Well, we are off to a great start in the NBA Finals. The Lakers and Kobe must deal with a little adversity, and the Celtics show they aren’t scared to knock down some huge shots in huge situations. Paul Pierce and KG were both up for it. This is going to be fun.
Bob Ryan speaks to his Celtics Nation …
Don't get cocky. Resist the urge to fire off that sarcastic e-mail to your old college roommate currently residing in Reseda. Just appreciate the fact that the championship of the world's greatest basketball league is once again being played in this town and that your Celtics are now one step closer to title No. 17.
It may not go down as a great game, but it was plenty recognizable as NBA basketball, and, in particular, 2007-08 Boston Celtics basketball. Holding the high-powered Los Angeles Lakers to 37 points in the second half, the Celtics defeated their ancient foe by a 98-88 score last night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Kobe Bryant did not go off. But he will. He played a game very reminiscent of the two he came up with in Boston's two regular-season (Yes, we know: pre-Gasol) triumphs, shooting a shaky 9 for 26 while only threatening to take over the game. A few more like that and the Celtics will be making parade plans. Ah, don't count on it.
But there was a little lesson to be gleaned from last night's affair, and that was the following: The Celtics have a guy who can mess up your defensive plans, too.
I'll say it again. Paul Pierce is the most explosive offensive force who has ever put on a Celtics uniform, and he proved it in the third quarter when he scored 15 vital points as the Celtics turned a 51-46 halftime deficit into a 77-73 advantage and were able to protect it in the fourth, when the Lakers were never able to creep closer than 3 points (81-78).
Pierce did his vital third-quarter scoring in two bursts, sandwiched around a mysterious injury to his right knee. He started the third by taking a Kevin Garnett feed and laying in power lefthanded layup. He followed that by up-faking Vladimir Radmanovic, drawing contact, and then banking a three from the far right reaches of the Celtics' kingdom. This time, in contrast to the goings-on in Auburn Hills, Mich., he got the call, and he sank the free throw for an honest-to-God 4-point play. Bryant hit a jumper, but Pierce responded with a jumper in the lane, giving him 8 points in the first 1:13.
"That flurry they came out with in the third quarter put us back on our heels," said Laker mentor Phil Jackson.
The great drama came at the 6:52 mark of the period, when Bryant scored on a runner to cut the Celtics' lead to 62-58 and Pierce went down on the baseline, grabbing his right knee. He looked to be in great distress, and he was carried off the floor. No one had a handle on what had happened, and there was no way to regard this as anything less than The End Of Everything.
The anxiety lasted exactly 1 minute 45 seconds, which is how long it took Pierce to emerge from the locker room. It may have taken the fans a half-second to start thinking about a certain No. 33, who made a dramatic return to action after slamming his head on the ol' parquet in Game 5 of the 1991 Indiana series.
Larry Bird came back strong in that one, and Pierce came back strong in this one. The Lakers were leading, 71-69, on a Kobe right-corner turnaround when Pierce came down and drilled a right-wing three in transition to give the Celtics a lead they would never relinquish. P.J. Brown, whose 21-minute relief stint should have earned him the equivalent of a basketball "Hold," blocked a Lamar Odom baseline drive and Pierce hit a second 3-pointer in transition, sending the joyous crowd into a "Beat LA!" frenzy.
The Celtics have framed themselves as a defensive team all season, which is why neither Doc Rivers nor anyone on his staff was pleased with the Green and White performance in the first half. The Lakers shot 50 percent from the floor, and they had an impressive total of 14 assists affixed to their 19 baskets. Too many people were just too open, and it's never good for a team when Kobe shoots a tepid 3 for 10 and the Lakers are still leading by 5 points (51-46).
But that all changed in the second half, when the Lakers shot 13 for 39. They will, no doubt, cite painful in-and-outs, but the fact is they continually fired and missed.
Bill Plaschke writes back to Los Angeles …
He lay in a heap on the parquet floor, visibly weeping into the silk-suited sleeve of his doctor.
He was pushed in a wheelchair down a narrow back hallway, head down, season over.
Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtics captain, was carried from the opening game of the NBA Finals in the third quarter Thursday with an apparent serious knee injury that momentarily deadened and distracted the Lakers.
At which point, Pierce came running back to finish them off.
To nearly 50 years of delicious Celtics-Lakers lore, add a new apparent bit of chicanery.
Call it the Fake N'Shake.
The Celtics won Game 1, 98-88, on the momentum of a recovery that smacked more of professional wrestling than professional basketball.
When Pierce crumpled on the floor after being apparently faked out of his kneecap by Kobe Bryant with 6:52 left in the third quarter, the Lakers led by four points.
When he returned after just 1:45 had ticked off the game clock, the Celtics led by one.
The "Rocky" theme played. The crowd roared. Pierce hobbled out with drama dripping from every step.
He was so hurt, he immediately began sprinting around the stunned Lakers defenders.
He was in such pain, he hit consecutive three pointers late in the period that gave the Celtics the lead for good.
At which point, a Lakers season filled with colorful adjectives had been reduced to one word.
Afterward, Pierce played the part of the resurrected hero, shaking his head at the wonder of it all.
"You know, I think God sent this angel down and said, 'Hey, you're going to be all right, you need to get back out there, show them what you've got,' " he said.
The Lakers, meanwhile, were just shaking their heads, period.
"You know, you don't know what happens," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said of Pierce. "Guys can break a shoelace and go out, the pants break down, a drawstring falls apart."
Pierce said he heard his knee pop.
"Once I heard the pop, and I couldn't move it at first, I thought that was it," he said.
He was literally carried from the court. While the Lakers were staring at him, the Celtics were being inspired by him.
"I reminded them . . . there will be adversity and you've got to overcome it," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "I said, this is it right here."
The Celtics responded, the Lakers retreated, and the game was never the same.
Rangers get a gem in Justin Smoak …
According to virtually every published scouting report, they may have landed the next Teixeira – or Chipper Jones – by selecting South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak with the 11th overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft Thursday.
The Rangers are having none of it.
"I don't think you want to compare any young player who has never played professional baseball to guys like that," scouting director Ron Hopkins said. "But this is a good player. We said we were going to take the best available player when we picked, and this was the best player."
The Rangers bypassed college lefty Christian Friedrich when Smoak became available, but the Rangers gobbled up three lefties in their next five picks: second-rounder Robbie Ross (57th overall), third-rounder Tim Murphy (83rd overall) and sixth-rounder Richard Bleier (183rd overall).
Maybe the Rangers didn't draw the comparison because they didn't really think they had much chance to grab Smoak, who hit .383 with 23 homers for South Carolina this season. In a draft supposedly deep in talented first basemen, Smoak, 21, was ranked as the top college player at the position by Baseball America. He was ranked as the eighth choice overall. The Rangers expected Smoak to be gone before the draft hit double digits.
But when the Florida Marlins passed on University of Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso to take high school catcher Kyle Skipworth with the sixth pick, it triggered a chain of events that allowed the Rangers to select Smoak.
Smoak is expected to receive more than "slot" money for the No. 11 pick, which is between $1.9 million and $2 million. The Rangers have until Aug. 15 to sign him. If they don't, they will be awarded a first-round pick next year as compensation.
"Our expectation is to do what we can to reach a fair compromise and get him out and playing," general manager Jon Daniels said.
Ross, who has a scholarship to the University of Kentucky, is also expected to receive more than slot money (approximately $550,000). Both Smoak and Ross are being advised by the same representative, Dustin Bledsoe.
Smoak’s bomb versus Clemson
Email predicting problems?
So, have you guys read this little snippit from the Scott Boris boy Justin Smoak where he sounds a bit too much like a certain former first baseman we had here not long ago?
Here is the quote: "I'm ready," Smoak told The State (S.C.) newspaper this week, "I've been here for three years, and you never know, I could definitely be back here for a fourth year. ... If you're going to ask me if I want to sign, I can't tell you it's no. ... But you just never know what's really going to happen."
Edit (10:00am): It should be noted that while the quote may be true, Smoak is represented by Bledsoe, not Boras - Bob
Millwood gives the Rangers a great start …
By the official definition, Kevin Millwood didn't qualify for a quality start Thursday.
Try telling that to the Texas Rangers.
After watching starters wilt in the heat or get bowled over by the gale-force winds that have invaded Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, manager Ron Washington needed one thing – and one thing only – from a starting pitcher. He needed innings. And after a tumultuous start to a 9-4 win over Cleveland, innings are exactly what Millwood gave the Rangers.
In a 36-mph howling wind that often blew dust into the faces of everybody in the stadium, Millwood showed he could adapt to the surroundings. He allowed four runs before getting a second out in the first inning, then retired 15 consecutive batters while the Rangers battled, er, batted their way back into the game.
"You are just seeing determination," said Milton Bradley, who had three hits, including his fourth home run in his last nine at-bats. "He didn't let it all fall apart when it could have. He saved the ballgame."
Millwood, who had his start pushed back a day to attend to a personal matter, said the wind didn't make him alter anything after the first, but catcher Gerald Laird suggested the starter had better balance on the mound. As a result, he had better command, particularly of his sinking fastball.
"I didn't feel like I needed to make an adjustment. I thought the hits they were getting were coming on good pitches," Millwood said. "I wanted to make sure I didn't try too hard in the second."
The sinker came in handy in the sixth when Cleveland threatened again. After the Rangers tied it at 4, the Indians loaded the bases with three singles. But with two outs, Millwood got Shin-Soo Choo to swing through a sinking fastball to end the inning. Millwood let rip a little emotion after the strikeout.
And the Rangers let out a little cry of relief. The Rangers had gone three straight games without a starter reaching the fifth inning. The last thing the Rangers needed was to go to the bullpen early again.
The Euros are Here! …In High Definition!
The 16-nation tournament kicks off Saturday and should be the most competitive yet. It is being jointly staged by Austria and Switzerland, but it is neighboring Germany that could carry off the silverware.
Greece comes in as the defending champion, having upset host Portugal in the Euro 2004 final in Lisbon, but the Greeks were a surprise winner, an 80-to-1 longshot, and this time the traditional powers are favored.
Otto Rehhagel, the German who coached the Greeks to their title and is seeking to repeat, said the favorites should be, "the usual gallery of Italy, France, Spain and Germany."
Despite Greece's victory in 2004 and Denmark's similar surprise in 1992, Sweden Coach Lars Lagerback argued that "if you look at it historically, one of the big nations is likely to come out on top."
That means three-time winner Germany. That means former winner and reigning world champion Italy. That means two-time winner and 2006 World Cup runner-up France. That means, well, no, it doesn't actually mean Spain because the Spanish traditionally find a way to lose.
But it could mean the Netherlands, who haven't won since 1988, when Galaxy Coach Ruud Gullit was on the team, along with current Dutch Coach Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, the third member of the all-conquering trio.
Chances are that by the time the final is played at Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna on June 29, it will be the Germans and the Italians, or the Germans and the French or the Germans and the Dutch, who will be taking the field.
Either way, the Germans figure on being there.
"There are many teams that are a little better than us in terms of technical quality or individual talent, but I believe that our enthusiasm and team spirit can compensate," German midfielder Michael Ballack said.
The continent's top player at the moment is Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, whose goals led Manchester United to the English Premier League and European Champions League titles over Ballack's Chelsea.
Portugal Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached Brazil to its 2002 World Cup triumph, said Ronaldo could crown an astonishing season with a victory in Vienna.
"I expect him to have a great Euro 2008 and prove himself to be the best player in the world," Scolari said.
All 31 matches are sold out and the tournament will be shown live in the U.S. on one or another of ESPN's platforms.
Euro 2008 TV Listings …Weekend Action:
Jun-07 01:30pm Portugal - Turkey
Jun-07 10:50am Switzerland - Czech Republic
Jun-08 01:30pm Germany - Poland
Jun-08 10:50am Austria - Croatia
Red Sox – Rays Fight from last night