Quote Of The Day

Our Quote Of The Day comes from who other than the always loquacious Charles Barkley. Chuck actually showed his face in MSG to help call Knicks/Lakers on TNT alongside Marv Albert and Steve Kerr. We all know how much love he has for the Knicks but he also feels similarly towards former coach Mike “No ‘D'” D’Antoni who is clueless as to how to fix the Lakers.

Albert, Barkley and Kerr engaged in a discussion about the lack of cohesion LA is showing under D’Antoni, who likes to run an entertaining system contingent on a point guard. With no Steve Nash and the team reduced to third stringer Chris Duhon, Kerr mentioned how he doesn’t think the Lakers can play at the high tempo D’Antoni wants. Barkley offered this gem as Carmelo Anthony converted a three-point play:

“They’re [Lakers] playing D’Antoni’s system at the defensive end.”

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Joba not the savior in first outing

Copyright Getty Images

Joba Chamberlain is pulled in the third inning of his first big league start by skipper Joe Girardi. The much anticipated move to the rotation didn't go smoothly with Chamberlain lasting just two and a third before giving way to a paltry bullpen. 

By show of hands, who actually believed into the ridiculous hype of this rush job regarding pushing Joba Chamberlain from eighth inning fixture to starter? Exactly.

I’ve gone on record as saying moving Joba to the rotation is a mistake which could prove costly for the Yankees this year. The way the organization has mishandled this move is a joke. What exactly was the rush? Giving the 22 year-old Lincoln, Nebraska native basically a two week window to go from setup to starter makes about as much sense as the Bulls hiring Doug Collins two decades later out of the TNT broadcast booth.

The Yanks should’ve been more patient and stretched Chamberlain out a few more relief outings to build up his arm.

End result against Toronto ace Roy Halladay last night:

2.1 IP, 2 R, ER, 1 H, 4 BB, 3 K, 62 pitches (32 strikes)

Not a very pretty line. In fact, Joba needed 38 pitches to escape his first inning permitting a run.

It’s going to take time for the former 2006 first round supplemental pick to adjust back to being a starter. Last year, he won eight games across the minors before being shifted to the pen to setup for Mariano Rivera. The difference was the organization made certain to give him enough stints before recalling the fireballer to overwhelming success.

Anyone who’s looked at this season’s Pinstripe edition can see that pitching is an issue. However, by subtracting Joba from the pen, it further weakened the seventh and eighth innings which now fall on the shoulders of Kyle Farnsworth along with bust LaTroy Hawkins. There’s also inexperienced guys such as Ross Ohlendorf, Jose Veras and Edwar Ramirez. Hardly reassuring options for a mediocre club which dropped its third straight and saw their pig pen implode a second game in a row turning a one-run game into a Toronto 9-3 laugher at The Stadium.

So what’s the plan exactly? Does the organization eventually elevate relief prospect Mark Melanchon from Double-A Trenton where he’s having good success? Don’t expect it anytime soon.

It’s hard to fathom who’s calling the shots here. Hank Steinbrenner voiced his displeasure about Chamberlain’s role wanting him to start. But is it best for the team right now? Chien-Ming Wang is a reliable seven inning starter. Vets Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina can go six. Darrell Rasner has proven to be effective thus far able to pitch deep into games while keeping the ballclub afloat. How many innings on average can Chamberlain be expected to go? Tough to gauge. His command must improve if this gamble is to pay off.

Here’s another question for Yankee brass. Why mess with Joba when Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy should be returning for the second half? What exactly is the plan when either comeback? They’ve been starters their entire pro careers which means that’s a numbers problem.

Unless the Yanks are planning to move Rasner to middle relief, it’s an issue. Why move Rasner if he continues to fare well? That’s what the Bronx zoo is like these days where you’re on an emotional rollercoaster trying to figure out what they’ll do next.

Frankly, this team isn’t that good and deserving of their 28-30 last place record seven behind Tampa and six and a half behind Boston. The Jays are showing signs even without Vernon Wells four out and they’ve got much better pitching than the Bronx Bombers.

So, is it going to get any better? Probably not for a while. Especially with a relief corps providing comedy for opponents.

This is what Joe Girardi signed up for and what Joe Torre got away from. Which Joe do you think is smiling these days?

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Celts can’t keep LeBron down forever

Tried as they did, the Boston Celtics couldn’t succeed at keeping Cavalier superstar LeBron James down forever. Despite another poor shooting night, the league’s leading regular season scorer was able to break loose in crunch time to push his team past Doc Rivers’ top seeded Celts last night to take Game Four 88-77 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.

The series story had been James’ cool shooting. But when push came to shove, the riveting 23 year-old Akron, Ohio native sprung to life adding more “Witnesses” to his Nike campaign. With the two defensive minded Eastern foes locked in another low scoring battle, LeBron put together a good stretch to lift his team to a second straight victory holding serve on their home court to send the series back to Boston knotted at two apiece.

Unable to locate the range, James finally got untracked off a perfect pick n’ roll using Anderson Varejao’s screen to drain an uncontested triple in front of the Boston bench giving his team a 79-73 lead with over three minutes remaining. Following a tough Paul Pierce make inside, James setup Daniel Gibson for another trey from almost the identical spot. Mike Brown’s Cavs then played outstanding defense forcing the Celts into a miss. On the other end, James finally came off a double screen putting a facial dunk on NBA Defensive Player of The Year Kevin Garnett to make it 84-75.

It was just an awesome finish by one of the game’s very best. LeBron finished with 21 points and 13 assists- both game highs. Yes. Despite only shooting 7-of-20 from the floor, he was the only player who topped 20 speaking to just how physical the game was. It’s made for a very ugly brand of basketball. Neither is particularly good in the halfcourt offensively. Both play excellent D and make it very hard on the other to get good shots.

Does anyone else find it hysterical that these same Celtics had the league’s best record winning 66 games? They are now 0-for-5 on the road in the playoffs. They had to go seven before finally putting away the Hawks and look like they might be headed that same route.

It just seems like none of their Big Three which was swatted aside by TNT’s Magic Johnson want to take the big shot. Who out of Garnett (9 of 15 in 1st qtr), Pierce (three fourth qtr buckets, 13 pts) and Ray Allen (15, 4-of-10 FG, two 3’s) is going to step up and take control? Have to also agree with Magic that Rajon Rondo (7-of-14 FG, 15 pts) shouldn’t be taking more shots than either KG or Allen.

The Cavs have no such problem with the ball always in LeBron’s hands to either take the shot or setup open teammates. He made better decisions down the stretch winding up with four of his 13 assists in a 20-12 quarter which they controlled.

Cleveland got solid contributions from their bench which outscored Boston 36-17. Gibson had his best game of the series hitting a pair of trifectas while notching 14, six boards and four assists in 27-plus. Varejao also played excellent on both ends finishing with 12 points and six rebounds along with splendid D on Garnett. Ex-Bull Joe Smith added eight points and six boards.

Now, the series shifts back to Beantown where the pressure will be all on the Celtics to hold serve. If they don’t, it could be back-to-back comebacks from 0-2 down for LeBron’s Cavs. Last year, they victimized the Pistons to reach the NBA Finals.

How will the Celts respond? Tomorrow night should be fun.

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-It was a tough night for the baseball locals as both the Yanks and Mets dropped close ones. In the Bronx, Joba Chamberlain got into trouble in the eighth serving up a two out pinch hit three-run job by one-time Bomber David Dellucci to blow a win for Andy Pettite in a stinging 5-3 defeat at the hands of the Indians. Only difference was this time there were no killer gnats. It was the first home run Joba had allowed at the Stadium in his brief career. Called on to protect a one-run lead after Kyle Farnsworth had recorded the final two outs of the seventh, the 22 year-old flamethrower from Nebraska issued walks to Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta. Following the second out, he got to two strikes on Dellucci but the well traveled gritty veteran got around on a 96 MPH heater on the inside of the plate driving it into the short porch. It wasn’t a bad pitch. Just a great piece of hitting by Dellucci, whose fourth dinger of the season snapped a three-game Yankee win streak.

-With Joba showing his human side, lost in the shuffle were good nights from Pettite along with struggling sluggers Jason Giambi and Robinson Cano. The only damage Pettite gave up was a Peralta two-run homer, going six and a third on two earned, five hits while walking one and fanning six. As for Giambi, the veteran first baseman drove in two of three runs including a tying opposite field double. Cano drove him home with an RBI single to left for just the second baseman’s ninth RBI. Maybe that will get each going.

-As for the Mets, they suffered their own tough loss at the hands of former Yankee skipper Joe Torre’s Dodgers, who stayed sizzling with their 12th win in 13 thanks to a come from behind 5-4 win at Dodger Stadium. The Amazin’s got off to a quick start when right fielder Ryan Church took Dodger starter Hiroki Kuroda yard in the first inning. Willie Randolph’s ballclub increased the lead to 3-0 when they took advantage of a Kuroda throwing error plating two more runs courtesy of Luis Castillo’s RBI single followed a couple of batters later by Jose Reyes RBI base hit.

An inning after a Juan Pierre runscoring single got the Dodgers on the board, Moises Alou executed a double steal swiping home to restore a three-run lead. However, it was shortlived thanks to a memorable night for Dodger rookie third baseman Blake DeWitt. The 22 year-old former 2004 first round pick came up with a huge two out two-run third inning hit off ineffective Met starter Nelson Figueroa to slice the deficit to one. Two frames later also with a man on and two out, he drove a Figueroa pitch to deep right. A hustling Church couldn’t haul it in allowing Russell Martin to score the tying run.

What he didn’t know was that the ball was still in play. Thinking it had cleared the wall, he didn’t get up right away. By the time he did, it was too late as the sprinting DeWitt came around to score on third base coach Larry Bowa’s signal for an exciting inside the park home run. A night before, he had slugged his first career major league homer the conventional way. This time, it was his speed which victimized the Mets and wound up being the winning run due to outstanding relief work from Hong-Chih Kuo (W, 3.2 IP, 1 H, BB, 8 K’s), setup man Jonathan Broxton (1 IP, 1 H, 2 K’s) and closer Takashi Saito, who stopped a two out Met rally by freezing Castillo on a nasty slider to end the game.

Dodger pitchers struckout 12 Mets including David Wright looking with the tying runner Church in scoring position to end the Met eighth. The Mets stranded 21 runners in dropping their second straight in L.A. They’ll send John Maine (3-2, 3.48 ERA) to go against Dodger ace Brad Penny (5-2, 3.19 ERA) looking to avoid a sweep this afternoon (3:10 ET, WFAN, SNY) with an early start time out West.

-As usual, the Roger Clemens saga has been beaten to death by the usual suspects. This is probably Mike Lupica’s version of a wet dream. Like this nerdy columnist doesn’t have a few skeletons in his closet? Come on. Obviously, the Rocket is a liar. The question is does anyone really care anymore?

-Think recovering Ranger Sean Avery was exaggerating when he told the NY Post’s Larry Brooks that he thought he was done? Just saying.

-So it turns out A-Rod fainted when his wife gave birth to their child. It just makes him more normal even if he makes all that dough.

-The talk about that filly Eight Belles wanting to race in last Sunday’s Kentucky Derby is a travesty. Like it had a choice. I must not have realized it could talk. It’s about horse racing and gamblers getting rich off poor innocent horses such as Eight Belles, who had to be jettisoned on that very track where favorite Big Brown won the first leg of the triple crown. Gamblers don’t care what happens to these horses who basically put their lives on the line. Maybe it’s time for us to rethink this brutal sport. Sure. It gives us excitement. But something’s very wrong.

-LeBron just bricked another shot and lost the ball off his leg. Just thought you wanted to know.

-Tell ya one thing. If that’s the best the East has, it should be a cake walk for whoever comes out of the West. I’m still betting on Kobe’s Lakers.

-How special is Chris Paul? Two splendid games in uncompetitive second halfs against the defending champion Spurs has the Hornets thinking big. I still have to believe Gregg Popovich will get his team back in this one. Never count out Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

-TNT’s Ernie Johnson happens to be the coolest studio host in all of sports. Who else would wear a fisherman’s hat during the end of a segment with Kenny Smith and not bust out laughing?!?!?!?!?!

-It was 25 years ago yesterday that Darryl Strawberry debuted with the Mets. What a talented player he was. The Amazin’s most exciting first round pick lived up to the hype slugging catastrophic homers which defied logic. Remember when he hit one off the light beam in Montreal? Or what about in the old Astro Dome? Straw was just awesome. You never missed an at bat because you wanted to see what the powerful right fielder out of Los Angeles could do. He made you believe anything was possible as did teammate Dwight “Doc” Gooden. In eight seasons at Shea, he slugged 252 homers and stole 191 bases. He never hit lower than 26 dingers in an era when 30-or-more was considered great. Something Straw did three times including 39 in back-to-back seasons (1987, ’88). The 1983 NL ROY was robbed of the MVP in 1988 losing to Dodger outfielder Kirk Gibson. The eight-time NL All-Star (Mets-7, Dodgers-1) also finished third in 1990 which turned out to be his final season in Queens.

The question is how great would he have been if drugs and alcohol didn’t hound his career? He was a flawed superstar who somehow wound up back in NYC getting a second chance with the Yankees, where the baby face produced some nice moments including a towering blast to cap off the ALCS against Baltimore on the way to a second World Series in a decade. Only this time with the AL New York team. There also was a pinch hit ninth inning walkoff against the Royals where then WPIX’s Bobby Murcer actually predicted it. I also recall being at a three home run game against the White Sox with buddies. Special to say the least. I also was at Gooden’s no-hitter against Seattle with a good buddy. That we saw it for nothing due to snow in the home opener was pretty darn cool.

In many ways, Strawberry and Gooden will always be linked due to on field performances and off field disappointments. What if they had stayed on the field all the time? How great could they have been? We’ll never know.

-And finally, on that very theme comes the story of Cubs closer Kerry Wood. It was 10 years ago yesterday that as a rookie, he tied Roger Clemens’ strikeout record by fanning 20 Astros at Wrigley Field in just his fifth outing. To hear Houston hitters tell it in the Daily News baseball writer Anthony McCarron’s well written column, they had no chance against the wiz kid who at the time was 20 looking like a Cy Young fixture at the top of the Cubs’ rotation. He’d win 13 games in 26 starts losing just six while posting a 3.40 ERA and striking out 233 batters in 166-plus to win NL ROY and get them back to October. Then the next year, Wood’s elbow snapped and he missed all of 1999 and was a shadow of the promising hurler he once looked like drawing favorable comparisons to a young Clemens and Nolan Ryan.

That’s what injuries can do unfortunately. At least he’s still closing for the same team which selected him fourth overall 13 years ago. In 15 appearances this season, Wood’s 2-1 with a 4.24 ERA converting five of seven saves while fanning 16 in 17 innings. I’m rooting for him to have a good year.

-You don’t think the Phillies wish they could have that Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia deal back. Do ya?

-Big ups to former Baby Bomber pitching prospects George Kontos, Zach McAllister and Dellin Betances. All three are pitching extremely well rising up the Yankee charts. The other night, Kontos who only pitched Staten Island to a repeat with a dominant seven innings two summers ago K’d a season high 11 in five innings to notch his first win with Double-A Trenton. He’s 1-3 with a 3.79 ERA in seven starts with 33 K’s in 35.2 IP. Eighteen strikeouts have come in the last 10 and a third showing the promise the former Northwestern product has.

McAllister continues to perform very well. Sunday, the 20 year-old former 2006 third round pick went seven strong allowing no runs on six hits with a walk and four K’s to improve to 4-1 with a miniscule 0.92 ERA. In 39 innings with Single-A Charleston of the South Atlantic League, the Chillicothe, Illinois native has permitted 26 hits walking only five while whiffing 29 with a batting average against of .190.

Betances also has fared well with Charleston matching McAllister with his fourth victory in seven starts despite a season high seven walks Monday. The 20 year-old former Grand Street High School standout from Brooklyn, New York is 4-1 with a respectable 2.92 ERA with only a .171 BAA. In 37.0 frames, the former Yankees’ 2006 eighth round pick has given up 21 hits while walking 28 and K-ing 45. If he can improve his command, the lanky 6-8, 245 pound hard thrower with a mid-90’s fastball and wicked curve could crack the Yank rotation as early as 2010.

It’s always nice to see a few players I had the privilege of covering doing well. As we draw closer to another New York-Penn League season in mid-June, we’ll have more prospect updates. Stay tuned! 😀

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More HB

-Nice response by the Mets this weekend in Arizona taking two of three. Ya don’t think Billy Wagner had something to do with it? Jose Reyes had a real good series going 5-for-11 with three extra base hits including two triples, three runs scored, two RBI’s and a  stolen base in each game. It’s the first time all season he’s had steals in three straight.

Ryan Church continues to impress with four hits and his fourth homer in the series opening 7-2 win. The 29 year-old right fielder who was acquired with catcher Brian Schneider from the Nationals for Lastings Milledge is looking like a steal. He leads the team in hitting with a .318 average, four home runs, 22 RBI’s and 23 runs. Church also boasts a respectable .382 on-base percentage and has played solid defense which included a key toss out of Chris Burke, who was trying for third in a tie game with nobody out in the eighth Sunday. It was Church’s fourth assist of the season.

-How about Melky Cabrera’s sudden power boost. With a two-run dinger in yesterday’s 8-2 Yankee win over Seattle to complete their first three-game sweep of 2008, the 23 year-old center fielder now has six homers in 103 at bats. Last season, the Melk Man hit only eight in 545 ABs. The switch hitter had a very good Spring Training and has carried it over so far. You just wonder if it’s legit. In this day and age, that’s what it’s come to sadly.

-The Yanks also have to be pretty happy with Darrell Rasner’s first start. He went six strong permitting only a two-run Adrian Beltre homer in the first while scattering five hits and striking out four to pickup his first win. Most importantly, he didn’t issue a walk.  Just maybe the 27 year-old from Nevada can give the staff a boost. 

Roger Clemens is sorry because his personal life is in ruins and there’s virtually no way to recover that no matter what statements he makes.

-It’s amazing how well Oakland is playing. Despite retooling by unloading stars Dan Haren and Nick Swisher, here they are playing solid ball winning 19 of their first 33 games with the third best record in the American League. I criticized him but it turns out that GM Billy Beane does know what he’s doing. Greg Smith, who was one of the players acquired in the Haren deal from Arizona is off to a 2-1 start with a 2.54 ERA allowing 27 hits in 39 innings with 13 walks and 31 strikeouts. As evidenced by their 18 homers, the A’s don’t hit for much power which is why reclaiming veteran slugger Frank Thomas could be a wise move. He’s had success there before.

-Even with some questionable calls and non ones, the younger Pens were the better team. They just had too much speed, size and skill for the Rangers even if Jaromir Jagr turned back the clock with 15 points (5-10-15) in only 10 postseason games. If this was the last of him in the NHL, he’ll be sorely missed. No.68 truly is one of the most fun players to watch. He never complained about how many times he was hacked and didn’t take Oscar Award winning dives to draw calls unlike a certain superstar. He just played the game which is how it’s supposed to be. Too bad the NHL doesn’t seem to think so.

Evgeni Malkin was the best player in the series and dominated the puck. The no-look backhander he scored on to beat Henrik Lundqvist was ridiculous. It’s the 21 year-old Russian who deserves all the accolades along with some endorsements. Though his slewfoot of Paul Mara was uncalled for. Pull that in the next series against a tougher Flyer team and he could pay the price.

-Has anyone ever complained more than Michel Therrien despite winning the series in five games? Apparently, he learned well how things are done on his club.

-He doesn’t always do the right things on the ice but we’re wishing Ranger Sean Avery the very best as he recovers from a lacerated spleen. The NHL needs more Averys in the game who are willing to mix it up. They’ve become a bland league with boring intermission segments and blah quotes from even their best players. That doesn’t get ratings. They need more colorful analysts who will speak their mind instead of being afraid of their shadows like the hypocritical league. Sucking up to stars doesn’t work. Neither does being serious all the time. We suggest they watch TNT’s NBA coverage cause it doesn’t get much better.

-He can say whatever he wants but until Roger Federer beats Rafael Nadal in the best three-of-five at Roland Garros, the No.1 ranked Swiss player isn’t as good on the red surface.

-Anyone who doesn’t watch Spurs/Hornets will be missing a great series. Even if Bruce Bowen bitches about every call against him. Tony Parker against Chris Paul is worth every penny. And could someone please explain to me why the Spurs are boring? Why? Cause they execute in the halfcourt and play solid D unlike teams such as the Nuggets and Suns. Parker and Manu Ginobili are fun players to watch. Tim Duncan might not show a lot of emotion emulating a robot but he’s one of the game’s greatest players.

-Unless he performs up to expectations against the Pistons, Dwight Howard doesn’t deserve to be tossed around with the Duncans, LeBron’s and Kobe’s.

-It’s okay now to tell the Avalanche to cover Detroit’s Johan Franzen. Oops. Too late!

-Ditto the Canadiens and finding the Flyers’ R.J. Umberger. After the way Carey Price performed, maybe Canada really is jinxed.

-That four overtime epic between San Jose and Dallas was as good as it got. You talk about great hockey and awesome goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov and Marty Turco, it was the kind of game which anyone could enjoy featuring great skating, hitting and awe inspiring battles. So much for that magic 33 theory. Maybe next round!

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Celtics hold serve to go up 3-2

In the movie classic Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy’s character claims, “There’s no place like home.”

Thus far, that’s held true for the first five games between the East’s top seeded Celtics and eighth seeded Hawks in the First Round. Coming off consecutive losses in Atlanta, Boston rebounded with a 110-85 Game Five victory to go up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

The result wasn’t surprising since the Celts fed off the energy like they did in Games One and Two. Factor in that Atlanta was 0 for their last 11 in road playoff games. So, it was predictable especially with a young team.

Though Boston led throughout building a double digit lead, the pesky Hawks chipped away at it cutting the deficit to 11 with under a minute left in the third quarter. That’s when the two biggest plays were made from Paul Pierce and James Posey to rebuild an 81-64 lead by the quarter’s conclusion.

First, Pierce drove the lane and converted a very difficult acrobatic lay-up getting fouled for a three-point play. Following an Atlanta misfire, heady Boston point guard Rajon Rondo got the ball quickly up court and found a wide open Posey for a bread and butter trey with a second to spare. 

Just like that, instead of the Hawks possibly being down by nine, instead they trailed by 17. While not insurmountable, it was just too much to ask for a vastly inexperienced Atlanta club to comeback from.

Led by Pierce’s series best 22 (10-of-17 FG) along with seven rebounds and six assists, the Celtics cruised to the 25-point win at TD Banknorth Garden. Kevin Garnett scored 20, posted five boards and seven assists. Rondo also dropped seven times as Doc Rivers’ club spread the wealth with 12 more assists than their opponent (Celts-28, Hawks-16).

Boston also got a splendid shooting night from Ray Allen, who connected on five-of-eight three’s en route to 19 points. Even savvy vet Sam Cassell got into the act nailing two triples on his way to a valuable 13 off the bench in just 15 minutes.

The Celts held the three-point edge sinking 9-of-20 to the Hawks’ 4-of-13.

In a losing effort, Game Four hero Joe Johnson paced his team with 21 finishing 6-of-11 from the field including two from downtown plus a perfect seven-for-seven at the charity stripe. Rookie center Al Horford had his best effort of the series notching a double/double (14 and 10) to go with five assists. Josh Smith added 18 with five boards, three assists and three steals.

So, can the Hawks do what team legend and exec Dominique Wilkins flashed showing seven fingers to a TNT camera? They’ll need a better effort from veteran guard Mike Bibby. Six points and just one assist while turning it over three times in almost 40 minutes just won’t cut it. Conversely, he had 18 in their Game Four win at Phillips Arena. That’s what they’ll need.

It will take a lot of effort on both sides of the court to extend the battle tested Celtics the distance. By now, they want to get this series over with and not chance going a seventh game.

Sure. They’re not losing this series. However, going seven this round won’t help their quest to reach the NBA Finals.

In the other playoff series last night, the Cavs couldn’t close out the Wizards dropping an 88-87 decision on their home floor. They got outscored 6-0 in the final 1:47 blowing an 87-82 lead.

Delonte West’s three-point play had supplied Cleveland with the five-point lead but some bad possessions along with a Caron Butler score plus two Antonio Daniels free throws suddenly cut it to 87-86 with 43 ticks left.

A couple of more Cleveland misses from in tight allowed the Wizards to get the ball back. Following a timeout, they went to their best player Butler, who hit a tough driving lay-up with LeBron James draped all over him.

There were still 3.9 seconds left. Enough time for LeBron to once again end Washington’s season as he had a couple of years prior. However, this time he missed a runner off the backboard and rim allowing the Wizards to escape with new life.

They’ll now get a Game Six back in the nation’s capital tomorrow. Who thinks they’re losing that? You can pretty much book a Game Seven.

Butler’s heroics put the exclamation point on a brilliant night. The former Uconn star finished with 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting including four trifectas along with six-for-seven from the line. He also added nine rebounds, five assists and two swipes in nearly playing all 48.

For once, a Walt Frazier expression played true. The Butler did it! There’s a reason he’s one of my fave players. He’s really worked hard to become an NBA All-Star and a versatile player who can score, get teammates involved and D up. His big night along with DeShawn Stevenson’s 17 and Daniels’ 12 helped offset only eight from Antawn Jamison.

For the Cavs, James led the way with 34 netting 24 in the second half. Did we also mention the man child had 10 boards and seven assists? Just awe inspiring. How can you not love LeBron? Well, with the exception of driving a really fast car at insane speeds and all the other fame which comes with it…Never mind. 😉

Zydrunas Ilgauskas had 19 and West netted 12 points, five rebounds and eight assists. Great pickup from Seattle for next to nothing! I called that one.

Realistically, I can’t see the Cavs dropping this series. The Wizards are without Gilbert Arenas. Even if they have played well without him, it’s hard to see them winning three in a row over LeBron. Especially with a seventh game back in Cleveland.

Figure the MVP candidate to rescue his team.

Mavericks Fire Johnson: In other NBA news, it came as little shock that Dallas fired coach Avery Johnson for another first round disappointment. Still, I feel he got a raw deal here as it was just too much to expect the former NBA Coach Of The Year to suddenly make it all work because crazy owner Mark Cuban got Jason Kidd at the deadline. Two months just isn’t enough time to mesh and they ran into a better opponent in the Hornets.

You have to figure Johnson will wind up coaching again. Maybe the Bulls or Knicks? It’s also rumored that Mike D’Antoni will step down as Suns coach. Look for him to resurface in Toronto and re-team with Bryan Colangelo. That also would mean Sam Mitchell would not return as Raptor coach even though he’s done an admirable job.

That’s the NBA for ya where it’s all about now and how far you go. Proven track records only work if your name is Larry Brown, who still manages to get jobs even though he’s just in Charlotte for another paycheck.

Ditto Pat Riley, who “retired from coaching.” Just ask current Magic coach Stan Van Gundy about that. Who really could take Riley at his word? In the old WFAN days, Steve Somers and Russ Salzberg got it right when Riles dissed New York only to resurface in Miami:

The Loser Within

See. Even American Idol’s Paula Abdul got one right.

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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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Kobe’s 49 put Lakers up 2-0 on Nuggets

Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant smoked the Nuggets for 49 with 19 coming in the fourth quarter to put LA up 2-0 in first round series. 

If the Nuggets thought they could slow down Kobe Bryant, they were sadly mistaken. The electrifying 29 year-old Lakers’ shooting guard went off for 49 in his team’s 122-107 Game Two win over Denver before a raucous atmosphere at Staples Center Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

The 49 were one off his playoff career high. Most importantly, Bryant’s big night which also included 10 assists (two less than Denver) helped the Lakers hold serve going 2-0 up in the first round series which continues Saturday in Colorado. Thirty-nine of those 49 came in two quarters. The Philly native scored 20 of his team’s 33 in the first winding up with 25 at the half with the West’s top seed leading by 10.

Nugget sixth man J.R. Smith (career playoff high 21) tried to shoot the eighth seed back in it nailing consecutive triples to pull them within five. However, Bryant responded by setting up Game One star Pau Gasol for an uncontested jam. The worthy NBA MVP candidate was just getting warmed up. Following a three-point play, with the Nuggets losing their cool, Kobe swished two technical free throws which put the Lakers back up 11.

It only got worse for Denver, who had no answer for Bryant as he scored every which way on an assortment of hoops including a 27-foot dagger in which the Laker star glanced at TNT’s Marv Albert and Reggie Miller blowing his hand like a gun. Prior to that shot, he also hit a very difficult leaner banking it in shaking his head as if to send Denver a message.

Translation: You can’t stop me. At one point, Bryant scored 17 of his team’s last 18 finishing with 19 of the team’s 33 in the final 12 minutes. Well, 10 before he was taken out to chants of “M–V–P, M–V–P, M–V–P.”

To be honest, the Nuggets couldn’t contain a CYO star off the dribble. They wouldn’t know the word defense unless it had to do with star Carmelo Anthony’s excuses for his rap sheet.

Speaking of ‘Melo, he was MIA despite 23 points on 8-of-20 shooting. Teammate Allen Iverson led Denver with 31 with half their assists. The Lakers as a team had 21 more dishes and I don’t mean who was seated front and center.

When Nugget coach George Karl sees son Coby Karl make an entrance for their opponent in garbage time- making league history as first son to play against his father in an NBA playoff game, you know it’s gotten out of hand.

Unless Denver discovers some magic formula to contain the Lakers, this series should be over soon. Maybe they get a game back home but figure LA to wrap it up in five.

Well, at least TNT’s always entertaining postgame featuring Ernie Johnson, Charles “Da Chuckster” Barkley and Kenny “The Jet” Smith was great. In one of the funniest skits they’ve aired and they’ve aired a lot of off the wall ones over the years, while interviewing Kobe on a headset, they showed the star successfully performing a stunt jumping over a speeding Aston Martin.

So, what did the quirky studio trio have in store for the Laker superstar? Only Smith pretending to emulate Kobe by jumping over a car Johnson drove or didn’t. Wearing his own ugly blue “Kenny Smiths” he was knocked out of one shoe. 😆

Alright. It definitely wasn’t real. Gee. What a revelation with that crew. It’s still one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and had Kobe cracking up as well as myself because in TNT tradition, they kept replaying it over and over. 😀

When the video comes out, I’ll be sure to link it up. God. That’s the best postgame show in sports. Always has been and always will be.

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Paul dismantles Mavericks again

Hornets' star point guard Chris Paul shoots over Dallas' Erick Dampier. Paul finished with 32 points and a franchise record 17 assists in his team's 127-103 rout of the Mavs in Game Two.

Chris Paul is a great player. That much we know. The third-year Hornets’ point guard deserves serious MVP consideration. The former Wake Forest star has done nothing thus far in his first NBA playoff series to hurt his candidacy.

A couple of days removed from an auspicious playoff debut which included 35 points with many coming in the second half of his team’s 104-92 Game One win, the 22 year-old followed it up with 32 points along with a Hornets’ franchise playoff record 17 assists in a 127-103 Game Two rout of the Mavericks. The old record was held by Muggsy Bogues, who dished out 15 back in 1993.

“I’m sure there is, but to me, I hope not,” Paul answered to reporters who asked if there was a way for Dallas to contain him.

“One thing I’ve learned through this season and watching these games is that you have to be aggressive,” he pointed out after finishing an efficient 10-of-16 from the floor while shooting 12-for-14 at the line.

“If I just sit back and let them trap me, then they succeed in what they had to do. I know I have to pick my spots when I get the ball and let other guys go, but at the same time I have to be aggressive and attack and that’s what we did.”

Whatever strategy the Mavs are trying isn’t working. They led Paul and New Orleans for a good portion of Game One but the point guard took over the second half getting 15 in the third quarter to help outscore Dallas by 24 in the final 24 minutes.

Complicating matters in Game Two was that Paul had plenty of help with five other teammates hitting for double digits including David West with 27 and veteran sharp shooter Peja Stojakovic adding 22 including five from downtown. 

Paul completely outplayed former Net Jason Kidd, who had only seven points and eight assists finishing a dismal minus-17 in 30-plus minutes.

Dirk Nowitzki paced the Mavs with 27 points, five rebounds and five assists. The 2006-07 regular season NBA MVP will need a lot more from Kidd and sidekick Josh Howard, who finished with just 10 on three of 10 shooting.

The series does shift to Dallas Friday night. So maybe they’ll be reenergized.

In other series action, the Spurs made it two-for-two against Shaq and the Suns coming back to defeat them 102-96. Tony Parker lit up Phoenix for 32 and seven assists. If they couldn’t contain the speedy point guard off the dribble, then it’s also true they couldn’t deal with NBA Sixth Man of The Year Manu Ginobili, who sliced and diced them for 29 including three triples. 

Game One hero Tim Duncan added a double/double (18 and 17) with four assists and three blocked shots. The Spurs outscored the Suns 27-11 in the third quarter to turn a seven-point halftime deficit into a nine-point lead.

They’re build as much as a 15-point cushion before veteran PG Steve Nash rallied Phoenix within five 96-91. But a Duncan free throw and a Parker step back 18-footer over Shaq sealed the game.

Though O’Neal was more effective netting 19 points, 14 boards and four blocks, it wasn’t enough. Nash scored 23 and dropped 10 dimes. Amare Stoudemire led the Suns with 33 but went ice cold in the second half making only two field goals in 11 attempts. His disappearance along with Grant Hill replacement Boris Diaw’s (9 pts, minus-17) soft play near the rim hurt Phoenix’ chances of gaining a split.

Valuable sixth man Leandro Barbosa also finished with a goose egg going 0-for-7 with three misses beyond the arc.

You just can’t win like that against the Spurs at this time of year. They’re the defending champs for a reason. A lot of people questioned how they finished the season but that final regular game blowout of Utah should’ve been a warning that Gregg Popovich’s team would be ready. They’re too polished and have way too much pride.

Maybe Charles Barkley said it best during TNT’s postgame analysis when he asked a female camerawoman how to say, “We can’t defend Parker, Duncan and Ginobili,” in French.

Phoenix was never a good defensive team. Even with Shaq, the Spurs have exposed the mismatches. They don’t get much credit for their offense but really know how to attack holes.

In the one Eastern match-up, the Magic went ahead 2-0 on Toronto edging the Raptors 104-103. They got a 29 point, 20 rebound effort from star center Dwight Howard. The second consecutive such game making the 22 year-old Atlanta native the first such player to accomplish that since Kevin Garnett did it with the Timberwolves four years ago.

When the Magic needed a money bucket late with the game slipping away, Hedo Turkoglu hit a tough lay-up and a couple of free throws to give them a 104-101 lead. The normally dependable outside threat had an off night missing on all four treys and shooting only 4-for-15 from the field. However, none of that mattered when his team fell behind by one on a Carlos Delfino free throw.

A three each by Delfino and Jose Calderon had rallied the Raptors back after falling behind by 18 in the first quarter. They shot themselves back into it making 11 three’s including four from the dangerous Jason Kapono with three also coming from Calderon.

In fact, the trio of reserve guards combined for eight of the team’s 11 three’s and 54 of their 103 points. Only All-Star power forward Chris Bosh hit double figures with 29, 10 boards and six assists. He had a chance to be the hero on the last possession but misfired allowing Orlando to escape.

Expect to see some changes in the Raptors’ lineup when the series continues Thursday night.

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