for it.  He’s taken the blame for both mishaps, but only really deserved it for the most recent one.  Either that Celtics play continues to haunt him or he’s begun to second-guess himself, or a combination of both.

No matter what, there’s little doubt that Van Gundy’s coaching gaffe is the most tangible explanation for Orlando not being up 3-0 in the series, and he knows it.  You can bet his team is aware of it as well, and will look to take decisive control of the conference finals with a win in Game 4.

For Cleveland to get back on track and avoid slipping into an imposing 3-1 hole, someone not named Lebron is going to have to step up.  We’ve all seen how performances of 49, 35 and 41 from James have netted barely one win for the Cavs.

His supporting cast must make some noise in Game 4, and if it does and Cleveland ties the series at two, all those witnesses will flock back to Quicken Loans Arena for Game 5, believers once again.

If not, Orlando will be poised to prove that Lebron’s magic at the end of Game 2 registered as nothing more than a cheap parlor trick.

In Game 7s, Mental Toughness Prevails

One more win and it all becomes house money.

One more victory in a seventh and decisive game, and this Celtics squad will have officially logged one of the gutsiest NBA title defenses you’ll ever see from a team unable to go back-to-back.

One more series-clinching triumph on the fabled parquet and the ’09 Celtics will stand proudly next to the ’87 outfit that so nearly and improbably repeated as champions.

While there’s a big difference between falling in the NBA Finals (as the ’87 Celtics did, to the Lakers in six) and the conference finals (as the ’09 Celtics likely will, to the Lebrons), it is undeniably remarkable how these champs have worn the crown.

To date they’ve won seven postseason games with an eight-man rotation.  The first guy off the bench has been Brian Scalabrine, Boston’s own Jackie Moon.  The energizer is Eddie House, who allegedly only gets extended minutes from his coach when he’s ready to play defense (bet he’s been hearing that one since middle school).  And then there’s the x-factor, Stephon Marbury, the guy Doc Rivers once said — to a cascade of jeers — would win his team a playoff game.

As fabulous as the starting five has been (we’ll get to Glen “Big Baby” Davis and the rest of the Fab-Five in a moment), there’s no doubt that the Green stand on the brink of another conference finals appearance thanks in part to the contributions of this unlikely triumvirate coming off the pine.

On more than one occasion in the Orlando series Scalabrine has drained huge shots to give the Celtics life.  House’s  Game 2 outburst was so decisive and executed with such precision even Jason Bourne would have been impressed.

As for Marbury, well let’s just say Doc’s comments proved prescient.  With the season on life support in a building that was already collectively dead, Steph saved the day with his 12-point onslaught in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 5.  When the Celtics and the New Garden were unconscious, Starbury was their epinephrine.

Take a minute to digest all that.

Okay, good.

Now there’s no doubt that trio has helped propel the Celtics to where they are today, but as we know,  Game 7s are when the stars must come out and seize the moment.

Orlando can say all it wants, but the fact is the Magic are not adequately prepared for what they’re going to find waiting for them at TD Banknorth Garden come Sunday night.

Dwight Howard was fantastic in Game 6, backed up his talk, but Kendrick Perkins has played him to as close of a stalemate as is possible against an All-NBA first teamer and Defensive Player of the Year.  Perk is too strong to be bullied by Superman and possesses a better repertoire of low post moves.

After an electric first-round performance from Boston’s backcourt of Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, Rondo has been inconsistent and Allen has been nonexistent (save for one go-ahead trey in Game 5) vs. Orlando.  The marked edge in guard play the Celtics were supposed to have in this series has still not registered.

If I were Courtney Lee or J.J. Redick — two guys with a combined four years of experience — I would be disconcerted, to say the least, at the prospect of trying to hold down Jesus Shuttlesworth in the biggest game of my life.  And I would be downright frightened when taking into account that Allen has misfired on 31 of his 36 three-point attempts this series.

Trying to defend Ray in a long series is like playing Russian roulette: It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Ask any Celtic — considering they are most suited to answer such questions — what it takes to prevail in a Game 7, and they will tell you it’s as much a mental excursion as it is a physical test.

Big Baby has been in a groove since the beginning of the playoffs.  Shedding baby steps in favor of a quantum leap, Davis has upped his level of play exponentially in the postseason.  However it was in Game 4 that it all came together — the union of the mental and the physical — for Baby.

He came out struggling and picked up an early foul.  Early in the second quarter he turned the ball over then committed a dumb foul, which forced Rivers to pull him out.  In a sequence partly caught on the television broadcast, Davis proceeded to let out a slew of f-bombs before finding his way to the end of the bench, where he continued to mutter obscenities to himself, utterly incensed.

It’s well known how Kevin Garnett has become the mentor for Davis.  Between watching him perform throughout the playoffs and then seeing his tirade after that series of inexcusably poor plays, you started to sense that the man is channeling the exemplar.

Instead of a prolonged emotional breakdown from Baby, he instead directed his anger inward and gathered himself, then came back to hit a go-ahead jumper with 32 seconds remaining before sinking a buzzer-beating dagger for the win that tied the series at two.

Those are the kind of moments that transpire in a drawn out series, moments when one team unleashes a temporary blow that mushrooms into the psychological advantage necessary to snuff out an opponent’s season.  In the Chicago series that happened when the Celtics dismantled the Bulls on their home floor in Game 3.  The series may have turned epic, but the mental battle turned in favor of the Celtics after that game.

The same can be said of Game 4 of this series.  The Magic had it won, had the play they wanted in crunch time, executed it to perfection.  Stan Van Gundy correctly decided he was not going to let Paul Pierce beat him.  Pierce felt the double team coming and correctly decided to put the fate of HIS team in the hands of someone not named Ray.

Once Baby’s shot fell through the nylon, the mental edge swung back to the Celtics.

It took a second consecutive collapse from Orlando, some infighting and an admirable bounce-back performance in Game 6, but that all merely postponed the inevitable.  All that really mattered was the Celtics stole back home court in Game 4, along with a sizable chunk of Orlando’s mojo.

Game 5 was painful, for sure, but I guarantee you when crunch time comes on Sunday and the ante gets upped, that lost opportunity at Amway Arena is going to find its way into the subconscious of the Magic and the champs will pounce on them for the knockout blow.

When it’s all over and the Celtics are giving their postgame press conferences, you won’t have to listen too closely to pick up the gist of their explanation for how and why they improved to 4-0 in Game 7s in the last two years: mental toughness.

It’s then that they will pack up their belongings — along with that mental toughness — and head to Cleveland, where Lebron and a big pot of house money will be awaiting them.

With Manny, Nothing’s Cut and Dry

I know, it doesn’t look good.

Manny tested positive for a banned substance and is not appealing the automatic 50-game suspension he received as a result.

The statement he issued was opaque and dodgy, which is not a surprise considering it was likely penned by Scott Boras.

The media response has been ferocious, with everyone from hot air extraordinaire Bill Plaschke to revered baseball scribe Jayson Stark sticking their fangs into Manny.

The rest of us, meanwhile, are left to mull over everything that has happened in the last 24 hours and decide if Manny’s a steroid user.  I’ve been asked point blank the question a few times in the last day, and my response in each circumstance has been, “I’m not ready to believe that.”

I’m still not, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  Despite the suspect “personal health issue”, the peculiarity of the doctor’s Florida location, and the fact that the drug in question is frequently used by steroid users coming off a cycle.

I’m not ready to believe that we can lump Manny in with Steroid Abuser A through Z, because since when was Manny ever lumpable (not sure if that’s a word) with anyone?

The man is a different breed, one of a kind.  While that doesn’t exonerate him from present accusations, his situation can’t be sweepingly tied to Palmeiro’s wagging finger or Sosa’s linguistic amnesia.

Could Manny’s statement be a bold face lie?  Yes, yes it could.

But be careful not to underestimate Manny’s overly dependent nature.  We’re talking about a guy who nearly backed out of a $160 million contract with the Red Sox upon learning that his favorite clubhouse attendant in Cleveland wasn’t ready to uproot himself in order to accompany the slugger to Boston.  A guy who on occasion needs to be told how many balls and strikes there are when he’s in the batter’s box.

So is it that far-fetched to think that maybe Manny did actually have a medical problem he wasn’t very proud of and sought treatment outside of the MLB web?  That he blindly entrusted a doctor to prescribe him something he assumed would have no ulterior consequences?

The sentiment among baseball people is that’s hogwash.  That players have had far too long to adapt to MLB’s drug testing policy and parameters.

They are right, but they’ve also been right about many things in the past that have been applicable to everyone BUT Manny (like for instance, showing up at Spring Training on time, not faking injuries to get a day off, not holding teams hostage over contract negotiations etc.).

They never got through to Manny then, so why suddenly is the SOP (standard operating procedure) for ballplayers relevant to Manny now?

Like it or not, the murky and mercurial Ramirez has always had a double standard applied to him, and that shouldn’t change just because his latest shady act has gotten him bounced for two months.

As I said, I still don’t know what to think.  Manny may or may not be guilty of the crime he’s now paying 50 games and over $7 million for.

But if he wants to begin the arduous task of clearing his name and proving his innocence, it’s going to have to begin with a marked deviation from the Manny SOP.  Which is to say murkiness is going to have to give way to transparency.

He says he saw a physician for a personal health issue.  Who’s the doc?  What was the issue?

He claims to have passed “about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons”.  Let’s hear more about those.

He issued a written apology to the Dodgers organization and fan base, but has yet to be seen or heard from in the flesh.

Bottom line is Manny must come out of his shell like never before if he’s to stand a chance against an enraged baseball populace.

Until then, I know … it doesn’t look good.

Celtics-Bulls VI: Battle of the Century

I left my friend’s place after Game 6 of Celtics-Bulls last night, exhausted and in a malaise.  My memory of what had just transpired — usually crystal clear — was so clouded and fragmented, my thoughts so blurred, that I had trouble finding a subway station I’ve used countless times.

After making the 30-minute journey back home — during which I must have looked like a zombie to strangers around me — I watched highlights of the game.  Actually strike that, highlights of the battle.  Because let’s face it, this war of attrition was the closest mind-body struggle between two adversaries one will ever see outside of the ring.

There was Rondo and Hinrich’s undercard.  The blood gushing from Pierce’s nose.   Ray’s 51 (FIFTY-ONE) on the scorecard.  Miller’s revenge.  Salmons’ onslaught.  Baby’s fadeaway.  The ice in Ray’s veins.  Pierce’s almost-steal and knockout of the challenger.  Noah’s indescribable flurry to stagger the champs.  Rose’s KOS (knockout swat).

I watched all this for a second and third time, and tried to gather my thoughts.  Wasn’t happening.  Tried to sleep.  Nope.

I turned on the TV, and what happened to be on HBO?  A documentary of the “Thrilla in Manila” between Ali and Frazier.  It was an intense and jarring recounting of possibly the greatest fight ever.   It was also the only suitable way to give some perspective to a mind-blowing basketball game.

It’s often too easy to get swept up in The Moment, and everyone — from players to media to fans — is predisposed to this phenomenon from time to time.  It’s human nature: When we witness something extraordinary, precedents and past-happenings become puny in comparison.  Typically though, upon reflection, the grandeur of an amazing occurrence in sports gets reduced once The Moment has passed, nerves have settled, and rational thought has reentered the equation.

Let’s not mince words: Ali-Frazier III has stood the test of time as a seminal moment in sports that will never be matched.  Just seeing Frazier, Frazier’s son, Ali’s team, writers and historians chronicling this epic fight, you can sense that wherever they were on that day in 1975, they have remained since in spirit.

For 14 rounds in sweltering heat, two of the world’s finest fighters waged a war that nearly killed them both.  There is no more telling quote than from Frazier, who when asked if he would have risked his life to go out for the 15th and final round, said, “Yeah.”

When the documentary ended, it was just after two in the morning, and I was finally lucid.  I realized that Ali-Frazier comparisons get thrown around FAR too generously, and that there will never be a sporting event — in boxing or otherwise — than could garner such a comparison.

But as a metaphorical script?  That’s a different story.  That’s where Celtics-Bulls VI steps in.

Early in the fourth quarter Chicago went on a run, unleashing a series of blows that had the champs staggering (similar to Frazier’s middle-round assault on Ali).  The Celtics took the Bulls’ punches, and returned in kind, with a crowd-silencing 18-0 run that turned a 10-point deficit into an 8-point lead (akin to Ali’s blistering sustained attack in rounds 12 to 14).

Naturally there are inconsistencies, no more significant than the fact that the champs lost the game whereas the champ won/survived the fight.

But a series of plays in the last minute of the third overtime truly gave this basketball game the feel of a heavyweight bout — epitomizing the desperate chaos that ensues in the waning seconds of a final round.

With the game tied at 123, Pierce jumped a pass and knocked the ball into the backcourt, seemingly destined for some series-clinching thunder.  But he stumbled at midcourt and the ball careened out of bounds, giving it back to the Bulls.

Then, after a defensive stand, Pierce had the ball back in his hands at the top of the key.  He went to drive left, and feeling the double team coming, tried to whip a pass to Brian Scalabrine in the corner.

It was then that Joakim Noah let loose the proverbial final combination: First he intercepted the ball and tapped it towards center court.  Next he picked it up and dribbled the rest of the floor — trailed by an exhausted Pierce the entire way.  By the time Pierce caught up to the rumbling seven-footer, he had thrown down a tremendous flush and drawn the sixth and final foul on the C’s captain.  He nailed the free throw to boot, putting the finishing touches on the finishing barrage.

So here we are, six games, seven overtimes and one epic script into a bona fide first-round heavyweight basketball bout.

Game 7 is Saturday in Boston, a game that will double as the most significant affair ever contested at such an early juncture of the never-ending tournament that is the NBA playoffs.

Everyone who’s anyone will be there for the epic finale.  Maybe even Kevin Garnett.

And I’m thinking he may not be in a suit.