Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Thornton chooses to rise above chaos around Clippers

Four years of college couldn't prepare Clippers forward Al Thornton for this. Exhausted and humiliated after a 28-point home loss to the perennially powerful San Antonio Spurs, on a night when the Clippers used their 26th different starting lineup of the season, Thornton was chewed out in the locker room.


Sterling reportedly called Thornton the most selfish player he has ever seen. He lit into the whole team, threatening to trade every player on the roster.

"I don't think anybody can prepare for anything like that," Thornton says weeks after the March 2 incident. "That was the first time the owner came in here and that type of situation happened to me. It shows you that he cares and he wants to win, that's the bottom line. Some of the things he said I wouldn't agree with, but it shows he wants to win. He wants to be competitive."

Whether Sterling's rant was misguided or not -- particularly the bit directed at Thornton, the Clippers' second-leading scorer (17.1 points per game) and their most durable player -- is beside the point. Thornton got the message.

In the first seven games after being put on blast, Thornton played like a man possessed. He used every inch of his 6-foot-8, 220-pound frame to careen all the way to the hoop, forgoing the awkward midrange fadeaways and leaners, the one unsightly part of this game that still needed work after a full hoops matriculation at Florida State.

"The part about this and the part about the game for Al that's been so strong is that he is no longer settling," Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He's aggressive to attack and when he gets into the paint and raises up, he just jumps over everybody."

Dunleavy hears worse criticism levied his way every Clippers home game than Thornton received from Sterling -- a "Fire Dunleavy" chant echoes throughout Staples Center about as often as Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." plays over the P.A. system -- but Thornton credits Dunleavy for getting him to take the game from an analytical approach.

"I look at the game more from a coach's perspective now than I did at Florida State, in terms of trying to pick out schemes and trying to see it before it happens," Thornton says. "[Dunleavy's] a very smart coach, very intelligent. He studies so much. He might watch more film than any other coach in the league. He knows, play by play, what teams run. He knows everything. I get it from him."

Before Thornton hurt his right shoulder in L.A.'s loss in Detroit on Friday, he had averaged 21.8 points on 62.5 percent shooting and 7.5 rebounds per game after the locker room tirade.

"Being in that attack mode, getting to the rim, finishing strong and getting to the free-throw line -- when you do those types of things, your numbers are going to be in the 20s," Dunleavy said. "That's what [Thornton's] been doing. He's really mixed up his game well between attacking the rim, pulling up for jumpers and being in the position to post up as well."

Thornton's shoulder has him listed at day-to-day, but he sees the value in making a quick recovery even if the Clippers are a lowly 17-53 and the playoffs are out of the question. He's missed only 10 games since entering the league last season.

"We can use this is a starting ground to try to get ready for next year," Thornton says. "I'm assuming that the majority of the players will be here next year, so you just use this and try to get better for next year and build some momentum up. That's all we can do."

If Sterling's biting words about Thornton's play sparked the No. 14 pick in the 2007 Draft to turn it up a notch, the threat of overhauling the roster apparently didn't sink in. With a healthy group returning next year, a top draft pick added to the mix and Thornton continuing to raise his game, there actually is hope on the horizon for the team whose owner nearly disowned.

"Where I want to see myself, I want to be one of the all-time best players in this league when it's all said and done," Thornton said. "Point blank."

As rare as it is for a college senior to be drafted in the first round these days, rarer still is a 25-year-old who puts his head down and decides to get better for his own good after receiving undue criticism. But that's the type of rare that's needed when it comes to lifting the Clippers -- a team that has made just four trips to the postseason in the last 32 seasons -- back to respectability.

That's a task that Thornton is prepared to handle.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Nets in midst of rough patch with playoffs still in sight

Several postseason tickets have been punched around the league, but the race for the eighth spot in the East is still up for grabs.

The Nets remain in the pack vying for the final playoff slot, but the task got a little tougher on Friday with a 107-105 last-second road loss to the Clippers on Steve Novak's game-winning 3-pointer from the corner.


Vince Carter had a season-high 41 points along with seven rebounds and six assists for the Nets, but their hopes for the playoffs may have been hurt after leading scorer Devin Harris went down with a strained left shoulder.

The Nets, Knicks and Bobcats all sit at 28-38, a mere 1 1/2 games behind the eighth-seeded Bucks, who are also trying to fend off the Bulls.

"There's six teams fighting for that seventh and eighth spot, and we feel like we're very capable. But talking about it means nothing without executing in the game. And right now, we're not getting the job done," Carter said after the Nets' 11th loss in 15 games. "We've been in close games and still haven't gotten over the hump."

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Bryant, James named Players of the Week

NEW YORK -- The Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant today were named the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for games played Monday, March 9, through Sunday, March 15.

NBA Players of the Week
March 16
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
March 9
Eastern G Dwyane Wade, Miami
Western G Deron Williams, Utah
March 2
Eastern G Devin Harris, New Jersey
Western F David West, New Orleans
Feb. 23
Eastern F Dwight Howard, Orlando
Western F Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
Feb. 16
All-Star break
Feb. 9
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western F Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
Feb. 2
Eastern F David Lee, New York
Western G Tony Parker, San Antonio
Jan. 26
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western C Andrew Bynum, L.A. Lakers
Jan. 19
Eastern G Jameer Nelson, Orlando
Western G Chris Paul, New Orleans
Jan. 12
Eastern F Dwight Howard, Orlando
Western G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Jan. 5
Eastern G Rodney Stuckey, Detroit
Western F Al Jefferson, Minnesota
Dec. 29
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
Dec. 22
Eastern G Jameer Nelson, Orlando
Western G Chris Paul, New Orleans
Dec. 15
Eastern F Al Harrington, New York
Western F Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Dec. 8
Eastern G Dwyane Wade, Miami
Western F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
Dec. 1
Eastern G Devin Harris, New Jersey
Western G Brandon Roy, Portland
Nov. 24
Eastern G Dwyane Wade, Miami
Western F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
Nov. 17
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western G Chauncey Billups, Denver
Nov. 10
Eastern F LeBron James, Cleveland
Western F Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
Nov. 3
Eastern F Chris Bosh, Toronto
Western G Chris Paul, New Orleans

James was second in the league in points (34.0 ppg) and assists (10.8), and added 8.8 rpg, as the Cavaliers went 4-0 and clinched the Central Division title for the second time in franchise history (1975-76). James became the 12th player in NBA history to have three consecutive triple-doubles and recorded his eighth career game of 50-plus points. With three road wins against the L.A. Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, Cleveland improved to an Eastern Conference-best 22-4 against the Western Conference. This is James' sixth Player of the Week Award this season.

Bryant paced the Western Conference in scoring (28.5 ppg) and added 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists, leading the Lakers to a 3-1 week. In a 102-95 win over San Antonio on March 12, Bryant recorded 23 points and six assists as the Lakers clinched their 20th Pacific Division title and their 56th postseason appearance in 61 NBA seasons. This is Bryant's third Player of the Week Award this season.

Here is a recap of the week for James and Bryant:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

March 10 @ L.A. Clippers: Tallied 32 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, two blocks and two steals in a 87-83 win over the Clippers.

March 12 @ Phoenix: Recorded 34 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in a 119-111 win over the Suns.

March 13 @ Sacramento: Poured in 51 points, and added nine assists and three blocks in a 126-123 overtime win over the Kings.

March 15 vs. New York: Scored 19 points, and added 10 assists, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks in a 98-93 win over the Knicks.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

March 9 @ Portland: Recorded 26 points and three assists in a 111-94 loss to the Trail Blazers.

March 11 @ Houston: Posted 37 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in a 102-96 win over the Rockets.

March 12 @ San Antonio: Tallied 23 points, six assists and four rebounds in a 102-95 win over the Spurs.

March 15 vs. Dallas: Scored 28 points, and added eight rebounds and five assists in a 107-100 win over the Mavericks.

Other nominees for the Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week were Atlanta's Joe Johnson, Cleveland's Mo Williams, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Miami's Dwyane Wade, New Orleans' Chris Paul, New York's Nate Robinson, Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young and Portland's Brandon Roy.

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Celtics hoping injuries don't cost them home-court advantage

WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) -- The snow is melting in New England, the NBA regular season is about to enter its final month and the Boston Celtics are running out of time to earn the home-court advantage for the playoffs.

With 16 games left, Boston is 2 1/2 games behind the Cavaliers in the race for the best record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics lead Cleveland 2-1 in the season series, but their push for the playoffs has been held back by injuries to starters Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo and a slew of backups.

"Whether we get home court or not, the main thing is to just get healthy," Boston swingman Paul Pierce said. "We're a confident ballclub, and if we have to go on the road any point in the playoffs where we don't have home court advantage, we feel like we can still get the job done."

Garnett has missed 10 games with a sprained right knee, and coach Doc Rivers said Saturday that he won't be able to return until "sometime next week." Rondo missed two games -- both losses -- with a right ankle sprain, joining backups Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen in the trainer's room.

"I think we've got a chance, especially with Kevin coming back," Rondo said. "We're just trying to get back into the swing of things. We'll get back into a rhythm and start rolling again."

The Celtics coasted to the best record in the East last year, seven games ahead of second-place Detroit, allowing Rivers to rest his starters down the stretch and give the backups some minutes that proved crucial in the long grind to the franchise's 17th NBA title. This year's race is tighter, and Rivers might soon have to choose whether to challenge for the No. 1 seed or give his players much-needed rest.

"It doesn't look good this year," Rivers said. "Last year we were able to because we had such a big cushion. This year we don't. We're trying to catch Cleveland and trying to stay in front of Orlando. Every year's completely different. And this year's different from last."

Two things have kept the Celtics from walking away with the best record this season: They've gotten worse, and the competition has gotten better. The Celtics are on pace to win 62 games this year -- a number they've surpassed only five times in their illustrious history, but down from last year's 66-16 record.

Although Detroit has faltered, Cleveland has already topped its 2007-08 win total and Orlando is likely to do the same. So are the Los Angeles Lakers, over in the West.

"I don't want to see guys walking out there on one leg and trying to get home court and be burnt out for the playoffs," Pierce said after Boston beat the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night. "It's not going to make sense for these guys to be hopping around, sacrificing right now for later because you wont be healthy in the playoffs. So it's good right now, these guys are taking their time, get 100 percent, and it'll pay off in the playoffs."

Nothing paid off in last year's playoffs like home court. Boston's famous parquet proved to be the difference as early as the first round, when they were forced to a seventh game by the No. 8 seed Atlanta Hawks.

Neither Boston nor Cleveland has won in the other's building since the new Big Three was assembled, and last year they split their home games in the Eastern Conference semifinals before the Celtics took Game 7 at home. Not until they faced the Pistons in the conference finals, and again against the Lakers in the NBA Finals, did the teams manage to win on the road.

Rivers said he doesn't see it as a dilemma -- yet.

"We're not going to injure a guy," he said. "If I thought our guys were tired, I'd react."

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Pacers swingman Granger returns after 11 games

TORONTO (AP) -- Pacers All-Star swingman Danny Granger returned from an 11-game absence on Sunday, coming off the bench in Indiana's game against the Toronto Raptors.

"He's ready to start, I just like the rotations today," Pacers coach Jim O'Brien said, adding that Granger will likely start when the Pacers return home Wednesday to play Portland.

Granger had been out since Feb. 18 with a partially torn tendon in his right foot. He is averaging 25 points and 5.0 rebounds. He practiced Thursday and had hoped to play in Friday's 101-87 loss at Atlanta but was not ready.

O'Brien said Granger will play limited minutes until his conditioning improves.

"We do not want to play him for extended minutes at a time," O'Brien said. "You won't see him on the court for a whole quarter."

The Pacers entered Sunday's contest two games out of the final playoff spot in the East. They went 6-5 without Granger, their leading scorer.

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WNBA Stars Shine in EuroLeague All-Star Game

MVP honors for Becky Hammon and a dunk from Sylvia
Fowles highlight the 2009 EuroLeague All-Star Game.

Recap courtesy of FIBA Europe

Becky Hammon and Sylvia Fowles made basketball headlines again at the EuroLeague Women All-Star Game on Sunday in Paris.

The CSKA Moscow star, who won a bronze medal with Russia at last year's Olympics in Beijing, poured in a game-high 24 points and was voted Most Valuable Player as Europe won 101-78.

The 31-year-old superstar hit three-pointers like they were going out of style, making six of seven in the game.

At half-time, Hammon also won the Three-Point Shooting Contest by beating Sheana Mosch in the final.

"They put on a great show for everyone, today and last night," Hammon said.

"Now I'm just looking forward to going out and having a nice dinner.

"This is my first time in Paris."

Spartak Moscow Region's Fowles, the dominating center of Team USA who captured Olympic gold in Beijing, warmed up for the EuroLeague Final Four with a dunk in the third quarter.

"That's what All-Star Games are all about," Fowles said. "It's all about the fans and making sure everyone has a good time."

MiZo Pecs' rising Hungarian international star Anna Vajda and MKB Euroleasing Sopron's Jelena Milovanovic contributed 16 and 13 points, respectively, for Europe.

LOTOS PKO BP Gdynia's Alana Beard finished with 17 points for the Rest of the World.

The first quarter had plenty of thrills, with ZVVZ USK Prague guard Lindsay Whalen and Hammon providing several.

Whalen's alley-oop pass to Candice Dupree of Wisla Can-Pack Krakow made it 10-9 for the Rest of the World.

Hammon came off the bench and scored almost immediately with a three-ball to put the Europeans in front at 16-13.

Milovanovic showed her ability to make an adjustment in mid-air.

The Serbian left her feet with the intention of passing to Anastasiya Veremeenko but with the Nadezhda center covered, Milovanovic floated towards the basket and scored for a 22-21 Europe advantage.

Right before the first-quarter buzzer, Whalen caught a long pass from Besiktas center Laura Harper and spun calmly before scoring from several feet away.

Veremeenko, one of the world's premier shot-blockers, rejected Dominique Canty early in the second quarter.

Europe's Israel international Shay Doron came to life in the period and scored five points.

Vajda caught Doron's alley-oop pass and scored right before half-time for a 50-38 Europe lead.

Hammon's three-ball just 40 seconds into the second half gave Europe a 57-40 lead.

The Rest of the World responded with a Tamika Whitmore three before Fowles picked off an errant Hammon pass, dribbled in and dunked to bring the crowd to its feet.

The Rest of the World ended up outscoring Europe 25-19 in the third quarter to trail 68-63.

But Vajda buried a three-ball at the start of the fourth and then made a lay-up as Europe took control again and went on to claim a decisive victory.

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Overseas Update with Temeka Johnson

Temeka Johnson, who is a restricted free agent,
is currently playing in Israel this offseason.

After a tumultuous year - both on and off the court - in 2008, Temeka Johnson is off to a fantastic start in 2009. She is currently in Israel, where she is spending her WNBA offseason playing for Raanana Hertzeliya, alongside fellow WNBA players Charde Houston and Kelly Schumacher.

Johnson, who leads the Israeli Women’s DI League in assists (6.6 per game), earned her second Round MVP of the season on March 6 for Round 19 (she also won Round 13 MVP on Feb. 3). Her team is currently in the playoffs, with its next game set for tomorrow against Electra Ramat Hasharon, a squad that features Ebony Hoffman and Jia Perkins. caught up with Johnson to discuss her play in Israel, her free agent status in the WNBA and some of the community service work she has been up to this offseason.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anything you can do, I can do better

Six years ago, the hype surrounding the 2003 NBA Draft centered on the possibility of the new millennium's version of the Bird-Magic rivalry: LeBron vs. Melo.


Jesse D. Garrabrant/Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony is averaging 22 points and has the Nuggets on track for another playoff berth, but the head-to-head showdown between he and LeBron James is nothing compared to what has materialized lately between James and Dwyane Wade.

A day after James lit up the Kings for 51 points, Wade followed with 50 points Saturday afternoon in a 140-129 triple-overtime win over the Jazz.

"Just another day at the office," Wade said after the win.

Rightfully so. In the past week, Wade has put up scoring totals of 25, 48, 32 and 50, helping the Heat to a 3-1 record in the four games.

James, not to be outmatched, had three straight triple-doubles and closed out the week with the 51-point outburst.'s Race to the MVP has both James and Wade in a battle for the top spot, which James currently holds. But there are five weeks to go. With the kinds of weeks these two have put up throughout the course of the season, the closing days of the season should definitely be entertaining to say the least.

Laker Girls

Disappointing Raptors have some shaking up to do this summer

There was a stark contrast between Wednesday's Raptors-Sixers game in Philadelphia and the last time Toronto played at the Wachovia Center.

Watching the Raptors on Oct. 29, opening night, many came away saying, "Hey, these guys are pretty good." At the time, the Raptors looked like one of the five best teams in the East, beating the Sixers comfortably. And Chris Bosh looked like one of the five best players in the NBA, scoring 27 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.


On Wednesday, you came away saying, "What the heck has happened to this team?" The Raptors have lost six straight games. Bosh was just outplayed by Samuel Dalembert.

After a 3-0 start to the season, Toronto has gone straight downhill, winning three straight only once since then while losing at least five straight five times. They were 8-9 when Sam Mitchell was fired on Dec. 3 and they're 15-33 under Jay Triano. No team has underachieved as much as this one.

Since Jan. 21, only the Kings and Grizzlies have a worse record than the Raptors (7-21). Technically, Toronto is still alive for a playoff spot.

Realistically, they're as much eliminated as the 15-50 Wizards.

So, what's next for Bryan Colangelo's team? Most likely, more retooling this summer.

The first priority is trying to determine if Bosh will be a Raptor beyond next season. He has a player option for the 2010-11 season, but at this point, he can't be too confident about the direction this franchise is going.

Determining that direction, and a team identity, is also at the top of the to-do list for Colangelo.

Over the last few years, the Raptors have given lip service to the idea of being a running team, like the one Colangelo built in Phoenix. But they've been nothing of the sort. They've been last in the league in fast-break points per possession in each of the last two seasons.

Colangelo traded his fast point guard, T.J. Ford, last summer and handed the position over to Jose Calderon, a borderline All-Star when he's healthy who doesn't turn the ball over. But he's slow and conservative, preferring to walk the ball up the floor and run pick-and-rolls with Bosh. Calderon is under contract for four more seasons, too, so it's hard to see the Raptors turning into the 2005 Suns anytime soon.

Shawn Marion, who thrived while playing alongside Steve Nash, is not a good fit in Toronto, either. He needs a point guard that will push the ball and is willing to take some risks in the open floor. Considering that, it would be hard to see him re-signing with the Raptors this summer.

The lone bright spot in this disappointing season has been the long-awaited growth of Andrea Bargnani. The No. 1 pick in the 2006 Draft is playing with confidence, looking more and more like Nowitzki-light. But he, too, is more suited to a half-court game.

Whether or not the Raptors want to run, they have to improve defensively in order to get back to the playoffs. Calderon doesn't defend very well, making him the source of many breakdowns. Marion, given a full season in Toronto, might help make the Raptors an average defensive team with his length, athleticism and willingness to work. If he re-signs.

Marion's expiring contract gives the Raptors some flexibility this summer. If he leaves and the team is willing to spend money, Colangelo should have more leverage and more options than last year, when he dealt Ford and Rasho Nesterovic for Jermaine O'Neal, a risk that clearly didn't work out.

Something Familiar

While Stephon Marbury and Mikki Moore are adjusting to new plays and new teammates in Boston, and while Drew Gooden is doing the same in San Antonio, Joe Smith only has to worry about one part of the equation. Smith, who signed with Cleveland last week, played 40 games (including the playoffs) with the Cavs last season.

The Cavs made some changes to their offense over the summer, but their defensive principles and their personnel are largely the same as they were the last time Smith wore the wine and gold.

"I'm pretty comfortable with these guys, what we did last year and what we're trying to do this year," Smith said Tuesday in Los Angeles. "I'm trying to shake a little of the cobwebs off and get a little rhythm out there, but at the same time, it does feel good to be back and to be able to get on the floor with these guys again."

After Smith went 3-for-3 in the Cavs' comeback win over the Clippers on Tuesday, LeBron James remarked that it was as if Smith had been with Cleveland all season long. Smith, who started the season 2-24 with the Thunder while the Cavs began the season 26-4, quipped, "I wish I could say the same thing."

Will the Real No. 8 Seed Please Step Forward?

The race for the eighth spot in the East is closer than it was a week ago. Teams 8-13 are all within a game and a half of each other. Somehow, the Bucks are back in the eighth spot, but they have more losses (37) than three of the teams behind them. The six teams in the race are a combined 2-6 since Monday, with the Knicks picking up the only two wins.

In discussing the race for eighth, one Eastern Conference assistant, whose team is not among the group involved, said he'd like to see Milwaukee win the trip to the postseason. "You've got to admire what Scott Skiles has done there," the assistant remarked, citing Milwaukee's improved defense despite several injuries.

None of the six teams vying for the final playoff spot plays against another contender for that last spot until the Nets visit the Knicks on Wednesday.

What They're Saying

"I said, 'Baby, that's for you.'"
-- Cleveland guard Daniel Gibson on what he said to R&B star Keyshia Cole, who was sitting courtside when he hit a 3-pointer to tie Tuesday's Cavs-Clippers game in the final minutes.

"My best memory was when they started cheering my name, 'Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins!' I was like. 'I've arrived. I'm big time now. Big Daddy's on the beach.'"
-- Former Sixer Darryl Dawkins on his fondest memory of playing in the Spectrum, which will be demolished later this year. The Sixers and Bulls will play a final game in the 42-year old arena Friday night.

"They stole my move."
-- LeBron James, channeling Frank Costanza, on how officials have been whistling him for traveling when he attempts a jump-stop on his way to the basket.

Behind the Numbers

0.991 -- Free throw percentage for Ray Allen since Dec. 28. He's made 112 of his last 113 attempts from the line.

23 -- Number of players the Bobcats have used this season, the most of any team. It will become 24 if Dontell Jefferson, who Charlotte signed to a second 10-day contract on Wednesday, plays in a game.

36.1 -- Scoring average (in 12 games) since the All-Star break for Dwyane Wade. Kobe Bryant is second among post-break scoring leaders at 29.5 ppg.


The Hawks' Marvin Williams will be out an indefinite amount of time with lower back pain. "It's going to be anywhere from four to six weeks," Williams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Hawks are 5-0 without him so far this season ... At the age of 34, Antonio McDyess had a career-high 22 rebounds in the Pistons' overtime loss to the Knicks on Wednesday ... Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva updated his Twitter feed 12 times as he watched (on TV) his alma mater, Connecticut, lose to Syracuse in six overtimes in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals Thursday night.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Odom learns his lession from straying onto court

HOUSTON -- Lamar Odom understands the rule. That doesn't mean he likes it.

Suspended for following his basic instincts, the emotional Lakers forward sat out a critical game Wednesday night at Western Conference rival Houston. Odom came off the bench Monday at Portland when tempers began to flare following a harrowing fall by Blazers rookie Rudy Fernandez.


Odom jumped to his feet and took a couple steps toward the melee when he saw teammate Trevor Ariza in the middle of a 2-on-1 confrontation. Odom just couldn't help himself.

"It is what it is. Can't take anything back," Odom said. "I probably would do the same thing over again if I saw one of my teammates struggling, put under pressure by two guys from the other team."

The Blazers' Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge traded words with Ariza in front of the Lakers' bench. Odom was just a few feet away and, as many NBA players before him, couldn't fight the impulse to stray onto the court.

"When you don't have bad intent, it's tough," he said. "If you can maybe stop someone from getting hit or stop someone from hitting someone, I guess you still get suspended.

"You would think there would be come common sense-type thing when [league office personnel] watch the tape, but it's up to them. They make the rules. Just got to abide by them."

NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson announced the one-game suspension Tuesday. Odom said he wasn't contacted by the league office or the Lakers, but instead learned of the punishment on TV.

He figured it was coming.

"Rules are rules. That's it," he said. "Nothing you can do about it. It's too bad. I just took a step over to break up the fight."

Besides his teammates and coaches, Odom found a sympathizer in Houston. The Rockets' enforcer, Ron Artest, knows a thing or two about on-court altercations.

"I think you do the right thing by showing concern," Artest said. "I don't think he should have been suspended."

Artest has forfeited enough game checks over the years to be an expert on the subject. Still, Artest added that Odom was just trying to be a good teammate.

"Anybody would be concerned if they saw any type of commotion happening," Artest said. "Your natural reaction would be to show a little bit of concern on what's happening, no matter what it is in your life."

The Lakers won 102-96 without Odom, who returns to the lineup tonight at San Antonio. Should another incident arise that tests his gut reaction, Odom promises to show restraint.

"Next time," he said, "I'll know to be a good boy."

Sundown in Phoenix

The odds of RuPaul filling in for Amar'e Stoudemire at power forward are probably better than the Suns' odds of making the playoffs. Phoenix essentially blew its shot at a fifth straight postseason after dropping a must-win Tuesday at home against Dallas, 122-117.

"We played well and fought well, but we let it slip away," Shaquille O'Neal said. "We have 18 games left, so our playoffs actually started [Tuesday night]. We've got to pick it up as a team and see what happens."

From coach Alvin Gentry down, the Suns are saying all the right things and trying to remain optimistic. The reality is that this group may be making its last stand in Phoenix. Shaq, Stoudemire and maybe even Steve Nash could all be part of an offseason exodus as the Suns try to invent themselves again.

It doesn't make much sense to keep an aging team together that's already missed the playoffs. Until then, the Suns won't go down without a fight.

"We are still going to keep our heads up," Gentry said. "We are going to play hard and not going to give up."

Spurs' Welcome Wagon

Add welcoming committee chairmen to Tim Duncan's long list of duties. Drew Gooden doesn't have to worry about "fitting in" with the Spurs because of the guy he'll be backing up.

"It's very easy for people to fit in and that's because of Timmy," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Every championship team, Timmy has a different group and he's the one who creates the atmosphere where everybody doesn't feel judged, they have an opportunity show what they can do and to blend into the group.

"It's a very easy group to join into because of the personalities of the players."

Gooden hasn't yet played with the Spurs despite signing a week ago. He could make his debut Saturday at Houston.

What They're Saying

"It was not a bad shooting night. However I played is the way I want to be judged. I will take the good with the bad."
-- Rockets forward Ron Artest after going 4 of 16 from the floor, including missing all eight of his 3-pointers, in Wednesday's loss to the Lakers

"Shaq's great. He's great. I'm certainly not going to say anything publicly about him negative at all. I love that guy. He's tremendous."
-- Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle on Shaquille O'Neal, who's had several verbal spats (Stan Van Gundy, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard) in the last couple of weeks

"You can't fast-forward it. You go through it until you go through it, and this is part of what we're going through right now."
-- Blazers coach Nate McMillan on the experience his young team is getting in being in a playoff race

Behind the Numbers

31 -- Second-half points by Kobe Bryant at Houston on Wednesday, the highest-scoring half by an opponent of the Rockets this season

9 -- Road losing streak to West teams snapped Tuesday by Dallas at Phoenix.

5 -- Losing streak by Phoenix, its longest since January 2005.

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Discussing the Candace Parker Cover with ESPN The Magazine Editor-in-Chief Gary Belsky

Making history is nothing new for Candace Parker, one of the premier players in the WNBA. Just recently Parker, the 22-year-old mom to be, made history by becoming the first pregnant woman on the cover of a men’s sports magazine, ESPN The Magazine. caught up with Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, Gary Belsky, to ask him about this historic move for his magazine and women’s sports. What was the thought process behind putting Candace Parker on the cover of the Magazine?

The Mag: She is a major breakthrough star and it’s clear that some of the major marketers in the country think that too. And it’s rare that an athlete gets that kind of attention from companies such as McDonald's, Gatorade and adidas. Especially when that athlete is in a sport that is somewhat challenged in the ratings area.

We shot Candace for the cover in December and we figured it would go nicely with our Women’s History Month in March. Then after she announced she was pregnant we realized we couldn’t have her on the cover of the magazine in March when she would be seven months pregnant. So we went back to them and said we want to shoot Candace for the magazine pregnant. Her agent was a little reserved at first, but it worked out. What would you have to say to a reader who is saying “Aww man, ESPN The Mag went all chick flick on me this week. I could have picked up Oprah magazine if I wanted to read about a pregnant chick?”

The Mag: First of all, Candace is a great athlete and a knockout. To be honest that is not a reason we would ever put someone on the cover but we are a men’s magazine and we know that men like to look at good-looking athletes. Also, very often we try to surprise our readers.

We want to surprise you when you open up your mailbox and instead of seeing some jock in a jersey in a sports pose, you would see one of the best athletes in the world except she is pregnant.

There may be some of our readers who want to see Manny Ramirez and Chad Johnson on the cover, but we come out every two weeks and they can see something else on the cover then. Were there any reservations in the office about putting her on the cover?

The Mag: Some people thought we should do it and some people thought we shouldn’t give it a try. But there was a consensus to do it and I wanted to do it.

This is a magazine that makes its living by predicting the future and looking forward. We are all about what’s next. And that automatically means that we have made a contract with our readers and the rest of the country that sometimes we are going to do stuff that is wrong or dumb or stupid. But we are never going to have you think that we are boring. There was lots of talk about Candace’s bra size at the start of the story. I’m sure that was a first for The Mag.

The Mag: Well the bra cup talk was acceptable because it was our writer and Candace, two women, talking about it and they felt comfortable. It’s not the worst thing in the world in a men’s magazine to talk about things like that. Plus, I understand that some young men are interested in things like that. What is the one statement The Mag wanted to make with Candace on the cover and in the story?

The Mag: One of the points of the story and the cover is that we want women to know that you can have a baby and still be an athlete at the highest level.

We don’t have any problem when a young man becomes a dad so we shouldn’t have any problem when a young woman becomes a mom even if it derails her athletic career for a few months. We are talking about women who are serious athletes so it wouldn’t derail their career for too long.

I have a couple of nieces who are very good athletes and this cover tells them and every other girl out there that there is nothing that can keep you off the cover of ESPN The Magazine if you are a woman and a good athlete. That’s the ultimate message. Is Candace Parker the next female Michael Jordan?

The Mag: Is she the next Mia Hamm is how I see it. I asked my sister “Do you know who Mia Hamm is?” and she said “Yeah she’s that soccer player” and she said some other good things about her. Then I said “Have you ever seen her play” and my sister said no. Then I said “Do you know who Candace Parker is?” and she said “No, who is that?" I said you will know in a year. Because I think that is how good this girl is.

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Faves are fine, but darkhorses like Rockets, Heat are fun

Everybody can tell the favorites from the moment they step onto the track. Heads held high, a gait infused with confidence, a gleam in their eyes that tells you they know how to get to the finish line.


They come from regal stables such as Boston and Los Angeles and San Antonio, or with their royal bloodlines --- King James of Cleveland ---clearly evident. The favorites are where the smart money goes.

But it's the darkhorses that create the splash and put the unexpected fun into every race.

So here are the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat, still running with the Western and Eastern Conference packs that maybe should have left them in the dust already. But when the playoffs begin next month, they'll be lurking, with the potential to pull a big surprise or two.

A year ago when Yao Ming went down with a broken bone in his left foot, the Rockets' season was supposed to be over. But all his Houston teammates did was rally in Yao's absence, push what was a 12-game game winning streak all the way up to 22 in a row, second-best in NBA history.

Now the Rockets are shocking the NBA world once more. When Tracy McGrady finally got off the in-and-out-of-the-lineup merry-go-round and shut down his season for microfracture knee surgery on Feb. 9, the word on the Rockets was that they were dead again. Instead there's been another resurrection.

Before their loss to the Lakers on Wednesday night, the Rockets had won 11 of 13 games without McGrady, including 12 straight on their home court at the Toyota Center. They're still pushing the Spurs for the No. 2 seed. To the consternation of the experts, Houston does not have a problem.

What the Rockets are missing in scoring punch they have more than made up for with a lineup that, after three-plus months of a revolving door, has become remarkably consistent, thanks largely to the promotion of the speedy Aaron Brooks into the starting role at point guard.

There were a few eyebrows raised when the Rockets beat the deadline buzzer by trading away Rafer Alston, who had been running the offense steadily, if not spectacularly, for his roughly 3 1/2 seasons in town. The three-way deal with Orlando and Memphis brought point guard Kyle Lowry into Houston with an eye on the future. But the present was placed into the hands of the lightning bug Brooks, who has taken it and run. In the process, Brooks has enabled the Rockets to run more on offense and shown to be quite capable of filling up the hoop with perimeter jumpers or getting to the rim. Together, Brooks and Lowry are averaging 18 points and seven assists per game.

Without McGrady, the Rockets' offense has had less indecision, with most possessions running through Yao and with Ron Artest not as wary of stepping on someone's toes.

The idea of combining T-Mac, Yao and Ron-Ron in the same lineup was one of those roll-the-dice gambles intended to put the Rockets on the same footing with "big three" lineups in Boston, L.A. and San Antonio. Maybe it would have worked if McGrady had ever been healthy for s full season.

But what the Rockets and their unflappable coach, Rick Adelman, have proven over the past month is that continuity in a lineup can work wonders for an offense.

While there were also questions about Brooks at the defensive end, he and Lowry have demonstrated they can cut off penetration by using their speed, an asset that could help against the likes of Chris Paul, Tony Parker or even Deron Williams in the playoffs.

Yao is challenging more shots lately and, in Artest and Shane Battier, the Rockets have two lockdown defenders. Will they miss McGrady in the playoffs? For sure, at times. They need an offensive closer. Yet with a bench that includes Carl Landry, Von Wafer, Brent Barry and the venerable Dikembe Mutombo, the Rockets are a deep team that will be a tough out.

In Miami, the Heat will go as far as Dwyane Wade takes them. Considering his electrifying efforts lately, it might be unwise to bet against them.

Never mind that they're starting a rookie --- Mario Chalmers --- in the backcourt with Wade. Or that the Heat spent the first half of the season trying to hammer the square peg of Shawn Marion into a round hole. Or that in the month after they swapped out Marion for Jermaine O'Neal that O'Neal has been as uncomfortable in Miami as a fat man in a thong on South Beach.

What matters most is that Wade's comeback from an injured left knee has been nothing short of stunning. What began last summer on the proving ground of the Olympics in Beijing has turned into Wade now in the MVP conversation.

Who says rookie coach Erik Spoelstra can't keep calling Wade's number all through the spring and keep hitting the jackpot? After all, it worked for Cleveland in 2007 when LeBron James took the Cavs to the NBA Finals.

Would the Heat be overmatched in a playoff series against deeper teams like Boston and Orlando? Well, weren't the "one-man" Cavs supposed to be in over their heads against the Detroit Pistons two years ago? And didn't King James' singular talents and unrelenting will render all of the matchups moot?

What if O'Neal can eventually find a way to become comfortable in the Miami attack, give the Heat an inside presence and provide Wade with a big man to play off? That would only give Wade more room to operate. Then things could get interesting on any floor against any team.

Does Wade have that kind of magic in him, to turn the Heat up to a boil? Can the Rockets keep launching themselves to greater heights?

The smart money might be on the favorites in the playoff post parade. But it's always the darkhorses that make things interesting.

Fran Blinebury covers the NBA for the Houston Chronicle.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

National Basketball Association Tickets

The 2008-09 NBA season is underway and so far last season’s champions, the Boston Celtics, are leading the pack, with last year’s Western Conference champs the LA Lakers a close second. It’s not a re-run of last season though – Portland fans are ecstatic that the team is currently 4th in the league, a huge leap from last season’s performance, which ended with the team in 19th place. According to’s Hollinger Playoff Odds, the Celts will be joined by the Cavs, Magic, Pistons, Hawks, Bulls, Nets and Raptors in the Eastern Conference, and the Lakers will be up against the Trail Blazers, Nuggets, Rockets, Mavs, Hornets, Suns and Jazz in the Western Conference. Of course, the season runs through April, so there’s still plenty of time for surprises and upsets. .

No matter what game you’re interested in, from the season opener to the NBA All-Star Game, the NBA Playoffs and the NBA Finals, Coast to Coast has the tickets to get you there. NBA tickets always go fast though, so don’t wait, secure your spot in the stands to cheer on your favorite team today!

James Naismith invented the modern game of Basketball in 1891, while working at the Y.M.C.A. College at Springfield, Massachusetts. Triangle magazine in Springfield, MA first published the rules for basketball in 1892, and 18 students from the Springfield YMCA played the first official basketball game later that year. The University of Chicago played its first college basketball game, defeating the Chicago YMCA Training School 19-11, in 1894.

Magic catch green giant sleeping

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The Magic are almost a sure shot for the playoffs. But before they entered the realm of the postseason, there was one bridge they needed to cross and the NBA's green giant, the Boston Celtics, were standing guard. Lucky for the Magic they caught the Celtics on an off day and grabbed the win.

"It was big for [us] to see where we are for the playoffs,'' said Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu, who scored 16. "It's not just a team that we want to catch. It's a team that we want to beat.''

Dwight Howard scored 18 with 15 rebounds and made a pair of free throws with 13.9 seconds left to ice an 86-79 win after Boston had cut Orlando's 22-point deficit to three. With the win, Orlando moved two games behind Boston and three behind first-place Cleveland in the East.

The Magic led by seven points after one and 18 after two as Boston posted its lowest-scoring first quarter and half of the season. The Celtics trailed by 22 points in the third quarter before waking up: they have just six losses at home this season, including three straight Sunday afternoon games over the past month.

While this was a big win for the Magic they must keep in mind that they did beat a Garnett-less Celtic team last night. When Garnett returns, the Magic may be a little more weary of wrestling with this giant.

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Finals MVP renamed Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award

Bill Russell

PHOENIX -- Bill Russell, the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics team that won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, including a record eight straight titles, will be permanently honored by having The Finals Most Valuable Player Trophy named for him, NBA Commissioner David Stern announced today.

"Who better to name this prestigious award for than one of the greatest players of all time and the ultimate champion," said Stern. "Bill inspired a generation not just of basketball fans but Americans everywhere. He is respected by colleagues, coaches, fans, and his legacy clearly has withstood the test of time."

The Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award will be presented at the conclusion of The Finals. Select writers and broadcasters who cover the series will determine the MVP.

Russell anchored a Celtics team that became synonymous with NBA championships during the 1960s. As a rookie center, he helped the Celtics earn their first NBA title in 1957, defeating the St. Louis Hawks in seven games. It was the first of 10 straight Finals appearances for Boston, including eight straight titles from 1959-1966. Following the 1966 championship season, Head Coach Red Auerbach retired and Russell took over as player-coach, becoming the NBA's first African-American coach. After failing in 1967 to make The Finals for the first time since 1956, Russell guided the Celtics to consecutive titles in 1968 and 1969. Russell would win 11 NBA Championships throughout his career as a player and coach.

The 1969 Finals between the Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers was the first time a Most Valuable Player trophy was awarded, with the Lakers' Jerry West the first recipient -- the first and only time the MVP Award has gone to a member of the losing team.

Russell earned five Most Valuable Player Awards during his career. He was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 and was named the "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA" by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America in 1980. In 1996, Russell was honored as "One of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History" during the All-Star Game in Cleveland.

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The 76ers Spirit

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE

One legendary Philadelphia institution is sadly closing its doors while another one is still thriving. While the Sixers' fans are getting ready to say goodbye to the venerable Spectrum when Philadelphia host the Bulls on Friday night, Harvey Pollack, the team's Director of Statistical information will be at his familiar spot courtside tracking statistical information much like he has done for the past 62 years when he served as the assistant publicity director for the Philadelphia Warriors.

Pollack, who celebrates his 87th birthday on March 9, holds the distinct honor of being the only individual to work in the NBA in its inaugural season (1946-47) who is still employed by a team today.

Yet equally remarkable is not only Pollack's spirit and high energy level but the numerous jobs he holds. The Sixers' position is just one of many for Pollack, who overseas the stat crew for the Philadelphia Wings of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League and recently completed his 63rd season as the lead statistician of Temple's basketball team, a responsibility he also holds for the school's football team. Pollack also writes a weekly syndicated entertainment column for a local newspaper.

Yet statistics is Pollack's claim to fame and that is what landed him a distinguished place into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 as a John Bunn Award recipient. No one in the field of statistics has had a greater impact in the history of the game than Pollack.

Pollack was keeping statistics for the Sixers such as minutes played, blocked shots, offensive and defensive rebounds, steals and turnovers long before the league made it part of the official boxscore.

Pollack's annual Statistical Yearbook was recently released and is an absolute must-have for anyone who loves the game, novel statistical analysis and trivia, producing such gems as the game's best clutch player, the distance of every field goal, who leads the league in every dunk imaginable (i.e. alley-oops, driving dunks, put-back dunks, etc) and which NBA players have the most tattoos.

Pollack spoke with's John Hareas and discussed the nuances of his Yearbook along with why Wilt was the greatest player he's ever seen (and the Big Dipper's critique of Michael Jordan), his all-time Starting Five and why he's about to enter the Guinness Book of World Records. What made you decide to publish your own Statistical Yearbook, which is now it its 15th year.

Harvey Pollack: In 1968, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy made it a requirement that every team had to come out with a media guide. Up until 1968, there were very few media guides in the NBA and only the affluent teams put them out. The Sixers book started in 1968, it was a miniature book, focused only on Sixers. As time went on, I started putting in NBA stuff.

In 1994, the Sixers media guide consisted of half of my NBA statistical information and half of Sixers material. When the media guide surpassed 300 pages, the Sixers decided to make it two books -- the Sixers media guide and my Statistical Yearbook.

The first year my book was published was in 1994-95 and was 150 pages. This year's book is more than 300. I keep on adding new stuff every year. What is the one stat in this year's Yearbook that might surprise the most people.

Harvey Pollack: The category that everyone seems to love is the tattoos of NBA players. When the game starts, me and other members of my stat team at the Sixers games check out the opposing players as they wipe their feet on the traction mat in front of the scorer's table to see how many tattoos they have. We do the same when the subs enter the game as well.

At halftime, since we're not sure that everybody is going to play, we go to the team's trainer and ask about the guys who haven't played and whether or not they have any tattoos and how many. The trainer will then tell us. This way, we don't miss anybody.

Another popular stat is top clutch players. Recently, I heard Skip Bayless on ESPN say that LeBron James wasn't a good clutch player. I called up ESPN and said, 'If he reads Harvey Pollack's Statistical Yearbook and looks up top clutch players in the NBA, he'll find that LeBron James is No. 1.'

Four-point plays -- no one keeps that stat and I've kept that from Day 1. When the three-point shot was introduced in the NBA in 1979-80, I have listed every four-point play since then -- the player, the opponent and date of the game. We update that stat every year.

Another popular category is dunks. I break down all of the different types of dunks -- alley-oops, driving dunks, reverse dunks, slam dunks, put-back dunks. In the Statistical Yearbook, we list the top players in each of the different categories of dunks.

Plus Minus Ratings are also very popular.

There are so many different categories. I'm over three hundred pages and I don't believe in white space. You'll never find any white space on any page. I fill the pages with little fillers, such as what guys played on an NCAA championship team and then the next year, played on an NBA championship team.

The book is a mixture of trivia and facts and most of the trivia is used to fill the bottom of each page so I won't have white space. You've been with the NBA since day 1, 1946-47. Who is the greatest player you ever saw?

Harvey Pollack: Wilt Chamberlain is without a doubt the greatest and the NBA record book proves it. Wilt holds records for a minimum of 130 different categories.

People forget who he is because fans today never saw him play. For instance, a triple-double-double -- there isn't anybody since Wilt did this in 1968 that has come close to getting 20 points, 20 rebounds and 20 assists in a game. No one has come close to Wilt's mark of 55 rebounds in a game. The closest someone got to Wilt's 100-point game was Kobe Bryant, who hit for 81.

Plus, name me a center who has led the league in assists like Wilt did in 1966-67? No one. Also, Wilt played every minute of every game in the 1961-62 season, including overtime, except one because he was thrown out of the game with three personal fouls.

That game was held in Los Angeles and Norm Drucker was the referee and he threw Wilt out with three technicals. The Lakers won the game by a point.

I was always curious why Wilt didn't play those seven minutes, which he would have played every minute of that '61-62 season, including overtimes.

So, sometime in the '80s, I looked it up and said 'Wait a minute, that's illegal.' So I wrote a letter to David Stern, NBA Commissioner and told him, 'I know you're interested in justice. When Wilt Chamberlain was thrown out of the game in 1962, three technicals were called and the Lakers made all three foul shots. You're already set a precedent in this category.'

The Commissioner wrote back and said great idea, we'll re-play the last seven minutes of the game, either before the All-Star Game or before the playoffs. All you have to do is get the players.

So, the first guy I called up was Wilt. Now remember, this is sometime in the mid-'80s, I said to him, 'As old as you are, you can still get up and down the court for seven minutes.' He said, "Harvey, do you really want me to do this? If you do, then I will."

Then I went around and I got everybody -- Paul Arizin, Tom Gola -- I got most of the guys but then some I couldn't find like Tom Meschery.

Then I called Jerry West and he said, "Is Wilt going to play?" I said yes, then he said, then I'll play.

I called him about a week later and Jerry said he talked to three, four guys who said they would play. But I never finished my mission in getting everyone. I was the PR Director of the Sixers at the time. But had I gotten everyone together for the last seven minutes, I would have made the Hall of Fame a lot sooner than 2002 (laughs).

A similar instance happened years later. In 1984, the Nets were playing the Sixers in Philadelphia and the officials called three technicals on Bernard King and head coach Kevin Loughery. The Nets protested because the rules state that the referees can only call two technicals on anybody and the other penalties have to come from the league.

So, they had to play the last seven minutes of that game before the next time both teams played again.

Incidentally, when they re-played the game from November to March, the two teams made a trade, so there were three guys on the Nets who were now on Philly and three guys on Philly who were on the Nets from when the first game was played. It was the only game in NBA history in which players were listed on both sides of an official box score. It's never happened since.

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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Analysis: Pierce, Celtics make statement against Cavs

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

BOSTON -- Despite having played a grueling 45 minutes in a game with postseason-level intensity, Boston forward Paul Pierce seemed full of energy as he hopped and skipped like a big kid toward the Celtics locker room Friday night.

"It's big," he said in a sing-song voice that echoed down the back hallway of the TD Banknorth Garden. "It's big. It's big."

You couldn't blame Pierce for showing a little postgame exuberance. In the race to the Eastern Conference's best record, Pierce and the defending champion Celtics got a leg up on their closest pursuers with an impressive 105-94 win (Box Score | Recap) over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston now leads the season series 2-1, with one game remaining on Sunday, April 12 in Cleveland.

Neither Boston nor Cleveland has won in the other's building since the Cavs stole a 107-104 victory in Boston on Jan. 3, 2007 -- a streak of 15 games including last year's seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal. A Celtics loss Friday wouldn't have been devastating, but it would have been daunting.

"You never say never," Pierce said, "but we would have been at a disadvantage, especially if we had a loss to them at home, it would've been their home court to lose.

"But we put ourselves right back into the race and hopefully we can carry this win over to Orlando [on Sunday] and continue playing well until the big fella gets back."

Pierce did his part to keep the Celtics swimming along without Kevin Garnett, who has missed seven games with a strained right knee.

By scoring 29 points, dishing nine assists and playing lockdown defense on LeBron James, Pierce's feat Friday recalled the performance he put together against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers last June to earn the 2008 Finals MVP.

Pierce wasn't the only Celtic to recapture a little of last year's Finals magic. Forward Leon Powe, who burst onto the scene last year with 21 points in Game 2, poured in 20 points and grabbed 11 boards. There's something about the bright lights that appeal to Powe.

"I usually play well on the ESPN-TNT games," the good-natured Powe said.

Despite the players and coaches protestations before Friday's game that this was just another game, it wasn't. You could tell from the opening quarter that this would be some madness in this March matchup.

The Cavs went hard at Pierce and Ray Allen with double teams. It worked, as the Celtics All-Stars scored just three first-quarter points between them -- all by Pierce.

But by doubling Pierce and Allen on the perimeter, the Cavs left the weak side open and the Celtics exploited it. Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby" Davis combined to score 14 of the Celtics' 21 first-quarter points on 7-for-11 shooting.

"Coach came up with a great game plan," Powe said. "They told us just before the game and shootaround how they go out and trap the ball so we just have to get to open areas."

While their bigs were roaming free through the paint, the Celtics made sure James' opportunities to get close to the rack were few and far between. The Cavs MVP candidate was frustrated by Pierce and a myriad of defenders throughout the game. While he was able to score 21 points, nine of them came from the free-throw line.

You could tell what kind of night James would have in the first quarter when he went up for a thunderous dunk, only to miss and have the ball ricochet to half court. James finished the game 5-for-15 from the field.

The Celtics weren't taking it easy on the other Cavs either, as Davis did his best Kevin McHale-on-Kurt Rambis impression in the third quarter, wrapping his arms around Anderson Varejao's head and knocking him to the floor. Davis was assessed a Flagrant 2 and was ejected.

"It happened so fast," Davis said. "You know me, I'm not trying to hurt anybody."

His coach concurred.

"I don't think the foul meant anything, honestly," Rivers said. "I like hard fouls, I just don't want them to go over. I didn't think it was a Flagrant 2, personally, but I come from a different generation."

If that's the case, the Powe is a throwback.

"I thought it was a good hard foul," Powe said, "a good playoff foul, but the refs thought otherwise."

Playoff foul? This was just another regular-season game, though. Right?

"We wanted this one real bad, I'm not going to deny it," said the Cavs' Wally Szczerbiak. "We felt it was an opportunity to steal one and win the series. We need to give them credit. They played well."

The Cavs are fortunate in one aspect. If this had been a loss during the playoffs, they would have a couple of days to read stories about "What's wrong with the Cavaliers?" Being that it is the regular season, the Cavs can concentrate on correcting their mistakes against Saturday's opponent, the Miami Heat.

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Race to the MVP


Gary Dineen, Stephen Dunn, Fernando Medina & Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

After a week out of the top spot, LeBron James has retaken the No. 1 position in the Race to the MVP. It's almost as if LeBron left his seat just before the end of the third quarter to get some food before the concession stand closed, only to return to his seat to find it occupied by Kobe Bryant.

How awkward.

And it may get even more uncomfortable to move these two back and forth as the season heads toward the April 15 finish line. But as we noted in last week's column, that's how close the race has become between LeBron and Kobe. Also, if you read the R2MVP Daily, where we talk about individual performances, you'll have noticed we've come to realize that Dwyane Wade is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and thus some of the best basketball in the NBA right now.

Should he move into the top two at some point? How would that upset the natural order we've carved out for ourselves below?

As with everything in the Race to the MVP, a player's beauty is in the eye of the smitten fan. For some, LeBron is the NBA's future. For others, Kobe is the epitome of passion and grace, and as a player, has no flaw. Then there are those who see Wade as a great story, a player who has returned from injuries stronger and more determined.

Or as some of our more dedicated fans e-mail: "Why can't you appreciate LeBron's or Kobe's or Dwyane's attributes? Why don't you like him?"

I'd like to think it's always been about performance when I rank the players. Of course, there is something in each of the players in the top 10 that draws out the fan in me.

How can one not be amazed by LeBron's rush to the rim late in the fourth quarter against the Heat? He threw it down so hard that veteran reporters who have covered James for nearly a decade say that's the hardest they've ever seen him dunk.

How can one not be amazed by Kobe's pursuit of perfection and the level of dedication he demands from his teammates? And in that pursuit, how his teammates raise their game to meet his? You may not like his personality -- and some don't -- but you must respect his will to win.

You also must respect that Kobe's game may be the most complete of any player in the top 10. He can go left, he can go right, he can post up, he can shoot the fadeaway, he can shoot the three. He can score in traffic, he can handle in traffic, he's an excellent passer, he's an above average rebounder, he's a sick defender and he's growing into a leader. His desire to do everything -- because he can do everything -- used to be his fatal flaw. As a 13-year vet, has he learned that he doesn't need to do it all?

How can one not be amazed by Wade's ability to take a beating and yet still manage to carry a team on his back? Or that, at 27, he's improved his defense so much that he's now considered elite?

How can one not be amazed by Dwight Howard's strength or Chris Paul's speed and court vision? Or by Tim Duncan's consistency, Chauncey Billups' steady leadership, Brandon Roy's bright future or Yao Ming's soft touch?

As impossible as it may seem, we see the best in these guys and the best of these players because they are the best. So, is there any hate or dislike?

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