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-Make it two straight losses for the Yankees, who were blanked by resurgent southpaw Cliff Lee 3-0 in the Bronx tonight. A year removed from an injury sidetracking him back to Buffalo to get fixed in Triple-A, the 29 year-old Lee has returned better than ever dominating opponents. He’s now won all six starts walking only two in 44-plus. The Yanks managed six hits in seven innings but couldn’t come up with the big one to bail out tough luck loser Chien-Ming Wang, who permitted a run in the first, fourth and fifth. He went seven falling to 6-1. The best chance Joe Girardi’s club had was a two out rally but Lee buckled down getting Hideki Matsui swinging on a wicked curve to end the sixth. The lefty fanned seven before giving way to 1-2 punch Rafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt with the latter getting the Yanks in order to save his second straight.

-While the Mets dominate the airwaves in this city for their inconsistencies in the wake of a forgettable September, it’s the Yanks up and down play which has gotten lost in the shuffle. What exactly is this team which wins a few, then loses a few and never seems to be able to come up with the big hit when behind after seven innings? At 17 up and 18 down, the Bronx Bombers are an enigma which continues to lose ground to a much stronger Red Sox club. Only due to the Tigers scratching out two against stingy closer Jonathan Papelbon did Boston not increase their lead which remained at four and a half over the Yanks. Sure. They’re still without Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada which impacts the lineup. However, the good teams find a way to overcome obstacles. Right now, they’re very mediocre with the April excuse behind them. It’s time to step up.

-The final day of a six-game Western swing was a very good one for the Mets, who hammered Brad Penny for 10 earned in four and two thirds en route a 12-1 rout of the Dodgers, salvaging the final game of the series to even their record to 3-3. The Amazin bats awakened with four in the second including a two-run single from third string catcher Raul Casanova. Up five, they batted around for six more in the fifth. Even starter John Maine got into the act with a two-run single. Luis Castillo’s walk forced in a run. Following a David Wright two-run double, Castillo came into score on a wild pitch for an 11-0 lead. Right fielder Ryan Church continued to swing a hot bat taking ex-Yankee Scott Proctor deep into the Dodger bullpen tying Wright for the club lead with six dingers. He paced the Amazin’s with three hits and three runs scored. 

It all came in support of a sharp Maine, who came within two outs of a too rare complete game shutout. Matt Kemp broke up the shutout with an RBI single. After 117 pitches, Maine was done giving way to ex-Dodger Duaner Sanchez, who recorded the last two outs getting James Loney swinging to end it. Maine went eight and a third allowing one earned on four hits with two walks and four K’s improving to 4-2 on the season.

-Now, the Mets return home to Shea for a seven-game homestand beginning Friday with three against the Reds and four versus Lastings Milledge and the Nats before a fun three-game series at Yankee Stadium next weekend.

-Speaking of Milledge, he’s gotten out of the gate slowly. After taking the collar in three plate appearances in a 4-3 walkoff loss to the Astros, the former Mets’ 2003 first round selection is hitting .256 with one home run, 11 RBI’s, 15 runs and three stolen bases in six attempts. Not the kind of start the 23 year-old Bradenton, Florida native wanted in his first full season manning center field in D.C. There’s still plenty of time for him to get going but you’d have to be foolish not to notice the early returns on that trade so far for Omar Minaya. With Church becoming the Mets’ most consistent performer in their lineup and catcher Brian Schneider (.308-0-8, .395 OBP) playing well in 19 starts despite injuries, it couldn’t be going much better for the Mets.

If Church and Schneider continue to perform well, there won’t be much to complain about for Amazin fans when it comes to that deal. Come to think of it, nobody’s had much to say lately about it choosing to take our their frustrations on Oliver Perez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Aaron Heilman, Willie Randolph and Jose Reyes.

The Mets are 17-15 and still a weird team to get a read on which is why they get plenty of criticism after losses from fans and media alike. It’s because they expect a team which acquired one of the best pitchers in the game to play better than this after how last season ended. The talk from Randolph that his ballclub is more relaxed away from Shea doesn’t take them off the hook. This is New York. Players here must have thicker skin and be able to shake off the booing and heavy criticism. With two last place opponents coming in with a combined record of 28-40, the Amazin’s need to send a strong message by winning at least five of the next seven going into that weekend series against their crosstown rivals. Anything less would raise eyebrows.

-Where would the Braves be without Chipper Jones? With two more hits in a 5-2 home win over the Padres, the 36 year-old switch hitting third baseman is now hitting .429 (51-for-119) with 10 homers and 29 RBI’s. Just amazing stuff from one of the most consistent star players of this era. Last year with his team missing the postseason a second consecutive season, Chipper finished at .337, 29 homers and 102 knocked in despite missing 28 games. With another 42 doubles and four triples, he had 75 extra base hits. Did we mention his OBP was .425 along with a .604 slugging? The guy is just a great player. He needs four more dingers to reach 400 for his career. He’s also closing in on 2,200 hits 32 shy after tonight. By the time he concludes his career, the man they refer to as Larry in Queens will be in Cooperstown.

Chauncey Billups going down tonight with a possible groin injury changes everything in that Pistons-Magic series. He’s the glue which keeps Detroit together. Tell ya one thing. Rashard Lewis (33 pts, 11-of-15 FG, 5-of-6 3’s) sure is shooting it well. Having Dwight Howard (20 pts, 8-of-13 FG, 12 Rebs, 6 Blk) inside definitely helps. I still think it comes down to the play of Hedo Turkoglu, who came to life in the fourth quarter scoring 10 of his 18 as the Magic outscored the Pistons 38-17 to win 111-86 getting back in the series. If the streaky shooter plays better along with Jameer Nelson, then Orlando should be pretty competitive. Who knows how Billups’ injury will affect him?

-Is there still an NHL playoffs going on? I wasn’t too sure.

-It’s not everyday that Rafa Nadal loses on clay but that happened earlier today when Juan Carlos Ferrero got the better of the Spaniard ousting him 7-5, 6-1 in Rome. It was only Nadal’s second defeat on the red surface in 105 matches. He did play with a blister but give Ferrero his due. This probably isn’t a good sign for Nadal’s future opponents in Roland Garros because it will make the rating three-time French Open champion even more focused and harder to beat.

-I just want to say it’s nice to know that Barry Zito is back in the San Fran rotation again. At least the $128 million man pitched effectively enough to keep his team in a game for a change, only giving up two earned to fall to 0-7. Will he make 20 losses? Hey. His ERA dropped below 7.00. We’re sure Scott Boras is telling Brian Sabean about that.

-Speaking of Boras, when he says Oli Perez is one of the best pitchers in baseball, does he actually believe that?

-Pirate center fielder Nate McClouth is hitting .333 with nine homers, 28 knocked in and 31 runs. Just wanted to make sure you’ve been paying attention.

-The special PBS aired on legendary singer Marvin Gaye was excellent and depicted what one of the most soulful singers went through where despite all his God given talents was never really satisfied. All due to his crazy father, who wound up killing him. It definitely told a sad tale of a man influenced by depression, sex and drugs. If you missed it, find the time to catch it.

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Missed call helps Detroit double up Orlando

Well, at least the Magic have an excuse. They played better against the Pistons in Game Two but had a tough call go against them. Near the end of the third quarter, the clock never started creating tons of confusion when Chauncey Billups nailed a three to put Detroit up two.

The question was did he get it off in time? There were 4.9 seconds left when the controversy took place. Due to NBA regulations, the three officials couldn’t review the tape instead conferencing for about five minutes before deciding to reward the Detroit point guard with a three. From watching TNT replays, I counted 5.2 which the network later confirmed as the fourth quarter began.

Unfortunately for Stan Van Gundy’s Magic, it didn’t matter. They still had 12 minutes to overcome that mistake. Orlando certainly had their chances but just couldn’t make enough big plays down the stretch getting outscored 22-17 in the fourth quarter and falling 100-93.

They had fallen behind by 10 at the half after a miserable second quarter which saw them score only 11 points. Then the Magic came out and played a superb third quarter outscoring the Pistons 36-28 to pull within two. In particular, Rashard Lewis came alive draining a couple of treys and scoring 16 of 20 in the second half. Jameer Nelson also was much better scoring the ball and nailing five triples to the tune of 22. In fact, Orlando who shot just 2-of-15 from the outside was a perfect seven-for-seven in the third.

Too bad the Billups trey counted. Otherwise, they would’ve led by one entering the final quarter. Those kind of shots can swing momentum. For Orlando, it was a bad break cause it definitely shouldn’t have counted. Regardless, they did come out strong in the fourth and even took a four point lead on a thunderous follow-up jam by Dwight Howard, who was much better finishing with 22 and 18 boards (8 offensive) plus two rejections.

Clearly, the Pistons were on the ropes forcing Flip Saunders to call for time. Howard was getting players in foul trouble. That the Magic didn’t exploit that in the last five and a half minutes was a big reason they lost to fall behind 0-2 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semi series.

How did the experienced Pistons respond out of the timeout? Like you’d expect. By going on a 7-0 run to take a 91-88 lead. First, a classic Rasheed Wallace score in the post cut it to two. After a bad Magic possession, Richard Hamilton made a contested three from the key to put them up one. Billups then hit a 14-foot runner. In less than two minutes, they were up three and back in control.

Orlando kept it close on an open Nelson three to cut it to two. They never got the game tied as Billups was great down the stretch getting to the charity stripe and making his free throws where one of the game’s best converted all 10. Hamilton also made five of six despite an off shooting night (4-of-18 FG) to still net 14 in support of Billups’ game high 28.

The Magic did have a chance to tie it a couple of different times but a wild Hedo Turkoglu three off an in bounds missed completely. Their last gasp was a Lewis runner which went off the back of the rim with Howard’s tip try also missing right to Turkoglu, who had the ball cleanly stripped by Theo Ratliff off his leg handing it back to Detroit. The Pistons converted enough free throws to put the game out of reach.

Both teams had all five starters in double digits with Orlando getting a better game from Maurice Evans, who hit a couple of three’s and netted 13 in a losing effort. Turkoglu struggled with his scoring touch only making 5-of-11 from the field despite two treys. Though he involved other teammates with a game best seven assists, the NBA’s Most Improved Player was awful turning the ball over six times. Lewis also had six miscues and Howard turned it over five comprising for 17 of Orlando’s 19 on the night. Just way too many to win on the road. By contrast, the Pistons only had eight.

Detroit got a better game from Wallace, who hit for 17 (7-of-10 FG). Supporting cast players Tayshaun Prince (17 pts, 10 rebs, 5 assists, 2 steals, blk) and Jason Maxiell (11 pts, 5-of-5 FG, 4 rebs, 3 blks, 3 assists) each had solid overall games.

The Piston bench outscored Orlando 13-4 with Antonio McDyess getting six and Rodney Stuckey adding five. Former Piston Carlos Arroyo netted all four for the Magic.

Key stat difference: Winning basketball games means taking care of the ball. Assist to turnover ratios are crucial.

Orlando- 16 assists, 19 turnovers, minus-three

Detroit- 23 assists, 8 turnovers, plus-15

Clearly, that needs to change for the Magic to make it a series.

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Paul and West sting Duncan’s Spurs in Game One

How good is Chris Paul? The third-year Hornets’ floor general is plenty good already. After toasting Jason Kidd in Round One, Paul had his way with the Spurs in Game One of the Western Conference Semis, scoring 13 of 17 in the second half while handing out 13 assists and four steals in a 101-82 home win Saturday night.

Paul got plenty of help from teammates David West, who scored a playoff career high 30 (13-of-23 FG) with nine rebounds and 22 from Peja Stojakovic (9-of-15 FG) including a couple of three’s.

After falling behind 8-0 at the start, the Spurs cameback and outscored the Hornets 49-37 the rest of the half to lead by four at halftime. They slowed down the pace and executed in the halfcourt with lightning quick Tony Parker slashing for lay-ups and setting up Bruce Bowen for five treys. The feisty defender got all five in an excellent first half, only scoring two free throws the rest of the way.

The Spurs held a four-point lead early in the third quarter without much from Tim Duncan, who never got untracked finishing a dismal 1-of-9 from the floor, matching a career playoff low with only five points. How ineffective was he? The Big Fundamental only had three total rebounds, two assists and one foul in over 37 minutes. He also bricked three of six free throws, which was a team epidemic. The Spurs misfired on nine of 21 from the line.

Eventually, Duncan’s dreadful game along with a stagnant offense worked in the younger Hornets’ favor. With Paul getting more aggressive, they took control scoring eight straight to go up four. He setup a couple of easy dunks. The Spurs never recovered falling behind by eight after three quarters.

It would only get worse as Paul sliced up their D scoring and setting up open teammates. West also was draining 17-footers from both sides of the court and Stojakovic was taking advantage of mismatches to score inside off the dribble.

The Hornets had it all working. They played outstanding D in the second half outscoring San Antonio by 23 and forcing 13 total turnovers including an unusual five from Parker. By contrast, the hosts turned it over just seven times.

The Spurs were manhandled on the glass getting outrebounded 50-34 with New Orleans doubling them up 16-8 on the offensive glass. Quite a few times, free Hornets got to loose balls for putbacks including one from Bonzi Wells who came off the bench for 10 and a monster follow-up jam by Tyson Chandler, who paced everyone with 15 boards (6 offensive). The ex-Bull also added 10 points and three blocks.

Paul put an exclamation point on the win with a couple of killer crossovers flying by Spurs for easy lay-ins. He also made two consecutive steals including one which concluded with a dunk. Message delivered.

So, can the Spurs recover? Duh. They have before. No way will Duncan be this ineffective in Game Two. Gregg Popovich is a master at adjusting. He knows that if he gets the normal game from his star power forward along with the 42 combined points and 12 assists Parker and super sixth man Manu Ginobili delivered, the defending champs will be right there.

The question is can they slow down the explosive Paul? That remains to be seen. It’s undoubtedly the key to the series.

For the record, before they tipped off my pick was Spurs in 6 due to their wealth of experience. That said, I did give the Hornets a decent chance to win because they match-up. I just think in a 6-7 game series, that trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will find a way to get it done. But if Game One was any indication, they’re going to be severely tested. Don’t forget too that Byron Scott has been around the block before winning three rings with the Lakers and coaching a flawed Nets team to back-to-back NBA Finals. So, he knows what it takes.

It should make for a compelling brand of basketball.

There was one other series which got underway with the Pistons having their way with the Magic 91-72. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton exposed Orlando’s backcourt of Jameer Nelson and Maurice Evans outscoring them 36-11 with five more assists (10-5) and three fewer turnovers (2 to 5).

Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu each got 18 and had near identical stat lines but as predicted, didn’t do much from the outside making only one three in seven combined attempts. Orlando as a team shot 2-for-15 from three. 

It didn’t help much that Dwight Howard was banged up bruising his left wrist when now Piston starting power forward Jason Maxiell hit his arm while going for a rebound. In 35-plus minutes, Howard finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks before sitting out most of the final quarter with the game out of reach. The only decision Stan Van Gundy could make.

The Pistons placed five in double figures including 12 apiece from Maxiell and Tayshaun Prince. Antonio McDyess came off the bench for 10 points, five rebounds and two rejections in 23 minutes.

Game Two is Monday at The Palace with a special 6 ET start time. We’ll try to confirm if that’s accurate.

Later today, the Lakers and Jazz get underway. But first up will be Hawks-Celtics in another Game Seven 20 years after that epic Dominique vs Bird duel with Boston prevailing. The Hawks have never won a road Game Seven in franchise history losing three different times to the Celts. Will the fourth time be the charm? Find out at 1 ET on ABC!

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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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