Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Tuesday, June 6, 2006
Page 2 Quickie: June 5, 2006


 
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
FINALLY.  GREAT.

Desperately needed after 2005's Spurs-Pistons dud of appeal, these Finals represent the most entertaining pairing (at least, on paper) since the Jordan Era.

Since '99, there have been five truly entertaining Finals teams out of 14 total: The '99 Knicks and the 4 Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers teams.

Those five teams were never matched up with particularly energizing opponents:

*The Regulars like the Spurs (no personality) and the Pistons (no O), who won titles but did it stultifyingly. (Please save your talk about "Right Ways" and "Big Fundamentals." Fans vote with the remote.)

*The One-Hit Wonders like the '00 Pacers and '01 Sixers, who might have had star power (Reggie Miller, Allen Iverson), but who also had no chance of winning.

*And, finally, the Nets, worthy of their own brutal category for having the distinction of being swept by the Lakers in 2002, followed by pairing with the Spurs in 2003 for the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever.

But this year offers a pairing unique to this decade: Both teams bring a high entertainment value, along with bonafide fan and expert uncertainty about a result.

Miami offers the star wattage of those great Lakers teams (no surprise: Shaq), but replaces the petulant Kobe with the sublime Dwyane Wade. It showcases fading stars desperate for one last shot at a ring (Payton, Mourning). And it features a telegenic coach, Pat Riley, managing his historic third different NBA Finals team.

But unlike previous years, this time there's an almost equally compelling team on the other side:

Dirk Nowitzki has had a breakthrough, "call-me-by-first-name-only" season: 3rd-place finish in MVP voting, followed up with the top individual performance of the playoffs so far: Coming off his worst game of the season, his 50-point game in pivotal Game 5 vs. the Suns.

The team is led by the NBA Coach of the Year, Avery Johnson, in his first full season, no less. And the deep roster is layered with castoffs (Keith Van Horn), malcontents (Jerry Stackhouse), and reclamation projects (DeSagana Diop).

Meanwhile, off the court (and sometimes standing just a few feet away from it), the Mavs showcase Mark Cuban, the best (and most enthusiastic) owner in sports. This is the stage Cuban has been waiting for since he became an NBA owner. The series' off days might be more entertaining than the games; it'll be hilarious to watch Cuban take on Shaq, Riley and -- undoubtedly -- the entire city of Miami.

Mavs depth or Heat glitter? There isn't even fan consensus:

On SportsNation's official poll, 58 percent of fans think the Mavs will win the series. But on ESPN.com's front-page poll, the split is 53-47 in favor of the Heat. (I agree: I have a man-crush on Cuban, but how does Dallas solve Shaq? Miami in 6.)

Regardless, 88 percent of fans think the series will be a "good" one (with 34 percent predicting a "classic").

And between the star power, the novelty of TWO first-time Finalists, the personalities and -- best of all -- the uncertainty over the result, this has the potential to be the perfect capper to the best NBA playoffs season of the decade.

MLB: Pu-HURT?!
"Pujols 74" derailed! And I thought "oblique" only referred to the baseless allusions from cynics about the source of Pujols' power.

Now, he's going on the 15-day DL for the first time in his career -- and it will be enough of a delay to derail his assault on Bonds' 73.

(Of course, I'm bummed: I had been looking forward to that being the big conversation in baseball later this season. The new top contender for "Hottest Topic?" I'd say Clemens.)

Braves woes: Foreshadowing? It's dangerous to read too much into things, but maybe it's a signal of the impending end of the Braves' divisional dynasty that they suffered a 4-game sweep for the first time since '95. Bobby Cox called it "the worst series we have ever had here."

(Meanwhile, maybe it's also a signal that the 1st-place D'backs are legit; it was Arizona's first-ever 4-game sweep in Atlanta.)

Halladay as "Robo-pitcher": That's what Rays manager Joe Maddon called him after the Jays ace stifled Tampa (8 IP, 5 H, 2 ER), racking up a 6-0 record in 9 GS since returning from early-season injury. His AL Cy to lose?

(Speaking of robo-pitchers, the Padres' Chris Young has been automatic in his last two starts: 16 IP, 0ER, 3H, 12K, 3BB. Remember: the Padres stole Young from the Rangers for Adam Eaton, who has yet to pitch this season.)

Game of the Day: Sox-Yanks. (What else?) The big question is the Yankees' health: Jeter is expected to play after suffering yet another injury to his hand by a ball; A-Rod and Giambi are more questionable, both suffering stomach viruses. (Wait: I think the medical term is "Butterflies?")

Softball World Series
Northwestern women's sports have done a 180-degree turn. Wow, have they ever:

Midway through May, it hit a low point when pictures of women's soccer hazing rituals were posted online, sparking ugly "Jocks Gone Wild!" PR and forcing the team to issue an apology after being suspended by the school.

Since then, the dominant women's lacrosse team won a back-to-back national title; their most scandalous moment came in 2005 when some team members wore flip-flops to the White House.

(Ahh, the good old days when "LAX scandal" meant open-toed shoes at a reception.)

Now, Northwestern women's athletics gets a second boost: The softball team upended perennial power UCLA and will face Arizona for the best-of-3 College Softball World Series title, beginning tonight (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2).

NU proves the best antidote for humiliation is championships. Now, speaking of college lacrosse scandals ...

Duke LAX: Return?

If Duke is going to reinstate the team, as early as this week, I'd suggest the following conditions:

*Nightly midnight curfew

*No more than two players may live together (no team "houses")

*Random blood-alcohol tests

*Recruiting oversight board

*"Voluntary" community service

I'm not treating them like criminals. I'm treating them like a group of players whose team culture is so broken that everyone should agree that it deserves to be TRIED to be fixed.

Pistons: What Next?
Re-signing Ben Wallace seems like a no-brainer (even though he couldn't stop his top rival when it mattered), so the Pistons are left with one truly burning offseason question:

What, if anything, do they do about Flip Saunders?

His first year started so well ("HE'S no Larry Brown!") and ended so badly ("He's NO Larry Brown!"). Based on the way things went downhill, I might suggest a new nickname: "Flip Squanders."

Question: Is this otherwise stable franchise ready to dump its coach after one year for, say, Bill Laimbeer?

World Cup Mania!
Kicking off a week of Quickie World Cup previews!

Today: Top 5 Storylines

1. Jogo Bonito

In Portuguese, it means "beautiful game," and it represents the way that Brazil plays: For a U.S. sports equivalent, imagine if you combined the tricks from "Streetball" with the talent of an NBA All-Star roster. Brazil is the overwhelming favorite.

2. U.S. Step Forward or Back?
Here's an irony: This U.S. squad might be the most talented since the team hit the scene in 1994. And yet, they'll be hard-pressed to match 2002's run into the quarterfinals. Placement in this Cup's "Group of Death" (with Italy, Ghana and the Czechs) has experts bearish on their prospects for advancement. Is experience a consolation prize?

3. The Scourge of Racism
Unapologetic fan racism against players (mostly in Europe) is the biggest embarrassment in worldwide sports today. And how will FIFA react?

4. The World (Wide Web) Cup
With almost every game taking place during daytime (work) hours in the U.S., fans (who care) will follow the action online, creating the potential for a surprise office sensation.

It won't be nearly the workday event that the first two days of the NCAA Tournament are, but instant online highlights and analysis at work might do more for fan interest than if the games were on TV at night, to be ignored at home.

5. And Yet: Do You Even Care?
While the rest of the world takes the month off to follow the tournament, most fans in the U.S. don't (or can't or won't) understand the mania. Other reasons to watch: Goal celebrations, hairstyles, fan insanity.

To really catch on in the U.S., I've got two words for fans who want their friends and colleagues to care about the World Cup: Office pool.

Even if you know nothing about soccer, you can't resist picking a bracket in your office pool. The round-robin opening round makes a bracket difficult, but the 16-team knockout rounds set it up perfectly.