Wednesday, May 26, 2010

NBA Conference Finals heating up!

A day after the Suns evened up their series with the Lakers 2-2 and two days after the Magic kept their title hopes alive with a Game 4 victory in Boston against the Celtics, both conference finals series which started 2-0 just became a heck of a lot more interesting again.

I'll start with the Suns, who claimed after the Lakers jumped out to a 2-0 lead that all they did was what they were supposed to do by winning at home. Phoenix held up their end of the bargain by winning their two games at home to tie the series, thanks to outstanding play from Amar'e Stoudemire in Game 3 and their bench in Game 4.

Stoudemire scored 42 points on 22 shots in Game 3 and added 11 rebounds to help Phoenix to a 118-109 victory. while the Suns bench scored 54 points in a 115-106 Game 4 win. Channing Frye woke up in a big way after starting the series 1-20 and 1-14 from beyond the arc. He hit four three-pointers to score 14 points off the bench, while Jared Dudley hit three triples and Leandro Barbosa added two. They combined for nine of the Suns' 11 three-pointers on the game.

Lost in the past two games has been the amazing play of the game's best player, Kobe Bryant. Yes, he's scored 78 points but he also dished out 21 assists and grabbed 16 rebounds. And people say he doesn't have the complete game to match LeBron James?

This series, Kobe is averaging 33.8 points, 9.8 assists and 6.5 rebounds, including three straight games with at least 10 assists. For those who say Kobe isn't a good passer with above-average vision, I give you these stats as proof that when he wants to be, he can make other players better just like James can. And last I checked, he's the leader that LeBron may never be.

I think this series goes the distance, as it will be extremely tough for the Suns to win on the road with minimal contributions from their role players. But those players historically play much better at home, and I think Phoenix will defend their home court in Game 6 to force a deciding game. And all they need is one road win to move on. I'm not saying it's likely, but it's well within the realm of possibility.

As is the Magic coming back from a 3-0 deficit. Call me crazy, but that spirited Game 4 victory led by one of my favorite little guys in Jameer Nelson inspired hope in a city that had none of it after three lackluster performances. The Magic return home for Game 5 and if they hold home court, the series is 3-2 and still far from over.

The Magic proved they could win in Boston in Game 4 and a repeat performance in Game 6 (if it gets there) would force a Game 7 in their own arena. I know I'm getting very far ahead of myself, but most teams fold after losing two of the first three games at home and being down 3-0 on the road.

Orlando proved they aren't most teams, however, as the combination of Nelson and Dwight Howard was just too much for Boston, even without notable contributions from either Vince Carter (3 points) or Rashard Lewis (13 points, but just 15 in Games 1-3). Lewis has been playing with a viral infection, which explains why he has been unable to do the only thing he actually does well, shoot the three (just 3-16 in the series, but 2-3 in Game 4).

Boston has already seen a 3-0 postseason collapse this year with the Bruins in hockey and, while basketball is a much less random game (no team barely makes the playoffs like the Flyers and runs into the championship) than hockey is, Game 4 was the biggest hurdle for the Magic to get back into this series. Now that they know they can win with their backs against the wall on the road without their leading scorer doing much of anything, they assume they can win at home in a similar situation.

It's still an uphill climb for Orlando, but there is reason for optimism that they can at least make it a series against a rejuvenated Celtics team. I know that I'm very intrigued by Game 5 (and hopefully beyond) tonight and the Lakers-Suns battle out in the West. Either way, it looks like the NBA Finals will be an epic showdown.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strasburg light years ahead of Chapman

I had the unique opportunity (along with anybody else who lives in Rochester) to see two of baseball's most hyped pitching prospects throw against the AAA Red Wings in the past week. 2009 #1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg came to town last night with the Syracuse Sky Chiefs (Nationals AAA team) and Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman pitched Friday for the Louisville Bats (Reds AAA team). I will start with Strasburg, since his performance was much more noteworthy.

Strasburg's final line against the Red Wings was outstanding. 6.1 innings, 3 hits, 0 earned runs, 2 walks and 9 strikeouts. But what isn't seen in that line are the struggles he endured through the game's first four innings. He ran up multiple three-ball counts early against Red Wings hitters, struggling to find the strike zone and harness his nasty stuff (he hit 99 MPH on the radar gun), as both of his walks came in the first few innings.

Strasburg settled down with his control in the fourth inning and didn't allow any runners past second base the rest of the way, something that happened in both the second and third innings, but he was hit hard in the inning. After a leadoff single by Jose Morales, Dustin Martin hit a scorching line drive right at the center fielder and highly-rated Twins prospect Danny Valencia ripped a line drive to third, which Chase Lambin snagged with a quick lunge to the backhand side.

After his defense stood strong behind him in the fourth, Strasburg struck out six of the final seven batters he faced including a knee-buckling curveball to Wings first baseman Brock Peterson that made SportsCenter. All in all, Strasburg had 5 strikeouts with his curveball (2 looking) and 4 with his fastball (3 looking). The drop on his curveball made it virtually unhittable and his fastball location was pinpoint as the game wore on.

After starting the game with a fairly even ball-to-strike ratio, Strasburg threw approximately 30 of his final 40 pitches for strikes and dominated Wings hitters by pounding the strike zone, as Morales pointed out in the post-game press conference. He finished with 60 strikes out of 92 pitches and was still hitting 97 MPH on the radar gun in the seventh inning.

When he was pulled after his final strikeout, he walked off of Frontier Field to a standing ovation from the 12,000 or so fans that came to see him in one of his final starts at the Triple-A level. Two batters later, Brock Peterson hit a moonshot home run to left center field against the Chiefs bullpen, something that seemed unfathomable with Strasburg on the mound.

Despite his impressive line, Strasburg battled for most of the game last night. Maybe it was because he hadn't started in a week but regardless of the reason, he maneuvered his way out of tough situations. Strasburg impressed me as a pitcher and not just a thrower and he definitely looks ready for the big leagues right now. His first start is schedule for June 4 against Cincinnati and it should be another event. His presence alone drew the eighth-largest regular-season crowd in Frontier Field history.

Now on to Chapman, who will get a much shorter write-up. The reason? He didn't quite last as long (or pitch as well) as Strasburg did.

Chapman's line last Friday night: 3.1 innings, 9 hits, 8 earned runs, 3 walks. Those three walks came within the Wings first eight batters but it was the fourth inning that proved to be Chapman's undoing.

Unlike Strasburg, who pitched through a shaky start to shut down Rochester's offense, Chapman could not. He allowed hits to the first three batters in the fourth before striking out Peterson and allowing three more hits, including a home run by Trevor Plouffe that ended his ugly outing. Chapman allowed six runs in the inning while recording just one out.

Chapman's struggles with control were much worse than Strasburg's, especially because he could not bounce back. This is a sign to me that he is nowhere near as ready for the big leagues as Strasburg is, despite being on a similar timetable for a call-up.

The Reds plan on recalling Chapman in early June, around the same time Strasburg will be making his debut for the Nats. While I fully expect Strasburg to post good strikeout numbers and a respectable ERA from the start, I can't say the same about Chapman after watching him on Friday night.

The Wings lineup is not particularly potent yet he posted by far his worst start in the minors this season. He came into the game with a 2.84 ERA and left with a 4.28 mark. Maybe I'm just overreacting to one bad start, but I'm going on what I saw with Chapman in comparison to Strasburg, who was dominant even without his top-notch stuff.

Chapman has the skills to succeed at the big league level, but my feeling is that he will struggle initially upon being called up unless he harnesses his control issues. Major league hitters will work the count and pound his mistakes like the Red Wings did on Friday night, just more often and with more authority.

But that Strasburg kid? Well, he's the real deal and it won't take people long to see that once he hits the big leagues. I'm not sure when he'll win his first Cy Young award, especially with great young pitchers like Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez and Adam Wainwright in the National League, but he will surely be in the discussion starting in 2011.

If you look at what 2007 #1 overall pick David Price is doing this year with the Rays, I expect that and more from Strasburg next season. This season will prove as a valuable learning experience for this future stud, who could bring the Nationals back to the relevance they saw as the Expos in the early 90s. They're already over .500 this season without arguably their most talented starting pitcher. Is it too early to put the Phillies on watch? (Yes.)

Friday, May 14, 2010

Knicks fans: Don't get your hopes up for LeBron

I've been saying it all season but now that the Cavs have been eliminated from the playoffs, it's time to reiterate my feelings: LeBron James is FAR from a guarantee to come to the Knicks next season.

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a skeptic in general, so you can take this with a grain of salt if you want. But the FACT is that there are just as many reasons for James to stay in Cleveland or go to Chicago, New Jersey or Miami than there are for him to come to the Big Apple. Here's my list:

Reasons for LeBron to come to New York:
-The Knicks have the cap space to sign TWO max free agents, a luxury afforded to no other team in the summer of the NBA's most impressive free agent pool ever.
-The Knicks have a great basketball history, albeit one without a championship since 1973. LeBron could help restore the franchise to the greatness it once saw, plus he would get to play 41 games a year in the the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden.
-New York is the media capital of the East, if not the entire U.S. If LeBron wins in New York (and even if he doesn't), the endorsement money he could make would shoot through the roof. But then again, he's Lebron James. He'll make millions in endorsements wherever he goes.

Reasons for LeBron not to come to New York:
-The Knicks suck and they suck HARD. They have just four players under contract next season: Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Toney Douglas and Eddy Curry. No offense to the first three, who were all first-round picks and have bright NBA futures, but I doubt the thought of playing with Chandler and Gallinari makes LeBron salivate as much as the thought of playing with Derrick Rose in Chicago, Devin Harris and Brook Lopez in New Jersey or Dwayne Wade in Miami (if he stays).
-The Knicks don't have draft picks to build a team around LeBron. Their 2010 first-round pick belongs to Utah in the Stephon Marbury trade circa 2004, while Houston owns their 2012 first-round pick and has the right to swap picks with New York in 2011. All in all, the Knicks have just one first-round pick in the next three seasons. Why would LeBron come to a team that lacks a good young nucleus and can't build one around him through the draft?

Cleveland can attract LeBron with a six-year, $125 million deal while other teams can only offer five years and approximately $96 million. LeBron was also born in Akron, Ohio and has plenty of hometown ties to Cleveland. But their struggles to build a successful team around the league's most talented player (notice I didn't say best - KOBE!) could spell doom for their hopes of keeping James around.

Chicago is a solid young team with a future superstar point guard in Derrick Rose. They are light years ahead of the Knicks in terms of being competitive, as they made the playoffs this season (and promptly lost to Cleveland). I'm sure James was paying close attention to his opponent in that series.

The combination of Rose and James could win multiple championships, especially with developing role players like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson in tow. A starting lineup of Rose, Deng, James, Gibson and Noah is definitely solid enough to be one of the top teams in the East for years.

New Jersey is one of the few teams in the league worse than the Knicks but they have more attractive young talent on their roster not to mention all of their draft picks, which are sure to fall in the top 3-5 in the next few years. James is also friends with Jay-Z, who owns part of the Nets and will be sure to do everything in his power to woo James to the sewage capital of the country. And if the Nets hire John Calipari, that could tempt LeBron even further.

If Miami can't keep Wade, they have no chance at signing LeBron. But there has to be a temptation for two of the league's top five players to play on the same squad and dominate for years to come. If they can keep their egos in check (Wade can, I'm not sure about LeBron, who is becoming more of a prima donna as he ages), they would be a nearly unstoppable combination. Of course, they could always take their act to NYC, making Miami the definite longshot in this scenario.

Currently, Bodog has the odds of the Knicks landing LeBron at 5-1 (or 16% for those who don't understand gambling odds). As much as I would love to see #6 in blue and orange, I think those odds are pretty accurate in determining James' future home.

If the Knicks cannot convince another big free agent (Wade, Chris Bosh or Amar'e Stoudemire) to join LeBron in the Big Apple, 2011 might be just like 2010 for the superstar-less Knicks, maybe even worse. And I doubt many Knicks fans think it can get much worse. I certainly don't.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nelson's resurgence could lead Magic to title

After a sweep of the Hawks that was way too easy, Orlando has now won 14 straight games dating back to the regular season. Does their dominance of the first two rounds make them the new favorite to take home an NBA title?

In a word: No. Sweeping the Bobcats and the Hawks (who everybody including myself vastly overrated) does not change what you need to do against the league's top teams like the Lakers and Cavaliers.

What could make Orlando the new favorite to win the title is improved point guard play from Jameer Nelson. Finally fully healthy for the first time in over a year, Nelson is playing like he did before he tore his labrum last February.

Before his injury, Nelson was averaging 16.7 points and 5.4 assists per game. His assist total remained the same this season, but his scoring dropped to 12.6 points per game. His shooting percentage dropped from 50.3% last year to 44.9% this year, but he has been great during Orlando's recent win streak.

Nelson has averaged 18.3 points (on 52.3% shooting) and 5.6 assists in those 14 games, including a 20.5 scoring average in the Magic's eight playoff games. His resurgence has played an integral part in Orlando's dominance of Charlotte and Atlanta.

Besides Nelson's strong play, Dwight Howard's improving post-up game (he hit 27 of 32 field goals in the Hawks series), Vince Carter's offensive efficiency, Rashard Lewis' reliable long-distance shooting and important contributions from role players like Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat and Matt Barnes give the Magic everything they need to be a legitimate title contender.

The Cavaliers are no lock to get by the Celtics at this point with that series tied 2-2 heading back to Cleveland for Game 5, where Boston has already won in the series. And even if the Cavs do win, a well-rested Magic team will be waiting to repeat last year's Conference Finals victory over LeBron James and company.

Take into account that Nelson did not play at all in that series, which the Magic won 4-2, and it's easy to see why many think Orlando has the goods to make another run to the NBA Finals. Yes the Cavs added Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, but Orlando is still a better and deeper basketball team. The only thing they have over the Magic is a dominant offensive force like LeBron James, who still is no Kobe if you read my last post.

If the Magic do get past the Cavs (or Celtics, which should be easier than a series with Cleveland thanks to home-court), the Lakers seem poised to represent the West. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire will definitely have something to say about that with the Suns playing as well as they are, but I think a Lakers-Magic rematch is likely.

Nelson returned for the Finals last season, but totaled just 90 minutes, 19 points and 14 assists in five games. He is obviously healthy again and ready to make a much larger impact in his team's title chase this season. His presence might even propel the Magic to an NBA title this season, with an aging Lakers squad looking much less explosive this season.

Without Nelson, I don't know if the Magic even make it out of the East. But with him, the sky is the limit for this well-balanced squad. Hedo who?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

LeBron is better, but Kobe's THE BEST

Does that title make sense to you? Because if you know anything about basketball, it should.

It's difficult to deny that LeBron James is a better player right now than Kobe Bryant looking at the stats, not that stats mean everything. But 29.3 points, 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds for James beats 27.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists for Kobe pretty handily.

We know Kobe has a better supporting cast and therefore needs to do less than LeBron for his team to win, which is why James was the right choice for this season's MVP award (and possibly why his stats are so much better).

So yes, LeBron James at age 25 is better than Kobe Bryant at age 31. But when I say Kobe is the best player in the league, it's about more than just numbers, athleticism and talent.

It's about which player I want in the final five minutes of a playoff game. I remember when LeBron scored the Cavs' last 25 points to lead his team to a double-overtime victory in the 2007 playoffs and while Kobe has never put on a performance quite like that, he is the still the player I trust most when the game is winding down.

Kobe has proven to be the game's best closer throughout his career and I'm never surprised when I watch him take over at the end of a playoff game. He is a better pure jump shooter than James which is a distinct late-game advantage, as it's much more difficult to get to the basket during crunch time, James' specialty.

LeBron still needs work on his post game and playing with his back to the basket, an art that Kobe has perfected throughout his career. Whether it's a fadeaway jumper or a drop step into a spin move, Bryant always finds a way to shake his man and get a clear look at the basket. His footwork is simply magnificent and that's a product of his nearly 15 years in the league and countless weeks and months perfecting his craft.

On the other hand, James will often dribble in place for 3-5 seconds and pull up for a 17-footer if he can't get to the rim. Which shot inspires more confidence when you NEED a basket?

While James' teammates tend to stand around watching him dribble because there isn't much else to do (not an indictment on his supporting cast), Bryant's teammates can cut to the basket or spot up behind the arc and take advantage of potential double teams on Kobe in the post. And if you don't double him, he will score almost every time.

LeBron's late-game repertoire is nowhere near as developed than Kobe's, mostly because it doesn't have to be. James, like Bryant at age 25, can rely on sheer athleticism to get the job done. But as Kobe has gotten older and logged more miles on his body, he has had to adjust his game.

At age 31, he relies more now on his experience and studied knowledge of the game, while still being one of the league's most talented players. The fact that Bryant has multiple moves at his disposal makes him so difficult to guard in the clutch, while LeBron is difficult to guard mainly because of his strength and athleticism.

LeBron might eventually reach Kobe's level but he's not there yet. Because when it comes playoff time in the NBA, it's about more than just pure talent. If you want an example of that from a team standpoint, just look at the Hawks this season. They have so much ability and athleticism, but they are young and inexperienced and that has shown so far in the playoffs.

I would love to see a Lakers-Cavs matchup in the finals this season, if only so that everybody can see that Kobe is still king of the court as the Lakers take home their second straight title. Game's best closer, game's best player when it matters the most. And isn't that all that matters?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Red Sox doomed by slow start

After being swept by the cellar-dwelling Orioles, the Red Sox now sit at 11-14, in fourth place in the AL East and seven games behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays (5.5 behind the Yankees).

Last year, Tampa started in a similar hole at 11-15 after winning the AL pennant. The Rays didn't make the playoffs and there are plenty of similarities with them and the Sox this season.

Both teams were in fourth on May 3rd. Both had 11 wins. And both have two teams in front of them that could legitimately be considered the best team in baseball. It's an uphill battle the Rays couldn't win last season and the Red Sox will lose this season as well.

General manager Theo Epstein made moves in the offseason to shore up the Red Sox defense, adding Gold Glovers Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron. But Boston is near the bottom of the American League in errors and, while Cameron has been battling injuries along with Jacoby Ellsbury, their defense isn't as good as it was on paper heading into the season.

Whenever you put an emphasis on defense, your lineup is bound to suffer. I predicted Boston would finish below the Yankees and Rays for this major reason and so far I've been right.

This team desperately needs production out of David Ortiz, the only 30-home run threat in their lineup. But with a .159 average, 3 home runs and just 6 RBI, Ortiz isn't much of a threat at all. The only regular hitting over .300 is Beltre, who doesn't have a home run this season. Dustin Pedroia leads the team with six so far but considering his career high is 17, he might not even reach 20.

If bad defense and a lack of offense wasn't bad enough, Boston's starting pitchers have also struggled. Clay Buchholz is the only Red Sox starter with an ERA under 4.50 (2.19) and if anybody expects Daisuke Matsuzaka to save this team they are foolish. In his first start this weekend against the Orioles, he allowed 10 baserunners and 6 earned runs in 4.2 innings.

Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and John Lackey should get on track as the season goes along and if Buchholz continues his strong pitching, the Sox rotation should be fine. But their impotent lineup will ultimately be their undoing, as both the Rays and Yankees are in the league's top three in runs scored.

Boston has five months to get their act together and come back from a nearly double-digit deficit in the division through just 25 games. I know the baseball season is a long one, but it's going to be even longer for Boston fans this season when they watch their team languish behind Tampa Bay and New York all season. Just don't expect me to say I told you so (although I just did?).