Thursday, May 29, 2008

Kobe's Lakers will win the NBA title -- and probably a few more


I never thought the moment would come when I would lose all my faith in the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs.

Even prior to Game 5, with the Spurs facing a 3-1 series deficit and a road game in L.A., I told the mailman Thursday afternoon, "I'm not counting them out." And I certainly felt that way when I turned on the game midway through the second quarter and saw San Antonio 33, Los Angeles 16.

But as the game progressed, I realized the Spurs' fate. They would lose that lead, and lose the series and, ultimately, probably not win another championship with their current core.

Thank Kobe Bryant's Lakers for this.

When the season began, there were so many questions swirling around Bryant and the Lakers. The one nobody was asking: "Does this team have a chance to win a championship?" (If asked, the answer would have been a resounding, "Nope.")

One thing I was wondering: "Is Kobe Bryant the best player in the NBA?" What with LeBron James coming off his first NBA Finals appearance at the ripe age of 22 and even Dwyane Wade already blinging a championship ring, I had serious doubts.

Not anymore. Bryant is clearly the best player in the association, and, not coincidentally, he plays for the best team.

Don't get me wrong -- either Boston or Detroit will give the Lakers a great series, a Finals David Stern has been hoping for. But the difference will be Bryant.

He has an unbelievable feel for the game that he used to lack. Remember Game 7 against Phoenix two seasons ago? Bryant basically quit, refusing to shoot the ball during an embarrassing blowout. Now, at 29, Bryant knows when he must take over a game offensively and when to get his teammates involved.

And when he gets that fierce look in his eyes, he's virtually unstoppable. Bruce Bowen is supposed to be one of the league's best defenders. Bryant made him look old and slow in scoring 39 points from all over the court in LA's 100-92 victory.

It was a case of good defense getting beat by extraordinary offense.

Bryant could pull up and shoot over Bowen whenever he liked. And he could do it from anywhere -- 25 feet or 12 feet. Additionally, he does such a good job of keeping his dribble alive, that double-teams become useless because the big man who creates the double -- Tim Duncan for the Spurs -- can't stay with Bryant. Kobe showed this with a pair of drives right past the two-time MVP Thursday.

What was even more scary in the closeout game, however, was Bryant's fitness level. He didn't miss a minute of the second half, and yet he got better in the fourth quarter. If he can show that kind of endurance on one day's rest, imagine how much energy he'll have when the Finals commence in a week.

Simply put, when the Lakers have Bryant on the floor, they are the better team. The supporting cast is rock-solid, but even when Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol are on the bench, Bryant can control a game.

The only player I've watched in my lifetime whom the current Kobe reminds me of? Yep, you guessed it. (And if you didn't, look up the greatest players of all time.)

There are no weaknesses to Bryant's game. Early in his career, his outside shot needed work. Two years ago, he was called selfish and a bad teammate (and rightfully so) -- heck, people were even saying that after last season.

But something clicked in Kobe's head at the beginning of this season. No, the addition of Gasol didn't make Bryant who he is. It was before that, when Bryant was helpingAndrew Bynum look like a future All-Star. He saw that his teammates were working almost as hard as he was to make the team successful, and he gained a trust in them.

It's obvious that Bryant shares more than supreme talent with M.J. It's their competitiveness that stands out. (If you don't believe me, read this Sports Illustrated article.) That's why both players had a hard time dealing with an underachiever like Kwame Brown. They couldn't understand why he wasn't getting the most out of his ability.

But now, equipped with very capable teammates and one of the NBA's greatest coaches, Bryant has all he needs to play the lead role in this success story. And don't expect the show to end anytime soon. Don't think that Bryant's fourth NBA championship this spring will be his last.

By the time he's hung up No. 24, he might have more rings than a certain No. 23.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Center position is deciding Pistons-Celtics series


One game, it's Kendrick Perkins.

The next, it's Antonio McDyess and/or Jason Maxiell.

And so forth. If you're looking for simplicity in a dramatic Eastern Conference finals series that has had more twists and turns than a wending mountain road, look no further than the performance of these three players.

Talk all you want about Ray Allen regaining his shooting touch in Boston's 106-102 Game 5 victory Wednesday night, but the Celtics won the game thanks, primarily, to Perkins' dominant play against Detroit's McDyess and Maxiell -- and others.

Perkins set the tone from the outset, going after every rebound like his more renowned teammate, Kevin Garnett, is known for and scoring whenever his teammates passed him the ball. Detroit had a tough enough time stopping the hot-shooting Celtics on a normal possession, but when Perkins created extra scoring opportunities with five offensive rebounds, the Pistons had no chance.

The 6-foot-10, 280-pound center played precociously -- he's only 23 -- in scoring 18 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and making defensive plays with two steals and two blocks.


What was just as surprising was the non-performance by McDyess, who was the key in Detroit's Game 4 win. He was coming off a 21-point, 16-rebound showing in which he simply could not miss a midrange jump shot.

But for some unknown reason, the Pistons didn't even look for McDyess in their half-court offense. He air-balled his first shot, took just one more, battled foul trouble all night -- eventually fouling out -- and finished with a paltry four points, five rebounds and three turnovers in 28 minutes.

In other words, he would have been better off staying in Auburn Hills.

Maxiell, the other key cog in Detroit's 94-75, series-equalizing win Monday night, hardly even saw the court Wednesday. In a mere 11 minutes, he never was able to get revved up and scored six points with a single rebound on the side. It was a far cry from the 14 points on 6-of-6 shooting he put up in Game 4.

The team statistic that stands out from Boston's win: 42-25.

That was the Celtics' rebounding advantage. It was just 38-34 Boston the other night, an advantage that can be expected out of a K.G.-led frontline.

Prior to Game 5, there's no way I anticipated that Perkins would dominate his matchup against McDyess. Then again, that's how this series has gone -- back and forth, based on which starting center plays better.

Game 1 was the exception -- McDyess played better, but Boston still won. Look at the games since then, however:

Game 2: McDyess scored 15 points, grabbed eight rebounds and snatched three steals in 39 minutes. Perkins was a non-factor. Detroit won, 103-97.

Game 3: Perkins had his second-best game of the series with 12 points (on 6-for-7 shooting) and 10 rebounds. McDyess was mediocre (8 points, 8 rebounds) and Maxiell didn't do much in 20 minutes.

And I've mentioned Games 4 and 5.

So as the series shifts back to The Palace, watch McDyess closely to see how he responds to his no-show in Boston. It is clear that of all the Pistons, he is the one itching the most for another shot at a championship. He lacks the title ring his teammates got in 2004, and at 33 years old his time is running out.

The Pistons would be smart to get McDyess involved early in the game, something they completely failed to do Wednesday. If he gets going in the first quarter, he'll likely have a big game.

Additionally, Maxiell -- as is the case with most young players -- tends to play better at home. So Flip Saunders would be well-advised to give him more minutes than offensive liability (not to mention quick-to-foul unnecessarily) Theo Ratliff.

As far as Perkins is concerned, it will be interesting to see how he follows up the game of his life. He'll definitely come out on the court with the same energy, but the key is harnessing it. Otherwise, he might find himself fouling out like he did in Game 4.

"I just played my game, no stress, no pressure," Perkins said of Wednesday's performance.

And now the pressure is squarely on his opponents' shoulders. I'd advise Chauncey Billups n' company to let McDyess share a good portion of the burden.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Young should be applauded for honesty


A professional athlete speaking honestly?

Especially about something that could bring criticism his way?

Get outta here.

That just doesn't happen -- especially in this information age. Rather, whenever an athlete says they didn't take steroids, I take that to mean, "Yeah, I stuck a needle in my behind several times." When a pitcher says he didn't mean to throw a 98-mph heater at a vulnerable batter's noggin, I translate that to: "Yeah, I was trying to decapitate him."

Yes, honesty is not a strong point of today's stars, particularly when talking about off-the-playing-surface issues.

Which is why I give a ton of credit to Vince Young.

The Tennessee Titans quarterback admitted in an interview posted Monday that he thought about quitting -- yes, giving up the game of football -- after his rookie season of 2006.

It was a shocking revelation to learn about because Young is far from your regular player. He's Tennessee's franchise player. I've never been to Nashville, but I bet it's hard to take a tour of the city without spotting a pedestrian with a No. 10 Titans jersey.

Again, shocking -- but also sincere and, of course, that "H" word.

In some cases, I might criticize an athlete not for admitting such a thing, but for hiding it from his organization for so long. But not in this case. Here's why:

Even while Young was having myriad family issues during that season, he was also leading the Titans to an improbable string of six consecutive victories -- before dropping the season finale to New England -- that nearly landed them in the playoffs. As a rookie quarterback in the NFL, an extremely difficult job to begin with, Young overcame everything to excel on the field.

And he saved the possibility of early retirement for the offseason. He should be applauded for showing maturity in a tough situation (it's hard enough not having decent wide receivers).

If you want to call Young soft, go ahead. Of course, you'd be brutally wrong. Anyone who watched the 2006 Rose Bowl knows that Young is at his best when under immense pressure. His performance to top USC and win the national title was unbelievable.

He's a tough cookie. Now, I'd say he's even tougher for putting himself out there with Monday's statements.

The Titans must, obviously, sit down with Young and make sure he is still dedicated to being their play-caller. That's a conversation that has to occur. Too much is on the line for them to ignore these comments.

But from what Young said, he has overcome those thoughts -- thanks to his teammates and God -- and will continue to put that No. 10 jersey on.

And, for once, I completely believe this potential superstar. No lie detector test is needed. If I'm Tennessee management, I'm taking Young at his word.

It's refreshing to know that at least one big-time athlete isn't too embarrassed to tell the difficult truth.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Stuckey plays like starter for Pistons


Color commentators are notorious for repeating each other. Let me back up my point:

Football: "They've got a lot of weapons!"

Basketball: "They can't keep trading baskets!"

Baseball: "He just doesn't have his stuff tonight."

But when they say the following (see next paragraph), they're 1) not noting something obscenely obvious; and they're 2) making an observation that is very true, for an unknown reason, especially in the NBA playoffs:

"Role players are much better at home."

It's hard to figure out, really. I mean, we're talking about professional athletes, about people who dedicate their lives -- year round -- to their sports. And when they change venues, they can't make a shot?

Yeah, it makes as much sense as Boston's 0-6 road record this postseason -- after being the premier road team during the regular season -- but it's true. Role players, mostly guys who come off the bench, have a tendency to disappear in road games.

So how do I fathom the game Pistons backup point guard Rodney Stuckey played Thursday night? There's only one way -- he's not a role player. I'll call him Detroit's sixth starter.

That's how good the rookie from Eastern Washington was in Detroit's 103-97 Game 2 win, and because of his performance off the bench, the Celtics are going to need to find that magic road potion -- otherwise their season will be rubble.

Stuckey played so well in relief of Chauncey Billups, the Pistons actually ran set plays for him early in the fourth quarter when the game was very much in the balance. And the 22-year-old didn't blink. On back-to-back possessions, he scored a layup over Boston forward Glen "Big Baby" Davis and made an isolation jumper over Rajon Rondo.

In 17 minutes, Stuckey finished with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting, three assists, two steals and just one of those ugly plays we commentators like to call "turnovers."

Because of the way Stuckey was running the team, Flip Saunders had no problems leaving him in the game -- and Billups, Detroit's "Mr. Big Shot," on the bench -- for half of the fourth quarter. When Billups finally replaced Stuckey after a stint on the floor that lasted longer than 8 minutes, the Pistons' lead had grown from 69-66 to 86-81.

No Pistons fan could ask more of a rookie point guard playing on the road. He maintained the lead as the Celtics clawed and scratched to run their home-playoff record to 10-0.

In a way, Stuckey mirrors Boston's Rondo, who is in just his second year in the league and is in charge of feeding Boston's "Big Three." The major difference, of course, is that Rondo has to start for the Celtics. The Pistons have the luxury of bringing Stuckey off the bench, and he gives the opposing team no rest when it comes to guarding Detroit's point-guard position.

With Rondo, on the other hand, the Pistons can afford to double-team Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett with his man because he doesn't have great confidence in his jump shot. He's Tony Parker circa 2003. Give him time.

But Stuckey is there, friends. He's a championship-caliber player. He learned on the job in the final two games of the Orlando series, and he proved himself big-time inside the new Garden Thursday night.

He was, simply, the difference in Detroit's six-point win. How else can you make sense of a game in which Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen combined for 75 points and Boston ... lost?

Detroit's bench -- otherwise known as "Stuck" -- dominated Boston's by a count of 17points to eight. No other reserve did much of anything for the Pistons, but that didn't matter. With the best starting lineup in the league 1 through 5, Detroit just needs that steadying force at the point guard position who will keep the offense flowing -- not stagnant -- when Billups needs his bench time.

Joe Dumars did it again. Criticize him all you want for the Darko Milicic pick in 2003 with the NBA draft's second selection, but besides that his draft choices and offseason acquisitions have been spot-on. Jason Maxiell is an enforcer down low who is only improving. Arron Afflalo has shown flashes throughout his rookie season.

And Rodney Stuckey has already arrived. Forget that he missed the first 20-plus games of the season due to injury. Forget that he came from a no-name college conference.

The kid can play. And as he showed Thursday, he's fearless -- even when on the biggest stage.

"No, Bob, that Stuck's no ordinary role player."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Old Spurs survive young, feisty Hornets


Watching the final quarter of San Antonio's 91-82 Game 7 win over New Orleans reminded me of a classic father-son rivalry.

There's the father, who has always been able to beat his son in games of one-on-one by using his strength and developed skills. Now, however, his son has caught up to him in those two departments, but still can't quite beat Dad. But he scratches and claws, making the old man sweat and breathe hard.

Such was the case Monday in New Orleans, as San Antonio's seemingly insurmountable 15-point lead entering the fourth quarter wilted all the way down to three ... because of the play of Jannero Pargo?

Yep, that's no typo. The Hornets' precocious superstar Chris Paul stood idle while Pargo revved his engine every time down the floor, sometimes not even waiting for his teammates. But Pargo was able to score against a Spurs team that appeared just a bit slower and fatigued than they were during the first three quarters.

The jitterbug backup point guard glided by defensive stalwart Bruce Bowen (36 years old) for a pair of runners ... the lead was down to 10.

He drew a foul on All-Star Tim Duncan (32) and converted both free throws ... make that an eight-point game.

Then there was the huge 3-pointer, which came off of three New Orleans offensive rebounds, that cut the Spurs' advantage to a precarious three points, 83-80.

Alas, there was no dream comeback for Pargo, 28, and his even younger teammates. The spurt came too little, too late, and when San Antonio's own fast, slithery point guard Tony Parker -- he's only 26, but he's got three championship rings -- nailed a midrange jumper with 50 seconds remaining, the old was moving on while the young will have to wait for next year.

"I think finally the experience helped a little bit," Parker said afterward.

And good thing it came through this time around, because who knows how much longer aging teams like the Spurs will be able to fend off the up-and-coming squads such as the Hornets.

Maybe very soon, but Monday was all about San Antonio's veterans -- the stars, the role players and the is-he-still-playing? guys.

It started with Duncan, whom you can simply watch and see how greatly he impacts a game (you don't need to check the box score). From the opening tip, the Spurs -- as they always do -- ran their offense through the 2002 and '03 MVP, and he was aggressive with his post-up moves.

New Orleans didn't want to double-team him, but when they didn't, he was too smart and still strong enough to score easily. So they doubled him almost every possession, and Duncan is as good as anybody at passing out of the post.

It's one thing when Manu Ginobili is hitting his outside shots; he's usually going to get his points unless he simply misses shots. But the killer Monday was that San Antonio's other guys, the glue of the team when it's at its best, entered the game and made huge 3-pointers.

Yes, the old fogies. They can't jump liked they used to, they can't run liked they used to. But even a 57-year-old can make set shots.

In the first half, it was seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry (37) -- yes, he still plays meaningful minutes in the playoffs -- making two huge 3s to help the Spurs take a 51-42 halftime advantage.

In the pivotal third quarter, it was Michael Finley (35) who quickly got out of a shooting slump with two huge triples as the Spurs built that commanding double-digit lead.

There was just one San Antonio 3 in the fourth quarter -- by newcomer Ime Udoka -- but the damage had already been inflicted. The Spurs finished with 12 3-pointers, including six by the trio of Horry, Finley and Bowen.

Not bad for a group of old grumps.

Of course, it shouldn't be forgotten that while Ginobili is just 30, he has a very pronounced bald spot. So maybe he, and his game-high 26 points and four 3s, should be considered an antique as well -- albeit, a very valuable antique.

What matters is that the Spurs showed, once again, that experience can trump youthful talent, if just barely. There's a reason they give the ball to Duncan on almost every offensive possession when he's in the game. Whether he makes a move or not, the play usually creates a better scoring opportunity.

As great as Pargo's fourth-quarter rally was, it glossed over the fact that the runner-up for the MVP, Paul, barely touched the ball in the period, making a single basket and basically becoming a nonfactor as he watched Pargo go to work.

Pargo can't really be blamed, however. Someone had to step up, and step up quickly. He was the first one to raise his hand. But the fact that New Orleans completely went away from its bread-and-butter when its season was on the line speaks to how inexperienced the Hornets still are.

This was only Paul's second season, and it was just the second in New Orleans for Peja Stojakovic, who had a horrendous game with seven points. The Hornets all get along, but they still need to build their on-court chemistry to the point where they know what to do in critical moments.

That's something they can learn from watching the Spurs in the next round.

As for San Antonio, it only gets harder from here. A well-rested Lakers team will likely push the Spurs to the brink. And this time, it will be more like taking on an uncle than a son. LA's Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, at least, know what it takes to win a championship.

But don't expect the Spurs to back down when the going gets nasty and proclaim, "It's your turn to win."

Because especially for the old-timers, they want to tell their grandchildren one day that they repeated as NBA champions.

Before taking them out in the driveway for a little young vs. old.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pierce shows Celtics are his team


There never should have been any doubt, really.

Sure, Paul Pierce acted the ultimate diplomat, saying that he, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen would be Boston's equal leaders as part of the "Big Three."

And for the most part, he was right. But in Sunday's Game 7 against Cleveland, when everything the Celtics had accomplished since November was in jeopardy, Boston's fate rested squarely on Pierce's shoulders.

As great a shooter as Allen can be, he was off the entire series against the Cavs and spent most of the fourth quarter on the bench. And even when at his best, he's more of a complementary offensive player, a catch-and-shoot guy.

As for Garnett, he might have been Boston's MVP candidate, but he's not a player who takes over a game offensively. ESPN's chat between him and Bill Russell was perfect because the players share many traits, especially unselfishness, outside of Russell's 11 championships.

Boston's take-over-the-game player is, definitively, Paul Pierce. Just ask Garnett:

"Tonight was basically get the ball to Paul Pierce, get the hell out the way," the All-Star said after the game.

And despite LeBron James' best game of the series, a 45-point effort, Pierce matched "The King" shot for shot to score his 41.

Pierce's effort was all the more impressive because he didn't touch the ball on some Boston possessions. James, on the other hand, dictated Cleveland's attack every time down the court — he had to — and played all but a minute of the 48.

The great thing about watching Pierce excel is that nothing he does is spectacular. Unlike the behemoth James, Pierce doesn't jump out of an arena, doesn't glide through the air — at least not in his 10th season out of Kansas.

Rather, Pierce, when at his best, uses his body smartly to create shots for himself and also get to the foul line. On Sunday, James, who is 6-foot-8, had two inches on the guy he was guarding, but Pierce was able to create enough space to make 13 of 23 field goals and 11 of 12 free throws.

And he hit one big shot after another.

As did James, but we all knew that Boston is the better all-around team. The only chance Cleveland had to escape with the road victory was if James outplayed every Celtic. Take away three of Pierce's field goals, and Boston's 97-92 win could have gone the other way.

But despite having to guard James for most of his 44 minutes, Pierce never fatigued, never let up, and he made one of the biggest non-box score plays with just less than a minute to play.

Boston was clinging to a 91-88 advantage, and Cleveland's 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas was prepared to win a jump ball against Boston's 6-8 James Posey. The smart play for Ilgauskas was to tap the ball toward James, who should have been able to box out Pierce.

Pierce, however, wasn't giving in to the bigger, stronger James. Instead, as the ball was tossed into the air, he bulled his way past James toward where he anticipated Ilgauskas would direct the ball. And sure enough, there was the orange sphere, just within Pierce's wingspan. He tipped it to himself, corralled it as he fell to the floor and quickly called timeout.

The play didn't result in any Boston points, but it ran off a valuable 20-plus seconds that Cleveland could have used at the end.

Garnett is the Celtic best known for his hustle plays, but Pierce made the defining play, the effort that will be highlighted decades from now on those NBA Films shows.

"His mental toughness was fantastic," Pierce's coach Doc Rivers said. "Obviously he was great offensively. I was just happy.

"Paul had two turnovers (toward the end). When you have those turnovers down the stretch, you can easily go the other way. ... I thought he got better after that, so I was very happy for him."

Of course, Cleveland's elimination shouldn't take away from James' performance. If he had Pierce's teammates, there's a very good chance he'd be back in the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons.

He attacked the Celtics from the opening tip, making sure the game never slipped away from the Cavs. Whenever it appeared Boston was ready to build an insurmountable lead, James made a huge basket or created one for Cleveland's only other offensive player Sunday, Delonte West.

But at the end, it was James who let Pierce get to the jump ball. And it was James who took a poor, driving, in-between shot that missed badly with the Cavs trailing by three. On his way toward the basket, James passed on taking an open 3-pointer, which begs the question, 'How much confidence does he have in the long-range shot?'"

(James finished 3-of-11 from behind the arc.)

James should be given credit for taking ownership of his team. He never shied away from the spotlight, putting the Cavs on his back.

But at the end of the day, James was left to talk about the opposing player who's moving on to the next round.

"When a guy keeps hitting jumper after jumper, you have to respect that," James said.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Gender differences in professional sports

Can you imagine the shock waves that would reverberate throughout the world if the following were to go down?

On a mundane Tuesday afternoon, Tiger Woods decides to put away the clubs -- forever.

And then, while every sports talk show host from Miami to Seattle is discussing Woods' shocking decision, Roger Federer puts down his competitive racket -- also for good.

The next freakin' day!

That, basically, happened this week in women's sports when golfer Annika Sorenstam (age 37) said this will be her last season one day, and the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world Justine Henin (age 25) immediately quit her sport the next day, not even waiting around to go for her fifth French Open title.

Yeah, a terrible week indeed for women's sports.

It's hard to argue against the greatness of both athletes. Sorenstam is arguably the best female golfer ever, winning 10 majors and eight player-of-the-year awards.

Henin came after many all-time greats, but she won't be forgotten. Overcoming many personal issues, she won seven grand slam titles -- which is second among current players behind Serena Williams' eight. Most impressive were her quartet of victories at Roland Garros.

So I could easily write a column lauding each woman for her great accomplishments, but I'd rather delve into why they will no longer be competing for championships.

Both women's retirements beg the question: Would Woods (age 32) and Federer (26) suddenly retire even when they know they can still compete at the highest level of their sports?

I highly doubt it. Both still have much to accomplish -- in particular, winning their sport's most majors and grand slams, respectively -- and, also, they both put their sports right at the top of their lives.

I don't know if that's the same for many female athletes, such as Sorenstam and Henin. It can't be denied that both of them could still go out and win the biggest tournaments next weekend. Sorenstam, in fact, was coming off a victory when she made the announcement.

Henin has struggled of late suffered from injuries, but it was a mere eight months ago that she won her second U.S. Open. I'm sure she could have gotten back to that pinnacle of success with hard work.

But she didn't want to. That's the simple retirement tale. She didn't have that same love for the game, and she is ready to do other things, saying, "It is my life as a woman that starts now."

While Brett Favre retired perhaps with a year or two left in the tank, it's not because he wants to do other things. Besides, he was in a much more physical, draining sport than tennis or golf.

The fact is that for many female pro athletes, sport isn't everything, doesn't mean quite as much as it does to most men.

This is very evident in tennis. If the Williams sisters put all their time and effort into the sport, they'd have at least a handful more grand slam titles than the 14 they share. With their talent, they'd both have aspirations of reaching the magical No. 18 that is number of grand slams won by all-time greats Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

(No, nobody's catching Margaret Court's amazing 24 grand-slam singles titles.)

But Serena and Venus love to create fashion lines and do T.V. commercials and star in Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue.

And, believe me, there is nothing wrong with any of that.

Nobody, however, will argue that those endeavors have taken away from time that could have been spent practicing and conditioning -- and that's also a possible explanation for all the injuries the sisters have sustained over the past few years.

Of course, the most glaring hurdle that female athletes often face is pregnancy. The L.A. Sparks' Lisa Leslie -- arguably the greatest female basketball player of all time -- sat out last season to have her first child. And I'm sure when Henin talks about being a woman, having a family is at the top of her priority list.

I know this is the 21st century, but stay-at-home dads are still few and far between. Most of the time, the mother is going to be taking care of the child. And that in itself can end careers.

In contrast, Woods was able to finish the U.S. Open and then see the birth of Sam Alexis Woods the next day. Of course, it would have made for a better story if he had actually won the tournament. But still not a bad few days.

Lack of money can't be the "it's time to retire" issue in golf and tennis. While the LPGA tournaments' pots are quite smaller than the PGA's, they're still pretty hefty if you do well -- and, of course, there are endorsement opportunities for players of Sorenstam's caliber. And women's tennis players make almost as much as the men. In fact, Wimbledon now has equal shares.

The only mainstream sport in which there's a glaring difference is basketball, where NBA players -- and even Europeans -- make way, way more than your average WNBA player. For many women's players to get by financially, they spend their "offseasons" competing somewhere in Europe.

(You've gotta really love the game to live on two continents each year.)

But the bottom line is, glory and records simply don't mean as much to female superstars as they do to the men. Sorenstam is excited about the life ahead of her, about the new marriage and family and delving into golf course design.

And that's great. She's doing what she's enthusiastic about. But she's also ending her competitive career five majors short of No. 1 on the all-time list, Patty Berg, who has 15.

Could you imagine Woods, in five years, saying, "You know, I'd rather start designing some stellar par-3s?" when he's three majors shy of Jack Nicklaus' record 18? No, I'd be surprised if Woods leaves the PGA Tour before he hits 50.

The truth for many female athletes is that once they hit a certain age -- which is usually in their 20s -- they become comfortable. They've got the money. They've got the trophy case. Why continue to pour everything into a game?

Thinking about it makes it impressive that Sorenstam stayed competitive for this long -- you don't hear of too many 37-year-old women still beating the tails of 19-year-olds.

So don't be shocked by what transpired in a matter of two days this week. And don't think that Sorenstam or Henin is regretting their decision. Rather, they're probably relieved, and loving the idea of beginning the next stage of their lives.

It might seem weird to us males. Heck, Julio Franco almost made it to 50 in Major League Baseball. But consider it a gender difference.

And definitely cheer the fact that we can be 100 percent certain that neither athlete injected herself with HGH to prolong her career.

Take that, Roger.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pistons in better position than a year ago


The Eastern Conference finals are not kind to the Detroit Pistons.

Sure, there was the 2004 championship season when the Prince blocked Reggie's shot.

And, yes, a year later, they beat Miami in a thrilling seven-game series. But that postseason run ultimately ended with a loss, so nobody remembers them winning Game 7 on the road against Shaq and D-Wade.

No, when someone mentions "Eastern Conference Finals" and "Detroit Pistons" in the same sentence, the thought process begins with 2007, which, of course, is when LeBron James and a rag-tag bunch of Cavaliers won a series they had no business claiming.

And then there was 2006, when the Pistons simply refused to play with a sense of urgency despite the fact that they were taking on a Miami squad hungry for revenge.

And if you want, you can go back to 2003, when missed opportunities doomed the Pistons on their homecourt against the overachieving Nets

Yep, after close-gaming it by Orlando in five quick ones, the Pistons are back in the ECF for the sixth consecutive season.

Just think about that for a second, because it deserves recognition. That's right about up there with the Braves' 11 straight division titles and Duke's six Final Fours in seven seasons.

Congratulations, Pistons.

But anyone who has followed these Pistons since Rasheed Wallace was acquired mid-season in 2004 knows that one title is nothing; they should have two or three.

And, believe it or not, if Flip Saunders can't navigate his mix of veterans and rookies through to the Finals this time around, he may become temporarily jobless.

However, Saunders has reason to be optimistic, because the 2007-08 Pistons are in much better shape than they were at this time a year ago. The evidence was on display in the final two wins over Orlando.

Last season, I wouldn't have believed that Detroit could win two consecutive playoff games -- including one on the road -- without its soft-spoken leader Chauncey Billups. And I probably would have been right. That's what happens when you're too reliant on your starters.

That isn't the case this season, though, as Rodney Stuckey proved Tuesday night. The Eastern Washington rookie is completely fearless, as he demonstrated with a makeshift bank shot over the Godzilla named Dwight Howard.

"Stuck," as his teammates fondly refer to him, played a great all-around floor game, eating up 33 minutes, scoring 15 points, dishing out six assists and -- get this -- not turning the ball over once. In fact, the Pistons set a playoff record with a mere three miscues.

How else can you make up for miserable 36.1 percent shooting?

Yes, Detroit will need Billups in the next round, especially if Boston is the opponent. A series against the powerful Celtics -- at least when they're home -- sans Billups would likely spell doom for Detroit. But barring a setback, Billups will play, considering the amount of time off the Pistons now get (at least four days).

So Billups' absence was a huge blessing for the Pistons.

But Stuckey isn't the only nonstarter who is much improved from a year ago and has the trust of Flip. Jason Maxiell is now a key rotation player, whether he starts or not, and would rough up Kevin Garnett as much as he could in a Pistons-Celtics matchup. And if Maxiell starts, there is no Piston who wants a title more than Antonio McDyess.

Amid all the talk the past two years of the Pistons taking opponents lightly, McDyess has never been mentioned. That's because with each missed opportunity, his knees age a year and his opportunity wanes. Wallace, Billups and Richard Hamilton can admire their '04 rings, but McDyess arrived a year late.

Now, he's on his last legs.

Those legs, however, were huge during the fourth quarter of Detroit's Game 5 victory. McDyess was all over the court, grabbing 11 rebounds -- including six offensive boards -- and knocking down his patented midrange jumpers to the tune of 17points.

Whether he's in the starting lineup -- as was the case Tuesday -- or coming off the bench, McDyess is a valuable asset for the Pistons, a player Saunders won't forget about in the ultimate round to come.

Finally, the Pistons' bench can't be discussed without mentioning the revered 37-year-old Lindsey Hunter. He may be ancient, but he still showed that he can be a spark plug in Game 3. He's another guy whom Saunders, if he's smart, will use in the ECF -- Hunter's fitness level be damned.

But besides the team's personnel, there's another reason to think the Pistons will be prepared for the challenge the next round presents: the two potential opponents.

The modern-day Pistons' biggest problems have always been mental. Last season, they basically laughed off each loss to Cleveland, shrugging them off as if they were pieces of lint on their shoulders -- until the season had gone splat.

This year, they'd take the Cavs seriously for an obvious reason.

And there's no way Saunders, for the sake of his job, would allow James to go off like he did in the pivotal Game 5 a year ago. Double-team him, pull Bad Boy Rick Mahorn off press row ... do anything necessary. That's what would happen.

Then there's Boston, the team with the best regular-season record, the team with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. Is there any scenario in which the Pistons could take the Celtics lightly, could not be focused -- and absolutely ready to go -- for a possible memorable series?

No, not even 'Sheed would be joking around with Paul Pierce n' his boys in green after timeouts.

This, of course, doesn't guarantee that the Pistons will come out and play spectacular basketball. They'll probably have another bad shooting game like Tuesday's.

But with the right attitude and a full complement of starters and capable bench players, these Pistons appear well-equipped to get back to the Finals finally.

And maybe get McDyess that slippery championship ring.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Spurs' experience, smart play dominate Hornets in Game 4


The most telling sequence of Sunday night's 100-80 blowout win for San Antonio over New Orleans occurred during the third quarter.

Manu Ginobili had just made a falling-backward, one-handed runner in the lane while getting fouled when he was approached by teammate Michael Finley. After congratulating his teammate, Finley whispered something to Ginobili.

I can only guess what Finley said, but I've got a pretty good one — I think. That's because on San Antonio's next possession, Ginobili found a cutting Finley for an easy layup.

And the route continued.

What Finely must have said, I surmise, is that his defender was overplaying him, and he thought he could give a fake and then cut to the basket for an easy layup. And that's exactly what happened.

It was a microcosm of what happened throughout the game. The veteran, defending-champion Spurs knew what they needed to do every time down the court — and they executed. The Hornets, on the other hand, were a one-man show: Chris Paul did a lot of dribbling and scored his points, but his teammates appeared confused at times.

On one offensive possession, Tyson Chandler and Julian Wright looked at each other as if to ask, What are we doing out here?

It was a far cry from Games 1 and 2 in New Orleans, when the Hornets played like the team chock full of champions, not to mention guys who have been playing together for several years.

Of course, New Orleans still has home-court advantage in the knotted series. That shouldn't be forgotten in the immediate aftermath of the blowout. And only the Pistons have won a game this round on the road.

But besides Paul, they better wake up. Peja Stojakovic, David West, Morris Peterson and Co. looked lost on the court Sunday. On several occasions, West hesitated to take the midrange jumper that is usually his bread and butter.

Sunday's game was why most analysts and writers, including myself, picked New Orleans to bow out in the first round against Dallas. New Orleans played the part of the young, inexperienced team.

And the Spurs definitely looked like, well, the Spurs, never letting the Hornets get into the game thanks to flawless execution. Tim Duncan passed so deftly out of double teams, I mistook him for a point guard at times. And that resulted in the Hornets scrambling to find all the Spurs on the court.

That spelled trouble, considering Tony Parker and Ginobili are two of the NBA's best penetrating guards. It didn't even matter that San Antonio missed several wide-open 3-pointers, making just eight of 26 from behind the arc.

Perhaps the most telling stat in that thing you call a box score is that San Antonio registered 27 assists on 39 made shots. New Orleans, meanwhile, had just 12 assists to 13 turnovers.

That's unbelievable, considering Paul by himself usually dishes out a dozen A's himself.

Just as remarkable was Paul's meager five assists. The point guard made 10 of 16 shots and scored a game-high 23 points, but the Spurs clearly did exactly what they planned to do on defense.

They didn't overplay Paul, instead allowing him to take as many outside shots as he wanted. And they took away his teammates. For the first time all year, perhaps, Paul didn't find Tyson Chandler for an alley-oop dunk. And open shots were few and far between for the Hornets who shoot it best — specifically Stojakovic (3 of 9) and Peterson (2 of 8).

(By the way, Gregg Popovich deserves his own column for being the NBA's best coach; he doesn't get the credit he deserves simply because of the players he has.)

Now the question is how shaken the Hornets are. They unquestionably are capable of winning two more games, but everyone has to play his role. There's a basketball saying, "Role players play better at home." If that stands true, New Orleans will win the series.

But West better remember that he's a good shooter; Chandler has to return to making smart, aggressive plays instead of picking up his fifth foul in the third quarter; Stojakovic needs to work harder to get open where Paul can find him; and everyone else has to regain the looseness that allowed them to win the first two games.

Otherwise, it will be a sad ending to what's been a great season.

On the other side, don't expect veterans Finley, Bruce Bowen and others to forget what they're supposed to do for their team. They've been in their roles for years now, and they can't argue with the results.

And as Finley demonstrated, the experienced Spurs are always thinking and reacting on the court. Even in the aftermath of a positive play in a lopsided game.

On Sunday, that wasn't the case for New Orleans. And the result is a pressure-packed Game 5 in front of their home fans, who will attempt to wake them up.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

NBA rule must be changed


Orlando got screwed.

There's no better way to say it. The Magic are feeling good right about now. They dominated the Pistons Wednesday night to cut their series' deficit in half to 2-1. Not only that, but Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups might miss Saturday's Game 4 in Orlando.

But the Magic, perhaps, should be feeling even better. As in, up 2-1 with the Pistons starting to sweat.

That's because the Pistons got a free three points in their slim 100-93 Game 2 victory Monday night. At the end of the third quarter, The Palace of Auburn Hills' clock froze, allowing Billups to swish a long-range 3-pointer while the clock was stuck on 4.8 seconds.

The officials did what they were supposed to do, approximating — in their heads — the time it took Billups to weave his way up the floor, pass to Rodney Stuckey and then receive the ball back before shooting. They called it a 4.6-second sequence. In reality, as any stopwatch would have demonstrated, it took approximately 5.7 seconds.

Obviously, the officials were slow counters.

The NBA admitted the mistake the day after the game, but the damage was done. Only a very small percentage of NBA teams have come back from a 2-0 series' deficit to win a series. Despite their Game 3 win, the odds remain stacked against the Magic.

The NBA must act on this. When asked Wednesday night about it, commissioner David Stern said the Competition Committee will review the rule in the offseason. When it does, it should be a no-brainer to make this amendment to the rule:

Officials may use a stopwatch or T.V. truck clock to review any situation when the game clock freezes. It's a very simple solution.

Currently, the clock can be reviewed only when it runs out at the end of a quarter. This leaves way too much room for scenarios like Monday's to occur. In a tight game, a clock malfunction can be the difference.

There really is no counter argument here. NBA games generally last about two and a half hours. An additional three minutes to review a situation like Monday's wouldn't make the length of a game unbearable.

The only issue is whether what happened should be reviewed or re-played. If the officials had correctly ruled that Billups' shot shouldn't have counted, the Pistons could have argued that they had no barometer of how much time was left since the clock was stuck. They could have asked for the 5.1 seconds to be played over.

And I have nothing against that argument. Estimating 5.1 ticks is just as difficult for players as it is for the men in black and white.

I could lean either way. What's certain is that a change needs to be made before next season.

And let's hope the Magic don't lose this series 4-3.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hawks lay an egg in do-or-die Game 7


Mike Woodson should be upset with his players.

Not because they got obliterated by Boston in Game 7 of their first-round series.

Not because their season is over.

Not because they won't be able to play another game in front of their boisterous, rejuvenated fans.

No, the Atlanta coach should be furious because his team quit. Simple as that. As the Celtics' lead increased in front of their home crowd, the Hawks played with none of the attributes that created an unlikely Game 7.

No hustle.

No aggression.

No on-court communication.

No swagger.

Nope. The Hawks played their part Sunday, helping the Celtics recreate the Memorial Day Massacre.

The Celtics have played in hundreds of playoff games. But they have never given up as few as 24 first-half points. That's what they did.

The fact that I'm writing this before the start of the fourth quarter — and the Celtics lead by 36 points — speaks to how lopsided the game has been.

From the opening tip, there was no doubt who wanted to win this game more.

The Hawks' young players acted like they were lost. Josh Smith, 22, played as if he didn't sleep last night, fumbling the ball as often as a middle-school running back. Al Horford, the runner-up in rookie of the year voting, looked slow on both ends of the floor.

Atlanta is the more athletic of the two teams, but Boston snagged every loose ball, grabbed every 50-50 rebound. Even Boston's aging guards, such as Ray Allen, beat out Smith and Horford for rebounds.

Woodson and company should be embarrassed. Sure, nobody expected them to get this far, but at least play hard, at least compete.

It's sad when your strongest play of the game comes on a flagrant foul. That's what happened when Marvin Williams took down Rajon Rondo during Boston's huge third quarter, resulting in Williams getting thrown out of the game. The contest was so out of control by that point, the Celtics didn't even bother getting in Williams' face.

He exited the court ... and the massacre continued — with the back-on-his-feet Rondo leading the way.

Even if the Hawks had come out ready to play, they wouldn't have won. Boston was too good, too on top of its game. But things might have been a little more interesting. Maybe I could have held off on writing this until the game was actually over.

(By the way, another Boston missed shot just slipped through an Atlanta player's hands into those of a Celtic.)

It's amazing to me how bad the Hawks were on the road in this series. I know they're a young, inexperienced team. But a game is a game. The court remains 94 feet long, the ball is the same, the refs are pretty fair.

The series exposed just how immature the Hawks are. They were great at feeding off the energy of their home crowd, using its exuberance to come back several times and win all three of their home games. But when no one was rooting for them, they forgot how to play basketball.

And, sadly, on Sunday they forgot how to compete. This was exemplified several times when they didn't even attempt to chase down Boston fastbreaks.

What they need is a leader, a Kevin Garnett-type player who will get in Smith's face when he plays in a coma, who will tell Horford to stop being lazy and go after every missed shot. Veteran point guard Mike Bibby would seem like the man for the job, but he didn't show an ounce of leadership Sunday. Neither did leading scorer Joe Johnson.

That needs to be addressed before next season. A team can't go an entire 89 games with 12 road wins and expect to advance in the playoffs.

No one can question Atlanta's blend of natural talent and athleticism. It has the players to improve next year and make some noise in the playoffs.

But before any X's or O's are addressed, Woodson — if retained as coach — needs to sit down with his players and address a very simply matter:

That of showing up ready to compete in every game.

(And in case you're interested, Boston leads 91-55 with 5 minutes, 24 seconds remaining.)

Friday, May 2, 2008

Save your breath -- a college football playoff ain't happening


Don't waste your time, college football fans.

Instead of arguing with your friends over whether there should be four, eight or 16 teams ... take your kids to the park.

(If you don't have kids, go see an IMAX movie.)

A college football playoff isn't happening now, isn't happening in 2012, and likely won't happen ... ever.

Here's why: The commissioners of the BCS conferences are rather comfortable with the BCS. They say, mistakenly, that it's working the best it ever has. (Put them in front of an angry pack of Georgia Bulldogs fans, and they might change their opinion.)

Here's why Part 2: College football's popularity is at an all-time high. Large stadiums from Ann Arbor to Gainesville are routinely packed full, and even the meaningless spring game garners tens of thousands of fans. More important than the fans, FOX is in the process of negotiating a new, gigantic T.V. contract to televise the BCS -- minus the ABC-shown Rose Bowl -- through, most likely, 2014.

Who knows what the world will resemble in six years? In this fast-changing society, there might be flying cars by then. But not a college football playoff. When SEC commissioner Mike Slive is the lone ranger among a group of 11 conference commishes plus Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White to propose a plus-one format, you know the chances aren't good.

The irony is that Slive's conference has won the past two BCS championship games.

I haven't always been a proponent of a college football playoff. I hear what the fellas are saying when they talk about not cheapening the regular season. Last year's season was absolutely remarkable -- until the bowls began.

I believe a 16-team playoff would be poisonous for the sport. Late September games would be almost worthless, and when would the season end?

But the plus-one format is legitimate, and it would still allow for a full slate of bowl games, which now, by the way, is made up of 34 contests thanks to the additions of the St. Petersburg Bowl and Congressional Bowl. A four-team playoff that takes two weeks could easily work.

There's no point in talking about it, however. At least not for six years. It ain't happening.

As long as fans continue to fill stadiums -- a certainty -- and as long as big-name schools continue to haul in big bucks off meaningless bowl games and jersey sales ... well, nothing's going to change no matter how much fans and "SportsCenter" anchors clamor for it.

Whether the BCS works each year will continue to be based on luck. If there are two zero-loss, major-conference teams, it worked! If there are three, then there will be plenty of bitching by a team's fan base.

When ACC commissioner and BCS chairman John Swofford says, "I believe the BCS has never been healthier in its first decade," I can only give a slight chuckle, because serendipity is the only reason for those words.

In 2005, the dream matchup between Texas and USC fell into the system's lap. A year later, Michigan was just as deserving as Florida of the national-title game berth, but because the Gators destroyed Ohio State and Michigan lost to USC, everyone forgot about the controversy. Last season, a handful of two-loss teams had a legitimate beef as to why LSU was chosen to beat OSU.

It's impossible to put together a perfect system, but that doesn't mean the commissioners shouldn't try. A plus-one format would give four very good teams the chance to show the country why they're No. 1. Four, to me, is better than two.

But to powerful men like the Big Ten's Jim Delaney -- who doesn't want to see the "tradition" of a Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup in the Rose Bowl ruined by a new system -- there is nothing to gain from innovation. He'd rather sit back, enjoy his Big Ten Network some more and, probably, play a round of golf a week while it's nice in the North. Beats worrying about a new, complicated postseason format, right?

And when it comes to making progress, the opinions of men like Delany are all that really matter.