Can the Pirates Finally Get Over the Top?

Jason Grilli
Jason Grilli
Grilli has been spectacular as a closer for the Pirates this season.

In a city with perennial winners in football and on the ice, you may have hard time believing there is another professional sports team in Pittsburgh. In fact, the Steel City is one of the more impressive baseball cities with a devoted and knowledgeable fan base who deserves a hell of a lot better than what they’ve dealt with since the early 1990’s.

The last two seasons, the Battling Buccos were in prime position to end one of the more ominous streaks in professional sports. At the All-Star break in both 2011 and 2012, the Pirates were on a pace that would have finally gotten them a winning season but late season collapses doomed the team and its’ fans.

The Pirates unfortunately extended their streak of losing seasons to 20 straight and teased their fans in the process with the possibility of not only a winning season, but also a playoff berth.

So now in 2013, you’ll have to excuse the fans if they are not exactly jumping for joy at the great start by their Bucs. They’ve seen this movie before and it ended tragically two straight times. Therefore, you’ll need to forgive them for remaining a bit skeptical despite the team’s 33-20 record entering their game against Detroit last night.

Besides fate and history itself, the Pirates are also battling two of the top teams in the National League.  At the current time, they are tied for second place with the Cincinnati Reds. The two teams are just two and a half games behind Central Division leader St. Louis. Obviously if you ask of the talking heads at FOX, ESPN or the MLB Network, they’ll tell you that of the three teams only the Cards and Reds have staying power.

It would be hard to disagree with that line of thinking based upon the last two seasons for Pittsburgh. So the question before us my fellow bettors is can this team finally make it to 82 wins and beyond? Let me give you some information that will help you decide.

Andrew McCutchen
'Cutch' is an outstanding player but he'll need help to get the Pirates over the top.

First of all, the Pirates are in the midst of a stretch of games where we may find out just how legitimate they actually are. After finishing a four-game set with Detroit, the Pirates will play Cincinnati seven times over the next month along with series against Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the Angels of Anaheim. Should they come through the next four weeks at .500 or better, taking them seriously might have to be considered.

When you look at the Pirates statistically, you kind of end up scratching your head a bit. They rank 20th in runs scored, and 24th, 22nd and 19th in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage respectively. What I found really striking was their total runs scored versus their two Central Division rivals. Both St. Louis and Cincy have scored 40 or more runs already this season than Pittsburgh while giving up basically the same amount.

So just where is this team finding success in 2013? Look no farther than the little mound of dirt in the middle of the diamond. The Pirates are second in the National League in pitching just behind St. Louis. They have a 3.19 earned run average and perhaps more shocking is that they are limiting opposing teams to an average of just .222 on the season. We also must consider that closer Jason Grilli is 22 for 22 in save opportunities and has an ERA of 1.09 and you’ve got the makings of a very strong bullpen and pitching staff.

My concern for the Pirates is offense. Will they be able to generate enough runs and will the ownership finally go out and get a big bat at the trade deadline or before? If the answer is ‘no’ to both of those questions, then 82 wins may still be a dream only.

NBA Officiating Continues to Turn Me Off

NBA Refs


NBA Refs
NBA Officials cannot dictate the outcomes of games but it's happening more and more.

If you forced me to choose between watching a National Basketball Association playoff game or a National Hockey League playoff game today as opposed to 25 years ago, I would have a very different answer for you. The Indiana Pacers-Miami Heat game Tuesday night is exactly why I would choose the hockey over the basketball.

First of all, give credit to the Pacers for bouncing back from an embarrassing loss at home in game three to get the win. Even at two games apiece now, the series is essentially a best of three. The problem with NBA basketball is what has haunted it now since the Michael Jordan era started in the mid- 1980’s.

NBA games are 48 minutes long yet there were 55 fouls called in the game. If I wanted to watch a free throw shooting contest, I’d go out in the driveway and challenge my kids to a best of ten from the stripe.

Many fans were crying ‘foul’ themselves after the Heat seemed to get unfair treatment which resulted in LeBron James getting just his second career playoff game with six fouls. His last call, a ‘moving screen’ in which he stuck his foot out was a horrible call. Not because it wasn’t a foul, but because the officials and the league itself no longer recognizes what a foul or violation really is anymore.

Players routinely take more than two steps on shot attempts and especially on drives to the basket but traveling never gets called. Referees still have no clue what the difference is between a charge and a block is and furthermore have no idea what a legal screen actually looks like.

James himself has been called out recently for his ‘acting prowess’ or flopping which has become one of the key stories of the Eastern Conference playoffs let alone the league in general. It appears that NBA players have spent way too much time watching soccer because the flopping that is taking place on the NBA hardwood is almost laughable.

Hockey is not without its’ issues. Officiating is often just as questionable and players have been known to act a little in order to get a call, but it is nowhere near the level of ridiculousness that the NBA is currently.


Chris Bosh
Bosh has to do a better job on the boards in game five.

When you consider the drama and intensity of the NHL playoffs, there is no dilemma for me in choosing to watch hockey. This was something I never thought I would say back in the days of Magic and Bird.

Indiana at Miami (series tied 2-2) – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this series is ultimately about Roy Hibbert and Dwyane Wade. Hibbert was dominant in his game four performance as were the Pacers overall in attacking the basket in the paint.

Wade was noticeably limping during portions of the game on Tuesday night which calls into question just how healthy he really is. His status then leads to questions about Chris Bosh and LeBron James. Bosh must play better and get more physical on the boards while the offense will probably need to run through James with the Heat’s struggles from outside.

It’s a little surprising to see the spread for tonight’s game at seven and a half in favor of the Heat, but I think it speaks volumes of what Vegas thinks of the bounce-back ability of the Heat following losses. Remember this about game fives, 85% of the time the team that wins goes on to win the series. While that isn’t a lock, it’s pretty darn close when you consider the long history of seven game series. I like the Heat to win, but Indiana will make it close so take the Pacers.

San Antonio Brings the Broom to Memphis, Now Has Long Lay-Over

Tony Parker
Tony Parker
Parker is having an exceptional playoff run for the Spurs.

I never like blaming one guy for a team’s defeat and I’m not going to start now. You may think I’d have every right to considering I picked the Memphis Grizzlies to defeat the San Antonio Spurs in six games in the Western Conference Finals.

Well, I certainly got my rear end handed to me much like the Grizzlies did as the Spurs finished them off Monday night in Memphis. The win sends the Spurs to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007 and gives them a very surprising sweep of the Griz.

It’s hard not to point the finger at Zach Randolph because he was not very good in any of the four games. Any time you’re a big man and you barely shoot over 30% from the field then you know things are not going well.

Zach Randolph
Randolph had a miserable Western Conference Finals barely shooting 30% from the field.

I don’t lay it all on Randolph however, because he had significant help in the short-comings department in this series. Mike Conley may have played well offensively, but he was abused by Tony Parker on the other end. While that happens to many of the top guards in the league, Conley saw it happen in four straight games.

With that said, Randolph’s failure to help control the paint was really the major issue in this series. While he and Marc Gasol got their share of rebounds, their put-back attempts were never unchallenged. Thiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and Kawhi Leonard were relentless in their defense of the front court.

At issue now for Memphis is the future of the team. Will Lionel Hollins be back as his contract is now up? Will Zach Randolph, who isn’t a favorite of Hollins, be back? Do they build around Gasol and Conley?

There is a lot at stake for a team that made its’ most impressive playoff run in team history and now the front office needs to get it right.

The Spurs meanwhile are nothing short of phenomenal. I honestly could not see a scenario where they would win this series in anything less than six games. The triumbrant of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker are the only trio not belonging to LA or Boston to make four trips to the Finals.

At 31 years old, Parker is clearly the ‘youngster’ of this group and he’s playing at one of the highest levels of his or anyone else’s careers. Parker poured in 37 points to lead the Spurs back to the NBA Finals.

The bad news? San Antonio will not open the Finals until June 6th at the earliest regardless of what happens with the Eastern Conference. The way the NBA insists on spreading out their playoffs is absurd and doesn’t even try to hide from the fact that the television, i.e. ESPN and TNT control the scheduling of the playoffs.

Regardless of who comes out of the the Eastern Conference, the Spurs will be without a game for basically nine days and that is no good for anyone. The chances of high-quality basketball being played are slim and while neither coach would use the layoff as an excuse, it can’t help but be noted.

For now, the run by the San Antonio Spurs should not be ignored and should the Spurs win the title, the play of Tony Parker in these playoffs will perhaps become a thing of legends.

Irish National Title Hopes Take a Dive With Loss of Golson

Everett Golson
Everett Golson
With Golson suspended for the season, who can Notre Dame turn to at quarterback?

The chances that the University of Notre Dame was going to make a return trip to the BCS National Title Game were slim enough heading into the past week but now the chances have dwindled even further. It was reported and later confirmed by Everett Golson himself that the star quarterback for the Irish had indeed been suspended and will not play in 2013.

The official announcement from both Notre Dame and Golson is that he is no longer enrolled at the University. The official reason is “poor academic judgment.” Let’s be really honest here shall we? Do any of us really believe that’s what this is really about? Notre Dame and every other major college football program will do anything and everything to make sure their respective players are eligible with very few exceptions.

I’m not suggesting the Golson was involved in anything criminal, but I am hinting at the possibility that this is much larger than just failing a class or two. Starting QBs at the top schools in America are not “ineligible” everyday ya know and I smell something far greater than what is being offered. Believe me, I hope I’m wrong but something just isn’t right here.

The Las Vegas Hotel and Casino SportsBook almost immediately dropped the Irish from 30-1 all the way to 50-1 and we are still 100 days or so from the start of the 2013 college football season. Certainly sports books like this one will alter those odds as the season approaches and a lot of that will depend on who Head Coach Brian Kelly goes with as his signal-caller.

Brian Kelly
Kelly has few solid options as he looks to replace Golson.

Kelly has a couple of different options and is sure to play the decision as close to his vest as possible heading into the season. The options right now for Kelly aren’t all that enticing but do offer him some different skill sets and experience with each.

The odds-on-favorite right now would have to be senior Tommy Rees who has started 18 career games but has often been in and out of Kelly’s doghouse. Behind him would be fourth-year junior Andrew Hendrix and then Spring enrollee Malik Zaire. Hendrix has career numbers of 23 of 44 for 304 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

In Rees’ career, he has thrown for over 4,400 yards and has 34 touchdown passes to 24 interceptions. I have to believe he will be the starter for the August 31st opener against Temple in Notre Dame Stadium but stranger things have certainly happened. In terms of what Zaire brings to the table, he’s a much more athletic guy than Rees and is a true dual-threat QB although he is all that fast. His forty time is clocked at just under five flat.

The question with Zaire is does Kelly burn his redshirt that he had planned to use on the youngster this year? Notre Dame was the thirteenth most bet on team so far in terms of winning the national title this year which tells us a lot of people felt like they still had a lot of talent around them despite losing Tyler Eifert, Manti T’eo and company.

There is one long-term option in Wes Lunt, a QB looking to transfer from Oklahoma State. He listed Notre Dame as a potential landing spot, but would not be eligible until next season.

Regardless of the direction Brian Kelly chooses to go, Notre Dame will still be a good football team in 2013. Will they be in the hunt for the National Title? I say “no” and I really never felt they were anywhere due to the losses I mentioned as well as those on the offensive line. Not a good day to be an Irish fan that’s for sure.

Two Clear Messages Being Sent in NBA Playoffs

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan
Duncan has found the fountain of youth in the Western Conference Finals.

This past weekend’s National Association Basketball Playoff games delivered two very key messages from one team to the other. On Saturday, the San Antonio Spurs went into Memphis and beat the Grizzlies 104-93 in overtime to take a commanding three games to none lead heading into tonight’s tilt.

In Indianapolis yesterday, the expectation was much the same as it was in Memphis. With the series tied at one game apiece, the Pacers’ home-court was thought to be a massive advantage for the home team turned out to be anything but as Miami rolled to a 114-96 win to go up two games to one.

If you are sure what message is being sent by these two teams then let me put it out there for you. San Antonio and Miami are two veteran teams who have both “been there before” and clearly proved that in their respective wins. Both Memphis and Indiana are excellent ball clubs and in the Pacers’ case this series is far from over, but the standard has been set. Much like it took Michael Jordan’s Bulls several years to finally get to the NBA Finals, perhaps this is the same route both the Grizzlies and Pacers will have to take.

Bosh and Haslem
Bosh and Haslem were excellent in drawing out Roy Hibbert while knocking down outside shots.

Wrapping up the Heat’s win…. While LeBron James bounced back from his poor, final seconds’ performance in game two, it was really the play of Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh that were the difference. They two big men combined to go eight of 11 from 15 feet or more which drew Roy Hibbert out from the paint. This was exactly the game plan I thought the Heat would deploy going into the series.

Throw in the fact that they had good performances from James and Dwyane Wade and a poor shooting day from Paul George and the recipe for the win was complete. The question now becomes has does Frank Vogel and his Pacers’ team rebound?

San Antonio at Memphis (Spurs lead 3-0) – San Antonio goes for the sweep tonight and enters as a three-point underdog on the road in the “Grindhouse.” Head Coach Gregg Popovich has been masterful all season in finding ways to rest his veteran players and that tactic seems to be paying off. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Gonobili have all been very good in this series  and a lot of that has to do with the help they are getting from other guys.

Duncan looked as though he turned back the clock on Saturday as he looked down-right dominant at times. That dominance can be credited to the fact that the Spurs are getting realy good post-defense from Thiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner. These guys have done a terrific job forcing Zach Randolph into poor shots and making close ones difficult when he takes them. That has allowed Duncan to do his thing on the offensive end.

The game-plan for Memphis is simple; they need to win. The only way this happens in my opinion is to let guard Mike Conley create by driving to the paint and distributing the basketball. This is of course easier said than done, but this is often the only way to get your big men consistently involved in the offense when you’re playing a veteran and tough defensive squad.

If Conley piles up assists tonight then that will go a long ways towards keeping this series alive versus packing up the lockers and wishing the Spurs well in the NBA Finals. Take the Griz to force a game five with an outright win tonight.

Paying College Athletes Could Change the Way You Wager

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney
South Carolina would benefit greatly from a guy like Clowney getting paid, or would they?

The discussion over whether or not to play college athletes has gone on for a decade or more now, but only in the last year has the seriousness of such a thing really become a hot button issue. The idea of the student-athlete really doesn’t apply the way it did 50 years ago in my opinion especially in the big money sports of college football and college basketball.

Those two departments account for nearly all of an athletic department’s budget with some exceptions. If you have ever wondered why FBS schools keep scheduling seven and even eight home games, your answer is money. Take for example Michigan and Tennessee. Both schools have football stadiums that hold well over 100,000 people on any given Saturday in the fall.

Both have also seen their share of ups and downs over the last 10 years. The fact that both schools have good football traditions is notwithstanding, because the issue is about success now, not then. If either of those schools fail to fill their stadiums then that is a significant loss not just for the university, but for the other athletic departments as well.

Back to the topic at hand… 50 years ago, student-athletes were paid for playing in the form of full scholarships which paid their tuition, room and board, books and anything else academically related. In their infinite wisdom, the NCAA decided to impose some of the most archaic and ridiculous rules known to collegiate existence. For example, your teammate’s parents come to town for a game and invite you out to dinner with them. Uh-oh! The NCAA says it would be a violation for you to have your dinner paid for by them. And since you aren’t allowed to have a job, you have little spending money.

Denard Robinson
How much money would these have generated for 'Shoelace' Robinson?

Of course the bigger issue is the money these athletes bring in on their own name, errrrrrr, number I should say. In 2011, the President of the NCAA put the hammer down on any thought of players making money on their own jersey selling. Can you imagine if Michigan’s Denard Robinson was getting even a percentage of those sales? Or Robert Griffin III for example? The issue is of course equality. A left guard at Eastern Washington probably isn’t going to sell too many jerseys but why can’t that money from one or two players be divided up amongst the whole team?

If players do ever end ujp getting paid or a ‘stipend’ as many like to call it, it will no doubt make you wager differently on Saturdays. You will need to pay closer attention to the injury reports because there is not doubt in my mind that any form of payment would be tied to games played or games dressed for if you follow NCAA logic.

I think it would also behoove you to pay close attention to top players around the country especially those on offense. Knowing that football players cannot leave until after three years removed from high school, will getting paid have an impact on their performance both early in their careers and late?

There was a lot of discussion about South Carolina’s Jadevon Clowney skipping his junior (and most likely final) season in order to avoid injury. He’s expected to be the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. If you think he is the only one thinking that then you’re crazy. While I fully expect Clowney to play this fall, will he be totally focused on the task at hand? Or will he throttle himself down in an effort not to get hurt?

Whether we like it or not, college football is changing and it will continue. You have to keep pace by monitoring these changes and how they could potentially affect your wagering decisions.

Pacers Even Series; Grizzlies in Must-Win Tonight

Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra
Spoelstra and the Heat will be ready for a hostile crowd in Indianapolis.

I have to give Indiana Pacers’ Head Coach Frank Vogel and his team credit. There was no way I saw them bouncing back from that game one heartbreaker in which Vogel left big man Roy Hibbert on the bench in the defining moments of the game. They proved me wrong however as Hibbert cam up huge while LeBron James turned it over twice in the final seconds to give the Pacers a 97-93 win in Miami.

The win gives the Pacers home-court now with five games remaining in the series and that’s nothing to take lightly. Just ask the New York Knicks who couldn’t beat the Pacers at home in Indy. I’m not suggesting the defending champs can’t win on the Pacers’ home floor, but it isn’t going to be easy by any stretch.

Two really interesting notes to take from last night and both involve LeBron James.

The reigning MVP can say all he wants to that he and the rest of the Heat will not vary from their normal gameplan of driving to the hoop against Hibbert, but the numbers are saying otherwise. In game two, the Heat were just eight of 20 on drives to the goal with Hibbert in the game. With Hibbert out, James himself was four of five. They can talk all they want to about Hibbert not changing things for them but clearly he does.

Secondly, James had a great game last night scoring 36 points and grabbing eight rebounds but he knows like everyone else that failed to come through down the stretch. This was always thought to be something that haunted him in the past but not anymore. Yes, it was only one game and even Michael Jordan had these games, but James had two opportunities in the final seconds and failed miserably.

While I don’t think anyone will mistake his one-on-one match-up with Paul George with the great Bird-Dr.J hook-ups of the 1980’s, this was certainly for one night a great reminder of those days. Each guy seemingly matched the other as the two competitors stared each other down at times as if it were an old west gunfight. James has his way with George for most of the game but then George held him scoreless from the field over the final three minutes.

I expect game three to be an absolute brawl and you should too.

Zach Randolph
Randolph must score better tonight for the Grizzlies to have a chance and I believe he will.

In Memphis tonight, the Grizzlies face what I would call another ‘must-win’ game. I say another because I really felt that game two was must win as well. Give the Griz credit thought as they fought back from 18 down in the 3rd quarter, but they still lost the game. There is one ray of hope for Memphis tonight and that’s previous history.

Last year, the San Antonio Spurs took the first two games from the up and coming Oklahoma City Thunder and looked like they had total control of the series. Kevin Durant and the Thunder went on to win four straight games in advancing to the NBA Finals. Granted, even just a year later, many things are different, but it’s certainly worth noting.

If the Grizzlies are going to make this a series, it has to be because of Zach Randolph. The Memphis big man has been less than stellar in the first two games and his shooting must improve for them to have any chance. While his shooting did improve slightly from game one to game two, he was still missing many high percentage shots.

For the Spurs, it’s business as usual. Keep getting contributions from Danny Green and Kahwi Leonard while Duncan, Parker and Ginobili do their thing. San Antonio enters as a five-point dog tonight but I sense a Memphis blowout this evening. Take the Griz outright at home in their “Grindhouse.”


I’m All Over the Sports World Today

Frank Vogel
Frank Vogel
Yes, Vogel's Pacers are in a 'must-win' situation in game two.

Normally I sit down and try to find a hot-button topic that will center on one specific sport but today I just feel the need to hit on a number of issues. After all, three of the four major US professional sports are in full swing. The National Basketball Association is in the midst of the conference finals while the National Hockey League is in the conference semi-final stages. Major League Baseball is of course cruising right along as usual. I’ll start ranting on hoops first.

Indiana and Miami hook up for game two of the Eastern Conference Final down on South Beach tonight and let’s face it, this game will determine the fate of the Pacers’ season. After a crushing game one defeat by a single point in overtime, the Pacers have to answer. There is no way that this team, let alone any other, will defeat the Heat in four of five remaining games.

I don’t think Roy Hibbert helped things by accusing Shane Battier of “dirty play” in game one. While it’s arguable that Battier went into Hibbert on a drive to the hoop with his knee aimed squarely at Hibbert’s groin, the big man is better off staying quiet. The Heat know they are in his head now. Indiana enters tonight as seven and half point underdogs and I’ll take that action although I think Miami wins another close one.

On the frozen surface, the league’s top team is in trouble. The Chicago Blackhawks who of course started the season with that incredible unbeaten streak are now down to the seventh seeded Red Wings three games to one after being shutout 2-0. Chicago had not lost three straight all season but has now.

The Wings are playing their typical, gritty style which has clearly frustrated the top scorers for the Blackhawks and goalie Jimmy Howard has been spectacular in net.

Out in Los Angeles, the Kings kept serve at home with a 3-0 win over the San Jose Sharks to take a 3-2 lead in that series. Jonathan Quick was solid in goal recording the shutout on 24 saves. Each team has won on their own ice throughout the series and the Sharks will need to keep the string alive on Sunday night in the Shark Tank.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pittsburgh Penguins who are essentially just 28 seconds from having swept the Ottawa Senators, but will have to return home to Pittsburgh to close out the series. Their 7-3 win in Ottawa two nights ago was exactly the reason they are favored to win the cup.

Miguel Cabrera
Is Cabrera making room for another ‘crown?’

Few teams in the NHL have the ability to explode offensively the way they did. The Pens are far more than just Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin as they showed in game four. I have no doubt they’ll close things out in game five.

Around the diamond, the hottest player in the game right now is the Detroit Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. The reigning MYP and Triple Crown winner is batting .391 and has homered in four straight games. He also has six total home runs over that four game span. Currently, Cabrera is 41 points clear of the second best hitter, trails Baltimore’s Chris Davis by one home run and has an 11 run lead in RBI’s.

Cabrera is clearly on another MVP type pace and the Triple Crown obviously has to be in the discussion as well. The only thing potentially halting Cabrera’s march could be intentional walks. As teams did with Barry Bonds, they often find him less of a threat when he is on base. The cure for that however, is Prince Fielder who came through last night in this exact situation for the game-winning hit. As long as he keeps producing, teams will still need to pitch to Cabrera.

I love the odds on Cabrera winning MVP again, but he’ll need to keep up the power numbers for me to jump back on the Triple Crown bandwagon.

A Trio of Hockey Games on the Slate for Tonight

Jimmy Howard


Jimmy Howard
Howard will need to be at the top of his game to keep thwarting the Blackhawks.

Right now, the Pittsburgh Penguins are trailing the Ottawa Senators 1-0 in game four of their Eastern Conference Semi-final game. The Pens were just 28 seconds from having a three games to zero lead before squandering it and then losing in double overtime. Should the Sens hang on tonight (and there is much time left to be played), this series would suddenly a best of three.

That’s the nature of the National Hockey League Playoffs where a single play can turn the fate of an entire series completely around.

Coming up tonight, there are three monstrous games in the NHL. In New York, the Rangers are playing for their lives down three games to zero and have no room for error. In Detroit, the top-seeded Blackhawks are down 2-1 to the seventh seeded Red Wings but I don’t sense any panic here and I’ll explain why later. Finally, out in Los Angeles, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Kings are knotted at two games apiece after San Jose took both games at home.

While every game in any playoff series is huge, these games have the potential to be true turning points in all three series.

John Tortorella
Can Torts get the Rangers back in this series against Boston?

Boston at New York (Bruins lead 3-0) – In another example of just how fine the line between winning and losing are in the playoffs, the Rangers led 1-0 into the third in game three but gave up two goals. The last of which happened with under four minutes to go. It’s clear that Henrik Lundqvist is not 100% but he’s giving a valiant performance. The issue is the guy at the other end Tuukka Rask who has been excellent.

If anyone can fire up his troops it’s John Tortorella, but it may be too late for his offensively challenged club. The Rangers have been outscored 10-5 through the first three games and if they have any chance they have to get more than two goals past Rask. Interestingly enough, the Rangers are 1.5 goal favorites tonight. I like Boston to get the broom out and win a tough game by a goal.

Chicago at Detroit (Red Wings lead 2-1) – The Wings entered this series having lost seven straight time to Chicago but have turne the tables with aggressive fore-checking and huge goaltending from Jimmy Howard. Because Detroit is not a prolific scoring team, Howard has to be good especially with the loss of defenseman Danny DeKusyer.

I look for the Blackhawks to keep pouring pucks on Howard tonight and that only matter if Corey Crawford holds up on his end. Chicago entered the place number one in the league in goals against with just two per game, but it’s there inability to score goals that has haunted them.  Chicago will be hopping on the ice at Joe Louis Arena not wanting to return down 3-1. Take the ‘Hawks.

San Jose at Los Angeles (Series tied 2-2) – I really like the aggressiveness that LA goalie Jonathan Quick plays with. He isn’t afraid to smack opposing players in a scrum or give guys a whack with his stick but sometimes I wonder if it doesn’t backfire on him. Quick got himself involved in a couple of scrums early and it seemed to fire up the Sharks who went on to win 2-1 tying the series.

The Kings will need to address the speed the Sharks displayed in game four because it was clear the Sharks wanted an up tempo game and although the score was low, it was played at the high pace they wanted. If LA can slow up San Jose then it allows them to dictate even more on the offensive end. The Kings enter as 1.5 goal favorites and I’ll take it. No reason to break the home team streak anytime soon.

Miami Hosts Indiana and Vinny is Out in LA.

Will LeBron and Erik Spoelstra have smooth sailing through Indiana?

The Eastern Conference Finals get underway tonight in Miami while the Western Conference Finals seem like they’re almost over. There are very few people picking the Indiana Pacers in this series and that’s quite understandable. The Pacers are an excellent team who seem to be made for the playoffs the way they’ve gone through opponents New York and Atlanta.

The Pacers aren’t flashy. They’re big, long and athletic and they can create serious match-up problems for any team and that may include Miami. I keep hearing about different keys to this series but I really think it will boil down to just a couple of things. First of all, I said earlier this week that I believe the Heat will win this series in seven games, but that doesn’t mean Indiana can’t pull of the upset. Here the keys as I see them…

It’s Not Hibbert, It’s Bosh – Rightfully so, many people feel Pacers’ big man Roy Hibbert is the key to the series as he totally dominated the Knicks and will look to do the same in Miami. There is a major difference between playing the Knicks and playing the Heat however when it comes to the big men.

Chris Bosh is a big man who can play down on the block but he can do the one thing the Knicks’ bigs couldn’t and that’s knock down the outside jump shot. If Bosh can routinely move Hibbert away from the basket by hitting the 10-12 footers then the Heat will have accomplished two things; they get scoring from Bosh and more importantly they get more access to the paint area where Hibbert will have been forced to vacate.

The Most Important Knee in Basketball – A few weeks ago this title belonged to Russell Westbrook but now it belongs to Miami’s Dwyane Wade. If that knee is not 100%, Wade can still be effective, but should it cause him enough problems to where he misses minutes or even a game then that drastically alters the series.

Paul George
My question is, can George be effective at both ends against Miami?

Can Paul George Be a Factor at Both Ends? – It’s no secret that Paul George will be locked on LeBron James quite a bit throughout this series and the question will be can he play great defense on the league’s best player and still be effective on the offensive end? It might sound like this is something these guys do all the time anyway and it is, but not with the intensity required in the playoffs.

The goal for George isn’t so much to keep LeBron from scoring so much as it is making him work to get those points.

The rest of the factors in this series will work themselves out, but I really believe those are the three key ones to focus on.

So Long Vinny – I can’t say it came as much of a surprise, but Los Angeles Clippers Head Coach Vinny Del Negro has been fired by the team. Pretty amazing considering his Clippers’ team won 56 games this year and the organization’s first Pacific Division title. Most people will point the finger at Chris Paul who may not have been happy with the direction of the Clippers’ offense under Del Negro.

Never mind the fact they were blitzed by Memphis in four straight games after winning the opening two… Obviously the first guy on the short list of replacements is Phil Jackson but let’s remember that the 11-time champion is engaged to be married to Lakers CEO Jeannie Buss. I think the term ‘awkward’ would be useful in this situation.