Tuesday, June 26, 2012

College Football Playoff: BCS Finally Adopts New Formula

You might have been bored by it all, unwilling to watch the one college sport that has fallen to its lowest, at a time thousands of fans have turned away from the chaos of a pedestrian and unpopular game for its latest hypocrisy.

In a sport of no structure but intense drama, in a sport of no legitimate playoff system but an unsound formula that defer schools hopes of fulfillment, implementing an eight-team playoff could rid the dysfunction as schools are entirely devoid of merit to rightly so vie for BCS bowl bids. The state of college football is disarray, with an epidemic of sullied computers and formulas mathematically deciding whether a program is worthy of playing on the national stage for a crystal football trophy.

In the creative world of innovation and technology, you can almost feel the BCS manipulating the more popular sport folks have grown attached to and immersed themselves in football, a far more appreciated game in the American culture — the primary sporting of pop culture. The 12-member BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, meeting some time on Tuesday, is likely going to approve a four-team playoff format. This is progress, a step closer toward a much-improved game with very little politics and more of a competitive balance. And so, reportedly, we notice the BCS commissioners and Notre Dame’s athletic director endorsed a four-team postseason arrangement a week ago.

“We’re very unified,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN. “There are issues that have yet to be finalized. There’s always devil in the detail, from the model to the selection process, but clearly we’ve made a lot of progress.”

If it goes as plan, under a proposed plan, there will be two national semifinals games and a national championship game. The four teams would be selected by a special committee and would take effect after the 2014 season, once the current BCS deal expires. The semifinals would be played at existing bowl sites and rotate every season, and the championship would be held at a neutral site. A bidding process would determine where the game is played each year.

The BCS is dead. It’s a flawed system that can soon rest peacefully, and every PC involved in college athletics can crash for that matter, as we are eager to welcome a playoff. Now we all wait to find out when a consensus decision could be reached to institute a new system that should satisfy schools, students, alumni, fans and student-athletes across the nation. In a seemingly contrasted move, the sport is aiming for a change, a new direction, ways to mend the game and jettison blemishes that have slightly damaged tradition, honesty and integrity.

It’s too often that schools, such as small programs with no prestige, no television audiences and financial deficits, are snubbed and rarely earn national regards. And so, it’s no real surprise that establishing a potential playoff can resolve the confusion and allow every team a fair advantage, putting aside bigotry and bias, which has weakened the sport after a number of universities have been devoid of top-tier bowl games and victimized by BCS fraud. It’s all happening because, over the years as we all know by now, college football’s broken formula and polls has dictated what schools played in what specific bowl game. This is where the NCAA withstood an outcry and a drumbeat of criticism — especially from programs like Boise State, Utah and TCU. The little guys could finally earn a fair share of respect if the proposed plan is approved no later than Tuesday.

It’s not exactly the first thing that comes to mind on his agenda, but President Obama insisted a long time ago there should be a playoff system to determine a legitimate champion. It’s not only going to increasingly modify the brand and target a new audience but a TV deal may be worth $3 billion. The bidding networks are prepared to make a run at a television contract that caters to the four-team playoff system. Right now, Walt Disney holds the rights to every BCS bowl game and the national championship game.

The current deal is $155 million combined from Disney for its ESPN and ABC networks, but with the new playoff system — which includes three games and two semifinals and a championship game — it should demand a TV rights contract greater than the current deal. The value of the football is growing and more games are televised nationally, considering the popularity, especially if the playoff system is approved. And beyond everything, with negotiations beginning in fall, the BCS could extend a relationship with ESPN, a major sports broadcasting company that could pocket $3.2 billion from an expected eight-year deal. If ESPN wants rights, it will have to outbid Comcast, a company owning the largest TV network in the country.

This is a day folks can’t wait to see for themselves, confident a playoff would change the way they view the game. This is a day fans can’t wait to be a part of for themselves, optimistic a four-team seeded playoff would settle the argument by rescinding bowl games, which could come to an end sooner than later. That’s a day college football will change for the better and forever, calling forth a committee to determine a team’s fate. It’s a new era of college football, and a playoff system may arrive in a matter of days, even though the Bowl Chaotic System should have been shot down a long time ago in favor of the long overdue playoffs.

This means there’d be no more outrageous polls, schools getting snubbed, computer standings and automatic qualifications. All of this is history with a playoff system, but it must be ratified before anything else. Just think of all the money that would be generated. Just think of the vast majority of fans, many of whom would keep a close eye on football as the average fan is fueled by a playoff atmosphere from all the excitement and thrills.

There won’t be much controversy from the BCS. It can’t please everyone one. It shows favoritism toward the SEC Conference — whether it was Alabama or LSU — and fails to acknowledge those worthy of BCS merit. It is deeply in love with Ohio State and Big Ten schools, um, yes, a conference with its own television network. Those are Pac 12 schools left behind. The wavering status of the Bowl Championship Series is anything but well balanced and instead is prejudice. Always biased and never to be trusted, the BCS credibility has withered as fans are hysterical and requesting a playoff system.

That’s not to say the playoff system would be completely fair, but it would be more credible than the BCS nonsense. Controversy will always be — particularly in college sports — where a program can whine and moan about No. 1 and 2 seeding. It’s about time they implement a new system not so disoriented and jaundiced. It’s likely nobody wants to see UConn get hammered by Texas. Logic is, SEC and Big 12 schools would dominate and play for a number of national titles. And Pac 12 and Big 10 schools will have a fair advantage, too.

It’s time for a legitimate winner. Put aside the BCS fraud and play fair.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mike Trout Is Baseball's Prodigy of Tomorrowland

Selected by the Los Angeles Angels No. 25 overall of the 2009 draft, Mike Trout is baseball's sensation. He's the next boy wonder and stands out in the majors as the most mentioned prospect in recent memory. This is what the Angels needed, a slugger with much potential, pleading his case for AL MVP honors. By watching him play and listening to him speak sharply, he's not your normal 20-year-old kid who is trying to discover himself in the professional ranks. He's stepping into the batter's box each time at Angels Stadium and even on the road, seizing every moment he's on the field.

There he was again on Friday night, the team's rally monkey -- and perhaps this season -- he is a rookie phenom who everyone likes to cuddle like a teddy bear. He swung. He hit. It flew. That's the kind of night Trout had when he came to the plate and smashed a go-ahead home run to break a 5-5 tie in the fourth-inning, watching the ball sail over the fence and circling the bases. Trout, promoted from Triple-A Salt Lake on April 27th, is a humbled, smart baseball prodigy making his home here in Southern California and has been welcomed with open arms by lifeless Angels’ fans.

His team, one of the hottest ballclubs in baseball since Trout was called up and inserted into the starting lineup, rallied from behind for an 8-5 victory over the Dodgers. It's quite telling the Angels are in position to strike in the AL West, five games back of the Texas Rangers, with Trout scoring more runs and hitting for a higher average than any other A.L. player in two months. More impressively, he's only a kid and has the mind of a well-experienced veteran quickly approaching the end of his career. With so much promise, he definitely fits in with the Angels, not cocky, not pretentious and instead is a likable, coachable kid who has a widened smile and has fun playing the game, standing and laughing with his teammates in the dugout.

Before Trout arrived to the big leagues for another opportunity, now that he's in the starting lineup each day to produce runs with his swings at bat, the Angels were 6-14 and his bat rejuvenated a sterile battling lineup. These days, it seems the Angels are twice as better with Trout's power and athletic quickness to be an aggressive base-stealer, a trait the Halos commit to commonly, such as running the bases effectively and moving runners into scoring position. It's rather surprising to realize Albert Pujols, who signed a 10-year deal with the Angels worth over $200, is not the player everyone is keeping a close eye on when it happens to be Trout providing a spark atop the batting order.

It seemed, despite that he hit .403 before he was eligible for the big leagues, as if he'd never be promoted with the Angels already having a plethora of veteran outfielders at the beginning of the season. Much happened between that time and the Angels struggled mightily, leaving them with no choice but to make changes. It wasn't long ago that they released an underachieving Bobby Abreu, and shortly after, Vernon Wells sustained an injury as the Angels went with Trout as the leadoff man, followed by Torii Hunter, Pujols and Mark Trumbo. This, of course, has been an advantage for Trout, growing and improving as a perennial hitter with Hunter as his consultant on and off the field. And remarkably, he's easily the most powerful hitter in the American League, hitting a league-leading .383, with seven homers and 29 runs batted in.

He is, as we know by now, the most feared hitter in baseball, at least momentarily, and has been in consideration for the Most Valuable Player award. The rationale for his surge is inexplicably hard to justify but startling as the sudden growth of a rookie awe fans in a high-market sports town, where baseball is not really a top priority.

In essence, Mike Scioscia, Angels well-respected skipper, believes he's the needed bat to have a fair advantage in the AL West, even when he says it is far too early to regard Trout among the top players in the league.

It may be far too crazy not to regard him among the top players in the league.

Friday, June 22, 2012

LeBron James Defies Hate, Newly Crowned King

The most polarizing man in sports continued to defy the odds, left the world in silence and finally mastered a lifelong dream that nobody can ever take from him. LeBron James, a man bothered by his failures and criticized for choosing to leave Cleveland on national TV during an infamous announcement, is believed to be the most hated athlete in America.

There's not a more despised player than James in basketball, and while he was on a mission to erase a bitter ending and shrug off an onrush of criticism, he finally validated a place in history and silenced his critics once and for all. So now, America should circumvent bitterness toward a newly crowned winner. It takes some kind of courage and spunk to leave a native town for a change of scenery to contend for a championship with a bottomless team built to climb into primary contention. That's assuming why he took his talents to South Beach two summers ago, and realized Miami was a perfect destination to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and embark on a journey for his elusive championship ring.

James, a man crowned King of basketball royalty Thursday, walked over to the sideline and exchanged hugs with his teammates. As time dwindled down in the final seconds, he released all of his emotions, elated and overjoyed, jumping up and down with his teammates on the sideline. With a sense of happiness, at last, he lifted and widely threw his arms with a sweeping motion, the kind of unbridled emotion that kids expose after championship victories. The Heat had clobbered the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-106, and won the NBA title 4 games to 1 to generate a party in South Beach.

His tale was a sense of vindication and validation, capturing triumph eight years later, after deserting Cleveland and reaching new heights in his polished career. It's a claim to all-time greatness, for a man who has lived with doubt and aversion, engulfed by enemies more than loyalists. But now, since he's a champion and has fulfilled his promise in a forgiven country, we can set aside the hate and disdain and embrace him. The scene, as confetti fell from the rafters, was refreshing on the championship stage at center court, where James stood proudly and cradled his NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy. He smiled and wore an NBA championship cap, soaking in a moment of satisfaction with Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, who he hugged at the team's postgame and trophy celebration. At first glance, James was so euphoric and raised his first Larry O'Brien trophy, as Miami fans wearing a sea of white stood in awe and cheered loudly.

“It means everything,” James said proudly. “When I left Cleveland I understood what my future was about. This is a dream come true for me. Went through a lot the last two years but this is definitely the way that it pays off.”

This victory represents a step toward supremacy, and with such growth in leadership qualities and experience, James can very well be the centerpiece to a dynasty. He needed only one title to cement his greatness, and exemplified it throughout the postseason by barreling his way to the rim, by unselfishly involving his teammates and by taking charge in the fourth quarter, proving to the world that he's indeed clutch, after all. This is the real reason he won his first championship ring.

"It’s about damn time,” James said during the presentation. “It’s about damn time.”

This ought to be enough for him to mitigate scrutiny and criticism, perpetuating 30-point and fourth-quarter performances on a nightly basis, where he stunned detractors each game it seemed. The long overdue triumph is now a gratifying NBA story, one we will look back on for years and realize how much we really appreciate players of greatness. The enduring LeBron drama draws attention, and he is the star of basketball, whether you like it or not.

This was for the doubters who ridiculed, said he wouldn't ever win a championship ring and called him a traitor after leaving loyal fans in Cleveland. This was for the critics who've said he tainted his legacy by sacrificing his ego and fame to win a title with two superstars. This was definitely for Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, the man who guaranteed that his lackluster Cavs would win a title before the three-time MVP. And now, after months of failures, James had ambition to show he can produce in the NBA Finals. There's no one other than James who has mastered this game with grace and class, determined to avenge an abysmal 2011 NBA Finals performance against the Dallas Mavericks. James was lost in all the commotion and negative publicity, trying his hardest to rediscover his identity. But he had to taste the agony of defeat in his first season with the Heat by having a poor Finals display.

He's trying to repair an image and forget about the struggles in the past during which it gave his critics a chance to unethically express resentment and scorn a global megastar. That's when bashers, from all over the world, turned on him and lost respect for him. That's when cynics, from all over the world, mocked and scoffed him and ignored the otherworldly talent he brought to the game. James is a gifted basketball player who has sharpened and improved his newfound game to become an undisputed leader in Miami.

"The best thing that happened to me was us losing the Finals, and me playing the way I played," James said. "It was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career. ... It humbled me. I knew what it was going to have to take, and I was going to have to change as a basketball player and I was going to have to change as a person to get what I wanted."

The disparity of this full-grown assassin, as far as we know, is his humility and leadership -- which we never saw much a year ago. No one ever anticipated growth and no one ever envisioned him reaching this point. Believing in himself all along, he legitimized his case as a great NBA stud. He had it in mind, that he would mature, embrace his role as a leader and remove distractions to focus on the prize. Aware of what was at stake, he was playing with a sense of responsibility, focus and zeal.

It's typical, just as it always was, to be petrified of the nucleus and talent future Hall of Famer Pat Riley assembled in South Beach. The notion of a dynasty is realistic and the Heat can win multiple titles with these pieces. When the three came together in the summer of 2010, James promised a dynasty and, so far, the Heat are on pace to win seven championships?

"Two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was," Wade said. "But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. As much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and suffering."

But he knows he wasn't alone and, without a sturdy supporting cast, he probably wouldn't have been partying inside the Heat's locker room. There is no way he worked alone to gain success. If he were generous, he'd take Mike Miller to celebrity parties or invite him to be a guest on late night TV appearances. And perhaps more than that, Miller was the real MVP and shot it from long-range to contribute off the bench, unfit and hobbling with an ailing back. And still, he netted seven three-point shots as Miami had an NBA Finals-record 14 threes. For James, he registered a triple-double, averaging 26 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists. His teammates, Wade and Bosh, were feeling it as well. By the end, Bosh had 24 and Wade finished with 20.

It was a well-balanced performance from the three Kings.

However, the man of them all was James. From battling through severe leg cramps to dealing with the pressure of having to win, James proved worthy after all over his nine seasons spent in the league.

"It was definitely a journey," James said. "Everything that went along with me being a high school prodigy, when I was 16 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated, to being drafted and having to be the face of the franchise -- everything that came with it -- I had to deal with [it] and I had to learn through it. ... I'm happy now that eight years later, nine years after I was drafted, that I can finally say that I'm a champion. And I did it the right way. I didn't shortcut anything."

And, sure enough, James can sit back and relish the moment.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Westbrook Responds to Detractors, But Can't Work Alone

The subject comes up again because Russell Westbrook is under a barrage of criticism for Oklahoma City's failures. All week, he's been the center of attack, verbal attacks, that is, for his decision-making and shot-selection. Had it not been for him this postseason, the Thunder would not be playing in the 2012 NBA Finals -- to be exact.

Unfair as it is to put heavy burdens on Westbrook entirely, he's played more than 40 minutes at point guard and has not backed down, despite harsh criticism of late. He is unfazed by the fault finding, refusing to surrender, unwilling to withdraw from contention. The trouble is, while Westbrook is focused on winning, he is working alone, putting in much effort to try and lead Oklahoma City to another victory to make it a series. If there's no supporting cast to assist Westbrook, forget it.

No shot.

No use blaming Westbrook. After a 104-98 Game 4 loss on Tuesday night to drop 3-1 in the series, he lowered his head, in the end of a 43-point performance for which he was weary and distraught. Sadly enough, it was a waste and may have also decided the Thunder's fate, on the edge of elimination as the Heat are one win away from an NBA championship. If you base it on history, no team has ever rallied from a 3-1 deficit as Oklahoma City is seeking to pull out the improbable.

The loss happened on a night that Westbrook had an electric game, making 22 of 32 shots by attacking the rim and knocking down jump shots, which was even more disappointing after giving it his best effort. It's impossible to grasp an assumption for a historic comeback for a team, trailing 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, who has never been in such a heavy predicament and, without a resolute supporting cast -- with or without the 23-year-old point guard -- the Thunder simply have no chance.

In fairness, folks, Westbrook can use some assistance from the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Thabo Sefolosha. Where has the three-time NBA scoring champ been? Where has the reigning sixth man been? Where has the Swiss superstar been?

The struggles continue to stifle Harden, and he's partly responsible for the Thunder's fourth-quarter failures in Game 4, not nearly shooting the ball effectively, not nearly as physical or assertive but suddenly absent. Things could turn around -- but in the meantime -- he doesn't exist, he seems lost, not exactly sure of himself. If the season ends Thursday, pointing the fingers at Westbrook would be morally wrong and irresponsible, based on what he's mastered in these finals to outdo Durant and Harden. Yet for all of Westbrook's marksmanship and toughness, he's taking the blame for losses and he's not even the problem but the solution if his teammates come out with as much poise and fire.

If he takes and misses too many shots, it's not easily discovered with lousiness from his teammates, leaving him with the bulk of the work as the pressure is greater than ever. If the Thunder, however, were to amazingly stun the world in one of the finest NBA Finals comebacks ever, Westbrook should rightly so be named Finals MVP. And there's no question in my mind that he wouldn't, thanks to his sheer dominance -- almost roughing up the Heat single-handedly with a crafty shooting performance.

Scott Brooks, Thunder head coach, knows he can count on Westbrook, but can't bank on his other players, to string together a convincing victory. It's unlikely to happen, unless Oklahoma City has a miracle up their sleeves to turn a series around and make things much more interesting. And now, it seems far-fetched without Durant, perhaps discomfited by foul troubles and missed shots, to see the Thunder keep hopes alive. Oklahoma City simply cannot persist in pomp of skillfulness if everyone is not contributing to what was supposed to be a hybrid offense, loaded with the most talent.

The Thunder, however, are anything but the deepest and instead are nonexistent, disappearing and shrinking on the national stage, a moment when the stakes are high, a moment when superstars align to play some of their best basketball. It's only Westbrook with a hot shooting touch, no one else, not even his counterpart Durant, who had 28 points and never takes shots as bad as Westbrook. There was, of course, the absence of Harden in Game 4, finishing with a miserable eight points on 2-of-10 shooting to raise much concern about his inability to score and snap out of dreadful drought.

The breakdown mentally incensed and frustrated the hell out of Westbrook, which was evident from his brief answers during postgame interviews when he wasn't in a good mood to have a conversation with the media. Then, of course, Durant is frustrated with the officiating that keeps favoring the Heat and limiting his time on the court, leaving Brooks with no choice but to bench the superstar. In the ultimate surge, Westbrook not only silenced his critics with a noteworthy game, but almost manhandled and stole a decisive Game 4 in a hostile territory to even it 2-2.

It turns out, at least so far, that averaging a playoff-high 43 points is not good enough, dropping two straight games against the Heat. And he ended up blundering when he fouled Mario Chalmers needlessly with 13.8 seconds left, while the Thunder were down three and the shot clock close to expiring. Other than that, Westbrook was ideal and played fiercely, whether he was attacking the rim or burying midrange jump shots to keep Oklahoma City within striking distance. No matter what, he always draws criticism and couldn't care less, not immune to the negativity.

At the end of the day, he's still playing with an aggressive style, a stubborn-minded player not altering his style of play for anyone, not even himself. It's not easy changing one's personality, and certainly not easy to transform a normally out-of-control Westbrook. It's in his nature, as a mercurial player, to run loosely and wildly, without very little control and maturity, developing into a full-grown brute on the hardwood. What he provides for OKC is toughness and confidence, something Durant and Harden can't even bring to the game on a nightly basis, struggling to get into a rhythm. The night he punched the James and the Heat his team couldn't win.

It was an individual effort not a team effort and, because everyone disappeared except Westbrook, he draws criticism off the court. He's basically criticized because he's great, not because he fouled a 79 percent shooter who was having his best game. It figured he would be picked apart for a bad foul that resulted in an eventual loss, even after giving it his best try, even after dropping in 17 points in the fourth, knocking down seven of his nine shots from the floor and all three free throws.

That wasn't enough to get it done.

For Harden, the struggles and dashing hopes came often in the fourth and went scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting in the quarter. Despite that he's one of the league's brightest and most endearing stars, Durant wasn't flawless as well and had six points and two turnovers in the last quarter.

Poor Westbrook was all alone. As a point guard who doesn't traditionally play like one, choosing to hold on to the ball for extended periods of time, Westbrook is not known for his playmaking, not known for creating scoring opportunities but known for shooting far too much and not dishing the ball to his teammates. From the start, he came out on fire, hitting his first four shots in a 13-3 run and continued to scorch throughout the game. By nature, however, he's big-name shooter and can score at will. It's too bad he had no team that rallied behind him. With Westbrook, it was more of a wrestling match down the stretch, for the most part, and it was a point guard duel as Chalmers had 12 of his 25 points for the Heat in the fourth period. Speaking of scorers in these Finals, LeBron James had 26 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.

That was enough, certainly.

LeBron, who could hardly stand late in the fourth, who limped and grimaced in pain after suffering a left leg cramp, had a supporting cast to count on.

You can almost feel sorry for Westbrook.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Playing Like King and Not a Prince, LeBron Takes Charge

A year after a disappointing loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, a year after he blew his chances of winning a championship, LeBron James, Miami's superstar, is back on the biggest stage and is ready to redeem himself. The only way he wins back fans, which he lost when he permanently damaged his credibility and reputation in the fallout from a one-hour television show to announce his free-agency destination, is by finally holding the Larry O'Brien Trophy for the first time.

The only way he escapes from lingering nightmares of an agonizing loss a year ago, as much of the nation celebrated the Heat's demise, is by leaving America in silence. And so far, James has done just that. He put on another stellar performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, and delivered 29 points and 14 rebounds, as Miami propelled to a 91-85 win to take a 2-1 lead Sunday night. The Heat -- and James especially -- are playing like hungry barbarians on a mission. A boisterous James, two wins away from his first championship ring, was clutch and had no fourth-quarter failures, accelerating his way to the rim, wrestling for rebounds and drawing fouls to be awarded free throws.

They can hate, ridicule and taunt LeBron all they want. They can disrespect and make a fool of him all they want. It doesn't matter to him, and frankly, he couldn't care less about his critics, concerned with winning a championship to add to a resume of premature greatness, judging one's preference. James is not as soft as he was when he had a mere 18 fourth-quarter points in the Heat's finals loss to the Mavericks a season ago. Since then, he's grown up and has proven that he can lead Miami in the fourth-quarter, without having meltdowns in the final minutes and instead finish on game-changing plays. If the Heat goes on to win it all, there's no question James should and will be named Finals MVP -- a catalyst for Miami's return -- with another crack to finally be winners and not back-to-back losers, after falling victim to championship failures.

"Last year, I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on," LeBron said. "I didn't do that last year in the Finals.


He was a totally different animal.

"Just trying to make plays," James said. "I told you guys, last year I didn't make enough game-changing plays, and that's what I kind of pride myself on. I didn't do that last year in the finals. I'm just trying to make game-changing plays, and whatever it takes for our team to win, just trying to step up in key moments and be there for my teammates."

More specifically, a more mature and self-assured LeBron has taken charge of the Heat and lives up to the challenge. James is actually validating his place in Finals history and, with a championship victory this time around, he can --rightfully so -- reclaim greatness for the first time since coming straight out of high school, known as King James. This season alone, he's not flustered or passive, he's not screwing around. This season alone, he's so compelling to witness, realizing he's playing with unfulfilled expectations and knows winning can put a tired saga to rest, even if he can't escape the litany of criticism.

If James keeps driving to the lane, keeps getting to the line and keeps knocking down free throws, he won't ever dodge the harsh criticism or adversity, simply because he's a much-scrutinized villain. As the most polarizing figure, even if he can lead the Heat to a championship, the world isn't suddenly going to forgive James for his megalomaniacal PR stunt, which infuriated Cleveland homers after an abrupt departure. Even now, he's not the most likable person but deserves praise for his All-Star performances, night in and night out, when he's trying to succeed and feel obvious vindication that evokes ferocity and toughness. James wasn't happy with what happened a year ago, and still has a bitter taste in his mouth, seeking to avenge a disheartening loss that left the Heat players in tears. It would be a travesty to lose for the second straight season in the finals.

What's more, he's not broken and not shrinking in the biggest moments. It wasn't so long ago that he was vilified for disappearing too often in the fourth-quarter of games, collapsing on the brightest stage in one of his miserable shooting performances. That's when he was afraid to barrel to the rim, draw fouls and knock down free throws. That's when he wasn't nearly as aggressive and serious to ultimately earn a championship engraved in his name. What was understandable from James' body language and expressions on his face, the ultimate stare of hunger and confidence, was that he was showing the world what he was capable of accomplishing to make a run for a championship.

James, who scored 30 and 32 points in the first two games, his two best finals performances, is considered the league's top small forward and is a three-time Most Valuable Player. When he's on the attack, the Heat normally wins and takes control of the series. It also proved that once again James is what's making the Heat win. With his talent, he's a valuable piece, and without him, Miami wouldn't even come close to raising the prize when it's all said and done. This, though, tells us something about James. It tells us that he's not an awful player, but a good player with a shoddy attitude. And it's a possibility, given his egomaniacal psyche -- whether it's seen from the overbearing commercial ads or either the actions he brings onto the court -- James' personality dwarfs his promise to be great and stand out among the premier NBA studs. In essence, he wasn't only burning from the outside in Game 3 but stayed and danced in the paint, bullying, shoving and pushing around Oklahoma City by driving strongly to the rim for a remarkable finish.

It has become his forte and strength to slash to the basket effectively, even work the glass brilliantly. Eight of his 11 shots came at the rim. He made 13 of his 23 shots in the paint, shaping into a dimensional superstar after honing the basic fundamentals, wearing down and confusing Thunder players with his versatility and explosiveness. Miami's offense transcended with James on the floor, so Erik Spoelstra stayed with him and Wade. That being said, the Heat finished with a 15-3 run late in the third quarter, and amazingly only led by two points at the end of the third quarter. But maybe James saw an advantage when Scott Brooks benched Kevin Durant with four fouls.

Just about everything from James Harden's miserable shooting to Russell Westbrook's over aggressive playing style was something James and the Heat had in their favor. It's Westbrook who is becoming a lightning rod often the center of criticism -- and frequently -- he is out of control and doesn't know the tenor of self-control with his emotions getting the best of him. With the great news that LeBron's maturation is the difference from last year's finals -- not nearly as immature or childish as a year ago when he called a reporter "retarded" and when he poked fun at Dirk Nowitzki's illness -- he's not Bron Bron but Wise LeBron after growing up, and can teach Westbrook a lesson by schooling him.

The building was pulsating with primal screams from a raucous crowd sitting in the stands and looking on amazed of James' mental ability to be unstoppable off the pick and roll, serve as an efficient facilitator and pose an aggressor defensively. After hitting a three-pointer late in the third to put the Heat on top 69-67, James had a shooting clinic. The fourth began with James scoring five straight Miami points to finish with eight points in the final 12 minutes alone. The Heat had nine turnovers in the fourth quarter, and shot 38 percent from the field, most of the scoring coming from James. He dribbled with his left hand down the left and knifed through the absent-minded Thunder defense.

As it happened, he jumped and spun around, moving the ball to his right hand and then flipped it over his shoulder, off the backboard and down the net for a layup. In three games of the fourth quarter, James has averaged 22.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists while earning 14.1 free throws and making 84.6 percent. What became clear -- unbelievably -- was that James had turned clutch this time, unlike in 2011 after having a 2-1 lead before blowing it. That was when James stumbled in Game 4, shooting 3 for 11 and finishing with eight points.

A year ago, he averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists in the series. But today's, he is averaging 30.3, 10.3 and 4.0, and it is enough to illustrate how far James has come in just one season, a growing player and undisputed leader, hungrier, more savvy and ambitious with another, and maybe, a last opportunity to master success.

Maybe it's James' moment to endure to the end.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Before Westbrook Ceases Criticism, Adjusting Style of Play Is Key

He trotted off the court without having a grin on his face, showing no emotion at practice Saturday. By watching closely, you'd realize that Russell Westbrook is unfazed by criticism, when his postgame wardrobe has been just as hideous as his dismal game. That's because he's normally hogging the ball, and then afterwards, walks into the press conference room wearing his outlandish, geek-chic outfits.

Sooner or later, he should discern that he's one of the struggling players in the NBA Finals, but he's stubborn and has no intention of altering his game, not immune to the harsh criticism he has heard over the last few days. It's obvious that none of this bothers him, as much as it irritates, say, someone who devotes and spends too much time and money on pro teams. But seriously, he's partly the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder are losing, with the blame falling quickly and unfairly on him, growing into a more polarizing figure in these finals, after starting 1-for-7 shooting with only one assist as the Thunder trailed 18-2 to open Game 2.

It was another slow start, another night that he was nowhere to be found -- making his teammates look in the Lost and Found for their second-scoring option. He was Waldo, not Westbrook. Where was he? He had Scott Brooks, his coach, searching for him for much of the night.

Turns out Westbrook is ignoring criticism. That became clear when he said he's not changing his style of play, even after Magic Johnson said at halftime of Game 2 of the NBA Finals that Westbrook was "the worst point guard in the championship finals I've ever seen," even after critics lambasted him following a formidable night. Under a barrage of criticism for his decision-making and terrible shooting, especially when he failed to distributed the ball to Kevin Durant for more touches and potential scoring opportunities, Westbrook is not changing into a traditional point guard anytime soon. He's going to do it his way, or no way.

"I'm not making no adjustments, regardless of what anybody says," Westbrook said before the Thunder's practice. "I'm going to play my game regardless of what happens."

What I wanted to see from Westbrook was an aggressive, self-controlled scorer who performed brilliantly in the postseason to suddenly burgeon into a perennial star. Even if he has the numbers, a bevy of mind-blowing numbers that stand out, Westbrook's numbers are presentable but are very misleading. He has not shown up to play his best game, with his emotions getting the best of him. Either he's too assertive or lacks toughness, shooting when he wants selfishly, missing a flock of ill-advised shots and then escaping the criticism by shrugging off the magnitude of improvement in the threshold of his first NBA Finals appearance.

His penchant for taking way too many shots, and not leaning heavily on the league's scoring champ, is denting the Thunder's chances of winning an NBA championship. It would have been nice, for a team surrounded by a lethal scorer, to see him share the wealth -- yes, you heard correctly -- to see Westbrook share the wealth with Durant. One can argue that he's a solid point guard with playmaking intangibles, despite his sketchiness and unstable maturation, haunting him deep down inside. All the blame lies on Westbrook -- and yes -- unfairly. But it happens when people demand much from a player at his position, and a guard who allegedly takes away too many shots from Durant -- maybe an exaggerated statement commonly rehashed.

Either way, it seems, he's not much of a distributor and should dish the ball to Durant, a much more efficient scorer, a skilled and versatile player. This season alone, and in his first real test, Westbrook is evolving after making his transition to the point and still is getting a feel for the position, where he may never become a pass-first, unselfish guard -- at least not during his young career. No matter what, the Thunder need him and want him to be a scorer and a prudent decision-maker.

The problem is, he's too defiant, too selfish and too careless. Another problem is, and this may be the real issue, that he's overconfident and too emotional as Brooks insist he makes better judgment passing the ball and getting his teammates involved, particularly Durant. Often times, he diminishes from his mistakes, he fades out of the spotlight for his volatile attitude and much of it has cost him and the Thunder. There's been talk he won't ever match the ability of Chris Paul or Derrick Rose, well, at least not anytime soon.

But maybe, since he's someone who can attract us with his fashion, Westbrook can convince the fashion police, by sporting his shirts that are louder than the thunderous Oklahoma City crowd. For Game 3 on Sunday night, he will need his best game to erase a horrendous night in shooting, only making 2-of-10 shots to begin Thursday's game. The criticism is fueled from his inability to know when to shoot and when not to shoot, while also he can sometimes be overly relentless.

But, as we know by now, he's not changing it for anyone, unwilling to sacrifice and alter his attack, whether he's lacking trust in his teammates or just wanting to be the superhero. In all, Westbrook compiled monster numbers on the scoreboard, and has taken more shots than anyone in this series, unable to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. The blame stems from him taking over the game when he's teamed up with Durant and James Harden, the sixth-man of the year.

And so, Westbrook's style of play is compatible with another system, where he may actually fit in and work brilliantly for another team, but not for the Thunder, a team loaded with plenty of offensive weapons. The other night, he had 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a 100-96 Thunder loss in Game 2, where he attempted 26 shots.

And he doesn't think there's room for improvement...

“I’m not making no adjustments,” Westbrook said, when asked about being a better point guard. “There’s always room for improvement, always room to get better. But the style of play that I play with, that’s not changing.”

He could be unselfish and not so obstinate, and take fewer shots.

Friday, June 15, 2012

LeBron James Finally Clutch Is Reason Why Critics Can Hush

Now that he silenced the world and such anarchy is over, it's fair to state the truth. LeBron James is simply clutch. Only the naive believes he didn't have one of his best games in Finals history. Weren't you watching? Because if you weren't a witness, this was the kind of performance his disbelievers and even supporters were waiting for anxiously, and indeed, he delivered in crunch time.

This was James finally revealing his vicious and relentless toughness -- one of the finest LeBronstravaganzas we've ever seen. The night for James was a breakout Finals game -- particularly in the fourth quarter -- leaving his critics in silence and amazingly surprising everyone in full view. The first order of business is to taste glory and win his first ever ring as an NBA player, the only reward that's not visible on his resume to accompany with his individual achievements. James, in all, is getting tired of hearing that he has no championship ring, that he won't ever be the next best thing to Jordan. It's all an insult to him.

While he has heard the typical nonsense from critics and has been harangued by naysayers demeaning him, motivated by the haters and widespread criticism, he delivered on a critical pull-up shot without calling bank shot, and then closed it out with two late free throws. By that time, the Miami Heat had buried Oklahoma City 100-96 to tie the NBA Finals at one game apiece Thursday night, as the series shifts to Miami for three. This was not only good, but also great, a time for James to shut mouths close and prove everyone wrong.

Just when we thought it was safe to describe him as a fourth-quarter finisher, Kevin Durant, a three-time NBA scoring champ, sputtered down the stretch and was limited due to foul trouble, playing with five fouls, as he feared to be an aggressor. But now, in these Finals, it was LeBron with a vital defensive play stopping Durant's potential game-tying shot. With a chance to make it by driving baseline, Durant watched the shot bounce off the rim. He forced Durant to miss on a baseline 10-footer in the final seconds, he contested the shot, and he harassed him, refusing to give him space to capitalize on a game-tying basket. The refs just let them play, and didn't blow the whistle on James, on a no-call that could have gone either way.

Durant, on the other hand, won't take it, but James certainly will. And he took the win. Even after his foolish decision show and premature celebration in Miami, James, an unlikable figure in the NBA, has mastered the role of greatness to some extent, the primary star in South Florida that everyone loves or loathes. Meanwhile, some people, among James' critics, think Durant is a more clutch performer than James. But one can argue that James is widely a better finisher than Durant. Erasing the regretful past times from a self-serving infomercial that permanently damaged his image and credibility, James is rising to the occasion -- hate him or love him -- not once did he quit or disappeared and seemed more confident. Filled with hunger, quenching thirst and pride, he dispelled any doubts that he's not clutch.

Above all, he shot 12 for 12 from the foul line, and from what we've seen, when the going has gotten tougher, James has played his hardest. And so, once again, he has stepped forward, handling all the pressure, dealing with all the scrutiny as the most despised player in basketball, if not all of sports. He's not the same player we saw one year ago, and in truth, he's meaner and tougher, a beast-like creature who can single-handedly lead the Heat to a second title. It's not Dwyane Wade. It's not Chris Bosh. The focal point of these much-anticipated finals happens to be James, after all, even though he's taken some criticism in the past for either being too selfish or too selfless.

This is turning into a series of vindication as James may finally celebrate and raise the first championship trophy by continuing his dominance. Finally, the most visibly polarizing figure in the sport could make a case as the best NBA player, and to some degree, he has laid the claim, only lacking the honorable prize. In recent news, to keep tabs on him, James has had two consecutive 30-point performances in this series alone.

At the end of the day, he's helping his team win, he's coming through in clutch situations and, as a result, he put away the Thunder. Through two games, James has been the man of the show -- and amazingly fun to witness with our very eyes. The fast start set the tone early in this game as the Heat pushed out to an 18-2 lead, scoring on Oklahoma City, who missed 12 of its first 13 shots. The team couldn't overcome a 10-point deficit, moment from moment. And every time the Thunder would cut into the lead, the Heat continued to score and James was unstoppable. It was inexcusable, whether the refs helped the Heat with no-calls or overused their whistles, the way the Thunder played in the first half.

The lack of urgency and struggles from Russell Westbrook, who has a sore left thumb, was a drawback for the Thunder after missing shot after shot. This outing clearly summarized Westbrook's horrible night and the numbers were misleading, for which he missed 16 of his team-high 26 shots to finish with 27 points. But this is one game where James had one vintage moment in the finals. This is one game where he was money in the fourth quarter. The ball eventually made its way to Wade, but he has yet to make noise in the finals. And thanks to LeBron, the Heat not once had to worry about a fourth-quarter collapse, and held on to a victory that they badly wanted in the 2-3-2 format series.

There's no doubt it was the hardest NBA Finals contest of his career -- on the road -- in a hostile territory, where James maneuvered by Thunder defenders with strength and a fierce approach to attack the rim and finish. For once, he wasn't scoreless in the fourth quarter, and his mental attitude spoke volumes, knowing that he is playing with a heavy burden in his role as a primary superstar. Late in the game, the Heat were on the brink of losing a 13-point lead, and every time the Thunder would make a run, James would deliver.

More surprisingly, he was unflappable and composed to handle the roughest time of the game. It's hard to question LeBron's greatness, his ability to step up late in the game when he avoided a heartbreaking collapse, at last in the finals. With James around, it can also be noted that he bailed out his coach Erik Spoelstra, who is well aware of offensive uncertainties, a weakness in which his diagrammed plays tend to unravel at the worst time. But that's when LeBron comes in to save the day, taking over at the end and throttling the opposition into submission.

It's been long overdue, and it's about time that James comes across good fortune in these finals, a testament to his success.

You know what that tells us?

You can't ever underestimate the heart of LeBron James.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Wade Has to Be Winner for Heat, Otherwise No Chance

The arrogance, the childish acrimony during postgame news conferences is common, as always. If Dwyane Wade is all about winning, he's absolutely not a winner. Alas, such a pouty brat, and somewhat egocentric, Wade can't focus on the task ahead, failing to lead the Miami Heat as he is listed as Heat's go-to-guy, a behemoth player if only he comes to play for a championship without telling the world that he's a winner.

“I’m a winner, so I’m just going to do whatever I can to help my team,” Wade said after the game. “Just doing whatever it takes to win the ball game, not necessarily sitting up here worrying about scoring 30 points.”

No one cares until it finally happens, no one cares until the Heat actually win the NBA Finals, but losing 105-94 to the Thunder in Game 1, with Miami crumbling in the second half, doesn't make life much better. Instead, it makes life much harder, and Wade is mainly the problem. He's not being a leader, he's being a follower to LeBron James. He's not being a nasty ballplayer, he's being an squawker, a pompous know-it-all and folded on the national stage Tuesday night.

The pressure is on for Game 2 Thursday night, particularly for Wade to erase a misleading performance in a game that the role players stepped up early. Never mind Wade scoring 19 points, finishing with eight assists and four rebounds in the opener of the Finals. If he and his team were hoping to win more than the next man, it would be nice for him to step to the force and take initiative in trying to be an emotional leader with the game on the line. His current state is undiscovered. He's in absolute distress, and has been battling knee soreness, according to reports.

But an injury is never a convenient excuse for someone who admittedly said he's all about winning. Like anything else in life, Wade needs to rediscover himself before it's too late. This, to me, is what raises fear, the fact Wade is either consistent or inconsistent, as no one ever knows what to expect from a player with very little pedigree because of his lack of mobility and explosiveness from an ailing knee. He didn't have his best game. Toward the end of the game he was taking huge gasps of air. Toward the end of the game he walked off the court helpless and impotent.

The catchy fad of players wearing geeky glasses is what's in, and after the game, Wade walked to the podium wearing his purple shirt and slacks with thick glasses. Not once in the game was he in control, too often watching his sidekick, James, since deferring the leadership role to him. This means he's too busy standing around, putting more pressure on James to deliver in the final minutes, when the ball should really be in Wade's hands in the fourth quarter.

“That’s the hardest part about playing with another guy with that capability; it’s just trying to figure out when to defer and when not to defer,” Wade said. “I’ve played with Shaq before. I’ve played with a dominant player, and I knew when to defer and when not to defer. It’s kind of a read-all game a little bit, and I think with me and LeBron, we continue to talk about it and discuss what we feel is the opportunities for that.”

By handing over the ball to Wade in the fourth, he has a better chance, unlike James, to make a clutch shot and give the Heat the victory they are now looking for to capture an opportunity to even the series 1-1 against Oklahoma City. Time after time, he's not making it happen, he's not helping the Heat's cause, nor has he been playing like he wants a second ring. Time after time, he's not making it easier on LeBron, who is competing for his first ring.

That is, after all, why he left Cleveland, right?

Because of the three-time MVP as a sidekick to Wade, James is actually minimizing and taking away from Wade's confidence and ability to perform at the highest level. Far from merely facing mortals, Wade had dealt with adversity after a dismal playoff game and responded by having a superb performance -- such was when he scored 45 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and distributed 5 assists to force Game 7 against Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. This is a different Heat team when Wade is not on his game.

He seemed lost and flustered, unsure of himself and relied on his teammates a tad too much. It's tough to think -- no matter what Wade wants us to believe -- that he's not panicking heavily, thrust now in a position to find a way back into this series. If anything, he couldn't care less whether the Heat win or lose, laughing as he strolled into the conference room for postgame interviews, where he was an object of interrogation.

In response, he said he will stay aggressive, and will prepare by looking at film and making adjustments to have an answer for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Earlier in his career, he was the most ferocious player in Miami, but when LeBron came to his neighborhood and arrived on his doorstep in South Beach, Wade's consistency and urgency shrunk. It was almost like looking at a sequel to Honey I Shrunk the Kids, the latest version that could have been called Honey I Shrunk Miami, a cinematic script that would have made Will Smith sing Farewell to Miami.

That's how bad it's been. That's how bad Wade has been. It's been the story of the playoffs. He's been on a roller coaster ride, from poor play to daunted losses followed by eye-popping games that made you blink in amazement. As for Wade, you never know which personality will show up, sometimes unable to find his zone for game-changing moments. He's either broken or he's superior. In this case, Wade wasn't superior, but broken missing 11 of 15 shots in the first three quarters and 12 of 19 shots overall.

The last thing on Wade's mind, after last year's loss to Dallas, is back-to-back misfortunes, which will come back to haunt the Heat if they lose again. This time around, while Miami was privileged to return to the finals for another crack at the championship, Wade should be determined to win it all and redeem himself of failures from a year ago. The forefront of the NBA Finals happens to be the overexposed duel between Durant and James, but the focus should be turned to Wade, another star player who is not balanced and not competent to take over like Durant and Westbrook, who made the Heat seem older.

Miami can only hope for the best solution. It's only one game, surely, but the Heat need a lot of work to beat a team more skilled, deeper and quicker with fresher bodies. Even if the Finals revolve around James' championship pursuit, it's up to Wade. It's his team, not James'. The star of this team is Wade. It's Wade's County. It’s Dwyane's World in South Beach. But that has never occurred to anyone. The focus is on James, interestingly so, after making a case when he scored 30 points in the opener that went to waste.

But he won't win this alone and he can't have success without Wade accumulating monster points to be an equalizer offensively for a bona fide tandem, if not trio, hinging on whether Chris Bosh finally plays with toughness for maybe the finest moment of his career. In many ways, too, Brooks is outcoaching Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who is afraid to make adjustments because he refuses to change the balance and tactics. He likes to play small, but it is detrimental to his team, a disadvantage for the Heat.

Off to a fast start, the Heat bludgeoned their transition game to extend a large lead early, grabbing steals and hustling for loose balls to push it the other way. They feasted on a vast array of shots, taking a 10-2 lead by spreading the floor, getting out in transition on break outs following missed shots and turnovers as it resulted in dunks and fast break points. For the second quarter highlight reel, James stole the ball from a broken pass by Durant and slammed it.

If only Wade delivered the goods.

From his actions, following the loss, Wade is arrogantly pleased to be in the position he and his team is currently in, and looks to be prepared and more assertive.

We've seen this episode before.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Kings' Stanley Cup Run Was Unexpected, And Historic

It was the night when fans banged on the glass very hard, it was the night when gloves came flying off. It was the moment for the Los Angeles Kings. It was a night, as time ran off the clock, when they skated down the ice with their arms in the air. It was a night when celebratory fans were screaming and waving towels, witnessing a historic moment for the LA hockey team, something not even Wayne Gretzky could accomplish in his eight years spent in Los Angeles. The Kings have waited 45 years for a moment to celebrate their first ever Stanley Cup. And so here it come, a pile of joy, a sense of humanity spreading throughout LA, after the Kings beat the New Jersey Devils 6-1 in Game 6 of the finals, to become the first eighth-seeded playoff team to win the championship.

As soon as the red carpet was rolled on to the ice, the growing star on center ice, Dustin Brown, who became the second American-born captain to sustain a triumphant feat, was presented the storied trophy and kissed it. Brown, to traditionally continue the Stanley Cup presentation after tender ties with his teammates, handed it to 35-year-old veteran Willie Mitchell, the team's oldest player, and then he passed it to Simon Gagne and eventually Anze Kopitar had touched it. When it was all over, Jonathan Quick, an impenetrable goaltender who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the National Hockey League's 2012 playoffs, raised his stick in celebration. His incumbent coach, Darryl Sutter, who is soft-spoken and has an aw-shucks psyche, smiled largely. The roars, followed by the thunderous pounding on the glass, were deafening for the first Stanley Cup Finals in Staples Center history.

It had been some season for the Kings, almost gut-wrenching as they could have endured a major collapse and given the Devils a chance for one of the greatest comebacks, after LA had taken a 3-0 lead and then failed to close it out in two potential championship-clinchers. Far more amazing is the pandemonium that sent Kings mascot, Bailey, the lion, running wildly in the stands. And historically so, this Kings team will always go down as one of the best, if not the best hockey team, a major pro sports franchise in LA, simply for raising the first ever Kings banner into the rafters at Staples Center, a hockey team that can now relate to the Los Angeles Lakers. This was finally a chance for the Kings to taste the glory, a chance to forge a place in Los Angeles' sports vault, a chance to bring forth relevance to move out of the Lakers and Dodgers' shadows, two storied teams that have won an abundance of championships.

Long live the Kings.

It's finally come, at last. And it never even seemed possible. No one saw this, let alone anticipated for the Kings to reach an all time peak and wear the crown of royalty in Hollywood. It's now a well-known hockey town, one of the most popular sports in Los Angeles suddenly, when the Kings stole public attention from the Lakers and locals voluntarily turned to hockey. Say hello to hockey town for now. Normally the Lakers are putting on a show in their gym in June. Around this time each season, the Lakers are playing for an NBA championship. Not this time. The oddity of L.A. sports featured the Kings, not the Lakers.

A long time ago, the Lakers were done, on vacation somewhere on Catalina Island, while there was a sand sculpture built of the LA Kings logos, jerseys, numbers, and Quick. There is no denying the Kings, and rightly so, the atmosphere at Staples Center had been lively and remains vibrant after LA won the first Stanley Cup since the franchise came into existence in 1967. It was history in the making, and the Kings own a chapter in a library of NHL books. Mired in trouble, the Kings third time on ice, following back-to-back losses, was a charm thrashing and clinching a historic victory. They never lost an ounce of confidence and kept their poise, and finally prevailed to finish off the series four games to two. As it happened, the Kings scored three quick goals in the first period alone.

Early on, the Devils were short-handed for a few minutes because of austere penalty. Within that span, Brown, Jeff Carter and Trevor Lewis scored and New Jersey trailed 3-0. The Kings, out of all teams, are 2012 Stanley Cup champions, fighting off all the adversity and early struggles by refusing to back down. All summer, we will talk about is how they won only half of their regular-season games. All summer, we will talk about how they made the playoffs in the final week of the season to clinch the eighth seed. And wouldn't you know, they historically won and created a nice hockey story. Given an eight-year, $56-million contract he signed before the season, Drew Doughty had developed into a shutdown defensive player.

Under Terry Murray the Kings had suffocated and hired Sutter to recuse a near-loss season by installing confidence and recreating a group who wanted to truly win, and they certainly pulled it off. The hockey world is stunned by now, and probably should be. Even though the Devils, led by longtime goalie Martin Brodeur, scared the Kings fans with the ability to stop their opponents briefly, it never denied banged-up, toothless, worn down Kings players from an incredible ending that will last forever. No one ever thought they would steamroll through No. 1 Vancouver Canucks, No. 2 St. Louis Blues and No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes.

This was never thought to happen, not this season, maybe years from now but not now.

That's what makes it so wonderful and historic.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Aging Spurs Not the Deepest, Not Even Close

The scenes are just as entrancing as always. It was fairly evenly matched. But it's not that close now. What happened Monday night might have decided the winner of the Western Conference Finals, with the Oklahoma City Thunder only one win away from securing a spot in the NBA Finals.

Before the Spurs-Thunder series, we heard all the positives about the Spurs. But the rhetorical notion that the Spurs were so experience, so deep and so disciplined wasn't exact. There's a reason Tim Duncan had a worried look on his face as he walked off the floor forlorn and unhappy. His facial expression was all indicators that the Spurs were done. Fighting for survival for now on, old age and torpidity equates to late-season struggles.

The Spurs, on the verge of elimination and trailing the series 3-2, are the oldest NBA team with five members of their roster at age 33 or older. The timing is bad to suddenly falter, but with all the disadvantages for a team that once built a dynasty, the Spurs are struggling because they are simply broken and exhausted, even if they are equipped for a championship. In a stunning turn of events -- with a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series -- San Antonio dropped three straight games.

There is a theory -- fatigued and slow to run the floor -- that age has a cumulative effect on one's ability to perform at such a physical level. The evaluation of talent was a misguided conception and it wasn't what it appeared as the Spurs are one loss away from vacation with Kenny and Charles and the rest of the TNT cast. Because this is the Spurs, an NBA team that has won four titles between 1999 and 2007, and because they have what is considered the big three in Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Duncan, expectations are heavy for a well-accomplished franchise.

But now, against a quicker, fresher and younger core, they are close to planning summer vacation, losing to the Thunder 108-103 in the Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals. If they go on to lose, consider it a disappointment, a sentiment of misfortune and doomsday when the Spurs had the goods to extend their domination. There's not much time left, which means the Spurs are on barrow time and apparently not suited to contend with the fastest and strongest as much of the roster is almost eligible for senior citizen discounts.

Now, you hear much about how the Thunder, a small-market team whose emergence is what defines the NBA, are exciting, jelling together and growing as consistent troops on a mission to conquer a title. Since we have been brainwashed into thinking the Spurs are completely dominant, after having their impressive 20-game winning streak snapped by these Thunder, fans across the land have been inundated with buzz.

It was a lack of duration and energy that vitiated them, smearing a championship campaign after all the hype centered the four-time winners. If the Spurs fail to force a Game 7, which they probably will with all the momentum and confidence riding on the Thunder's side -- and everyone is stunned -- it would be a real shame on their behalf simply for discrediting a team that proved to be more athletic and physically active and well-proportioned. The clock is ticking and the Spurs have to make adjustments if they want to stand a chance against the youthful Thunder.

It would be a tall order, not to mention that Oklahoma City will return home for Game 6 where the crowd brings energy, for the Spurs to travel to the loudest NBA venue and grind out a pressing victory in a hostile territory. By the time it was all over, Manu Ginobili released his frustration by clenching his fist and striking the defenseless scorer's table. It was one of the lamest moments for the Spurs, and these painful times were illustrated after the left-handed sixth man missed a three-pointer that bounced off the back of the rim at the buzzer. He was the absolute best on this particular night, and whether he's growing old in the twilight stages of his accomplished career, Ginobili had one of his flashy playoff runs as a member of the Spurs, where he has been prone to injury throughout his career.

It's folly to ignore what he and the Spurs have collectively done this postseason. But then the same could be said for the Thunder, a team that simply outplayed San Antonio. In their current state, the Spurs are dangerously faced in a predicament within sight of wasting one of their greatest seasons by letting a 2-0 lead slip away. We may have seen the last of them. This Spurs team may never have another chance to compete at the highest level. It won't happen if this current roster separates after major redevelopment, a franchise that could aim for a new direction, an organization that could say farewell to Duncan.

After spending years in the league, Duncan's exit would be fitting if he does consider retirement, and call it a well-achieved career. They are now left with no other choice but to win on the road, needing to make a statement for us to believe in them again, as we were confident at the beginning of this series, particularly after the 26-point performance by Ginobili in Game 1 and after Parker compiled 34 big ones on the scoreboard in Game 2. This is the moment that no lead is ever safe, and as it turns out, the Spurs are victims, eyewitnesses to blown leads.

In response to two consecutive losses, the Spurs came out attacking the Thunder, fighting and delivering early. For the third quarter, the Spurs opened with an 18-4 spurt that sent an energized crowd into delirium. And all season, the big three have been resilient, refocusing and bouncing back after rare losses, with the wisdom and intellectual capacity of Gregg Popovich, the brilliant mind of all coaches for making adjustments and finding solutions to normally correct the problem.

But, this time, he and his players had no solution, although they were well on their way to a potential win but blew it when Russell Westbrook drove and earned free throws to shift momentum. Popovich -- over on the bench -- was biting his nails nervously and watched the Thunder outscore the Spurs 25-10 to manage an 81-72 lead with 12 minutes remaining. Without much youth, or fresher bodies, the Spurs are suddenly at the end of their reign, no longer feared or intimidating to their opponents, as one can see.

And in view of the demise -- the latest disintegration that only leaves behind precious memories for a once unbreakable dynasty -- it figures that now the Spurs will have better hopes and plans for the future to refurbish. More often than not, particularly in this game, Oklahoma City's sizable, taller defenders forced the Spurs into 21 turnovers, folding offensively with a mountain of mistakes and mental lapses.

Not only did the Thunder snap San Antonio's winning streak, but also they have them on the brink of elimination, and it is hard to imagine the Spurs advancing out of this round without any bumps and bruises when all the momentum and hopefulness was sucked out of them. By seeing this, one can argue that the Thunder are built hereafter, the scariest team in the west for the next few years. Missing in action was Danny Green, the Spurs regular shooting guard who was benched in favor of Ginobili.

There was no possible way Duncan could operate alone, as old as he is now, needing breathers every now and then. Not that he was a rickety point guard, but Thabo Sefolosha was a defensive fix assigned for guarding Parker and, after all, he was a better defender and maybe even faster than him as Parker was throttled. Another difference was Gary Neal, the Spurs outside shooter, who was fairly quiet and missed a number of shots. And even DeJuan Blair was useless in the first half.

It was only a matter of time before the Thunder gained full control of this series. And certainly, it happened. That's when Popovich, remember, a man known for his adjustments, inserted Ginobili into the starting lineup. By doing so, he scored 34 points in 38 minutes for the deepest team ever, as many described San Antonio.

In reality, it was not the deepest, maybe the most experienced, but definitely not the most complete team. At least it doesn't seem that way at this very moment. They could bounce back from this, and then again, maybe not.

Only time will tell.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Durant Puts On Show as Thunder Suddenly Looks Invincible

The turnaround arrived at Kevin Durant's house in another decisive game of this fascinating home stand. The Oklahoma City Thunder were on life support, barely surviving, staying alive and almost experienced postseason death. But when they traveled to their familiar territory, for these last two games, the Thunder were no longer pushed around by the San Antonio Spurs.

For all the noise about the Spurs having the deepest unit, for all the talk around the water cooler, in the workplaces and arguments at bars all over about Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker stealing Game 3 and reestablishing themselves, the Thunder changed the fans' perceptive after wrapping up a 109-103 victory in Game 4 to even the Western Conference Finals at two games apiece.

Covered in a sea of blue at Chesapeake Energy Arena, thousands of fans wildly screamed, cuddled in the stands to witness Durant score all 16 of the Thunder's points down the stretch. It's time to realize Durant, the NBA's reigning scoring champ, is an emerging superstar, planting the seeds for his own groundwork in a league where he is suddenly the newest star on the block. Now, having said all that, he's also the hottest tale of Oklahoma City, which he's fun to watch and has suddenly expanded his art of shooting to steal the show, becoming the cutest clutch performer of late.

And finally, he mastered his ability to shoot the ball. The more he shot it, the more he made, hotter than ever, making shot after shot and, as a result, led the Thunder in the final minutes of his scintillating performance. In the end, it was exactly about Durant's fourth-quarter spurt, if nothing else. This also changed the aspect of the game, and maybe even the personality of these playoffs for the Thunder, a team only two wins away from securing a spot in the NBA Finals. Durant is a streaky shooter and can heat up at any giving moment. So, of course, it's not a surprise he had 18 of his 36 points in final seven minutes.

From his craft and finesse that seem to better define him, he knocked down a fadeaway jumper, and then made a couple of jump shots in ways that boosted the team's confidence. Quick upsurges in the fourth quarter of a must-have ratcheted up his level of play. Fundamentally, Durant mastered the way of winning close games and grinding out late-game heroics, whether it was burying a step back or fadeaway jump shot. It probably crossed Durant's mind, after his team's 15-point lead diminished to four, that this would be the moment he take matters into his own hands.

That led to a fantastic ending after Durant hit an array of shots, mostly coming from him in the fourth quarter to give spectators an awe-inspiring performance. And when the Spurs were rallying for a near-comeback -- as a comfortable lead slowly disappeared -- right then Durant took over. In time, we'll know if the Thunder are real or not. And therein lies good vibes for Oklahoma City, two wins away from earning a spot on basketball's national stage. It was nice to see Durant single-handedly maul the Spurs to send the series back to San Antonio tied for Game 5 Monday night.

Along the way, in Game 4, he buried three straight jumpers, including one that came after he bumped into Parker in the lane to draw the foul that set up a three-point play. Moments later, he attacked the rim and earned a trip to the foul line when he was fouled and finished a layup on lob pass from James Harden. This is what we expect from our NBA superstars, an epic masterpiece that centers one of finest studs in pro basketball, and certainly we are proud to present a three-time scoring champion. Seen coming off a screen, which was perfectly executed by Westbrook, Durant made another jumper to continue domination. As the clock was dwindling down, Durant hit two free throws in the final moments to come away victorious.

It's fun to root for Durant. That's because he's very matured, humbled, likable, and allows the game to do the talking for him. It's amazing to see how he's grown since making his transition to the professional level. There's no need to bother asking about trust issues, but we can often ask the question why Durant is rarely mentioned on the same list as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony.

It almost -- in many ways -- feels as if he's been in the league for years when he is only 23-years old and not too long made his presence felt. That's because he has the mind of a longtime veteran. It was a one-man show late in the fourth. It's clear Durant is a leader, a closer, a marksman, and with that in mind, he knows when to attempt shots and when to get Thunder's big men involved.

So what did Durant do?

For three quarters, he was dishing off passes to Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, who both were dunking over bodies. The sidekick of the night was Ibaka, obviously, after having a career-high 26 points. Most of the time he was pouring in 18-footers or either getting to the lane for a layup. Despite Durant's ability to score as a leader whenever he pleases, he trusted in his players but hijacked the game when necessary to be a beneficiary for the Thunder. Unselfish and realizing it takes a team effort Durant kindly shared the ball as everyone touched it.

With enough depth and star power, Westbrook hurled shots, Harden was aggressive to the rim and Nick Collison dominated the glass. The pressure is not such a bad thing when a superstar as good as Durant has a supporting cast he can rely on in the event that he's a no-show because of an off night in shooting. It's clear most credit needs to be given to Thunder head coach Scott Brooks for finding ways to make adjustments for Games 3 and 4, where Oklahoma City climbed back into the Western Conference Finals. Even without Durant, though, the Spurs were still shoved around for mainly three quarters. But then -- suddenly -- the Thunder's primary scorer stole the show.

That would be Durant, of course.

This is because he puts in the work, time and effort. This is because he's dedicated to the game. This is because he's willing to improve after each game, avoiding criticism or even praise to modify his level of play by his work ethic and staying active in practice to tweak his flaws. For the biggest game of his career, he was not only a playmaker but he also quickly emerged into one of the great scorers.

He's played his best in the biggest moments, and so has his team collectively.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Sefolosha Gives Thunder New Life

For a while there, we had predicted the Spurs to beat the Thunder, given the first two games of this best-of-seven series, ready to project San Antonio's place in NBA history. Now it's a different story, after Oklahoma City finally came out to play, avenging a pair of agonizing losses on the road.

For one of the extraordinary NBA tales to resonate a striking climax with reference to a franchise that relocated to Oklahoma City and gave celebratory fans something to embrace, it was substantial that the Thunder ease back into the Western Conference Finals. The adjustments made by Thunder head coach Scott Brooks worked in Oklahoma City's favor, and also, they were in a favorable position after returning home for Game 3, where the crowd was electric and saw the Thunder beat the Spurs 102-82 on Thursday night. The expiration date on the Spurs 20-game winning streak went bye bye when Oklahoma City snapped its opponents' perfection and, better yet, kept its season alive by winning a pivotal game to avoid a 3-0 series deficit.

“We’re human. We had a good run. It’s just one loss,” Spurs forward Stephen Jackson said.

What it should remind us is that the Thunder, remarkably, are skilled and frightening, after all -- extremely aggressive and built with plenty of weapons to tie it in Game 4 on Saturday night. It would be a mistake on America's behalf, your behalf, or my behalf to put the Thunder on the back burner. The star of the night was Thabo Sefolosha, a guard from Switzerland, setting playoff career-bests with 19 points and six steals. What happened Thursday night will keep everyone buzzing until at least after Game 4, depending on how well the Thunder perform in a must-needed game for the second straight meeting against the Spurs.

It's beyond absurd to even conceive that Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Sefolosha will back down and not engage in a monumental playoff campaign. It was so much to be excited for, after this game. It was a total team effort, it was a brand of basketball we are used to seeing from the Thunder -- role players showed up, they played their style of basketball and were exceptional defensively, to uphold high regards based on a respectable performance.

“We never thought these guys had an advantage over us even though we lost a few,” said Durant. “We came out with the sense of urgency that we need to play with for the rest of the series.”

The chances of them winning the Western Conference Finals are still roughly plausible. Durant had 22 points, as usual, making shots from the floor, and Sefolosha had a right-handed dunk off a lob pass from Westbrook, who fueled the crowd with a two-handed slam shortly after and finished with 10 points and nine assists. The run was perpetuated when Sefolosha finished with a reverse layup on another turnover to expand it to an 86-63 lead late in the fourth.

"We wanted to bounce back after two losses like that. We had to play better and we did that tonight," said Sefolosha. "We played with energy, we played with passion in front of our home crowd. They did a great job giving us a lift."

From there on, the Thunder went on a 9-0 run, which the Spurs were exhausted and couldn't stifle fast break opportunities. It led to a blowout that reminded us of something usually seen in an NBA Live video game, and before you knew it, the Spurs were trailing to the Thunder by double-digits. Late in the fourth quarter, when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich's head was ready to explode, he had benched his entire starting lineup and inserted his second unit. Over on the bench, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan were flummoxed and starred dazed, only to be pummeled when we thought the Spurs were unbeatable.

And finally, despite a horrendous beatdown, Duncan had five blocks to surpass the great Kareem Abdul-Jabber's NBA record of 476. For a man who scored only 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting -- exhausted and aging every time he takes the court -- Duncan couldn't care less about individual accomplishments. He would instead tell everyone that he prefers to win another championship than reaching the heyday of his career. But here we are, second-guessing ourselves, not leaving out the Thunder after the damage they did in one game. This is the type of performance that scares the hell out of the NBA. If there's the possibility of Oklahoma City tying this series, which can happen if the Thunder have regained their swagger with thunderous roars from local fans, then there's a great chance they can muster momentum and take full control.

So not so fast, Spurs. This is not over, folks. And both teams could be in for a long, long series. This was a whole different game for Parker, who entered Game 3 coming off a 34-point performance. But this time, Sefolosha was assigned to muffle Parker, an All-Star point guard. Not very much to bring, he was held to 16 points and four assists, while his antagonist, Sefolosha, was the star on his own stage and deserved much credit for being a two-dimensional player. It was one defensive switch that changed the whole dynamic, giving the Thunder life in Game 4.

With plenty of talk floating around that the Spurs were potent and championship-built, maybe even the top and most experience team in these playoffs -- as much had been made about experience topping youth -- it's a new series now, a game of unpredictability and exhilaration. Perception and reality are what defines this series suddenly, assuming the Thunder will have the momentum and confidence, with the next game in their own gym where they have been wonderful all season. And the last we seen Westbrook, he was quiet but finally arrived in time and appeared to be more active and sprightly.

There's no place like Southern Home Cooking. And at home, in front of the loudest NBA crowd, Durant and the rest of his team normally eat well. Which is thought of even more so, when the Thunder are roughly deeper and younger, capable of playing a full 48 minutes, as the aging Spurs became fatigue and mentally drained by the second half. Not sure there's much Popovich can plot to alter things back into his favor. The one way the Spurs can extend their lead is by Ginobili having another amazing effort, a left-handed sixth man who can hit the three-pointer, storm to the basket and knock down timely layups.

"I can ask Scotty not to play him," Popovich said calmly after Game 3. "I don't know how I can change what Sefolosha's going to do. He did a good job."

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how the Spurs respond, as much as it will be to see if the Thunder breaks out with all firepower and more energy.

It is, however, far from over.