An Early Look at the Eastern Conference Playoffs
1. Cleveland Cavaliers- With the way things sit right now, the Cavs occupying the top spot in the East, you'd have to make them the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. LeBron's crew has registered an almost unfathomable 28-1 record at Quicken Loans Arena. How would you like to go up against those odds in a game 7 on the road? Exactly. Danny Ferry has done an outstanding job of finally surrounding James with several top shooters, making it that much more difficult to double and triple team the MVP candidate. Mo Williams, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and Daniel Gibson (I've never been comfortable calling him 'Boobie') are all capable of a big night from behind the arc.
Not a whole lot to find fault with on this squad, as the Cavs are also the best defensive team in the NBA, by a wide margin. The only reason I am skeptical of Cleveland is the bad karma LeBron brings to himself and the team from the Basketball Gods with his pre-game ritual. While everyone now seems to think that his big display before the game with the talcum powder flying into the air and into the crowd of screaming admirers was a LeBron original, educated fans know otherwise. Kevin Garnett was doing that move loooong before King James came on the scene. It's always confused me how nobody brings this fact up more often. I guess there's just a "No Criticizing the King" mandate in NBA circles nowadays, but that does not apply here. It's bush league, it's taking credit for another man's invention, and it will most likely end up costing the Cavaliers a shot at the championship.
2. Boston Celtics- I still think when it's all said and done, the Celts will be the last East team standing. Once Kevin Garnett returns, they will be able to solidify their rotation with their new additions (Stephon Marbury, Mikki Moore) and prepare for another long run in the playoffs. However, I think the Marbury signing was an unusual move for this franchise. The guy has proven to be an enigma around the league and a horrible teammate the last couple of years. And in seeing him struggle mightily against the Pistons last Sunday, it appears his once All-Star caliber game has deteriorated quite a bit. Will Bynum is an energetic player and a pesky defender, but the way Marbury got stripped clean by him twice in that 1st half was a sad sight for those that remember Marbury's smoothness for years in Phoenix. And on the other end, I know Walter Herrmann had a significant height advantage, but he's still Walter Herrmann, and Marbury was getting abused every time down the court.
And when has the 'tattoo on the side of the head or face' ever worked out for anybody? We all remember Mike Tyson's infamous artwork he had inked around his left eye. With the new tat, Tyson suffered depressing losses to tomato cans like Danny Williams and Kevin McBride, and called it a career. If history is any indication, Marbury's addition will do more harm than good.
3. Orlando Magic- The Magic could go 82-0 in the regular season, end up facing the 8th seeded Pistons who won 35 games, and you would know full well who's coming out on top in that series. Somehow, the Pistons just have this squad's number. It was no coincidence that the Pistons regained their swagger a little bit and snapped their 8-game losing streak when playing in Orlando. Everybody remembers when T-Mac and the Magic took a commanding 3-1 series lead on the Pistons back in 2003. It was all Pistons the rest of the way in that battle, with three straight beatdowns taking place, including Chauncey's 40 spot in Game 6. It has been the same way ever since.
While Orlando sports an impressive 45-16 mark this season, the backcourt really does not strike a whole lot of fear into you. Take a look at this group: Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Anthony Johnson, Mickael Pietrus, and J.J. Redick. I don't care how dominant Dwight Howard has become. I have a very hard time imagining that group of guards leading a team to the conference finals, let alone the final round.
Lastly, it is nice to know Tony Battie will remain on this team the rest of the year, with no chance of him returning to the Celtics. Many Pistons fans, including myself, are still scarred from the sight of him in the '02 playoffs with Boston. In that series, Tony sported the half green-half white mouthpiece that made him look like a cross between the Green Goblin and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Let me tell you, there was nothing friendly about that image...or the way the Pistons got manhandled in that series by the elite backcourt combo of Tony Delk and an elderly Kenny Anderson. Moving on...angrily.
4. Atlanta Hawks- Sorry, but I just can't imagine Mike Breen belting out this call during a game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Hawks trail by two with the ball. Flip Murray's got it on the right wing, here comes Zaza Pachulia to set the pick. Murrary penetrates, and kicks out to Maurice Evans. Evans for 3...it's good"!!!
Clearly, that Atlanta bench leaves a lot to be desired.
Anywhere from Seed 5 to 8, Detroit Pistons- The Pistons are slowly rounding into form of late. Despite the setback in Atlanta, the Pistons are finally showing some fight and are competing hard nightly with the best teams in the conference. It remains to be seen how Allen Iverson will fit in when his back begins to feel better, but at least you can now see a resemblance between this team and the one that has made six straight conference finals.
The guard play has been superb of late, with both Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey benefiting from the absence of AI and his monopolizing of the basketball. Tayshaun Prince has also been very good, but you worry about the way Michael Curry is allowing his minutes to creep back into the 40's again. We have all seen the way that Tayshaun can wear down when the playoffs unfold, and it would be wise for Curry to try and get Tay a little more rest in the season's home stretch. Obviously, Curry wants to win games to solidify their spot, but he also must be smart enough to make sure Tayshaun has a little something left in the tank for the postseason.
I'm actually looking forward to this year's playoffs. I think it will be a refreshing change to be able to root for the Pistons in an underdog role, and I tend to think the players will find some motivation in that, too. It's either that, or I'm the biggest homer this side of Mark Champion. Here's hoping it's the former.
"Yes, Trust Me...I Shoot Ball Very Well...No Worry...Just Draft Me."
When Darko Milicic was being scouted feverishly by NBA general managers leading up to the 2003 draft, there was clearly a fascination with the Serbian seven-footer. Not just because of his immense height and strong inside game, but because of his dual ability to also step out and shoot the 3-ball. Not many had him pegged to be the next Bill Russell. Instead, you heard comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, with many expecting Darko to eventually display the type of inside-out game that had made Dirk a star in the league. That is why one particular stat has always fascinated me and continues to now. Darko Milicic, once made the 2nd overall pick in the draft largely because of his perceived outside touch for a big man, has now played over 5,500 minutes in the NBA...and has never made a 3-pointer. Shaquille has one 3 to his credit and even Ben Wallace managed to hit 5. But Darko is yet to toss one in from behind the long line. And it's not as if Darko was originally thought to be in Shaq and Big Ben's company. He was viewed more as a big man that could do it all. It boggles my mind on a daily basis, because there is no way that Darko would have garnered even close to the kind of attention and admiration he received in '03 had everyone been made aware that his supposed "range" did not extend outside the painted area. Shouldn't this note from Darko's pre-draft scouting report have been seen as a giant red-flag??
"Several scouting reports indicate he has three-point range, but he does not take this shot when playing for his team in regular season play in order to comply with his coach’s wishes."
So let's get this straight. Darko is an excellent outside shooter who can do damage from the 3-point line, but his coach basically demands he never attempt the shot. Why would that be?? Could it be that his coach has seen Darko in practice and knows full well that the man has no long distance game to speak of?? Anytime your coach insists you not do something, that generally means you are sorely lacking in that particular department. But Darko was a magician in that time leading up to the draft. He had everyone thinking he was one thing, and behind closed doors, he was somebody completely different. He was 'Mrs. Doubtfire.' He made you think he was Brad Daugherty meets Sam Perkins. He turned out to be Brad Sellers meets Sam Jacobson.
I'm just hoping that at some point in these last few weeks of the season, Darko manages to tickle the nets from 23 feet. That way, at least we can say with some sense of satisfaction, "Hey, you can see where Joe Dumars was coming from...the guy does have range." But I'm guessing it will never happen, and we will continue wondering how someone with absolutely no 3-point game to speak of managed to use his supposed strength in that exact area to help become the #2 pick in the draft. But no, I'm not still bitter or anything...
Regardless of Time, Score, Situation...I'm Jackin' It Up
J.R. Smith is the only player I have ever seen that seems to always be playing as if it's garbage time during an exhibition game. He's out there windmilling threes from 35 feet out. He'll go coast-to-coast and put up a blind lay-up in traffic with half his team still making their way down the court. The guy is undoubtedly talented, with dazzling athleticism and a sweet shooting stroke to match, but where is the man's head?
He's sort of a present-day Vernon Maxwell, and that's not a great thing. Vernon, although immensely talented at both ends of the floor, could never quite settle himself down to best utilize his ability. Either Mad Max was pressing his umm, package, against another driver's car window after being rear-ended...or he was smashing a dumbbell over teammate Carl Herrera's head and then trying to go retrieve a gun from his car. Apparently he was trying to replicate Marques Johnson's classic scene from "White Men Can't Jump." ("I'm goin' to my car...get my other gun...shoot everybody's _ _ _.")
J.R. Smith is not quite at Maxwell's level off the court, but with the wildness he displays on the offensive end with no regard for anybody else on his team, it's almost as if his on-court persona is equal to that of Maxwell's off of it. One of two things will happen here. Either Smith will tone down his game and play at a more reasonable pace, or George Karl will become the first coach to choke a player to death on the court. Stay tuned...
A Little Perspective
Anybody else kind of confused by the whole Joe Smith phenomenon in the last week? LeBron James made a big public campaign expressing his desire for the Cavs to reacquire Smith, and he got his wish. This is Joe Smith we're talking about here, right?? Just making sure.
Joe Smith has been in the NBA going on 15 years, and the man has been a part of one winning playoff series. I'm not saying he isn't a solid veteran who will provide you with 15-20 decent minutes off the pine, but let's stop acting like the guy is the 2nd coming of Robert Horry. He's a career journeyman who has literally changed teams 6 times in the last 3 years. And more often than not, when the news of Joe Smith coming to your team is viewed with actual excitement, it's a sign that things are not going well.
Take for instance the 2000-01 Pistons. This was after Smith had signed the illegal deal with the Timberwolves, so he was looking for a new home. The Pistons were gawdawful that year under George Irvine. Joe D signed Smith a few weeks into the season, and I remember the reception he got from the Palace crowd the first time they saw him was practically deafening. It was the kind of roar you'd expect if the Pope entered the building, and at the same time Cuppy Coffee and Biggie Bagel were coming down the home stretch. And Smith was only in street clothes, having not joined the team officially just yet. But the Pistons fans were starving for some type of excitement, and they weren't getting it from John Wallace, Dana Barros, and Mateen Cleaves.
Joe Smith was a former #1 overall pick, but sadly, that's pretty much where his accolades begin and end. So, to repeat, if you're LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not jump out of your seat because Joe Smith joined the squad. It's embarrassing for you, and it is hard for us to watch. This can't end well.
This Week's Edition of "Unfortunate Lottery Picks of the Past"
"With the 8th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors select Rafael Araujo, Center from Brigham Young University"
There is a cardinal rule whenever you're watching a UFC event or anything that involves some type of martial arts. If you ever see a guy whose first name starts with an R, but is pronounced as an H, that guy is simply going to be awesome. It means the guy you're watching is probably Brazilian, probably comes from the famous Gracie clan, and will undoubtedly be a success in the cage for many years to come. Unfortunately, that same principle does not apply to basketball, which leads us to our man Rafael (pronounced HA-fye-ell) Araujo.
When he finished his senior year at BYU, there were some questions about his mobility and on-court behavior. You heard commentators refer to Araujo as a "less skilled Bryant Reeves." He got in hot water during college by once punching an opposing player during a game and also purposely elbowing Andrew Bogut in the head. With a track record like that, you have to wonder if the Raptors really expected Araujo to blossom once he got to the NBA.
I'm thinking the Raps front office just figured at the least, if Rafael never panned out, he would still be able to use his Brazilian heritage to prepare a large amount of rice pilaf for the veterans on long road trips. Not surprisingly, the big fella lasted three uneventful years in the league before he was exiled back to Rio. Rumor has it that while Araujo's post game was actually steadily improving, the pilaf was not, and thus he was never heard from again.
Never Woulda Guessed Who's Behind Door Number Three
It's been the story of Michigan's season. DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris usually show up most nights, putting up big numbers in trying to lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament. But the problem has remained that nobody has really stepped up and become that consistent 3rd scorer needed to put Michigan over the top. Stu Douglass has shown flashes, but cannot be relied upon to get 12-15 points a game just yet. Zack Novak can light you up for 20, but that's basically a once a month proposition. When Michigan emerged from a timeout in the 2nd half on Saturday facing a double digit deficit in Minnesota's gym, the question of whether that 3rd scorer could emerge from the shadows would eventually decide their season. And in one of the most surprising clutch performances in recent Wolverine history, Laval Lucas-Perry became that guy.
There were just over 11 minutes left when Lucas-Perry took over the game, an affair that was seen by many as an unofficial NCAA tournament elimination game. He canned a 3 to bring the lead to seven. After a Minnesota bucket and free throw, Lucas-Perry responded with another trey. And another. Tubby Smith frantically signaled for a timeout, his once insurmountable double digit lead now whittled to just four, all because of the baby-faced Laval Lucas-Perry. After LLP knocked down a pair of free throws, Michigan was now within a single basket and his work was done. He had done what many others have failed to do, assuming the critically important role of the 3rd scorer. Sims and Harris would carry the Wolverines the rest of the way, cementing a .500 Big Ten record for Big Blue and putting them in a fairly strong position to grab their first berth to the real dance since 1998.
Many Michigan fans had expected Laval Lucas-Perry, a transfer from Arizona, to be this kind of force from the moment he stepped on the court. And for a while, it looked like they'd be right. He scored in double figures his first six games, displaying a fearless attitude when attacking the rim and a range from the outside that extended well beyond the 3-point line. But then the roof caved in on his season. His shot deserted him, his confidence diminished, and his minutes went from 30+ to single digits. He would be the last guy you would have expected to rescue Michigan in their most important game of the season. But there he was Saturday, knocking down 6 of his 7 shots on his way to 19 points, 11 of which came in succession when the Wolverines needed it most. If Michigan is announced as one of the 65 entrants on CBS next Sunday, it will be due in no small part to the season-saving contributions of Laval Lucas-Perry. The man with three names stuck out his chest and announced himself as the 3rd scorer on a team that desperately needed it...and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Rites of Spring- Annual Tigers Storylines
1. Jeremy Bonderman is in the process of learning the changeup. The man with two quality pitches (fastball, slider) has been searching for an effective change throughout his career and it wouldn't be spring without this story. Whether it's Kenny Rogers teaching the pupil the secrets of the pitch, or a new grip that is bound to work wonders, Bonderman never gives up on this now almost fruitless quest. And we're still waiting for confirmation on this, but it looks like Bonderman will be allowed to wear the #34 this season in honor of his mentor, Mr. Nate Cornejo. A nice tribute by Bondo.
2. Could Marcus Thames be an effective everyday leftfielder? The guy has always shown flashes in part time duty, but never seems to get that golden opportunity he has always craved. This story is especially unique because it gets some play before the season, and then we are also treated to the mid-season version as well. Thames will go on a power tear at some point during the year, leading to questions like, "Hey, if this guy were starting for another team, wouldn't he bomb 35-40 homers a year"?? These comments are usually coupled with Jim Leyland announcing that he's finally going to give the guy a real shot and run him out there everyday as the starting LF. The following events then occur in real time. The plan Leyland set forth will last anywhere from 2-3 games. Marcus will sit against some recycled lefty like Jimmy Gobble. You'll wonder what happened. Nobody will really pay it any attention, and that will be it for the "full-time" experiment. Then one year later, just lather, rinse, and repeat.
3. Brandon Inge is the best all-around athlete since Jim Thorpe. While he might not be able to hit a baseball with any consistency, which is what he is actually paid to do, let it be known that Inge has many other talents away from the diamond. He can hit a golf ball over 400 yards. He throws curveballs with his right hand and they break as if thrown by a southpaw. And then usually they'll just make some other stuff up to fill the story, like "Inge once hit a tennis serve over 200 mph," or "Brandon has been known to run sub 4-minute miles...in three feet of snow." It's like they have to keep bombarding us with useless information about his exploits in other sports so we won't remember just how lacking he is with an actual baseball bat in his hands. Not to be too pessimistic about Inge's prospects for 2009, but the man's average has undergone a dramatic dip each and every year since 2004. But now he's back at his favorite spot, the hot corner, and ready to turn it around...and if not, there's always the PGA Tour.
Other Very Important Thoughts
We have no idea what it does, or why we need it...but we all feel a little safer when we throw in that little "Bounce" sheet with the clothes in the dryer. It's kind of the babysitter for the clothes, telling you, "Hey, don't worry. You can go ahead and move on with your day. I got it covered in here. Come check on us in a couple hours...we'll be ready to come out."
You know a lot of people that stop whatever they're doing whenever "Jurassic Park" or "A Few Good Men" come on the TV. Others feel this way about "Remember the Titans." Then you have my Dad, who pretty much can't resist checking in for a good 30 minutes anytime he notices that "Hollow Man" is on the tube. Yeah, you heard me. The movie stars Kevin Bacon, or technically, just Kevin Bacon's voice, since he appears throughout most of the movie as some type of invisible mutant trying to kill people. I've never seen it in full, but any time I take a look, it seems to be the same scene. The 'Hollow Man' is there for a second, then not, and then before you know it, he's got a gun to your mug. Not really my cup of tea, but my Dad can't get enough. I believe the next viewing will put his total at triple digits. Congrats...I guess.
You may not spend any time during the day hankering for Cheetos, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if you see someone else tearing into a bag, you're going to experience three separate emotions. Jealousy of the other guy's great snack, frustration that you didn't think of the idea first, and finally, a tremendous motivation to seek out your own bag, while vowing never to make this same mistake again.
Who do you have coming out of the East? What's your favorite "Annual Tigers' storyline"?? How many times have you seen "Hollow Man"??? Drop a comment below or fire an E-mail my way at firstname.lastname@example.org