More HB

-The Mets rebounded with a 6-3 win over the Phillies thanks to Jose Reyes game breaking three-run homer in the home sixth off reliever Ryan Madson grabbing a share of the division lead with the rubber match this afternoon on Kids Day with Oliver Perez opposing Jamie Moyer. Twice, the Phils rallied from early deficits against John Maine, getting back-to-back homers from Shane Victorino and Geoff Jenkins plus a Jimmy Rollins RBI double. Maine settled down to go seven permitting just the three runs on six hits with two walks and five strikeouts for his ninth victory- first since June 25 versus Seattle.
The Mets got a lift from closer Billy Wagner, who returned from a stiff shoulder after a night off retiring his former team in order for his 25th save in 31 chances. Met fans who might get a little nervous when he takes the mound for the ninth, please not what tonight’s hero Reyes said of the veteran:

“He makes it easy.”

As for Billy The Kid, he was happy to get back out there despite some aching:

“Of course you feel it, but I was able to stick with it. If I can compete, I’ll be out there. The training crew, they deserve a lot of this credit. They were fantastic. They deserve a lot of the credit just to get me out there.”

Nice to see the chatty lefty who’s closed out 383 games pay due respect to the trainers as they play a key role in any locker room.

If the Amazin’s can get today’s game which starts a little after 12, that will be four consecutive series from their nemesis. It should be fun to see what happens.

-Props to second baseman Damion Easley, who at age 39 continues to defy logic by hitting the ball well. In fact, as WFAN talkie Steve Somers pointed out during an interview, “You had to set a record with those three infield hits for oldest player.”

The Schmoozer has to be right. How in the world are the Mets a better team with Luis Castillo, who’s here another four years as DL fodder? Plus rookie Argenis Reyes has been a solid defensive backup who boasts much better range.
-Down in South Florida, the Marlins were routed by Atlanta 9-4 preventing a three-way first place tie. Gregor Blanco and Yunel Escobar each drove in three runs and Tim Hudson tossed six shutout frames striking out a batter per inning before leaving with an injury. Chipper Jones also left early due to a left hamstring strain. The veteran third baseman was 0-for-2 with an RBI but is still pacing the Senior Circuit with a .369 average. Remarkable.

-C.C. Sabathia continues to dominate for Milwaukee this time going the distance in a 3-0 blanking of St. Louis to pull the wild card-leading Brew Crew two games ahead of the Cards. J.J. Hardy and Ryan Braun hit solo shots and the former Cleveland southpaw who won the AL Cy last year three-hit St. Louis walking a pair while K-ing seven. He tossed 106 pitches with 71 going for strikes. In four starts since switching leagues, he’s a perfect 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA completing three games and even hitting a home run. Is there anyone who still believes this wasn’t the right move for the Brewers even though they parted with a package which included top prospect Matt Laporta???

-Matt Holliday drove in a pair as the Rockies defeated the Dodgers 5-3 for their sixth win in seven making much traveled veteran southpaw Glendon Rusch a winner for the fourth time this season. I didn’t even know he still pitched. Brian Fuentes closed it out for save No.17 as Colorado improved to 45-58 which is now good enough to trail first place Arizona (50-51), who fell at home to the Cubs 10-6 by six games. The Dodgers meanwhile at three under (49-52) remained a game out. What a division. Who thinks I’m still crazy for believing the Rockies will comeback to take it?!?!?!?!?!?! ;-)

-The Red Sox got three runs in the 12th highlighted by a two-run Mike Lowell single in a 6-3 triumph over hapless Seattle sweeping the series to remain three up on the Yankees for the AL wild card. In a big series, Boston now gets a day off to travel back East to Fenway where they’ll host those red hot Yanks for three beginning tomorrow.

-Don’t look now but the Brewers have won seven in a row and sit just a game in back of the Cubs for the NL’s best record.

-Man. I don’t know about you but what the heck did the Hawks do so wrong after taking the eventual NBA champion Celtics seven to watch valuable sixth man Josh Childress leave for Greece?

-Final thought. Who decided that Wendy Williams should become a TV host? Just saying.

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Now that’s Hawktastic

In the old days, the NBA had a signature phrase, “Now that’s fantastic.” These days in Atlanta, it’s more like Hawktastic! 

Twenty years ago, the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics hooked up in a great seven-game second round series. Best remembered for the classic Game Seven duel between superstars Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird, the scoring war went to The Human Highlight Film but not the series as Boston advanced thanks to 20 fourth quarter points from Larry Legend. Wilkins, who scored a game high 47 (13 better than Bird) had 16 in a losing effort. The Celtics won 118-116.

In the rich history of the Boston Celtics, they’ve never lost a series deciding Game Seven. That and plenty more will all be on the line when the East’s top seed hosts the underdog Hawks tomorrow afternoon at TD Northbank Garden. It doesn’t quite have that same feel as the fabled Boston Garden where the green and white won so many NBA titles. Just maybe that will be enough incentive for upstart Atlanta, a team who won 37 games during the regular season. That’s 29 fewer than Kevin Garnett and the Celts won in posting the league’s best record to gain home court.

The deciding game became necessary when the Hawks held up their end of the bargain by winning on their home floor at a loud Phillips Arena of better than 20,000. Like Game Four, Boston built a double digit lead taking a 32-20 cushion after one quarter. But the Celts couldn’t handle prosperity allowing a resilient group of Hawks to outscore them 29-18 cutting the deficit to one by the half.

Everytime the Celtics tried to take control, Atlanta made a timely basket to stay right with them. Trailing by three after 36 minutes, the Hawks used better aggressive defense and heady play on the offensive end to stifle their opponent outscoring them 24-18 to pull out a hard fought 104-101 Game Six win.

When his team needed a big bucket in crunch time, Game Four hero Joe Johnson delivered once again. With the Celts within two and the shot clock winding down, he faked out defender James Posey and then stepped into a trey from the right arc nailing it for a 100-95 lead with over a minute left. It was the only three Atlanta made all night.

If Johnson was the star in outscoring Boston 20-17 by himself a few nights ago, then he got plenty of help from a well balanced attack which included 16 points, five rebounds and four assists from NBA Rookie of The Year runner-up Al Horford. On a night when Boston doubled to limit Johnson’s touches, other Hawks came through including veteran guard Mike Bibby, who made just enough free throws to hold off Boston’s last charge without Paul Pierce, who fouled out and drew a technical.

Bibby stepped up supporting Johnson’s 15, five assists and four rebounds with a similar 17, seven assists and six boards. After converting one-of-two to keep the Celts’ hopes alive of forcing overtime, the former Sacramento King and teammates played splendid D not allowing Rajon Rondo to find an open Posey or Ray Allen for a potential tying three. Instead, the pass oriented point guard went to the last option forcing a 25-footer which drew nothing but air as the Hawks and their pumped up fans celebrated by chanting, “Se—ven, Se—ven, Se—ven!!!!!”

All five Atlanta starters hit for double figures including Marvin Williams’ 18 which paced them despite missing most of the final quarter due to a twisted knee while guarding Pierce. Showing playoff mettle, he came back into the game to play defense with 20 seconds remaining. The plan worked as an Allen force from way downtown missed wide forcing the Celts to foul. He just didn’t have the touch from the outside clanging seven of eight three-point attempts despite 20 points.

When Williams wasn’t in, replacement Josh Childress was ripping it up to the tune of 15 points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal. The former 2004 first rounder out of Stanford has really played big in this series, playing awesome D along with timely hoops and unselfish dishes. His hustle has also kept several loose balls alive including three big offensive rebounds last night.

The Hawks also got a valiant effort from little used reserve center Zaza Pachulia. The big man who jawed with Garnett during Game Four played 28 big minutes scoring nine points on three of four from the field with three free throws, six boards including four offensive and two steals.

That kind of yeoman effort is the reason they’re headed back to Boston for a Game Seven rematch 20 years in the making. Well, maybe it’s not quite Nique and Bird with current Celtic coach Doc Rivers on the Hawk side. But it sure is great theater.

The pressure will be squarely on Boston. They swept all three regular season meetings and have won by an average of 22 points in Games 1, 2 and 5 on their home court.

They didn’t bring in the Big Ticket (22 pts, 7 rebs, 6 assists) and Allen to flop in the first round against a hungry athletic opponent who wants to victimize a heavy favorite much the way Baron Davis and the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors stunned Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in this same round. So, the pressure will be immense when they tip off Game Seven at 1 ET tomorrow in Boston.

If the Celts win, they’ll play LeBron James and the Cavs, who for the third consecutive year eliminated the Wizards on their home floor . James posted a triple double with 27 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in a 105-88 Game Six win at Verizon Center. Deadline pickup Wally Szczerbiak connected on six treys netting 26 points and Daniel Gibson came off the bench for 22 including another four from beyond the arc.

Antawn Jamison paced the Wizards with a double/double (23 and 15) in a losing effort. Game Five hero Caron Butler was limited to 18 on 6 of 14 shooting with four turnovers.

The Utah Jazz also advanced to an enticing Conference Semifinal match-up against rumored regular season league MVP Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Despite a heroic 40 points, 10 boards and five assists from Tracy McGrady, the Jazz used a more balanced attack with seven different players netting double digits including 10 apiece from reserve guards Kyle Korver and Matt Harpring.

McGrady, who is now 0-7 in playoff series did all he could for the shorthanded Rockets who lost starting guard Rafer Alston to an injury early on which didn’t help their cause. In the past, I’ve been critical of him but the guy did all he could to get his team back in the game. They trailed by 19 in the first half before a McGrady led run which included back-to-back three’s cut the lead to four at the half. The only other Rocket in double digits was rookie power forward Luis Scola, who finished with 15 and nine boards.

The Jazz responded with a strong third quarter outscoring the Rockets 27-11. Point guard Deron Williams had 13 by himself including two straight trifectas which put Utah back in command up 18. The former Illinois standout finished with 25, nine assists and six rebounds. Mehmet Okur added a double/double (19 and 13) and Carlos Boozer chipped in with 15, 10 and 5. 

Utah cruised to a 113-91 Game Six win to setup Sunday’s Game One at Los Angeles. Figure that to be a great series.

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Johnson’s 20 in fourth quarter helps Hawks draw even with Celtics

Joe Johnson couldn’t be stopped. The top seeded Celtics had no answer for the explosive leading Hawks’ scorer who scored 20 of his game high 35 in a fourth quarter comeback to lead the big underdog to a second straight home win 97-92 in Game Four-leveling the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece.

In a back and forth riveting playoff game at Phillips Arena which saw the eighth seeded Hawks comeback from a 16-3 hole to take an eight-point lead before a strong third quarter by Boston put them down 10, the home team rallied outscoring the Celts 32-17 in the last 12 minutes to win their second straight. Most expected them to go quietly and get swept after not being competitive in the first two games but Atlanta had other ideas taking Game Three 102-93 and using that strong fourth quarter to square the series and put all tons of pressure on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen  along with the rest of former Hawk point guard Doc Rivers’ team.

It was Johnson and super athletic deluxe Josh Smith (28 pts, 12 of 13 FT, Hawks franchise playoff record seven blocks, six rebounds) who took all the Hawks’ shots combining to score all 32 points dominating the paint against a normally strong Boston defensive club. In particular, they weren’t able to shutdown Johnson, who toasted Allen on effective pick n’ roll isolation all quarter scoring on an array of floaters. Maybe the biggest shot in a game where his team trailed 75-65 after being outscored 27-14 in the third was a classic schoolyard crossover where defender Leon Powe was so badly faked out that he fell down allowing Johnson to step back and drain a trey from the left arc, putting Mike Woodson’s team up four with 4:41 left as a raucous crowd erupted invoking memories of Atlanta-Boston series past which featured NBA Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.

At one point, Johnson scored nine straight including a couple of ridiculous finishes where he sliced and diced the Boston D. Along with some money free throw making from Smith, they wouldn’t allow Atlanta to lose insuring that there would be another home game in the series.

Two late James Posey three’s weren’t enough as Johnson and Smith finished off the Celts at the line. In fact, the dynamic duo finished with 18 of Atlanta’s 29 free throw makes. Overall, the Hawks shot lights out going 29 for 33 as compared to the Celtics’ 10 of 18. That was the biggest difference.

They also got invaluable contributions from rookie Al Horford on the defensive glass as he finished with a game high 13 boards. Josh Childress came off the bench to grab nine rebounds including a big offensive board late to get a new shotclock. He also had a highlight reel tomahawk jam netting four points and two assists in nearly 32 minutes.

The game also featured some nastiness with Garnett and Atlanta backup center Zaza Pachulia going nose to nose before cooler heads prevailed. Pachulia took exception to a KG elbow going right after the Boston superstar nearly butting him. Both got T’s as did Sam Cassell and Johnson in which each respective coach came out making certain nobody from the bench got involved.

Good thing too because league commish David Stern was in the house looking on. There could be fines but it doesn’t look like there will be any suspensions which would be the best case scenario with a best two-of-three deciding this series.

“We all know he’s a great player,” Pachulia later indicated of Garnett who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals in a losing cause. “He’s done a lot of good things for the league. He’s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesn’t matter when we’re on the court.”

“I don’t take anything from anybody,” Pachulia added. “The message was, ‘We’re right here. Even if we lose, it’s not going to be easy.”’

Message delivered.

Two Advance: In the other two first round games played Monday night, both Orlando and the Lakers advanced to the Conference Semis.

The Magic got another 20/20 performance from man child Dwight Howard (21 pts, 21 rebs) as they eliminated the Raptors posting a 102-92 Game Five home win.

Howard paced a balanced attack which saw all five starters hit for double digits including a double/double from Rashard Lewis (18 and 13), 19 from Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu’s 12 along with a game high nine assists.

Turkoglu was presented with the NBA’s Most Improved Player before the game beating out Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Reserve guard Keith Bogans also came off the bench nailing three triples for 11 points, six boards and two assists in 35 minutes.

Toronto was paced by star power forward Chris Bosh’ 16 and nine rebounds. Supersubs Jason Kapono, Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon each netted double figures combining for five treys and 39 points. Raptor point guard T.J. Ford added 14 but only five assists while turning it over four times.

Orlando now will await the 76ers-Pistons winner. That series is tied 2-2.

Meanwhile out West, the top seeded Lakers advanced with a hard fought 107-101 Game Four road win over the Nuggets, sweeping their talented opponent out of the playoffs. It’s the fifth consecutive year Denver’s bowed out in the first round. According to TNT, the Nuggets became the first 50-win team in playoff history to be swept in Round One.

Kobe Bryant came alive in the final quarter scoring 14 of his 31 in the last five and a half following a 17+ minute drought. Making an assortment of Kobe-esque shots as only the Laker superstar can do, he carried his team down the stretch in shooting down a more pesky Denver team finishing them off to advance to Round Two where they’ll play either Utah or Houston. The Jazz lead that series 3-1.

Bryant is a lot like Michael Jordan in that when his team needs it most, he’ll step up and make the very difficult big shots which provide sparks. This was a fun game to watch with the Nuggets refusing to go away thanks to some ridiculous hot shooting from sixth man J.R. Smith. The 22 year-old out of Freehold, New Jersey hit a couple of deep three’s including a 28-footer. That along with a three-point play put Denver back ahead by one 96-95 with over three minutes to play.

But a tough Kobe trademark 15-foot floater along with some great passing to setup an uncontested Luke Walton trey from the right corner put Los Angeles on top 100-96 with 2:37 left.

The Nuggets never seriously threatened again. It was the first time in franchise history they were swept out of the postseason.

“My wish would be that we had four games like tonight and we all could have been happier,” Nuggets coach George Karl lamented of his team which doesn’t always play disciplined on both ends.

“I’ve said all along, when they play the right way, they’re fun guys to coach.”

The dilemma for Denver moving forward is how do they change that chaotic style into a winner. They can score with Carmelo Anthony (21 pts, 11 rebs) and Allen Iverson (22 pts, 10-of-22 FG, only 2 assists) plus Smith, who becomes a free agent this summer. However, where’s the D? Marcus Camby plays hard as does Kenyon Martin, who has never quite fit in since bolting the Nets.

Unless Denver alters their style meaning not as much reliance on the offensive end at one-on-one emphasizing better team oriented play in the halfcourt set, they’ll continue to win games but not when it counts most.

It’s high time for an adjustment.

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