From The Cheap Seats
The NBA playoffs have been pretty dreary thus far, with the sole exception of the brilliant Sacramento-Utah series. The Kings aren't ready to win at that level yet, but I suspect they will be soon. Never have two teams played so many incredibly close and exciting games. Every game during the regular season went to OT as did three playoff games. Unfortunately, memories of that series have already started to fade, leaving us with only the one-sided collection of games in the conference semifinals to stupefy us.
Once again Utah provided the only entertainment as they tried to hang on against another young and talented team. The Blazers had enough class to take the Jazz in 6, despite the awesome efforts of John Stockton, the heart and soul of the Jazz. That loss wasn't his fault, as his passing was superb and his shooting excellent. This loss was squarely on the shoulders of the league's resident bully, Karl Malone. In the first game of the series, he elbowed, kneed, pushed, and pulled people all over the court, resulting in an easy Utah win. In the second game, the Blazers came out angry. They were the ones pushing, which resulted in fouls being called early and often. The announcers felt they were cracking under the pressure, in reality they were showing Malone and Ostertag that they weren't going to be pushed around. They were also alerting the refs to the need to call things closely to get control of the game -- which hurts Malone. The Blazers went on to win that game and took control of the series by winning the two games at home. Malone disappeared in the fourth quarter of game four, the exact time a leader should take charge. It's also the exact time a loser runs for cover. Because that's what Malone is, a loser. A choke artist of the first degree. Whether it's missing an open jump shot, or two foul shots, or, as he did this year, go into hiding on the court, the bully turns out, as most bullies do, to be a coward. For game six, he didn't even wait until the fourth quarter, he missed open shot after open shot, 3-16 from the field for a total of 8 points and the whopping total of 7 rebounds in 45 minutes. For comparison's sake, teammate Thurl Bailey, whose career ended three years ago, had 8 points in 14 minutes and Alan Hornacek grabbed 6 boards in 35 minutes.
So the Jazz are done for the year. Their run as a championship contender is probably at an end as well. Let's look to the future.
Eastern Conference Finals
They may have been the eighth seed, but the Knicks are unlike any bottom seed before them. They were only six games behind the top seed and did that in the face of a couple of major injuries. The return of Ewing, the good health of Sprewell, and Jeff Van Gundy's sudden discovery of Marcus Camby have made this a very different team from the one that barely qualified for the playoffs.
One thing can be said about these Knicks, they have always taken their cue from their fans and the New York press -- they expect to win every series and are shocked when they don't.
The Pacers were focused on the championship before the season started and they are supremely focused on it now, having gone 7-0 in the first two rounds. In between they seemed less focused, which resulted in an uninspiring 33-17 record and the second seed in the East.
This series should be interesting for a while, I expect the Pacers consistency will enable them to win in six games. Look for Chris Mullin to play a very big part.
Western Conference Finals
Over the last two decades, the team with the best player has consistently won the championship. Michael, Hakeem, Magic, Larry, a case can even be made for Isaiah. There is no question who the best player is on these four teams, that's Tim Duncan. Fourteen games into the season, the Spurs were 6-8 and tongues were wagging as the Admiral looked lost at sea and the general manager would've fired the coach if they both weren't Gregg Popovich. Then David Robinson found his game and his function on the court and San Antonio went 31-5 the rest of the way, earning the home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Portland went through a late season slump, but has turned it around in the playoffs. They showed discipline and confidence in knocking off the Jazz. They had the depth and the talent, now they seem to have the game to go with them. Isaiah Rider appears to be coming of age, Greg Anthony is playing superbly, and Arvidas Sabonis has moments, such as the 6 point burst at the end of the first half of game 6, where you marvel at his versatility and regret not having seen him when he was at his peak. Rasheed Wallace is a wonderfully versatile big man and Brian Grant is this team's heart and soul, who took Karl Malone apart when it mattered.
This should be a great series featuring great big men. I give the edge to San Antonio, they have the home court, they have the best player, and they have a suffocating defense. I like the Spurs in seven.
I found myself watching a soccer game the other day. It was the UEFA Championship, basically the championship of a league of championship teams from across Europe, decided in a two month long tournament. Two of the great names in European soccer, Manchester United and Bayern Munich were the opponents, having met twice during group play, tying 2-2 and 1-1. I'm not a soccer fan, but this seemed worth checking out. Bayern got a quick goal at around the 5 minute mark and then, well, it was soccer. It was high-level soccer, even my untrained eye could see it, but Bayern was being careful, controlling the match, nursing that 1-0 lead. Manchester couldn't get much of an offense going and time was ticking away. Bayern hit the post once, United's keeper, Peter Schmeichel made a big save, but the end looked inevitable.
Late in the game, Manchester put in two reserves, fresh legs for the last desperate try, but it seemed to no avail when Yorke, their top scorer, whiffed on a good scoring opportunity. At the 90 minute mark, three minutes of injury time were added and it seemed a matter of time until Bayern could start their celebration. At this point, out of nowhere, Manchester scored not once, but twice in a 50 second period, the two reserves scoring them both! To say the crowd and Bayern's players were stunned is the grossest of understatements.
What I liked best about the aftermath was that unlike U.S. championships, the players were not racing to the locker room to start getting drunk, one step ahead of marauding fans. The players there were given medals and they got to hoist the championship trophy right there. The fans chanted and sang, the players paraded around with the trophy, dancing and posing for pictures and the celebration lasted a good long time. To be fair, this also happens in hockey. I'd love to see that be the norm in baseball and basketball as well.