Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rafael Nadal primed to take back the French Open title


Rafael Nadal is back to his old self. He whips his top-spin heavy forehands all over the court, then flattens them out for winners down the line. He moves his feet quicker than lightning to get in position for laser winners. And he chases down every ball imaginable to keep points alive and frustrate his opponents to no end.

This is a good thing.

Tennis, and especially clay tennis, needs Nadal, needs his big-name attraction. As Nadal proved for four consecutive years, no one is close to him when it comes to dominating on clay. Nobody — not even Roger Federer .

Sure, the World's Greatest Of All Time won his first French Open a year ago to cement his legacy, but it needs to always be mentioned that he didn't have to face a certain Spaniard to claim the his most elusive grand slam. That victory almost needs an asterisk.

A year ago, when Nadal fall to Robin Soderling in the French, all was clearly not right with him. This was confirmed just weeks later when he had to, begrudgingly, withdraw from defending his Wimbledon title because of tendinitis in both knees. Knowing the competitor Nadal is, he must have been in a great deal of pain.

Nadal returned a couple weeks later and played the rest of the year, but he was almost an afterthought at the big tournaments. For a while, he fell out of the No. 2 slot in the world — he had been No. 1 early in the year, following his Australian Open victory over Federer — behind Andy Murray . And he got doused in three sets by eventual surprise U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro .

Then at the Aussi Open in January, Nadal had to retire during a match against Murray. Yes, he withdrew from a second straight major where he was the defending champion. Obviously, all was not right with the six-time grand slam champion. Doctors told him to take two weeks off.

The 23-year-old heeded their advice, and since then he's felt great. Today in Paris, he dispatched of a desperate, I-don't-have-many-more-majors-to-play Lleyton Hewitt in three sets. Nadal was all over the court, chasing down every ground stroke Hewitt hit that looked like a winner. By the end of the match, Hewitt had the look of a man who knew he had simply been destroyed by a superior player.

There is no doubt, as Nadal moves on to the Round of 16, that when healthy he is one of the best two players in the world. The question remains, of course, whether he can keep playing at a high level without wearing down his knees. His tennis schedule has traditionally been super busy the entire calendar year with few breaks for rest. Perhaps a slight lightening of the schedule is needed for Nadal to remain healthy and playing his best tennis for several years (remember, Federer is 28 and still the world's No. 1).

Whatever the case, Nadal remains an absolute joy to watch, especially on the clay of Roland Garros. And no one is better than him on the surface. It seems a long time ago, but in the 2009 final Nadal obliterated Federer in three quick sets then beat him in the epic Greatest Match of All Time in London a month later.

Tennis fans have been fortunate enough to see Federer and Nadal share a court several times over the last few years, something I, at least, missed greatly during Nadal's difficult last 12 months. Now, thankfully, the quick, powerful Spaniard appears to be back at the top of his game.

Which, of course, means trouble for the rest of the men's professional tour.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Lamar Odom the difference-maker for the Lakers

I've got a confession to make: I'm writing a column about a player on a team that's playing in a series that I haven't even watched yet.

First, the sorry excuses. On Monday night, during the Los Angeles Lakers' 128-107 neat and tidy disposal of the Phoenix Suns, I was playing kickball (we won, by the way) and then getting my, um, butt handed to me in Fifa 2010 so badly that I kept playing until the Lakers game was over, hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could improve my corner kicks and not feel so embarrassed. (Side note: My man, Ben, was checking on the score to make sure it wasn't close.) Then on Wednesday night, my organization had one of our three huge fundraisers. So I was kind of busy with that all night.

Now that I've cleared that up, let me give you my thoughts on the series I haven't watched. And, honestly, so far it hasn't needed watching. The box scores say it all. And believe me on this -- I've watched enough Lakers basketball to know what takes them from a really good team to an unstoppable one.

Lamar Odom.

Simple as that. Check out what the bench player did in Games 1 and 2 (a 124-112 victory) against the Suns: 19 points, 19 rebounds; 17 points, 11 rebounds. Absolutely spectacular numbers for a bench player. The entire Suns bench put together 26 points and nine boards in Game 2. Wow.

That's too much of a burden for the Suns to overcome when you factor in the Lakers having, you know, the most clutch player in basketball -- a guy named Kobe -- and perhaps the most underrated, consistent big man in the game, scoring machine Pau Gasol.

Too much.

Of course, this series isn't over. I've stuck by this tenet for many years (and now, even, the big-time pundits use it): A series can't be declared over until a team wins on the other team's homecourt ... until a Game 7, of course. So don't pencil this series in.

But if Odom plays like he did the first two games, forget about it. After the Game 2 victory, Bryant was asked what makes the Lakers so tough. Versatility, he said. And, yep, he's right. When Odom, at 6-foot-10, is playing aggressive and smart (read: not settling for 3-pointers; he's a horrible outside shooter), using his strength and length to get to the basket and score or set up others, additionally putting himself in position for offensive rebounds, the Lakers are unbeatable outside of a Kobe injury, a Gasol injury or some freaky thing like Leandro Barbosa dropping 50.

So far this series, the Suns have no answer for Odom. He has dominated with his long arms, springy feet and basketball wits. He has made Amare Stoudemire, who has a combined nine rebounds between the two games, resemble Bill Wennington (sorry, Amare). And he's only taken two 3-pointers, not giving the Suns any dumb decisions to fuel their fast-paced offensive mobile.

Stat of the series: The Lakers are +32 when Odom is on the floor. That's not quite as good as Bryant's +36 and not close to Gasol's ridiculous +41, but I think it says a little something about the big fella's impact. He's all over the place, making plays and frustrating a Suns team that can't afford to give up any extra shots (they're porous enough, already, on the defensive end). Odom has 10 offensive rebounds in the two games.

You want past numerical proof of Odom's impact? Look at last year's Finals, a 4-1 series victory for the Lakers over Orlando. And forget about Game 4, which the Magic completely blew at the end (oh, by the way, Odom had a poor game):

Game 1: Lakers win handily -- Odom 11 points, 14 boards
Game 2: Lakers in in OT -- Odom 19 points, 8 boards
Game 3: Magic win tight one -- Odom 11 points, 2 boards
Game 5: Lakers roll -- Odom 17 points, 10 boards

The man is, as the experts would say, the Lakers' X-factor. No, not all by himself. It's hard to figure how last year's champions would have fared sans tough-as-bricks, money-in-crunch-time Derek Fisher. All he does is hit big shots (he saved the Lakers in that Game 4 Orlando debacle). And Ron Artest has made a difference as well, knocking down three huge 3-pointers in Game 2 when the Suns' defense sagged.

But here's the bottom line: The Lakers' most valuable players list goes like this -- 1. Um, Kobe; 2. Gasol; 3. Odom. Yes, that's right. A bench player ranks ahead of three starters. It's a fact.

The dangerous thing about Odom is that there are times when he appears uncaring on the court, chucking up 3s and not banging bodies down low for boards. That was apparent in at least two of the Lakers' losses to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals when he was a starter -- Odom had a decent night in Boston's Game 6 clincher, but that far from mattered the way the Lakers, um Kobe, tanked.

But these last two postseasons, he's mostly been the Good Odom. And we're seeing the results.

So if you're like me, and actually can't watch all the playoff games (no worries: I should be good for the rest of the postseason), try this before simply looking up the score on your Blackberry/iPhone/Droid/etc.: Google Lamar Odom, pull up his stat line and then make an educated guess as to who won.

Sure, Barbosa might have dropped that 50. But more than likely, a good night by Odom means a Lakers win.

There aren't many surer things in this shaky world we live in.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

MLB All-Star Game becomes watered down -- and yet it matters?


For many pitchers who are selected to the MLB All-Star Game, it'll likely mean a nice vacation -- a chance to exchange gossip with fellas from other teams, sit in the grass with camcorder in hand watching the Home Run Derby and wondering who's juiced, and, um maybe pitch to a batter or two?

Seriously. This is how ridiculous the All-Star Game that "matters" has become. It's still, easily, the best ASG in professional sports because the players are serious, it happens in the middle of the season, and there have been many close -- yes, even "dramatic" -- games in recent years.

So, of course, Bud Selig and his crew are "trying" to improve it -- and by improve, I mean make silly. How? Well, each team will now have a 34-man roster. Yes, that's right -- 21 position players and 13 pitchers for a nine-inning game.

Now, granted, in 2002 Selig stopped the Midsummer Classic after 11 innings because A) He was worried teams would run out of players; B) He wanted to make it to his favorite Milwaukee restaurant before it close; or C) It was past his bedtime. And 2008 produced the 15-inning classic, which had managers worried about overusing guys.

I get it, then. Baseball's powers that be feel the leagues are so evenly matched, we'll have more 12-, 15- and even 23-inning nailbiters. I get it! But wait -- actually, the tally in recent years has been a bit lopsided. As in, the AL has won 13 in a row.

Bottom line: While I can kind of see the reasoning for expanding rosters -- they've steadily climbed from 28 (the number from 1969-97) to 34 -- it's taking away the whole point of the Classic: seeing the game's best players on center stage. If Albert Pujols is the best position player, then let us see him for at least five innings. If Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball, then it's a complete crock to only see him throw the first two innings and then watch the ninth-best starter in the National League blow the lead in the seventh.

That's like LeBron James only playing in the first quarter of an NBA playoff game (wait, didn't that happen the other night? Oops, sorry, LeBron).

The fact that 13 pitchers are selected to each roster is the most preposterous part of the deal. From a manager's perspective, say you save three pitchers for extra innings regardless of the score. And the three you select haven't pitched in a while for their teams, so you can legitimately ask them to each throw three innings -- meaning you're set through the 18th -- without their managers cursing you out and stomping at your feet the next time you meet during the regular season.

OK, that still leaves 10 pitchers to use during nine innings. Ten! And you know you're giving the starter and probably the next guy two innings apiece -- even though the starter, as mentioned, should get five. So that leaves five innings, or 15 outs, to split up among eight guys. That's not even two outs per pitcher.

Who wants to get all warmed up during the All-Star game in the fifth inning only to enter, force a popout, and then hit the showers?

I'm sorry -- it's ridiculous. I have no real problem with teams having 21 position players. Basically, that's two at each position, and managers can keep three on their benches for extra-inning scenarios. Also, under a new rule, a manager can select a player to re-enter the game if necessary. So that works for me. The best position players should be given five innings, the next-best guys four (or five/six if it goes to extras), and then bring in the last three -- and possibly bring back the Pujols.

Nothing broken there.

Also, the special committee for on-field matters, approved making pitchers who take the mound on the Sunday before the game ineligible. Another good move. It'll ease managers' concerns. But the other guys? They should be able to throw to more than a batter or two. Which is why the rosters should be slimmed down to eight pitchers at the most.

Let the best players in the league compete. And if the Royals or Pirates don't have an All-Star, then don't give them one! This game's about the best in baseball going after each other.

After all, there's more at stake than in any of the meaningless, I'd-rather-be-watching-M.A.S.H. ASGs.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Enough with the LeBron-Kobe argument: The answer is easy


Some things in life are difficult to figure out. Example No. 1: Last night, I decided to walk over to the grocery store. This required me to skip down my back steps, hop a fence, then walk about 150 yards to the Harris Teeter. I did so without incident, perused the aisles for some good deals -- I was actually pretty pleased with the amount of healthy food I was getting for $29.03 -- and then reached in my pants' pocket for my wallet.


I retraced my steps four times, no joke. I got down on my knees and peered underneath aisles while fellow customers wondered if I was mentally stable. I walked back through the parking lot, eyes trained on the ground like a dog looking for that tasty-smelling treat. I checked the food cabinets in my apartment, the washer and dryer, the bathtub. Then I went back outside with my headlamp, did the whole hands and knees thing again, and searched by my jumping location for 17 minutes.

Nothing. Gone.

Didn't make any sense. Probably, almost certainly, never will.

So that's nonsensical. We'll call it the Disappearing Wallet conundrum.

Which, at long last, brings me to the point of this column: On this day in time -- mark it down as May 4, 2010, 11:07 a.m. EST -- LeBron James is a better basketball player than Kobe Bryant. Period. Enough said. L.A. fans can keep up the "M-V-P" chants all they want, but their boy is no longer the Association's best player.

And it pains me to hear the talk-radio guys give themselves a bad name -- wait, sorry: most of them already have one -- by saying things like, "Well, until LeBron wins a championship, he's got nothing on Kobe." Um, yes -- he won't have the hardware that Bryant has with his four NBA titles, but that, folks, doesn't mean he's not as good of a player.

Which brings me to the obvious point of the column: LeBron James would embarrass Robert Horry in a game of one-on-one. Horry's got seven rings. James has none. Doesn't matter.

James deservedly destroyed the field in MVP voting this year, winning the award for the second consecutive year in a landslide vote. Anyone who voted against him ought to be barred from the process (or maybe life in general): see below. You shouldn't even need stats to see that James is clearly the NBA's best player, but just in case:

This season, James averaged 29.7 points, 8.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks per game for the best team in the Association. He shot 50.3 percent from the field despite constant double-, triple- and quadruple-teams and played in 76 games for a 61-win team.

"M-V-P, M-V-P!" shout the L.A. fans upon arriving at Staples Center in the second quarter and seeing Kobe hit a fade-away jumper. Um, fans: Bryant averaged 27 points, 5.4 rebounds, five assists and 1.5 steals per game. Numbers not even close to James'. Bryant also shot just 45.6 percent and played fewer games than James (73).

Bryant was so far off the radar this season, the seven votes James didn't get for MVP weren't even for No. 24 in L.A. They were for Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard, who both had great years and led their teams to good records and the playoffs. But are you serious? How could seven human-being voters not choose James? That's like calling Fleetwood Mac better than the Beatles. Ludicrous.

But back to the Kobe-LeBron "argument." LeBron haters say that they'd rather have Bryant in a big game, that they'd rather have him taking the big shot in crunch time. This, of course, is extremely short-sighted and has nothing to do with the players the two have become. Yes, over his 14-year career, Bryant has made many more "clutch" shots than James. He's hit more playoff winners than James.

I wonder why. Um, maybe because he's been in the league twice as long as James, not to mention on a championship contender for almost the entirety of his career. I cringe when people say that James has been a playoff failure. Really? Well, consider this:

He's only lost one playoff series that his team should have won -- against Orlando a year ago. Outside of that, James' squad fell to a much better and more experienced Spurs outfit in the 2007 playoffs; and in '08, he gave an incredible effort in a second-round matchup against the Celtics and a healthy and *young Big Three. Before '07, James did an admirable job of boosting the Cavs from the bottom of the NBA to the playoffs within three years, where in '06 they came a game away from the conference finals.

So, yeah, you can't ask much more of James' first six seasons in the league. And without much of a supporting cast until last year (read: Mo Williams signing, and this year the Shaq signing -- albeit, he hasn't contributed much), he's done all he could. He's developed into a tremendous team player who knows when he needs to take over games. And, yes, he's clutch in late-game situations (read: No player can bring his team back from an 11-point deficit in three minutes). You might have forgotten (heck, I did, too) that James had 44- and 49-point nights in the two close loses to the Magic last year. I'm going to climb a limb and say he did just about all he could.

So go ahead, LeBron haters. Say Bryant is better. It's as flawed as a moldy pita. What you can argue, still, is that the Lakers are a better team than the Cavaliers. I won't argue it, because I think, despite Boston's shocking, dominating Game 2 win in Cleveland last night, Cleveland is en route to its first NBA title. But there's an argument to be made.

Which also, it turns out, makes my LeBron-is-better-than-Kobe column.

The Lakers' supporting cast is better than Cleveland's. Not by much, but better all the same. Meaning, of course, that James has to do more than Bryant for his team. Pau Gasol is the best player not named Bryant or James on either team. He's developed into a reliable low-post threat who can be counted on when Bryant's outside shots are bricking. Antawn Jamison, on the other hand, is getting old and is much more of an outside player at this point in his career (translation: streaky). So that's that.

Williams has at times been an able backcourt sidekick for the King. But did you see him last night? He got manhandled, owned, by young Rajon Rondo. You think Derek Fisher, creaky bones and all, would have let that happen? I'll take the reliable Fisher over Williams by a hair.

And then the Lakers have their defense-rebounding guys in Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. Yes, they tend to take games off -- presumably, these are the game when Artest jogs to the liquor store during halftime and Odom is too busy thinking he can shoot 3s to do what he does best -- but they're still better and more able than anyone Cleveland can offer.

I could go on, but it's pretty clear that L.A. has a better supporting cast than Cleveland.

And, yes, the Cavs have the better team (at least I think). They've won more games.

So what gives? It's simple, really: They've got the best player in the NBA. And it's not even close.

And the next time I hear an "M-V-P!" chant, here's to hoping it's coming from the famished fans in Cleveland. Because as good as Durant was this season (and he'll only get better), as dominant as Howard was defensively (but where's the offense?), and as clutch and scary as Bryant remains, there's only one best player in the Association right now.

And it isn't debatable.