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A Sublime Durant Barely Falls Short in Sweep Attempt Over Houston
      Serge Ibaka falls to the floor, utterly distraught at missing the putback layup to tie the game…Houston lives, the Rockets survive. 
38 pts, 8 rebs, 6 dimes, 12-16 from the floor, and 13-15 from the stripe…but it wasn’t quite enough from KD as Houston edged the Thunder at home to force a game 5. In keeping with his effiecient, smart play, Durant passed when he was well-guarded (hounded!) with under 10 seconds on the clock, and passed the rock to Mr. October, Reggie Jackson (for you youngsters out there, look up ‘Reggie Jackson Yankees’ on Google to learn). R Jax drove and missed a layup (due to a massive collision with Omer Asik…refs whistles swallowed) and Ibaka missed the putback, leading to a citywide celebration in Houston. It wasn’t The Beard who spearheaded the Rocket effort (he double-doubled with 15 pts, 10 turnovers…just 1 reb and 3 dimes)…rather, it was Chandler Parsons (27/10/8 asst), a rock solid effort from Asik (17/14), and some clutch shooting from the always dour-faced Carlos Delfino (13 pts, 3-5 from distance). The Mangy Mutt hit some big 3’s for OKC (4-5 from downtown), and Jackson otherwise was pretty nice in the game (18, 4 rebs, 3 asst, 2 stl), but it wasn’t enough to beat the highly motivated Houston squadron.
ATL 102, INDY 91 – The Joshua Tree (29/11/4, 3 stl) finally awoke from his relative playoff slumber to lead the Hawks to their 2nd straight win in the series and tie things up at 2 apiece. Before last night, Smith hadn’t had a 20 pt gm or a single block in the playoffs. Smith tends to be very on or off in the playoffs – I remember when Boston won the title in 2008, Atl pushed them to a game 7 in round 1, and the Joshua Tree was simply awful in the game – 3-11, 5 turnovers (many very sloppy and early), only 4 boards and the Hawks were routed 99-65. Last night he had 16 free throw attempts (making only 9) – a surprisingly big number for a guy who averaged just 4.2/gm during the regular season (shooting a career-worst, by a mile, 51.7%!!). The Hawks will need a very strong, aggressive Mr. Smith to win this series vs. the Pacers, who got 21/12 & 4 stls from Paul George in this game, but he was quite poor in the first half, allowing the Hawks to build up a 17 point halftime advantage.
BKN 110, CHI 91 – Lopez was dominant inside (28/10) and D-Will (23/10) did his thing as the Nets stayed alive (CHI up 3-2 now), coming off that ridiculous triple OT game Saturday afternoon. No one else on Brooklyn scored more than 13 pts, as their $20m Man, Joe Johnson, had just 11 pts, 3 rebs, 1 dime, and 0 free throw attempts. Johnson is wrapping up his 12th season in the league, turns 32 this summer, and this season notched his lowest scoring (16.3), diming (3.5), and shooting % (43.2) numbers since 2002-03. His rebounding numbers (3.0) were his lowest since his rookie year. And Brooklyn traded to acquire this debacle of a contract – owed just under $70m over the next 3 seasons! Supposedly the panicking Nets had to do something to keep D-Will from walking last summer. If I was D-Will, I would have walked as soon as they made this ridiculous move. Of course, because it’s such an awful contract, all the Nets gave up for him was a poo poo platter of NBA driftwood (Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, and 2 others) as well as a 1st round pick in this years draft. Anyway…I’m getting off topic here, as I love to do when it comes to awful contracts. This series seems to be pretty evenly matched, and there’s a vague rumor out there about D Rose coming back if the Bulls advance to round 2 – so go Chicago!
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Kevin Durant —  38 pts, 8 rebs, 6 asst, 13 FTM, 1 stl, 0 blk, 1 trey, and 12-16 shooting…KD did join the 50/40/90 Club this year (51.0%/41.6%/90.5%), and I’m guessing his total pts, treys, and free throws were among the highest of any members of that rather exclusive club. Only Bird would have been close.
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Kendrick Perkins —  0 pts, 1 rebs, 0 asst, 0 FTM, 0 stl, 0 blk, 0 treys, and 0-1 shooting in 9 minutes of floor time…He did manage 4 turnovers and 4 fouls. The slow, lumbering Perkins just doesn’t fit in the up-n-down game that these two teams play, even in the post-season. He’s scored 10 pts so far in 73 minutes this series.
P.S. NBA Eye for The Gay Guy
Ok…so there’s lots of ‘buzz’ about the first ‘active’ pro hoopster ‘coming out’. I have to admit – I didn’t even know about it when I wrote up the Awards yesterday. When I heard on the radio driving into work, my first thought was ‘whoa…what are the odds? We both went to the same high school’ (though I left after 8th grade…and was there 10 years ahead of him). I gotta say…social issues related to sports largely bore me to tears. I like sports, and enjoy writing about sports – not sexual preferences. And how active is he anyway? He was always an extremely limited role player and might very well have played his last game in the league. And as politically taboo and incorrect as it may be, sports remain the domain of testosterone laden, macho, ego-driven guys who will always want to call a lame play, lame player, and lame team ‘gay’. No offense to those who swing that way, but that’s the way it is. One of my favorite guys to compete against in volleyball, tennis, and paddle tennis – a great man with a large heart and a huge zest for life and sports and competition – used to love to call any of my failed plays ‘gay’, ‘queer’, or belonging in West Hollywood…and I loved the smack talk, and loved Joe Gardner, God rest his soul. Amen to that issue.
Kobe – NBA Awards Irony
      Just on Thursday 4/11 I asked if Kobe had sold his soul for hoops immortality, and pointed out how amazing his production was considering 1,458 games under his belt. Well Father Time  and The Law of Consequences came visiting in game # 1,459 – snap goes the achilles heel. After playing 48, 47, 43, 47, 41, 48, and then all 45 minutes of the Warriors game Fri night, his 34 year old tendon snapped. And of course, being Kobe, he snapped as well – like an angry dog cornered by fate, unwilling to accept reality. He ranted on Facebook immediately afterwards, and then he took issue with an LA Times front page article (THE FRONT PAGE, not Sports page) that raised the very legitimate question of whether he’d ever be the same player again. He responded to that on Twitter with “…I’m keeping track of all doubters and haters#Mambamentality”. Hey Kobe…you’ll be well over 35 when you come back from this and embarking upon your 18th season – quite fair and natural to bring up the incredibly obvious question – Will Kobe Ever be the Same? That’s not hating. 
      As well, he called Pau at halftime to give him a pep talk during last night’s quite ugly contest with the Spurs that the Lakers ended up winning 91-86. Can you ever just chill, Kobe? Go away…rehab and shut up…let your teammates (who are grown men, not some youth team you’re coaching) do their thing and find their way. There is at least one hater out there – ME!! 
Other Games
With just 3 days left in the regular season, one line from one game last night tells you all you need to know – Cole Aldrich notched career-highs in Pts (12), Rebs (12), and Blks (4) last night for the Kings, while the team lost big regardless, 121-100 to Houston. His season highs before this game were 6, 6, and 2 in those three categories, and his career numbers are 1.9 pts, 2.2 rebs in 4 seasons. He’s like a poor man’s Eric Montross…and Eric Montross was basically a big white stiff. Bring on the playoffs…
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Andre Iguodala  —  28 pts, 7 rebs, 9 asst, 4 FTM, 3 stl, 3 blk, 2 treys, and 11-17 shooting…Iggy did it all last night for Denver, as they beat Portland 118-109 (Lillard strong for Port – 30/5/6). Iggy has really stepped up his play-making lately, averaging 8 dimes/gm over his last 10. His scoring has been quite down though, as that’s only his 2nd 20+ effort since Feb 2nd. In that span, he’s had 11 single-digit scoring efforts while only 4 games of 15+ pts. Ty Lawson is back for the Nuggets, but they did lose Faried yesterday to a sprained ankle (should be ok for Playoffs). The other night I was talking with some buddies about Denver’s chances as a sleeper in the post-season, and a cc’d Awards reader asked me who takes the big shots late in a tight game for them. I only half jokingly replied Wilson Chandler. Wilson has his moments, but also nights like last night…3-13. It’s a very valid question, and will likely be Denver’s achilles heel in these playoffs come round 2. Just to bother Laker fans, I’m gonna mention ‘achilles heel’ as much as possible over the next two months…
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Tyler Zeller —  0 pts, 2 rebs, 0 asst, 0 FTM, 0 stl, 0 blk, 0 treys, and 0-6 shooting in 24 minutes…Ahh – another big white stiff…from Montross to Aldrich to Zeller. This is the 2nd straight game Zeller has played over 20 minutes and failed to score. He’s shooting 43.7% on the year, and he’s 7 feet tall. In over 26 minutes a night, he’s pulling down just under 6 rebs/gm, while falling just short of 1 block (.9/gm). He was the 17th player selected in the 2012 Draft, which is looking more and more like a very subpar draft year. Lillard, A Davis, Beal, and Drummond look like potential All-Stars (definitely Lillard…you’d hope for Davis eventually – completely forgettable rookie year), but outside of those 4, there’s a lot of proving to do. Barnes put up quite modest numbers in 25+ min/night, Rivers was tragic at #10 overall, MKG has plenty to prove as the #2 pick, but Mo Harkless at #12 has shown flashes here and there. When I looked for a guy Cleveland definitely should have taken over Zeller at #17, there wasn’t much out there, despite Zeller’s weak performance this year. Festus Ezeli has filled in ok for Golden St., but he’s a limited guy…maybe Perry Jones in OKC eventually develops…Will Barton has been quite dynamic lately (17/9/5 last night, 22/13/6 a week ago) and could end up being a major steal at #40 overall for Portland, but there’s not a whole lot else. 
Took my boys to the game…5 & 7 yrs old…great night:
 – Found $8 parking…nice bonus, well off Clipper official parking rates.
 – The 3 of us couldn’t quite finish off a $17 Jack In The Box order by the time we parked.
 – Inside we find the big merchandise store, and open space where both boys are furiously dribbling balls, against store rules and fully supported by dad – ‘guys, don’t dribble too wild or you’ll get caught’ – which they eventually did. 7 yr old has a nice handle.
 – Seats are just a tad behind baseline opposite the Clipper bench, lowest bowl…great angle on the action at that end. Thanks StubHub.
 – Fans getting a thrill out of Gerald Green, Paul George, Blake, Bledsoe, and somewhat Lance Stephenson putting on quite a dunk show in warm-ups…boys are LOVING it.
 – Boys are amping for the start of gm, and when it comes, it’s a crusher.
 – Clips immediately down 10-0 as first play is bad omen – Paul George steal and breakaway dunk. It would be a theme for George, who had 4 in the game and gave one of his biggest fans (me) a nice present – 23/6/10, 4 stl, 1 blk, 2 treys, and 7 FTM…one of the dimes was a great driving, falling down, bounce pass right before George hits the ground for a layup – athletic play by PG.
 – Hibbert is EN FUEGO, and goes 7-7 in the 1st Q for 15 pts…very nice touch, smooth release, too tall to guard. 26/10, 11-14 FGs before fouling out with 1:35 left.
 – Clips cut it to 3, but it gets back to 8 by halftime, 51-43.
 – Indy opens the 3rd and blitzes the Clips 28-12 out of the gate (24 pt lead) – George is on fire, but my 5 yr old is fading after cheering himself out in the 1st Q…I explain that it’s likely we’re gonna leave with 7 or 8 min left in the 4th, Pacers up by 20+, so try to hang in there…
 – Clippers wake up and get a little frisky, but it’s still 81-65 end of 3rd…Pacers fans feeling good.
 – Clippers continue slowly chipping away, Bledsoe playing well…looking like a taller Barry Sanders playing hoops (and yes, Sanders was a bad-ass hoopster who loved to play – imagine trying to guard him – no thanks!). The more I see of Bledsoe the more he reminds me of an NFL running back who’s really good at hoops…a bigger Nate Robinson, who has major football bloodlines at Washington.
 – The clawback on the large lead is done mostly by Clips bench.
 – 10 pt lead Indy, 8 min to play…fans getting very into it, much louder…5 yr old can’t stand the noise while the 7 yr old is screaming along, impressing the fans around us with his over-the-top enthusiasm, and eventually loses his voice by the end of the 4th Q.
 – 5:41 to go when Odom makes a great pass to Ryan Hollins for a dunk…95-86.
 – Just two min later, 3:38  – a Crawford trey makes it a 4 pt game, 97-93. Crowd is crazy.
 – Lead goes back-n-forth between 4 & 2 pts up until a P. George foul pre-inbound that gave Clips a free throw and the ball, now down 107-104 only 9 sec left. Barnes puts back a CP3 trey miss…George hits 2 free throws at the other end, about 2 sec left…Clips heave the ball down court to Blake, great catch and immediate pass to a wide open Lamar Odom top of the key…and miss…Pacers win 109-106.
 – note on George at free throw line: my 7 yr old was imploring me to boo him, but I explained I can’t boo ‘my guy’.
 – 5 yr old note: after whining and moaning much of the last 3 quarters, he is a burst of energy walking out of the stadium well past 10pm…running all over the place like a scatback…very lively, quick feet. Funny to watch…reminded me of ‘Smear the Queer’ from 7th grade (1981-82), all the kids running crazily in all directions. How un ‘PC’ is that name now?…ahhh, the good old days.
Other Games
Kind of pressed for time, but noticed some very ‘end of season’ stuff happening in box scores: Telfair getting 18 min of PT…Irving DNP – Rest…a depleted Olo squad going all-in on youth withHarkless (28 pts) & Harris (18/11/4, 3 blk) showing very nice game last night…Spurs didn’t play Duncan, K Leonard, or Manu last night (92-90 loss to Griz)…in what could have a been a huge Easter Day game between Mia & S.A., Miami sat Wade & Lebron, and even Chalmers didn’t play, but they still won…Finally, just cuz I like this scrappy team of underdogs, I noticedMilwaukee crushed Charlotte last night and Larry Sanders set another career-high in scoring (24), to go along with 13 rebs. Monta went off for 14 dimes, 6 stl & 50% (7-14) shooting in the win…oh…and the Jazz kept the pressure on the Lakers by beating Portland Monday…Al-Jeff & Favors were nice, while Mo-Will flashed back (20/9 asst) at PG.
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Paul George  —  23 pts, 6 rebs, 10 asst, 7 FTM, 4 stl, 1 blk, 2 treys, and 7-15 shooting…Had to. Treat to watch him play. For the season, he’s at 17.9/7.7/4.1 & 1.8 stls, but still just 42.7% shooting.
The Rafael Araujo Award —   Kyle Singler —  5 pts, 1 rebs, 0 asst, 2 FTM, 0 stl, 0 blk, 1 trey, and 1-5 shooting in 19 minutes…Singler has had some hot stretches this year, but his last 10 games is not one of them – 9.0, 4.4 rebs, .8 asst, and 39.8% shooting in almost 30 min/night. It’s been Stuckey who’s been better of late on Det – 15/2.7/3.5 and 47% in his last 10 gms.
Friday Night Highlights/Postscripts
1) Wizards Rally from 18 Down Behind Wall, Ariza to Defeat Lakers 103-100 — John Wall was stellar (24/6/16, 3 stl, just 1 T/O) and Trevor Ariza hit 4 of his career-best 7 treys in the 4th Q as the Wizards improved to 7-26 on the road after defeating the Lakers at Staples Fri night. The Lakers had welcomed back Pau (2-10, 4 pts, 8 rebs in 20 min) and Kobe (21/11 asst, 6 T/Os) in the game and taken an 18 pt lead late in the 2nd Q, but it wasn’t enough as Wall did what he wanted against Steve Nash, and Ariza reminded the Lakers that they should have kept him in the summer of 2009 instead of signing Artest (9 pts, 4 rebs, 0 stl, 0 free throw att). Postscript Saturday: The Wiz traveled north to Golden St. but their Fri night heroes were sick (Ariza had flu, didn’t play) and hotheaded (Wall got tossed for having words w/ Klay Thompson), and they couldn’t stop Stephen Curry anyway (35/8, 2 stl, 13-18) in a 101-92 loss.
2) Miami Comes From Behind Again for 25th in a Row — Not nearly as dramatic as the Boston & Cleveland comebacks, but the Heat did have to erase a 7 pt 2nd half deficit against Detroit before going on to win 103-89. LeBron only missed 3 of his 15 shots in ending up at 29/8/8, while Greg Monroe paced the Pistons with 23/15/6. Postscript Sunday: No drama, no comebacks, and even no Wade…just domination in their 26th in a row – 109-77 over the Bobcats. LeBron went nuts (more below) while Wade rested a sore knee. Side note in the game, Former Fab Fiver Juwon Howard became the 20th player at 40 or older to appear in an NBA game when he played late.
3) Moe Harkless Magical in Magic’s 6th Straight Loss — The Magic lost 97-89 to OKC but it was a lot closer than that, as OKC’s lead was only 90-88 with under 40 seconds left. Rookie SF Moe Harkless led the Magic attempt at a major upset with 25 pts, 9 rebs, 4 stl, & 4 blk while playing 45 minutes in the contest. Durant (25/8 rebs, 3 stl/2 blk) & Westy (19/6/9, 2 stl/2 blk) did their thing and Ibaka emerged from his slump as well (14/13, 5 blk) in the game. Postscript Sunday: No troubles at all vs. Portland for the Thunder, 103-83 as OKC outscored the Blazers by 22 in the 2nd half. Again – Westy (21/4/9) & KD (24/10, 2 stl) led the Thunder while Ibaka scored 16 and notched another 5 rejections.
4) Alan Anderson Careers for Raptors, But Trumped By Melo’s 37 — The journeyman Anderson, covered more than once in the Awards this year, went nuts against the Knicks, hitting 11-18 and 7-8 from the stripe in scoring 35 pts, but Melo outscored him by 2 to lead NY to a 99-94 win in Toronto. Kenyon Martin, who’s been out of the league most of this season, started for the Knicks (no Amare or Tyson) and responded with a strong 19 & 11. Postscript Saturday: It was a weekend home-n-home miniseries, this time in NY, and the Knicks again prevailed, this time easily as Melo (28/8 rebs) and K-Mart (18/7/2 blks) kept up their strong play while Toronto was missing Rudy Gay (bad back) and Anderson reverted to his journeyman form – 14 pts, 5-14 shooting.
5) Jennings (1-15) & Reddick (1-11) Historically Awful as Pacers Crush Bucks — Indiana turned a 2 pt halftime lead into a 24 point rout at home vs. the Bucks as the two Milwaukee guards shot atrociously. I say historic, but I’m not sure exactly of the history behind two teammates each attempting at least 10 shots and both shooting under 10%. I’m guessing it’s quite rare. Paul George (20/8/6) and Tyler Hansbrough (22/12 – West still out) did the heavy damage for the Pacers. Saturday Postscript – Indy: Lost a tight one at Chicago as Luol Deng came alive (20/7 rebs) and Carlos Boozer (18/10) led the Bulls to the upset win. George again led Indy with 23/11/3 stl while Roy Hibbert played big as well (18/12), but PG George Hill (11/1/2, 3-8 FGs in 33 min) was quite poor. Postscript Sunday – Bucks: Another big matchup with Atlanta as the Bucks try to climb out of the 8 spot in the East, but the Hawks beat them again, this time 104-99 behind big nights from Al Horford (24/7/6) and the Joshua Tree (23/9/4, 2 stl/2 blk). Ironically, Jennings and Reddick each shot the same amount of shots they shot Fri night (15 and 11 respectively), and also like Friday, they each made the same amount – just 4 this time.
Saturday Night Highlights/Postscripts
1) Clippers Notch Big Home Win Over Nets — The Clippers aren’t having too much trouble beating Eastern playoff teams, as their Sat night 101-95 win over the Nets was their 5th in a row, dating back to Feb 10th. Their last loss to an Eastern playoff squad was to the Heat on the 8th of Feb. CP III had a big night (29/11 asst, 2 stl/2 blk), with 17 of his pts coming in the 4th Q. DeAndre Jordan was also big (13/12/3 blk) as Blake was rather quiet on the night (11/7/4). Reggie Evans grabbed 16 boards for Brooklyn. Postscript Sunday: The Nets next visited Phoenix and got quite a battle from the Suns before emerging victorious, 102-100, surviving a near triple-double from Goran Dragic (31/9/12). D-Will had 20 & 11 dimes while Kris Humphries, practically invisible all season, contributed 17 & 8 off the bench.
2) Denver Wins 15th in a Row, 101-95 over Kings – And in typical Denver style, all their starters hit double figures but no one on the team scored 20. Gallo (19/8/4, 3 stl) was their star, while DeMarcus Cousins did all he could (24/15/5 blk) to derail the Nuggets winning streak. Postscript Sunday: The Kings lost again, this time a blowout at home to Philly, 117-103. Cousins dipped sharply (8/9/1 blk, 3-9 shooting) while Isaiah Thomas (25/3/0, 0 stl, 0 blk) and Marcus Thornton (22/0/1, 0 stl, 0 blk) battled hard for the Hollow Man Award, Thornton edging out his teammate. Jrue (21/10/7, 5 stl) was stellar for the 76ers as two of his far lesser-known teammates also posted surprise 20+ efforts – Lavoy Allen (20/7 rebs in 22 min) and Dorell Wright (22/6 asst in 30 min).
Sunday Action: Houston Upsets San Antonio on Harden Jumper – James Harden (29/9/6, 2 stl/2 blk) made a living at the line in this game (15-17), so it was only fitting that his game-winning jumper with just under 5 seconds left would also come near the charity stripe, giving Houston the 96-95 win at home. Tim Duncan (17/7, 2 blk) missed a jumper from the wing in his attempt to give S.A. their 5th straight win. Tony Parker had 23/4/7 and 2 blks in his second game back from a sprained ankle, while Chandler Parsons helped out Harden with 20 & 8 rebs…..Chicago beat Minnesota 104-97 as Boozer (19/12/4), Jimmy Butler (20/9/3 stl) and Nate Rob (22/10 asst) did the heavy damage for the Bulls. Derrick Williams (28/5, 2 stl/2 blk) and Ricky Rubio (15/5/8) led the T-Wolves…..Dallas beat Utah 113-108, as the Jazz seem to be completely uninterested in making the playoffs, now just 3-12 in their last 15 games. No one on either team had 20 pts, 10 rebs, or 10 dimes…..
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Lebron James  —  32 pts, 8 rebs, 10 asst, 10 FTM, 3 stl, 3 blk, 0 treys, and 11-14 shooting…So James has now hit 23 of his last 29 shots over his last two games as the Heat make the 1971-72 Lakers sweat out their record 33-game winning streak. Miami starts a 4 game road trip today at Orlando, visiting Chicago and New Orleans next before the big Easter Sunday Showdown with San Antonio in Texas.
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Ben Gordon —  0 pts, 2 rebs, 0 asst, 0 FTM, 1 stl, 0 blk, 0 treys, and 0-7 shooting in 16 minutes. Gordon had a very streaky, hot-n-cold playoff series against the Celtics in Derrick Rose’s rookie year which convinced Joe Dumars that he was a $10m/yr guy, despite the fact that he’d shot exactly 41% from the floor the prior two seasons, was an undersized SG, and wasn’t known much for his passing, rebounding, or defense. His 3 years in Detroit were abysmal, highlighted by year #1 when he shot 32.1% from the floor!! Detroit was able to unload him upon Charlotte last summer, but only because they threw in a future 1st round draft pick as well, receiving the decaying corpse of Corey Maggette in the deal.
P.S. Congrats to all Bruin fans and alums who lost a major sourpuss, grump, and personality-challenged coach this weekend. Too bad for you all that it took this long. Let’s hope he finds a nice job as a Division II assistant.
76ers Snatch Defeat From Jaws of Victory, Hawes Continues to Play Like Another Spencer H.
      Philadelphia was 10 seconds and a 5 point lead away from a major upset in Denver, attempting to snap the Nuggets 13 game winning streak. But then Corey Brewer, a would-be Hollow Man Award winner (29 pts, 1 reb, 0 asst) except that he had 5 stls & a block, took over. He first hit a trey w/ 9 sec left, and then fouled Evan Turner 2 seconds later. Turner found a bone in his throat and missed both free throws…100-98 Philly, 7 sec left. Brewer then launches a trey, and, unbelievably, was fouled by journeyman Damien Wilkins (Gerald’s son, Dominique’s nephew). Corey hit all 3 free throws, and then Wilkins’ desperation shot at the buzzer was blocked by seldom-used but always talented Anthony Randolph to enable the Nuggets to steal the game, their 14th win in a row.
      As for Spencer Hawes, it’s probably a stretch to compare him to the other Spencer H., Spencer Haywood, the flamboyant hoops prodigy who dominated the ABA his rookie season (30.0/19.5 rebs) and had four 20/10 NBA seasons before cocaine derailed his career in the late 70’s. Their personalities are basically at opposite ends of the spectrum, and games quite different, but nonetheless, Hawes has continued his surprisingly dominant stretch of hoops, going off for 17/12/5 & 4 blks last night (8-11 shooting) and now averaging 15.0/10.6/5.2 asst, 3.4 blk while hitting 54.4% from the floor his last 5 games…14.9/9.7/4.2 & 2.3 blks his last 10 gms (54.0%). There were many other performances of note as well in the game – Wilkins going off for 24 pts, his second 20+ effort this month after going 280 straight games without hitting 20 pts (last time was 3/24/08). That has to be one of the longer stretches in NBA history between 20 pt games, I’m guessing. Jrue also exploded (more below) after his tragic effort vs. the Clips Wed night. For Denver, Andre The Giant again defied Father Time and showed why he might need Hall of Fame consideration when he’s finally done, starting in place of an injured Ty Lawson (heel) and posting 21 pts, 3 reb, & 8 asst while going 9-14 from the field. Finally, Anthony Randolph played over 20 minutes for just the 2nd time this year, and while the numbers weren’t fat (7 pts, 3 rebs, 3 stl, 1 blk), it’s nice to see George Karl trust him a bit – I’m still convinced he could be a legit, productive starter in the league someday, still only 23 yrs old though he’s wrapping up his 5th season now.
Other Thursday Games
Portland went into Chicago and took care of the wayward Bulls, 99-89 behind Aldridge’s 28/8 & 2 blks and Lillard’s 24/4/7 asst. Batum also did his ‘little bit of everything’ routine, grabbing 6 boards and dishing 6 dimes while also nabbing 3 stls and garnering 2 fly swats as well, though his shooting was quite off (3-12). For Chicago, Boozer led the way (16/11/3, 2 stl) while Taj Gibson had 14 & 9 rebs off the bench. The Bulls have now lost 6 of their last 8 games…..The Sacramento Kings have now won 4 of their last 6 after beating the Timberwolves 101-98 last night in Minnesota. Miny-Mite PG Isaiah Thomas had 24/6 asst, while hitting 8 of his 15 shots, Tyreke came thru as well (21/5/5), and Cousins grabbed 14 rebs to go with his 15 pts for the Kings. Patrick Patterson, a guy I first noticed and liked when I finally got around to checking out John Wall on TV in a January 2010 Kentucky game, had 11/4/2 asst, 2 stl/2 blk coming off the bench for Sacto. Nikola Pekovic (18/12) was the only T-Wolve with more than 12 pts, though Rubio had 7 rebs, 9 asst, and 3 stls in the game (but again, his horrific shooting: 4-13).
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Jrue Holiday  —  18 pts, 6 rebs, 15 asst, 3 FTM, 4 stl, 1 blk, 3 treys, and 6-12 shooting…Just for fun, let’s rank the league’s PGs, since there’s so many studly ones right now, and many have vastly differing styles:
#1) Westy
#2) Tony P
#3) CP III
#4) Curry
#5) Jrue
#6) Rondo
#7) D-Will
#8) Lawson
#9) Lillard
#10) Vasquez
#11) Br. Jennings
#12) Jeff Teague
#13) Mike Conley
#14) Goran Dragic
#15) Kemba Walker
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Luol Deng —  5 pts, 2 rebs, 2 asst, 0 FTM, 1 stl, 0 blk, 1 treys, and 2-7 shooting in 26 minutes…Deng is generally a slightly better than average player in my eyes, certainly not deserving of 2 All-Star game appearances the last two seasons, but he’s been particularly bad of late. In his last 10 games, he’s at 13.6/5.3/2.4 while shooting 39.3%. For the season (16.1/6.5/2.9), he’s shooting just 42.3%, his 2nd worst ever (last year was 41.2%…but he made his 1st All-Star game…?!!!?!!?!!?).
Miami Spots Cleveland 27 Pt Lead, Comes Back for 24th Straight
Miami came into Cleveland where it all started for their star LeBron – childhood, grade-school hoops prodigy, high school fame and glory, and then the first 7 years of his NBA career. They spotted the Cavs a 55-34 halftime lead, then 67-40 with 7 min left in the 3rd, before the Heat went on a unbelievable tear, outscoring the Cavs 40-12 in the next 9:43 of game time to take the lead 80-79 before eventually winning 98-95. LeBron scored the last 11 of those 40 pts on 3 treys and a layup in well under 2 minutes. Miami’s next three games are hosting Det & Charlotte at home, then Orlando on the road – pretty much 3 wins. The major test comes on Easter Sunday when they play at San Antonio, a potential NBA Finals preview. Seldom used SG Wayne Ellington was nice in this game for Cleveland (20/7/4), while Tristan Thompson (18/8/3 stls) did most of his damage early in the game. LeBron didn’t shoot well (8-22) but triple-doubled for 4th time this season, while Ray Allen nabbed 5 stls off the bench to go with his 10 pts.
Other Wednesday Games
Since losing 18 of 20 games, the Bobcats are now 3-2 after beating Toronto 107-101 in Charlotte. Gerald Henderson again impressed with 21/7/5 & 2 blks, while Byron Mullens came off the bench to score 25 pts and block 3 shots (also nab 2 stls) in 28 minutes. Kemba couldn’t shoot straight (4-14) but did contribute 7 rebs, 8 dimes, and 4 steals. Raptor starters, led by Rudy Gay (25/8/3 asst, 2 blk), generally got the job done, but their bench was awful – going 5-21 from the floor while grabbing just 9 rebs and dishing only 4 dimes…..The Thunder have now lost two in a row for only the 3rd time this season after losing a heart-breaker in Memphis 90-89 on Marc Gasol’s tip in with just under a second left. OKC came out ice cold in this game, Durant and Westy combining to go 1-11 out of the gate. The team ended up shooting 35.7% on the night, Durant going 11-28 and Russell making just 7 of 25. Kevin Martin (17) was the only other Thunder to score more than 7 pts as Ibaka again struggled to contribute (2 pts, 6 reb, 2 blk in 22 min…1-4 shooting). Perkins did grab a season-high 16 rebs. Amazingly, that was not the high reb total for the game as Zach R pulled down 18 to go with his 15 pts (but shot a putrid 6 of 23), while Gasol pulled down 15 alongside his 14 pts, 2 blks. Mike Conley was big (24/7/5, 2 stl) as well, while Bayless hit for a Hollow Man Award-winning 20 pts off the bench (just 2 rebs, 1 asst) for the Griz…..Orlando continues to struggle without a ‘main man’ to lead them in scoring, getting a team high 14 pts apiece from rookie PF Andrew Nicholson off the bench as well as 2nd yr SF Tobias Harris as they lost their 5th in a row, 106-94 to the Knicks. Melo came back for NY and had a subdued 21/8 rebs in 33 min, while JR Smith led the team with 22 off the bench to go with his 7 rebs. Little known fact: Smith is averaging 5.1 rebs/gm this year, one of the best guard totals in the league – only Kobe (5.4), Iggy (5.3), and Westy (5.2) ahead of him…..In a large ‘playoff implications’ matchup in Atlanta, the Hawks stopped the bleeding and took care of the Bucks 98-90 behind another nice Jeff Teague effort (27/11 asst) and a  rather monstrous Al Horford night – 26/15, 2 stl/2 blk. The Joshua Tree struggled to score (5-14, 12 pts) but pulled down a season-high 16 boards to go with 6 dimes as well. Larry Sanders (19/14/4 blks…19 pts a surprisingly low career-high) and JJ Reddick (18/3/6 asst) led Milwaukee as Monta Ellis (more below) crashed HARD after his recent run of stellar performances…..In New Orleans, the Hornets got a rare chance to celebrate this season when Anthony Davis put back a missed Eric Gordon layup with under a second left to snatch an 87-86 victory from the Celtics, who welcomed back KG (20/6/3, 3 stl) and got a nice 28 pts from PP, but not much else. Without his heroic putback, it would have been yet another quiet night for Davis (9/8, 2 blks), but Vasquez (13/7/6), Ryan Anderson (21), and Gordon (18) did come through for the Hornets…..The Rockets stayed a game & a half up on the Lakers (7 seed to Lakers’ 8) with a 100-93 win over Utah in Houston as James Harden (28, 17-18 from the stripe) and Jeremy Lin (24/6 asst) were the only Rockets with more than 10 pts. The Jazz got 27/8 rebs from Hayward and 18/11/4, 2 stl from Al-Jeff…..Brook Lopez (season-high 38, 11 rebs, 15-22 FGs) and D-Will (31/6 asst) led Brooklyn to an easy 113-96 win at Dallas as Dirk led the Mavs in scoring (16) & rebounding (6). At 16.4/6.9, 45.9%, Dirk is getting paid a lot of money ($20.9m this year) for very so-so production this year. He jumps to $22.7m next year, one of the worst contracts in the league on a production for pay basis…..The Spurs beat the Warriors 104-93 behind another flashback, monstrous night from Tim Duncan (25/13/6, 4 blks). Tiago Splitter (17/7/4) was also big for San Antonio, while David Lee shot horribly (4-17) for Golden St., who was led by Stephen Curry’s 24 point night…..The Wizards took advantage of the Suns horrible shooting (33.7%) to earn an ugly 88-79 win in Phoenix as Wall (19/8 asst…but 5 T/Os) and Nene (17/8) led Washington. The Wiz bench also helped out with 39 pts and 23 rebs. The Suns got 18 apiece from Wesley Johnson and Dragic (also 11 asst, 3 stl), but very little from everyone else. Beasley was 1-5, 0 rebs in 8 forgettable min off the bench…..Finally, in a complete laugher at Staples Center, the Clippers destroyed the 76ers 101-72, outscoring Philly by 19 in the 2nd half. CP III was golden (19/6/9, 5 stl, 8-10 shooting) as Blake struggled to score (7 pts on 2-9 from the floor) but did have 9 rebs & 6 asst. Spencer Hawes was the only bright light for the 76ers (16/7/7, 2 stl/2 blk) as Jrue made just 1 of 8 shots.
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  LeBron James  —  25 pts, 12 rebs, 10 asst, 6 FTM, 3 stl, 2 blk, 3 treys, and 8-22 shooting…Now at 26.6, 8.2 rebs, 7.3 dimes, 1.7 stl, .9 blk and 55.1% on the year…and hasn’t missed a game…say hello to the 2013 NBA MVP (would be his 4th).
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Monta Ellis —  5 pts, 1 rebs, 1 asst, 0 FTM, 0 stl, 0 blk, 1 treys, and 2-14 shooting in 40 repulsive minutes…Ellis has been dominating the Awards this week…unfortunately, it’s on the Bozo side of the equation after last night’s stinker. Jameer Nelson (6/3/1, 2-7 FGs) and Arron Aflalo (5/2/0, 2-7 shooting) were also pretty bad yesterday.
Heat Squeak By ‘Leprechaun Team’ to Record 23rd Straight 
Yes, according to my 5 yr old, the Celtics are the ‘Leprechaun Team’ as he, his older brother, and myself watched the final 4 minutes of action last night (the little guy & I rooting for #23, older bro hoping for the Boston upset). LeBron went off for 37, 7 rebs, & 12 dimes, including the game-winner with 10 sec left, and D-Wade (16/7/6, 3 stl) grabbed Miami’s last 3 defensive rebounds to seal the come-from-behind, 105-103 victory for the Heat, who trailed by 13 with 8 minutes left in the game. Jeff Green careered for Boston (more below), but missed his final 3 shot attempts as 2 of them were rejected (Battier’s a great defensive play and block!) in the final 3 minutes. Douple P came through with a fat 17/8/8 line but had 7 turnovers for the Celts as no one else on the roster had more than 13 pts. Super Mario Chalmers came through at PG for Miami with 21 pts, hitting 4 of 5 from downtown.
Other Monday Games
The Lakers took it on the chin in Phoenix as the Suns took advantage of no Kobe and walloped them 99-76, outscoring them 28-10 in the 4th. It was very much a team effort from Phx as no one scored more than 14 pts (Scola & Wes Johnson, who each also grabbed 9 rebs), and only Dragic double-doubled (12 & 10 dimes, but 5 turnovers). Dwight made only 6 of 18 shots in the game, his FG% matching the team’s perfectly – 33.3%. Ron Artest had 5 steals, but made only 5 of 17 shots, while Nash made 6 of 17, with only 4 assists. Incidentally, Scola scored all of his pts in the 4th Q, and grabbed 8 of his 9 rebs in the final stanza as well….Disastrous Bynum Trade Update: Just confirmed yesterday – out for the season, surgery to be had on both knees. Folks, this could be the worst trade in NBA history, unless they can lose him in a sign & trade deal this summer and get a couple nice pieces. He’s a free agent with massive potential as a dominant big man but held back tremendously by brittle knees, immaturity, a lack of heart, and a questionable head…one of the more intriguing NBA offseason stories to follow. As for Bynum’s 76ers teammates, they edged Portland 101-100 as Spencer Hawes again impressed, this time with 18/13/4 & 2 blks. Jrue was his usual studly self as well, contributing 27/8/6 dimes, while Thaddeus Young had 4 thefts and 2 fly swats to go with his 19 pts & 5 assists. The Blazers were led by huge performances from Aldridge (32/14) and Lillard (27/7/7 — runaway rookie of the year) but no one else hit double digits…..Charlotte improved to 2-2 since their recent 10 game losing streak, beating the Wizards 119-114 as Gerald Henderson continued his great play of late (23.4/gm last 5 contests) with 27 & 8 dimes. If you haven’t seen this guy play, he’s a big-time jumper, as evidenced here. Kemba Walker (18/7 asst, 3 stl) and ex-Laker legend Josh McRoberts (17/7/3, 2 stl) also helped the Bobcats cause, while Nene (21/7/7) & Wall (25/5 asst, 2 stl…but 6 T/Os) led Washington…..The Pacers had no troubles at all with the Irving-less Cavaliers, thumping them 111-90 as only two Cavs scored over 8 pts (Tristan with 20/11/2 blks, and CJ Miles with 21). Speaking of jumpers, Gerald Green came off the bench to lead Indy with 20 pts & 6 rebs, while Tyler Hansbrough, starting in place of the injured David West, had 18 & 11…..Atlanta’s terrible March (4 wins, 7 losses so far) continued with a 127-113 defeat at the hands of the very mediocre Dallas Mavericks (32-35, but 7-3 in March). Dirk (22/6/5) and Darren Collison (24/5 asst) led Dallas while the Hawks got 19/7 asst from Jeff Teague and 16/11 from Horford…..Brooklyn sprinted out to 36 pts in the 1st Q in Detroit before cruising to a laughable 119-82 win over the hapless Pistons. D-Will paced the Nets effort with 31 & 5 dimes while Andray Blatche came off the bench to record a sweet all-around effort of 15/8/4, 2 blks and 7-12 shooting in just 22 minutes. Will Bynum (18/5/6) and Greg Monroe (17/7/3, 2 blks, 8-10 shooting) led Detroit…..Denver got an Andre Iguodala 26 foot 3-pointer with 7 seconds left in OT to give the Nuggets a 119-118 win in Chicago as Little Nate Robinson’s big 34 pts/7 asst, 13-22 effort (6 of 8 from downtown) went in vain. Joakim Noah was also large for the Bulls (14/12/6, 7 blks), but Luol Deng (an All-star this year, in case you forgot) went just 9-23 from the floor while grabbing only 2 rebs in 50 minutes of playing time. Wilson Chandler, aka The Human Tattoo, was massive off the bench for the Nuggets with 35/9/4 and 2 steals…..Minnesota went ‘Tiiiiimmmberrrrrrr’ and fell hard in Memphis, 92-77 as they shot just 33.7% in the contest. Ricky Rubio, who triple-doubled last week (21/13/12) was tragic (more below) as he tries to play through a groin injury. Mike Conley paced the Grizzlies effort with 20/6 asst, 2 stl while Tayshaun Prince pulled down a season-high 14 boards, just two off his career best. Marc Gasol was his usual steady all-around self for Memphis as well with 16/8/5 & 4 blks. No Timberwolve had more than 12 pts…..It was the usual suspects leading the Warriors to victory last night, 93-72 over the Hornets as Stephen Curry (30/7 asst) and David Lee (20/11/4, 7-9 FGs) did their thing. Ryan Anderson led N.O. with 21 but made only 7 of 19 shots…..In a forgettable game at Utah, the Knicks walked out with a 90-83 victory as JR Smith led the team with 20 pts (but just 5-13 shooting). Raymond Felton had 19 & 3 steals, and Chris Copeland was the only other Knick in double figures – 14/6 rebs – as Stoudamire, Melo, and Tyson were all out for NY. Utah shot just 38.2%, but did get a career-high 4 blocks from Gordon Hayward.
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Jeff Green  —  43 pts, 7 rebs, 2  asst, 10 FTM, 2 stl, 4 blk, 5 treys, and 14-21 shooting…A career-high for the 6th year forward out of Georgetown, who played alongside Durant his first 3 & a half years in the league, before OKC realized they needed to start Ibaka alongside KD – better complement to Durant’s skill set, as he and Green are too similar (and Ibaka was too good to play just 20 min/night). Amazingly, this might not be Green’s best game this season, as he went off for 31/7/4, 2 stl/5 blk and shot 11-14 in a late February win over Phoenix. This was Green’s 4th 20+ game since Feb 19, after having none this season up to that point.
The Rafael Araujo Award —  Ricky Rubio —  2 pts, 2 rebs, 2 asst, 0 FTM, 1 stl, 0 blk, 0 treys, and 1-6 shooting in 21 minutes…If this guy learns how to shoot, watch out. He’s only at 36.0% this year after shooting 35.7% his rookie year, but he has ball handling and passing skills reminiscent of Pete Maravich…and the same hairstyle, too.

      We’ve come up to some juicy matchups in the men’s lower half of the draw in the Round of 16, headlined by an extreme case of opposites attracting – Nadal vs. Gulbis. Nadal leads 4-0, but lost one set to Gulbis in each of their first three encounters, including on the clay of Rome in 2010, Nadal’s favorite surface. One obvious opposite is their mental approach to the game and matches. Gulbis has a carefree attitude, highly emotional on court at times, and has often underachieved for long stretches of his career…though at other times has showed tremendous ability, power, athleticism, and touch on the court. Nadal’s effort and competitive attitude on court, even when up 6-1, 5-1 in matches, is legendary, as is his resume at age 26 – 11 slams, 5 slam r-ups, 52 titles, and Year End Top 3 seven times, including twice #1. The other extreme opposite in this matchup is their hardcourt prep time. Nadal has played 1 ATP hardcourt match in the last 345 days, earning a walkover in round 3 when Leonardo Mayer had to pull out of their match. Gulbis on the other hand, has played 3 main draw matches here, 2 qualifying matches in the desert, and 8 hardcourt matches in Delray Beach – 3 qualifying, 5 main draw. He has won all of these matches, 13 in a row, but officially just 8 (qualies don’t count toward official ATP match wins). Prediction: Gulbis wins a set, but Nadal wins the match.

      Federer vs. Wawrinka (Fed leads 12-1). Yes, complete domination by the Swiss #1 against the Swiss #2, but this matchup has been much closer than that the last 3 times they’ve played, including the most recent, Stanislas winning the first set at the 2012 Shanghai Masters and taking the 2nd to a tiebreaker, before losing that 7-4 and then melting in the 3rd, 6-0. But Stan has some confidence on hardcourts after playing possibly the best tennis of his life against Djoker in the 4th round in Australia (12-10 loss in the 5th), and is 3 & ½ years younger than the living legend, who at 31 now hasn’t made an ATP final yet this year in 3 previous tournaments. Prediction: I’m going to go with Wawrinka in a shocking upset in 3 sets.

      Berdych vs. Gasquet (Gaquet leads 4-2). Indeed, the shorter, lower-ranked Frenchman has a winning record against Berd Dog, who has now been ranked in the Top 10 since July of 2010 (currently 6th). Gasquet, currently ranked 10th, finished 2012 in the Top 10 (also 10th) for the 2nd time in his career (previously in 2007, at age 21), and has won a title this year already – Montpellier – though it was a rather weak field. Berdych has been playing great though, reaching the finals of his last two events (Dubai – l. to Djokovic; Marseille, l. to Tsonga) and winning both matches here in straight sets, losing a total of just 11 games to Mischa Zverev and Florian Mayer. Prediction: Gasquet has won the last two, including at the Toronto Masters last year, but I think his winning streak ends here, in three sets.

      Gilles Simon vs. Kevin Anderson (Never Played). Definitely the 4th bill of the lower half R16 matchups, as neither of these two are overly compelling to watch, though they certainly present contrasting styles – the speedy, steady Simon against the 6’8” South African giant. Simon has already slayed one giant this year, beating Del Potro at Marseille in straight sets, while Anderson failed in his giant vs. giant encounter at Delray Beach, losing to Isner (who lost here immediately, 3 sets to Hewitt) in the quarterfinals (Anderson’s only tourney post Aussie Open). Prediction: Simon is higher ranked (#13 to #37), has more experience and career titles (10 to Anderson’s 2), and takes this match…in 3 sets.


         Two months into the season comes one of the biggest events of the year – Indian Wells. All the best men & women arrive in the Southern California desert to play at a top notch facility and earn some big ranking points, prize money, and recognition before April comes and the clay court season begins in earnest.

For the men, it all starts with Novak Djokovic, who started off 2013 by winning his 4th Aussie title and then won Dubai for the 4th time as well just last week, beating Del Potro & Berdych in the semis and final, his 36th career ATP title. He’s been #1 for 18 weeks in a row, 71 weeks total (11th all-time), and has made the finals of 8 of the last 10 grand slams, winning 5 of them. He needs only a title at Roland Garros for the career slam, and if he takes Indian Wells this year (lost to Isner in semis a year ago), it’ll be his 3rd I.W. title after hoisting the trophy in 2008 (def. Fish) and 2011 (def. Nadal). He was runner-up in 2007 (l. to Nadal). He’s currently on an 18 match winning streak dating back to the year-end championships last November, his last loss coming to Querrey in round 2 at the 2012 Paris Masters.

The Contenders                                                                                        World #3 Andy Murray, Djoker’s opponent in the Aussie final, would seem to be the next favorite (he beat Federer in the Aussie semis), but he hasn’t played since the Down Under slam.  He now has a slam title of course, beating his Serbian rival in the US Open final last year, and was literally inches away from being up a set and a break against him at this year’s Aussie. He was up 7-6, 1-0 with Novak serving at 0-40. Novak earned the first break point save, but on the second, Murray missed an easy shot wide that would have given him the break…and maybe all he needed for his 2nd straight slam.  Murray has 25 titles to his name, 21 of them on hard courts, but none at I.W., his best result being a runner-up finish to Nadal in 2009 (an ugly 6-1, 6-2 loss). Surprisingly, he’s failed to win a match the last two years in the desert, losing to Donald Young in 2011 and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez last year – both in straight sets! Roger Federer, now 31 and #2 in the rankings, is still battling the big boys, but with not as much success as during his heyday. It took him 5 sets to dispatch Tsonga in the Aussie quarterfinals before losing in the semis 6-2 in the 5th to Murray. He lost to Julien Benneteau at Rotterdam in the middle of last month, and then in the semis at Dubai last week, Berdych saved 3 match pts in the 2nd set tiebreaker before beating him 6-4 in the 3rd. Berdych also took him out at the 2012 US Open, a 4 set quarterfinal victory. But Fed is the defending champion here, beating Isner in last year’s final for his 4th I.W. crown – he won three straight from 2004 to 2006.  Rafael Nadal, now ranked 5th, is back after a 7 month layoff to deal with knee tendonitis. He’s played three small South American events, all on clay, to ease back onto the tour – winning the last two but losing to Horacio Zeballos in the finals of the first – Vina Del Mar, Chile. He’s made the finals in the desert the last 3 odd numbered years, winning in ’07 and ’09 but losing to Djokovic in 2011. This will be his first big test since being out, playing off his favorite surface and with a full field of the best players. A semifinal or better result would have to be considered a success. Finally, Tomas Berdych has played very well since the 2012 US Open began, including two wins over Fed and three over Tsonga in that stretch, one of them in the finals at Stockholm last October, his 8th career title. He hasn’t made it past the QFs here though, and only once made it that far – in 2010 where he then lost to Nadal. He’s #6 in the world now, a career-best, and at 27 years old, might be playing his best tennis yet (though he was a 2010 Wimbledon finalist, beating Fed in the QFs, Djoker in the semis).

2nd Tier Contenders                                                                                       Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gets the nod over Del Potro and Ferrer as the favorite in this tier, having won Marseille (def. Berdych) last month and battled Fed tight in the Aussie QFs this year, losing 6-3 in the 5th. He also seems due to for a Southern California desert breakthrough, having never advanced beyond the Round of 16 here. Juan Martin Del Potro has only played here 4 times, but already has 2 QF appearances and one semi result, losing only to the best – Nadal in the QFs (2009) and semis (2011), Fed in the QFs last year. He had a disappointing Aussie, losing to surprise quarterfinalist Jeremy Chardy in the 3rd round, but rebounded to take the title at Rotterdam a month later. David Ferrer, currently at a career-high #4 ranking, has lost to Djoker in the semis of the last two slams, but has had very little success at Indian Wells, having only made the QFs once in ten trips, back in 2007 (l. to Djokovic). But he does have two titles under his belt in 2013, Auckland and Buenos Aries, and lost in the finals to Nadal last week at Acapulco (ugly…6-0, 6-2). He’s a longshot to win his 21st career title here, but should be able to make his 2nd quarterfinal.

Other Dangerous Names (Best I.W. Result)                                                      Stanislas Wawrinka (QF ’08, ’11), currently ranked #18, gave Djokovic an epic battle in the 4th round of the Aussie this year (lost 12-10 in the 5th), and also made the finals of Bueno Aries (l. to Ferrer)…Ernests Gulbis (R64 ’08-’10) qualified at and then won Delray Beach last week, and was ranked as high as #21 in 2010, but has to go through qualifying again this week here (#1 seed in qualies). He has the talent and big enough weapons to do some damage, though stamina will likely be a major issue after all the tennis he’s had to play…Richard Gasquet (QF ’11) and his fabulous one-handed backhand (Wawrinka’s also supreme) comes to the desert having just won Montpellier a couple weeks ago and having made the 4th round at Australia (l. to Tsonga in 4 sets)…Nicolas Almagro (QF ’12), long known as a clay court specialist, has built a decent hard court resume the last few years, making the QFs of the Aussie this year, 4th round there 2010-12, and the 4th at the US Open last year, though all 12 of his career titles have come on the dirt…Janko Tipsarevic (R32 ’07, ’12) has made the QFs of the US Open the last two years, and 3 of his 4 career tourney wins are hardcourt titles, but he hasn’t broken through here. Ranked #9, he does have two QF appearances in Miami…Milos Raonic (R32 ’11, ’12), just 22 yrs old, is the only guy in the top 20 (ranked 17th) born in the 1990’s, but outside of great success in San Jose (won it last 3 years, including 2013) and a few 4th round slam appearances (Aussie 2011 & ’13; US Open ’12), his resume remains rather thin. His monster serve and forehand are somewhat negated by limited mobility (he’s 6’5”)…Kei Nishikori (R64 ’12) is the opposite of Raonic – a 5’10” Japanese speedburner ranked 16th. He won Memphis this year (3rd career title), and made the QFs of Australia a year ago, but lost in the 4th this year to Ferrer, and it wasn’t close. Nishikori won his first title at just 18 yrs old, beating James Blake at Delray Beach in 2008…Marin Cilic (R32 ’09, ’11) showed a lot of promise in making the Aussie semis in 2010, but has basically stalled out since then. He did make the QFs of the US Open last year (only slam QF since ’10 Aussie) and has won a few smaller titles as well, including Zagreb this year (def. Melzer in final).

The Americans                                                                                                  You may have noticed something all the above players have in common – none are Americans. Yes, it’s a rough time for American male tennis, as the lumbering John Isner, still ranked 15th, has dipped sharply since tantalizing last year with big Davis Cup wins and his finalist appearance in the desert. Since reaching the US Open QFs in 2011, he has lost in the 3rd, 2nd, 1st, and 3rd round at subsequent slams in 2012, and missed the Aussie this year with an ankle injury. Just last week he had a golden chance to face Gulbis in the Delray Beach final, but lost to journeyman Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the semis. He turns 28 next month, a full two years older than both Murray and Djokovic, and a year older than Nadal. He is not going to carry the US torch very far…Sam Querrey is a nice player, ranked 23rd and holder of 7 career titles. But while more mobile than Isner, at 6’6” he’s not mobile or athletic enough to hang with the big boys, as shown at this year’s Aussie in the 3rd round when he was soundly beaten by Wawrinka in 3 sets…Mardy Fish (ranked #32) had a career year in 2011, finishing 8th in the world, but 2012 was a nightmare of disappointing losses and injury, and at age 31, his best days are surely behind him…Ryan Harrison at 6’0” is far shorter and more athletic than Sammy Q and Isner, but has failed to make much progress since wowing fans at the 2010 US Open (great 2nd round match vs. Sergiy Stakhovsky). He’s still ranked just 73 and has had no luck at all in his grand slam draws, but losing matches like his last three won’t help him boost his ranking to avoid high seeds early at slams (all 1st round losses: Benjamin Becker, ranked 61, Lukasz Kubot, ranked 81, and finally Daniel Munoz De La Nava, ranked 154 at Delray last week). The only good news is he doesn’t turn 21 until May 7th…Finally, the feel-good Brian Baker (#56) story of 2012 had a rough start to 2013 as he tore his lateral meniscus in the 2nd round of the Aussie this year. As it is, he’s the same age as Isner and probably has a ceiling of 30th or so anyway, if he’s able to come back strong from this at age 28. Sadly, outside of 34 year old Michael Russell (#70) and 33 year old James Blake (#99), that is it for Americans in the top 100. Not a lot of promise…and very little on the horizon (though Harrison’s little brother Christian did push Gulbis to 3 sets before losing in qualifying here. He turns 19 in late May.)

So there you have it, a preview of Indian Wells as well a glance at the state of men’s tennis these days. Enjoy the tourney.

Thursday Night Action 
The only non-TNT game last night was the only game with any drama – Clippers/Pacers, two of the better teams in the league. It was at Indy, but the Clippers won, largely behind CP III’s best game in quite a while – 29 pts, 6 reb, 8 asst & 11-18 shooting, including scoring the last 8 Clipper points. Additionally, Blake double-doubled (18/14) and Jamal Crawford won The Hollow Man Award off the bench – 23 pts, 1 reb, 0 dimes, 0 stl, 0 blk. David West (22/6/4) & Paul George (20/4/5) led Indy but both shot poorly, combining to go 12-32 from the floor. Lance Stephenson was quite nice at SG though, hitting 7 of 8 shots for 16 pts to go with 7 rebs, 4 asst, and some nice defense on CP III at times…..The Bulls hosted the 76ers and rode an absolutely monstrous effort from Joakim Noah (more below) to a 93-73 victory. Philly was behind basically all night, but closed to 75-71 with 7 minutes left, but then Chicago went on an 8-0 run and that was that. Boozer (21/12) was also big in the game, while the 76ers got a nice double-double from Spencer Hawes (20/15) and 22 pts from Jrue Holiday. Chicago still has offensive woes to deal with, as Noah was the only Bull to shoot better than 50% in the game, as the team shot 38.6% from the floor, 3-14 from distance…..In the final game of the night, the Lakers had very little trouble handling Minnesota, winning 116-94 behind 33/5/5 from Kobe. The Timberwolves were led by their guards as Rubio was two rebs from a tri-double (13/8/13), JJ Barea had 20/4/5 off the bench, and Ridnour poured in 19. Derrick Williams had 15 & 8 rebs in his homecoming (La Mirada is about a 30 min drive from Staples, unless the 5 freeway is packed).
The Akeem Olajuwon Award —  Joakim Noah  —  23 pts, 21 rebs, 1 asst, 7 FTM, 3 stl, 11 blk, 0 treys, and 8-12 shooting…What a game…11 fly swats! The first 20/20/10 blk tri-double since 7’6″ Shawn Bradley in 1998 (yeah…he did have his moments). An interesting question came into my mind last night: Can Joakim’s hoops career ever equal his dad’s tennis career? Let’s look at the data. Yannick won 23 tourneys (13 runner-ups), including one slam win (1983 French), and made just one other slam semi in his career – the 1990 Aussie Open. He definitely underachieved in this regard, as he finished the year ranked in the top 10 every year from 1982-87 (finished 4th in 1986, his best). He did make 8 other slam quarterfinals though. As for his son, he made his first All-Star team this season, and would definitely be regarded as a top 25 player in the league right now, maybe even top 20. He has twice averaged a double-double for a season, but missed 18 and 34 games those two seasons. He only missed two games last year, and was just .2 rebs away from averaging a double-double again. This year he’s missed just 4 games so far, and is having his best season yet, averaging a career-high in pts (11.9), rebs (11.4), asst (an impressive 4.2 – among the best of the bigs), stls (1.3), and blks (2.2). He just turned 28, and has never been as gifted athletically as his dad (played with a lot of flair, very graceful & smooth), but probably has 3-4 more years of prime play before he starts declining significantly. So he’ll probably come up a bit short, but I’d say he’s definitely bettered his dad in one area already – getting the most out of his natural talent.
The Mark Randall Award —  Chauncey Billups —  3 pts, 1 rebs, 1 asst, 0 FTM, 1 stl, 1 blk, 1 treys, and 1-6  shooting in 21 minutes…Now in his 16th season, I stll remember seeing him play live twice his rookie year and being very impressed – first with Boston, then with the Raptors. I liked his size, his burst, and his aggressiveness. I had no idea he’d eventually become such good, polished PG, known for hitting many clutch shots, but I was definitely surprised when just a couple years later (1999-2001) he was basically thought of as a 10 min/night backup, a former #3 overall pick who became a bust. But he revived his career in Minnesota during the 2001-02 season when Terrell Brandon went down, signed with Detroit the following summer, and the rest is history – an NBA title, 5 All-Star games, and 8 straight seasons of at least 16 pts, 5 dimes. A very unique career arc – very rare for a guy to emerge so late after basically being considered a bust 3 yrs into his career.