Still, what's been clear from the moment the Spurs lined up their famous defense against LeBron is this — nothing is clear. Gregg Popovich doesn't spend the regular season scheming against the next opponent, especially one from the Eastern Conference. So the Spurs employ their this-is- what-we-do foundation with varying shades, and LeBron has done-what-he's-wanted- to-do.
Or, as Brown said after LeBron's 44 points against the Spurs in 2006: "He willed himself to the rim, and he willed this win for us."
The Spurs admit — with apologies to Kobe — that LeBron is Bruce Bowen's toughest draw. They also wonder if their team length that bothers most every other team bothers LeBron.
They also say Detroit gave them no clues. The Pistons' defense had so crumbled that the Spurs aren't sure if the Pistons were confused or disinterested.
Given this, the Spurs will try various looks. They will start with Bowen, then blitz a second defender, then try to rotate faster to the open shooters. And then they will try something else.
If the Spurs find an answer, they will squeeze all drama out of the most hyped series they've ever been in. A sweep — with LeBron turning into LeBroom — is possible.
And if the Spurs don't?
Then LeBron will have the kind of nights he had against Detroit. He will turn this Finals into what everyone wants, with the entertainment that is greatness. He will be king for a day, and maybe for two.
And that's the last prediction.
No matter what LeBron does, he won't be king for four.
Wilbon on Cleveland not really rocking in sports …
Don't look here for any Cleveland jokes. If any American city is deserving of the lift in civic spirit that only a sporting championship can deliver, it's Cleveland.
The dearth of team championships mirrors, as longtime residents know, Cleveland's demise as a city, which began just after the Browns won the 1964 NFL championship.
"Every kind of sports disappointment you can have in sports, Cleveland has had it," my friend Brian Dunmore, born and raised in Cleveland, told me the other day. "Buzzer-beating losses in the NBA playoffs, one-out-to-go loss in the World Series, the Browns leaving town, Ernie Davis dying of leukemia without ever getting to play a snap, John Elway leading 'The Drive.' . . . Maybe LeBron delivering the Cavaliers is the sports gods finally saying, 'Enough is enough.' "
Even worse, the city's teams and the city's incredible misfortunes are inseparable.
Cleveland didn't just shrink during the last 50-plus years, it shriveled. It was the nation's fifth-largest city in 1920 and remained in the top 10 through the 1970 census, but after a decades-long exodus it was the 39th-largest city in America in 2005, down from almost 915,000 residents in 1950 to 452,208. Nearly 180,000 people left in the 1970s alone, and the city reportedly lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs. Now, the median household income is 97th among the top 100 cities. The exodus, the 1968 riots and the city defaulting in 1978 led to a heap of ridicule, to the moniker "Mistake by the Lake." In 1972, as local legend has it, Mayor Ralph Perk's wife declined a dinner with President Richard M. Nixon because it interfered with her bowling night.
When the city was going strong, so were its teams. The Browns, filling a vacancy created by the Rams moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles, joined the NFL in 1950 and easily were the team of the decade. They won the title in their inaugural NFL season, and reached seven of the next eight championship games. They had the league's best and most famous player, Jim Brown. Their coach, Paul Brown, essentially invented the modern pro game and begat Bill Walsh, who reinvented it.
The Indians won the World Series in 1948, and six years later won 111 games and made it back to the Fall Classic. Of course, Willie Mays robbed Vic Wertz with his famous over-the-shoulder catch in that '54 Series, in which the New York Giants swept Cleveland. Maybe that was a bit of foreshadowing. The week before the NFL's "Greatest Game Ever Played" in 1958 between the Giants and Colts, the Giants beat the Browns to advance to the championship game. About a year and a half after the Browns won in 1964, Jim Brown retired, and the Indians fell into serious hard times that would last 30 years, until they came back strong in a new stadium in the 1990s. However, they lost to the Atlanta Braves in the '95 World Series and then in 1997 to the expansion Florida Marlins in the 11th inning of Game 7.
The Cavaliers, who arrived through NBA expansion in 1970, nearly had a shining moment in 1976 when they upset the defending conference champion Washington Bullets, but then lost to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. The next time the Cavaliers appeared on the cusp of something big was 1989. Magic Johnson took a long look at the roster of young players (Mark Price, Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams, Craig Ehlo, Larry Nance) and pronounced them the "team of the '90s." That was fine, except Michael Jordan hit that series-winning shot over Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 East quarterfinals, which propelled Jordan and the Bulls and seemed to destroy the young Cavaliers. They succumbed to the Bulls in the 1992 conference finals, were felled by a massive wave of injuries after that and never get close . . . until now.
The Ducks win the Cup …and finally, another of our Pacific Division foes wins something. And make no mistake, they deserved this Cup. A very worthy champion, who should be really good for several years.
Tears streamed down Teemu Selanne's face, dreams meeting reality in a confluence of powerful emotions he was helpless to contain.
After 14 NHL seasons, after a knee injury robbed him of his speed and confidence and nearly ended his career, he had won the Stanley Cup as a member of the Ducks. His name will be engraved on the imposing silver trophy and the letters will be traced by the fingers of champions for generations to come, boys still playing pickup games on the streets of Helsinki, Toronto, and Orange County.
It was too much to grasp. He wept out of joy, out of relief, out of sheer awe that the Ducks had pulled off a 6-2 rout of the Ottawa Senators that made them the Cup champions in a convincing five games.
"It's the biggest dream of my life," the 36-year-old Finn said, his voice wavering. "It's unbelievable. It's everything I hoped it would be.
"I'm so proud of my teammates. We made this happen as a team."
The Ducks were by far the better team Wednesday, as they were for most of this series. They're not from a "traditional" hockey city, but they won this series the old-fashioned way: They outworked the Senators, played stouter defense and got goaltending that was far superior to anything the Eastern Conference champions could muster.
They played for each other, covered for each other and, when it was over, exulted for each other, surrounding goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere in a squirming pile of humanity. The standing-room-only crowd of 17,372 at the Honda Center, as lively as any that ever filled the arena of an Original Six team, roared while streamers dropped from the rafters and championship hats appeared on players' heads as if by magic.
"I feel like I just got off a roller coaster," defenseman Sean O'Donnell said.
"I'm happy, excited, just dizzy. It's been an unbelievable season."
The roars reached a peak when team captain Scott Niedermayer, who was voted the most valuable player in the playoffs, accepted the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman. He lifted the 35-pound trophy as if it were a feather, its newly polished surface reflecting the lights of flash cameras and the gleams of smiles.
He soon passed the Cup to his brother, Rob, a heartwarming gesture with profound meaning. They had been on the opposite sides in 2003, when Scott and the New Jersey Devils defeated Rob and the Ducks in a seven-game series, and Scott's desire to play with his brother had brought him to Anaheim.
Their names will soon be listed together, for posterity.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," Scott said of the etiquette of handing off the Cup. "I guess he's one of the assistant captains. Maybe not quite the seniority, but I figured I could use my rank as captain to make that decision."
Like so many decisions he makes on the ice, that one was precisely right.
From Rob Niedermayer it went to Chris Pronger and then to Selanne, who seemed unwilling to let it go. In fact, he took a second jaunt with it before joining his wife and sons for hugs and a family celebration.
No one begrudged him that extra turn.
"Nobody deserves it more than Teemu. I told him that tonight," said defenseman Joe DiPenta, who filled in admirably on the two occasions Pronger was suspended by the NHL for overzealous hits to an opponent's head.
MLB Draft Day: Evan Breaks it down and is talking High School pitchers …That is all well and good, but if Wieters or LaPorta fall, The Rangers need them. They could both be ready for the big leagues with their awesome bats by next season. Get em.
The Rangers have picks 17 and 24 in the first round of today's draft, which begins at 1 p.m. They also have the 35th, 44th and 54th overall picks in the "sandwich" round as compensation for lost free agents, and No. 80 overall in the second round. The Rangers will pick every 30th turn after that through the 50-round, two-day affair.
"There are a lot of arms that we are interested in," scouting director Ron Hopkins said this week. "I don't want to say we are targeting pitching, but there are a lot of high school arms available, and there are probably more left-handed pitchers at the top of this draft than in a while."
Among the arms aplenty in the first round: Irving right-hander Blake Beavan, who could go as high as No. 13 to Cleveland; Canadian right-hander Phillippe Aumont, Georgia lefty Josh Smoker, Connecticut right-hander Matt Harvey and New Jersey right-hander Rick Porcello.
Among position players, the Rangers are looking at Georgia Tech catcher Matt Wieters, California high school corner infielder Mike Moustakas and Tennessee center fielder Julio Borbon.
Among those last five names are three of the top 10 prospects in the most recent ranking by Baseball America. All of them could be available to the Rangers in the first round.
Why? Each of them is represented by Boras, as are several other potential first-rounders, including Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta and North Carolina State right-hander Andrew Brackman.
If Boras' negotiation process for big league free agents is tough, he is even harder to crack with amateurs. His slow negotiations and demands for "out-of-slot" bonuses pushed Major League Baseball to ask for more club-friendly policies in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
The negotiating window has been significantly reduced, and the structure for bonuses has been emphasized to teams by MLB.
Still, Boras is a creative negotiator whose mere presence scares some teams off. The Rangers have been in and out on Boras clients, but most recently have been willing to deal with him.
The Newberg Report offers its wise thoughts:
THE NEWBERG REPORT
There's very little consensus among the mock drafts this morning as to who the Rangers' picks will be at number 17 and number 24 in the first round, but this is fascinating: Baseball America's Jim Callis has Texas taking Florida high school righthander Michael Main at 17, and New Jersey high school righthander Rick Porcello at 24.
Porcello, a Scott Boras client, touches 98, mixes it with a good change, and in many mocks is projected to be the second pick in the entire draft. I've read at least one assessment that says some scouts call him the best high school righthander in the draft since Josh Beckett, who was the number two overall pick in 1999 and got $7 million and a big league contract from Florida.
Boras was Beckett's advisor, too.
I focus on the Callis mock because he's the man. In 2005, he pegged picks 1 through 18 perfectly, even though the baseball draft is easily the most difficult draft to project.
The pick that broke Callis's mock in 2005 was the Texas choice at number 19. The Rangers chose John Mayberry Jr., while Callis had them taking Travis Buck, who is now starting in the outfield for Oakland.
Teixeira asked again …and answers with his political polish…
As much as Teixeira tries to block out the speculation, he hears the rumors and reads the Internet like everybody else. Some of the more outlandish stuff merits a laugh. Other stuff is a no-brainer, which doesn't necessarily make it true.
Case in point: Baltimore bringing Teixeira back to his hometown.
"That wouldn't be going out on a limb to say I'd like to play in Baltimore," he said. "I don't think anyone needs a Ph.D. to figure that out."
And the struggling Yankees are always a possibility.
For his part, Teixeira says his checklist is short and has nothing to do with
"My biggest thing is that I want to win, plain and simple," he said. "I've been trying to win in Arlington for 4 ½ years and I'm still trying to win in Arlington. That's my goal right now. If I'm traded, whatever team I'm with I'll try to help that team win."
John Clayton rates the top 6 moves this off-season …
1. 49ers sign cornerback Nate Clements: Clements' agent, Todd France, created some nice headlines by revealing the 49ers gave Clements an eight-year, $80 million contract, making him one of the richest defensive players in football. While the actual payout might not allow Clements to top the deal of Champ Bailey of the Broncos, the acquisition should have just as much impact. With Clements and Walt Harris and Shawntae Spencer, coach Mike Nolan can match up against the other teams in the three-receiver crazy NFC West. Clements can take the opponent's top receiver and let Harris and Spencer take the other two. After finishing 26th and 32nd against the pass under Nolan the last two years, it's not out of the question for the 49ers to be in the top 10 against the pass.
2. Patriots sign linebacker Adalius Thomas: Giving Bill Belichick one of the NFL's most versatile defenders is dangerous. Belichick is the best coach in the NFL at finding a player's strength and using it. Thomas, who grabbed a $35 million contract, gives Belichick an unlimited bag of tricks. For the Ravens, Thomas had 28 sacks over the past three years. He can rush the quarterback with his hand on the ground or he can blitz from the linebacker spot. He's also decent in pass coverage. At one of the Patriots' offseason camps, Belichick had Thomas playing the inside linebacker position, giving him a shorter route to rush the quarterbacks on the run.
3. Seahawks sign defensive end Patrick Kerney: Pass-rushers rarely hit the free agent market. Kerney voided the final two years of his deal with the Falcons and hit the open market. Because Kerney's contract wasn't expiring, the Falcons couldn't use their franchise tag on him. Kerney comes to a Seahawks team in desperate need of an additional pass rusher. Over the past three years, the Seahawks have undergone major changes in the secondary. During their Super Bowl year in 2005, the Seahawks patched the second and third cornerback spots with free agents Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson. They now have given way to youngsters Kelly Jennings and Josh Wilson along with veteran Marcus Trufant. Young corners need a consistent pass rush to survive. If they're left in coverage for too long they'll get burned. With Kerney on board, Seahawks defensive coordinator John Marshall can play all kinds of games with his pass-rushers. He has Kerney, with his 10-sack potential on one side, and Bryce Fisher on the other. He can blitz Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson. The Seahawks have the makings of a top-15 defense.
4. Patriots acquire wide receiver Randy Moss: Moss isn't the 100-catch receiver of his Vikings days. It takes him longer routes to get to full speed and when he isn't the main target, he meanders on routes. And if for some reason a pass is thrown low, he might not try as hard to reach it. Still, Moss should be destined for at least a 10-touchdown season working with Tom Brady. Moss was the headliner on the 2005 offseason with his trade to the Raiders, which appeared to be a steal for the Raiders at the time. Two years of losing discouraged him. Moss took a pay cut from $10 million to $3 million for a chance at a Super Bowl ring. All Brady has to do is send Moss on go routes, throw the ball high and wait for Moss to snatch it from the air.
5. Ravens acquire running back Willis McGahee: McGahee might not have all the accomplishments of his predecessor, Jamal Lewis, but he allows Brian Billick to take the Ravens' offense into a new direction. Lewis has limitations. He was a powerful, unstoppable runner, but he wasn't much of a receiving threat. Plus, he did his best work with a fullback. McGahee allows the Ravens to move more into a spread offense and he's excellent out of one-back sets. The Ravens will let him try to catch the ball more than he did in Buffalo. Over the past couple of years, the Ravens used a lot of two- and three-tight end formations. McGahee gives the team younger legs and a chance to expand the offense.
6. Jets acquire running back Thomas Jones: Anytime you can acquire a 1,200- or 1,300-yard back in his prime, you help your offense. Despite going to the playoffs, the Jets ranked 25th on offense and averaged only 19.8 points a game, below playoff standards. Eric Mangini, before his days of making cameos on "The Sopranos," went week-to-week looking for a hot running back and couldn't find one. Jones' specialty is making one cut and going behind a zone blocking scheme. He's an excellent receiver on third downs. Plus, quarterbacks love him because he's a good blocker on passing situations.
This is a very interesting read from Mickey Spagnola: 5 plays that changed everything in 2006 …
Tonight: USA begins its Gold Cup run …tune to Fox Soccer Channel for all the games…
Countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia generally go all out to win their continental championships, but in the past, the United States and Mexico -- the main two soccer powers in the CONCACAF region -- often treated the Gold Cup as more of an opportunity to evaluate young players in a semi-significant competition, as opposed to a life-or-death struggle to win a championship that carries real prestige.
"My goal was to be competitive and try to win, and at same time try to give players a look," said Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena, the former U.S. national team coach who was suspended (too many red cards) for the 2005 Gold Cup final at Giants Stadium. "It's important to give the younger players an opportunity."
New U.S. coach Bob Bradley has the added goal of winning the Gold Cup in order to earn a spot in the Confederations Cup, which will take place in South Africa in 2009, one year before South Africa hosts the next World Cup. The six regional champions, plus the World Cup host and defending champion, will take part in that tournament.
The U.S. and Mexico have been invited to participate as guests in Copa America -- the South American championship -- this summer as well. Copa America begins June 26 -- two days after the Gold Cup final is played at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Bradley was asked in a conference call two weeks ago: Which tournament is the higher priority: the Gold Cup or the Copa America?
"It's a difficult question," said Bradley, an Essex Fells native and former MetroStars and Princeton coach. "I think our answer in the past has always tilted toward the idea that the Gold Cup, given that it's the championship of our region ... perhaps holds a little bit more weight. When we say that, however, we certainly all know and understand the history and significance of Copa America.
"We are absolutely set on trying to compete at the highest levels in both events. We've had to take into account so many different factors in putting these two rosters together, and our goal all along was to have the two best groups ready to go."
In announcing the 23-man roster for the Gold Cup, Bradley did say that "winning the Gold Cup is our most important priority this year." From the looks of it, he seems to have selected a team that is pretty close to the best the U.S. has to offer. Twelve of the 23 players are European-based, and 10 of the 23 were on the 2006 World Cup team. Four other 2006 World Cup vets -- defenders Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey, Chris Albright and Jimmy Conrad -- were unavailable because of injury.
CONCACAF GOLD CUP
WHAT: The biennial tournament to determine the champion of the Confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean.
WHEN: Last night through June 24.
FORMAT: Twelve teams from the region, headlined by the defending champion United States and Mexico, are participating, with the teams divided into three groups of four teams. The first stage is a round robin, in which teams receive three points for a win, one for a tie. The top eight teams advance to the quarterfinals, to be held at Reliant Stadium in Houston, and Gillette Stadium, in Foxborough, Mass. The semifinals and final will be held in Soldier Field in Chicago.
U.S. FIRST-ROUND GAMES: Today, 9 p.m., against Guatemala at Carson, Calif.; Saturday, 5 p.m., against Trinidad at Carson; Tuesday, 7 p.m., against El Salvador at Foxborough, Mass.
HOW SIGNIFICANT A TOURNAMENT IS THIS? It is a regional championship, which is nice. But of equal importance to the U.S. team is that the winner qualifies for the Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009, which the U.S. sees as a dry run for the World Cup, to be held there in 2010. For coach Bob Bradley, it is a chance to look at the players who might make up the core of the roster he uses for World Cup qualifying over the next two years.
Peter Stormare - on the show today at 12:30
LeBron Game 5
Dwight Schrute Tribute