Saturday, April 29, 2006

Glitch in the Matrix

The Suns are down 2-1 to the seventh-seeded Lakers and are in danger of bowing out of the playoffs in the first round. This isn't terribly surprising, as they are without Amare (and have been all season) and Kurt Thomas (and now possibly Tim Thomas as well), and are playing a Lakers team that really found the range down the stretch. I had L.A. in six, so I personally can't say I'm surprised. What is more interesting to discuss is not the "what" here, but the "why." Most people are crediting Kobe Bryant and his sudden interest in team play as the reason the Lakers are in front. I find this somewhat hilarious, because all he's doing is playing hard and letting his teammates dominate inside. Seems like common sense, but hey, this is his year, so it is all praise be to Kobe. Regardless of whether you think 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting is worthy of a parade, I think reasonable minds can agree that currently-number-eight-soon-to-be-number-24 probably isn't the biggest reason the Lakers have seized control of this series.

The biggest reason why L.A. looks like the powerhouse in this series is that Lamar Odom is playing like he did in the 2004 playoffs with Miami. More to the point, he is KILLING Shawn Marion right now. Odom is averaging 19 points, 13 boards, and 4 assists while shooting 53% from the field, while The Matrix (supposedly the far superior player) is going for 17, 8, and 1, on 43% shooting. There's the difference in the series. Odom is gathering in passes and finishing at the rim, while Marion is blowing layups or getting his shot blocked (by Odom, in many cases). Marion is consistently getting beat by Odom off the dribble, causing the Suns' defense to completely break down. Odom has poured in 5 big threes while Marion is 2-for-9 and missing one huge shot after another.

There are a lot of reasons why L.A. is poised to win this series - and one of them is certainly the solid defense and good teammwork of Bryant - but none is bigger than the absolute woodshed level beating that Odom is laying on Marion right now. For the Suns to have any hope of winning this series, they need to get the Playoff Glitch ironed out of their Matrix.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Earth to Bibby

On Tuesday night, the Sacramento Kings nearly stole home court advantage from the Spurs, but lost a three-point lead in the closing seconds and now are in danger of being swept. If you watched the game, you know that the Kings kicked the Spurs up and down the court for 48 minutes, only to lose in overtime. What happened? Well, a lot. Bonzi Wells fouled out of the game on a completely phantom foul call in the closing seconds. Brent Barry got a lucky bounce on a game-tying three (made possible by bad Sacramento defense and a moving pick by Duncan). But most importantly, Mike Bibby played like he was shaving points out there. 1-for-13 in regulation, 3-for-17 in the game, and countless moronic passes, dribbling mistakes, and missed defensive assignments. All of which leads to the question: what in the world has happened to Mike Bibby? It seems like just yesterday that he was torching the Mavs and Lakers in the 2001 Playoffs and building a reputation as one of the best clutch shooters in the game. Now he is a shell of his former self, getting dominated by Tony Parker and dragging his team down. Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Kevin Martin, and Bonzi Wells all played outstanding games, but thanks to the dreadful play of Bibby, it was all for not.

The other side of this is how to view the Spurs after such a game. They nearly squandered home court advantage in a game with no Artest, no Miller for the final 20 minutes, and virtually no Bibby. And this team is supposed to roll to the Finals? I don't think so. The Spurs are not as good defensively as they were last year, Duncan is better at complaining now than he is at taking over games, and Ginobili is hit or miss (sometimes helping the opponent more than his own team). If not for Brent Barry turning back the clock, the Spurs would be on the ropes right now. I expect them to win the series 4-1, but they had better take it up a notch if they want to beat a hungry, deep, and talented Mavericks team.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Get Your Playoff Picks!

The spring is always a crazy time of the year for predictions. March Madness, the start of the baseball season, and the NBA playoffs all hit in rapid succession. And if you are one of the 18 remaining hockey fans, well, you have the NHL playoffs to contend with as well. Why I mentioning this? Because normally I write a fantastic, hilarious, and insightful column detailing my NBA playoff predictions, but this year, I am tired of making picks. It doesn't mean I won't do it, just that I am going to take less time and throw them here on the blog. Read on for the picks from the Insider Bloggers.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Zambrano Loses His Mind

I've made no secret of the fact that I think the Cubs can beat the odds and win the NL Central this year. (And, therefore, win it all, since the baseball playoffs are a crapshoot.) However, if Carlos Zambrano keeps performing as if he has rocks for brains, I might have to back off of that prediction. Today on a glorious afternoon at Wrigley, Zambrano bumbled his way to a bad loss against the Reds. He tried to pick off pitcher Eric Milton while Derrek Lee was playing behind the runner. Result: Balk. Then he was so rattled that he beaned Ryan Freel to put two runners on. This was followed by Zambrano doing his favorite thing, which is getting behind the hitter, and then to him serving up a 3-1 fastball to Felipe Lopez (who is going to get PAID at some point). He also screwed things up later when he got behind Milton 3-1 and allowed a triple. Seconds later, he tried to pick the pitcher off of third base and fired it into the stands (where it appeared to clock an unsuspecting fan). Four runs allowed because of ridiculous decisions. This guy has to be the Cubs ace this year and that means keeping his emotions in check, getting ahead of hitters, and not flying off the cuff with ad lib decisions. Otherwise, I'm taking back that "Cubs win! Cubs win!" prediction.

Going on Record

There were plans to do a full preview column over at WIS, but since that has been delayed, I thought I would get my picks down "on paper" somewhere. Here we go.

AL West - Anaheim (I'm not a believer in Oakland; I like the Angels' pitching)
AL Central - Cleveland (will win the most games in the AL)
AL East - Boston (Papelbon answers the big question)
AL Wild Card - Chicago (Sox top Yanks in a race that goes down to the wire)

NL West - San Francisco (pitching will carry the Giants past an underrated LA team)
NL Central - Chicago (that's right, the Cubs)
NL East - New York (love the middle of that order; bullpen is vastly improved)
NL Wild Card - St. Louis (Cards edge Astros and Braves)

World Series - Boston over New York (Sox have Schilling and Beckett and plenty of pop; they beat Pedro in terrific WS)

AL MVP - Vlad Guerrero (stays healthy and goes .340/35/120 while carrying Anaheim to the playoffs)
NL MVP - Derrek Lee (another moster year, this time Cubs win enough games to get him the hardware)

AL Cy Young - Curt Schilling (hard to believe he has yet to win this award)
NL Cy Young - Roy Oswalt (it is his time to reign in the NL)

AL Rookie of the Year - Jonathan Papelbon (40 saves for a division winner should do it)
NL Rookie of the Year - Josh Willingham (this guy can rake)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

And The Winner Is ...

Now that we are bearing down on the end of the NBA regular season, it is probably time to pick my MVP. The only probem is that I'm still not exactly sure who that should be. A month ago, I was still convinced that Nash was the guy. The way he pulled together a new group in Phoenix and kept that team elite was remarkable. Plus, his numbers were up across the board. However, while the MVP isn't all about individual stats, you still have to perform all the way through. As discussed in an earlier post, Nash and the Suns went through an extended slump that may have hurt his chances. At the very least, it made this race WIDE open coming down the stretch.

You might also recall a post on this blog that detailed the makeup of every MVP from the past 25 years, in terms of team winning percentage. Of the past 25 winners, 24 of them came from either the first or second best team in the NBA. The lone exception, Michael Jordan in 1987-88, came from a Bulls team that finished third in the East and seventh overall. Of course, you could argue that was one of the top five greatest individual seasons in NBA history (I smell a future post!). Are we really on the brink of seeing #2 out of the last 26 years?

Coming into the season, there was a 4% chance that a team from outside the top two would produce an MVP, but unless the Mavericks can vault past San Antonio in the final week and a half, it looks like it might happen. Tim Duncan has been down this year, Tony Parker isn't quite MVP worthy, and Chauncey Billups needed a record-breaking season from his Pistons to break out of an ensemble cast and win the award. So if Detroit and San Antonio finish 1-2 in the NBA, we are probably going to see a major break from tradition.

Here are the top candidates, complete with where their teams rank in the standings (Conference/Overall).

1. LeBron James (4/7)
2. Steve Nash (3/4)
3. Dwayne Wade (2/5)
4. Dirk Nowitzki (2/3)
5. Kobe Bryant (8/12)

You can basically just toss Kobe out, because that would be too far out of character for voters, and in a year with so many viable candidates from top teams, you just can't make a case that THIS is the season where we need to pull an MVP up from a 41-37 team.

That leaves the other four and that is where it gets tough. All have stats that work in their favor, all have intangible qualities, all are part of success stories. The Suns are the most unlikely elite team. The Cavs are finishing the strongest. The Mavs have been the best of this group and have done it with only Dirk as an All-Star and amid a plethora of injuries. The Heat are steady and Wade is now clearly their best player and arguably the best player in the NBA. How do you sort this out?

For me, it comes down to consistency. There is only one player on this list that hasn't had even a minor slump this year. Only one player that is about to become the fourth player (along with Big O, MJ, and West) to EVER go 30-7-6 in a season. Of this group, LeBron is playing the most minutes and has the best efficiency numbers. He has put the "clutch" problem to bed for good with a series of game-winning passes and shots (and now Elias is reporting that he is by far the best shooter in the NBA in the final two minutes of close games). Plus, his team is on fire down the stretch. If they pass New Jersey for third in the East (currently a half-game back), they would finish third in the conference and seventh overall ... the same place in the standings enjoyed by Jordan's Bulls 18 years ago. I kind of like the symmetry in that.

On top of all that, LBJ had that classic game on Final Four Saturday when he outdueled Wade, posted a 47-12-10 triple double, and took over the most exciting regular season game of the season. It is moments like that tend put the finishing touches on an MVP resume.

With my sincerest apologies to Wade, Nash, and Dirk, I have to take The King on this one.

LeBron James is my choice for MVP.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Guide to Picking the AL MVP

As published over at Blog Critics. Click on the link to read it here.

Nash Running Out of Gas?

I love watching Steve Nash and the Suns play basketball. I would like nothing more than to see them stomp the Lakers in the first round, run past Denver in the second, and then boot the Spurs out of the playoffs. A Pistons-Suns Final would be fantastic for the NBA. However, the chances of any of that happening (let alone all of it) are diminishing every day. They have lost eight of their last 15 games and six of the past 10, including four by more than 14 points. Marion's play (particularly his shooting) has tailed off, guys like James Jones and Tim Thomas are struggling, and Raja Bell looks like he's out there shaving points half the time. More than anything, Nash looks beat. He had only nine points and five assists against the Clippers tonight while shooting 4-for-11 from the field and committing five turnovers while Shaun Livingston torched him on the other end. Over his last five games, his 14/9/3 numbers look more like a good stretch for Carlos Arroyo than the type of stats we're used to seeing from the prohibitive favorite to win a second straight MVP award. Which begs the question: is Nash losing his hold on the MVP award? His recent cold stretch is certainly opening the door for the likes of Dirk, Wade, and even LeBron. It should be interesting to see if Nash and the Suns can rebound in time to save what looked like a glorious season.

Claiming First Mover

I know it is lame to highlight your own work, but I just want to point everyone to a column posted in January. At a time when Larry Brown was still being treated like the prince of all things basketball, I decided to send a little blame his way. Now, over two months later, people are finally turning on the golden boy. ESPN's Chris Broussard took Brown to task in his blog and Total Basketball's Ken Shouler absolutely blasted him in a column that appeared today on the Worldwide Leader. All I'm saying is I want credit for this. Is that too much to ask? (Don't answer that.)