Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stephon Marbury's great opportunity awaits in Boston


It's not official yet, but anyone who closely follows the NBA knows it will happen.

One of the most league's most despised, selfish, wasted talents on the roster of the league's defending champion — on a team made up of his opposites: "team guys" who would never put themselves before their teammates.

And yet, I have a very good feeling about this. I think it will work (yes, I'm assuming it will happen) — both for the Celtics and Stephon Marbury.

That doesn't mean they'll win the NBA title together or even get past the conference finals, but losses on the court are as bad as things will get.

Marbury, to me, is not a bad person or even a naturally bad teammate. He's not irrevocably damaged. Rather, he is in need of direction. He needs to be a follower before he can become a respected leader.

At each of his NBA stops, he's been asked to run the team, be the starting point guard. Of course, as talented as he is, it made perfect sense. There was no way Mr. Big Time was coming off the bench or following the example of another player.

He was paid too much. His ego was too big.

And he played in a "players league." So as hard as the Don Caseys of the world might have tried to fine-tune Marbury into a winning point guard, he never had to listen, he never had to ride in the backseat.

That will all change in Boston. And that is the reason why this experiment has a great chance of not only landing the Celtics Banner 18, but rejuvenating Marbury's losses-infested career.

As a Celtic, he will ride the bench. It won't matter how well he plays — he's not getting budding starRajon Rondo's spot.

As a Celtic, he will be asked to follow one of the most voluble, intimidating leaders in the league, Kevin Garnett. This will not be like their ill-fated time spent together in Minnesota.

Then, they were both young and unproven. Neither player's career had taken off to the point of making him that much better, that much more proven and trustworthy than the other guy.

So Marbury, immature and full of himself, left Minneapolis as part of a bitter divorce. No one expected he'd ever reunite with K.G.

But now Garnett has all the power over his former teammate. He's the certain Hall-of-Famer. He's the man with the NBA title. He's got the ears of all his teammates.

He'll gain another set of ears as soon as Marbury's plane touches down. Screw up in Garnett's mind, and he'll be done before he can walk the Freedom Trail.

Experiments like this aren't new to New England sports. Not too long ago, the New England Patriots brought in controversial wide receiver Randy Moss. And even before that, they signed much-maligned running back Corey Dillon.

Under the killer eye of Bill Belichick, who doesn't blink when cutting players, Dillon never caused a problem and won a Super Bowl at the end of the 2004 season. Moss, meanwhile, has been nothing short of brilliant — and on his best behavior.

Doc Rivers
might not be Belichick, but the makeup of an NBA team is more about the players than the coach. Even Belichick, with his iron fist, couldn't have handled the Knicks of a couple years ago.

The Celtics get it. Everyone, from Garnett to Ray Allen to Finals MVP Paul Pierce to youngsters Rondo and Kendrick Perkins, understands what the team is about and what its ultimate mission is.

There's no way a battered, bruised Stephon Marbury could mess that up even if he tried.

And he won't. Because even if a championship isn't important to him — and I doubt that — he knows that the only way to land a decent contract after the season is by being on his best behavior and doing what the Celtics ask of him.

So whether he plays 30 or 10 minutes a game (and I'm leaning toward the latter), don't expect to see the typical Marbury Pout while he sits on the bench once he moves one big city up the East Coast.

In fact, by learning from some of the game's best — both talent-wise and leadership-wise — he might change. He might become capable of running a winning basketball team next season, of being a winning starter for the first time.

To do something right, you have to see it and observe it first, right?

Marbury just turned 32. Maybe he'll be a late learner. ... Or maybe not.

But the marriage in Boston, even if brief, should be a peaceful one.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Wolverines overcome first mental hurdle, but now it gets harder


One down, a few more to go.

That's where the Michigan basketball team stands after a solid 74-62 home victory over Minnesota Thursday night.

It was a win the Wolverines had to have, a game they couldn't let slip through the cracks if they want to sneak into their first NCAA Tournament since 1998. And, sure enough, once they got hold of the lead in the early going, they never relinquished it and cruised to the easy victory.

But there remains plenty of work to be done. Sitting at 17-10 and 7-7 in the Big Ten, Michigan probably needs to win two, if not three, of its final four regular-season games plus a game or two in the Big Ten tournament to go dance in mid-March.

That doesn't seem like too big of a task except for this: three of Michigan's final four games are on the road. For a young team that hasn't tasted much success, that's the ultimate challenge.

The Wolverines are just 2-6 on opponents' homecourts, with the wins coming over mediocre Northwestern in overtime and lowly Indiana thanks to a last-minute comeback.

For Michigan, it's a mental thing. The Wolverines have to know, have to believe, that they can play well on the road and match up with anybody. Because they certainly have the talent and ability to compete well in any team's gym.

How else can one explain their spirited effort at No. 1 Connecticut a couple weekends ago? In that game, Michigan led at halftime before falling by eight points. The Wolverines showed, for most of the game, what they're capable of.

But as Manny Harris noted afterward, it was still a loss. No matter how good an "L" is, it doesn't help a team's NCAA Tournament resume.

Wins are all that count, and these next couple weeks will show just how well the young Wolverines have grown up. Can they not only play a good 20 minutes in a hostile environment, but a full 40 minutes? That, usually, is the difference between NIT and NCAA teams.

If they do, then they certainly could upset Wisconsin and Minnesota away from home — their final two games. A victory in either of those contests would do wonders for this team.

But before traveling to Madison and Minneapolis, Michigan must travel to Iowa City on Sunday and then host Purdue. Both are winnable games. The Hawkeyes are, to put it bluntly, horrible. They're 3-10 in the conference and I can't name a single player on their roster.

That, of course, is why they're scary: They have absolutely nothing to lose and will relish playing the spoiler role. An experienced team, a team used to playing deep into March, wouldn't give Iowa life in such a game. It'd extinguish the Hawkeyes' energy in the early going.

That's the mindset Michigan needs on Sunday. It needs to play with the same vim and vigor it displayed against the Gophers in Ann Arbor.

We know that'll be on display on Senior Night against a ranked Boilermakers squad, but none of that will matter if Michigan is coming off a bad loss in Iowa.

With one win at a time, the Wolverines can attain their dream: They can play in the Big Dance.

Most prognosticators, including this one, said that goal would be realized next season with a more mature group.

The next couple weeks will show just how quickly (or not) this cadre of players has matured, and it will indicate whether they've developed the killer instinct necessary to win the tough road games.

The signs inside Crisler Arena Thursday night were all good.

But what will transpire away from the friendly confines?

It's time to find out — one last time — just how ready to dance this group of Wolverines is.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Women's college basketball needs to add 10-second violation


I'm not going to sit here and pretend I'm an avid women's basketball fan — although if you haven't watched UConn's Maya Moore, you should tune in; she's got mad game.

But I have covered several women's games this season at North Carolina and Duke, two top-10 teams. And besides the completely different atmosphere from men's games, the lack of dunking and the frequent turnover wars of attrition, there is one thing about the women's game noticeably different from the men's.

Here's what will happen. Sitting on press row, I'll watch as the point guard receives the ball under the opposing team's basket and begins to slowly dribble up the floor. Then, after going maybe 25 feet, she'll look over to her coach to get instructions. Then, after a few more seconds, maybe she'll pass laterally to a teammate as she's hounded by the opposing team's point guard.

By this time, I'm usually thinking, Hasn't it been 10 seconds? Why haven't the refs blown their whistles? And then, within a split second, I remember: There is no 10-second rule in women's college basketball!!

I mean, give me a break for the brain lapses. Covering a men's game one day and a women's the next ain't easy.

That shouldn't be the case — and not just for my sake (no, I'll be fine), but for the players, the coaches and the fans.

You want to make your game more exciting? You want to draw in a few more people? Make the simple change.

Here's how inane it is that there's no 10-second violation in women's college basketball: It's the only level of hoops in this country — and, as far as I know, in the world — that doesn't have the rule.

All the men's levels, including middle school and rec ball (as far as I got with the game)? Check.

High school girls hoops? Check.

The WNBA? Check.

C'mon, people. This is downright silly.

Apparently, when the women's game added its 30-second shot clock back in 1970 the NCAA committee didn't feel that a 10-second rule was needed. The members' reasoning was that if there were only 30 seconds to shoot, teams wouldn't turtle their way up the court anyway. They'd never take 10 seconds to cross midcourt, so why add another page to the rulebook?

My interpretation: They were tree huggers. After all, the '60s had just ended.

Hey, I love tree huggers — and I'm one myself. But not when it comes to this case.

Besides the simple reasoning that every other level of hoops has the 10-second violation, I can add a few other spicy incentives to implement the rule.

Both North Carolina and Duke are very athletic teams that like to use a full-court press once in a while. Their pressuring defenses occasionally cause turnovers and result in easy baskets for them.

But they could cause even more havoc if teams were in a rush to get the ball over what every other level of basketball calls the "time line." When there's no rush, teams can take their time — passing the ball backward instead of forward and basically using any strategy to eventually move the ball toward their basket.

Sure, it's to a defense's advantage when a team has to use 20 seconds to get into its half-court offense. But it still has the ball with a chance to score (and the defense has already worked hard for those 20 seconds), and anything can happen in those 10 ticks.

Nothing's more demoralizing than getting scored on with the shot clock running down, right?

Well, maybe not: How about getting scored on with the shot clock running down after the opposing team spent 19 seconds getting the ball into the frontcourt against your defense?

The other reason is how the rule affects late-game situations. Say a team's up eight points with 54 seconds remaining and has the ball 94 feet away from its hoop.

If you're the team that's down, you know you have to foul. But at this point, your only real chance is to create turnovers. The team with the ball, however, doesn't have to do anything with the ball except not lose it to you.

They can inbound it under your basket and continue to dribble and pass without even thinking of crossing midcourt. A shot-clock violation is not a worry of theirs. If that much time runs off the clock, the game will be baked, burned and well done.

A 10-second rule would at least make the team have to try to break the press in order to maintain possession and run clock.

I can't remember seeing a dramatic highlight of a women's team coming down from 10 points in the final minute of a game like the Duke men did against Maryland in 2001. I'm not saying it hasn't happened, but the lack of the rule makes it more difficult for stunning comebacks – for "SportsCenter" material — to occur.

In a sport starved for attention, that can't be a good thing.

I know women's basketball is very different from the men's game. I think that's obvious to all of us. And I'm not trying to say it should attempt to emulate the men's game.

But this rule is evident at all levels. It's not a guys vs. girls battle.

It's time the women's college game joins the party.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lakers are at their best when Odom plays up to potential


Fact: Kobe Bryant is the best basketball player on the Los Angeles Lakers.

Whew! Glad to clear up that debate. But here's a new one:

With L.A. trying for one goal this season, to win an NBA title, Bryant isn't the X-factor. Neither is Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum nor Derek Fisher. Rather, that distinction goes to Lamar Odom.

It's simple really — and this is true regardless of whether Bynum is in the lineup or injured: When Odom is at his best, the Lakers are the best team in the league. Better than their Western Conference rival Spurs. Better than the defending-champion Celtics.

And as they showed Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, better than the Cavaliers.

Even when No. 24 isn't feeling right.

While Bryant was vomiting before the game and chillin' — literally — during it, Odom was lifting L.A. almost single-handedly, making the Lakers the first team to win in Cleveland this year.

The Cavaliers will have to settle for a 23-1 start at home.

But back to Odom. If Phil Jackson actually had some hair with color remaining, it would likely turn gray quickly because his 6-foot-10 power forward's performances define hot and cold.

One night, he'll attack the basket with his long frame, he'll grab all the key rebounds and he'll intimidate opposing players trying to score on him. The next night, he'll be unassertive offensively and get into foul trouble.

Against the Cavs, the nation got to see "Good Lamar." He was all over the floor, taking control of the offense with Bryant in no mood to pull an M.J, a la Game 5 of the 1997 Finals.

Plays ran through Odom. Rebound after rebound were snatched out of the air by Odom. The game was won by Odom.

The veteran finished L.A.'s 101-91 victory with 28 points on 13-of-19 shooting, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked a shot.

But the most telling number is that when Odom was on the floor, the Lakers were +9 points. Check that final score again — he was the difference.

And Odom could be the difference between another season that ends just short of the Lakers' ultimate goal or the first post-Shaq title for Bryant.

Yes, even as a bench player.

If Bynum returns healthy and retakes his place in the starting five, Odom will return to his sixth-man role. But don't think that diminishes his importance.

Just look at the Spurs' dynasty of the past 10 seasons. They definitely wouldn't have won at least the past two titles without Manu Ginobili coming off the pine, sparking them with highly difficult shots and hustle plays.

Every championship team needs a difference-maker off the bench. Odom, L.A.'s second-most talented player, could be that guy for these Lakers.

As good as Gasol and Bynum are, they don't touch the ball nearly as much as Odom. That's because even with his size, he's a good ballhandler and he's strong when he takes the ball to the basket.

Odom is a guy whom you can give the ball to on the perimeter and let him create. Especially when Bryant is out of the game (or sick), Odom is needed to do such a thing.

He also possess a great ability — and athleticism — to rebound. Between their three big guys, the Lakers should be able to dominate games by outrebounding opponents. And nothing is more deflating than playing 20 seconds of good defense only to have to face another 20 seconds.

Odom gave the Lakers plenty of extra possessions with seven offensive boards Sunday against a strong Cleveland front line. Sans Bynum, the Lakers tied the Cavs with 42 boards apiece.

We all know how Bryant can take over a game.

In Cleveland, his very talented teammate picked up the slack.

It's something Odom is capable of doing on a consistent basis — starting or not.

It's something his team will need if it wants to have an L.A. parade come June — sick Kobe or not.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Super Bowl: Where wide receivers become household names


If you walked up to Santonio Holmes this afternoon and asked, "So, big-game player, how has your life changed since Sunday?" he might look you straight in the eye and say, "Not at all."

But there'd be a twinkle in his eyes, and you'd know the man is lying. Because there's no way that the Santonio Holmes of January 2009 is the same Santonio Holmes of February '09. It'd be ludicrous to suggest that the post-Super Bowl XLIII Holmes is the same guy who was relatively unknown outside of Pittsburgh prior to the game.

Because of one march down the field, and one catch in particular, Holmes has placed himself in Pittsburgh Steelers lore.

Earlier in the season, he was the guy who was suspended one game by coach Mike Tomlin for possessing marijuana. Now, fellas high as a kite might be discussing, in their elevated state, whether Holmes' catch was the greatest touchdown reception in Super Bowl history. (And they won't be tripping for doing so.)

In case you were locked up without access to the outside world the past couple days, Holmes and his Steelers completed a remarkable Super Bowl — replete with a plethora of spectacular plays — by scoring a 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left for a 27-23 victory.

And it was no ordinary 6-yard TD catch. After Ben Roethlisberger rolled out to his right and lofted a pass over the fingertips of a Cardinals defender toward the back-right corner of the end zone, Holmes hauled in the pigskin well above his head while falling out of bounds and, somehow, scraping the end-zone grass with both cleats.

Because of the play — and the Steelers win it created — Holmes will never be looked at the same. He'll never simply be considered a "pretty good receiver capable of making big plays down the field."

His life will also never return to its pre-Super Bowl form. For one, he'll make more money off of endorsements, contracts and who knows what else. Secondly, he'll get much more attention in airports, restaurants, the golf course, the club, wherever he goes.

I mean, damn, T.O. — if you really want all the attention, go be the star of a Super Bowl.

After all, it has become a theme year after year...

In 2008: Little-known Giants receiver David Tyree made the greatest catch in Super Bowl history, using his helmet to reel in a pass from Eli Manning on New York's game-winning drive that squashed the undefeated Patriots. Talk about a life-changing experience.

In 2006: Another Steelers wide receiver, Antwaan Randle El, showed off his versatility in throwing a perfect 43-yard trick-play touchdown to Hines Ward that helped seal Pittsburgh's 21-10 victory over Seattle. Randle El didn't make $500,000 that season. In the next two seasons, as a member of the Washington Redskins, he made over $5 million. The sad part: He's been nothing special during his time in D.C.; just ask any Redskins fan.

In 2004: Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch had a career-making game in New England's thrilling 32-29 Super Bowl win over the Panthers. The little-known receiver caught 10 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown and won the MVP award. After two more seasons in New England — which were neither bad nor great — he all of a sudden got a pay boost of, oh, about $8 million to move out to the beautiful city of Seattle and play for the Seahawks. Why? Because of his reputation (in other words, that one game). This season Branch played in eight games and caught 30 passes.

So you can see the pattern. As amazing as Holmes was in hauling in nine passes for 131 yards and the MVP trophy Sunday in Tampa, it doesn't mean he's on his way to becoming, you know, a top-notch receiver.

How he's treated, of course, will say otherwise. Granted, the Steelers are possibly the smartest and most pragmatic franchise in the NFL. They're not going to bow down to Holmes, give him a key to their trophy vault and award him a salary bump of $5 million from his income of just over $2 million for the 2008 season.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Holmes — and his agent — attempt to get out of the current five-year deal he's locked into. And you can bet that if he becomes a free agent, he'll get long looks from other teams in need of that big-play receiver.

Think of it this way: Holmes has become a name brand. When you walk into the corner store, he's no longer the obscure, scary, dirt-cheap beer on the rack that only poor college kids buy. He's right up there with the Budweisers, Miller Lights and Sam Adams. Everyone knows about him. He's become a mainstream commodity.

And to think he accomplished this with one play. Sure, he was incredible the entire game-winning march of 88 yards — it began at the 22 but was immediately pushed back to the 12 due to a holding penalty. He accounted for 73 of the yards on four receptions.

But it was the game-breaking, improbable, will-be-seen-in-highlight-shows-forever grab that instantly made Holmes a household name across this country and will almost undoubtedly make him richer in the years to come.

Call it the "Average Wide Receiver's Key to Becoming Famous and Wealthy" handbook.

On Sunday, Santonio Holmes followed the manual to perfection.