Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sauerbeck arrested

Yet another piece of evidence that the Indians are circling the drain:
When your seasoned veterans start acting like drunk teenagers, you know your season is in trouble.
My over-under for when Sauerbeck will be designated for assignment is about six hours. On the other hand, he can't blow a lead when he's in the clink.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Tribe's mess

OK, Dayn Perry of FoxSports.com, I admit it. You are a total sage.
Everything you said about the AL Central prior to the season has come true. The Tigers are the surprise team of baseball. The Indians are one of baseball's biggest disappointments. And, yes, Jhonny Peralta is dragging his bat around like a sack of bricks in Year 2 A.O. (After Omar), just as you predicted.
Sorry, Dayn. I got too mouthy. Tell me where I can buy a nice, thick, juicy fillet of crow.
But even after polishing off my crow with a side of rice pilaf and glass of Chateau 36 vintage white wine, the misery doesn't end. As an Indians fan, I still have to endure four more months of this dog vomit we are referring to as a baseball season.
Today's 11-0 pasting at the hands of the White Sox drops Cleveland's record to 24-26. Because they share a division with the torrid White Sox and Tigers, that drops the Indians to 10 1/2 games off the pace in the Central, nine back in the wild card.
We said at the outset of the season that a fast start was key for the Indians. That didn't happen. Because the Indians don't really have a team staple to rely on, like the starting pitching of a year ago, the odds of them making another fantastic second-half comeback are far less than last year.
We're 50 games in to the 2006 season. Four games away from the one-third mark of the season. What you see from the 2006 Indians is probably what you are going to get. The White Sox aren't going to fall back. The Tigers might cool off, but if the Indians are 10 or 15 games under .500 when that happens, it won't matter.
Since we can't busy ourselves with a pennant race, let's busy ourselves doling out blame. What role did the team's leaders have in what is fast becoming a lousy season?

Mark Shapiro
For the first time since his rookie offseason of 2001-02, it appears the Indians GM had a bad offseason this past winter. Very few of his moves are bearing fruit so far, which is unlike Shapiro.

1) He misfired on free agent Bob Howry, figuring he could place the workhorse reliever on the back burner to chase after overhyped closer B.J. Ryan. But Howry pulled the rug out from under everyone by quickly signing with the Cubs, and that set a domino effect in motion.
Ryan took the Tribe's free dinner, then quickly bolted to Toronto for a record deal. Trevor Hoffman took a look at the Indians, but probably never seriously considered signing here.
That left Shapiro with Bob Wickman and no set-up man to replace Howry.

2) Shapiro tried to go the bargain basement route that had served him so well in recent years. But the scrap heap additions of Danny Graves and Steve Karsay were miserable failures. Neither one is with the team anymore.

3) The starting pitching additions of Paul Byrd and Jason Johnson have proven to be far weaker links than Kevin Millwood and Scott Elarton were last year. Byrd has started to pitch better, but Johnson is beginning to show it's no coincidence that he has pitched almost exclusively for bad teams in his career.

4) The Coco Crisp trade finished the implosion of the bullpen by dropping David Riske and Arthur Rhodes from the roster. Arriving to replace them was Guillermo Mota, who would be fine if you could just rewind his body to 2003, when he was a dominant reliever for the Dodgers. Now, he's just old.

5) The Shapiro-acquired left field tandem of Todd Hollandsworth (minor-league deal) and Jason Michaels (acquired from the Phillies for Rhodes) has been a non-factor. The best that can be said of the pair is they hustle. As far as stats go, let's not broach that.

Eric Wedge
I am beginning to feel the same way about Wedge as I felt about former Cavaliers coach Paul Silas: he might have been right man for the job at the time he was hired, but to truly vault the team to the upper tiers, they'll need somebody better-equipped for the job.
The White Sox's Ozzie Guillen and the Tigers' Jim Leyland are prime examples of what a manager should be. Guillen is abrasive, but has charisma to spare. Players respond to that. Leyland is a baseball guru who teaches players the right way to play, then intimidates them into playing that way everyday.
Wedge is neither. A talented orator, yes. But orator-coaches are better suited for football, where games are the product of a weeklong buildup. The best baseball managers get consistent focus out of their teams day to day, week to week. Obviously, Wedge isn't getting consistent focus out of his team.
Wedge gets a lot of flack for his miscalculations on the field. But he made one severe miscalculation heading into the season. He let the Indians believe they are better than they are. They apparently came north with the idea that they are an elite team, forgetting that they are still a shoestring-budget team that will never show up and out-talent anyone without trying.
Now, the Indians are finding out how difficult it is to turn on the afterburners two months in.
Wedge has preached not getting too high or low every season. He might have let this team get too high in spring training.

The team's veterans
Who in the clubhouse is capable of pulling this team up? I don't see anyone.
There is a noticeable lack of veteran poise within the Indians' roster. All the players you'd expect to step up as leaders are having no effect: Aaron Boone, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, C.C. Sabathia, Paul Byrd, Bob Wickman, Guillermo Mota, Jason Michaels.
Nobody is reigning this team in and pointing it in the right direction. Whether it's a lack of charismatic personailities or whether players simply don't want to speak up, at times it seems like the Indians are 25 guys with 25 different goals.
This is where the Indians really miss Kevin Millwood, who was, in a lot of ways, the glue that held the rotation together last year.

Larry and Paul Dolan
I am not going to criticize/analyze the pocketbook of the Dolans. That's been done ad nauseum. What I am going to criticize is the culture of tentativeness the Dolans are growing.
The Dolans have done some important things right as owners. They pumped money into the farm system. They let Shapiro and his baseball people run the show. They have signed young players to long-term contracts. But when it comes to making decisions, the Dolans prefer glacial time. That means, many times, the Indians fail to answer the door when opportunity knocks.
The Dolans want to make sure that the club is absolutely, positively, 100 percent, without a doubt making the right move when money is committed to a player. That's a good practice for a midmarket team. But it needs to happen sooner. If the Indians had acted swiftly and decisively to re-sign Bob Howry, a lot of the tangles the offseason produced could have been avoided.
We're not talking about matters of national security here. We're talking baseball. Sometimes a hunch is as good as computer quantification.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bonds passes Ruth

Now, there's only Hank Aaron. Barry Bonds, steroid controversy and all, arrived at No. 2 on the all-time home run list by hitting homer 715 off Byun-Hyung Kim of the Rockies Sunday.
Bonds needs another 41 homers to pass Aaron at 755. Like Aaron, if he gets that far, it might be as a DH for an American League team.
Aaron topped off his career with two seasons playing for the Brewers back when they were an AL team. Bonds is a free agent after this year. It's entirely possible that a big-market team with a short right-field fence (the Yankees and Red Sox come to mind) could lure Bonds to DH duty as he tries to leg out the all-time home run record.
After today's game, 41-year-old Bonds reportedly said that "age ain't slowing me down." And you know what? I say go for the record. You've come this far. Yeah, I know he likely 'roided his way to greatness. Let baseball sort that out. Remember, if Bonds shot himself full of HGH, it was baseball who turned a blind eye as he did it.
If it all comes to fruition, Bonds gets the record and Bud Selig gets to figure out a way to spin it so that his leadership regime looks good (which he can't). It's almost too good to be true.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Marveling at Motown

I'm going to give you the answer to a trivia question:
Los Angeles, 1988.
The question is, "What is the last city to hold the NBA and World Series titles at the same time?" How is this relevant to anything? It's not yet. But Detroit could be making it relevant by the end of October.
The Pistons are the given. With San Antonio now ousted from the NBA playoffs, it's hard to imagine Miami, Dallas or Phoenix getting the best of Detroit over a seven-game series. Their coronation might come with a measure of difficulty, but it should still come, on schedule, in June.
The utterly flabbergasting surprise is the Tigers, owners of baseball's best record at 33-14. It's starting to dawn on everyone that they are having a charmed season much like the White Sox had last year.
As Matt Sussman points out, they are a statistically balanced team excelling both on the mound and at the plate. They play with the same opportunistic approach that the White Sox made their calling card last year, legging out singles, moving runners over, scoring on groundouts. Then the pitching protects the leads the offense gives them.
And it all stems from one man: manager Jim Leyland, who might truly cement himself as one of the greatest managers of all time this year.
Think about the towering inferno Leyland inherited. A team that hadn't even finished above .500 since 1993. A team that hadn't made the playoffs since 1987. A team that had spent the past 10 years with a revolving door of post-Sparky Anderson managers yielding the same awful results: Buddy Bell, Larry Parrish and Alan Trammell, to name the ones who absorbed the brunt of the impact.
This was the team that pinned its revival on Cecil Fielder, the team that traded for pull-hitting slugger Juan Gonzalez the same winter they were preparing to move into Comerica Park, which featured a cow pasture for an outfield.
And then, as if he was Neo starting to believe in "The Matrix," Leyland came in, held up his hand, and the bullets stopped flying.
On April 17, the Tigers lost a 10-2 blowout to the Indians to fall to 7-6. Jim Leyland fumed at the way his team played, snapped at the press, and probably did worse to his players. Detroit lost the next game at Oakland to fall to 7-7. Since then, they are 26-7.
No one but Leyland and his players know what was said at the pivotal point. But two things can be assumed: Jim Leyland takes crap from no one, and when he talks, his players listen.
The 119-loss Tigers of 2003 found out how losing perpetuates itself. These Tigers are finding out the same thing about winning. If a team wins consistently, it finds out how to win in all kinds of situations. Pretty soon, a team expects to win every time it steps onto the field.
It's still early, but I don't foresee a massive coming-back-to-Earth party for the Tigers. Leyland won't allow it. Their first over-.500 season in 13 years can be assumed. The playoffs are a distinct possibility. And with Leyland's World Series pedigree, if the Tigers make the playoffs, Detroit might be hosting another championship parade before the Pistons' confetti even stops falling.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Droughns arrested

The off-the-field issues continue for Browns players. It doesn't seem to matter who the coach is, who the general manager is, or what esteemed alumnus (Jim Brown) is walking around patting players on the back.
The simple, sad fact is that Browns players just can't seem to stay out of trouble.
Reuben Droughns is the latest Brown to begin traveling down the path worn bare by Kellen Winslow Jr. and William Green.
Droughns was recently acquitted of a drunken-driving charge in Medina. Three days later, he was back in trouble, news reports say.
May 12, he was reportedly involved in a domestic violence incident in Colorado. Details of the alleged incident have not been reported yet.
What is known is that Droughns turned himself in to authorities Wednesday and spent last night in jail. He had a court hearing scheduled for today.
This isn't the way Droughns was supposed to endear himself to Cleveland fans after putting together the first 1,000-yard rushing season by a Browns back in 20 years. He was supposed to make us forget about the misfires of the past.
But Droughns is becoming just another head-shaking punchline in the long list that includes Winslow's motorcycle crash, Green getting stabbed in the back by his girlfriend, and a Pennsylvania officer referring to Gerard Warren as "the nicest guy I've ever arrested."

See C.C.

The Indians have a left-handed starting pitcher who is tearing up opposing batting orders right now.
The amazing thing is, it isn't Cliff Lee.
If anybody was going to be a Cy Young Award candidate, win 20 games, and have an all-around tremendous season, Lee would have been my first choice after winning 18 games and appearing on the Cy Young radar last season.
But, much like the rest of the pitching staff, Lee (3-4, 4.65 ERA) is mired in mediocrity.
No, you're silver bullet happens to be a cannonball: 6'-7", 300-pound C.C. Sabathia. You know, the guy who has turned inconsistency and weight-related injuries into an art form the past few seasons.
When C.C. strained his oblique muscle on opening night and missed a month, we all rolled our eyes. Here we go again, we said, another season of C.C. posting a 5-plus ERA in the first half as he plays himself into shape.
Couldn't C.C. lay off the Zima and Ho-Ho's and lift some dumbbells for at least one off-season in his career?
But something happened during that month out of commission. Maybe it was a wake-up call. Maybe it was the product of the Indians training staff watching C.C. like a hawk. Whatever happened, C.C. has bounded off the disabled list to the tune of a 4-1 record. Even the lone loss to Detroit was by a 2-1 score.
C.C.'s 1.52 ERA would lead the majors if he had enough innings to qualify for the books.
Previously a flamethrower with a short shelf life, C.C. has begun to transform into a pitcher, throwing off-speed stuff that actually has teeth, unlike previous seasons, when his curveball was a joke and his change-up a work in progress.
C.C. now sits low-90s with most of his pitches, trying to work to both sides of the plate. He still has the high-90s heater in his cache, but it's far more a threat than a promise for a hitter.
He has begun working a lineup like rotation-mate Jake Westbrook, getting outs early in the count when he can, which in turn lengthens his outings. Wednesday, he pitched a complete-game shoutout win over the Twins. In his two prior starts, he went eight innings each.
It's too early to talk accolades, but C.C. is pitching like an elite pitcher. Time will tell if C.C. can sustain his success, and if the .500-ish Indians can do anything with it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Conference finals

The Cavaliers are gone for the summer. Oh, well. The show must go on. Time to suck up my ego and deliver the next round's predictions.

Eastern Conference Finals

Detroit Pistons vs. Miami Heat
Home games: Pistons 1 and 2, 6 and 7 if necessary; Heat 3 and 4, 5 if necessary.

With some difficulty on Detroit's end, the East Finals matchup we all thought would occur at the end of April did, in fact, occur.
The Cavs might actually have done the Pistons a favor by waking them from their midspring daydream. The Pistons were the sleeping giant Miami was desperately hoping Cleveland would knock out. Didn't happen.
Now, the Heat, with a banged-up Shaq and a banged-up Dwyane Wade must go on the road and try to at least split the first two games in Auburn Hills against a Pistons team that appears to have snapped to.
The Pistons seem to need a fabricated challenge in order to truly get up for a series, so it is entirely possible the Heat will be in this thing at least through Game 5. I wouldn't be surprised if they grab a series lead much like Cleveland did. But the Pistons are just too dang good at closing out games and series with stifling defense to let this one wriggle away.
Prediction: Pistons in six

Western Conference Finals

Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks
Home games: Mavericks 1 and 2, 6 and 7 if necessary; Suns 3 and 4, 5 if necessary

While the East Finals churn out the same-old, same-old, the West Finals bring us a new underdog to root for.
The Mavericks have finally slayed the dragon that is the Spurs, outlasting them in a Game 7 overtime on the road. The Suns, meanwhile, are the big-bully dream killers, ousting everybody favorite underdog -- the Clippers -- in another Game 7 Monday night.
The Mavs get a bum rap because of owner Mark Cuban and his tendency to grate on people in positions of power. But you have to admire their perseverance to finally get to a place where they are playing a team other than San Antonio for the right to go to their first-ever NBA Finals. For nearly a decade, the Mavs have constantly cranked out 50-win seasons in a tough conference, only to be slammed by a more powerful team -- usually the Spurs -- come playoff time. But this year, armed with a ratcheted-up defense employed by coach Avery Johnson, the Mavs are a legitimate title contender, not just a team that puts up sexy numbers.
The Clippers showed how the Amare-less Suns can, at times, be dominated by superior frontcourt play. The onus in this series is on the Mavs frontcourt to back up Dirk Nowitzki's inside-outside game with some physical play down low.
If DeSagana Diop has a monster series, the Mavs are going to the NBA Finals. If Shawn Marion is an unsolvable riddle (and he shouldn't be), the Suns will go to the Finals for the first time since 1993.
I am going with the deeper team that just scaled their own personal Everest. Say hello to Rasheed Wallace for me, Dirk.
Prediction: Mavericks in seven

Monday, May 22, 2006

So now what?

There's no time like the present for Cavaliers GM Danny Ferry to begin formulating an offseason plan. (He probably began formulating his offseason plan sometime when there was still snow on the ground, but for the purpose of this post, he's just started.)
Whom do the Cavs keep? Whom do they let go? Where do they put their money? Let the Danny Ferry crystal ball tell all....

LeBron James
This offseason is the D-Day we've been anticipating for three years running. This summer, LeBron either gives his stamp of approval on the organization by signing a contract extension, or opens up a big, slimy can of worms by opting instead for restricted free agency in the summer of 2007.
There is no question the Cavs will offer LeBron a max deal, five years and somewhere around $75 million according to the latest figures. The earliest they can slide the contract across the table is July1, and LeBron will have until the end of October to accept or decline.
All signs currently point to LeBron's satisfaction with the Cavs. Owner Dan Gilbert has gone out of his way to be attentive to LeBron as a player and LeBron as a person, and has sunk a bunch of money into the organizational infrastructure in the form of upgrades to The Q and a planned practice facility in suburban Independence.
For LeBron's part, he has publicly said he "can't wait to sign my contract extension." In January, he told ESPN The Magazine he "wants to stay in Cleveland and build a champion." Advancing to the seventh game of the second round of the playoffs should help the Cavs convince LeBron that is exactly what is happening.
Ferry's plan: Extension? Heck, yeah.

Flip Murray
Nobody outside of LeBron was more critical to the Cavs success down the stretch than Murray. But that doesn't mean he is indispensable. It would be nice to keep him, but there are other factors at work. The Cavs can only offer him a midlevel salary cap exemption, and there is a strong possibility a lousy team looking for some excitement might overpay for Murray.
There is also the question of whom the Cavs can draft next month. Below 20, where the Cavs will pick, your chances of landing a talented big man are slim. short, quick guards like Murray are usually far more plentiful. There would be no reason for the Cavs to draft a future point guard and them re-sign Murray, despite his stellar showing late in the season.
Ferry's plan: Tempting, but I think he'll pass on Flip.

Drew Gooden
The Cavs declined Gooden's fifth-year option last season because they wanted to see if he was worth paying as a restricted free agent this summer. Results are still as inconclusive as Gooden's play.
The Cavs could do better than Gooden, and Ben Wallace and Jamaal Magloire are both free agents this summer. But they could also do a lot worse. Gooden's skill set duplicates Zydrunas Ilgauskas' way too much, and Z isn't going anywhere. But Gooden also brings lively legs and a surprisingly deft mid-range shooting touch. He also placed his own scoring on the shelf to become a defender and rebounder in coach Mike Brown's schemes.
Ferry's plan: He will probably offer Gooden the midlevel exemption. I wouldn't be surprised if Gooden, who bounced around to three different teams in his first three years, accepts.

Eric Snow
We all know there are fans out there who can't wait to see the Cavs dump the over-the-hill Snow, who fills a stat sheet the way a square peg fills a round hole.
But two factors will probably lead Ferry to keep him here: Snow's contract and his experience.
Snow is signed for three more seasons, making him very difficult to trade. He also showed his veteran wisdom numerous times during Cleveland's playoff run. The fans might not like it, but Ferry might think it beneficial to keep the tough veteran defender around for at least one more season as the young Cavs learn the ropes of contention.
Ferry's plan: Snow can probably go home for the summer fairly confident he will be reporting to Cavs camp in October.

Donyell Marshall
Where columnists like Roger Brown get off pegging Marshall as an aged stiff who can't do anything but shoot the three, I'll never know.
Marshall proved he can contribute even when his shots aren't falling, including a monster double-digit rebounding effort against the Pistons. Much like Snow, Marshall might be on the downhill side of his career, but on a team with precious little experience, he is valuable.
Ferry's plan: Marshall will probably be back.

Damon Jones
Yeah, his tendency to jack up three-balls like a loose cannon is irritating. But he has a fat contract and he buried enough clutch jumpers to justify keeping around.
Ferry's plan: What, you think he's going to dump the greatest shooter on Earth?

Anderson Varejao
The Wild Thing brings little in the way of skill, but darned if his play didn't make a difference against the Pistons. He snagged rebounds, defended reasonably well (though he is a serial foul-committer), and even got the ball to go in the hoop at times.
He could start next year, but Varejao is great being an energy guy off the bench. I don't really want to lose that. Now might be the time to talk extension with Varejao before he becomes a restricted free agent next year. Lock him up at the bench-player price before other teams start talking about a starting gig.
Ferry's plan: He might talk extension over the summer. It's hard to tell if anything will get done with Varejao prior to summer 2007.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas
He's slow. He can't defend all that well. Even his soft shooting touch abandons him at times. He has a predictable up-and-under pet move that both the Wizards and Pistons exploited in the playoffs.
But Z has two things working in his favor: his 7'-3" height and his close relationship with Ferry. The old adage in basketball is that you can't teach height. If you have a skilled 7'-3" player, you take the good with the bad because sooner or later, that height is going to help you.
It might be a flawed way of thinking, but baseball managers who play the percentages get burned, too. Z stays, or the Cavs wouldn't have inked him to a five-year deal last summer.
Ferry's plan: Send Z a Christmas card in July.

Low-wattage ending

The Cavaliers scored 61 measly points in their season-ending, Game 7 loss to the Pistons Sunday. It's an NBA record for the lowest offensive output in a playoff Game 7.
In retrospect, you can attribute it to one of two things:
A) The Pistons' suffocating defense.
B) The fact that said defense was allowed to rest on LeBron James because no other Cleveland player was able to do anything offensively.
Sunday's game was everything we feared heading into this series. It was LeBron or bust. The rest of the team could have been cardboard cutouts, and you wouldn't have noticed the difference very much.
In a nutshell, the Cavs were allowed to use LeBron as a crutch, and it was their second-half undoing. Tell the Pistons they only need to stop one player, and that player will be lucky if he can inhale, let alone score. That includes a great player like LeBron.
Detroit guard Lindsey Hunter was frank about it after the game.
"We looked up and saw (LeBron) was the only player in double figures," he said in The Plain Dealer this morning. "We were like 'OK, somebody else has to do something.'"
The Pistons knew they couldn't let LeBron beat them. They double- and triple-teamed him. They trapped him with a combination of big (Ben Wallace) and small (Hunter) players. They stuffed his lanes to the basket. They forced him into poor outside looks constantly.
They dared Larry Hughes, Flip Murray, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, anybody else to beat them. No one could answer the bell.
How bad was the disparity between LeBron and his teammates Sunday? LeBron made just 11 baskets the entire game, but it was still two more field goals than the entire rest of the team combined.
When all your teammates can muster is nine makes on 41 attempts, that's a sure recipe for a 61-point effort. In the second half, when the Pistons smelled blood and moved in for the kill, the Cavs managed just five field goals and 23 points.
It wasn't indicative of LeBron's supporting cast throughout the series. The national media would have you believe LeBron is surrounded by a bunch of drooling, lurching, Quasi Modo invalids. But the whole reason the Cavs were able to stretch the series to seven games was because LeBron's teammates --Anderson Varejao, Donyell Marshall and Murray in particular -- stepped up.
Sunday was a matter of the Pistons proving, once again, that the distance between Game 5 and Game 7 is the distance between galaxies. Perhaps the Pistons saved their best for last. Perhaps the Cavs finally succumbed to stage jitters after blowing their best chance to close the series out in Game 6.
After the game, Cleveland coach Mike Brown said the Cavs hadn't arrived yet among the league's elite. We would know when the Cavs arrived, he said, when they are playing in May and June, every year.
We'll also know the Cavs have arrived when they can put forth the same team effort in Games 1 through 7 of a playoff series. We'll know they have arrived when they can close out the Pistons when they have the chance, when players step up alongside LeBron with the season on the line.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

I hate moral victories...

But should the Cavaliers lose Sunday, there are some definite positives that can still be taken out of this series and used for the future.

1. The Pistons' mystique should be completely debunked by now.
If the Cavs want to become a championship contender, the Pistons are going to be there every year as a huge hurdle, regardless of what happens Sunday.
In this series, the Cavs have proven to themselves that they can compete with Detroit on their level, and have a realistic chance to defeat them in a seven-game series. The Pistons are no longer a team of mythical power and legendary status.
As LeBron James said, "It's not like they're the Big Bad Wolf and we're the Three Little Pigs." That mentality should serve them well in future playoff encounters (which are highly likely) as long as the Cavs are willing to put forth the effort to beat them.

2. Flip Murray and Anderson Varejao have proven their worth to Cavs management.
Heading into the postseason, a lot of us were wondering who besides LeBron was going to step up and help this team win playoff games.
We now know Varejao and Murray can be those types of players. Hopefully, GM Danny Ferry feels the same way and offers Varejao a contract extension, and free agent Murray a new deal.

3. The Cavs have made their strongest case to LeBron.
By taking the Pistons to the limit, the Cavs have put the last -- and most critical -- piece in place to sell LeBron on his upcoming contract extension offer.
Following significant upgrades to The Q, a planned state-of-the-art practice facility and taking care of LeBron's every basketball need, the Cavs have, last but not least, shown LeBron that he can front a title contender in Cleveland.
LeBron has given every indication that, as long as he feels the Cavs can give him a legitimate chance to win titles, he would sign the contract extension he will be offered this summer.
With this performance and the right moves this summer, there is a very good chance the Cavs will be a strong contender to win a title a year from now. Hopefully, LeBron sees things the same way and signs on the dotted line.

4. The Cavs can "D" up when need be.
Heading into this series, the Cavs were branded an all-run, no-defense team that was going to get creamed by the fundamentally-sound Pistons. Then the Cavs performed a remarkable transformation, turning into a solid defensive club in the middle of the series. Even in Friday's loss, they still only allowed the Pistons 84 points.
If they can lock down on defense like this regularly, the Cavs will win 55-plus games every year and be a regular participant in the later rounds of the playoffs.
Now, if they could just play solid defense without getting every single member of their frontcourt in foul trouble.

5. Cleveland has become a basketball town.
For the first time in years, the Cavs are the center of attention in Cleveland.
The Cavs are the subject of the late-night horn honking, bleacher crazies and water-cooler buzz that used to only accompany Browns and Indians playoff appearances.
The"We Are All Witnesses" campaign by Nike has been a runaway success, kind of like LeBron himself. Game time brings legions of fans, both on the clock and off, huddled around televisions in various places of business, reacting to every shot.
That buzz is going to carry over to next season. Cavs tickets are going to be a hot item, and fans who only paid passing interest in years past are going to be clamoring for them. Cavs games on television are going to be more than background noise.
For the first time ever, the Cavs are going to be the dominant team in town. In a city of slobbering Dawg Pounders, that's saying something.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Pistons 84, Cavaliers 82

The Cavaliers put a major scare into the Pistons, but tonight the natural order of things appears to have been righted.
The Pistons cleared their biggest hurdle of the season, neutralizing Cleveland's memorable Game 5 win in Auburn Hills with a Game 6 win in Cleveland. They now drag the Cavs back to Michigan for Game 7 on Sunday.
It's a game the Cavs are going to have a hard time winning, especially after the Pistons had a major pressure release by winning tonight. The Cavs, who spent three games letting all the air out of Detroit's proverbial balloon, just gave them a blimpload of helium by losing tonight. They are now going where no underdog wants to go: Game 7, on the road.
The Pistons are indeed an overconfident, cocky bunch with an inflated opinion of their talent level. But they also have experience that all the talent in the world can't buy.
We saw what the Pistons were made of. They answered the bell with their season on the line. They got the win they needed to get. In other words, tonight these were the Pistons Larry Brown coached to greatness the past two seasons.
They just won, baby. Some way, any way. They just won.
Maybe the Pistons are one of those teams that doesn't try very hard until they are backed into a corner. But when their backs hit the wall, they are almost impossible to close out.
The Pistons harassed the Cavs into five fourth-quarter turnovers, and grabbed a number of critical offensive rebounds. In a sequence that all but sealed the game, Detroit grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds to perpetuate a possession as the fourth quarter clock ticked inside one minute. Off a pair of missed Rasheed Wallace free throws, Flip Murray made a leaping stab at the rebound, but it glanced off his hand and was corralled by Ben Wallace. The outlet pass forced Zydrunas Ilgauskas to foul Chauncey Billups with 15.9 seconds left.
Those are the plays that made Detroit famous the past two years. Those are the plays they weren't making in the middle part of this series.
You'd think it would be hard for the Pistons to undo in one game what it took the Cavs three games to build. But that's where the first two games of this series come into play. If the Cavs hadn't gotten off to such a sluggish start, they would be preparing to play Miami already. Instead, it appears the roll-over-and-die losses in Games 1 and 2 are going to come back to haunt them.
If the Cavs indeed lose on Sunday and begin their offseason, it will be lesson time: value the early games of a playoff series. Those games don't win a series, but they provide a great insurance policy if you hit the skids midway through. If you go up 2-0, you are never any more than one win removed from the driver's seat for the rest of the series.
The Pistons learned that lesson a while ago. The Cavs, unfortunately, might be learning it Sunday.

Big-headed Bad Boys

There's a difference between being great, and believing you're great. The people and teams that truly are great never get caught up in the latter.
The Detroit Pistons, on the other hand, have taken the bait, hook, line and sinker. They so thoroughly believe the hype of their own greatness, they think nothing of belittling their opponents to the media. They truly believe they are so good, that when Rasheed Wallace refers to a Cavs' win my saying "even the Sun shines on a dog's ass," it won't come back to bite them.
The Pistons need to be humbled. They have forgotten how they got to where they are.
When the Pistons were busy winning a title in 2004 and reaching the NBA Finals last year, they were nose-to-the-grindstone workers. They worked hard every night, treating each possession with care and valuing team above all else. Credit estranged coach Larry Brown for a lot of that.
This season, with a good but far less accomplished coach in Flip Saunders, the Pistons rocketed to a 32-5 start and locked themselves in an ivory tower. They won games by just showing up. They became lax, arrogant and nonchalant.
And now, trailing 3-2 to the Cavaliers and on the verge of a humiliating collapse, the Pistons are going to do one of two things: realize that they are not a team of stars, and need to get back to the humble, nuts-and-bolts style of play that has served them so well in the past. Or they are going to confirm what can already be reasonably suspected: they are going to show their true colors as a team that has forgotten how to overachieve.
The Pistons are not a great team. They aren't talented enough to be a great team. They are a good team that, when prepared, executes half-court basketball at both ends of the floor like few other NBA clubs.
That has been the difference for the Pistons these past few years. Not a chasm-like talent gap that they apparently believe they have over the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Chauncey Billups recently stated a belief that the Pistons' starting five is among the greatest in NBA history. Uh, sorry, Chauncey. Thanks in large part to LeBron James, Detroit's starting five isn't even the best in this series.
The Pistons do not have a LeBron or Kobe Bryant, a game-changing superstar. They don't have that one player who can pull their fat out of the fire with the game on the line. Teams like that need to be that much more disciplined in their execution because the room for error is less.
Unlike a lot of the national media, I am going to give the Cavs credit for altering this series. Most national basketball pundits peg this entire swoon on Detroit's lack of execution. I'll say the Cavs have ramped up their defense considerably and made life much tougher on the Pistons.
But the Pistons have not been prepared for the onslaught. They seem genuinely shocked that the Cavs have been able to put up this kind of a fight. That goes back to overconfidence.
Detroit realized how hard it is to get to the top. What they have not realized is how much work is needed to stay there.
One of the few NBA teams that could be excused for overconfidence -- the Bulls of the late '90s -- never let success go to their head. If trumpets were blaring upon their arrival at a visiting arena, they never heard them. They were too busy preparing to the nth degree for the game. Michael Jordan made sure of it.
Each series was a challenge, not a coronation, for Jordan's Bulls. And those teams headed to the arena every night knowing they had the greatest player in history coming with them.
The Pistons apparently advanced to the second round expecting a red carpet, rose petals and a submissive opponent. They are getting a lesson in humility instead.
Even if you are a Detroit fan, you might have to think that an early exit is just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Starting to believe

What can I say? I'm stunned. In my wildest dreams two weeks ago, the Cavaliers might have won a third game in this series by fending off elimination in Game 6.
Now, they are coming home for Game 6 with a chance to do the previously-unthinkable: knock the mighty Detroit Pistons out of the playoffs.
Tonight, Cleveland won a third consecutive playoff game for the first time in franchise history, and not just any third consecutive playoff win. It was a win that quite possibly signaled the Cavs' arrival as league heavyweight, a team that can beat any other team over the course of seven games.
It doesn't get much more difficult than trying to go into the Palace of Auburn Hills and yank a playoff game away from the Pistons. Prior to tonight, the Pistons had won all four matchups at the Palace between the teams this season. The Cavs hadn't really been in any of the games, save for a spirited second-half surge in Game 2.
Now we get to see if the Cavs and LeBron James have a killer instinct when they need it most. If they know what is good for them, they will finish this series off in six games, in front of their own fans. No road team should want any part of a Game 7 at the Palace, especially considering the Pistons would have rebounded with a Game 6 win to get there.
The Pistons are probably reeling like few times before. Nobody outside the Cavs locker room thought the Pistons would be pushed to the brink of elimination. Nobody thought the Cavs would be the team they couldn't figure out.
The most impressive aspect of this three-game winning streak has been how the Cavs have done it. They have done it by beating the Pistons at their own game: stifling defense.
Somewhere late in Game 2, the light bulb went on. The Cavs discovered that the secret to beating Detroit isn't to try and neutralize their defense, because that's not going to happen.
You beat the Pistons by matching their defense with a roadblock of your own.
By the start of Game 3, Cleveland had transformed itself from the run-happy team that had outgunned Washington in Round 1 to a slug-it-out halfcourt team that walks the ball up the floor, plays slow, deliberate offense and tries their best to lock down the basket at the defensive end.
They were betting that Detroit's offense, without a game-changing superstar player, would not be able to fight through a beefed-up Cleveland defense the way LeBron James has managed to (at least in spurts) fight through Detroit's defense.
And, don't you know, it has worked.
I really hope the Cavs can close this series out in Game 6. Up until now, I could have been cool with the Cavs losing this series, armed with a moral victory and momentum for next year. But now a moral victory would sour. I want to shock the basketball world. I want to send Rasheed Wallace and his mouth home for the summer. I want the Cavs to take out the vaunted Pistons.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Longball relief

Travis Hafner finally had enough of losing to teams like the Royals. So he did something about it. With one out in the ninth inning tonight, Hafner delivered a two-run homer to the Indians bullpen for a 6-4, come from behind victory over the Royals. It snapped a six-game losing streak, and a five-game losing streak to Kansas City.
Hafner's bomb was preceded by a solo shot off the bat of Grady Sizemore that tied the game with no outs.
Sizemore victimized Ambiorix Burgos. Hafner hit his homer off Andrew Sisco. Both pitchers had given the Indians fits so far this season.
As Hafner rounded the bases, he looked almost angry, keeping his head down a jaw square as he jogged.
The homers brought relief, but I think everyone in the Indians dugout knew it should never have come to this. The Indians are still just 18-21 and chasing the White Sox, Tigers and Twins in the division.
A journey begins with a single step, the old adage goes. Let's hope this is the beginning of a journey that involves a lot more wins for the Indians.

Don't heed Sheed

Rasheed Wallace isn't a bully. He's just a mouthpiece for what has become a very arrogant Pistons team.
And can you honestly blame him or them? They have an NBA title, two Eastern Conference titles and a 64-win season to their credit over the last three years.
Nobody in the East has been able to stop the Pistons since 2003. Why wouldn't they walk around with a certain air of invincibility?
So when Wallace stated matter-of-factly that the Cavaliers' season was going to end with Game 5 of the teams' second-round series, he was in his own mind stating an inevitability. The proven teams like Miami and New Jersey hadn't been able to stop Detroit's looting and pillaging in the playoffs, so where does anybody get off thinking the Cavs and LeBron James, their 21-year-old, non-playoff-tested superstar, were going to put a dent in Detroit's title bid?
Rasheed's teammates met his comments with the same straight-faced approach.
In a nutshell, they responded, "Yeah, he said it. We've backed him up before, and we'll do it again."
The Sun rises in the East. The human body is 70 percent water. The Pistons will make good on Wallace's victory guarantees. In Detroit, it was that simple. Three times, Wallace guaranteed a playoff win, and three times the Pistons made good. It wasn't even like Wallace was sticking his neck out anymore.
Then came Monday night. And it wasn't like clockwork..
The Cavs didn't really surprise the Pistons in winning 74-72 and tying the series at 2-2. They slogged it out and emerged on top in what was a lackluster second half for both teams.
At one point, Detroit missed nine straight shots. And unlike Saturday's win, LeBron didn't really shoulder the load for Cleveland down the stretch. He had a single-digit fourth quarter and finished with 22 points, eight behind Rip Hamilton's game-leading 30.
LeBron helped win the game by playing pitch-and-catch with Anderson Varejao for inside buckets, by finding Donyell Marshall open for a pair of late-game three-balls. His individual performance (8-for-23 field goals, 5-for-10 free throws, 8 assists, 9 rebounds in 48 minutes) buzzed triple-double territory, but was not as dominant as Game 3.
For the second straight game, the Cavs played the Pistons' brand of knock-down, drag-out basketball and beat them at it. But the games like Game 4 -- the kind that devlove into Greco-Roman wrestling matches -- are the type of games the Pistons have built their reputation on. Winning those kind of games is how Detroit has built their tremendous success over the past several years.
Those are the type of games the Pistons have let slip away Saturday and Monday. On Monday, they couldn't even blame it on a spectacular fourth quarter by LeBron.
After Monday's game, Wallace modified his guarantee, saying there is "no way in hell" Cleveland is going to win this series.
Granted, the Cavs still have to find a way to win at least one game at the Palace of Auburn Hills to win this series. And playing the Pistons at the Palace is an entirely different proposition than playing them on your turf. So Wallace still isn't out of line in guaranteeing a series win.
But given LeBron's history of making his doubters and critics eat their words, and the fact that the Cavs seem to be becoming playoff-hardened veterans right before our very eyes, one has to wonder the wisdom of Wallace's repeated assertions.
Sooner or later, guaranteeing a Piston win isn't going to be as simple as tying your sneakers and taking the court. Somehow, I think LeBron is going to have a hand in that.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Cavaliers 74, Pistons 72

Allow me to offer a brief transcript of my comments following tonight's series-leveling win by the Cavs:
"We're coming BACK, Sheed! We're coming BACK, bitch! Yeah, you limp back to that locker room, because we're coming back for game SIX!"
In more demure terms, the Cavs have refuted Rasheed Wallace's claim that Game 4 would be the last home game for the Cavs this season. Tonight's win ensures that there will be a Game 6 at The Q. Game 5 is Wednesday night at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Man, I missed playoff basketball. Not just first-round dog meat playoffs like the Cavs of the mid-90s, either. These are meaningful playoff games for a meaningful team that appears to be building toward a special era of Cleveland basketball.
The odds are still stacked against Cleveland winning this series. That would only change with a Game 5 win. To win this series, the Cavs still need to win a game on the road, be it Game 5 or 7. Game 6 is a must-win regardless of Game 5's outcome.
But this is still fun. For the first time in a long time, the Cavs are the talk of Cleveland. And LeBron James is our full-time king as long as the season stays alive.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Cavaliers 86, Pistons 77

The key to beating the Pistons, it turns out, is to keep your cliches in order:
Fight fire with fire.
Bend but don't break.
Step up when your team needs you the most.
Give the Cavaliers credit for the first two, and LeBron James credit for the third as the Cavs finally appeared on the map with a Game 3 win.
Game 3 was a Pistons type of game. It was a slow-paced, half-court meat grinder that featured a 42-36 Detroit lead at the half, a game in which the losing team did not break 80 points.
Trouble for the Pistons was, they were said losing team.
Bend but don't break? The Cavs trailed Detroit by as many as 10 in the third quarter. It was the type of quarter that would have crushed the Cavs' spirit earlier in the season, but apparently the roller coaster series against Washington has galvanized Cleveland's stomachs.
And let's talk defense and three-point shooting, two pet projects of the Pistons.
The Cavs took the Pistons' attack and used it against them, stiffening their defense down the stretch and making the key shots that ultimately buried Detroit. The Pistons, for a change, were on the demoralizing receiving end of a team making all the big shots down the stretch.
After a sluggish first three quarters, LeBron finally found his high gear in the fourth, scoring 15 of his 21 points, including a dagger three-ball inside of two minutes.
LeBron also stepped up his defense, but not in the stick-to-your-man-like-glue way that coach-types like FoxSports.com's Charley Rosen preach. It was (sound of Rosen shuddering) by playing the passing lanes and going for steals.
That's not the recommended way to stop Detroit, but LeBron made it work. He stole the ball twice in the fourth quarter, including a free safety-esque interception of a cross-court pass in which he leapt in front of the intended receiver and plucked the ball out of the air. Tayshaun Prince drew contact by being in the wrong place as LeBron landed, or LeBron might have been called for traveling.
The game was yet another Game 3 yak for the Pistons. They lost a blowout in Game 3 against the Bucks, but rallied to close out the series in five.
Rasheed Wallace was so upset after the game, he went so far as to guarantee the Cavs wouldn't win another game in this series.
"We're going to bust them. It's a given," Wallace reportedly said. "Monday is their last game in this building for the season."
That's entirely possible. Hell hath no fury like a two-time defending conference champion scorned. But losing Game 3 against the Cavs is not like losing Game 3 against the Bucks.
The Pistons just let LeBron see daylight. And if you have followed the insanely steep learning curve of his career, you know he can accomplish in four games what it takes other players four seasons to accomplish.
Monday's Game 4 is suddenly very important for the Pistons, as much if not more than it is for Cleveland. The Cavs still have nothing to lose, and should (at least in theory) be playing with a clear mind. The Pistons, on the other hand, are facing the prospect of a full-blown series should the Cavs even things up with a win in Game 4. And putting out LeBron's fire when it gets going might be a tougher task than Detroit realizes.
Cleveland still has a ghost of a chance of winning this series. But perception is a huge chunk of reality, and if LeBron and his supporting cast suddenly believe there's a chance to pull off the upset, Detroit has just opened Pandora's box.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Motown showdowns

I miss the good old days.
Only once a year did us Northern Ohioans have to feel completely inferior to Michigan. Each year, the John Cooper-coached Buckeyes would cave and lose to the Wolverines on the gridiron, causing much consternation for about a week. Then we could spend the other 51 weeks of the year comforted by the fact that the Lions were every bit as bad as the Browns, and watch the Indians routinely beat up on the sorry Tigers.
Now, the Jim Tressel Buckeyes are 4-1 against Michigan, and the pro sports teams of Detroit are surging (with the exception of the Lions).
It's a great trade-off for one week in November. The rest of the year, it kind of stinks.
Today, Cleveland teams must negotiate a Motown two-step. In both cases, Cleveland is fighting an uphill battle.
The Cavaliers host the Pistons at 5 p.m. in a must-win Game 3. Already down 0-2, if the Cavs are going to make this series competitive, today is probably their best chance. Lose today, and all you are trying to do is avoid a sweep in Game 4.
The Cavs will be without Larry Hughes, who is absent in the wake of his brother's death. No timetable has been set for his return.
At 7 p.m., the reeling Indians, losers of four straight, will host the surprising second-place Tigers, the only team within a stone's throw of first-place Chicago in the AL Central.
The Indians are 2-3 against Detroit after losing to Kenny Rogers last night. At 17-19 overall, the Indians are at a critical point in their season. Either they are going to rattle off a series of wins in the near future, or they are going to slump into the abyss of mediocrity and spend the next four months playing out the string with no real hope of making the playoffs.
The Indians, purely and simply, do not have the pitching to overcome a deficit of 15-plus games as they did last year. If they fade this year, odds are they aren't going to come roaring back down the stretch again.
Detroit has our world on a string right now. Their teams could make for a quick end to Cleveland's NBA season, and help ensure a long, boring summer of non-contending Indians baseball.
And all along I thought Pittsburgh owned Ohio. Turns out, they have a timeshare with Southeast Michigan.

A brother's gift

You want to know where Larry Hughes' drive to succeed comes from?
If you didn't before, you do now. He passed away Thursday.
Larry knew younger brother, Justin, for 20 years. He also probably knew that, at some point, it was all going to end badly. Justin was going to be taken, way too soon.
Justin Hughes was born with a heart defect. At 11, he needed a heart transplant. Last year, he was back in the hospital when doctors discovered signs of organ rejection. The trauma finally became too much for his body this week.
The years of when-why-how have ended now. Larry and his family are left to pick up the pieces and move on.
But Larry can't even grieve in the relative seclusion of the off-season. There are still games to be played for Larry's Cleveland Cavaliers.
Fresh off a dramatic first-round win over Larry's former employer, the Washington Wizards, the Cavs are up against it, facing the mighty Detroit Pistons in the second round.
If life were fair, Larry would be thinking about how to regain his shooting touch, about how to cut into the Pistons' 2-0 series lead. Justin would be back home in St. Louis, healthy and watching Game 3 on TV tomorrow night.
But life isn't fair. And suddenly, you know why all those broken fingers and broken wrists and back injuries Larry has endured in his seven-year pro career don't mean that much to him in the grand scheme of things.
Suddenly you know why through all the injuries, bouncing around to four different teams, the pain, the rehab stints, teaming with everybody for Allen Iverson to Gilbert Arenas to LeBron James, Larry just rolls with it.
Suddenly you know why humbling himself to play a supporting role alongside James is not that big a deal.
In an NBA world of massive egos and petty disagreements that have ruined teams, Larry Hughes has humility in inverse proportion to his talent. And he has his brother to thank. It is a gift that will keep on giving even though he is gone.
Larry has seen exactly how unfair life can be. He has a Grim Reaper tattoo on his arm to remind him that no one know how long they have on this planet, and to make the most of life. He got it when Justin received his new heart.
Larry Hughes knows how blessed he is to be a professional basketball player, with a beating heart and able body. He has the burden of his brother to remind him of that, every day, for as long as he can sprint across hardwood.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Gender issues in the dugout

Professional sports, they say, is one of the last places where a man can be a man.
Spitting, cursing, grabbing, pushing, shoving, brawling, off-color jokes, lewd gestures. The locker rooom, the sideline, the dugout is one of the few places left where decorum and political correctness can be damned. It's a man's world.
Just ask Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, who was appalled to find a woman present in the San Diego Padres dugout several weeks ago.
She wasn't a groupie. I am proud to say she is Cleveland's own Kelly Calabrese, and she was doing her job as a member of the Padres's training staff. Not that it mattered to Hernandez, who apparently believed an unwritten rule among baseball teams had been broken. He believes women just shouldn't be allowed in the macho environment of the dugout, and proceeded to tell thousands of viewers the same.
I can't fault Hernandez for having an opinion. But having an opinion is one thing. Saying it over airwaves is another.
Hernandez and those who share his opinion seem to think Calabrese has broached the boys' club that is a major league dugout, that in the name of equal opportunity, the places in this world that are exclusively male are being swallowed up by an ever-advancing army of political correctness.
The implication is that it's another women's lib issue, like when some NBA players put up a stink about referee Violet Palmer, one of two female refs to break that gender barrier in the '90s. Or when Martha Burk set up shop at the gates to Augusta National during the Masters a few years back.
The truth is far more basic, however. Calabrese isn't at the front lines of a gender-equality war. She didn't sign on for that. She is simply a massage therapist and trainer who capitalized on the opportunity of a lifetime, as any of us would do.
She gave up her private practice in Cleveland a number of years ago to sign on with the Padres. She so impressed the Padres' head trainer that she was hired on full-time in 2003. Nobody made a public stink about it for almost three years. Then Hernandez had to open up his trap. His public embarrassment of Calabrese underscores the fact that, while she's not fighting a war, she is definitely a pioneer, and subject to all the slings and arrows of an outsider.
Calabrese has a prestigious job with a Major League Baseball team. But with that comes having to adjust to working in a place where her mere presence could cause stifling awkwardness, or an outright bad situation: her place of work is a male locker room.
It is Calabrese that has had to adjust to the baseball environment, not the other way around. I'm sure the Padres aren't making massive concessions for their female presence. If Calabrese wanted this job badly enough, she'd have to find a way to live with the ballplayers heading to and from the showers, laundry bins filled with dirty underwear and dugout floor coated with who knows what.
Somehow, she has not only made it work, she has flourished. Over the years, her skill and attitude have won over legions of macho baseball players, to the point that when Hernandez made his comments, Calabrese reportedly received a number of supportive phone calls from ballplayers.
In San Diego, she not only works. She belongs. She has done what few women have ever been able to do: find a niche in the trenchwork of professional sports.
That accomplishment, however, is apparently lost on Hernandez.

Here is an excellent article on Calabrese from ESPN.com

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Royal pain

FoxSports.com contributor Michael Rosenberg says the Royals might challenge the 1962 Mets and 2003 Tigers for baseball futility. At present, he says, the Royals are on pace for 124 losses.
But I don't think the Indians are going to let them fall that far.
This afternoon, the Royals completed the darn-near-unthinkable: they swept the Indians right out of the park. Three games, thanks for playing, have a safe flight.
Kansas City reached double figures in wins today (10-22) and reached .500 at Kauffman Stadium (8-8). And it is all thanks to Cleveland, which has been gracious enough to lose five in a row to the purported worst team in baseball.
The Royals pounded out 24 runs in the three-game sweep against a Cleveland team that is lugging around their entire pitching staff like a ball and chain.
Much like last year, when a narcoleptic offense prone to sudden spasms of lumber slumber nixed some great pitching, this year's edition of the Tribe is killing off some great offensive performances with awful pitching.
With a .302 average, the Indians possess baseball's best offense. They have the only lineup hitting over .300 in either league.
With a 5.36 ERA, the Indians have the fifth-worst pitching staff in both the American League and the Majors. It all adds up to a 17-18 record, the first time the Indians have been below .500 since an opening night loss to the White Sox.
It unfortunately appears to be part of the pitfalls of trying to put together a Cadillac team on a Toyota budget. Somehow, someway, compromises will be made. You have leather seats, but the engine is small. You have a sunroof, but had to skip the power windows.
For the past three seasons, the Indians have headed into the season with some area of the team in question. in 2004, the bullpen killed them. Last year, the offense lagged. This year, it's the entire pitching staff.
Something prevents this team from blossoming into full-fledged contender each year. And we in Cleveland are always looking to next year. Which becomes the next. And the next. Pretty soon, Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez are leaving as free agents, and we are back to square one.
I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. It's only May. But Cleveland had better look at the landscape, already seven and a half games behind the White Sox. May becomes July becomes September quickly, and the noose will only tighten as the season progresses.
Espceially with 12 games left against the Royals.

Pistons 97, Cavaliers 91

Some signs of life, finally.
Just when it looked like the Pistons were going to saddle up the Cavs and ride them right back to the hotel Tuesday night, the Cavs began to figure some things out.
Or maybe Detroit just got a bit sloppy.
Regardless, the Cavs ate up a double-digit second half deficit and closed to within five points before losing Game 2, 97-91.
being down 0-2 is never pretty, but going from a 27-point basting in Game 1 to a six-point nudge in Game 2 is somewhat uplifting. It at least gives me some hope that the Cavs are going to be able to make a series of it when the games come to Cleveland this weekend.
LeBron James, who has a tendency to have Jekyll-and-Hyde halves, saved the Dr. Jekyll half for the first half, and came out as a monster in the second half, scoring 23 of his 30 points, many on a barrage of perimeter jumpers.
It is entirely possible that the Pistons just had an "oh yeah, we still need to play" moment at the end of Game 2, and will come out to conquer in Game 3. But Game 2 showed that the Cavs aren't content to simply roll over and die, no matter how badly the series is tilted in favor of their opponent.
At this juncture, that might be about all you can ask.

Monday, May 08, 2006

A second blog

Swept up by the attraction of competing in FoxSports.com's "Next Great Sportswriter" contest, I have started a second sports blog. Check it out here.

Pistons 113, Cavaliers 86

The Pistons didn't even need to break out the thuggery in Game 1. They did well enough just bombing the Cavs into submission.
On top of being the baddest badass team in the league, the Pistons also have an excellent finesse game. Everybody in Detroit's starting lineup with the exception of Ben Wallace can make three-pointers with regularity. And sixth man Lindsey Hunter isn't too shabby shooting it either.
It all added up to the Pistons nailing 10 of 11 three-balls in the first half and cruising to the 27-point win.
How thorough was the pounding? At the end of the third quarter, Cleveland coach Mike Brown effectively said "screw it" and pulled most of his starters, including LeBron James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
As the old sportscaster adage goes, "it wasn't even as close as the final score indicates." Cleveland trailed by over 30 in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs were totally outclassed in every single phase of the game. They were out-defended, out-shot, out-penetrated, out-rebounded, out-shot-blocked, out-hustled, out-maneuvered and out-coached.
If this was the tempo-setting game of the series, Cleveland will certainly be swept, and might lose every game by 25-plus points.
No one is expecting the Cavs to win this series, outside of the guys in the locker room. But there is a huge difference between at least giving the Pistons a series, regardless of how many games you actually win, and being driven headlong into the offseason like lemmings off a cliff.
Being so hopelessly confounded that your coach calls off the dogs before the start of the fourth quarter is no way to start a series.
Maybe by the time Game 2 begins Tuesday night, the Cavs will realize they aren't playing the Wizards anymore, and the time for up-and-down basketball is over. Cleveland had better learn to play slower, more deliberate basketball and guard each possession like it is the end of the game. Slowing the game down is the only way they can match the Pistons shot for shot.
When it comes to playing Detroit, you have to fight fire with fire. Trying to outscore them will only ensure that your offseason will begin by the middle of next week.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

NBA playoffs: Round 2

Yes, I would still care enough to write this even if the Cavs hand't advanced. When it comes to blogging, I am a blogger before I am a fan.

Eastern Conference

Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Now, LeBron James finds out what hanging with the big boys in May is all about. Trade in your winged sneakers from some body armor. This isn't going to be a score-fest like against Washington. This series is going to be slow-paced, physical and probably a lot more draining. Expect Detroit to come out with hard fouls early, trying to gain the psychological upper hand through intimidation, which they did so well during the regular season.
If the Pistons are playing defense they way they are capable, I'd be surprised if the Cavs break 100 points at all in this series.
Much like Michael Jordan did when he was getting pounded by the Pistons almost 20 years ago, LeBron can take the schooling he's about to receive and file it away for future use. The Cavs will vault past the Pistons at some point, but this year they take their lumps.
Prediction: Pistons in five

Miami Heat vs. New Jersey Nets
Miami, a team with Shaquille O'Neal, needed six games to get past the undersized and undertalented Chicago Bulls. That doesn't bode well. But then again, players like Shaq and Dwyane Wade tend to up their fight when the level of the competition increases.
That factor, along with the fact that Miami has a deeper bench and homecourt advantage, makes me give the Heat the edge in a hard-fought series
Prediction: Heat in seven

Western Conference

San Antonio Spurs vs. Dallas Mavericks
If you saw the way the Spurs expertly fended off a spirited charge from the Kings in Round 1, you know why you can never bet against them in a playoff series.
This series should have occurred in the conference finals, but the NBA's three-division format prohibits it. The Mavericks probably stand the best chance of dethroning the world champs prior to the NBA Finals, but I still don't think they have enough internal toughness to best the Spurs over the course of seven games.
However, once the Spurs finally get past the Mavs, the conference finals opponent will seem like an NBA Finals warm-up.
Prediction: Spurs in seven

Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Clippers
I know how much the public wants to root for the best underdog story in the NBA in quite some time. I know how much Angelinos wanted an all-L.A. playoff series. Unfortunately, that didn't happen, and unfortunately, the Clips' magic carpet ride ends here.
The Clippers don't even have the advantage of forcing the Suns onto uncharted turf in Game 3. Phoenix has already taken everything Los Angeles can throw at them in a hotly-contested seven-game series against the Lakers. They will be facing the Clips in the same arena, probably with many of the same fans in attendance.
The Clips' pluck and veteran backcourt of Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley might win them two games. But, in all honesty, the Suns shouldn't have a lot of trouble closing out L.A. for a second straight series. Phoenix has already survived Kobe Bryant. Elton Brand shouldn't be too hard of a riddle to solve after that.
Prediction: Suns in six

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Advanced placement

Go ahead, call the Cavaliers lucky. Say they were the beneficiaries of a late-series meltdown by the Wizards.
Tell LeBron James how many times you thought he traveled during the series.
It doesn't change the fact that thrice when the Cavs needed a win, thrice when they were trailing with the clock about to hit zero, the Cavs came through. And that's why they will play the Pistons in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday.
Friday's 114-113 overtime win gave Cleveland the first-round win over Washington four games to two. It was the first time in 13 years the Cavs won a playoff series, ending the East's longest such drought.
LeBron took over in Games 3 and 5 with game-winners of his own. In Game 6, he deferred to Damon Jones, who had come in to the game for the first time just 14 seconds prior. After a pair of Gilbert Arenas free-throw misses to keep the Wizards' lead at 113-112, LeBron took the inbounds pass and was double-teamed up top. LeBron relayed the ball to Larry Hughes, who in turn found Jones open in the corner for the game winner.
Jones had been an afterthought during most of the series, eschewed in favor of Flip Murray because coach Mike Brown liked the matchup better. But the reason GM Danny Ferry signed Jones to a four-year deal last summer was so Jones could be available to take a shot in this very situation.
All the frustration and confusion fans like me had when Jones would jack up three-balls willy-nilly early in the season has officially subsided. It all makes sense now.
Jones has a five-year streak of playoff appearances going. He reached the conference finals with Miami last year. When Ferry shelled out owner Dan Gilbert's cash to attain Jones, he was buying the playoff experience, too.
In one vein, the Cavs squeaked by the Wizards, needing three game-winning shots and a pair of overtimes to advance. In another, they were as clutch as a team could be in their wins.
Now the Pistons await. It will be a much different series against a team that has an NBA title and Eastern Conference title in the past two seasons. As I have posted before, the defensive miscues the Wizards made are the defensive stops the Pistons will get.
All I am hoping for is that the Cavs give Detroit a competitive series and no one suffers any major injuries, though the bruise count will likely go up against a team as physical as Detroit.
The Cavs now have 50 regular-season wins and first-round victory to their credit. This season has now fulfilled what I wanted to see in November.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Cavaliers 121, Wizards 120

There are so many thoughts racing around in my head from last night's Game 5 overtime thriller, I'm going to have to do this list-style.

TNT commentators Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley came to the postgame show not to praise LeBron James, but to bury the Wizards defense.
Neither one of TNT's ex-jocks gave LeBron any credit for his game-winning layup with nine-tenths of a second to play, choosing instead to dump a bowl of cold oatmeal in the Wizards' laps.
Most of their criticism centered on the fact that it was a layup LeBron shot, and not a twisting, fading jumper with four hands in his face.
To an extent, Smith and Barkley were right. Antawn Jamison did a lousy job of sealing off the baseline. He might have been playing tentatively, afraid of fouling LeBron and sending him to the free-throw line, but once Jamison let LeBron drop his shoulder and move toward the hoop, it was over for the Wizards. The best they could hope for was a blocked shot or a LeBron fumble. Hey, it's Cleveland. You never know.
Those are the mistakes the Pistons don't make. Once they have you in the corner, you are staying in the corner. If you try to get out, one of the Wallaces will probably knock you senseless. Just something to file away should the Cavs finish off the Wizards and advance.

Advancing is something that is actually probable for the Cavs now. In 128 seven-game series in the NBA playoffs, the team that has won Game 5 has won the series 107 times.

I really want the Cavs to finish off the Wizards in six. But why do I get the feeling that this series is coming back to Cleveland for Game 7? This really has been an amazing series, full of huge performances by star players, razor-close finishes, and a pair of game-winning buckets by LeBron. These are two evenly-matched teams, as a 4-5 series should be. Both teams can score loads of points, and both teams play spotty defense. Both teams have stepped up in the fourth quarter, and both teams have had costly mental lapses in the fourth quarter.
My original prediction, Cavs in seven, looks very possible now.

We've all seen the national media scoff at this series, pointing out that the winner earns the right to get their brains beat in by Detroit. That might be true. But I'm taking this series at face value. This is the Cavs' NBA Finals this season as far as I am concerned. No matter how many they win afterward, if the Cavs advance to the second round, this season will be a success.

The one matchup that has really surprised me is the coaches. It is actually quite even.
I thought Cleveland's Mike Brown was going to get schooled in his first playoff go-around against four-year veteran Eddie Jordan. I thought Jordan was going to be the one to make all the effective adjustments and be the one with the cooler head under pressure.
That theory exited stage right last night. The Cavs tried really hard to hand the game to Washington, but the Wizards kept one-upping Cleveland's would-be choke jobs.
The final sequence was the most glaring example of Jordan's handle on the game dissolving at the worst possible time for his team. Apparently, in the huddle before LeBron's winning basket, Jordan did not hammer home the fact that LeBron is a streaky free-throw shooter.
You'd think that if all else fails (i. e. the Wizards give LeBron a clear lane to the basket) Jordan would probably want to foul LeBron so Washington could take their chances with LeBron at the line shooting the two most important free throws of his young career. Odds are about 50-50 he makes both. Even if he makes both, the Wizards could then call a timeout, advance the ball to halfcourt and bet that Gilbert Arenas was going to get a clean look at a game winner before time expired.
If any of that crossed Jordan's mind, he didn't make it known to his players.

And let's not forget about the timeouts. The Wizards had two left, but with nine-tenths of a second remaining, they apparently panicked, damned the torpedoes and allowed Arenas to heave a 60-foot airball as time expired. I'm a Cavs fan, and I thoroughly enjoyed the outcome, but let's be honest: the way the Wizards handled the end of the game was brutal.

LeBron gets player of the game honors, but I have to give props where they are due, and Eric Snow deserves some accolades. He played a starring role in getting the game to the point where LeBron could win it.
Snow made a series of major buckets to start overtime. They were huge for the Cavs, who were reeling after coughing up a seven-point lead in the final 90 seconds of regulation. Without Snow's scoring run to start overtime, the Cavs could have fallen behind by six or eight points, and it could have been curtains right there.
Fans have been riding Snow all year for his lack of offense. Some have gone so far as to say he is no longer an NBA point guard.
He is past his prime. He won't stuff a stat sheet. He is not an elite NBA point guard. But if you want to know why Snow and his 77 playoff games are so valuable to this group of postseason neophytes, you saw it last night. Snow knew that getting off to a good start in overtime was critical, and he made sure it happened.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A Cleveland thing

Try this scenario on for size:
After going 2-for-4 today, Casey Blake is batting .348, good enough for 11th in the American League.
Can he keep it up? You'd think not. But say he does. Say he's hitting .320 at the all-star break and gets named as a reserve to the AL all-star team.
Say he keeps it up for the rest of the season and finishes with a .318 average, 24 homers and 80 RBI.
He's a free agent, and suddenly teams with deeper pockets than the Indians are interested in our once-overmatched whipping boy.
You see where I'm going with this? Sure you do.
The White Sox or Tigers swoop in with some once-unthinkable five-year offer for Blake, the Indians then predictably say "too rich for our blood" and withdraw from the Blake sweepstakes. So Blake signs with the White Sox and spends the next five years tormenting the Indians, and their player-hating fans.
Then the piece de resistance: October 2008, when the White Sox win their third World Series in four years: Blake, after hitting .390 in the series with a pair of walk-off homers, wins MVP.
We then see Blake on TV, side by side with best hunting buddy Jim Thome, gleaming and talking about how great this is for Chicago and how Chicago has the best fans in the world.
And, in the case of Blake, how can we argue. We hated the guy while he was here and hitting .230.
But if history tells us anything, it's that when Clevelanders get bitchy, we always get our comeuppance. And then some. So don't assume Blake is going to be the resident stiff here forever. He might get the best of us all.
It reminds me of a sign hanging in my classroom when I was in eighth grade: "Dear Lord, please let my words be sweet and tender, for tomorrow I might have to eat them."
Corny? Yes. True? Most definitely.

A measure of revenge

Travis Hafner doesn't appear to be the overly vindictive sort. That's why you'll probably never get him to admit how good it must have felt to stick it to the White Sox's Mark Buerhle earlier today.
Ten months ago, Buerhle put Hafner on the disabled list with a fastball to the face. Whether Buerhle meant to hit Hafner is up for debate, but he certainly meant to buzz him high and tight.
Despite the efforts of Indians broadcaster Tom Hamilton to throw fuel on the fire every time Hafner faces Buehrle, the two have kept any simmering fallout to themselves.
Today, Hafner got his revenge the right way, with a three-run homer off Buehrle that gave C.C. Sabathia all the support he needed in a 7-1 win, though Sabathia did have to wriggle out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth inning.
Today's win offers some stability to an Indians team that is punch drunk from one too many uppercuts to the pitching staff. It also slows down a White Sox team that had won 17 of 20 heading into today, if only a bit.
The Indians now head to the West Cost to face Oakland and Seattle, and then back to (gulp) Kansas City.
Once again, an opportunity to make up ground. But not if the pitching staff keeps slamming into the wall, game after game.

Kudla, too

And, of course, as was pointed out in response to the post below, how can we forget Medina County's own Mike Kudla, snapped up by the Steelers as well?
Why do I get the feeling that, at some point, Jim Tressel is going to be the coach of the Steelers?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Pittsburgh, Ohio

Geez, Pittsburgh, why didn't you say so?
If you really want to become a part of Ohio that badly, you should have told us. We'd gladly trade Toledo, Youngstown and Bob Taft to Pennsylvania for Pittsburgh, Johnstown and catastrophic flood to be named later.
But, no, you have to go the passive-aggressive route, like an ornery neighbor who keeps blowing his leaves into our yard.
You have to keep taking our football players and fashioning them as weapons against us.
Two years ago, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger, a Findlay native, from Miami, Ohio. That year, the Steelers went 15-1. Then they won the Super Bowl a year later.
This weekend, the Steelers pilfered Ohio State wide receiver Santonio Holmes in the first round, then swiped Bowling Green quarterback Omar Jacobs in the fifth round.
It's not good enough to just beat the tar out of the Browns twice a year, is it? You have to kidnap our best football players, brainwash them, and turn them into gridiron assassins bent on destroying us. And doing a damn good job of it.
Your coach is a former Brown. Your quarterback is an Ohioan. Even your punter you gleaned from the Browns. Now two Ohio draft picks in one year.
When you get right down to it, this already is Pittsburgh's state. They own it, we're just living in it. So please, Dan Rooney, if you are going to start charging Ohio residents rent for living in your state, just keep it reasonable. Half this state is dirt poor as it is.

Wizards 106, Cavaliers 96

If Game 3 was a reasonable facsimile of Game 1, then Game 4 on Sunday was a carbon copy of Game 2.
The Cavaliers came out focused and poised for the first half, jumped out to a big lead and went on cruise control. Gradually, their handle on the game eroded, and the Wizards, by far the more experienced playoff team, sensed it.
Cleveland held an 11-point lead at the half, but as they so often have done this season, came out for the second half with all the vigor of tree sloths.
The lead had melted into a tie by the end of the third quarter, and the Wizards owned the fourth.
As in Game 2, the Cavs committed dumb turnovers, dumb fouls, and were altogether outclassed by Washington down the stretch.
To use a baseball paraphrase, LeBron James kept trying to score a five-point basket when the Cavs fell behind, recklessly crashing into opposing players for charges. At one point, with the clock winding down, he found Damon Jones wide open in the corner, and fired a flameball past him and into the stands.
There is a difference between being desperate and playing desperate. LeBron -- and his teammates -- were doing the latter in the fourth quarter.
The series is once again tied, which isn't bad in of itself, considering the Cavs are a missed Gilbert Arenas three-ball from being down 3-1. On paper, they did what they needed to do. They took a game in Washington after losing one in Cleveland.
But it's frustrating because a better, more composed Cavs team would have held onto Sunday's lead, and would be coming home up 3-1 with a chance to close the series out on Wednesday. Inexperience is the main culprit. No matter how well the Cavs play, it won't change the fact that they have a rookie head coach and a 21-year-old floor general.
But that milk has been spilled. The only thing we can do now is look ahead to Game 5. I said it before and I'll say it again: the Cavs MUST win Game 5 to have any prayer of winning this series. If they lose Wednesday, the Cavs would have to win Game 6 back in Washington to keep the series alive for a Game 7.
Considering it took a razor-close finish for the Cavs to take Game 3, anyone want to guess how hard it's going to be to win Game 6 there?