Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Downfall of the Pistons: Much Ado About Nothing

Let's all just calm down
about the "Detroit Dynasty"
Tonight the Miami Heat travel to Detroit, looking to close out the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. To hear the media tell it, this is an upset of epic proportions. A shocking turn of events. A monumental story. To the average pundit, expert, and fan, we are on the verge of seeing the “mighty” Pistons eliminated from the playoffs. Fire up the word processor!

Stories are flying left and right as people scramble for an explanation. Detroit is too reliant on its offense this year. The players are giving up on the coach. Flip Saunders can’t coach in the playoffs. They got too cocky. They are worn out from three years of extended seasons. On and on it goes.

How about this for an explanation: the Detroit Pistons were never as good as you thought they were.

If you take a snapshot of the last three years, “Deeeeeee-troit Bas-ket-ball!” looks pretty good. A title, followed by an NBA Finals appearance, topped off with a franchise record 64 wins in the 2005-2006 regular season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s not a dynasty or anything, but it is a nice run all the same. It is the type of run that says, “this is a very good, maybe great, team.” Again, that is the snapshot.

A closer look reveals something else entirely. Rather than give you the punch line, let me walk you through all of Detroit’s success from the past three seasons.

2004 – This was the title run. The year of “play the right way” and the midseason acquisition of Rasheed Wallace that somehow gave Joe Dumars a lifetime free pass for taking Darko ahead of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. The snapshot reveals a mighty Detroit team that vanquished the Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals. Not so fast. For starters, Detroit reached the Finals by coming out of an Eastern Conference that still had an “L” in its name, for “Leastern.” And winning an inferior conference wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. It took a miraculous block by Tayshaun Prince to beat an arguably superior Indiana team in the semis, and Detroit needed a Jason Kidd knee injury to get past New Jersey in the conference finals. Nobody remembers this now, but New Jersey was up 3-2 in that series and had a close-out game at home, when all of a sudden, Kidd could hardly walk. Detroit moves on. And who do they face? None other than the Kings of Dysfunction, the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a miracle that L.A. even made it to the Finals that year, since both the Spurs and the Wolves were better teams. However, Derek Fisher hit that miraculous bank shot against San Antonio (which led to a complete meltdown by Tim Duncan – a collapse that for some reason is never discussed when people talk about his career) and Sam Cassell got hurt in the Western Conference Finals, so the Lakers prevailed. However, along the way, L.A. lost the heart and soul of that team, Karl Malone. And with him they lost all hope of beating any competent team in the Finals. So Detroit won a championship. Give them credit, because they looked really good doing it, but just know that they had Lady Luck on their side throughout those playoffs.

2005 – Detroit makes it back the Finals, where they lose to the Spurs because of a mental mistake by Rasheed Wallace. This one shouldn’t take as long. Basically, they won the East (and almost a second consecutive title) because Dwayne Wade – who was treating the Pistons like a high school team – suffered a mysterious rib injury. It is as simple as that.

2006 – The Pistons bring in an offensive-minded coach to replace Larry Brown and they rattle off 64 wins. I think this is where things started getting blown out of proportion. The tremendous regular season success, coupled with the postseason success of the past two years, led people to believe that this was some sort of unstoppable force. In reality, it was a collection of hard working players that fit well together and played their best when the chips were down. If anything, the Pistons had overachieved enormously over the past three seasons. If the East was as good as advertised this season, Detroit probably wins 58 games and nobody thinks of them as a “great” team. If even one Piston starter suffers even one minor injury, they probably win 58 games. And we already know how easily things could have turned out differently in the 2004 and 2005 Playoffs.

What I’m saying is that with a few bad bounces (or even just the absence of a few good bounces) here or there, this could be a team that never made it further than the Eastern Conference Finals. And instead of wringing our hands at the downfall of a mini-dynasty, we would just be shrugging our shoulders and saying, “This makes sense, with Wade and Shaq healthy and playing well, Miami is a much better team.”

I’m not here to write the Pistons off as nothing but a lucky team, nor am I trying to downplay the egregious way that many Detroit players are handling themselves right now (these guys are acting like participants on “The Apprentice” – busy pointing crooked fingers and laying blame in the event of a loss, rather than putting all their effort into winning). What I am saying is that we might have a “much ado about nothing” situation on our hands. Because when you look at the big picture, here is what you get:

An overachieving team that usually plays well in big moments isn’t playing very well this time around, and for the first time in the last three years, they are playing a healthy team in the Eastern Conference Finals. It isn’t going well.

This is a huge story? If you say so.


According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word xenophobia means, “Hatred of strangers or foreigners, or that which is foreign.” Does that bring to mind anything in particular? How about an ongoing sporting event that is being televised by ABC, ESPN, and TNT? In case you are still in the dark, I am speaking of the NBA Playoffs.

Now, obviously, I am having a little fun here with a tool I like to call “exaggeration,” but I can’t help but feel like a common thread in this year’s postseason has been the fact that foreign players are getting absolutely hosed by NBA referees.

I touched on this in a recent post (and in the ensuing comments), but officiating in the NBA is a very difficult task. The players are big and athletic and the game is played at such a high speed that it is almost impossible to keep track of everything happening on the court. That said, the refs are having a rough postseason. There have been some blatant missed calls in crucial moments, some terribly one-sided games, and a bizarre propensity to keep home teams close on the scoreboard (by calling ludicrous off-the-ball fouls) when they come out playing like crap in the first quarter.

To put it bluntly, nobody is happy with the officiating. Every time someone lost in the Dallas-San Antonio series, the officials were blamed for the outcome. The Pistons are collectively acting as if the entire sport is rigged against them. On almost any play, you can expect someone to complain, and on pretty much every third play, the complaining party has a seemingly valid point. All of that said, nobody seems to be getting it as bad or as consistently as the contingent of foreign stars.

Here are some names of international players who have had important roles in the 2006 Postseason (Tim Duncan doesn’t count – after all, he played on the U.S. team in the 2004 Olympics): Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Tony Parker, Vladimir Radmonovich, Pau Gasol, Desagna Diop, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Nenad Krstic, Andrew Bogut, and Andres Nocioni.

While some of these guys were in and out of the playoffs so quickly (Gasol comes to mind) that they don’t really factor in, other names on the list read like a who’s who of bad call victims.

Ilgauskas and Varejao rarely seemed to draw a favorable whistle against the Pistons (with the exception of Varejao’s offensive goaltending that was allowed). Diop was being whistled for fouls against Tim Duncan while he was still in his hotel room. Parker and Ginobili didn’t get nearly the usual amount of love they’ve come to expect from the refs. Nash was railroaded in that infamous Game Four against the Lakers when he the officials didn’t give him a timeout (or a foul). In fact, other than Diaw, nobody on this list has had much luck getting beneficial calls at all.

The king of this cast of characters is Dirk Nowitzki. He’s been so good in the postseason that you can make a case that he’s the best player in the NBA right now, yet he gets very few “superstar calls.” Not only that, he doesn’t even get all that many of the regular calls. Other than the cheap foul he picked up on Bruce Bowen in Game Four of the Mavs-Spurs series, I can’t recall Nowitzki getting the benefit of the doubt on a close call. Tonight in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals, the ongoing slight reached epic proportions. Nowitzki drove the lane and got hacked … no call. He posted up and got mugged … no call. He gets bumped in transition … he gets called for the foul. It was amazing. There were at least three instances in which Dirk took the ball to the basket – as everyone has implored him to do – absorbed a tremendous amount of contact and got nothing for this troubles. It was reminiscent of Chris Webber’s days with the Kings, when critics would lambaste him for not attacking the rim, yet every time he did, the refs looked the other way while defenders reigned blows down upon his head. I don’t blame Dirk for wanting to take jumpers, just like I didn’t blame Webber then. If you can’t get the calls, why subject yourself to the fouls?

I’m obviously kidding about the refs having it out for foreign players. It is just ironic that in a postseason full of bad officiating, the international stars seem to be bearing the brunt of it. Hopefully this odd coincidence will end and Dirk will start getting the calls he deserves, before he decides to brandish that enormous mouthpiece of his as a weapon, ala Udonis Haslem.

I should also point out that it wasn’t the officiating that cost Dirk and the Mavs in Game Four. The Suns simply found their rhythm and outplayed Dallas to even the series. They got a boost from Bell (although I don’t believe he was entirely responsible for the Suns’ turnaround, as the TNT gang would have you believe), a stellar performance from Barbosa (again, I disagree with the Inside the NBA guys, because I don’t think Barbosa has to come off the bench to play well – just track down a tape of Game Six, Lakers-Suns, if you don’t believe me), and some timely threes. Plus, Phoenix benefited from a woeful performance by the Mavs.

All of that said, a case can be made that the international players that have served to boost the NBA’s global popularity and that have helped raise the level of play so much are now getting the short end of the stick in the all-important game of “who gets the calls?” that has so much bearing on the outcome of NBA Playoff games.

Any conspiracy theorists out there want to take up this cause?

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Superman Returns

Game Three of the Pistons-Heat series was significant for a variety of reasons: Miami took a 2-1 lead in the series (a lead that would swell to 3-1 two nights later), Chauncey Billups regressed into a former version of himself that Boston Celtics fans would recognize (read: a point guard that dribbles for the entire shot clock every time down the court), Antoine Walker beat Rasheed Wallace off the dribble approximately 712 times, and – most importantly, the Real Dwyane Wade returned to the forefront.

Let me clarify something before I go any further. D-Wade has been great in the 2006 Postseason. His efficient performance in Game One against Detroit was an instructional video on “how to overcome foul trouble.” He had several performances against New Jersey that were terrific. However, for the bulk of the 2006 playoffs, Wade has been teasing us. He’s had moments here and there where he shown glimpses of the Superhero that was born in the 2005 postseason. You remember that guy, right? The one that elevated his game to near Jordan levels and launched conversations about the 2003 Draft Revisited (the favorite argument was: “Who would you take number one now? Wade or LeBron?). Many pundits and publications anointed Wade as the “best player in the NBA” in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, and while that might have been the result of getting caught up in the moment, it sure wasn’t very far off either.

Then Wade mysteriously hurt his rib, the Pistons backed their way into another NBA Finals (you can read the column I wrote about this last year for more information), and everyone quickly forgot about Wade’s incredible run. In fact, other than a brief flurry of MVP talk this season, Wade was largely ignored despite posting monster numbers and emerging as one of the best players in the world. But that is the way of modern sports – out of sight, out of mind. The Heat weren’t much of a story this year (an obvious contender that slowly played its way into shape), so Wade was bypassed for grander tales such as LeBron’s ascension (understandable), Elton Brand and the Clippers turning things around, Kobe scoring like a madman, Nash and the Suns staying afloat without Amare, Dirk and the Mavs becoming elite, and Billups and the Pistons taking a run at 70 wins. Nobody gave Wade much thought at all.

Obviously, the playoffs are the time when all of that changes. No longer does the media control the storylines, but rather the storylines control the media. If the Pistons squeak past the Cavs, they have to write about how “resilient” Detroit is. If the Nets get blown out by the Heat, there go all of your “nobody wants to play the Nets” stories (the dumbest ESPN the Magazine cover of all time). That is what I love about the postseason – all that matters is what happens on the court. Everyone sees pretty much every game, so you can’t spin things to your liking. You just have to say it like it is.

That’s why I was excited for Wade to offer up his own version of “Superman Returns” this summer. He’s been overlooked this year despite being one of the two or three most exciting players in the game. Heck, he’s one of the two or three best players in the game. And I knew the playoffs would prove that. The stage was set. Cue the John Williams score!

The only problem is that Wade struggled out of the gate. He looked sluggish and out of sorts against the Bulls. He seemed to be picking his spots for the first few games against the Nets. He was foul and turnover plagued in the first two games of the Pistons series. What was the problem? Was he hurt? Is Riley so focused on going to Shaq that Wade’s game is suffering? It wasn’t as if D-Wade was playing poorly – far from it. However, his brilliance was coming in spurts, as if he couldn’t sustain one of those masterpiece performances that we’ve come to expect from him.

Then there was Game Three. He attacked the rim early, scoring easy baskets and setting up Shaq for dunks. He pulled up and hit jumpers. He got to the free throw line. He picked up a crucial “and one” in the second quarter that got the crowd into a frenzy (for a Miami crowd, at least). And then in the second half, he kept up the pace. Even after he missed two big free throws in the fourth quarter, it didn’t seem to faze him as he was right back at it, tormenting the Pistons as he closed them out in style. All told, he finished with 35 points, 8 boards, 4 assists, and 2 steals while going 9-for-11 from the line and an astounding 13-for-17 from the field. It was vintage Wade. The type of game that sticks with you and makes you aware that you are watching greatness unfold on your television screen. An MJ game. A Superman game.

Two nights later he did it again. Jumpers in transition, forays into the paint that left the Pistons defense tattered and torn, a steady march to the free throw line. Throw in the best defense I’ve ever seen Wade play and it was a masterpiece. Even when he disappeared (on offense – his defense was still fantastic) in the third quarter, it just felt like he was biding his time for a frenzied finish. It still felt like he was controlling the game. Then “The Drive” (can we call it that?) when he glided down the lane, absorbed a hit from McDyess (who is going to kill somebody one of these days with those faux charge attempts where he slides under an airborne player), and somehow slung the ball over his shoulder, off the glass, and through the basket. Moments later, with the shot clock about to expire and Rip Hamilton draped over him like a track suit, Wade fired from 22 feet … nothing but net. Game over. He finished with 31, 6, and 5 with 2 steals, 2 blocks, and only 2 turnovers. He shot an almost unbelievable 8-for-11 from the field. He held Hamilton to a measly 11 points. His numbers have been better, but I’m not sure Wade has ever had a better game.

Yes, Superman has returned.

The only remaining question is: what is Wade’s kryptonite? Personally, I think that he’s been banged up and that his wrist never quite healed this year. And I think that Miami is being more intentional about feeding Shaq, which is taking away some of the flow from Wade’s game. I don’t think there is anyone in the league that can stop him. That said, I think there may be a little bit of kryptonite out there. The only players that seem to give him any trouble whatsoever are smaller guards that play low to the ground.

In the Chicago series, Wade had a couple of rough nights. Most attributed this to the pressure of playing in his hometown, but I think it had more to do with Kirk Hinrich’s defense. Hinrich might be the best guy in the league at guarding D-Wade. He is tough, relentless, quicker than people realize, and he plays very low to the ground. He’s also a smart player and is adept at funneling Wade toward help defense rather than trying to guard him straight up. This is really the only way you can even hope to guard him and Hinrich does it flawlessly.

The interesting thing about the Detroit series is that for two consecutive years, a healthy D-Wade has treated the Pistons like a practice squad. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants against them. Ironically, Detroit has their own version of Hinrich in Lindsay Hunter. He is smaller and older than the Bulls’ guard (and certainly not as good in any way, shape, or form), but he is a step quicker and has mastered the art of using his chest and drawing charges. In Game One, Hunter had a stretch where he picked up a charge, nearly picked up a second charge, and grabbed a steal. In Game Two he forced Wade into a variety of turnovers. Then in Game Three he was inserted into the lineup and you could see the wheels turning in Wade’s mind. It was as if he said, “Okay, no charging fouls this time, I am just going to shoot over this little guy.” So he pulled up and hit a jumper from the deep corner. Then he stopped in transition and hit a 19-footer. And then Flip Saunders gave up and put Hamilton back on Wade. Big mistake. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why Saunders did this. Yes, Wade hit two jumpers, but wouldn’t you rather take your chances there than let him get to the rim? It makes no sense.

In Game Four, Saunders went with Hunter for longer stretches, but Wade simply shot over him, took him to the block and spun away (to eliminate the chance that Hunter could flop and draw a charge), and went backdoor for alley-oops. Hunter didn’t have a chance. And you know what? Hinrich wouldn’t have had a chance either. Nobody would have. Not against a guy playing perfectly in every aspect of the game.

What does it all mean? It means that Superman is here to stay and that there may be no kryptonite. And it might just mean that LeBron is going to have a fight on his hands for the title of “best player in the game” for the next decade. Yes, Wade is that good. And he’s back. All the way back.

Monday, May 29, 2006

A Man for All Homers

There are a lot of ways that Byung-Hyun Kim might have been remembered. He came into the majors from Korea at a time when Asian players were first experiencing widespread success, so he might have been remembered as part of that particular migration of talent. His throwing motion was unique and could have been a fond recollection for baseball fans. Kim's prodigious strikeout totals rivaled those of Billy Wagner and could have led to him being remembered as an inconsistent K specialist. These were all possibilities, but that’s not the way that it worked out.

Instead, Kim is going to go down as a pitcher who gave up more than his fair share of huge home runs. He’s turned out to be “A Man for All Homers.”

Now, there are plenty of pitchers that have gone down in the annals of baseball history for giving up the long ball. Some are known for giving up crushing game-winners (see: Mitch Williams giving up the Joe Carter home run) and others are known for serving up a milestone shot (see: Al Downing allowing Hank Aaron’s 715th homer). What makes Kim unique is that he is a member of both clubs.

Here are the memorable bombs that Kim has given up in his seven-year career:

The Tino Home Run. Let me set the scene: It is Game Four of the World Series and the Diamondbacks lead the Yankees by a score of 3-1 at The Stadium. A win puts Arizona up three games to one in the series and virtually slams the door on New York. Curt Schilling gives way to closer Byung-Hyun Kim, who gets through the eighth before serving up a two-run, two-out homer to Tino Martinez in the bottom of the ninth inning. Yankee Stadium goes crazy. Kim immediately joins the Mitch Williams Club and looks on from the mound, completely stunned.

The Jeter Home Run. Many of you already know that this blast came in the same game as the previous entry. For some reason, Bob Brenly left Kim in the game despite the fact that his closer had already thrown more than a full inning, and Kim rewarded this horrendous decision by promptly giving up a leadoff blast to Jeter that won the game for the Yankees and nearly caused Yankee Stadium to spontaneously combust.

The Brosius Home Run. This was probably the worst of the three World Series blasts that Kim allowed, because it was the number nine hitter in the order (classic Yankees, by the way, in the spirit of Bucky “F’ing” Dent and Aaron “F’ing” Boone). In case you forgot this moment, here it is again: The Diamondbacks somehow pull themselves together after the horrible Game Four loss and they ride Miguel Batista to a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Once again, Brenly goes to his frail, frightened (and now overworked) closer. Kim proceeds to give up another two-out, game-tying blast to Scott Brosius. The earth actually shakes, if just for a moment. The Yankees go on to win the game and seemingly take control of the series before Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling bail Kim out by prevailing in the desert. (This was probably the best World Series I've ever seen, by the way.)

The WBC Home Run. Just to prove that he could give up big home runs in all situations, Kim allowed a two-run home run to Japan’s Kosuke Fukudome in the seventh inning of the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, leading to Korea’s elimination from the tournament. If this feels like a letdown after the World Series blasts, I suggest you talk to some of Kim's countrymen and see how they feel.

Barry Bond’s 715th Home Run. Unless you have been under a rock for the past few days, you know that Bonds hit his controversial 715th home run on Saturday. There are a lot of interesting things about this blast – both good and bad – but to me, nothing is more amazing than the fact that Kim was the guy who gave it up. This was a home run that could best be described as “inevitable” and that was weeks in the offing, so what are the odds that good old Byung-Hyun would be the guy to finally serve it up? Had I known he was toeing the mound for the Rockies on Saturday, I would have made a beeline for Vegas and put down everything I had. This is just too ironic and too classic for words.

Ultimately, that is what I will remember about Bonds finally passing Ruth. Not that he smashed one to the deepest part of the park, not that the fans were incredibly excited about the moment, and not that the homer occurred under the “cloud of steroids.” No, what I will remember is that when the sports world needed this to be done and over with, when we all just needed Bonds to hit 715 and get it behind him, we absolutely had the right guy for the job. We had Byung-Hyun Kim, “A Man for All Homers,” on the mound.

Poor bastard.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wednesday Night Delight

I think I am going to start giving the blog entries the kind of titles they use on ESPN. A pun probably would have been better, but "Wednesday Night Delight" sounds pretty Worldwide Leader-esque. Also, it perfectly describes the opener of the Mavs-Suns series. I mean honestly, does it get any better than this for basketball fans? Two teams running and gunning, playing like its the 1960's again, employing small ball lineups, and featuring skilled players at nearly every position. I can't believe that this is the Western Conference Finals. I am in heaven.

Here are my thoughts on Game One:

- Steve Nash might have had his best game of the season on the offensive end. He tallied 16 assists in a very quiet manner while keeping his team in the game. Normally, his passes are long dimes to three point shooters, so you notice every single assist he racks up. Tonight, a lot of his dimes came via post entry passes to Boris Diaw, so the passing clinic was more subtle. However, it was no less effective. Nash is so smart at picking defenses apart that he would just patiently wait (ala 50 Cent - gotta get my obligatory 50 reference in) for the Mavs to switch, then he would feed Diaw and put Boris in a perfect position to abuse the Dallas point guard underneath. Nash might not have been throwing lefthanded bounce passes through traffic, but he played point guard about as well as you can tonight. And when you factor in his two huge scoring runs (the second quarter and the last three minutes), he had a pretty much flawless offensive night. As for defense, that is another story. In fact, I am going to post an entirely separate entry on this.

- It goes without saying, but Diaw is a terrific player. It became obvious early in the season that he was much better than anyone realized and that his passing skills were going to make Phoenix really good, but in the postseason he has really expanded his ability to finish around the rim. He really impressed me against the Lakers and then of course had the huge game tonight. He's also quietly become a much better free throw shooter, which is enabling him to take the ball hard to the basket without fear. He shot 66% during the first month of the season, 71% before the All-Star break, 76% after the break, and now is dropping freebies at a 78% rate in the playoffs.

- I really hope injuries don't ruin this series. Josh Howard is arguably the fourth best player on the floor and he just missed pretty much the whole game with a sprained ankle. Raja Bell looked like he got shot by a sniper when he went down clutching his calf and I have the feeling that he might be down for a few games. Even Shawn Marion was limping around for the fourth quarter after rolling his ankle. These teams have the chance to throw up 125-120 type games every night, and if that gets negated because of injuries, we are all getting ripped off. It is ironic though that such a free-flowing game was also a war of attrition right out of the gates.

- As a fan who hopes to see this go seven games with about 1,500 total points scored in the series, I was glad to see the Suns win the first game. Had Dallas won, I think they would have taken the series with relative ease. Now I think we are in for a great battle.

- I plan on writing an entire column about this, but Dirk has taken his game up to that supreme level that I like to call "the crazy next level" (thanks to Dax Shepard for that one). In the NBA there are tons of stars and it is always tricky to pinpoint exactly what takes a player to the "superstar" level. It could just be as simple as winning, but I think there are more layers than that. I mean, how do we know that Dwayne Wade is better than Gilbert Arenas? The numbers are very similar and they are both sick, yet I think everyone would agree that Wade is in another class. The NBA is probably the only sport like this, where the difference between being great and one of the three or four best players in the world is almost impossible to measure. You just know when you see it happening. Anyway, Dirk is now at that level. Between the offensive rebounding, the automatic free throw shooting, the leadership, and the devastating mid-post game that he's developed to go with his transition jump shot, he's just killing people. I think Dallas needs to be more intentional about running the offense through Dirk in Game Two, so that when they need him to make shots to close out the game, he is in a good rhythm.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The NBA's All-Hands (Raised) Team

I'm having a Deja Vu moment. I feel like I already wrote about this last year, but I can't find any record of it, so I am proceeding. In the previous post, I alluded to what has become my biggest pet peeve in this year's playoffs ... the propensity for officials to take control of an early blowout and keep a team in the game. Right on the heels of that disturbing trend is another, equally annoying phenomenon sweeping NBA Nation: the "arms raised in disbelief" complaint to the official.

Before I write another word, let me issue a few disclaimers: 1) The officials are so bad in the NBA that they deserve all of the mocking and complaining that comes their way. 2) When I played sports, I tend to be a big whiner, so this is definitely me being hypocritical. 3) I am okay with most forms of complaining. The sneer (a Billups specialty), the hands on the hips with the incredulous smile (T-Mac's forte), the hands on the ref's hips (Cassell), and fierce point, the mouthpiece throw, and the stalking-while-going-into-a-timeout are all very acceptable forms of showing one's disdain for a call. The one thing I can't handle is the outstretched arms. The look of disbelief. The near tears. The freaking stopping in the middle of the play to go beg to the ref. Seriously, what is going on? I am about to give you my All-Star team for this particular move, but in reality, half the guys in the league could make the team. I'm forced to find serial arm-raisers and guys that constantly perform the arm raise despite getting almost every call, just to separate them from the average babies. It's an epidemic. A pandemic! (I forget - what is the difference?) Anyway, here is the NBA's All-Hands (Raised) Team (only players from playoff teams are eligible):

PG - Shaun Livingston. He's young, so I expect him to get even better at this. He gets bonus points for getting up probably 5-7 ARPG (arms raised per game) despite limited minutes of the bench. Plus, he has really long arms, so it makes for an even more dramatic moment (call it the Tayshaun Factor). Livingston's backup is Steve Nash who doesn't complain all that often, but when he does, never fails to look like a third grader that got his milk money stolen as he races after the refs with his arms raised in disbelief. (In Nash's defense, he keeps playing while doing so, unlike most of the guys on this list.) Gary Payton - a former first teamer - comes in a distant third.

SG - Manu Ginobili. He's really in a three-way tie for this position with teammate Brent Barry and Detroit's Rip Hamilton. All three of these guys blow my mind with the theatrics. Hamilton gets big points for doing this EVERY time he doesn't get a call, which happens about one percent of the time. Also, there was a play against the Cavs where he and Maurice Evans each grabbed one of LeBron's arms as he split their double-team; Rip grabbed the left arm and Evans grabbed the right (dribbling) arm. Replays showed both of LeBron's arms being ripped back while he tried to go to the basket. An obvious foul was called at which point both Pistons players began hopping around in disbelief. Hamilton then - shockingly - ran to each and every ref on the floor with arms outstretched, begging for an explanation. As for Ginobili, he wins because he is able to add things like stutter-steps, double takes, and other improvisational skills to the traditional move. Also, he is another guy that gets an inordinate amount of calls yet acts like he's been wrongfully sentenced to prison for the next 25 years every time he gets whistled.

SF - Tayshaun Prince. This list is full of Spurs and Pistons which is interesting. Perhaps I so enjoy the underdog that guys from these teams just bother me more. Maybe it rubs me the wrong way that these teams get way more calls than everyone else yet still have the gall to freak out whenever they don't happen to get a call. Whatever. All I know is that Prince probably leads the league in ARPG. During Game Four against the Cavs I tabbed him for a whopping 17 in one game. I have to believe that is a record. He was raising those lanky arms on foul calls, no-calls, jump balls, teammate fouls, you name it. It got to the point where I was convinced he was simultaneously shooting a deodorant commercial during the game. Prince's backups are Richard Jefferson (he brings the laugh with the arm raise, so that is kind of special), and Corey Maggette (another guy that just gets a ton of calls, yet sprints after the refs in disbelief when he doesn't get one).

PF - Tim Duncan. Ladies and Gents, here is your team captain. I've never seen Duncan A) miss a shot or B) commit a foul and NOT raise his arms in disbelief. If he is whistled, the ref has to be wrong. If he misses a shot, then he must have been fouled. It is simply unbelievable. This is all made worse by two more facts: 1) He gets more calls than anyone I can ever remember watching, and 2) for years and years, everyone acted like he was the most polite, impassive player in the game. Only now is he finally taking some heat for being a big baby. He's a fantastic player - one of the best power forwards of all time - but nobody, I repeat NOBODY complains more than Tim Duncan. I don't even have a backup.

C - Chris Kaman. Not a lot of centers do this, so Kaman is kind of the default winner. He gets the nod over any challengers based on the fact that he always goes directly from the arm raise to the "other arm raise" (the one where you raise your hand straight up into the air, dutifully, in some kind of honorable attempt to take the blame or make it easier for the scorekeeper or something). Hey Chris, not only do you need a haircut in the worst way, but you should also know that the "I did it" hand raise loses its effect when you run after the refs in disbelief first.

Feel free to post your own members of this exclusive team.

This Needs to Stop

What does? Well, a lot of things actually. Players putting their arms up in the air to complain about a call (aka "Doing the Duncan"). Hubie Brown saying "in your face." Dallas fans mistakenly thinking that Michael Finley did something wrong. People saying that Mobb Deep sold out for going to G-Unit (who doesn't sell out the first chance they get? I plan on doing it the minute someone wants to buy my screenplay). And so on. But here is the big one ...

NBA referees need to stop altering the games. Period. I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill bad calls, or blowing a big play down the stretch, or being influenced by the home crowd. Obviously they do all of that VERY well (the NBA has the worst officials in all of pro sports, which is saying something in light of the 2006 Super Bowl), but I am talking about what happens early in the contest that goes beyond anything else they could possibly botch.

You see, I've noticed a disturbing trend in this year's playoffs. It goes something like this: one team (usually the home team, usually the favorite) comes out of the gates slowly and gets off to a bad start, running stupid plays, bricking shots, and generally playing like dog crap. Meanwhile, the opponent comes out smoking hot, throwing in jumpers, taking it to the basket, and forcing the home team to call about six timeouts in the opening period. We're talking 14-for-17 (the Heat tonight) and 19-for-23 (Dallas in Game 7 against San Antonio) type of starts. Next think you know, the score is 21-8, or 24-12, or 33-19. This is when the refs get involved. Appearing to have some sick compulsion to control the game, the officiating crew now immediately begins calling falls on the road team every time down the court. Suspect charge calls, hand checks, tripping calls, you name it. The fouls start mounting. Now the home team is in the bonus and going to the line for free throws every trip down the court, nevermind that they still can't run a set play. Last night the Spurs were getting DESTROYED by the Mavericks when Dick Bavetta and his crew stepped in and called the Mavs for an astounding 23 first half fouls. Every time down the court, the Spurs were shooting free throws. Tonight, the Heat were drilling the Pistons at the Palace and were poised to throw the smack down when the refs jumped in started whistling Miami for one ludicrous foul after another. Detroit went 12-for-12 in the last four minutes of the first quarter (eight of the free throws came on non-shooting fouls) to make the score 33-25. It should have been 33-17.

Why do the refs feel compelled to do this? It is not as if the Mavs are going to shoot 83% for the game. Miami is not going to miss three shots for every 17 they take. It's the NBA, everyone makes a run. If you just stay out of the way, the hot road team will cool off and the home team will make a charge. The problem with "keeping the home team in the game" (which is exactly what they are doing) is that now you are putting the road team at a distinct disadvantage once the tables turn. Instead of going cold with a 14-point or 19-point cushion, now the lead is only six or eight points. It doesn't take much for a team shooting 35% from the floor to suddenly vault past and take the lead. Now you have a team being badly outplayed ... yet leading! Not only that, but all of the innocuous fouls called in the first quarter add up and lead to severe foul trouble. It may seem like nothing for Bavetta to give Duncan 10 free throws in the second quarter as to keep the Spurs afloat, but it sure seemed like a big deal when every Mav was fouling out in the fourth quarter. In tonight's game, Dwayne Wade and Shaq both had three fouls midway through the second quarter.

Miami shot 63% tonight to Detroit's 37% and outrebounded them by 10. Yet they only won by five points and if not for back-to-back threes by Antoine Walker and James Posey in the third quarter, they probably would have lost. It hardly seems possible, but there it is. And it is all because the Pistons were GIVEN at least eight points in the first quarter. Instead of being forced to come back from 16 down, Detroit only had to overcome an eight-point hurdle. Teams do that in three trips sometimes, and had the Pistons made any shots whatsoever in this game, they would have run away with it.

This bizarre and blatant handcuffing of teams that get off to hot starts needs to come to an end immediately before a fantastic NBA postseason is ruined.

Monday, May 22, 2006

What a night

I have to hand it to them, they never gave up. Even after the Mavericks jumped out to a 19 point lead and shot something like 89% on their first 23 shots, there was no quit in this group. They simply refused to give up. They stuck to the game plan. They fed off the energy of the crowd. They kept getting Duncan to the free throw line.

I'm talking about the refs, of course.

In a classic performance by the NBA refs, the San Antonio Spurs nearly advanced to the Western Conference Finals despite being completely outplayed by the Mavericks. Fortunately for fans everyone (except in San Antonio), Dallas found a way to prevail despite a huge foul disparity, a late run by the Spurs, and a three-point deficit with 30 seconds to go in a hostile environment. Dirk Nowitzki took his game to the crazy next level with 37 and 15 and big play after big play. Jason Terry avenged his suspension with a huge night. And Avery Johnson continues his meteoric rise in the coaching ranks by outdueling (more like crushing) his mentor in a series for the ages.

And even though I complain about, well, the Spus constant complaining, give them credit. They are like the zombies or the Curtis "50 Cent" Jacksons of the NBA - they just don't die. Between Manu's relentless attack and Duncan's ability to "draw" fouls, San Antonio is never out of a game. However, this time they were up against a team that was just a little bit better, so hats off to the Mavericks. And if you are a Spurs fan and hate me for this blog, too bad. I am sick of the Spurs and their constant whining and a Detroit-San Antonio final would have sucked the joy right out of me.

(By the way, I know Duncan was probably fouled with one second to go, but the refs never call that. Ever. Dirk was hacked at the end of Game Five on a similar play when he tried to tip in Terry's airball. It is a free-for-all when there are less than two seconds left and the ball is bouncing around under the rim. So let's all pipe down on that one.)

Alright, now bring on Mavs-Suns and Heat-Pistons. If I'm not mistaken, those were the two most entertaining series in LAST year's postseason. Good times.

Spoiler Alert!

Gotta weigh in on the season finale of 24. If you haven't watched it yet, don't read this.

1) Loved the solution to the Logan situation. I really couldn't figure out what was going on and thought that maybe Bauer had blown it. I was mortified. Nice twist, although I still wish Logan had shot himself in the head last week. I wonder if all Logan's minions are going down? What will be the fate of Miles Papasian? I hope that Novick develops some kung fu moves and kills him.

2) I still don't understand why they even bothered with the whole Bierko/escape/submarine thing. It was introduced and resolved within the span of like 1.5 episodes. What? Was it just to give Bauer a chance to gat Henderson (which was sweet)? Did they need some filler? The Logan chess match was riveting and was obviously the big plot point, so why even mess around with Bierko? I'm so confused by this. Oh well, at least we got to see Jack tell a petty officer that they were "running out of time" AND we got a Jack-breaks-Bierko's-kneck-with-his-legs kill for the ages.

3) Speaking of the Henderson gatting, I was glad to see someone finally acknowledge that Tony was dead. For half the season it was like it never happened. I think the writers finally realized that and put in some nice dialogue for Bauer to note that Henderson had killed his freaking best friend. There were like five other times where somebody discussed Henderson's crimes and never even mentioned Tony. That was lame. (By the way, I will admit that I was hoping these omissions were a sign that Tony was still alive. I also held out hope that Palmer would come bursting out of the casket to apprehend Logan. Okay, maybe not that part.)

4) Are we going to find out who those nerdy Bluetooth guys were? They looked like a bunch of corporate lawyers (trust me, not a compliment), not a syndicate capable of running the world. If you ask me, "24" was a little too much like "Alias" this season. I hope they get back to some gritty tales next year.

5) Why can't "24" ever leave us in peace? You know they are going to resolve this China situation during the first episode of Season Six, so why not just give us a happy ending? In season two, they tried to take a neatly wrapped up story (complete with Bauer's hilarious cheesy grin aimed at Kim in the stadium) and give it a cliffhanger by showing that weird guy on the boat and then having Mandy put that stuff on Palmer's hand. The next season it was Wayne Palmer saying, "Way to go, you busted the people who did that to you" and just wrapping that whole thing up during the first episode. Granted, it came up later, but come on. (Where did Wayne Palmer go, by the way? And are we sure that Secretary Heller is okay?)

That said, I would like to take credit for nailing this ending. I was so sure they were going to have Bauer get captured by the Chinese that I joked to a couple of people that I was going to pen the finale myself and register it so that I could turn around and sue for copyright infringement. You could see this a mile away. (Of course, back then I thought that Tony could go rescue him, but now that is out. Maybe they will bring back Chase for a rescue operation.)

Cantu, Part II

I love fantasy baseball. Fantasy football is great and fantasy hoops makes my favorite pro sport even better, but fantasy baseball is my favorite. I explained the five reasons why last year in a column that you can find here, but the point is that I love it so much that I have to indulge myself with a nerdy fantasy baseball post everyone once in a while. So if you are wondering why I am about to offer up a breakdown on a little-known second baseman when my coverage of the amazing NBA Playoffs has been spotty at best, well, that is why. Now, on with the show.

Every year it seems like a sleeper comes out of nowhere to become a key factor in fantasy leagues everywhere. In baseball, this is especially common at key positions like catcher and middle infield. So when Jorge Cantu exploded with 117 RBI at 2B, he became a vital cog in many a title team. Of course, because Cantu was an unkown youngster playing for the offensively challenged Tampa Bay Devil Rays, many owners waited too long before picking him up. My job is to make sure it doesn't happen to you again. Folks, meet this year's Jorge Cantu ... Jose Lopez.

Lopez is Cantu all around. He is a young second basemen that hits for a good average with moderate power and plays for a team that doesn't score a ton of runs. However, he personally has a knock for picking up RBI by the boatload. He's currently FOURTH in the American League in RBI with 37, while hitting .309 with 7 home runs. He's on pace to hit 25 home runs and drive in a whopping 130 runs, yet nobody owns him in fantasy. Do yourself a favor, pick him up.

Over and out.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Suns-Clips, Courtesy of Bill

Rather than give my own thoughts on the Suns-Clippers Friday nightcap, let's take a look at some Bill Walton gems from the broadcast:

- "Tim Thomas is one of the great reclamation projects of all time."

- After calling Mike Dunleavy "Mike D'Antoni," he exclaimed with disgust, "There are simply too many Mikes!"

- After a Nash pass led to a Marion three: "Whenever something good happens for Phoenix, it is almost always because of Boris Diaw's intangibles." (Diaw was on the bench with foul trouble.)

- "That is the liability of having Brian Grant on the team." (After Grant missed a five-footer.)

- "Chris Kaman sucks." Oh wait, that was me, not Bill.

- "The Suns are a uni-dimensional team."

- "Steve Nash's left-handed passes off the dribble without ever touching it with his right ... a thing of beauty!" (The key to this quote was the way he added all the extra description without pausing. Talk about a thing of beauty!)

- "Elton Brand represents everything that is right in the NBA ... and in the world." (This calls to mind classic quotes such as “John Stockton is one of the true marvels, not just of basketball, or in America, but in the history of Western Civilization!”)

- "Boris Diaw is making drives and flip shots reminiscent of the legend, Elgin Baylor."

- "Volume shot attempts! Forget the pump fake. Jack 'em up there. Get running. Who's in shape? Who wants to play?" (This quote really happened.)

- "Kaman is just too quick!" (After Marion shot one right into Kaman's elbow.)

- "All these pretty boys just want the defenders to get out of their way." (Discussing Kobe Bryant and Raja Bell.)

- To Mike Tirico after an offensive foul on Maggette: "I love to hear the enthusiasm when you make that offensive foul call. In a day and age when the rules allow offensive players to do whatever they want with no repercussions, finally, a return to normalcy and human decency."

- After a bad shot by Tim Thomas: "Maybe the worst shot selection we've seen in this year's playoffs."

- "That was an easy play to call, I don't know why Shawn Livingston is complaining, although he is - Shawn Livingston - one of four Illinois Mr. Basketball winners to go straight to the NBA, out of Peoria." (All one sentence. Genius!)

- After a big Cassell airball: "I might have to reevaluate my position from earlier that Tim Thomas' airball was the worst shot selection in this year's NBA playoffs." (I loved that he referenced his own hyperbole. So good.)

Okay, I have to throw a few thoughts in here. 1) What was Dunleavy thinking with his lineup down the stretch? I know you want to ride the hot hand, but come on. 2) I thought the Clippers were looking poised to crush Phoenix in this series and become a threat in the West, but if they can't beat the Suns in a key home game when Phoenix shot 7-28 from three, they are in big trouble. 3) Huge redemption for Marion, who had one of those monster fantasy lines we all know and love, but for once did it in the playoffs. 4) Phoenix might be the worst NBA team I've ever seen at closing out close wins, which is weird since they are so good from the line and have a two-time MVP at point guard. They should be built for holding leads. 5) How about Nash hitting the huge fadeaway after struggling all night? Big time shot. I was surprised to see the Clippers let the clock run there, because technically, Nash could have dribbled it down to one and then heaved it into the air ala Magic in the 1991 Western Conference Finals, allowing time to run out.


The second round of the playoffs hasn't been real interesting, but Friday night's games finally gave us some quality entertainment value. The first game featured a nice comeback win on the road by the Heat and here were some things I feel compelled to mention:

- Pat Riley is ridiculous. We all know he's keeping half of the tanning salons on South Beach in business and that he completely screwed up Miami's title chances by breaking up a fantastic team last summer. However, we are also seeing how bad of a coach he's become. He can't get figure out to enter the ball to Shaq from the top of the key (while he's moving across the lane, making it much harder to square up for a flop), his rotations are bizarre, and he was trying to guard Richard Jefferson with Gary Payton for much of the second half. However, the biggest indictment came when D-Wade caught an elbow to the face and was lying prone on the ground. Somehow, Riley failed to call a timeout, letting Jason Williams kill a limo driver (oh wait, wrong Jason Williams), I mean shoot a three-pointer, and then he failed to order an immediate foul. Wade nearly got his head stepped on during the ensuing fast break. Just moronic coaching.

- I'm sick of big men flopping. Block a shot one time, for crying out loud. I can understand Collins trying to flop on Shaq, because he has no other choice, but if he injures Wade in this series with one of those cowardly step-under moves, I swear I am going to burn his basketball card in effigy. Is anyone else sick of big men sliding under airborne guards, trying to take charges? Grow a pair and block a shot.

- While we're here, get rid of the backup point guards trying to "man up" on defense. First it was Sasha Vujacic in the Phoenix-Lakers series, now it is Jacque Vaughn of the Nets. Look, I know that you are barely in the NBA, but if you have to come off the bench bodying everyone up to try to get a paycheck, it is time to hang them up. No one wants to see a crappy guard out there chest bumping everyone across the court. And for the love of Derek "Patron Saint of Chest Bumping Defense" Fisher, please don't complain when you get called for doing it.

- Vince Carter should never pass, because he seems to turn it over every time that he does. However, he should shoot, A LOT, for two reasons: 1) No one else on this team can, and 2) he never seems to miss. Other than maybe Kobe and T-Mac, nobody makes more difficult shots than Carter. Some of his baskets late in the game were just ridiculous.

- Don't look now, but Wade might be developing a three-point stroke. He made another one tonight after hitting three in the first quarter of Game Two. If he adds this to his game, there will be no stopping him.

- Just a reminder to Heat fans: every time GP makes a dump pass or bricks a three, and you feel a sense of dismay, just remember that last year the backup point guard was Keyon Dooling - a negative force so great that I had to start tallying his +/- and reporting "The Dooling Factor" after every playoff game. I remain convinced that it was Dooling's mere presence on the roster, rather than Wade's injury, that single-handedly cost Miami a title last year.