Monday, April 27, 2009

The Same Old Story


The 2008-09 Detroit Pistons can finally be laid to rest. The Chauncey Billups trade stunned them, the inexperience of Michael Curry wobbled them further, and finally on Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers delivered the final knockout blow. I'm not here to break down what went wrong in this blur of a 4-game series. The Pistons were severely outmanned, and regardless of what a blood test might otherwise indicate, it's quite clear that LeBron James is Tayshaun Prince's daddy. But I couldn't help but notice one thing as this mini-dynasty made their final exit. While Antonio McDyess soaked himself dry of any energy that remained in his 34-year old body, and Rip Hamilton repeatedly tried to find his stroke, and Tayshaun Prince labored through 32 minutes despite barely being able to move...there was Rasheed Wallace. Just chillin'.

Nobody had any grand illusions of the Pistons coming back in this series. I don't think anyone even thought they could steal a win on Sunday. The final result was a formality. But as a fan of any professional sports team, you still expect a professional effort. Rasheed Wallace gave no such thing. He loafed up and down the court. When he was involved defensively in a pick-and-roll, he would do one of two things. Either he let the dribbler go right on by, skipping alongside offering no resistance. Or he would "act" like he cared, and just get right up on the guy by slapping and hacking until a whistle was blown. Sheed must have figured the quicker he racked up the fouls, the quicker he could go take a seat. His attention to the defensive glass was especially hard to watch. As was the case all series long, the Cavs would jack up a wayward 3, and Anderson Varejao would be tracking the ball at full speed by the time it rimmed off. Where was Rasheed? Just watchin'.

If you've followed the Pistons for the last handful of years, you know what to expect from Rasheed on the offensive end. The allergic reaction to the paint, the forced looks from downtown, and the failure to ever really try and attack the guy guarding him. It was classic Sheed all series, and he put it all together in Game 4. Coming into the matchup with Cleveland, some thought that the one advantage the Pistons would have was with Varejao trying to contain the multi-talented Wallace. That might have been the case...if it were 10 years ago...or if Rasheed cared in the least. Sheed would play in the post on occasion, only to face up and fire a contested 16-footer without even entertaining the thought of making his defender work to get a stop. Somehow, he managed to play significant minutes in all four of the playoff games without once going to the free throw line. 122 total minutes of court time and the man never got to the stripe. You almost have to go out of your way to achieve such an embarrassing feat. In the finale against the Cavs, Rasheed would attempt 7 shots, all misses, while failing to register a single point in a game for the first time all season. So much for saving your best for last.

Early in the 3rd quarter on Sunday, one sequence transpired that fully represented Sheed's lifeless performance. The Stones were trying to scratch their way back in the game, scoring the first 4 points of the half to cut it to a five point lead. The Cavs decided to run a little two-man game at the top of the key. Sheed got switched on to the guard, and essentially watched as the man dribbled right by, slowly shuffling his feet to at least feign the appearance of effort being exerted. Help defense came to bail out Sheed, and the ball was kicked out to a wide open Mo Williams. Fortunately for Wallace, the shot was no good and the rebound fell right in to his hands. He had not played good D, but the Pistons had the ball back with a chance to make things interesting. He gave it up to his point guard Stuckey, and yet even with the camera starting to pan back the other way to follow the Pistons on offense, I could see Sheed on the far right side of the screen. He'd already delivered the outlet pass, and the Pistons were moving up court, but he was still standing in the same place. He was trying to figure out whether it was worth it to chug the 40-50 feet to the top of the key where he usually sets up shop. Finally, after the Pistons had already begun their offensive set, Sheed came back in the picture. Sure enough, he stopped dead in his tracks a few feet behind the 3-point arc, waited for the ball to be swung his way, and let fly with an errant, ill-advised brick from 27 feet that epitomized the type of selfishness he's so often displayed during his 14-year NBA career. Nothing says "hustle" like being the last guy down the court and the first to hoist upon touching the rock. About 90 seconds later, even the normally oblivious Curry could sense that Rasheed had no interest in playing, and yanked him in favor of Jason Maxiell.

With his contract expiring, this was likely Rasheed Wallace's final appearance in the Pistons red, white, and blue. He will leave behind a mixed legacy. One, of the missing piece that was finally added to complete the 2004 championship team. And another, of the boorish, oft-complaining, "when things get tough, I become invisible" side that reared its ugly head on Sunday. While his lethargic play was impossible to ignore, it was his facial expression throughout the day that was most telling. There was no emotion, no passion, no nothing. Just pure disinterest. I thought back to 2007, the last time the Cavs eliminated the Pistons from the playoffs.

Sheed and the Pistons were down 3-2 in the series, but trailed by just one entering the 4th. However, slowly but surely, the game started slipping away. Daniel Gibson started raining 3s, Rasheed continued to struggle (finished 5-14), and it was a double digit game in the blink of an eye. He kept picking up fouls, and eventually picked up his 6th with about eight minutes to play. The Cleveland fans were going berserk, and the Pistons knew that the series was over. Rasheed would be forced to sit on the bench with the rest of his teammates and absorb the pain that goes with being knocked out just short of the NBA Finals. Only that aint Sheed's style. When he was whistled for that 6th personal foul, he had a tantrum. Off went the headband, out came the obscenities. While it was still a semi-manageable 12-point deficit and a technical would do nobody any good, Sheed pressed on. Finally, he got his wish and Eddie Rush ejected him from the game. To the locker room he went, where he would see a stat sheet telling him he collected a total of two rebounds in 30 minutes during the most critical game of the year. When those agonizing last few minutes were played out and the Pistons' fate was sealed, Sheed was nowhere to be found.

Which brings us back to the here and now. In Game 4, Sheed remained ejection-free and was present for all 48 minutes. Technically, at least. While the referees forced him to leave two years ago, this time Sheed took care of it all by himself. He might have physically showed up at the Palace and stayed on the court for the duration of the game, but for all intents and purposes, he walked out on his team just like he did that night in Cleveland. Only this time, thankfully, he's never coming back.


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Friday, April 24, 2009

Wisdom and Inspiration from the Unlikeliest of Sources


The Detroit Pistons have done almost nothing right. They haven't contained LeBron. They haven't rebounded the ball. They have gotten almost no production from their three starting frontcourt players. They failed to come out with any energy in either of the first two games. Michael Curry continues to be in way over his head, looking more confused with each game, while cementing himself as quite possibly the least innovative coach in playoff history. The Pistons trudge home trailing 2-0 to the Cavs, the team that won an NBA best 80% of their basketball games during the regular season. With all that being said, however, I can't help but be reminded of the final scene from one of the more underrated films of the last few years: Music and Lyrics. Just stay with me here.

In the movie, Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) is a former pop star of the 80's and is trying to resurrect his career by writing a hit song for a new teen sensation. He recruits the help of Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), and together they pen a fantastic song. He provides the music, her the lyrics...hence, the clever title. However, as the big concert at Madison Square Garden approaches, their seemingly flawless partnership becomes rocky. A big disagreement ensues over the final cut of the song, and Alex fires off a hurtful rant aimed at Sophie and her inability to "live in the real world." Needless to say, it didn't go over well and she started making plans to move down to Florida. For all intents and purposes, he was dead to her. He'd failed to stand by her when it came to the song, and made things worse with his insensitive diatribe. Hell, even I wanted to slap him. But Alex had one more bullet in his chamber: a surprise opening number at the Garden. With Sophie in attendance, Alex sat down at the piano and poured his emotions out through a song he'd written just the night before. The name of the song..."Don't Write Me Off." Essentially, it was an admission of guilt and responsibility for all things gone wrong to that point...but he was still there...and wanted one more chance. Just like our Pistons.

This Pistons team is on the brink of losing their fans. Heck, they might've already. The passionless regular season has bled right on through to the playoffs. While in the past the Pistons were able to shrug off inconsistent efforts with guarantees of improvement in the following game, that is no longer the case. One poor outing simply leads to another...and another. And while coming home should be viewed as a positive thing, these Pistons were just one game over .500 at the Palace for the year. The number of Cavs road wins (27) dwarfs that of the Pistons total at home (21). It's almost impossible to find any silver lining with the current state of this squad. But then I'm reminded of Music and Lyrics...and the lines to Alex Fletcher's touching final melody.

"And while I know, based on my track record,

I might not seem like the safest bet

All I'm asking you...is don't write me off, just yet."

Any number of Pistons could have written that previous stanza, and it would have made perfect sense. After all, none of these guys seem like the "safest bet..."

Rodney Stuckey looked more composed during last year's playoffs. This time around, he has become a dribbling machine (not a good thing), in the process obliterating any notion that he is close to being a starting point guard in this league.

Rasheed Wallace is a shell of his former self, and hasn't sniffed a 20-point game for over two months.

Tayshaun Prince has always been the consummate pro and the ultimate team guy, but at what point do his playoff disappearances earn him a ticket to another city??

Jason Maxiell is a tireless worker, but it irks me that he comes back every single year with the same broke approach from the free throw line.

There is no doubt how badly Antonio McDyess wants to win...but it's looking more and more like his body can't keep up with his will. The effort is unquestioned, but he's running on fumes now. Watching Dyess get beat to loose balls and long rebounds by Zydrunas Ilgauskas has been the most depressing sight of the whole series.

Kwame Brown just makes me miss Elden Campbell.

I like Walter Herrmann as much as the next guy, but I have never seen a guy call for the rock more times during a game. Every single time Walter is on offense, he makes his way to one of the corners and begins waving his arms frantically like that wide open receiver at the end of Necessary Roughness.

Arron Afflalo...the only mystery here is whether Mark Jackson will ever actually pronounce his name correctly before the series ends. "Afollo is doing a nice job on D tonight."

Will Bynum has done all he can in very limited time. You know how I feel about this.

Some Pistons take the losses hard mentally and physically. Take head trainer Mike Abdenour, for instance. "Abs" seems to be getting significantly shorter with each demoralizing loss. I have no evidence to back this up, but I wouldn't be surprised if after this series Abdenour ends up checking in at right under 4 feet. Just a theory.

And Rip Hamilton. He needs to regain that swagger he carried around in 1999 when he was the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tourney, leading his UCONN Huskies to a title. Sure, he had reason to moan and groan when his best friend Chauncey Billups was traded, but you would have liked for him to instead turn it into a tremendous personal opportunity. This was never his team before. Now it is.

So now we come back to tonight. The Pistons can enter this game one of two ways.

They can come in like the Columbus Blue Jackets did in Game 3 of their series with the Red Wings. The Jackets came home behind 2-0 in the series, and proceeded to get thrashed by the Wings. They were obviously a heavy underdog, but you did not see the type of desperation you come to expect from a team on the brink of elimination.

Or they can be the Utah Jazz from last night. The Jazz are the #8 seed out West, as the Pistons are in the East. After the Lakers took a commanding 2-0 lead, the Jazz were faced with a must-win situation in Salt Lake. Trailing by eight entering the final quarter, Carlos Boozer decided they were not going out like that. Twelve inspiring minutes later, they had their hard-earned victory and were back in the series.

"And though I know,
I've already blown more chances

Than anyone should ever get

All I'm asking you is... don't write me off just yet.

Don't write me off just yet."

You watch your team all year long to get to this point. You stay up for the 5 games in 7 nights out west. You fight through the blowouts, the flat performances, and the collapses against inferior competition. You put up with the fake injuries (Iverson) and the fake coaches (Curry). Because there's just something special about watching your team in the playoffs. Whereas you're rooting for them to win during the regular season, you almost yearn for them to win in the playoffs. You hate to think about the door finally slamming shut on the season, and you get a pit in your stomach when you can tell the end is near. I still remember that same empty feeling during the final quarter against Miami in '06 when it became clear the Pistons would not be returning to the Finals for a 3rd straight year.

The above lyric says it best. The Pistons have indeed "blown more chances than anyone should ever get." Their performance this season has lacked the proper emotion, desire, and determination necessary to win in the NBA. Those facts are undeniable. But when the series tally says the Cavs only have "2" and they need "4," that means there is still basketball to be played. So maybe Stuckey can settle down. And Sheed can score 20. And Tayshaun can impact the game...somehow. And Maxiell can make one from the line. And Dyess can pump just a little more gas into that tank. And maybe Rip can take over. Because if Sophie Fisher was able to forgive Alex Fletcher for all his past wrongdoings and not "write him off just yet," I can do the same for these Pistons. Let's just hope they haven't written themselves off, already...


The High Socks Legend can be reached at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Just Thinkin' Out Loud...

Pistons and the NBA

If Doug Collins had to choose between LeBron James and Lindsey Hunter as his favorite player of all-time, I'm not sure which way he goes. On one hand, Lindsey is "the best on-ball defender in league history." But LeBron James has the "strength of ten men" and is the "most gifted passer in the game." I don't think he could ever pick one over the other, but you can be sure that he prefers both to his own son, Chris.

Why not just make it official and assign three fouls to Kwame Brown the moment he steps on the floor? It would make things a lot simpler.

I've always been a big fan of Kevin Harlan's announcing on TNT, but I would request that he stops referring to sideline reporter Pam Oliver as "Pammy." It's making me uncomfortable.

I just don't have the energy right now. I've made my feelings well known before. I'll just say this. If you can watch this Piston team, and honestly tell me that six minutes through the first 3 quarters is enough for Will Bynum, I will nod my head and move on. And then dial the nearest insane asylum so they can come pick you up.

Something is up with Tayshaun Prince. I can't fault the guy for getting dominated by LeBron James, but I don't ever recall seeing him with such lifeless body language in all his time as a Piston. He's averaging 3 points and 2 rebounds in the series, and contrary to how hard he usually performs, he looks like the Piston most looking forward to getting this series over with.

You know that you watch a lot of NBA ball when the cameras get a shot of Jerry Sloan and you can tell immediately that he got a haircut after the last game.

The 35 points and 9 dimes is a hell of an effort, Deron Williams, but John Stockton would not approve of his point guard turning the ball over 7 times along the way.


Tigers

-We're 13 games in and Miguel Cabrera is hitting at a mind-boggling .451 clip. At what point do we start talking about Ted Williams here??

-Earl Weaver, the Hall-of-Fame manager for the Baltimore Orioles, despised the sacrifice bunt. Weaver believed that the cost of giving away an out was far greater than the reward in moving a runner up 90 feet. This strategy is magnified even more when a team is down to their final three outs. I always like this kind of manager that will have an attack mentality when behind in the game. When facing a good closer late in a ballgame, and with precious few outs remaining, I find it very hard to justify giving away those outs without making the pitcher earn them. Needless to say, it was definitely not Jim Leyland's finest hour in the opener against the Angels. The Tigers trailed by one entering the 9th. They got the leadoff man aboard when Carlos Guillen singled and had their DH, Jeff Larish, due up. In theory, this is where your DH should be an asset. One swing of the bat and you could have the lead.

But in a strange turn of events, Jim Leyland decided to replace Larish, sending up Adam Everett, a man that has been asked to pinch-hit just nine times during his entire 9-year career (1 for 9). With a lefty on the mound, you would think Marcus Thames might be called upon, but instead it was the punchless Everett being summoned to the dish. He also subbed speedster Josh Anderson for Guillen. Leyland then ordered for the sacrifice from Everett (again, never been a fan of giving away outs with a 9th inning deficit), but he couldn't get it down. With two strikes and Everett no longer able to bunt, Anderson became overly aggressive and got hung up with a Brian Fuentes pickoff, getting thrown out at 2nd. Everett then struck out, leaving the Tigers with no runners on and two out when the inning had looked so promising just a moment prior with the leadoff hit. Essentially, all Fuentes had done was give up a single, get Everett to foul off a couple bunts, make a solid pickoff move, and the bases were clear again with the victory one out away. Not exactly making him earn anything.

Sure enough, the next two batters reached, making the "pinch-hitter, botched sacrifice, botched steal" all the more frustrating. They were left stranded when Ramon Santiago took a called third to end the festivities. To recap, four Tigers came to the plate in the 9th trying to reach base (Everett was trying to sacrifice), and Fuentes only retired one of them. That effort should not be rewarded with a save and an Angel win, but with over-managing, and unaggressive over-managing at that...just about anything is possible.


Other Things

Ping-Pong is the one sport where you hit your peak when you are about 14 years old. That's the best you'll ever be.

The movie never gets a lot of pub, but Jack Black and Steve Zahn in Saving Silverman were easily one of the best comedy duos in recent movie history. Just ask my boy Aubrey. I believe that was his first purchase when starting his DVD collection...and I'm almost as sure it didn't wind up being his only copy.

Am I the only guy in the world still actually "taping" things off the TV?? The TIVO, DVR, and all that might be easier and more convenient, but I haven't crossed over. I'm still throwin' the tape in the VCR and pushing the 'record' button. I'm just not ready yet.



Does anyone not sleep with one arm under their pillow?? Drop a thought below, or float me an e-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Monday, April 20, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap

CLUELESS


I know they are just not good enough. I know they are dealing with a far superior team. I know that the other team has the best player in the world. So no, I am not here to suggest that the Pistons should beat the top seeded Cavs in this series. But I can't with a good conscience sit here and not address the mysterious disappearance of Will Bynum, unquestionably the team's most valuable player in the last month of the season. Rookie head coach Michael Curry has essentially relegated Bynum to a few spot minutes here and there, somehow dismissing or forgetting all that the little guy did for the team down the stretch.

You can go all the way back to the beginning of the season. That is when we first realized that Will Bynum was a legitimate player, and not some basketball nomad that was simply happy to be collecting an NBA paycheck. This guy could ball. In the first game following the trade of Chauncey Billups, and before Allen Iverson had arrived, Bynum was forced into action. Despite not appearing in the team's first two games, Will "The Thrill" (not to be confused with Will "The Thrill" Clark of baseball fame) didn't miss a beat. He racked up 12 points to go with 4 assists in just 23 minutes. Over the next few weeks, Bynum's minutes would be yanked around, with no real pattern forming. He could sit for a week, then play for a few straight games. And it was not for a lack of production. Bynum had mind-boggling box score lines like "10 points and 2 assists in 8 minutes," taken from a close victory over Indiana in December. Still, Curry failed to give Bynum a true role on the team, stapling him to the bench for most of the next two months.

And while he might not have the classic NBA pedigree (lottery pick, All-Rookie teams), the man has a classic NBA game. He is one of the five quickest players in the league (no joke). He is deadly on the high pick-and-roll. If he gets in the paint, you might as well put two on the board. He works very hard on the defensive end, and will noticeably snarl when one of his teammates is lazy and allows an open shot. His jump shot still needs work, but he is relatively comfortable from inside of 15 feet. Also, with his aggressiveness usually comes plenty of free throw attempts, where Bynum checks in at an impressive 80% clip. And there's just a certain swagger. A confidence that says, "I couldn't care less whether I was drafted or how many teams I've played for in the last five years. I'm gonna outwork you, outplay you, and beat you every time we step on the floor."

The Allen Iverson "back injury/quitting/not willing to play a reserve role" saga did bring one good thing back into our lives: Will Bynum. Curry finally had no choice but to play him. What happened next came as no surprise to Pistons fans that had been witness to Bynum's solid play earlier in the year. He started producing every single night. Abusing Stephon Marbury in a victory at Boston. 19 points in a wild 4th quarter comeback attempt in Dallas. First start of his career...22 and 6 in a shellacking of the Clippers. Consecutive performances against two playoff teams (Lakers, Bulls) when Bynum combined for 45 points and 20 assists. He shot 48% from the field for the month of March, and 85 from the line. He was no longer "just a little burst of energy" off the bench. Bynum had become the team's most important player.

When Rip Hamilton returned to the team after missing several games with a groin strain, Curry mindlessly slashed Will's minutes again. Soon, the Pistons success was almost a matter of whether Curry would allow Bynum enough time on the floor to secure the win. In the season's pivotal playoff-chase moment, the Pistons were hosting the Bobcats, the team breathing down their neck for the final postseason spot. After three quarters, Bynum had played just 14 minutes, and the Pistons trailed by one. We all know what happened next. Bynum proceeded to set the all-time franchise record for points in a quarter, pouring in 26 during the final 12 minutes, and finishing with a career-high 32. He was unstoppable. When the Bobcats backed off, he slayed them with drives. When they got too close, he drew contact and marched to the line for 16 free throws in the final quarter alone. The ironic note about this historic quarter is that it most likely never would have occurred if Rip Hamilton not been ejected at the end of the third. Michael Curry would have robotically removed Bynum from the game despite his heroics, most likely replacing him with Hamilton or Rodney Stuckey, both players that struggled mightily throughout the night. The franchise mark would not have been touched and the game might very well have ended with a different result. But thankfully, the ejection saved Michael Curry from himself as he was almost forced to let Bynum play big minutes. However, as was the case all year, Bynum was only days away from getting demoted again.

The Bulls came to town in the second to last game of the year. A matchup with Cleveland awaited the loser. Coach Curry decided it was best to sit Will Bynum for extended stretches of the contest. He played just 11 minutes, his lowest total in 23 games. The Pistons lost. When the playoffs kicked off on Saturday, I hoped things would be different. I hoped Bynum would get the opportunity he so rightfully earned. I hoped Curry would just throw his hands up and say, "You know what? The guy's been my best player for the last quarter of the season! One way or another, he's playing 30-35 minutes a night from here on in." None of those things happened.

Bynum saw a few minutes in the 2nd quarter and provided a boost. He entered again to start the 4th and led a mini-run. He fed Rasheed for a triple, got himself a couple of buckets, and a 13 point Cavs advantage was now just 8. When Mike Brown called timeout to quell the momentum, Bynum walked back to the bench with a telling expression on his face. It said, "Yeah, we're coming back now, but where was I before??" It was not a selfish look...just complete exasperation from a guy wanting to help his team and only being given a fixed amount of time to do so. The eight point margin was as close as they got. Curry gave Bynum the hook a couple minutes later and that was pretty much it. A little more court time in the waning moments ended up padding his minute total, but for all intents and purposes, he played about 10 meaningful minutes (14 total). It's inexplicable...inexcusable... and completely unacceptable.

As stated before, I have no grand illusions about the Pistons stealing this series. They are outmatched in talent, desire, and anything else you want to add to the list. It's not their year. But there is no excuse for the way that Michael Curry has, and continues to, mismanage Will Bynum's time on the floor. The team plays with greater energy and an increased sense of urgency when he is in the game. His excellent play during the season's home stretch is a large reason why they are even in the postseason to begin with. If this series is to become competitive at any point, Will Bynum must be prominently involved. Otherwise, the Pistons will vanish without so much as a whimper, and I will spend the summer months reading this column over and over while crying myself to sleep. So get Will Bynum out there, Coach...for my sake.


Best Game of the Weekend- Philadelphia at Orlando

An unbelievable Philadelphia comeback and a monumental Orlando collapse in the 4th quarter of this game. After a couple of Dwight Howard free throws with about a minute to in the 3rd, the Magic held an 18 point advantage. They had all the momentum in the world, the crowd was on their feet, and the Sixers looked resigned to simply calling it a night and hoping to even things up in Game 2. But in a stunning turnaround that was undoubtedly the highlight of the opening weekend, the 76ers stormed back with huge contributions from the unlikeliest of sources.

Leading up to the playoffs, the High Socks Legend expressed the recent amazement that was felt when seeing just how big Donyell Marshall had gotten in the last couple years. Several reasons were offered as to how he might have packed on the poundage: change of teams...less exercise...possible cannibalism. But regardless, one thing about our man will never, ever, change. The man can shoot the 3-ball. In the 4th quarter on Sunday, big fella was up to his old tricks.

After it looked like the Sixers might make a serious push to start the final quarter, Anthony Johnson drilled a huge 3 for the Magic to stretch the lead back out to 14. With only about 9 minutes to play, that shot looked like it might be the one to take any remaining wind out of the Philadelphia sails. But Marshall answered right back with a corner bomb to make things interesting again. The quarter continued, with Philly still chipping away, but unable to get over the hump. Then the Magic finally got a clutch shot of their own, as Rashard Lewis banged home a 3 to push the lead back out to five. Not so fast. Donyell went and hid in his favorite little corner, took a pass from the heady Andre Miller, and canned his 2nd triple of the quarter (both Orlando 3s in the period were immediately answered by Donyell triples).

But as is usually the case with an 18-point deficit, it can be extremely difficult to get all the way back and tie it up or take the lead. Orlando had assumed a four point cushion again, and was looking for one big stop at the 2 minute mark. The Sixers swung the ball around the perimeter, eventually finding Chubbs Marshall spotting up for another trey. Only this time, the Magic's Courtney Lee recognized the hot hand and closed out hard, forcing Marshall to put the ball on the floor. It was soon apparent that our man was uncomfortable trying to dribble, especially considering he hasn't stepped inside of the 3-point arc since 2003. After a few awkward dribbles toward the free throw line, Donyell elevated and heaved an ugly one-hander towards the hoop. Proving that this was indeed Philly's night, the ball crashed off the glass and somehow found its way through the basket.

Despite all of Marshall's heroics, the 76ers were still trailing by three with about 45 ticks left on the clock. Common sense says, "Get Marshall a good look at a long ball...the man is on fire!" But Philly chose to roll the dice with Andre Iguodola and he responded by bricking a 3 off the side of the rim. Theo Ratliff (who was also tremendous in the final quarter) scrapped for the offensive board, and restarted the possession. This time, the 76ers did things right. Andre Miller rocked the dribble, drew a mini double team, and fired a perfect cross court pass to the waiting hands of the one and only Donyell Marshall. He let fly with one more picture-perfect rainbow from deep. The ball nestled through the twine, the game was tied, and the 17 thousand fans at the O-Rena could only slink back in their seats and think, "We were 59 and 23, and we are getting our a** kicked by Donyell Marshall!!??"

The Sixers finally grabbed the lead for good with under five seconds left. Iguodola isolated on Hedo Turkoglu and buried an in-your-face step back from just inside the arc, flashing an ice-cold stare to the deflated Orlando crowd for one final dagger. The comeback was complete. And while Marshall gets most of the ink on the High Socks Legend pages, sufficient credit must also be given to Iguodola, who played as hard as any player I've seen in some time during that deciding quarter. Anytime the Magic missed a shot down the stretch, which happened often, Iguodola would turn into a heat-seeking missile, ferociously chasing down the rebound. He refused to allow Orlando a second opportunity on his watch. I know Iguodola has always been a very talented player, and a potential All-Star, but he really grew up tonight. It was as determined a 4th quarter performance by one player that you will see in these playoffs.

It's games like this that make the NBA Playoffs so good. The intensity is amped up to the max, and even an 18-point deficit late in the 3rd quarter is not insurmountable. After a dominant regular season, most NBA pundits had the Magic strolling on to the 2nd round with little resistance from the 76ers. After 35 minutes Sunday night, those predictions looked to be 100% accurate. But then Theo Ratliff came alive (literally...he had been cryogenized for the last 18 months), Andre Iguodola morphed into some kind of superhero, and the High Socks Legend's prodigal son, Donyell Marshall, decided to turn back the clock one more time. And I couldn't be prouder.


Most Enjoyable Coach to Watch Suffer

Speaking of the Orlando debacle, there is no better coach to view during a meltdown than Stan Van Gundy. As the lead slowly dwindled away and Van Gundy continued to lose his cool, I imagine his 4th quarter statistics ended up looking something like this.

14- Pounds lost from excessive sweating.

27
- "Bison Dele-Tom Izzo Faces" in which he got as close as humanly possible to crying without actually releasing any tears.

3
- "On-Court Timeouts" following Philadelphia baskets when he became so disgusted that he was already on the court signaling for another timeout with the ball still going through the net.

14
- Pounds immediately regained during the postgame spread when Van Gundy requested his own personal cold cut platter, and "any soft pretzels that still remained in the building."


Last Game of the Weekend...Why Not Save the Best for Last??

The best individual performance of the weekend came courtesy of an old friend. When the Hornets and Nuggets tipped off late Sunday night, many Detroiters were already tucked in. Boy, did they miss a show.

Chauncey Billups was on a mission. Simple as that. Sixteen points in the first quarter. 4 of 4 from downtown. The Pepsi Center crowd was beginning to realize they were in for a memorable night. The 2nd half started and Chauncey got it cookin' again. Three after three after three. The roof was practically coming off of the arena now. Late in the quarter, Denver had a numbers advantage for a probable easy layup. Chauncey had other ideas. He let the cutters fly by, stopped on a dime, and unloaded another 3...CASHHHH!! It was his third triple of the quarter and seventh of the game. The rout was officially on. The roar of the crowd was starting to increase with each subsequent Chauncey bucket. Marv Albert's voice box was about to explode. Byron Scott frantically called for a timeout, if not to settle his own team down, to at least calm the fans a bit and try to cool the sizzling Billups off with the short break. At least it seemed like a good idea at the time.

First possession out of the timeout, it was time for Big Shot's encore. Chris Paul lost the ball and Chauncey scooped it up. As he dribbled down court, every single person in the arena knew exactly what he was going to do and exactly where the ball was going to end up. Sure enough, he rose up well behind the arc, flicked the wrist one more time, and watched as the ball magnetically zoned in on the net, falling through without so much as a ripple of the cord. Marv did the moment justice, screaming at the top of his lungs, "He is SIZZLING!!! That is NUMBER EIGHT from DOWNTOWN!!!" Reggie Miller, a man that Chauncey had victimized and sent home many times before in the playoffs, responded with an emphatic, "DO IT TO 'EM, Mr. Big Shot!!" Even Chauncey's enemies had to just sit back and enjoy a performance this special. Chauncey jogged back the other way, wearing a grin the size of the Colorado River. He finished with 36 points and 8 assists, as his Nuggets coasted to a 29-point win.

It's been five years since Chauncey Billups was crowned the NBA Finals MVP. Since then, many fans have questioned whether he has lost a step. They've wondered if he is still able to lead a team on a title run. One game cannot offer definitive answers on this debate. But if Sunday night's showstopping spectacle is any indication, Chauncey is most definitely not done yet.


What are your impressions of the NBA's opening playoff weekend? Share your thoughts below, or drop me an e-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Friday, April 17, 2009

The First Annual "High Socks Legend NBA Season Recap and Ultimate Playoff Preview"


The book has been closed on another NBA regular season. There were surprises (Ron Artest remaining sane for the most part), disappointments (Pistons), and the worst shooting streak in the history of the game (Baron Davis' 62 straight games failing to eclipse the 50% mark from the field). The playoff teams are gearing up for a long postseason run, while the lottery teams head home for an extended summer break. And the High Socks Legend is covering it all with the first annual "NBA Season Recap and Ultimate Playoff Preview." So relax, grab a cup of coffee (or an entire pot), and enjoy a trip through the NBA season that was...and the playoff season to be.


Re-Kappin' the Regular Season


One of the most overlooked stories of this season has been that of Grant Hill. Very quietly, for the first time in his 15 year NBA career, G-Hill played in every single one of the 82 games on the schedule. Yeah, this might not mean a lot for the average guy. But in the case of Hill, it means everything. So many times during his injury-riddled stay in Orlando, there were talks of retirement...just shutting it all down...the body can't take the pounding. He had setback after setback, and it almost became a running joke anytime you heard that he was planning to come back "stronger than ever" with each new season. He was a member of the Magic for seven years, and only twice did Hill play more than 30 games.

However, slowly but surely, his game totals started building to a crescendo. He jumped from 21 to 65. Then last year he managed to lace 'em up for 70, his highest number in close to a decade. And finally, this year, he accomplished a feat that 99% of the sports world would have deemed to be downright impossible at this point in his career. He completed an entire NBA season without a bruise, strain, or fracture. Not once did Hill have to watch the full 48 minutes from a comfy folding chair, as he had been forced to do so many times before. And despite the wear and tear, and his athleticism being a shell of what it once was, Hill acquitted himself quite well on the floor. He averaged 12 points and 5 boards in just under 30 minutes a night, while also shooting a career-best 52% from the field.

The Phoenix Suns played 82 games this year, and G-Hill was part of the action in every single one. It might seem like a meaningless number to some, but to Hill, it means everything. So at 36 years old, after undergoing more foot and heel ailments than Rik Smits and Barbaro combined, and after being written off by everyone around the league, Grant Hill can finally smile.

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Five years...65 million dollars. That is what the Los Angeles Clippers paid this past off-season for the services of a Mr. Baron Davis. They envisioned Baron doing the same things he'd been doing in Golden State: running the team, getting others involved, making big shots late in the game, and turning a forgotten franchise into a relevant one. All of this sounds perfectly well and good. Only one problem that the Clippers brass failed to acknowledge...

THE MAN CAN'T SHOOT!!


We don't need to recap all of his struggles here. Lord knows that Baron and his infamous streak got its fair share of air time with the High Socks Legend over the winter months. But anytime a supposed NBA superstar making "NBA superstar" type money plays in 62 consecutive ballgames without shooting over 50%, it must be given its just due.

Let's recap Baron's 'Season from Hell.' He finished the year averaging just 14.9 points per game, his lowest total in eight years. He shot a paltry 37 percent from the floor, while appearing in just 65 games. Name an ailment. Baron has probably missed time because of it. Sore hip, sore ring finger, and at one point, he even sat out a few games with "ulcers," which I believe was the same problem that caused the main character on Murder, She Wrote to have to hang it up. But her excuse was valid: she was like 100 years old. Baron is a spry 30, yet is still being beaten down by an ulcer caused by a little too much cappuccino during dessert. Awfully coincidental that during last season, which was Baron's contract year, he managed to play in all 82 games, scored 22 a night, and attained a semi-respectable 42.6 field goal percentage. Hmm.

The Clippers must have signed Baron thinking, at the least, they would improve under his leadership from the 23 wins of 2007-08. Think again. The Clip Show fumbled and bumbled their way to an unfathomable 19-63 record, the only time this entire decade that they failed to reach the 20-win mark. In their season finale Wednesday night, Baron and the boys at least had a good chance to end the season on a positive note, with the dreadful Oklahoma City Thunder coming to town. Well, you know the old saying, "We left it all out on the court"?? Yeah, they didn't do that. Instead, they went out and put on quite possibly the least inspiring performance in the league this season. The Clippers got blasted by 41 points, and to a team that had just one double-digit road win the entire season (and that was in overtime!). As for our hero, it was a vintage Baron line: 8 points, 5 assists, to go with 6 turnovers, and of course, 3 for 8 from the field. Would you expect anything else? A 41-point drubbing to a 23-win team, leaving our Clippers with just 19 W's. With Baron Davis, nothing is impossible.

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The Playoff Preview


You would think that the Pistons biggest mismatch heading into their series with Cleveland would be at the small forward spot...LeBron against Tayshaun. You would be wrong. Oh ok, it must be at point guard...All-Star Mo Williams against still developing Rodney Stuckey. Wrong again. The biggest mismatch in the arena come Saturday afternoon will not even be on the court. It will be on the sidelines. A battle of the two Mikes...Brown against Curry. And ours doesn't stand a chance.

To be fair, Curry was dealt a tricky hand to begin with. His point guard and franchise player, Chauncey Billups, was shipped off after just two games. Replacing him was a me-first headcase in Allen Iverson that made very little effort to fit in with his new team. The team was veteran heavy, and Joe Dumars hired a rookie in Curry to man the ship. But even while taking these things into account, Curry has still allowed this team to underachieve miserably, and things look to be near their worst heading into a daunting playoff matchup with Cleveland.

Michael Curry never seems to exude much confidence or assuredness when he's coaching. I am not questioning the man's intent or his desire to do the right thing...it's just that I don't think he is capable. Curry's appearance, posture, and on-court demeanor is usually something like this. He wears a finely knit, expensive, tan suit. He stands upright, a few feet from the bench, surveying the action. With a big moment approaching or a poor call against his team just taking place, you expect to see him take command and shout something of great importance. Maybe a play call to his point guard, or some choice words for the referee in question. Only there is usually nothing. You can tell that he wants to act like a great coach. Only he does not know how.

It is hard to point to anything about this season and honestly say, "Yep, Curry handled that one just right." While the Iverson deal was never going to be a picnic, you wonder if maybe things would have turned out differently had Curry asserted himself earlier as an authority figure. If he had told AI from day one, "Hey, we got our starting guards...I want you to turn yourself into the best 6th man this league has ever seen," maybe things would have worked out. God knows they could not have ended up any worse. His almost arbitrary shuffling of the lineup and rotation never seemed to sit well with the players. Tayshaun Prince was overworked for long stretches, with Curry somehow forgetting that Tay has a tendency to falter in the playoffs when his minutes get too heavy. Jason Maxiell, despite being one of the few to bring energy and toughness on a nightly basis, had his playing time jerked around with no explanation. Some nights, he would play 23-25 powerful minutes. Another night, he wouldn't see the court. A perfect example was Monday night, when facing a crucial game with Chicago, Maxiell was used for just 7 minutes, his lowest total since the All-Star break. And somehow, despite watching every game from the best seat in the house, Curry has been the last to realize that Will Bynum has been this team's best player for the last month. He has showed himself to be a guy that deserves serious time every night, while also being the team's most reliable 4th quarter performer. With Bynum's increased production, you would expect to see increased P.T. Not the case with Curry. Frustrating as it is, you still see a line like this for Bynum in the box score after a 4-point loss at Indiana: "16 points in 21 minutes." It begs the question...would the game's outcome been different if Bynum had seen 8-10 more minutes of action? Unfortunately, we'll probably never find out.

Countless times this season, the Pistons have been in complete control in the 4th quarter, only to see the game get stolen in the last few minutes. Appropriately enough, two of the biggest collapses came against the Bulls, the team that the Pistons were jockeying with late in the season to avoid having to play LeBron and Co. in the opening round.

In early February, the Pistons were in the process of cruising to an easy win at the United Center. Up by 14, with a floundering Bulls team showing little interest in competing, the Pistons had the game. Just play the last 12 minutes with the slightest bit of energy and intelligence, and the victory was in the bag. But in a game that would turn out to be symbolic of this team's complete lack of an identity or a killer instinct, they laid down. The Bulls attacked the basket every time down the floor, no defensive adjustments were made, and 36 4th quarter points later, the Pistons had endured their nastiest defeat of the season. That loss was immediately followed by six more, with Coach Curry sporting his trademark "Deer in the Headlights" expression throughout.

Amazingly, despite all of their struggles in the season's 2nd half, the Pistons still had a chance to avoid the poisonous 8-seed in the East. On Monday night, the setting was changed, the situation was a bit different, but the results were a carbon copy of that night in Chicago. The Pistons led by eight at the half, and six after 3 quarters...at home. But when the final horn sounded, they found themselves on the short end once again. The 4th quarter was an example of everything not to do in the final stages of a meaningful game. Poor clock management, undisciplined offense, breakdowns on D...it was all there. Under Curry's watch. The final few possessions put his inexperience on full display.

The Pistons had the ball with the score tied. Out of the timeout, it soon became clear that nobody really knew where they should be. Rodney Stuckey dribbled out on the wing, and just eight seconds into the possession, hurriedly elevated for a contested jumper. The Bulls' rookie phenom Derrick Rose went right up with him and blocked the shot. Now Chicago ball, out of a timeout. Vinnie Del Negro, another rookie head coach, shrewdly entered his best offensive weapon, Ben Gordon, into the game. You might think Curry would counter by inserting his best perimeter defender, Arron Afflalo, into the game. Never happened. Curry assigned the 6'9 Tayshaun Prince to bottle up the lightning-quick 6'3 Gordon. And while Tayshaun is one of the better defenders in the league, you'd be crazy to think he has the type of foot speed or lateral quickness to hang with Gordon at such a critical juncture. You can guess what happened next. The Bulls patiently worked into their set, allowed Gordon space to operate against Prince, and in a flash, he had beaten Tayshaun to the right, getting all the way to the rim for a game-deciding, and essentially season-ending, layup.

Sure, the Pistons had plenty of clock (14 seconds) to get a good shot and tie things back up, but it's just not the way this year's squad conducts business. Curry went with the old standby, no matter how many times it leaves Pistons fans screaming; a forced Rasheed Wallace three-ball. It went begging, as Del Negro and the Bulls danced out of the Palace with another outright hijacking. Michael Curry stood on the sidelines with that same familiar look: arms at his sides, hands in his pockets, ready to say the right thing...but nothing coming out. The Pistons head to Cleveland this weekend, where the Cavs hold a ridiculous 39-2 record at Quicken Loans Arena. He better think of something to say...and fast.

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You have heard about the same teams in the East all
year long. Cleveland, Boston, Orlando. Miami a little bit, too. And even the Pistons with the whole AI fiasco. But where's the love for the Atlanta Hawks?? Mike Woodson's club silently went about their business, won an impressive 47 games, and now look to win their first playoff series in this century.

The usual suspects are still around. Joe Johnson scored his 20 plus per night and logged his usual boatload of minutes (3rd in the NBA). Let's not forget this is the same guy that almost singlehandedly knocked off the champion Celtics in the 1st round last spring. Josh Smith still makes 4-5 highlight type plays a night, but his free throw shooting has to get better for this team to pull out close games in the 4th quarter (59% this season, a career low). Mike Bibby has continued to do his thing, mainly standing behind the arc and hoisting a million threes a night. But the one guy that could make the biggest difference for Atlanta is none other than former Piston castoff and true NBA journeyman Ronald "Flip" Murray.

The beginning of a new NBA season usually means one thing for Flip Murray: a new home. In just seven years in the league, Flip has suited up for six different teams. This year, he made his way to Atlanta, hoping to finally be given a legitimate shot to contribute every single night for a team expected to do big things. He got his opportunity...and ran with it. Murray has been an invaluable sub this season for Mike Woodson. Whereas last year the Hawks leaned almost exclusively on their starters, Flip now gives them a serious threat off the pine. He comes into the game gunning from all angles. He's the kind of guy that might play 27 minutes in a game, but still end up taking 18 shots. He's a volume shooter. He was never going to be effective playing 8-12 minutes a night, and trying to provide the same boost in such a short stint. The Pistons tried this routine with him, and it never worked. For a time, Flip Saunders actually designated Murray as a baseball type "closer," only inserting him when the 4th quarter began and hoping he would carry them the rest of the way...I wish I was kidding. Mike Woodson, on the other hand, has taken the leap that no other coach was willing to take before, essentially telling Murray, "Here's your nightly allotment of minutes...make the best of 'em." And he has.

Flip went career high in all three of the main shooting categories (FG, FT, 3p). He's always been able to get to the rim, and this year he has combined that ability with a polished perimeter game, making him a true offensive weapon. He has even carried the Hawks some nights when the big guns aren't firing, stepping in off the bench and hanging a 30-spot on the shellshocked opposition. And with former lottery pick Acie Law never materializing, and free-agent bust Speedy Claxton rotting on the pine, Flip has also managed to fill in quite nicely as the team's 2nd point guard when Bibby needs a breather.

Whether it's the perpetually sleepy look on his face, the unique offensive repertoire, or just the cool nickname, I've always had a certain fondness for Flip. When Ray Allen went down during Flip's 2nd season in Seattle, he got the first chance to really showcase his skills. And Flip proceeded to take the league by storm. He was putting up 20, 30, points every night before anybody even knew who he was or why he was called Flip (most say it is because his buddies thought he looked like Bernie Mac's character from 'Above the Rim'). But like it has gone for Murray throughout most of his career, that situation quickly fizzled. He was shipped out of Seattle, and has been looking for a true home ever since. In Atlanta, he has finally found one. When the Hawks open up against the Heat, all eyes will be focused on Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson. Me? I'll be squarely focused on #22 in the blue and white, because if history has taught us anything, it is never to forget about old Flip.

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If you're a Pistons fan, there's a good chance you'll be looking for another team to adopt for the rest of the playoffs after the first round is finished. The obvious choice lies in Denver, where 2004 Finals MVP Chauncey Billups has brought new life to a stagnant franchise. The main question is, can Chauncey corral this wild group of Nuggets? I single out Chauncey specifically because it has become obvious the past couple of seasons that George Karl has officially entered the Don Nelson "I'll sit here and watch, but don't expect me to move a muscle or say anything during the game" phase of his career. Just watch Karl anytime J.R. Smith throws up a 35-footer with 17 on the shot clock. He won't react. It's like he's in an uninterrupted season-long trance, not unlike that of Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. So if this team goes anywhere, it will be Mr. Big Shot leading the way.

He will have a wild cast of characters to keep in line as they prepare to host the playoff-tested Hornets. J.R. Smith is a gunner, simple as that. He could go out on any particular night and drop 40 off the bench, or he could shoot you right out of the game with a 2-19. Kenyon Martin is doing the same things he's always done. He will rebound a little bit, try and seriously injure the guy he's guarding, and then at some point, probably go to the locker room with a medical problem of his own. But the craziest of them all is the Birdman, Chris Andersen. He spends all his time on the floor trying to block shots, regardless of which team has the ball. Birdman sort of looks like a coked out Zeljko Rebraca, with the multitude of tattoos up and down his arms, spiked hair, and an overall look that says, "You probably don't wanna come too close to me." His appearance is a lot like the naked senior citizen at your local health club locker room: it's unsightly, there's a lot of moving parts, but you just can't seem to look away.

Carmelo Anthony has been the de facto leader of this team for the entirety of his 5-year career. And as we all known, Melo has been ousted in the opening round of the playoffs in all five years. With Chauncey on board now, I think that finally changes. The Nuggets are extremely tough at home, and enter the postseason playing some of their best basketball of the year. It will be nice to see Chauncey ratcheting up the Pepsi Center crowd with one of his signature dagger 3-balls in the late stages. I just hope the fans don't get too loud...George Karl might still be sleeping.

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Somehow, the New Orleans Hornets just have not been the same team this season. Last year, they steamrolled their way to 56 victories, ultimately bowing out in the conference semis to the Spurs in a 7-game bloodbath. They were a team on the rise. Chris Paul was the NBA's brightest new superstar, controlling the game with the wily intelligence of a 15-year vet. David West was emerging right along with him, becoming a household name with his devastating array of post moves and step-back jumpers. And the supporting cast, while not setting the world ablaze, was more than respectable. The one thing preventing this team from serious contention is the lack of a real threat from the swingman position. And with that, a hard glare must be cast in the direction of one Peja Stojakovic...the man holding the Hornets back.

The role for Stojakovic on this team is very clear: make shots. A mid-range J coming off a curl...a fast-break pull-up from the wing...a wide open 3 from the corner. Just make shots. That's all. We have guys that can do everything else. But for one reason or another, be it a bad back, a forged Serbian birth certificate (his records say he is 31...looks more like 45), or just a very long cold streak, the guy that was a deadeye in Sacramento just looks dead in New Orleans. When Peja was right, he would routinely shoot close to 48% from the field and over 40 from deep. This year, his FG% dwindled to .401, and his money stat, 3P%, fell below 40 for the first time in six years. Those are numbers you expect from Rasual Butler or Devin Brown, two other Hornets relied upon for clutch outside shooting. But not from Peja.

He is clearly not the same player he once was. He struggles to create his own shot, he cannot create for others, and his defense won't be reminding anyone of Michael Cooper. But if there's one thing the guy could always do, it was knock down jump shots. I've seen the following sequence play out more than a few times this year.

Tight game, 4th quarter, Hornets up 2-4 points, and Chris Paul finds Peja standing all by his lonesome in the deep corner. It's a possible backbreaker trey...make it and the other team's will is broken the instant the ball falls through the net. The crowd is ready to tear the roof off the building if it goes down. Peja sets and releases with his distinctive 'arm in front of the face' follow through. It looks look...it looks good...andddd back iron.

It helps to explain the 7-win dropoff from last season, and acts as a possible foreshadowing to a Hornet 1st round exit in the coming weeks. Rightfully, Chris Paul is the player grabbing all of the attention and accolades on this team. But he could play perfect basketball for seven straight games...and it won't mean a thing. Unless Peja can become Peja again.

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Five Reasons that the Cleveland Cavaliers Will Bother Me During the First Round

1. Anderson Varejao- The shaggy-haired Brazilian will be counted on heavily during the Cavs quest for their first ever championship Who doesn't hate this guy??? He's listed at 6'11, 260 pounds. Yet, if you make even the slighest bit of contact with him, he's flying backwards as if shot right out of a cannon. How irritating must it have been to be in a pillow fight with Varejao at a sleepover? You give him one glancing blow with your sack of feathers and boom!...he's careening backwards through your living room wall. His flopping and various histrionics on the floor have drawn the ire of many around the league. Most recently, it was Ray Allen that decided he'd had enough of these dirty tactics, and responded with an elbow to Varejao's "special area." I say 'Bravo!' The guy has made a living during his career by getting under the opposition's skin, and it's about time he got a little taste of his own medicine. If we're lucky, maybe Michael Curry will do something right and send in Amir Johnson or Kwame Brown with specific instructions to "take out the woman." His message would be clear...and the High Socks Legend could finally watch the rest of the series in peace.

2. The national media continuing to act like Mo Williams came out of nowhere this season. You even hear rumblings about him being the league's "Most Improved Player." I understand it's his first time with a legitimate contender, and yes, he's had a tremendous campaign, but the guy's been putting up the same numbers for a few years now. This season was no different, except that he was out of the NBA Siberia that is Milwaukee.

3. Former Pistons announcer Fred McLeod left the Pistons a few years back to go join the Cavs, grabbing one of the last available seats on the "LeBron love-fest bandwagon." He's like the Tony Almeida of broadcasting. Just when you think McLeod was on your side for life, there he is slapping it up on FSN Ohio, watching #23 make another ridiculous shot and saying things like, "Oh cut it out, Bron...you're killin' me!" The thought of Freddie Mac crying himself to sleep every night for the next six months makes the possibility of a Pistons miracle seem that much sweeter.

4. Coach Mike Brown- There are a few reasons this guy bothers me...

* The guy's wife chooses what eyeglasses he will wear before each game. Fine with me, but do we really need to be beaten to death with this fact throughout the playoffs? If there's one request I can make to the various announcers covering this series, it is this. Please do not remind us of this little "glasses story" over and over again...it isn't that interesting, and we honestly could not care less.

* Brown's favorite thing to watch on the tube? TV court shows, like Judge Judy and Judge Joe Brown. That's just embarrassing. If I came home from class one day in college and saw one of my roommates watching that garbage, it would mean one of two things. Either the TV was broken, and that was the only channel coming in...or we all needed to have a serious sit-down discussion with that guy, and help him through this low spot in his life.

* Just come out and tell us that you're living a double life. TV personality by day, basketball coach by night. I mean, you are Al Roker, right??

5. LeBron and the referees- Sure, it's an old bit, and a tired one. But it's the truth. In the next couple of weeks, you are gonna see dozens of whistles on Tayshaun, Rasheed, and the rest when LeBron goes to the hoop. And the first thing you will wonder is, "Where was the foul??" And you'd be right. But sure enough, the replay will come, the contact will be non-existent, and the announcers will proceed to gloss right over the bogus call as if nothing fishy just happened. The only saving grace here is that curiously, Will Bynum has also been getting the "superstar whistle" treatment of late; the only difference being that Bynum will probably shoot 15-20 free throws in the entire series, while LeBron will probably equal that amount in Saturday's opener.

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And what's a good NBA Playoff article without some bold predictions??

WEST

-The Jazz will bow out to Kobe and Co. in a 6-game affair. Jerry Sloan's crew had a golden opportunity to avoid this matchup by winning in LA in their season finale. Unfortunately, they played very flat for much of the night, and wind up right back at Staples to open the playoffs. Plus, Matt Harpring turned into Scott Padgett about halfway through this season (not a good thing). Just way too much firepower from the Lakers here, though a Jerry Sloan team is never an easy out come April and May.

-The Denver Nuggets will knock off Peja and the Hornets. Following the series, Hornet reserve forwards Ryan Bowen and Sean Marks will elope to Las Vegas and get married. Louis Amundson will serve as best man for both.

-The Spurs and Mavs is a tough one to call. Dirk's crew was inconsistent for much of the year, but have come on very strong of late. The Spurs are proven playoff warriors, but the Ginobili injury is a tough one to overcome. I'll go San Antonio here, and mostly because my boy Ime Udoka has been getting consistent minutes down the stretch and I've never seen the guy miss a shot. I'm serious. You may have never heard of him, and he might just average a few points a game, but Udoka is gonna become a household name in the next three weeks. Trust me.

(And yes, to answer your question, it's well past 4 AM at this point. Only one of my eyes is open.)

-The Rockets have been unable to get past the opening round with Tracy McGrady. Now that T-Mac will be MIA for the playoffs due to an injury, they have a chance to prove that they never needed him in the first place. The Rockets trying to sell me on the new dynamic Ron Artest-Yao Ming combo...I'm not buying it. I've seen Artest lose his mind too many times in critical situations (2004 ECF against Detroit, where his mindless flagrant foul on Rip Hamilton handed the Pistons the series) to believe that he can lead a team on a playoff run. And while Brandon Roy's tremendous play for Portland can sometimes go unnoticed by the national media, this will be his official coming out party. Blazers move on.

EAST

-The news of Kevin Garnett's injury changes the whole landscape of the Eastern Conference playoffs. (And makes the Pistons collapse to the 8th spot all the more frustrating) The Celtics will still have more than enough to get by the Bulls here. But their prospects beyond that have become much more uncertain. Chicago is building a nice nucleus, but they aren't ready for this stage.

(One thing to watch for. Both teams have aggressive, emotional big guys, in Kendrick Perkins and Joakim Noah. Look for this duo to get tangled up at some point. I like Perkins in a 4th round TKO, with his 200-plus pound weight advantage too much for Noah to overcome.)

-Magic and the 76ers. Yeah, wake me up when this one's over. Is it just me, or has Philly had the same sad cast of characters for the last million years? Sam Dalembert and his "I'll play 5 good games a year to make you think I still have potential." Willie Green, who is always one awkward crossover away from tearing his ACL for the 25th time. And Andre Miller, who despite being regarded as one of the better point guards in the league, has still yet to win a playoff series in his 10-year career. The drought continues here.

-Let everyone else fawn over Miami. I'm sticking with the Fightin' Flip Murrays. Because unless Dwyane Wade can score over 40 a night while shooting close to 50%, the Heat are going down here. Have you looked at his supporting cast lately? A washed up Jermaine O' Neal...an unfortunate looking rookie, Michael Beasley...and Jamaal "Wait, he's still alive?!?!?" Magloire all being counted on for big minutes?? Yamma-hamma! The Heat are being proactive, though. Just this morning, they announced they will be calling up a small forward from their D-League affiliate and he will be inserted into the starting lineup for Game 1 Sunday night at Atlanta. I can't wait for that introduction...

"For the Heat...At small forward...Standing 6'7, from North Carolina State....RICE PILAFFFF!!"

-And lastly, Detroit-Cleveland. This has been one of the most trying seasons in Pistons history. The Chauncey-Iverson deal blew up in Joe Dumars' face. Michael Curry never figured anything out. Hall-of-Fame owner Bill Davidson passed away. Rodney Stuckey didn't make the 2nd year leap everyone expected. Rasheed, Rip, and Tayshaun are still around...but sometimes you're not so sure they want to be. It all adds up to an uninspiring 39-43 record. And you can't help but think that if the season were 10 games longer, the Pistons wouldn't even make the playoffs at all.

So after a most impressive string of six consecutive trips to the conference finals, the ride ends here. Cleveland has been too strong all year long, and LeBron James is not about to be dealt a first round exit in the most important postseason of his career. Let's be honest. The man is unguardable. The one Piston that seems to do a decent job covering James is the hyperkinetic Walter Herrmann...and if that's not the saddest thing you've ever read as a Pistons fan, then I don't know what is.



What are your thoughts and predictions on the upcoming NBA Playoffs? Drop your comment below, or shoot me an e-mail over at
highsockslegend@gmail.com

Monday, April 13, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap

Sometimes in sports, certain events occur that are almost too much fun to watch. They can be unusual, they can be unique, and they can be outright hilarious...and if you are lucky, all three can come in one delightful package. I give you...Walter Herrmann's running style.

To put it simply, I have never seen anybody put as much effort into running up the floor as Walter Herrmann does on a nightly basis. It's as if he is running in an Olympic sprint, saving up four years worth of energy for one mad dash to the finish line...only he's doing it 30-40 times a game. There have been some interesting gaits through the years. Dennis Rodman would always bring the knees up high, covering immense ground with each stride. Cameron Maybin (in baseball) gained fame during his short time in Detroit with his wild running style, always windmilling one arm frantically, as if he was a speedster centerfielder and veteran 3rd base coach all wrapped up into one. But Herrmann and his "max effort, with all body parts moving at once (and I mean all)" takes the cake.

The situation might go something like this. The Pistons are playing the Knicks. Herrmann is open in the corner, but the ball never gets to him. Instead, Rip Hamilton takes a 14-footer from the elbow that rims in and out. The Knicks corral the defensive board, and without any real numbers advantage, decide to walk it up the floor. Only Herrmann notices that his man, Quentin Richardson, is jogging upcourt and is 2-3 steps in front. Boom!! Herrmann is now in a full sprint, arms akimbo, legs flailing, mini-ponytail dangling in the Palace wind, desperate to catch up with the harmless Richardson. Finally, as they reach the other end, Herrmann breathes heavy, like Seabiscuit after the final stretch at Pimlico. He has caught his man. Only one thing...Knick point guard Chris Duhon is now just advancing past halfcourt, with 19 still left on the shot clock. The effort from Herrmann is respected and sets a good example for others, but you wonder if he is aware that not every single motion on the court requires 150% intensity at all times.

The Pistons have bumbled and stumbled through this entire NBA season. Just when you think they have hit their stride, they take a false step. On the rare occasion, they put forth a sterling effort and the results are reflected in that. Take the Sunday afternoon victory at Boston last month, or the continued domination of the 58-22 Orlando Magic. But far too often, that perfect stride has been interrupted, or completely fallen apart. The 1st half in a nationally televised game at Cleveland, where the Pistons trailed by 33 after just 24 minutes, comes to mind. If only they could find a way to mirror the effort put forth by Walter Herrmann on every one of his jaunts up the court. It may not look pretty and it is anything but smooth, but Walter is usually able to get to where he wants to go. With a 1st round matchup at powerhouses Cleveland or Boston waiting in the wings less than a week away, it is now or never for the Pistons. Either go out with a whimper, or take a page out of the bizarre playbook of Mr. Walter Herrmann...and start running like your hair is literally on fire. Worst comes to worst, at least we'll be treated to a real good laugh.
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Anybody seen Donyell Marshall lately?? If you have not, let me ask politely, "How could you miss him"??? Man has gotten positively LARGE. The once athletic and dare I say sleek power forward has now ballooned to astronomical proportions with the Philadelphia 76ers. I'll admit, I have always had a slight fascination with Donyell.

I tend to like any big guy that steps out and shoots the 3-ball (Terry Mills, Arvydas Sabonis), so following Marshall throughout his career was a no-brainer. Throw in the fact that he once tied the NBA single game 3-pointer record with 12, and I was a fan for life. Which makes his latest eating binge all the more unsettling.

When the Pistons played in Philly a few weeks ago, and Marshall hopped off the bench, ripped off his warmups, and stepped on the floor, I was literally taken aback. "No way...that can't be him!" I mean, Donyell was never Charles Atlas or anything. But still, I never expected him to enter the "Guy who doesn't take his T-shirt off when he goes swimming" phase of his life, either. Three possible explanations for Donyell's unfortunate transformation...

1. Change of location. He spent the tail end of last season in Seattle, where the only items available to consume are coffee and salmon. He then moved to Philly, where cheese steaks are available in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, after this weight gain, so is Marshall.

2. Reduced playing time. This year marks the first time that Marshall has averaged less than 10 minutes of court time per night. Without the ability to get out on the floor and run a little bit to burn some calories, our man has no way of staying in shape. Don't the 76ers realize that Marshall has buried over 900 long balls in his career? How about just a dozen minutes every game so he can start looking more like an NBA player again and less like FOX-2's Alan Lee??

3. He ate Lamond Murray. This one actually makes the most sense. Think about it. Murray, the former standout at Cal, was still enjoying a very successful career in the NBA when he became teammates with Marshall during the 2003-04 season. Coming off the highest scoring year of his career averaging about 17 per game, Murray began slowly whittling away as Marshall started putting on the pounds. In their two years together, Murray's career (and life) slowly came to an end as Marshall continued to take full advantage of this new, untapped source for increased body mass and strength. Five years later, Marshall is as big as a house...and Murray has not been heard from since. A very logical, but tragic explanation. My heart goes out to Lamond Murray. Especially since his already went to Donyell Marshall.
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There were dozens of baseball games on the major league schedule this weekend. Managers made hundreds of decisions all across the league. Pitchers were removed, pinch-hitters were summoned, and sacrifice bunts were ordered. And you had The Masters. While the players were executing the shots, it was the loyal caddies that were assisting with club selection and helping to judge the wind. But the most impressive coaching move of the weekend came courtesy of a most unlikely source: Bill Straub, the women's bowling coach at the University of Nebraska.

The women's NCAA bowling championship took place on Saturday in Canton, Michigan. Thankfully, ESPN2 was there to cover all of the excitement. The whole scene during the title game was quite bizarre, actually. It's a team bowling event, so players are taking turns rolling each frame. Understandable. But get this. The players that are not bowling that frame are ALL standing up...the entire time. Who doesn't sit down when they're done with their roll? So the girl goes up to get ready to throw her ball, and behind her stands 10-12 of the most unfortunate looking women you will ever see. Don't start watching thinking that you'll see an Anna Kournikova or Natalie Gulbis-type out here. It's "women's" bowling...but really, in name only. I'm not saying it was actually men out there on Saturday, but the difference was negligible. And regardless of whether the woman rolls a thunderous strike or an inexplicable gutter ball, they proceed to high five every single teammate waiting for them when they are done. I saw one girl roll a 6, leaving an impossible split to deal with, and within seconds, she's being congratulated back at the ball return like she just capped off a flawless 900 series. But back to the brilliant coaching move.

Nebraska was battling famed athletic program Central Missouri in the pivotal opening game of the best-of-7 series. It was late in the contest, and one of the Husker ladies just left a nasty split with her first ball. What happened next will surely be remembered in Lincoln for years to come. Straub gives her the hook, and brings in another bowler to clean up the mess. How about that for a gutsy call? Who knew you could even do that?? Spare ball upcoming, pins scattered, Splitsville City on the horizon, and Coach Billy Straub makes the call to the pen. And ya know what...the girl nailed it! The dreaded empty frame was avoided, as female Eckersley came in and absolutely punished those pins like they just borrowed her belt sander and forgot to return it before that night's lumberjack contest.

As a coach, if you're wrong there, you know you're getting second guessed all night long on SportsCenter. Talk radio would have beaten the decision to death. Most likely, the Lady Huskers would have turned on him...and that's just a very unenviable position to be in. But when you're right, and it leads to a National Championship, nothing is sweeter.

Bill Walsh...Pat Riley...Walter Alston...Bill Straub. Those names belong together now. All coaching legends that have etched their permanent place in sports history.

It was a single substitution, but one that will leave a lasting impression on anyone lucky enough to have witnessed it. I'm grateful to be one of them, and I'll never forget it.



I am not proud of what I have just written, and will now go take a long, hard, look in the mirror. E-mail me your thoughts on Walt Herrmann, Donyell Marshall, and Coach Bill Straub, at highsockslegend@gmail.com
Or just drop a comment below...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Porridge...Haircuts...and the Most Overrated Carnival Attraction in History


That Goldilocks had some nerve. Everyone thinks of her as some sweet, innocent girl that just happened upon a house one day, downed a little oatmeal, and took a nap. Harmless, right? I think not. First of all, once you get past the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes with reading a fairy tale, you realize that homegirl should have really been picked up on a felony "breaking and entering" charge. Who just goes in a strange house and starts gobbling up all the good grub sittin' around? And it isn't like she just flagged one bowl of the "porridge." She tried the first two, didn't find them to her liking, then proceeded to absolutely destroy the third bowl.

To be honest, she was one lucky little criminal. Anytime you stumble upon a territory occupied by a trio of bears AND they catch you sleeping in the act, you really should be a goner at that point. But these bears apparently spent way too much time reading about how to act from Stan and Jan Berenstain, thus allowing Goldilocks to stroll right out of the crib without any physical confrontation. I guess we knew the Bears were bizarre from the get-go, though. After all, who prepares three delicious bowls of "porridge," only to leave them sitting uneaten on the kitchen table while they cool off? You make something...you eat it. Simple as that. If it's a little too hot, that's the breaks. You eat through the pain. How do you think I got this 3rd degree burn on the roof of my mouth? A Totino's pizza roll practically exploded in my jaw back in November of 2004. Could I have given myself a five minute breather and allowed the little fellas to chill a little bit? Sure. But that's not how men work...and I thought bears lived by that same law. Guess not.

And through all the variations of the story, they always manage to call it "porridge." Why didn't they just call it what it really was?? Cream of Wheat. Nobody in their right mind is risking 10 years in the big house for a sampling of some porridge. But you can be sure that myself and many others would willingly take that chance for a large, free helping of Cream of Wheat. You can't beat that dish. The smooth texture. The perfect blend of "Am I a snack or am I actually a full breakfast meal"?? And lastly, the brown sugar. Has anything ever complemented another food so well? Sure, brown sugar makes a strong impact on sweet potatoes and chocolate chip cookies. But where it really leaves its lasting impression is the consistently underrated Cream of Wheat. You give me the USA Today Sports page, a tall glass of O.J., and a hot bowl of Cream of Wheat...and just let me be. I'm officially in heaven...

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I understand where you're coming from, haircutting professional. In the process of trimming the locks, hair will be flying off of my dome. This is why at the beginning of the whole event, you equip me with a cape. Usually of a dark purple color that makes me look like The Count from Sesame Street, this cape does its job by protecting my clothes from the haircut about to commence. But here's the million dollar question.

Why are you tying that cape so tight around my neck that there is a good chance I might make it out of here looking good, but lacking a pulse??????

Admittedly, I don't want hair all over my shirt, pants, and shoes when I leave the joint. However, this does not mean I enjoy having all blood flow in my circulatory system cut off in the process. It'd be one thing if the cape were just kept intact by the little button they connect at the top. But no, they also have to wrap that series of white tissue around your collar, locking the cape in tightly and forcing your breathing to become increasingly halted. If given the choice, I think I would prefer a little post-haircut laundry as opposed to possible suffocation and a trip to the emergency room. But that's just me.

So next time the barber is preparing you for the big moment, and the cape/tissue hogtie comes flying out, don't hold anything back. Let them know how you feel. It just might save your life.

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You're in line for 15 minutes. The excitement level is palpable. You cannot imagine the endless possibilities that await. When it's finally your turn, you hand over your two tickets and speed towards your weapon of choice. You strap in and wait for the switch to be flipped and for the music to start rockin'. But does the next two minutes EVER live up to the hype? Sadly, that answer is no. Welcome to the world of Bumper Cars.

First off, there is an excellent chance that the car you pick will end up stalling on the start. This means you are left sitting in the middle of the little arena with nothing to do except wait to get slammed into continuously by other rabid 9-year-olds. You try to get the guy's attention that is running the show, but it is difficult to scream and make any sense when you are being bludgeoned to death via mini-car collisions. Plus, he is so into his garlic fries and cherry slushee that a bomb could go off in the Fun House next door and he wouldn't bat an eye. Being caught flat-footed in a non-working Bumper Car is about as helpless a feeling that a human being can have.

And let's say the vehicle you select starts right up and is humming from the get-go. Well, good luck steering the thing. No matter which way you turn that wheel, 95% of the time you will end up going left. It's the truth. A lot of the old Bumper Cars had the ever-confusing "turn left to go right, and vice versa" systems. Trying to master this technique in your minimal time allotted out on the track is similar to attempting to crack a Rubik's cube in under a minute. In other words, unless you are Will Smith from The Pursuit of Happyness, more clock will be necessary. The steering wheel itself was just abnormal. I believe it is the same one employed at Whirly-ball, meaning you have a small, plastic oval, that comes out of a long, black tube. Essentially you are forking over two dollars for the opportunity to be driven insane.

Even if you did end up getting it going AND mastering the kamikaze steering, there were still problems on the horizon. While you tried to remain near the middle at all times to pick up speed and pick off unsuspecting motorists, sometimes you'd find yourself driving near the rail or the corner. Big mistake. Inevitably, some overzealous, overgrown teenager would try and deliver a big blow, only to instead awkwardly wedge you up against the barrier. Now you are entrenched in Bumper Car Hell. Stuffed between the wall and another vehicle, unable to wiggle out of this maddeningly frustrating predicament. And of course, the dude has no idea how to back up his rig. Both of you are stuck, and your only "hope" is that a third party will come up and just bash the daylights out of everybody, enabling you to break loose and continue. What a blast!

Of course, what would Bumper Cars be without its trademark Whiplash? Ahh, what a feeling that was. Driving along, enjoying your day, not a care in the world...then bang! You are slammed into from the side, without a moment's notice. These cars might only go 7 mph, but somehow it feels like your 3-speed Huffy was just barreled into by a fully equipped Silverado. After regaining feeling in your neck, you take a look to see which of these little mooks took you out. But you need not bother.

It's always the same guy.

He's an adult male, about 5'8". Weighs somewhere between 220 and 375 pounds. Has the moustache/goatee combo, but one that is more the result of sheer laziness instead of genuine desire for the look. He's not topless, but it's close. He wears a t-shirt with the sleeves lopped off, but he cut too far into the fabric. So instead of just being treated to this guy's "guns show," you're now also being treated to his "Hey, I should probably be wearing some type of bra and now you can see why" show. On the front of this garment, it reads in big, block letters, "1992 Pepsi Monster Truck Mega-Clash at the Dome." But it's difficult to make out that last part because there is a huge red splotch, acquired during a violent encounter with a foot-long Meatball Hoagie from Tubby's 15 years ago. The eagerness to dive into the sandwich caused a large chunk of marinara to find it's way onto homeboy's shirt...he still hasn't noticed. And to go with the cutoff tee...what else? Jean shorts. Not just any jean shorts. Jean shorts that could probably be taken out about 14-16 inches. You wonder why this man with such a vast waistline would choose to go with such a snug fit, but then you realize he bought these in the summer of '96 when he was in relatively good shape and he had not yet discovered the $5 Hot-N-Ready. He has a little bit of hair left on his melon, but he covers that up with a mesh-style trucker hat. While the rest of the world connects the hole in the back to assure a comfy fit, this guy leaves it totally unhitched to achieve the maximum slob look. He picked up this atrocious cap for $3.99 at a local Speedway, along with a 6-pack, some spark plugs, and a pair of chili dogs from the "grill" that had been rotating in the same groove for the last decade. The lettering on the hat just reads, "TIGERS," but is written in such a nondescript way that it seems like it's more a representation of the animal itself than the professional baseball team. He should not have even been here. It was supposed to be his weekend with the two kids (one boy, one girl, both juvenile delinquents), but he couldn't resist turning into the fairgrounds when he got a big whiff of funnel cake and corn dogs out of the driver's side window of his beat up '95 Jimmy. It's always calories over kids for this behemoth waste of space. You look back at him one last time, as your eyes slowly de-glaze and the stinging feeling finally leaves your forever changed spinal column. But he's already gone...off to deliver another bone-shaking, whiplash-causing blow to an innocent 4th grader just looking for a couple of laughs on a Saturday afternoon.

That, my friend, is the world of Bumper Cars...and I'm never goin' back.


Drop a thought below, or let me know of your own personal Bumper Cars story at highsockslegend@gmail.com