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Mark Woods
Journalist
A writer and broadcaster for a number of outlets, including The Guardian, The Sun, The Herald and Scotland on Sunday, Mark Woods has covered basketball and the NBA since 1990, scribing on everything from the high stakes of the Finals to the fun and games of All Star Weekend. Mark is a regular contributor to BBC Sport and he also produces a Podcast for Basketball 24/7. He still plays - dodgy right knee permitting - for Darroch BC in his home city of Edinburgh, UK. His own website is at www.insidesport.co.uk.

National duty worth the price

This Blog is returning briefly from its summer slumber, and cricket and golf duties for Her Majesty’s BBC, to thank the Chicago Bulls for making Luol Deng a very rich man, so soon. Not that Jerry Reinsdorf needs additional gratitude. Not in Chicago. However, barring some insurance issues, it has cleared the Sudan-born Londoner to turn out for Great Britain in this summer’s European Championships qualifiers, an important step on the path to 2012.

It is an oft fraught conflict between the NBA and the international game. He who pays the piper normally plays the tune. Except, so important is national team competition that – for prestige, patriotic pride or just self-improvement – it has become nigh impossible to stop highly-paid players from turning out for their countries, despite the inherent risks which come from throwing their bodies into the line of fire during what their employers (laughably) refer to as the off-season.

The risk must be managed. That is why Deng started GB training camp watching from the sidelines until clearance came through. And why his Bulls team-mate Ben Gordon has not yet linked up with the squad; until his contract situation is resolved, it is too large a gamble for him to risk securing his future with a long-term NBA deal for the sake of representing the country of his birth.

"We understand Ben's position and he has been consistent and up front with us about it all year,” said GB coach Chris Finch. "But when our training camp moves to Belgium later this month, we need him with us if he is going to play. That would give him nearly two weeks of practice before we open our group games against Israel and a player of his quality could easily integrate into our team in that time."

Unless he signs a new agreement soon, you can forget him appearing in a British vest this year. There will be undoubtedly be a few anxious GMs watching the Olympic Games, fingers crossed in the hope that their stars are not tripped up by a flag. San Antonio were not keen on Manu Ginobili’s participation – qué sera, for them. The Lakers will want Pau Gasol back unscathed and Memphis likewise for Marc. Even those Star Spangled execs cheering on the Redeem Team would rather their representatives return intact than capturing gold.

I’m looking forward to Beijing, to the sub-plot of whether LeBron James can make good on his promise of American gold. Will they ever learn?

Me? I’m backing Spain for glory. Roll on four years time though.

PS. This one’s for Steve, Billy, Rob, Mo and Mau – cheers fellas.

Posted by Mark Woods on August 8th 2008, 12:00 p.m. ET

Famine over as Celtics return to the top

Boston, you’re being greedy.

Firstly, you try to monopolise Super Bowl, thwarted only by our very favourite Scottish kicker (OK, Eli you played your part too). Then you snaffle up the World Series (which, incidentally, should follow the NBA’s lead and start referring to itself instead as the Major League Championship’).

And now you want the NBA title as well? For the Celtics? Who have been so estranged from their relationship with the Larry O’Brien Trophy that any sane judge would have waved through a decree absolut without a moment’s deliberation.

Like I said, just plain greedy.

When I visited Boston a few months ago, there wasn’t so much a buzz about the C’s, more still a murmur. In the sports bars, there were plenty of Patriots flags fluttering and jerseys sported (it was only two weeks after they’d lost in Super Bowl), plenty of photos of Tom Brady and Giselle on the front pages, and more in-depth chat about videography than you’d get down the local branch of Jessop’s.

The prospects of the Sox were dissected in a similar fashion: could they repeat? Would they trade? And just as important, would they be able to take a crafty swipe at the Yankees en route. Winning matters. Poking New York in the ribs is a welcome bonus.

Chat about the Celtics remained in short supply, even as they sat atop the league standings, even with a line-up which was promising to deliver something which hadn’t been savoured here for an entire generation. Few were sporting green in both tribute and support on the paths through Boston Common. When I’d first come here, 15 years before, shamrocks were the accessories of choice. No longer. Basketball was relegated to third place. That’s what losing does. Eventually, it wears you down to the point when the only way to numb the pain is to surgically remove the source from view.

Now Bostonians have a hoops squad to be proud of again. One which the new generation can reminisce over when times, as they inevitably do, get tough again. They no longer have to tune into historical accounts of the feats of Bird and Russell while wondering how men played with such ferocity while sporting moustaches, growing long hair and wearing shorts which lived up to the name.

(As an inside here, I recently tried on my university team shorts for the first time in a long while. On the plus side, they still fit. However, I do wonder how they didn’t impact on fertility. I digress.)

It was like when youthful Manchester United fans had to sustain themselves for a quarter-century with grainy footage of Best, Law and Charlton. That was all they had. A glorious past replaced by a mediocre present. Until the wee mon from Govan came along to cast his spell.

Now, in Beantown, they can go green without re-cycling used material. They can wax lyrical about Kevin Garnett and recount how he screamed ‘top of the world’ at the top of his voice. Tell folk about the way in which Ray Allen survived a poke in the eye to deliver a right hook to the Lakers’ ribs. And when Paul Pierce made himself irrevocably a Celtics immortal by stepping up when it mattered most, a Most Valuable Player without a price tag.

Not to mention, how much they appreciated the work of Rajon, Leon et al. And even the cheerleading of Brian Scalabrine. (As an additional aside, is there an argument for the twelfth man in a Finals series just to be handed a pair of pom-poms? ‘Ra-ra-Rondo’?)

Why, B-Scal asked, would anyone think his minimalist role was a chore? “I'll tell you,” he said, “it's not that difficult to do, because guess what, maybe now you could say I didn't play a second, but in five years, you guys are going to forget. In ten years I'll still be a champion. In 20 years I'll tell my kids I probably started, and in 30 years I'll probably tell them I got the MVP. So I'm probably not too worried about it.” He was grinning as he said it. From ear to ear. As Barry Norman used to say (OK, only his Spitting Image), And why not? Memories are short on detail and long on sentiment.

This might not be the best Boston Celtics team ever. Far from it. They had too many flaws. Suffered too many meltdowns. And they were facing a Los Angeles Lakers crew which was one-dimensional in the extreme. 4-2 was a fair result. And on the west coast, there is the prospect of better to come next season. The Lakers weren’t meant to be this good, this fast. But they’ll need to improve themselves to take the next step.

In Game 6, however, this Boston team proved itself a champion. It demonstrated the guts and guile of its fearsome antecedents. For a short while, at least, Beantown is C-Town again.

Who’d have thought that 12 months ago? The appetite for the Celtics is back.

Greed, in this case, is all good.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 19, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

1 down, or 2 to go?

Onward Boston ho. Not for a Tea Party but, the denizens of Beantown hope, a C Party. One out of two will suffice and although the Los Angeles Lakers had a terrific defensive performance in Game 5, there was not enough to suggest they can make history by coming from 3-1 down to lift the NBA title.

As I wrote in my column in The Guardian, this is not going to be a series which lives long in the memory for the quality of the basketball. There hasn’t (yet) been any of the level of drama of that served up by Rocco Mediate and my very distant cousin Tiger over the last few days.

But there could be. And what better place than the Garden, not the old one which was laced with ghosts of brilliant pasts, but the new one which must, sooner or later, create its own spectre of accomplishment?

You think, sooner or later, that Kobe Bryant must do what few can do, namely torch an opponent. Anyone but me, he admits. Boston has done an excellent job of letting the rest of the Lakers try to beat them. Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom managed to step on Sunday but such contributions have been rarer of late than hits from pre-game anthem singer Ashanti.

Yet it ain’t over. This is not the Boston of the sixties or the eighties, teams that would strangle you once they had a grip. You think Larry Bird and Kevin McHale wouldn’t have pounced on LA when they displayed weakness? Then again, they would never have allowed the Lakers to surge so far ahead before they woke up from their inert state.

Anything can still happen. “We know that we are two wins away from winning a Championship,” said Gasol. “But without the first one, we are not getting to the second one. We’re focusing on Game 6 because it’s going to be super hard to get that one.”

But not impossible. It’s not time to start the party yet not, when the fat lady hasn’t yet sung her piece

Posted by Mark Woods on June 16, 2008, 5:00 p.m. ET

Sleep for wimps to keep pace with LA nightlife

Jet lag sucks.

Not knowing what time zone your body’s supposed to be in.

That fatigue that accompanies the odd sensation of being awake when you should be fast asleep.

The horrible sensation when the eyes begin to shut involuntarily and you can’t find the match sticks to prop ‘em open.

Yup, it’s no fun having jet lag.

And I’m not even in LA.

It’s a peculiar fascination, watching the NBA Finals from eight time zones removed. It takes a heightened level of concentration, dedication and an almost perverse willingness to push yourself to the limits of endurance. Big Brother contestants? Wimps!

You have to be prepared. You need to bring your A-Game. My buddy Scott came over to watch Part Deux of Celtics-Lakers the other morning. He’s a tough-talking, hard-nosed, long-haired Australian, who wouldn’t think twice about ripping the head off a rattlesnake if it was threatening his beer. That’s kind of approach is mandatory here. Without it, we’d never have made it all the way to the start of the fourth quarter without the regenerative power of coffee. The SAS got nothing on us.

If it goes seven, we’re ready. Bring it on, I say. If the early bird catches the worm, then he’s lucky our diet is crisps and energy bars. Otherwise, there could be some early day scrapping. Jack Nicholson might be smirking away in his courtside seat. But his days of staying up til 5am and remaining coherent are done. We’re still standing when lesser men and women would have nodded off. We’re the real Hollywood heroes of the piece.

It can get surreal. I was sure I’d had a brief snoozy flurry during Game 3 and had a mad flashback dream that PJ Brown and Sam Cassell scored consecutive baskets. And that Kojak was sucking on a lollipop behind the Lakers bench. It was all so very Life on Mars. Except turns out the Celtics vets (I’m being kind) had dipped back to their youth and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was doing his best Telly Savalas impression. Who loves ya baby?

At least, I never nodded off in front of a world-wide audience (unlike one unfortunate member of the Chinese media who decided to grab 40 winks at a game I covered earlier this season and woke up to find himself surrounded by bank of cameras). There were plenty of moments on Tuesday night when it looked like both Boston and LA were in a state of semi-consciousness as a result of the move from east coast to west. Early on, the C’s went over five minutes without a field goal before Ray Allen provided a wake-up call with a timely three. The hosts then took their turn to go to sleep. The nightmares continued with only Kobe Bryant – with 19 in the first half, more than the Big Green 3 combined – evading the wave of insomnia.

Up 43-37 at halftime, it was the Lakers’ turn to go to sleep. And for Kevin Garnett to burst into life. A 14-2 run in the third from Boston overturned the deficit with KG heading the charge. If the momentum was all in LA’s favour early in, it had passed to Celtics. Even Eddie House was getting in on the act. Incensed, Phil Jackson looked like he wanted to go around every member of his squad and give them a good shake. It was like that scene in ‘Shaun of the Dead’ when after a brief flurry of activity, the alive turn into the waking dead. Only Lamar Odom playing the role of a zombie was not the script that Jackson had written.

It was so bad that even Sylvester Stallone and Eddie Murphy, sitting courtside together, would have disowned it. But as Jackson himself noted at the outset of the fourth: “this game’s going down the stretch.” With Steven Spielberg in close vicinity, you felt it would be worth pushing through the inner cry for duvet and pillow to catch an action-packed ending.

Like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the plot didn’t always make sense. Odom failing, time and again, to recognise the defence in his path. Pau Gasol looking more a barn door than a matador. The Celtics, in unison, not finding a way to re-ignite Paul Pierce’s shooting streak once more before he picked up his fifth foul with eight minutes remaining.

At that point just two points separated these age-old rivals. If one had truly awoken from their coma and burst into life, it could have been so much more. But, by now, there was no danger of drifting off (except for a certain former NBA player who messaged me to say he was heading to bed before the finish – I won’t name names to spare his wife the embarrassment). Not with so much at stake. Not with Jeff Van Gundy having a rant on camera about baldness and cheap haircuts. You’ll be having nightmares about that one for months.

Boston will have more of them about Sasha Vujacic for at least the next 48 hours. With matters still evenly poised, they left the Slovene Machine open too often, and paid the price. The opportunity to take a 3-0 lead slipped through his fingers as the Celtics’ challenge slipped away as LA seized a 87-81 win.

The Series is alive. Beware the waking giant now. We have ourselves a Finals. To hell with jet lag. Coffee at the ready. Roll on Game 4.

- Good to hear that British Bulls star Luol Deng is working out in Florida ahead of national team training camp, and ahead of July 1’s open season on contract talks with Chicago and elsewhere. However, to the delight of those of us who have signed up to the ‘BG4GB campaign’, he has been putting the pressure on team-mate Ben Gordon to commit to playing for the land of his birthplace in this summer’s European Championship qualifiers.

“I have spoken to BG two weeks ago and he sounded like he really wanted to be a part of it,” revealed Deng in a conference call with journalists. “He said the most important thing right now is for him to sort out his contract with the Bulls. But even if he doesn't play this summer, I really believe Ben Gordon will play soon for the GB team.

“It will be great for us if he could make it this summer, but I also understand that he has never played for GB before and he might just be a little bit worried about his contract and taking care of that first. But whether he plays or not this summer, he told me he'll be in England when we play and that he'll be there.”

It will be interesting, however, to see what Deng and Gordon think of the unexpected appointment of Vinnie Del Negro as Bulls coach when it comes to deciding on their future.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 11, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

D remains key for Celtics

Apparently, one or two NBA teams have considered Boston Celtics’ assistant Tom Thibodeau for their head coaching vacancy.

Apparently, one or two NBA teams aren’t prepared to wait until the end of the Finals to give Thibodeau a decent look at their jobs.

Apparently, one or two NBA teams are nuts.

The C’s haven’t just contained the Los Angeles Lakers in the first two games of this season’s finals. For long, critical stretches, they’ve owned them. And it is Thibodeau, the in-house Minister of Defence on the home bench, who has funnelled Boston into a lean, mean, green fighting machine.

It was no accident that Doc Rivers tabbed the highly touted coaching lifer to join his bench this season after he lost his job in Houston as a consequence of Jeff Van Gundy’s axing. While with the Rockets, he helped fashion the Other Tenacious D from players best known from their ‘O’, working closely with Yao Ming to turn him from a defensive liability to at least neutral.

Rivers has a huge admiration for his newest cohort. “That's all Tom wants to do, every day - coach defense,” he told the Boston Globe. “He lives it, breathes it. He has an energy. We haven't changed a lot of our coverages, but we have more detail to them. Tom pays a greater attention to detail. And it was needed."

Bringing Kevin Garnett to Boston was always going to make the Celtics a more parsimonious outfit. However Thibodeau’s myriad experience around the league, first with Minnesota, then with Seattle, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, and latterly Houston, means he has a tight an insight as any into what might happen, when and where.

It has been the Celtics’ secret weapon, and nowhere has it been more potent than in the past four days. In Game 1, the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to recreate the offensive rhythm that had been music to the ears of Phil Jackson in these playoffs. Plenty of movement, on and off the ball. The triangle offense executed seamlessly. Diligence on duty.

A plan torn up because of the way in which the hosts of these opening two encounters have devised a plan to nullify the Lakers and, in particular, Kobe Bryant. Denied any space to attack like humanity’s answer to the Black Mamba, denied outlets to share the load, denied any opportunity to settle comfortably into their habitual system, the Lakers star has been a huge disappointment so far.

This was tagged as a series between Boston’s defensive power and the scoring potency of LA. How Phil Jackson must wish he had some of Thibodeau’s savvy sitting to his left. The Lakers have been positively lethargic in trying to halt Boston’s forays, too many shots unchallenged, too many rebounds presented on a plate.

It’s an energy thing. Endeavour at one end of the court powering industry at the other. Having short-circuited the Lakers for three quarters of Game 2 and the final period of Game 1, it is no wonder that the momentum is undeniably in the favour of Rivers’ men as the Finals jet West for Game 3.

No wonder Bryant was fuming on the bench with Lakers down 81-59 late in third. Boston had been allowed to embark on a 13-0 run.
Unforgivable. But hardly a surprise given what had gone before. Bryant was as culpable as his colleagues. But the Celtics had squashed their heart and their life. Defibrillators were at the ready until complacency sunk in.

If this series is to go the distance, Jackson has to find a consistent way through Thibodeau’s plotting – and soon. Doing it for 12 minutes a night will not suffice. He must find a way to get Bryant open for more good shots, rather than be forced to settle for some of the absurdities thrown up in Beantown. And to restore the fluidity which carried the Lakers, so ominously past San Antonio in the Conference finals. It is not over yet. But it is now a hugely awkward road back into contention.

In the fourth stanza on Sunday, there was a stinging demonstration of what LA is capable of when Boston let their guard down. Too little, too late, ultimately, despite a three-point barrage which made Beantown sweat before the 108-102 win was sealed. But to reference the great gridiron coach, Vince Lombardi, offense may win games but defence wins championships.

Despite a mighty scare caused by the 31-9 run which brought the Lakers within two points late on, Boston is now but two victories away from their nadir. Defence has got them there. For the mastermind, it’s an easy verdict so far.

Nice job.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 6, 2008, 10:30 a.m. ET

Energy lost and found in Game 1

There was that incredible moment in the Garden, midway through the third quarter, when Paul Pierce emerged from the tunnel. The noise levels accelerated, a wave of green and white arose, and – five minutes after he had been carried gingerly off the famous parquet - hearts beat that bit easier as fears that the Celtics’ captain might have seen his NBA Finals ended almost before it began were alleviated. When Pierce then drained back to back three-pointers in the third quarter, it all exploded to the max. ‘Beat LA’ they chanted. We have ourselves a rivalry folks. And what a Finals it promises to be, based on the evidence presented in the first three quarters of Game 1. It wasn’t quite Willis Reed. But the emotion clearly turned the tie in the favour of the hosts, en route to a 98-88 victory. (Although, at this point, I’ll like to thank my cable company’s recording system for cutting off the recording of the game with five minutes left – never trusting that again!).

Typically, the spark wasn’t so much lit under the C’s offense. It keyed a D which held the Lakers to just 37 points in the second half. More critically still, they did a masterful job in holding Kobe Bryant in check. Just 24 points overall, 9 for 26 (including for 1 for 6 in the fourth), almost a non-factor at the very point when everyone might have expected him to seize control. "I had some great looks," Bryant said. "They just didn't stay down. I'll just have to pile it in with the other bad shooting games I've had and flush it and come back Game 2 and hopefully I get the same looks.” Strangely, he may have pre-empted his own struggles. Jeff Van Gundy made a good point in the television commentary about Bryant’s new-found approach as he passed up a jump shot in favour of passing to Pau Gasol in the lane. That was not necessarily a sign of extreme selflessness. What you have to remember, said JVG, was that “a year ago, he had Kwame Brown there.” Much missed, no doubt. But like any other player, you need to shoot in order to warm up your shot. Bryant’s hot hand is the Lakers’ principal weapon in this series. Game 2 in the Garden will see the same energy within. For LA to threaten, they’ll need to bring some of their own or face a hobble back home.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 6, 2008, 10:30 a.m. ET

Finals focus must be on present, not past

Growing up, it always had to be Celtics-Lakers. Not on screen, you understand. Those were the days of just four channels, when Internet was confined to top-secret US military bases (the ones where they kept the aliens, so I believe), and the concept of hopping over to watch a game as far-fetched as a conservative leading the Labour Party.

It was such a long, long time ago. And although those of my generation (whatever that is) will feel a nostalgic glow that the NBA’s two storied clubs are reuniting for the first time in 21 years in the Finals, no-one should overlook the fascination of the present by focusing their attentions, misty-eyed, on the past.

Make no mistake, while Kobe Bryant is a student of what has gone before, he is intent on placing this Lakers squad, his Lakers team, on the same pedestal as those of the recent and far-flung past. And for all the time that Kevin Garnett has spent lately shooting the breeze with Bill Russell and inhaling war stories from the living archives, history will provide no solace if his Celtics come up short. That’s how the Finals should be. Life in the present. Leaving it on the court. One game at a game. Clichés each but not without their subtle truths. Lose today, at least from Game Four onwards, and there may be no second chances tomorrow. Save energy, and there could be no outlet to set it free again.

The promise of a ticker tape parade. The intoxication of picking up the bauble. Many have hoped for it. Many greats have gone without. Dominique Wilkins never came so close. Charles Barkley never had another shot. Their solo records count for much but as an ensemble, they could never top the charts. What would they give for the tag of champion? Barkley, despite his recent pledge to refrain from wagers, would – you suspect - stake a lot on that gambit.

Look down the roster lists, and those who have supped the champagne before are in short supply. James Posey, a champ with Miami two years ago, may bring out his commemorative ring to show his Bostonian team-mates what four more victories might bring. As Magic and Larry said, just this week, the fact that Bryant – along with Derek Fisher - has raised the banner three times before will do the Lakers no harm at all.

Those who have not, thus, are in the majority. Garnett, a lion in this den, has waited 13 years for such an opportunity. No-one in the modern era has accomplished so much but earned so little. He lacks flash, the spark which delivers seconds of brilliance which sit long in the memory. Defence, intensity, selflessness are noble traits but they do not burn themselves indelibly. Being a victor on this grand stage is what will punch his ticket to the immortality which his talent merits.

Likewise for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, stars of the modern day who will forever sparkle, in Boston at least, should they restore lustre to the Green and the original Pride to Beantown. Right down to the end of the bench, they might never buy a drink again should Number 17 be captured.

Ditto for the Lakers in the chic boutique bars of Rodeo Drive. Luke Walton, a die-hard Celt on his youth, will be forever LA. Lamar Odom will be forgiven his foibles. Few will recall that Pau Gasol was ever a Grizzly (although, to be fair, it escaped many). Vladimir Radmanovic can do what Vlade Divac never managed. Spain and Serbia expect. While Bryant – now indisputably the finest of his epoque - will have no Shaq-sized spoils to share this time around.

He can divide the credit, though. "My teammates have done a great job of elevating their games. I shouldn't even call them team-mates. We're like brothers because we're all that close. So nothing else matters right now.” The past, as he underlines, is the past.

It will take their all. Gasol will need to produce the kind of super-human form he brings to Spain to deny Garnett. Radmanovic, similarly, to thwart Pierce, and Odom to repel Kendrick Perkins. Somehow, in unison, Boston must limit Bryant as best they can. Doing so will impact hugely on whether they can have a genuine shot at coming out on top.

That it is Lakers-Celtics, Boston versus LA, will only fuel the fires which surround this volcanic eruption. But not on the floor. There is ignition enough there, given the competitive fires which burn fiercely on both sides.

Michael Cooper, the Lakers forward of that eighties era, was asked once to define the Celtics. He told The LA Times: “They were the Muhammed Alis of basketball.”

This time, it is Ali against Ali, two heavy-weight sluggers ready for the scrap. The bell is ready to go. Celtic-Lakers, as it ever was.

Entirely new legends, however, are waiting to be written for the last men standing.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 4, 2008, 5:00 p.m. ET

Honesty pays off in the long run

So it WAS a foul! When Derek Fisher bumped Brent Barry amid his last-gasp game leveller in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, there was a momentary protest from San Antonio but then resignation. These things happen all the time, and they can go either way.

But then, surprise, the league turned round and declared it should have been a whistle, giving Barry – an ace free throw shooter – the opportunity to force OT and potentially see the Spurs escape the 3-1 deficit they now rest in. "With the benefit of instant replay, it appears a foul call should have been made," league spokesman Tim Frank said.

What I like about what has transpired is two-fold.

One: The NBA’s referees still have an honesty issue for well-known reasons. If they had blown up for a foul on Fisher, there would inevitably have been some folk out there wondering if, just maybe, there was something untoward. Not that it should have stopped them making a decision but the last thing the league really needs this season is an end of game, decisive, official conspiracy.

Two: There was a mistake, and it was admitted to. Now I’ve watched the incident a bunch of times and I don’t think the contact affected Barry’s shot attempt, which should really predicate whether it was an irrefutable foul or not. To the letter of the law, it was. The NBA’s overlords agree. But in confirming their fallibility, it means there can be no gripes or moans. C’est la vie.

The Spurs are down 3-1. And it’s not because of a whistle. As Barry affirmed: "That play was not where the game was lost." No crying foul, it was because the champs were simply out-played.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 29, 2008, 11:00 a.m. ET

The Spurs need an X (or Oz) Factor

My buddy Scott is Australia’s answer to Manu Ginobili. At least, he tries his best. Whether darting for Darroch, or bruising for the Basketeers, he doesn’t mind hurling himself into traffic to the aid of the cause. Maybe it’s just because he’s ‘Stralian. After all, if you lived in a country with the ten deadliest species on the planet (ish), you’d probably be ready to move pretty darn fast at a second’s notice. Unless your name is Andrew Bogut, of course.

The San Antonio Spurs need a large slice of that Antipodean spirit at the moment. Not just a dash of Manu Mayhem. But from every single guy on their roster if they want to dig themselves out of a 3-1 hole to the Lakers. It’s not that the Alamo’s finest are letting standards slip, or that the ageing process has taken an inevitable hold. It’s just that, dare say it, their well-oiled magnificence has become just a tad predictable. And the new kids on the Los Angeles Block have duly capitalised, knowing exactly what to expect.

That’s what happens when you’re as good as the Spurs have been, for so long. They’ve been gold standard of consistency for so long that when they slip – as has happened more than once in these playoffs – it becomes all the more noteworthy. But more than a regression in their play, could it be that their opponents have simply debunked the mythology?

Tony Parker has been copping much of the blame. But if you look at his statistics, the 2007 Finals MVP has been better in this post-season than ever before. Scoring (22.8) up. Assists (6.2) up. Field goal percentage (.496) up. All career highs. Likewise, for his Argentine cohort, he is scoring more (a whole 3.5 ppg higher than any previous campaign) while averaging more rebounds and assists. They are still vying with Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton for the title of the best backcourt in the biz. Of the Big Three, Tim Duncan is the only one whose numbers have dipped but anyone notching over 19 points and 11 boards can hardly be described as ebbing away. Statistics matter only so much.

It just seems as though the gap between the Spurs and the rest has narrowed. The Lakers, with their acutely precise passing and movement, and their tireless work ethic and hunger, replicate so much of their rivals’ formula for success. Despite the individual brio of Kobe Bryant, has any Phil Jackson squad ever been so unified?

However, it would be dangerous to hand the Lakers the West crown just yet. San Antonio’s gunslingers will have a few bullets still in reserve. All they need is to shake it up and inject a touch of the unexpected. Which, as my Aussie chum might say, would make it a fair go.

- Don’t forget you can now get daily video highlights of the play-offs, via the BBC Sport website while every game of the Finals will be screened live on Five. Plus you can read my regular NBA column at The Guardian.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 28, 2008, 11:00 a.m. ET

Now not the time for Celtics to splinter

Testing times in Beantown.

Ray Allen is slumping. Kevin Garnett is on unfamiliar ground. Paul Pierce is experiencing déjà vue. What hope for the Celtics? Having climbed from the troughs to the peaks in just 12 months, it has almost been over-looked that this particular crew remains in its infancy, still developing its identity, still proving its mettle – not just to us, but also to each other.

We saw that in Game 7 against Atlanta, where a wobble became concrete. So too, against Cleveland where the jitters turned to stone cold assassination. From adversity comes strength in numbers, and such escapades will only have forged the Bostonian bond.

But here sit the Celtics of 2008 with huge expectation but also immense uncertainty. Yet to win on the road in these playoffs, what accomplishments were accrued in the regular season now mean very little. Like Rangers, edged out within a week in the Uefa Cup and SPL, merely coming close to greatness isn’t quite enough. It ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish, and Doc Rivers’ men will claim little credit if they fall to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Dropping Game 2 at the Garden has done their chances no good whatsoever. It was an uncertain showing, mistakes were made, and fallibility proven. Rivers is in virgin territory too and he will have to earn every bit of his corn not that the Celtics’ plans to become the first team to reach an NBA Finals without a road win is no longer an advantageous pursuit. Allen, so reliable for his entire career, has suddenly misplaced his aim. A shooter without it is damaged goods. Confidence seeps away with every miss.

Garnett has much to prove, if only to himself. There is a legacy at stake here, one which will tag him as a winner, as well as the great player he undoubtedly is. Having toiled for 12 years in Minnesota, this is his time. The clock ticks.

Pierce is in a similar position but without the burden of the past. We already know he cannot carry an entire roster on his back. Now, he shouldn’t have to anyway. He is playing his part in the ensemble.

But if there is one key trait of (cue The Palace’s PA announcer) Dee-troit basketball, it is that familiarity breeds not contempt, but unity. Against such singular foes, now is not the time for Boston to stand still.

It is about taking strides forward while hope still very much remains.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 23, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

Where will D’Antoni’s chips fall?

Two teams. One dice.

High stakes are at play on the tables which are seeing Mike D’Antoni roll from the Phoenix Suns to the New York Knicks to become the head coach of the most dysfunctional franchise since … erm, the Flint Tropics.

It’s a gamble from Suns General Manager, Steve Kerr, just one year removed from his switch from television booth to front office. More even than his mid-season trade for Shaquille O’Neal, which failed to pay dividends as his side rolled out of the playoffs at the hands of San Antonio.

Here is a coach who, by common consent, shook up the accepted practice of the post-millennium NBA and thrilled not only its own fans but also admirers around the world with a frenetic brand of basketball. Eight Seconds Or Less … but More. It failed to win a championship but the former Milan playcaller won hearts by maximising his offense, even if it left gaps at the other end.

That was, reportedly, a dichotomy which drove a wedge between him and Kerr. Hence why, despite going 253-136 with the Suns over 4+ years (the fourth-best winning percentage in the league over that time span), a parting of the ways has been facilitated.

New York, eager to re-build in the post-Isiah era, was only too glad to snap him up.

Yet they are hedging their bets too. The Knicks, downtrodden and forgotten, need to re-tool to restore some lustre to the Garden. D’Antoni has players in situ who can run the floor but to take NYC’s finest to the only place that counts, the Finals, he will need to slowly build more with less than he had when he stepped up to the lead chair in Phoenix.

Donnie Walsh, the new Knicks GM, will somehow need to dig his club out from under the financial millstone left by his predecessors and find a way to start anew.

Whether D’Antoni can be the man for all those seasons is yet to be proven. For him, the move is a gamble too, despite the hefty paycheque for his services. An international reputation as one of the best comes with him. Many, though, have travelled with high hopes to New York, only to find their dreams and ambitions shattered in Gotham’s unforgiving light.

Playoff thoughts

Just how good is Chris Paul? Even though Gregg Popovich’s tactical adjustments may yet see San Antonio nudge past New Orleans and return, once again, to the Western Conference Finals, there is no doubt that Paul has become a genuine star in the league. Any second thoughts about him being on the USA Olympic squad should surely be dismissed tout de suite.

How fragile are the Celtics? Unable to win on the road this post-season, a touch of mental fallibility has appeared. The best of the regular season suddenly looks beatable by a Cleveland side that is, once again, overcoming its deficiencies to excel when it matters.

How crafty are the Pistons? Orlando are not near ready to compete for a title but Detroit are shaping up to make a run all the way to the very end by playing hard every night.

And just how good a series is the Lakers-Jazz? I still believe Utah will prevail in seven but with Kobe upholding his MVP tag (take a lesson, Dirk), it is going to be a fascinating duel to the finish.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 13, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

Don’t miss CP3-oh!

Do you remember that incredible move that Chris Paul made in the post-season, 12 months ago, when he swept past three opponents, took the ball to the hole, and then drove his team to yet another emphatic victory?

Of course, you didn’t. Never happened.

Do you recall that moment in CP3’s rookie year when he tore up the league and anointed himself the MVP-in-waiting, earning the affection of Moms and their daughters across America with his easy charm?

Me neither. But you might be able to put that one down to the amnesiacal effects of the ageing process.

The truth is, before this campaign, we didn’t really know much about the New Orleans playmaker par excellence, even if we’d gained a certain appreciation of just how good he’d already become.

Those days are over. Anonymity, no more.

Paul, my choice for the MVP bauble this season, was only just denied by a superlative campaign from Kobe Bryant (an overdue victor of the prize, in any case). But if there has been a better performer, night after night, in the past six months, then I’ve not noticed him. The 2007-08 campaign has, in every season, been Paul’s coming out party. And the good news is that the festivities have only just begun.

The inexorable rise of Number Three is all the more remarkable because we really didn’t see it coming. We knew LeBron would be good. Really good. We were fairly certain Yao would make his mark, one way or the other. Paul snuck up on us when we weren’t looking like a friendly sprite bearing gifts. And surprises are always more fun than the fully expected.

(OK, there’s the small matter of Darko Milicic and Andrew Bogut, but it would be no fun if GMs didn’t get it wrong occasionally.)

What has propelled Paul into centre stage from off-Broadway as an over (82) night success, is his accessibility. He’s not that much taller than your average bear. He’s erudite. There’s a ready smile. And when the All-Star Game came to the Big Easy in February, he understand the importance of his role as host and point man.

No wonder that when opponents come to town, they’re often to be found at his pad, hanging out, shooting the breeze, putting their Size 26 feet up. He is the all-inclusive guy in a way that Bryant, James and their Millionaire Boys Club can never be. Like Dwight Howard, he is just what the league needs to maintain its return to the mainstream. If only the Hornets were coming to London, rather than the Nets. Cheap flights to Barcelona, anyone?

But don’t like Paul’s warm ‘n’ fuzzy exterior be confused with fallibility on court. If you’ve seen any of the opening two games of the Western Conference semi-finals with San Antonio, you’ll have witnessed a young man on a mission. Dallas were cast aside, despite the forecasts of the so-called experts (mea culpa). And against the Spurs, there’s a real danger that not only will the defending champs be sent packed but that the most breath-taking performer on the floor won’t be a certain Argentine Duracell Bunny.

Having broken the genie out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in now. Mere statistics don’t quite suffice to show basketball has a new superstar in its midst. He might be as close as you’ll get to an ordinary guy among the elite.

But once you’ve seen what he can do, you’ll not forget it in a hurry.

Euro thoughts

With CSKA Moscow picking up the Euroleague title in Madrid last weekend, the most significant news was the NBA prospects of two of those involved.

The news that Ettore Messina had rebuffed an offer from Barcelona to remain as the Russians’ coach was a blow for those who hoped he might try his luck in the NBA. However, David Anderson could be bound for the States in the summer and he is, undoubtedly, capable of making an impact.

London has been tabbed as a likely host of the Euro Final Four in 2010 or 2011, something which could pave the way for a NBA regular season game ahead of the Olympic Games. The 02 Arena, sources within British basketball tell me, is to host GB against Czech Republic later this year in the Eurobasket qualifiers. All of which is building momentum with Ben Gordon’s availability for Britain becoming ever more probable.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 9, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

Awards choices are no-brainer

It's awards season in the NBA with the ballots cast and the envelopes now sealed. Having marked my crosses in the relevant boxes last weekend, I've made up my mind who I think deserves to pick up a gong and who should go home with just a goodie bag.

My column in The Guardian from today sets out my choices for the prizes. If you agree or disagree, feel free to comment.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 22, 2008, 4:30 p.m. ET

First Round is The Other Lottery

The NBA - where amazing happens. Such as the Atlanta Hawks making the post-season while Golden State doesn't. Or that hideous Boston Celtics team, which was just beginning its summer holidays 12 months ago, turning into a contender. Or even where the Phoenix Suns are meeting the San Antonio Spurs again. The NBA - where nothing is impossible.

So, with the caveat that predictions are thus rendered futile and open to later ridicule, here's my take on the first round of this year's Playoffs.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

L.A. Lakers vs. Denver
The Intrigue:
The Lakers are back. The Nuggets are in… but only just. There's no D in Denver (apart from the aforementioned one). But there are two As in the re-crowned Kings of Hollywood. Kobe and Pau trump AI and Melo. And no-one wants the possibility of a Celtics-Lakers final spoiled this soon.
The Prediction: Lakers in 5

New Orleans vs. Dallas
The Intrigue:
Everyone Loves Chris. And the Hornets. You bet they're feeling grumpy in Charlotte now. Everybody's favourite other side have put the good into feelgood but CP3 earning himself some MVP love in the process. Countering that, Dirk's not been feeling the love. He's not happy about it. And the Mavs are starting to look wunderbar again.
The Prediction:Mavericks in 7

San Antonio vs. Phoenix
The Intrigue:
Erm, have you forgotten 2007 already, when the Suns felt they were the victims of the greatest conspiracy since Watergate in the Conference semis? A fading Shaq might just pull off one last hurrah but if he doesn't, can we finally anoint Tim Duncan as the best BIG of this era? In that case, one SVP (Series, etc..) to Shawn Marion.
The Prediction:Spurs in 6

Utah vs. Houston
The Intrigue:
People forget how good the Jazz are. Carlos Boozer's the only guy to go 20 and 10 over the past two seasons. Andrei K (it rhymes) still has an All Star within. Deron Williams is the best point not called Chris. Houston has no Yao. T-Mac still hasn't been out of the first round. C'mon.
The Prediction:Jazz in 5


EASTERN CONFERENCE
Boston vs. Atlanta
The Intrigue:
Erm, none. The Celtics are really good. The Hawks aren't. Unless you missed the past six months. It's about time they stopped allowing D-League teams into the Playoffs on the grounds of unnecessary cruelty.
The Prediction:Celtics in 4

Detroit vs. Philadelphia
The Intrigue:
All credit to The Sixers for even being here. The New AI has led an astonishing post-All Star run and shown just how good a coach Mo Cheeks is. The Pistons never usually wake up until the semi-finals at least but they better not sleep on Philly.
The Prediction:Pistons in 6

Orlando vs. Toronto
The Intrigue:
The Magic have a nice unit, an awesome young centre, a now-finally-appreciated coach, and they're making all the right noises. All they need is a series win to validate some of the heavy investments their owner, Rich DeVos, has made of late. Toronto aren't as good as last year. Their Italian stallion has been a mare. But can't wait for Bosh v Howard.
The Prediction:Magic in 7

Cleveland vs. Washington
The Intrigue:
Washington (the dumbest team in the history of civilisation, according to Charles Barkley) wanted the Cavs. And now they've got em, again. Remember last year? Cleveland won. Yet the newly spirited Wizards are suddenly looking all potent again with Gilbert The Grape as their assassin off the bench. Suddenly, all those mid-season Cavs trades look a bigger gamble than ever. Ben Wallace averaging ten boards a game? He better.
The Prediction:LeBron in 6

PS. Farewell to the mighty Anaheim Arsenal after they just missed out on the D-League playoffs (OK, by a while). Never mind. Next year will be Arsenal's year. No, seriously. OK, maybe.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 18, 2008, 2:30 p.m. ET

Good no longer enough for transformed Lakers

When the Los Angeles Lakers brought Derek Fisher back to Holywood last summer, it was because they felt they needed an old hand on the tiller to push them from average to good.

When Mitch Kupchak traded for Pau Gasol just before the trading deadline, it was because he felt they had a shot to be really good.

The question is, has the Lakers GM done enough to make them contenders, which only comes about with being great?

As the play-offs approach, the answer is possibly. Maybe. Arguably. But not definitely. Currently third in the Western Conference standings, with the joint best road record, and a legitimate shot at earning home court through the first couple of rounds, this edition of the Lakers might not yet be at the level of its immediate predecessor, the one which won three consecutive Finals and came up short in a fourth before being scattered to the wind in a Shaq-sized explosion.

There are glimpses, however, that the disparity between then and now is thinning all the time. With Kobe Bryant having his best ever campaign. With Gasol showing America (as in the large chunk outside Memphis) what we in Europe have known for years - that's he is a multi-faceted, hugely competitive star. With a roster which is working for each other under a head coach who has a fair idea of how to get everyone on the same page. And all this, with Andrew Bynum, their promising young big, sitting in street clothes, itching to return in time for the post-season push.

You can picture a Joker-esque grin on the face of Jack Nicholson right now. And of every Laker fan, each time Bryant jets down the court knowing he can probably do what he likes, no matter who is in his path. Omnipotence made all the more extraordinary by what went before. How easy it is to forget that, just 12 months ago, he was telling even the local kids that he wanted to be anywhere but there, reduced to a very public begging act for the only team he's ever known (save for 5 minutes in Charlotte) to shape up or ship him out.

Oh ye of little faith. But his lack of confidence was not singular. Back last autumn, my fellow NBA blogger and Lakers nut, Flea, begged for this: "I am always hoping that they will get better and make good decisions and tap into the magic at all costs." Hope springs eternal, my friend.

There was zero chance that Kobe was just going to sit and tolerate mediocrity while pouting like the kid who wasn't allowed that extra chocolate bar. Emotion has always been an inherent part of his game. It's been mainly hidden on the interior but no-one gets to be this good within a will to push themselves which is woven into their very DNA. Having tasted the good life, he was criticised for wanting to sip champagne again. And having talked the talk, he has made the necessary sacrifices to underline his own contribution. Two years ago, when the Lakers toiled to a 45-37 record, he put up over 27 shots again. Now it's down to a shade under 21. He's asked others to share his load. And in turn, they've earned his trust to bear it.

It's rarely been fashionable to like Bryant, just as LA's golden boys have always been a touch too chic to truly adore. It's getting easier, principally because they've earnt their place among the elite this time with graft, on and off the parquet. Fallibilities remain but it is an endearing trait.

NBA Championships don't come through pure grit and labour, however. It needs a splash of greatness in abundance, combined with a dash of fortune and a hint of savvy. Bryant and Gasol make up a bedrock of the first. To follow the rules of Gary Player, the Lakers have worked to make their own concoction of the second. And with Jackson and Fisher back in tandem, there is ample of the third.

This year might be soon for it all to come together in a genuine title tilt. San Antonio and Boston look just that little readier to make it all the way. Where is the future brightest, though? Having gone from average to extremely good in such a short space of time, Los Angeles could be forgiven if it experienced some dizziness. Whatever happens in the play-offs, there can be no talk of break-ups or bitterness, just the excitement of the greatness which lies close to hand.

- Speaking to Great Britain and Everton guard Richard Midgley on my new weekly Podcast reminded me of the impact some Brits have had, in their own individual ways in the USA. But as the Chicago Bulls season stutters to its conclusion, will it be the last time our two 'home' boys of Luol Deng and Ben Gordon play together in tandem? It could have huge benefits if both continue for club and country in tandem (if Gordon does commit to the land of his birth) but with both seeking new contracts this summer, the odds on that are long.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 11, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

All to play for in Wild n Wacky West

Having played 75 games this season, at a .693 clip, the San Antonio Spurs might have expected more. They've the best defence in the West (Boston and Detroit have a better average but let's be fair, they get to play Miami four times). The regular season is almost done. It can’t get much better.

Mere statistics? Sure. But here's a better one. With just a handful of games left before the play-offs begin, the Spurs haven't clinched a division title yet. Neither, even, have the New Orleans Hornets, who narrowlysit on top of the Conference, having played once less. Over a frenetic weekend, six spots were all confirmed but there will be little time to catch a breath before the real competition begins. And that might just make be setting up the most open run to the Finals ever.

One team out in the Wild and Crazy West is going to be majorly disappointed in less than ten days from now. Only three clubs in the (L)East (Boston, Detroit and Orlando) are on pace for 50 or more wins while there could be one unlucky loser, a few time zones back, who hits the magic number and still ends up with an extended summer vacation. Right now, Atlanta, with a .468 record, could be playing in May. For years, David Stern has been predicting that the wheel will turn and parity restored. Don't ask him for your Lottery numbers. Never has the balance of power been so lop-sided.

Which takes us, enthusiastically, to the post-season. Home court may never be so valuable. Or count for so little. If today's seedings held, New Orleans, with zero play-off experience in recent times, would be up against Denver, who have a fine history of knocking off top seeds. San Antonio would meet Dallas, a Texan tussle which could fall either way. The Lakers, who have Pau Gasol back just in time and Andrew Bynum to follow, have become the fashionable pick for the lot. But who'd be loitering in wait? Perhaps those streaky Houston Rockets, who have to win in the first round sometime. And as for Utah against Phoenix, the Shaq factor can't be under-estimated, even if that's a trait which hangs around the Jazz like last night's chips in the bin.

Too close to call, too hard to predict, too enticing for words. And frustrating that, for once, 82 nights of endeavour will bring such a minimal reward. Sure, there'll be three shiny divisional banners to hang from the rafters. Woo-pee-do. It's all about the rings, and - disregarding the Nuggets - any seed from 1 through 7 is good enough to merit a place in the Finals come June.

Boston and Detroit might thrive if they were transplanted East. Orlando wouldn't even make the top eight. And when it comes to the ultimate showdown, only those big two - plus wildcard Cleveland - has a positive record against the big bad bullies from the opposing coast. If the regular season is, as someone once noted, the longest warm-up in memory, the West will be battle-tested by confronting quality opposition day after day. Squaring off with the Heat, is like Manchester United using Stevenage Borough as their tune-up for the Champions League final. Not much use.

It makes for a frenetic fortnight ahead and then two months of unpredictable, unmissable action. Worth a flutter on the Celtics to be there in the Finals? Absolutely. Forecasting their foe? Why try, right now, when your pick could still end up on the beach rather in the bracket?

- It was intriguing to note Ben Gordon's inclusion in the provisional Great Britain squad for the summer's Eurobasket qualifiers. Will BG pledge his future for the country of his birth and join Chicago Bulls team-mate Luol Deng in the mix? I suspect not, at least not yet. But good luck to the ambassadors from British Performance Basketball who, I'm told, will meet with him next week to twist his arm. Free fish n chips for life might just swing it.

PS. You can now get my weekly Basketball 24/7 Podcast on iTunes or online here.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 7, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

Heat might still scorch by London date

The worst kept secret since David Beckham was spotted waiting for a telegram from The Queen is out. It will be the Miami Heat squaring off with the New Jersey Nets at London's 02 Arena on October 12, the second successive year in which the UK will stage an exhibition game as part of the EA Europe Live tour.

That inevitability was affirmed, as The Herald first revealed earlier this month, as a consequence of the positive reaction from British audiences to last year's encounter between Minnesota and Boston which drew a capacity crowd to the Docklands and to the strategic importance which the league is placing on a country which is home to both their European HQ and the 2012 Olympics.

"Our third consecutive year of NBA Europe Live is another step in our ongoing effort to bring the excitement of the NBA to our growing fan base," said NBA Commissioner David Stern. "Through the support of our partners, including EA Sports, the Heat, Nets, Hornets and Wizards will compete and extend our global commitment to community service in four European cities where basketball's popularity is increasing."

Hence in addition, there will, I understand, be a chance to get a slice of the NBA action around the UK during the summer months with a mini-tour in several major British cities. So there's no excuse to pass up on the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Association.

But what of the teams involved in the capital? Much like 12 months ago, there will be the odd moan and groan that these are not two line-ups who will be coming off glorious campaigns, filled with happy play-off memories. Both will be in prime re-building mode this summer, with Heat coach Pat Riley yet to absolutely affirm that he will be on the bench come the autumn, and the Nets likely to do some shaking up in the post-Kidd era.

Yet, as in politics, seven months is a long time in basketball. Sure I'm anticipating a jaunt to Berlin or Barcelona to have a peek at the Hornets and Wizards. However look back at the Celtics of 2007. Scrubs when their London date was booked, they could have been lined up for the West End and billed as overnight successes following the revamp of their cast. The UK had one of the first glimpses of what was to come.

Miami, bar something extraordinary, will bring D-Wade - likely Olympic medallist (no rash predictions of gold) and Euro jersey seller supreme. "I was glad to hear that London and Paris are involved and hopefully I will be able to visit such historic places like Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower." Although, even basketballing royalty might struggle to get an invite for tea with HM.

The Nets might have Vince, who may even do a dunk in warm-up for old times sake. Who knows? The Heat may be trying to end an eleven game winning streak by then. What advice would Shaq have for that? Plus there's always some spice in pre-season contests overseas, even if the result is quickly forgotten when the real action begins.

Ok, it's not quite like a court-side seat at the Finals. But it beats watching it on TV. And there's a good chance the two combatants will be improved. At least, in the Heat's case, the only way is up.

Posted by Mark Woods on March 27, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

Supporting Arsenal is a Guilty D-Lite

The thing about covering basketball, or any sport, is that you - in theory - duly cede your right to be a fan. Reporting on the game, on a team, on an event, disqualifies you automatically from leaping up and down like a loon, merrily quaffing pints of beer in your seat, or rising to applaud at the merest sniff of excitement. Even if there are dishonourable exceptions to every rule.

Which isn't to say, journalists aren't fanatics, that we don't revel in the highs and lows or those priceless moments of genius. Or that I've never sat in the press seats and felt euphoria after a basket or goal has hit the net. It's just that decorum dictates a professional detachment, or at least some discretion in savouring the occasion.

However at this juncture, I am - gladly, overtly and knowingly - going to wrap myself in the colours of my new favourite team (at least in North America … once a Star, always a Star). I'm going to proudly salute their every victory, moan in defeat, blame the refs and question the coach's sanity if we miss the play-offs. I've acquired the jersey and it will be worn with gusto in public places, pledging my allegiance without a hint of shame. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, shout it loud … "Up the Arsenal".

No, this slice of cyberpie hasn't suddenly jumped ship to talking about the Beautiful Game (even if there are few more scenic sights than Cesc Fabregas pass or the prospect of dumping Liverpool out of the Champions League). This die-hard Gooner has finally landed himself a club to root for across The Pond. And there will no bigger supporter of the mighty Anaheim Arsenal than I in the whole United Kingdom.

In truth, until I was wandering through the Jam Session ahead of last month's All Star Game in New Orleans, I was unaware that, in a parallel universe known as suburban LA, there existed a D-League delicacy that I could adopt as my very own. Sure, Great Britain assistant coach Nick Nurse is at the helm of the Iowa Energy and quasi-Brit Kelenna Azubuike paid his dues with the Forth Worth Flyers before earning the call-up to Golden State. But this seemed so … D-List. Until now.

Suddenly, the Anaheim Convention Center has become the Emirates of the West. I might even christen head coach Reggie Geary, The Professor. And it can only be a matter of time before the other Arsenal start snaffling up the best young French talent. They're already among the most international squads in the D-League with Japanese jersey-selling magnet Yuta Tabuse (think Gael Clichy), and Nigerian giant Ejike Ugboaja (California's answer to Emmanuel Abebayor … in that he seems to average about three shots a game, scoring one). There's even a reclamation project from Greece in Derrick Dial. Forget this nonsense about bringing through young prospects for the benefit of our three NBA affiliates Orlando, Atlanta and the LA Clippers. We want to win. And we want it now.

I'm going to analyse every move like it were Ashley Cole's social diary. Why did Mike Gansey only play 6:55 in our loss to the Sioux Falls Skyforce? He shot 3 for 5 for goodness sake!! What do you mean you've traded Ivan Johnson to Rio Grand Valley? Who the heck is Mike Efevberha? It feels like when Thierry went to Barca. Except, we all now how that's worked out. All we need now is ten wins from our last ten games and we sneak past the pesky Utah Flash. A run that would be just as welcome in the Premier League, if that's not being greedy.

How could you not fall for a competition that has teams nick-named Mad Ants, D-Fenders, Thunderbirds? They are Go, as far as I'm concerned. And I don't know what happened in Tulsa in '66 or Colorado in '14. But it's got to be more exciting than watching Derby County.

So, hoops-loving Gooners of the world (Luol Deng, included) unite and let's all sing 'Good ol' Arsenal'. And if you decide the D-League's not for you, there's always the option of supporting an NBA team. The one, of course, facing Spurs.

Posted by Mark Woods on March 18, 2008, 4:00 p.m. ET

For title hopefuls, Spurs the ultimate obstacle

We now have our first two confirmed play-off finalists in Boston and Detroit, and soon the trickle will become a torrent, particularly in the Eastern Conference. It shouldn't be long before Orlando joins this season's End of Year Club while the chances of Cleveland and Toronto breaking a sweat in stamping their card are as remote as Gordon Brown wearing a matching Dunfermline Athletic baseball cap and a scarf.

In the West, it's a more complicated picture. Just eight victories separate the Los Angeles Lakers (45-19) in first place with the Denver Nuggets (37-26) in ninth. Sacramento, two places down, will probably be the next to be effectively eliminated from the chase toward the post-season and while Portland has shocked everyone, even themselves, it all looks to be a case of nine into eight not going.

But what of June? Three months hence, we will likely have arrived into the furnace of the NBA Finals. As we've seen in recent years, what happens in the regular campaign is no accurate barometer of how hot a team will be when temperatures rise and torching examinations are expected rather than intermittent.

Statistics, statistics and damn lies, they say, particularly when politicians are involved. But one thing looks certain. This year, as every time of late, there is one team which will have their say in the destination of the title. One team who know exactly what is required to lift that bauble and pop the champagne. And San Antonio are making everyone else feel twitchy, no matter where their rivals presently sit in the standings.

The Spurs are at their utmost when the lights are on and the pace is down. When others legs slow up and the heart beats that bit faster. If Tim Duncan's face is all business and little pleasure, on the court at least, it reflects the approach of the reigning champions. All work, and great play, with just one focus in their minds.

Every year, by January, there are the doubters. San Antonio have rarely started as well as they finish. Slowly but surely, they make their march towards the top, and their recent 11 game winning run would have merited more mention if it were not for Houston's extraordinary 19-0 (and counting) spell.

But it should. Gregg Popovich has got the rest of the league where he wants them and the Lakers glancing nervously in their rear view mirror. Duncan is his usual consistent self. Tony Parker's form has been restored in parallel with his healthy. Manu Ginobili has forced himself into MVP consideration. And they are likely to gain extra help if, as expected, Brent Barry re-joins after clearing waivers.

It isn't as though a championship is pre-destined, not with the Celtics back on a roll with Kevin Garnett's return. According to Pop, speaking the wake of last week's ugly loss to the Nuggets, "even though we seem to be situated really well in the West, this team isn't as good as last year's team. As we've said before, we've got significant improvement we have to make, both physically and mentally, to contend for the championship."

Then again, the Spurs head coach has always been the last to talk up his club's chances. So let's do it for him. San Antonio remains the benchmark for all pretenders. And until someone wrestles the title out of their grip, they remain the one to beat.

Posted by Mark Woods on March 12, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

China, not Rockets, worrying most for Yao

Sorry, can't resist.

Houston, we got a problem.

More than that, China has a problem. And when that happens, it's never good news.

Yao Ming's broken foot is horrendous news for the Rockets after the incredulous surge up the Western standings to within a Size 24 shoe's distance from toppling the Los Angeles Lakers at the summit. Suddenly, from being a team which was primed for another first round blow-out, after 12 consecutive victories they looked like a side which - despite the numerous in-Conference trades in recent weeks - could maybe contend for the title which their giant star has long coveted.

Now, it's all Tracy McGrady's show. Which, as history has demonstrated, is probably not going to see the Rockets unfurling another Championship banner come June time. While they're close to the top of the pile, they also sit perilously near to the point where play-off places ebb and flow with every defeat. And keeping that challenge going without a fulcrum who was averaging 22 points and 10.8 rebounds will be extraordinarily tough.

Last year, Houston reached the post-season with Ming troubled by a fractured tibia. The only problem? They lacked the necessary momentum to make any sustained push and coach Jeff Van Gundy paid the price. Now, under Rick Adelman, the elusive formula has been found - only for its key ingredient to disappear like a vapour up the funnel.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey is confident his project will not simply fall off the rails. And looking at his club's schedule, they should still have enough in reserve to make the play-offs. Time will tell.

But what of Yao? It's likely he'll undergo surgery as soon as possible, which will involve four months on the sidelines. "We're hopeful that Yao Ming can represent his country in the Olympics," Morey said. "But at this point, all we can be is hopeful. We know it's important to Yao Ming and the Rockets that he can represent his country."

Important? Try vital. One thing is certain. If Yao can walk by August, he'll be on the court in Beijing for his nation's Olympiad. His entire NBA odyssey, the permission from the Chinese authorities to head Stateside to pursue a career in the land of capitalism, it was all to prepare him for the moment when he would walk out, in his homeland, as the symbol of a modern country, one able to match itself against the best of the rest of the world. It was his destiny. The grand plan. One which is now in jeopardy.

With Yao, China is a first round exit waiting to happen in the Games. It might still be with him on board. But being in America has toughened up the shy, introspective young men since he left Shanghai for Texas. Medal or not, this should have been his finest hour. On a personal basis, you know he'll be hurting, not just in his foot, but for those on both sides of the Pacific he'll feel he's letting down.

So Houston, yes, they got a problem.

But China has a disaster on its hands. And with a billion sets of hands holding their breath, the heat is on Yao to heal - and heal fast. Posted by Mark Woods on February 27, 2008, 10:55 a.m. ET

Rolling The Dice but who'll win out?

The bar has been raised. That much is certain.

Trades have been made with success, not mediocrity, in mind. Take that as read.

Anything less than a Championship will leave several GMs and coaches - plus numerous fans - mightily disheartened. Bet your house on that.

Never before have so many dice been thrown in quick succession in a gambit to bring home the hardware in a frenetic fortnight's spell in which the West, at times, resembled a busy afternoon at Sotheby's.

"What will I get for Pau Gasol? "Any advance on Kwame Brown, Jarvis Crittenton and two first round picks?

"Going once. Going twice. Sold …. A pup to the Grizzlies."

Anyone who bought shares in telephone companies must be sitting on a bundle now, with lines burning hot in the NBA's version of Deal Or No Deal. There were more trades that went through than even speculation could have forecast, none longer than Jason Kidd to Dallas, the discussion for which may have begun shortly before he left the Mavs the first time, or so it seemed. Unlike most years however, few were made for long term gain. It's win or bust, now or never for so many of those who rang the changes, a chain reaction which started in LA and Memphis and eventually lit a match under several rosters considered in need of an urgent upgrade.

Will it pay off and make the GM concerned look like a genius? Or will it be a move which, for years to come, will have folks creasing with mirth and cursing the name of the dealer involved. Here's the gamble-ometer rating for all the major moves.

ATLANTA HAWKS

Heading out: Anthony Johnson, Tyronn Lue, Sheldon Williams, Lorenzen Wright, 2008 second-round pick.

Jetting in: Mike Bibby.

Risk Factor: Minimal. The Hawks are outside the play-off spots anyway so it's a win-win. Bibby may not have much in the tank, or might provide veteran leadership. Either way, Billy Knight is no more safe on the block than he was before.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

Heading out: Primoz Brezec, Walter Herrmann.

Jetting in: Nazr Mohammed.

Risk Factor: Minimal. Michael Jordan makes a minor tweak. He takes on the huge contract of Mohammed and dumps two fringe players. His rep couldn't take another dip, could it?

CHICAGO BULLS

Heading out: Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Adrian Griffin, 2009 second- round draft pick.

Jetting in: Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Cedric Simmons and Shannon Brown.

Risk Factor: Medium. The Wallace Project has been officially blown up with talk of the Bulls as contenders at an end. Big Ben's departure means we'll see if Joakim Noah is as good as he thinks he is while Gooden gives Chicago the low post force they've been looking for. Too late for this year and John Paxson's summer moves will establish how good this was.

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

Heading out: Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall, Shannon Brown, Cedric Simmons.

Jetting in: Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, Bulls' 2009 second-round pick.

Risk Factor: High. It's another run to the Finals or bust. But at least LeBron is happy. The issue is whether Wallace's loss of form - at a ridiculous cost - in Chicago was down to the circumstances or an irreversible decline? Szczerbiak should give the Cavs the reliable shooter they've lacked but the heat is on Mike Brown to make this work, quickly.

DALLAS MAVERICKS

Heading out: Devin Harris, DeSagana Diop, Keith Van Horn, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, 2008 and 2010 first-round draft picks, $3 million.

Jetting in: Jason Kidd, Antoine Wright, Malik Allen.

Risk Factor: High. This was the team with the best record in the league last year. Now you've got a verging on 35 year old point guard, at 10 million per, a few less energy guys in and around the side, and less flexibility to re-build if it all goes pear shaped. It's a roll worth taking if it can light a fire under a Dallas team which, of late, looked far too comfortable with being good but not great. If it fails, somebody'll be working down Dairy Queen.

DENVER NUGGETS

Heading out: Von Wafer.

Jetting in: Taurean Green.

Risk Factor: Minimal. I thought Von Wafer was a German ice cream biscuit and Taurean Green was brought to you by Dulux. No, seriously.

DETROIT PISTONS

Heading out: Nazr Mohammed, Primoz Brezec, cash.

Jetting in: Juan Dixon, Walter Herrmann.

Risk Factor: Zero. Mohammed had never really worked out in Detroit while Brezec made no real impact. Dixon will give the Pistons some energy off the bench while Hermann might yet prove he belongs in the NBA.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

Heading out: Bonzi Wells, Kirk Snyder, Mike James, 2010 second-round pick, cash.

Jetting in: Gerald Green, Bobby Jackson, Adam Haluska, draft rights to Sergei Lishouk, Charlotte's 2008 second-round pick.

Risk Factor: Minimal. The Rockets needed to keep up with the Jones - and while talent-wise, they might have got the lesser part of the deal, Wells and James weren't getting the PT either probably would be happy with. Green needs to show he's more substance than flash but Jackson is a veteran of Rick Adelman's schemes.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Heading out: Kwame Brown, Brian Cook, Maurice Evans, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, draft rights to Marc Gasol, 2008 and 2010 first-round draft picks.

Jetting in: Pau Gasol, Trevor Ariza and Memphis' 2010 second-round pick.

Risk Factor: Minimal. Maybe the best switcharoo of the month, given the Lakers virtual infallibility since Gasol (Pau that is) pitched up in La-la-land. There'll be no tears shed for Brown and suddenly, Showtime is back in earnest.

MIAMI HEAT

Heading out: Shaquille O'Neal.

Jetting in: Shawn Marion, Marcus Banks.

Risk Factor: Minimal. So, you're giving up a £10 mill a year, injury-prone, edging towards the end of his career, centre for a something to prove, in his prime All Star, and a hungry young pip who has something to show. With Miami at rock bottom, the only risk is that Marion bolts in the summer. Bet he doesn't.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Heading out: Pau Gasol, Stromile Swift, draft rights to Sergei Lishouk, 2010 second-round draft pick.

Jetting in: Kwame Brown, Marcus Vinicius, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Collins, draft rights to Marc Gasol and Malick Badiane, Lakers 2008 and 2010 first-round draft picks.

Risk Factor: Huge. The franchise guy has gone. You're already vying for next year's top Draft pick. And all that's decent to show for it are two choices from a team which figures to be really good for the foreseeable future. Oops.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

Heading out: Gerald Green.

Jetting in: Kirk Snyder, Rockets' 2010 second-round pick, cash.

Risk Factor: Minimal. You're not very good anyway. The only trick now is to find someone else to enter next year's Slam Dunk Contest.

NEW JERSEY NETS

Heading out: Jason Kidd, Malik Allen, Antoine Wright, Jason Collins.

Jetting in: Devin Harris, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, DeSagana Diop, Keith Van Horn, Stromile Swift, 2008 and 2010 first-round draft picks, $3 million.

Risk Factor: Minimal. J-Kidd wanted out. Harris will want to show his worth. There are expiring contracts aplenty. It's re-building time for the Nets ahead of their move to Brooklyn. And, they managed to bring Keith Van Horn back into the NBA which is a remarkable achievement in itself.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Heading out: Bobby Jackson, Marcus Vinicius, Adam Haluska, 2008 second-round pick.

Jetting in: Bonzi Wells, Mike James.

Risk Factor: Medium. The Hornets now have a stronger bench to try and stay atop the West, even at a steep price. Wells, if motivated, can add to their threat while James will allow MVP candidate Chris Paul the odd breather.

ORLANDO MAGIC

Heading out: Trevor Ariza.

Jetting in: Maurice Evans, Brian Cook.

Risk Factor: Minimal. Not the trade the Magic wanted but they've done OK in landing two solid rotation players for someone who wasn't getting minutes.

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Heading out: Taurean Green.

Jetting in: Von Wafer.

Risk Factor: None. See Denver.

PHOENIX SUNS

Heading out: Shawn Marion, Marcus Banks.

Jetting in: Shaquille O'Neal.

Risk Factor: Vast. Marion wasn't happy but he was effective. Sensing perhaps that Phoenix, in their present form, weren't quite good enough to win it all, Steve Kerr had to go for broke. In taking Shaq off Miami's hands, it'll either be boom or bust. Credit his cojones but this trade won't be easily forgotten if the Suns don't end up champs or if O'Neal breaks down.

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

Heading out: Kyle Korver.

Jetting in: Gordan Giricek, protected future first-round pick from Jazz.

Risk Factor: Minimal. Losing Korver's contract gives the Sixers flexibility to re-tool and although Giricek might be waived, another pick comes in useful for the future.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

Heading out: Mike Bibby.

Jetting in: Sheldon Williams, Tyronn Lue, Anthony Johnson, Lorenzen Wright, Atlanta's 2008 second-round pick.

Risk Factor: Minimal. Bibby had reached the end of his shelf life in Sacto and it was time to move him on. What the Kings got back is questionable with no must-keeps in the cluster acquired from the Hawks but looking long term, it should pay off.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Heading out: Brent Barry, Francisco Elson, 2009 first-round draft pick.

Jetting in: Kurt Thomas.

Risk Factor: Medium. Financially it stakes up to ditch two contracts for one, while Thomas gives the Spurs the extra bulk they've lacked in the middle. But Barry can still shoot the lights out when he has a chance and they'll miss him in the locker room - if they can't re-sign him off waivers next month.

SEATTLE SUPERSONICS

Heading out: Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, Kurt Thomas.

Jetting in: Brent Barry, Francisco Elson, Adrian Griffin, Ira Newble, Donyell Marshall, Spurs' 2009 first-round draft pick.

Risk Factor: None. The Sonics are all about winning in 2-3 years, not today. None of the guys who have departed figure to be part of that mix, nor those who have arrived, but the more Draft picks the better, say Seattle.

TORONTO RAPTORS

Heading out: Juan Dixon.

Jetting in: Primoz Brezec, cash.

Risk Factor: None. Dixon didn't want to be there. Brezec will fit into the Euro-exile environment. Cash on top. Job done.

UTAH JAZZ

Jetting in: Kyle Korver.

Heading out: Gordan Giricek, protected future first-round pick.

Risk Factor: None. Great move for the Jazz. Korver's been a big hit so far and, whisper it, might make Utah the team to beat out West. Giricek had been in the doghouse so long that they'd started feeding him Pedigree Chum.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 25, 2008, 10:55 a.m. ET

Big Easy was a Stellar All Star Host

Thanks, New Orleans. Thanks for putting on a show which left everyone jazzed. Thanks for accommodating the chaos, the carnival and the cameras which whizzed into town like a runaway rollercoaster with a turbo booster attached. And thanks for sharing.

Based on past experience, I was never the biggest fan of the Big Easy. Too loud, too brash, too devoid of substance. But this was like those birthday surprises gifts when you open the box, brace yourself and get ready to smile profusely at the jumper in the wrong size. Only instead you got Armani, size medium, matches the new jacket. Everything seemed to fit.

Take the Day of Service. It could have merely been an overblown PR exercise. Yet it left a legacy behind, not due to the stars who pitched up for an hour and splashed on some paint. Certainly, not due to those - like myself – whose contribution was limited to pulling off a strip of masking tape and watching on with cynical eyes. What lingers is the result of an army of organisers and volunteers who genuinely made a contribution to restoring N'awlans to what it once was. The NBA as a catalyst. And a noble one too. So much so, that the scheme is now under consideration for every future All Star host city.

Take the All Star Saturday Night. Normally, I wish you would. Often, it represents too much of the lesser side of basketball: the needless tricks, the posturing, the polar opposite of what Dr. Naismith had in mind. But this was an evening which thrilled and chilled at a pace that kept the malaise away. And in Dwight Howard, a smile ever present upon his young face, there is a hero who might convince those who mutter about the way things were to return to the fold.

Take the All Star Game itself. A game, even in name this time. It was competitive but still celebratory, packed with those seconds of magic which will be replayed for years to come. It was fitting that the ultimate highlight, a dunk by LeBron James over Dirk Nowitzki, was rendered all the more spectacular because the German was actually attempting to defend. Get out of the way? Not in this house.

But if this weekend’s purpose was to help rejuvenate New Orleans, it has also helped in no small measure to put a spring back in the NBA’s step. As one veteran staffer remarked, “I’ve come to a lot of All Star Weekends and I’ve never been prouder than at the end of this one.” The debt of gratitude paid in full.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 18, 2008, 7:00 p.m. ET

Saturday Night's all right

It's All Star Saturday Nite (brought to you by Sprite, which rhymes neatly) in Nawlans and although much of the focus has been on getting tickets for the best parties in town (you mean you thought this Blog was about the players?), time to see who can do something sleek with a ball - and who is as wooden as Arnie (who we're told is in the building).

First up is the Shooting Stars. Four teams in the hunt. Chicago, San Antonio, Detroit and someone else who was introduced when Germany's finest NBA writer called Jan we was organising the betting pool. No dollars involved, in case any kids are reading. My money's on Detroit.

Sadly, my money is wasted. San Antonio - comprising Tim Duncan, David Robinson and Becky Hammon are the shock victors. TD - who surely has only been picked because Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have fled the country - has never looked this happy on the sideline before. Then again, he's never sat beside anyone there who looked like Becky.

Next It's the Playstation Skills Challenge. Which is kind of like an obstacle course for basketballers. After fine performances from DeRon Williams and Chris Paul, D-Wade and J-Kidd crashed out in the first round.

So it's DeRon against CP30. Somewhere Coach K and Jerry Colangelo are watching - could this decide who gets to back up Kidd for Team USA in Beijing. This place goes nuts if the hometown boy doesn't win.

The thing about this is when they have to dribble around all the player-shaped cut outs on the floor, if they hit one, is it called a charge? Or is Paul favoured by the hometown tyres (or is that tires?) that he has to bounce pass through?

The answer is clearly not, as the Jazz man (appropriately in the Big Easy) wins in a new record time. Paul is clearly devastated. Actually, made that up. DeRon picks up his trophy - and a ticket to China, maybe.

Follow that. Well the NBA will, with Footlocker Three Point Shoot Out. Which, as the esteemed Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports notes, is kind of like watching a penalty kick contest. Yahoo indeed.

Frankly, it's a poor show from Steve Nash. Maybe it's because his shoes are rubbish. Literally. They're made of recycled material which, for Nashy's sake, I hope didn't include that bunch of papers I threw out the other week. Rip and Peja bail too, leaving the Diggler, Damon Gibson and reigning champ Jason Kapono in the final. Slick as you like, Kapono ties Craig Hodge's record of 25 points set in 1996 to make it a two-peat. And he gets a standing ovation from his peers, including LeBron James (who, incidentally, is sporting a James Bond-esque spy jacket). We get the score sheet, which looks like one of those cards from the firing range. I wonder if there's someone at the NBA charged with coming up with this stuff. And I hope it's all recycled.

Final showcase of the night is the Sprite Slam Dunk. Which, being realistic, is what most of the folk here came to see. That and a race between Charles Barkley and a ref. Except that's not happening this year. Was tied up in the Jason Kidd trade to the Mavs, I'm told.

First out of the blocks - Jamario Moon, who tries something fancy. Power, finesse. A 46 is a bit generous. Next up, Rudy Gay. Two goes for him. It's a 37. Not his best work. But where's the comments from Simon Cowell? Get him involved next year, fellas.

Here comes Dwight. He's my pick in the sweepstakes. The Germans have Moon - no pressure Big Guy. Two shots for him but the second's a corker, over the backboard… and in. Cinquante points from our judges Malone, Dawkins, Magic, Nique and Doctor J.

Now Gerald Green is putting a cupcake on the top of the rim. Arnie, sitting at courtside, is loving it. He'll be back. So will Geraldo who slams it in. 46 for him. Not quite sure what the cake was for.

One aside, isn't it great the Boston Celtics have the only mascot here that isn't a man (or woman) in a furry or rubber costume? Enough of that sort of thing in New Orleans anyway, you'd reckon. If you're Lucky, or not as the case may be.

Rudy's second effort's a bit better. Probably won't keep him in. Kapono's back. Him and Moon are a double act - but can't be as good as the Nash-Stoudemire combo from last year, surely. And the numbers say no. Just a 44. Harsh, that one.

Rashad McCants is up a ladder. Hope he doesn't have vertigo. You'd be more impressed if they'd suspended him with wires and put him in a superhero costume. One windmill and Green has booked himself a spot in the final.

Will it be against Howard? His buddy Jameer Nelson has joined the proceedings for the second year running at this stage. More stickers? Something's up. And out comes a red cape. A touch of bullfighting? Nope, as Dwight takes off his Magic jersey to unveil a Superman top. Now that IS Magic. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it's another showstopper. The perfect one hundred. That'll teach em not to raise the rim to four metres as per the All Star's centre's original request.

So it's a Green-Howard face-off. Can Howard become the tallest Slam Dunk champ ever? Across North American, they're hovering over those text message buttons with eager anticipation. Bragging rights, certainly, on the first go to the DH. 10s get held up around NO Arena.

Green needs a gimmick. And … it's that he's not wearing shoes. Could he not maybe have worn sandals or Wellington boots? Or how about a comedy hat? The path's open to Howard to clinch. J-Nel's back. And this time, he's brought a mini-basketball net as the prop. It takes two attempts. But in the ball rockets. There can only be one winner in this. Chocolate Thunder is on his feet. We know who he's backing. Same for Malone, The Doc and Nique. They're all taking this far too seriously. Magic makes it unanimous.

The only dissenter in the whole building is Cavs guard Damon Jones. Not that he's got much influence. The votes are in. No surprise here. DH wins. Just one more excuse to party.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 16, 2008, 10:55 p.m. ET

All Star still a novelty for Iverson

Amid the bustle of the scrum around him, Allen Iverson takes a moment to exhale and ponder the significance of his invitation to New Orleans. He's scaled the heights and journeyed the world with the game of basketball. NBA Finals, Olympic Games, a Most Valuable Player prize. Triumphs aplenty in the colours of Denver and Philadelphia since he arrived into the league, fresh out of Georgetown, as the number one Draft choice of 1996. It's an era ago now. So many greats have come and gone in the time it has taken The Answer to evolve from rookie to vet. Yet here he remains, in the centre of the hubris, still an All Star and still as hungry as ever to make his mark.

On Sunday night, the Nuggets guard will make his ninth appearance in the All Star game when he starts for the Western Conference in the Big Easy. It will be his eighth start, enduring popularity garnered by his fearlessness and a ferocity as yet undimmed. Not what you might have anticipated of a guy who, now aged 32, has put his body and soul on the line in a manner which few others have dared to do. Is he losing a step or feeling ready to ease down? Not a chance.

"I can still complete with the best of them," Iverson insists. "The young guys, the older guys, that's my whole motivation. People have been trying to put me in a rocking chair before I need one. People are talking about the new names but I just want to be a household name. I want people to recognise my talent and make the best of it."

Chris Paul will have to await his turn. Even Steve Nash must come off the bench come Sunday. Once upon a time, Iverson was in their shoes, awaiting that summons to take his place on the court among the stars whom he watched and admired during his formative years. Jordan was still in his pomp. Stockton to Malone too. Oakland was the venue. And although he would have to wait to take that MVP award, his 26 points were a game-high, an experience which he cannot forget.

"Nothing compares to your first time," he confirms. "The first time was something I'll never forget because, as a kid, you always dream of playing in the All Star Game. The first time was probably the best." And it never gets old, coming here. Not for a second. "You probably have to give the credit to the coaches that I've had have helped me get better. The team-mates I've had over the years. And just me believing in myself without listening to what everyone might say. Plus I've gone out and played hard, night after night."

At some point, inevitably, the years will catch up with him. Father Time is like Chris Paul steal - sooner or later, he'll get you. As it did for so many of those who have stood shoulder to shoulder with him on weekends like these, behemoths like Shaquille O'Neal, whose absence here Iverson greatly laments. No longer the ragged, tattoo-accumulating, maverick, the former Sixers enfante terrible has turned into the elder statesman - and embraced all that such status brings.

Has it sunk in, however, that the clock is ticking? Not quite. He'd rather live in the present rather than ponder the future. "I'm just cherishing the moment. Every time I'm selected, I just feel blessed and honoured. A lot of people want to get to the NBA. A lot of people don't get the opportunity to play in a NBA game. The fact I've got the opportunity to be an All Star is the icing on the cake. I don't think about retiring. Or my legacy. Or anything like that. Because I'm so deep into playing the game right now."

Enjoy it while you can.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 16, 2008, 8:55 p.m. ET

Hornets duo happy to lend a hand in restoring New Orleans buzz

Mark Woods, special to NBA.com

When Peja Stojakovic landed in New Orleans and became a Hornet, 18 months ago, he knew this was a city which had greater concerns than cheering on a team which might, one day in the not so distant future, be talked about as a contender for the NBA title.

He understood the devastation which followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The sense of loss. Of what was there before those horrific days in late August 2005 and what would never be quite the same again. Of a people displaced by the tempestuous of nature.

He'd seen it before. Back in the place once known as Yugoslavia, when he would return home to Pozega, from Greece or the USA, and witness the lingering effects of a country ravaged - and ultimately splintered - by a bloody internal war in which the ultimate losers were the people itself.

"That's why I have a great understanding for what they're going through here," the Hornets shooting guard reflects. "What our people lost overnight in a civil war, becoming refugees, I see those things happening here. It takes time to re-build. But also for the mental recovery. Those people are hurt. That's why it's so great that the NBA is doing the All Star here to show we're thinking about them and giving our support."

Stojakovic, like his fellow participants in the weekend jamboree in the Big Easy, spent Friday afternoon at one of a number of projects around his adopted home city, joining an army of volunteers to lend a hand at schools, homes and other sites in desperate need of restoration.

It may have been just a daub with a paintbrush or a nail hammered into a shelf but every assist counts. "My hope is that being out and about the city here, some of the guys who - when they come here to play - only see the downtown or Bourbon Street, they get a chance to see the reality," says fellow Hornet David West, who makes his All Star debut on Sunday. "You see the people in need and what might be done to help them."

The renewal process is far from over. Empty, desolate buildings stand, sometimes sloping to one side, where busy stores or offices once proudly rested. Windows boarded up, vacant lots gathering tumbleweed, signs fading fast to advertise an owner who has long since decamped.

That's a view both witness every day, whether en route to practice or games, or merely by living in the Crescent City. "You can't divorce yourself," West adds. "You have to want to help. From my point of view, our team is out in the community a lot. We probably do more than the other teams because there's a great need here. We embrace it. Because when all is said and done, we're all human beings."

That's why the NBA came here. While no-one is pretending hosting an All Star Game will transform matters over the course of four days, taking the event here firmly demonstrates that New Orleans is very much still a part of its enlarged community. That it cares.

Perhaps the most effective legacy is provided by the Hornets themselves. That they are currently resting atop the Western Conference is, at least, providing a seed of optimism for a brighter future ahead on the banks of the Mississippi. Like the city in which they reside, once they were embattled but they now are rising defiantly.

The players who will remain behind when the All Star carnival understand they have a role to play in the rejuvenation, if merely a peripheral one. "We have a job which is to play basketball," acknowledges West. "And hopefully on and off the court, we can help address some of the things which affect people."

Stojakovic - who will attempt to win his third Foot Locker Three-Point Shootout crown on Saturday - has a similar wish. That, like the various states which lie where Yugoslavia once nestled, full normality might one day come back here. When he signed up, there were those who questioned his logic, who wondered why he would want to venture to a place where trauma was part of the daily mix.

Yet there are no regrets. "People are friendly. People are supportive. Besides all the horrible things they went through, each and every day you can see the improvement here. All the people here, they stay, they work to make it better, they love this city. It reminds me a little bit of Europe. I told some of my friends, it's different to any other American city. People are laid back and they enjoy themselves more. And hopefully they will recover."

Posted by Mark Woods on February 15, 2008, 7:35 p.m. ET

Rondo merits his stop in the spotlight of Stars

There are three guys, normally clad Celtic Green, who you would expect to see in New Orleans for All Star Weekend. Paul Pierce has long been measured up for his blue East uniform. Ray Allen had a late summons to receive his. While Kevin Garnett has known for weeks that he'd be putting on his suit rather than a vest, consigned to the role of spectator due to the injury which has kept him out for the past three weeks.

Overlook Rajon Rondo at your peril. That's what happened prior to this season, when all the talk was of the Big Three in Beantown and all the idle chatter over whether this second year point guard, out of Kentucky, could really be the man who pulled the strings to allow the stellar marionettes to not just co-exist, but thrive together.

They're still talking about Rondo. Not over whether the Celtics can make a trade to put experience in his position. Instead, it's of his progress during a campaign in which - in his own way - he has had as significant a role in Boston's charge to set the best record in the Association. Of how he has raised his scoring to over 10 points per. And how the doubts have been erased.

"I don't feel any pressure when I play," he told me this week. "It's basketball. I'll just try to do what I've done my entire life. This season's been a combination of a lot of things. Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers talked to me about what they expected in my second year, becoming the starting guard. Playing along side these three big All Stars. They've obviously seen something in me. So I just have to try to continue to do what I do best."

Take against the Knicks on Tuesday night. Minus KG, and with the injuries stacking up, New York got off to a decent start before Rondo picked up the pace, scoring with his dangerous southpaw floater. Defensively, the C's send him out top to utilise his quickness - like a man to man, plus one. Last season, Rondo led the league in steals per 48 minutes and although he is just sixth this term, his quickness puts pressure on opponents virtually as soon as they cross the half-way line.

Late in the game, even with one eye virtually shut due to an untimely poke, he even showed a Nashian flash which brought the Garden to its feet. Driving inside, he faked a behind the back dish but then laid up the ball around David Lee instead. It was audacious and clever in equal parts. Something which any of the Big Three would have been proud of.

So don't overlook him this weekend, particularly on Friday night when he'll go for the Sophomore squad at the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge. Maybe next time, we'll be talking about the Big Four. And maybe he'll be playing on Sunday evening instead.

"You could say that's an ambition," Rondo adds. "But my main goal is to win a championship first. All those other things will come. I'm just trying to play my role and not try and do too much. These other guys have helped me become a better player, on and off the court."

What better place to do his talking. And to shut the idle chatters up.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 15, 2008, 10:30 a.m. ET

Marion's rep on the line

There's a fear inside me.

Will being traded to Miami hinder Shawn Marion's career? Or affirm him as one of the most versatile players of his entire NBA generation?

It's a tough call. Marion is one of the premier defenders in the NBA, a long armed enforcer who has that rare intangible ability to be pushed in front of any offensive goliath in the league and come away smiling, much like Jack Duckworth in spite of Vera's calamitous passing. Only without the requisite tribute shows.

What is missing may only be lamented when it is gone, as the Corrie widow might say. But look around the Suns locker room, and although the temporary elation is profound, you just wonder if Shaquille O'Neal's arrival will make everyone - Amaré included - more delighted about the future or twitchy that the most entertaining team in all of basketball has been broken up (and I include the hapless Birmingham Panthers in this despite their incredible ability to look as if they are five guys who only met on the bus five minutes before tip-off)?

Marion, averaging 15 points per, can contribute on every aspect of the floor. Can Shaq still do that? Their numbers are equal but the intangible may be disparate, given their ages and health. The struggling Heat, resting at the foot of the Eastern Conference, have jolted the rep of Dwyane Wade, due to the theory that stars don't let their teams plummet so far. Marion's tag has always been that he is a capable third banana who can only assist a club - not lead it. He may have begged to differ.

Now we'll find out.

- Channel Five will have coverage from the All Star Weekend coming up throughout this week - as will The Guardian. However, intriguing news from Commissioner David Stern on his thoughts on the UK market..

Posted by Mark Woods on February 11, 2008, 10:30 a.m. ET

Panic forces Phoenix break-up

While in Phoenix last week, I was lucky enough to see three competitive games. One between New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and the world-wide media. The second, a cracker of a Super Bowl XLII in which a Scotsman's efforts provided the decisive margin in the New York Giants victory. And the third, a corker of a territorial battle between the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs.

For the first quarter, Phoenix looked every bit a squad which could make a run at relieving their old foes of the NBA title. Never mind the conspiracy theorists holding up their signs to remind everyone of the external influences on the Suns loss to the Spurs in last year's play-offs. Mike D'Antoni's run n gunners were shooting down their Texan neighbours like a Lawrence Tynes field goal. Every attempt, right on the money. Which is what you'd expect of a team which has the best record in the Western Conference.

But then something unexpected happened. San Antonio - minus Tony Parker, remember - edged back, centimetre by centimetre, point by point. Tim Duncan gave the visitors a precious late lead before Manu Ginobili sealed an 84-81 victory from the line in the closing seconds. "I don't know if it was us or their play defensively" Grant Hill told me afterward. "We never got in synch offensively."

There was a thought in my mind that night, however, that Suns GM Steve Kerr might just see that as a tipping point, an acknowledgement that Phoenix - in their current guise - were good, but not quite good enough to best the reigning superpower. Not with the perceived chill between Shawn Marion and Amaré Stoudemire and an occasional lack of defensive toughness which permeates through everyone not called Raja Bell.

With news that a trade to swap Marion and Marcus Banks for Shaquille O'Neal is in the works, the dynamite is being wired to the detonator and the NBA's favourite Fun n Gunners are set to pass into history. Shaq stopped running sometime late in the last century. This will be a whole new look and new feel in AZ, one predicated on Kerr's defensive instincts rather than D'Antoni's aesthetically majestic up-tempo offense.

Instinct suggests it cannot improve the Suns. Banks has some potential, if yet unrealised. Marion, for all his frailties, is one of the league's most versatile players and the kind of cog which every championship team required to keep opponents guessing, night after night, even if Grant Hill can remain healthy and recapture some, if not all, of his sublime prime. Stoudemire is a monster, indomitable at times, but he has a worrying tendency to go AWOL in the fourth quarter, when the heat of the battle is turned up to the max. Steve Nash remains, unquestionably, the team's fulcrum.

Maybe the Suns, as previously constituted, weren't quite good enough. But there were little on evidence last week to suggest much wrong, other than the need for a little extra mental application. For rookie GM Kerr, Shaq's arrival is a huge gamble, given his health, his declining productivity and the $20 million elephant of contract which will load Phoenix down for the immediate future. If indeed the panic button is being pressed, we'll know soon enough whether it was a real emergency or a futile false alarm.

Posted by Mark Woods on February 6, 2008, 2:30 p.m. ET

All Stars … and snubs

So the All Star votes are in and the starters have been named for February 17's extravaganza in New Orleans. There are some predictable faces. You can bet Yao Ming can play until he's 40, when he's aging about 1.3 ppg and 0.9 rpg, and he'll still be the Western Conference's starting centre. That's the power of a billion people in your corner (to think, Bucks' rookie Yi Jianlian got 450,515 votes - and he wasn't even on the ballot).

Likewise, you ain't going without Kobe Bryant, who sells more jerseys in China than anyone else, or Tim Duncan, still the most potent all-round player in the NBA. On the opposite side, Kevin Garnett earned more votes than anyone else, and deservedly so, while he'll be joined in the frontcourt by his chief MVP rival LeBron James.

That's the five automatics. But what of the rest?

Should Dwyane Wade get a free pass even though he's been hobbled through most of this season and is playing on the league's Most Disappointing Squad? Is Jason Kidd an unquestioned pick on a poor Nets roster? There's a strong case to be made that Ray Allen and Chauncey Billups got the nods in front of both.

Dwight Howard, thankfully, was a runway choice to be the East's Man in the Middle. It would have been a crime if Shaq's lingering popularity had denied the Magic star a place.

So far, so … umm.

Out West, Carmelo Anthony is good. Very good. But is he having a better year than the reigning MVP Dirk Nowitzki or even Carlos Boozer? I think not.

However the biggest contention is who plays along side Bryant as the West's de facto point guard. Allen Iverson pipped Tracy McGrady in the final stretch for the second starting spot but even though AI is having a terrific year, in no way is a more meritorious choice than Chris Paul or Steve Nash.

But it's a fan thing so the results stand. And you can bet that Paul will be playing major minutes on his homecourt next month.

Here are my reserve choices and while it's a struggle to fill up the East, there are going to be a few disappointed faces in the West once the coaches have cast their ballots.

Eastern Conference
Ray Allen, Celtics
Chauncey Billups, Pistons
Jose Calderon, Raptors
Chris Bosh, Raptors
Paul Pierce, Celtics
Caron Butler, Wizards
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cavaliers

Western Conference
Steve Nash, Suns
Chris Paul, Hornets
Tony Parker, Spurs
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
Carlos Boozer, Jazz
Josh Howard, Mavericks
Amaré Stoudemire, Suns

Posted by Mark Woods on January 28, 2008, 9:15 a.m. ET

Deng pain a blow for Bulls… and GB

The news, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, that Chicago Bulls and Great Britain star Luol Deng could be out for up to two months after injuring his Achilles is good news for neither club nor country. The Londoner missed three games earlier this season with a sore back but has been forced to sit out several ties in recent weeks due to pain in his heel.

"It gets better on occasion and he can play, and then it comes back," said Bulls coach Jim Boylan. "It's something we have not been able to get a full handle on, so it's a problem."

Not that he was in the voting race but it means Deng will definitely miss next month's NBA All Star Game in New Orleans and casts doubt on his availability for Britain in next summer's European Championship. That would be a huge blow for GB coach Chris Finch as he seeks to keep up the momentum of the side in the A Division, for which the draw comes on All Star Weekend.

There are two long-term scenarios at play. Deng may need some game-time to rehab his injuries after a summer's rest, particularly if the Bulls year is over and done by April. Or, in a summer in which he can test the free agency market for the first time, that either he - or his employer at the time - decide the risks are too great on national duty.

Ironically, salvation may be at hand in the shape of his Chicago team-mate Ben Gordon who, my sources tell me, is learning towards declaring for the country of his birth after failing to register any interest from the powers that be at USA Basketball.

Either way, it's bad news for Deng, whose recovery will be watched way beyond the boundaries of Chicago.

Posted by Mark Woods on January 24, 2008, 5:00 p.m. ET

Brown must seize chance to prove his worth

Kwame Brown will forever been synonymous with the reign of Michael Jordan at the helm of the Washington Wizards. It was not his fault, of course, that he was drafted with the number one pick seven years ago as a fresh-faced, under-development prodigy straight out of high school. Nor that his career, even in the relatively mediocre entry class of 2001, has failed to remotely approximated the heights (of sorts) enjoyed by the likes of Pau Gasol, Richard Jefferson and the man who was chosen dead last in the first round, Tony Parker. Or even that he was thrust into the spotlight and immediately burdened with unlimited expectation. That came from others, not from within.

Yet now that Andrew Bynum is out injured for two months, the Los Angeles Lakers require a centre to plug the middle and ensure that their surprising first half of the campaign does not become a second term sag. You would think that a once top-rated prospect, in the supposed prime of his life, would step in without due concern. But it says so much for Brown's fall from grace that the Lakers are perusing the list of available and unemployed free agents rather than handing him the keys.

Over his time in the NBA, Brown has started just 177 times and exasperated his coaches on many occasions more. There have been questions about his work ethic, his maturity and his temperament. A number of off-court incidents have not helped his reputation. But a career average of 7.6 ppg and 5.7 rpg suffices by way of explaining why the word 'bust' has been tossed around so often in his name.

It's worth wondering, on occasion, just how different things might have been if Brown had gone to college and done his growing up on the campus of the University of Florida, to whom he originally committed. If that might have knocked the rough edges of his game and his persona and presented a more ready-made specimen to the professional ranks.

Instead, he was thrown to the wolves and he has the bite marks to prove it from a succession of coaches who have been less than enthralled by his contribution. And with his contract renewal on the horizon, there are doubts that he will find a place in the NBA. Unthinkable, you would once have considered, for a 25 year old with size and strength.

Yet having lost his starting berth in LA earlier this season due to injury, Brown's opportunities are running out. Sometimes in life, another's misfortune brings an opening for another. Bynum was the beneficiary of Brown's prior woes but having seen his younger rival establish his own rep, the next two months may go a long way to mapping out just what future he has in basketball.

It was not his doing that he was placed on a high pedestal from which the fall would be heavy. He never asked to be worthy of the first choice. Yet Brown did once tell Jordan that he would not regret drafting him. The next two months may show whether even that humble boast was an expectation too far.

Posted by Mark Woods on January 15, 2008, 7:00 p.m. ET

Wade could be the loser in the pain game

Playing hurt has always been one of the badges of honour in the NBA. Swallow the pill. Ignore the burn. Take one for the team. Not to do is a sign of weakness, according to the machismists, who would rather hobble onto the court - a la Willis Reed - rather than call in sick. No wonder Jason Kidd got it in the neck when he took a day off when mere mortals would just stay in their beds and ride out the fever.

Yet you have to wonder if basketball's version of the stiff upper lip could cost the league one of its best young talents before it can truly flourish. This week, Miami Heat coach Pat Riley revealed the full extent of Dwyane Wade's injury list last season, a year in which the All Star played almost to a finish before undergoing surgery.

He suffered, Riley outlined, an extreme dislocation of his shoulder in February which caused "severe nerve damage". This was in addition to a deteriorating knee which went under the knife in May, along with his aching shoulder.

Eight months on, and an elongated summer and autumn's rehab later, Wade is still in pain. Not only are his knee and both shoulders troublesome but he has injured his finger and shin in addition, stresses which kept him out of last week's game with Dallas and saw him demoted to the bench against Memphis.

"I've just reached a point where I understand it's how my body's going to feel," he said. "It's just how it's going to be, so you just got to toughen up mentally and go forward."

Riley says his answer has been to try and limit his shooting guard's minutes. But with the Heat already looking certain to miss the play-offs, just two seasons removed from a title, Wade has had little rest. He is averaging 38.2 minutes a night, up from last term, but the consequences are on the box score, with his points per down 2.8 from 12 months ago.

"There have actually been some games when it was actually painful for me to watch him," Miami's coach admitted. "He'd play something like 40 minutes and he was barely able to move afterward."

In any other situ, or employ, compassion would prevail. At 25, Wade is only on the cusp of his prime yet one must now fear that his constant flogging will deny him that privilege. There are only so many surgeries before the body rebels while the effects of long-term use of painkillers are frightening. He may be getting paid $13m this year but it will be money squandered if he ends up on the sidelines rather than in the lane.

Steve Achburner, in SI.com, last week rounded up some of the greats whose careers were cut short. Victims of tragedy aside, there were far too many whose stars rose into the stratosphere before the heavy tolls dragged them back to earth. Let's hope that Wade does not join the list.

Posted by Mark Woods on January 9, 2008, 10:00 a.m. ET

When crystal balls go wrong

What a difference a few months make. Peering into a crystal ball back in October and trying to determine who will be hot, and not, who will be out, and nowt, and where the race to the title will go through, is a challenge fraught with peril. Because if it were an exact science, then I would own an NBA team rather than writing about them and my online bookmaker would have become another dot-com bust as a consequence.

Here are my five biggest surprises (in no particular order) as we head into 2008.

1. The collapse of the Miami Heat
Sure, Dwyane Wade has missed a ton of games and we knew that Shaq and Zo were playing on borrowed time and ageing legs. But when your greatest threat is Ricky Davis, you know there's only one place you're headed and that's the Lottery. Has any team ever fallen so quickly from grace after winning a title just 18 months ago? Statistically, yes, but the brutality from going from champ to re-building in such a short space of time means Heat coach Pat Riley may need to consider a move back upstairs quicker than imagined.

2. The rise of the LA Lakers
Anyone who doubts Phil Jackson's coaching credentials and the value of paying him $25million (£13m) over the next two seasons only has to look at how the Lakers have quietly meshed into a team which might get past the first round of the play-offs. You think Kobe expected this? During a 19-10 start, Andrew Bynum is finally giving glimpses of why he was designated untradeable, Jordan Farmer has been a surprise contributor and they are getting help from right down the bench. They won't contend but Jackson is doing one of his best jobs yet.

3. The demise of the Chicago Bulls
We all over-estimated and over-hyped the Bulls but this is a group of players who need to look hard at themselves. Scott Skiles paid the price but it's nonsense to attribute their slump to him alone. Ben Wallace's production has dropped alarmingly, Kirk Hinrich is playing sans confidence and Luol Deng and Ben Gordon have allowed contract issues to dilute their productivity on the court. Despite all that, they could still make the play-offs but think they regret not trading for Kobe now?

4. Portland's surge
The easiest pick of the bunch. 13 straight victories for a team which was supposed to be angling for a second consecutive number one Draft pick makes Nate McMillan a sure-fire contender for Coach of the Year but the play of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge has made Blazers fans stop sobbing about the injury to Greg Oden. Sustaining all this will be tough now that opponents are taking them seriously every night but the future is brighter than imagined.

5. Milwaukee's inexplicable mediocrity
They have a good solid roster. Bright young talent. Ample depth. An All Star who has become more of a leader than ever. So why do the Bucks continue to prop up the NBA's weakest division? A lack of toughness is the simple explanation on a squad which has too many players who under-whelm night after night. Michael Redd's 25 ppg is carrying a large part of the load but at the outset of this campaign, he was determined not to tolerate more failure in Brewtown, USA. No such luck. Yi Jianlian has been far better, quicker, than we expected but the disappointments elsewhere are numerous.

Posted by Mark Woods on January 2, 2008, 11:00 a.m. ET

A Christmas wish list for one and all

It is the season of giving, of gratitude, and of gifts. And even in the well-paid world of the NBA, everybody could use a little something in Santa's goodie sack to enhance their Christmas cheer. And if you haven't yet figured out just what to get your favourite NBAer, here are few last minute suggestions to sooth the shopping conundrum.

Kobe Bryant More help, any help? The Lakers might even throw in Andrew Bynum and some unwanted HMV vouchers in exchange.

Jason Kidd A trade out of New Jersey. I hear Greece is awful nice this time of year.

LeBron James A new cabinet for his first scoring title. Although bet he'd swap in the sales for a point guard.

Sam Mitchell A boxed set of Linguaphone language courses, a Euroleague media guide, and an Inter-rail pass for next summer's Draft scouting trips. We know you like Europe really, Smitch.

Dwight Howard A three point shot. Because let's face it, there's nothing else he needs.

Grant Hill All the cotton wool that (Suns owner Robert Sarver's) money can buy. Plus one more big guy in Phoenix wouldn't hurt.

Gilbert Arenas Relationship counselling. And the wisdom not to document every session on his Blog.

Dirk Nowitzki A backpackers' map of Russia and a long black couch. Because if Dallas come up short again, it'll be a long, introspective summer for The Diggler.

Tony Parker A case of imported Casino rouge, Ferrero Rocher and fresh escargot. Because he's worth it.

Shaquille O'Neal A jar of the latest wonder cream out of Paris which makes you look and feel ten years younger. Or alternatively, a two for one deal for golf lessons for you and Zo.

Carmelo Anthony His own temple. Perfect for all the hero worship he'll receive in China if he plays as well for Team USA this year as he did last.

Pau Gasol Champagne to savour the moments of celebration, triumph and domination. Too bad you can't crack it open until August in Beijing.

Phil Jackson Switzerland. Because nowhere else has enough bank vaults to stash that $12 million a year salary.

Isiah Thomas A nice set of matching cuff-links and ear plugs.

Luol Deng The kind of European Championship campaign you'd get if Carlsberg made 'em. And a dash of whatever the Bulls had last year but somehow lost over the summer.

The City of Philadelphia Overalls and a protective hard hat. Because we wouldn't want you getting covered in dust during the Sixers' re-building job. Plus the number one Draft pick, simply because of the gag potential of OJ Mayo and Cheese Steak.

Randy Wittman A successful recovery from his recent back surgery. Plus a visit to Minneapolis from the Tardis for a special episode of Doctor Who in which Kevin McHale is transported back in time to a land where only good trades happen.

Kelenna Azubuike A protective case for his new British Passport. You taking the hint, Jacqui Smith? Charlotte Bobcats Fans. And a ban on signing anybody over the age of 40. Named Michael. Andrei Kirilenko The answer to the prayer he's been soliciting from Santa all year. Coming next season, the Moscow Jazz…!

Tracy McGrady Air sickness pills. For when you, and the Rockets, finally hit the rarefied air of the second round.

Michael Olowokandi An overdue comeback. Brunel University Old Boys play every Thursday night, 6-8pm, we hear.

Kevin Durant The Rookie of the Year prize, gift wrapped. Well, why wait until June to hand it over? Plus a rich benefactor who will prevent Durant and the Sonics from having to re-locate to Oklahoma.

Dikembe Mutumbo A subscription to Saga magazine and a woolly pullover - in the wrong size. He's getting to that age…

Dick Vitale, Elton Brand, Alonzo Mourning and Greg Oden A healthy 2008. Get well soon, fellas.

Bill Walton One of the most incredible and amazing books in the history of the entire universe. Jordan: My Life (by K. Price), available for 99p at bookstores near you.

Boston Celtics Absolutely nothing. Well, that would just be greedy wouldn't it?

Merry Christmas.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 21, 2007, 11:50 a.m. ET

Bobcats look to Jordan to cure ills

This was, and remains, the season where the Charlotte Bobcats were supposed to become a play-off team for the first time in their brief and, as yet, ignominious four year history.

The year when the tag 'expansion franchise' was cast into oblivion along with all its associated expectations of mediocrity. The campaign when, freed of the shackles of low draft picks and restricted salary caps, owner Bob Johnson would engineer a winning mentality and the foundations for a future Championship would be cemented. And the moment which the North Carolina public, hitherto unwilling to embrace this team as they once did the Hornets, would finally take it to its collective heart.

All are, or look like staying, unfulfilled aspirations. Yet for all the hopes, and muted hype, which surrounds the Bobcats, the entity with most to prove in NC remains Michael Jordan.

Brought in last year by Johnson as both minority shareholder and the head of all basketball operations, Jordan's remit was both wide and specific. Make us a winner, he was told. And make us a club which the fans can be proud of.

Currently 8-14, with the third worst record in the Eastern Conference, and with a freshly minted arena rarely full to capacity, the jury is still out on both counts.

Johnson, used to success from his days as a television mogul, has taken to calling the Cats a "growth franchise". Which, in reality, applies to every NBA outfit. Unless, of course, any are quietly trying to downgrade their worth (no Knicks jokes here)? What he aspires to is making it mature and established. But until the proof of their maturation can be seen, night in and out, on the court, they will still be the new kid on the block. And to adapt a footballing analogy, would you pay the same money to watch Arsenal's youth team as their senior stars? Hence, why Charlotte's new building has thus far failed to attract the lucrative naming rights which look so good both on the shop front and the bottom line.

Jordan's executive career lacks even a hint of the lustre which accompanied every twist of his playing forays.

One seasoned Bobcats observer tells me the perception remains in his current employ that too much of his work is being conducted from Chicago rather than the team's offices. And while his demi-god status in this part of the world remains intact, there are a number of issues which need constant scrutiny and care.

On the floor, the Cats need a centre, or at least an energetic big man, something which they tried to address by attempting a snatch n grab for Anderson Varejao. Instead they've ended up with Nazr Mohammed, who has been about as effective in recent years as a chocolate fireguard and comes with a hefty salary attached. Add in perennial distraction Jeff McInnes, and past-their-best veterans Derek Anderson and Othella Harrington, and there remains too many question marks on a single roster.

On the plus side, Gerald Wallace - through whom a lot of the offense goes - continues to improve while Emeka Okafor, despite the Bobcats unwillingness to hand him a lucrative summer extension, is maturing into a formidable defensive player.

But the Bobcats struggles may get worse before they get better. Being the second lowest scoring team in the league hardly helps their cause on - or off - the court while significantly, only Memphis and New York allow opponents a better field goal percentage, a symptom not helped by a lack of rebounding outwith Okafor's efforts.

In trying to tweak and tinker, Jordan has talked a lot about how important it is to be "patient" and concedes the frustrations of being unable to get out on the court to help the Cats to turn things around. When asked last week on ESPN, what exactly he brings to the table, he outlined his contribution.

"A winning attitude. A winning presence. Versatility in the sense that I played the game at the highest level and understood what it takes to win."

Understanding the components of victory as an executive differ from the Jordan Rules which were so omnipotent with the Bulls. Despite his cameo appearances on the practice court in recent days - which he claimed were "all about trying to get them to focus on the little things and to play as a team" - as Jordan acknowledges, he can no longer take the shots, even if he's calling them. And the traits expressed, in truth, count for little when it is others laying it on the line in the heat of battle.

As a baseball player and in Washington, MJ proved eminently mortal. He will surely want to ensure it is not third strike unlucky.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 19, 2007, 10:00 a.m. ET

Will the Penny finally drop?

They say you should never go backwards. They also say signing an injury prone 36 year old who hasn't played in the league in almost three seasons is probably not something which is going to end well.

So it proved for Penny Hardaway when he was cut by the Miami Heat on Wednesday, less than two months into a comeback which always seemed fated to falter. The former All Star was averaging just 3.8ppg, a shadow of his peak, and had become an after-thought at the end of Pat Riley's bench - even as the 2006 champions struggled mightily.

"It was a business decision more than anything else," Riley said, adding."... but you never know. He may be back. We'll just see what happens."

Don't hold your breath. Apart from one flurry against New Jersey last month when Hardaway scored 16 points, there was little to spur any nostalgia for the Shaq and Penny combo which, albeit briefly, shone in Orlando. His agent says his client wants to continue but it could - and probably - should be the end.

Better retiring gracefully than limping falteringly into oblivion.

Caught my eye ... Proof that the USA and UK are two countries divided by a common language. But enjoy, if you will, the musings of Marynell Meadors, the coach of the new WNBA team in Atlanta, on the lack of support for the Hawks in the city.

No chuckling at the back.

PS A reminder of my new fortnightly NBA column in The Guardian, available here.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 13, 2007, 4:00 p.m. ET

Oh, erm, missus

NBAE Getty Images
Marynell Meadors

A short but brief Blog entry - and one which only UK readers of this cyberspace, or fans of the Carry On films, will truly appreciate.

But enjoy, if you will, the musings of Marynell Meadors, the coach of the WNBA team in Atlanta, on the lack of support for the Hawks in Atlanta.

No chuckling at the back.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 12, 2007, 10:30 a.m. ET

All change is not what Bulls had planned for

What a difference a day makes. Or even two months. Back then, when the leaves were still attached to the trees and no-one had ever though of naming a bear Mohammed, the Chicago Bulls were the fancied tip to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals this year, and even to hold off this re-tooled and re-invigorated Boston Celtics.

Fast forward to the present. The only consistent facet of their line-up is … the lack of consistency, as coach Scott Skiles tries to locate his lost square peg while providing a gentle kick up the posterior to his under-achievers.

First up, Tyrus Thomas was jettisoned for Andres Nocioni.

Then Joe Smith comes in for Tyrus Thomas, following Skiles' recent critique - later withdrawn - of his work ethic on the floor.

Next, it could be Chris Duhon for Kirk Hinrich, after the latter's benching during the second half of Monday's loss to the Mavericks.

After that, Michael Olowokandi will be signed, fresh from his starring role at your local nightclub, to supplant Ben Wallace.

OK, I made that last one up (although all sightings of the gone but not forgotten Kandi Man welcome). However it's been obvious since day one of the season that these Bulls were a step below last year and then some, particularly with their energy on the floor. It's not just about the box score. Chicago is still holding opponents to roughly the same shooting percentage, which is as good an indication as any that this team has not quit on Skiles, as many have opined.

Somewhere, when sunshine reigned over showers, the chemistry was disrupted. Ben Wallace's bloated contract looks all the more a weight as his contribution decreases but it is as much as symptom as an ailment. As the incomparable Sam Smith critiques in the Chicago Tribune, there are myriad flaws which need addressing if the Bulls are to make a run from worst to first.

Ben Gordon has gone from a fringe All Star candidate to virtual anonymous. Luol Deng has failed to make the leap to genuine go-to guy. Hinrich just seems lost at times as to what his role is. Watching Chicago suffer at Dallas' hands, the contrast between the teams could not have been greater at times. Aggressiveness at both ends from the heart of Texas. Softness in abundance from the pit of Illinois.

"At the start of the game," said Skiles, "we were very poor defensively and then where they went small our transition defense was poor. Then we got it together as the game went on. Tonight we did not get it together until five minutes into the game. We got some energy and were really sharp in our coverage. When we did that, we did a respectable job against them."

Respectable is not what people were expecting, though. Certainly not those, myself included, who never foresaw the Bulls propping up the Central Division. The Deng on the floor is but a shadow of the assertive leader that Great Britain built around all summer long. And it is that leadership, on the parquet, which Chicago lacks more than anything. Perhaps it was passing up on monied contract extensions - or potentially, the lack of a more grandiose offer - but he and Gordon are not what they were.

And that is where Skiles comes in. Although the chatter of trading for Kobe Bryant, or even Pau Gasol, has died down, he must play psychologist to get his shooting stars back on song. Achieving that miracle, you sense, may mean more shake-ups to come. As he admitted: "There is not a whole lot that we have not thought about and discussed. We discuss all kind of line-ups and off the bench people. So we will discuss it again and see where we are."

That's what it's come to. Two months ago, we thought we knew where the Bulls were going. Now it's a case of how, or if, they can turn it around.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 05, 2007, 12:30 p.m. ET

Sonics switch would be an infidelity too far

I know you feel, Seattle. Or to be more precise, how you might feel. To have an old, dear friend, one which has become part of the fabric of your daily life, pack up their trunk and do like Nellie. And with no prospect of a return visit.

It was a call about 1am. A coach, a good friend, rousing me from dreams of playing one on one with Sue Bird to break the news. The Edinburgh Rocks were off, to Glasgow. The first thought was selfish, of course. From being five minutes from practice and games to a whole bigger carbon footprint. But then it was of the fans, those who had stayed true to an expansion team which had almost gone to the wall but bounced back to health. Those who had taken a leap of faith to learn when to chant and how to love a Berry called Ted. It was not to be a day they could savour.

So I get just why the folk of Seattle are anxious and angry about the possibility to that the Sonics - and possibly the Storm - might decamp for OKC, never to return. NBA Commissioner David Stern has already decreed that if the team's owner, Clay Bennett, follows through with his threat to pick up his toy box and throw it elsewhere, there will be no second coming. Charlotte's replacement club was a one-time deal. This time, it would be adios, adieu, auf wiedershen.

Which is hard to contemplate for those of us who remember Seattle as one of the most ardently backed franchises in the entire league. One which wasted very little time in securing its first, and only, title in 1979, just 13 years after it was founded. It has been, by most standards, a model of consistency. The Sonics had just two owners in its first 34 years but Bennett threatens to ring the ultimate change, no matter what ties to the city or the traditions established. Unless the tax coffers are opened to build a replacement to Key Arena, off he will go in the dead of night.

If you've ever been to the Sonics' downtown home, as a European in particular, you might wonder what the fuss is about. This is no glorified sports hall. It is only 12 years since the old Coliseum was re-fitted to bring it up to date and fix the leaks which once led to a game against the Phoenix Suns being postponed due to puddles (no, seriously). The cost was $74.5 million, a bargain now, but when there was talk of a further $200m re-fit, three years ago, it was thrown out by a local authority which had pushed the boat out to help construct Qwest Field, the adjoining home of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.

Which is where Bennett would soon come in after Starbucks founder Howard Schultz lost patience - and interest. And despite talk of keeping it in situ, his partners were quick to let the cat out of the bag about Oklahoma, particularly once the Hornets had enjoyed unprecedented popularity in their temporary home.

Yet I cannot believe, deep down, that Stern wants to facilitate moving the Sonics to what is, in American terms, the back of beyond. From a large-ish media market which represents all that is exciting about Uncle Sam's 21st century aspirations to a small-ish city which has always been a college rather than a pro town. A team which, like the Hornets of Charlotte before it, was woven into the fabric before a renegade owner began to unpluck the stitches.

It would, in truth, provide the worst example of the cold corporatism of sport if the Commish did not intervene, somehow, to halt this trade. The NBA is, and always shall remain, a business. With owners, shareholders and a mighty bottom line. Any business, though, is only viable if it has customers who trust in the product. And in sport, there is another range of factors: affection, identification and passion. Forget that, and a team becomes as much a commodity as a tin of baked beans.

And if that is sport in the modern era, it will not last. The links will be broken. The kinship will decay. Who wants to place their trust and loyalty in a friend who is here today but maybe gone tomorrow? If the Sonics decamp, the sanctity of the game will be chipped away once more, another blow in an age where the ties that bind are being yanked to breaking point by players who are ever more distant from those who cheer them on. It is a tremor which will not only be felt in Seattle but elsewhere too. And when that call comes, and the news breaks, the cries will be loud as faith turns to disbelief.

Posted by Mark Woods on December 03, 2007, 1:50 a.m. ET

Thanks for what, asks Agent Zero?

Despite numerous trips to America, I'm not entirely sure what Thanksgiving's about, other than something to do with turkey, beer and watching the NFL. Which doesn't sound too different to Sundays to me. Except it's on a Thursday. And it means large stuffed cartoon creatures marching through the streets of New York. Not to be confused with creatures getting stuffed in New York which, of course, happens at Madison Square Garden as any Knicks fan will testify.

Somehow I don't think Gilbert Arenas was breaking out the cranberry sauce - although you could forgive him the odd beer. Not only is he out for three months after a knee op but he was dumped as well.

Writing in regular blog, the Wizards guards provides an unexpected insight that stars are humans too! Despite the fact they are often portrayed as cartoon superheroes (I'm sure Ben Wallace was in Fraggle Rock).

Arena tells us: "I’m not talking to my girlfriend. There’s a thing, “Watch what you say,” sometimes. She said, “I don’t want you to call me. I don’t want you to ask me about the kids. We’re going to do this on our own.” So, I decided, “OK.”

"Some things, if you don’t mean them, don’t say them. Now she’s mad that I’m not returning her calls. I guess she’s mad actually, I don’t know. Me and her brother are very cool so he goes, “Why don’t you just talk to her?” Well, she just told me last week not to call her.”

"She told me I needed to start paying attention and listening from now on, now I’m paying attention and listening."

Now I'm wondering. Gilbert is the most communicative NBAer out there. Not only does he not restrict comment to the likes of 'how hard we fought out there tonight and it'll turn around soon' or 'we lacked intensity' (both copyright, the NBA Guide to saying nothing) but he mopes online as well. How bout that! But is there any possibility that if he didn't blog so much, and talked to his other half, then all might turn out well in the end.

Something to give thanks for, perhaps.

Posted by Mark Woods on November 26, 2007, 10:00 a.m. ET

Five to join the Bayou Bunch in February

The 2008 All Star Game ballot is now online and although we know that Yao Ming is going to top the voting list with, um, around one billion, there are a lot of deserving candidates - plus those (well, ok, Shaq) who might only sneak in due to their popularity rather than their present form.

Setting aside any chance that Yi Jianlian might become the first write-in (or should that be log-on?) ever to make a run for a place, there are others around the league who are in line to make their All Star debut in New Orleans in February. Here are five who, based on current standing, should earn an invite to Bourbon Street.

Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets

Setting aside the almost unwritten need to have someone from the hometown club represented on Sunday night, is there a better performing point guard in the NBA right now than Paul? The third year playmaker leads the NBA in assists (10.8 dimes per night), and steals (3.2) as well as pushing up his scoring average to 19.5 through the first ten games before injury sat him down. Paul is the key reason why the Hornets are the most surprising team of the first month of the season and he could even end up starting for the East.

Kevin Martin, Sacramento Kings

Martin was shown the money in Sactown in the summer and has amply justified his enlarged cheque, particularly in the absence of Mike Bibby. It hasn't been down just to his 43 point blitz against the Knicks this week (and let's face it, is there anyone who couldn't score on them right now?). Martin is draining six points more per than last term (26.2) and, vitally, improved his defence under new Kings coach Reggie Theus.

DeRon Williams, Utah Jazz

If Paul is the upcoming point of the East, then Williams is the rising pass master of the West. Memories are long of his quietly efficient role in shoving the Jazz all the way to the final four last season but he has taken the challenge to maintain that elevation in his third year in the NBA, particularly with an improvement in his outside shooting.

Zach Randolph, New York Knicks

Hold down those eyebrows. For all the talk of trouble in NYC, the name of Zach Randolph hasn't cropped up once. And it's a positive twist for the forward whose summer move cross-country after six years in Portland has pushed him into the Gotham spotlight. Thus far, he has delivered. Less scoring sure, but better defence, 14.3 boards per (second in the league) and an unblemished attitude amidst the tumult. You can easily argue that ZR should be getting the ball more but his tandem with Eddy Curry is one of the few bright spots in the Garden.

Luol Deng, Chicago Bulls

OK, bring on the cries of a homer pick but Deng demonstrated last season that he merits a place in the All Star Game. "It's an ambition for this year, sure," he told me, before a knock sidelined him for a week. Once the mental wobbles caused by talks of trade and Kobe Bryant's on-off arrival subside, Deng should be able to assert himself much more than he did in the opening three weeks of the campaign. And he'll need to if the Terri-Bulls are to dig themselves out of the mire and back onto even ground.

- A few incoming mails of late about NBA television coverage in the UK (or rather the lack of it). Watch this space, or rather your TV screen, but my sources in the league tell me there are plans afoot to start streaming games via this website from December in a version of League Pass. In the meantime, the new weekly show, NBA 360, is now available on Five US.

Posted by Mark Woods on November 21, 2007, 11:30 a.m. ET

Demands robbing Varejao of more than cash

Every Wednesday, sun or snow, I gather with a group of friends and fellow ballers to show both hoops and the breeze. It's competitive but not competition. We do it for the enjoyment, the occasional brag (you know who you are, Fernan!), fitness (except for Big Ally) and above all fun. It's the very essence of our club, the mighty Darroch. We aren't in a league and even though we keep score, when the board is switched off, we pay our two pounds, head home and return seven days later with the slate clean.

It is, in a way, pretty close to the vision which James Naismith, the son of Scots immigrants, had in mind when he originally invented the game. So, you have to wonder, what the Good Doctor would make of Anderson Varejao?

You may not have noticed the Brazilian in the NBA of late. Which would come as no surprise, since he's not actually there. According to various sources, he is either by the beach or simply hanging out back in his native country. Which, by most barometers (particularly the ones which predict the temperature) is not a bad place to be. Particularly compared with Cleveland, a city so lacking in lure that I once paid handsomely to leave a day earlier than originally planned. And that's saying a lot. I've been to Milton Keynes. Twice.

It's all because Varejao is not best pleased at the Cavaliers offer of a contract extension worth £3million a year. He wants £4.5m, and, to be fair, he is entitled to ask. It's worth a go and his agent, Dan Fegan, has a fine record of making rich owners open their wallets. As a restricted free agent, however, the Brazil international isn't at liberty to entertain any offer. The Cavs have first dibs. And after his highly effective role as a primary reserve during their run to the Finals last season, they are understandably keen not to let him walk out the door.

The Mop Topped One tried to pull a fast one, claiming he'd agree a one year deal worth £2.5m, meaning he could bolt in 12 months time. It's no surprise Cleveland GM Danny Ferry kicked that one into touch. Memories of Carlos Boozer's midnight flit to Utah still rankle in this corner of Ohio. Still, with LeBron to pay and other mouths to feed, they're unwilling to blow their budget out of the water. Luxury taxes, despite the revenue magnetism of King James, are not especially appetising.

The 2.08m forward has made noises about a return to Europe. Barcelona, where he began his career, would be an appealing spot. The pay in the ACB's not too shabby and the Ramblas isn't so different to Rio. As a winter destination, the Med beats Lake Erie each and every time.

With perhaps one eye on Plan B, Varejao gave an interview to Catalan sports newspaper Marca on Sunday. In it, he claimed some of the comments on his demands have been "ridiculous." He added: ''The details, the amounts of my contract, the assumptions, they are not correct. I have been training here in Brazil twice a day during the pre-Olympic tournament, the pre-season and now the regular season. I'd like my fans and the team to know that I want to play. And that I want an agreement that is fair for both parties.''

Regrettably, what is just for one is inequitable for the other. The impasse has continued while the reigning Eastern Conference champs have stumbled to a 4-3 start with a gaping hole in their expected line-up. They need Varejao as much as he needs them. There is also the small matter of keeping James content with the team's long-term plans. But not quite at any price.

The Doctor, you suspect, would be bemused. Me, I just feel sorry for young Andy. And, even with a jealous look at the forecast at Copacabana, slightly superior. Because unlike him at present, even it is just once a week, I get to go out and play while he idles away. It's just for the fun of it, for the game. It may not come with millionaire perks but, even at two quid, it's money in the bank.

- PS. You can also now read my regular NBA column online in The Guardian.

Posted by Mark Woods on November 14, 2007, 11:27 a.m. ET

Stuttering Sonics will progress at own pace

You think PJ Carlesimo doesn't sometimes think back to June, in Cleveland? The confetti. The champagne. The euphoria. A place at the very epicentre of the NBA's stratosphere.

And now this.

From Championships in San Antonio as Gregg Popovich's number two to an 0-7 start in Seattle. You sure you want this Oklahoma? Not even the thought of Latrell Sprewell struggling to feed his family could probably make PJ feel much better now as the lean, mean and not-very-mean machine stumble to the worst start in franchise history.

Or so you'd think. Despite the addition of Kevin Durant, this was always going to be a year of growth and education in Sonic-Land rather than one which would see the team burst into the play-offs on the back of the (already all but certain) Rookie of the Year.

Durant has shown enough so far to suggest the hype will not be mis-placed. 23 points per is not a bad start to his professional career even if he has underlined how much he still had to learn. He is shooting too often, and missing too many, which will doubtless soon have Carlesimo nipping at his ear. Admire his bravado, yes. But channel it appropriately.

With Rashard Lewis taking the money train to Orlando, he was destined to be the go-to guy from day one. No concerns about that on a roster whose average age is under 25 years old, and even lower in the continuing absence of seasoned vet Kurt Thomas. With that, inevitably, will come struggles like the second half crashes against fellow strugglers Sacramento and Memphis. Or Durant's personal shooting nightmare in Friday's 103-101 reverse to Utah when he made just four of his first 15 attempts before sparking a late rally.

Nevertheless, amid that loss, there was pyrrhic pleasure for the Seattle coach. Some victories are as good as defeats, when the performance is sub-par. And conversely, pushing an experienced and well-drilled team which is a likely contender out West, hints at better spoils.

As PJ noted after the encounter with the Jazz. "For some guys this is a good learning experience, you can't not be aggressive. That was a good game; if we play that well in April, then I'll be proud. By then, you would hope, they will have learnt how to cut out the turnovers and to finish what they've started - and to do so with consistency.

"We need to develop a little more aggression than we have right now, especially in the fourth quarter," Carlesimo said after the previous loss to the LA Clippers. "Our defence is lousy, but every game it's 20-something turnovers and 25 points. It's just not bad half-court defence. It's giving up 25 points in transition."

Halting that trend is hard work. Winning in the NBA isn't easy, no matter how Carlesimo's former side, San Antonio, make it look. "I hate losing, period," Durant griped last week. You had to sympathise. Neither in high school, nor in college, has experienced the lows. The induction has been harsh, not just for him, but for fellow rookie Jeff Green (whose 19 points on Utah provided intriguing flurries to impress) and for other young wannabe studs like Johan Petro.

That's where Carlesimo and shot-gun rider Paul Westhead will earn their corn as coaches. Keeping heads up when the baskets aren't dropping down. Tweaking incrementally without knocking confidence. Keep trying to out-run the opposition while ensuring everyone sprints back at the other end. Both have been at the sharp end of success. Now they have to pass it on while picking up victories along the way.

One of the more curious spin-offs of the Sonics proposed flit to Oklahoma is that owner Clay Bennett should be prepared to give his appointed crew time and patience to proceed at their own pace. His primary concern is what is likely to be a bruising battle of hearts and minds to strip Washington state of its team for a move to Cowboy country.

Carlesimo will progress regardless. The building project, the one on the court, remains in its infancy. The foundations are there. But the champagne, for a while to come yet, will have to stay on ice.

Posted by Mark Woods on November 12, 2007, 9:47 a.m. ET

Ailing O'Neal no longer a Superman

The top scorer on the Miami Heat after the first three games of the season? That'd be Ricky Davis.

The leading rebounder? Step forward - or rather jump up - Udonis Haslem.

The field goal percentage of their starting centre? Just 53 per cent, a good chunk below his career average. As for free throws. Eurgh.

For a $20 million salary, you'd expect Shaquille O'Neal to be racking double-doubles every night, just as he has done during a career in which 25.9 points and 11.6 boards has been his average clip.

But at age 35, and beginning his 16th season in the pros, maybe that's now expecting too much. In fact, maybe we shouldn't expect much at all.

The Big Fella has given us many moments of magic, on and off the court, since he was drafted by Orlando back in 1992 out of Louisiana Tech. Four Championship rings, a semi-permanent place in the All Star line-up, and unparalleled popularity attest to the impact which Shaq has had both at home and abroad.

In his pomp, he was scarier than Freddie on Hallowe'en. History might record that he was a step below Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the pantheon. But there is no doubt that O'Neal is heading for the Hall of Fame at the earliest ballotable opportunity.

That may come around sooner than we think. Which is one reason why the paying public should savour every appearance which the aching, ageing body of the Miami Heat's pivot allows him to make this season. Because should things continue as they are, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of Shaq's stint in the NBA.

It wasn't, Miami hoped, to be thus. This should be a moment for him to shine like he once did. With Dwyane Wade out until next month following surgery, the Heat are trying to lean on their other superstar and are asking him to carry him on his super-sized back. Instead, he went for a duck in the first half of a 91-80 loss to Detroit. After losing all seven of their pre-season games, Pat Riley's team are 0-3 and - even now - by no means a lock to make the play-offs in the league's weakest Division. There was a time when Big Aristotle could philosophise his way through triple coverage with one drop of his Superman tattooed shoulder. Suddenly, he looks all too mortal.

All good things must come to an end. Not since the 04-05 season has O'Neal come close to a full schedule. The banging and the bumping have taken their toll. The athleticism is but a memory. Conditioning? Long gone. Coming off a career-low year, the downhill slide is no longer a novelty. And it happens to the best of them.

Remember MJ in Washington? I'd rather not.

"The good thing about this country … is there is always the next time," O'Neal said this week. That another opportunity lurks around every corner.

But if Ricky Davis and Udonis Haslem are still trumping Shaq come the spring, he may be out of time. So, just in case, enjoy him while he lasts.

Posted by Mark Woods on November 06, 2007, 10:47 a.m. ET

Duncan's perspective beyond dollars

"Show me the money!"

It became the cartoon catchphrase for over-paid, over-pampered (mainly American) athletes, courtesy of Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire before his career plunged faster downhill than Eddie Edwards with rockets on his back.

Cash counts. Salary shouts. The bottom line is… the bottom line. Nothing wrong with earning the market rate for the job, of course (although emails gratefully received from anyone offering to pay more). But so much of the ills which plague sport are driven by the almighty dollar which long ago superseded 'love of the game' as the primary mantra.

Much of the disenchantment of fans is against the 'me, first' culture espoused by so many of those whose talent has taken them to the heights. "I have to feed my family," Latrell Sprewell once said after snubbing a deal worth around £5 million a year. With such pronouncements, it is any wonder that the disconnect between those on the court and the onlookers in the cheap seats is at its greatest, a schism which threatens the delicate equilibrium between support and stability. After all, if nobody's watching, nobody's paying.

Which is why the news that Tim Duncan has agreed a new contract with the San Antonio Spurs for less than his going rate gives one hope that reality is biting. Under the rules of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement, the two-time Most Valuable Player is presently eligible to sign a two year extension worth around £27 million (that's 51 mill, US). Instead, according to my good chum Johnny Ludden of Yahoo, he has accepted a deal which undercuts that by almost six million.

Leaving money on the table? That's simply unheard of, unless - like Sprewell - you either have the worst advice in the world or an extraordinarily inflated view of your own value. Duncan, who would remain one of the most coveted free agents in the NBA, could have ridden out his existing deal and then hired Sotheby's to tout his services to the highest bidder.

But he didn't. He couldn't. Because he isn't that kind of guy.

Duncan, who has career averages of 21.8 points and 11.9 rebounds, has been the dominant player in the NBA since Michael Jordan took his leave. Not the dominant personality, not the pre-eminent star. Those roles have been gratefully scooped up by others more interested in appearing on the cover of fashion magazines or flogging basketball-shaped ice to the Eskimos. TD, though he has a number of well-remunerated endorsements, has other priorities.

Foremost, to the Spurs' delight, is winning. Four titles since 1999 is proof of that. When San Antonio's players received their latest rings on Tuesday night, there was one man above all who was responsible. Tony Parker may have been the Finals MVP but it is Duncan who has been the omnipresent talisman over the past decade. Without him, the Alamo's finest would be languishing in the backwater, or even worse, re-located to a city with brighter lights. As coach Gregg Popovich noted, such an approach is "definitely special. And that's just a very good example of how his brain works and what his priorities are."

Duncan, despite a free agent flirtation with Orlando, remains immovable. His philosophy and that of his employers is indistinguishable. Work hard. Excel. Aim high. No wonder the Spurs are routinely cited as the model franchise of not just the NBA but of America's major leagues.

His decision to be willingly low balled will have repercussions beyond his wallet. It hugely increases San Antonio's chances of re-signing Manu Ginobili which his current contract expires. It will give the team the flexibility to chase free agents who can help Duncan chase championships well into his late thirties. Are you watching this in New York? Watch, and learn.

A poll last week among the NBA's General Managers named the Virgin Islander as their second favourite to become the league's MVP once again next June. Even aged 31, 11.1 per cent would still choose him to build a franchise around. 48 per cent believe he is the best power forward around, the same tally of those who think he is the best centre.

These are the guys who show the money, remember. Every one of them not named R.C. Buford would have gladly come up with the max to tempt Timmy D.

No chance of that though.

Duncan may be under-paid but he will never be under-valued. Unconcerned about leaving it on the table, what is priceless is how little he leaves on the floor.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 31, 2007, 12:10 p.m. ET

Laying it on the line

Predictions are for mugs. Nobody knows what will happen between here and June. An injury here. A trade there. The panic button pressed. Or a chemistry problem which can't be resolved with a bunsen burner.

Call me a mug then. Here's this Idiot's Guide to might be the contenders to win it all.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: NBA champions
Prospects: Champions four times in the last nine years, the Spurs have disproved the theory that only big city clubs can hit the jackpot thanks to a line of brilliant imports from overseas and the luck of the Draft.
Duncan, a two-time Most Valuable Player, is regarded as the most complete all-round forward of the modern era, able to defend and score against anyone. However his status as the biggest star in Texas is being threatened by French point guard Tony Parker – or as he’s better known, Mr. Eva Longoria. The Spurs Terrible Trio is completed by Argentine star Manu Ginobili and with renowned coach Gregg Popovich in charge, San Antonio won’t give up their crown without a scrap.

Phoenix Suns
Last season: Western Conference semi-finalists
Prospects: Nash, the NBA’s most famous Tottenham Hotspur fan, has no challengers for the most fun player to watch in the league. His all-action style has turned the Suns into everyone’s favourite second team and they’re being tipped to run all the way to the title after a series of close shaves. His two All Star team-mates, Amaré Stoudemire and Shawn ‘The Matrix’ Marion form a dangerous one-two punch while French ace Boris Diaw is their X-factor.

Dallas Mavericks
Star Man: Dirk Nowitzki
Prospects: German star Nowitzki became the first foreigner to be named as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player last season but the Mavs crashed and burned in the play-offs. Despite having the best record in the league during the regular season, Dallas were dumped out in the first round. But with virtually the same squad in place, has their window of opportunity already closed?
West Prediction: Phoenix - if everyone stays on the same page (or matrix)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Boston Celtics
Last season: Last in Atlantic Division Prospects: Thanks to a complete summer makeover, the long-suffering Celtics are being backed to go from worst to first after packing their side with star performers. Paul Pierce, one of the league’s most reliable scorers, has had to carry Boston on his back for several years. Now that he has help from sharpshooter Ray Allen and former MVP Garnett, the good times are set to roll again in Beantown.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Last season: Eastern Conference champions
Prospects: When James came into the NBA four years ago, straight from school, and joined his hometown Cavs, everyone wondered if the enormous hype could be justified. By leading Cleveland to the NBA Finals last June, LeBron lived up to his nickname as ‘The King’. Repeating the feat won’t be so easy but with help from Lithuanian giant Zydrunas Iglauskas, they just might.

Chicago Bulls Last season: Eastern Conference semi-finalists
Prospects: London’s leading lights are threatening to drag Chicago back to the heights they last enjoyed when Michael Jordan ruled the world. Brixton’s Bull Luol Deng and London-born Ben Gordon are just two of the young guns who made a name for themselves by knocking reigning champions Miami out of the play-offs last May. They had plenty of help from All Star centre Ben Wallace, the man with the biggest Afro in sport, but it’s GB ace Deng who is now the leader of the pack.

East Prediction: The Bulls, with or without Kobe Bryant. Champs: Phoenix to have a Sun-day in June.

- TOP ROOKIES
1. Kevin Durant (Seattle)
The highest of last summer’s Draft picks in the league this season – after a cruel injury to top choice Greg Oden – all eyes are on Durant to live up to the billing which had Nike had him a £30 million shoe deal the moment he turned pro. He built his reputation with the University of Texas where he was college Basketball’s Player of the Year. An all-action, athletic scorer, Durant is many pundit’s pick to become the NBA’s next superstar.

2. Mike Conley (Memphis)
Recognise the name? No wonder. Conley’s Dad, Mike, won gold medal in the triple jump at the 1992 Olympic Games and has clearly passed on his leaping ability to his son. Mike Jr became the fourth choice in the NBA Draft, by Memphis, for his exploits in guiding Ohio State to the final of this year’s American university championships. His composure with the ball and leadership abilities as a point guard are expected to help the Grizzlies avoid another year in the basement.

3. Joakim Noah (Chicago)
Another of the NBA’s ‘Famous Offspring Club’. Joakim’s father Yannick was the guitar-playing, dreadlock-sporting, French Open tennis champion in 1983 while his mother is a former ‘Miss Sweden’. Joakim is a showman in his own right and has already proved he can take the heat by helping the University of Florida to consecutive Stateside university titles. Now he’s taking his game to the pros – and he even plans to turn out for France as well.
Rookie of the Year: Durant, by a mile.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 30, 2007, 10:15 a.m. ET

Can the Hawks escape hell in the ATL?

When you think of great sporting cities in America, there are a few names which immediately spring to mind.

New York, home to the Yankees, whose absence from this year's World Series still appears a deviation from baseball's norm.

Chicago, home to Da Bulls, Da Bears and Da two baseball clubs who have inflicted more suffering than most upon the inhabitants of the Windy
City.

Boston, a place which has seen more tickertape shredded for NBA Championships than anywhere else, in addition to the recent accomplishments of the Red Sox and Patriots.

Dallas, (for the Cowboys alone) and Los Angeles (solely, marginally, for the Lakers) might merit some props but beneath them, lies a hinterland of immense local pride in their local pro teams, personified by the Spurs of San Antonio, and the plethora of college towns which contribute richly to the concept of Americana.

Then there's Atlanta.

A sports town? Well it's a town (a big one) and they play sport there. Meets the dictionary definition. In all other senses, it's a raw wasteland waiting to either to be wholly developed or left to gather weeds amid the inertia. Bit like Leeds .. only without Ken Bates' beard.

Collegiately, it may be the epicentre of the SEC and have a formidable ACC presence in Georgia Tech.

Professionally, it may as well not exist and despite the recent awarding of a WNBA franchise, nowhere is the void felt more keenly than in basketball.

It shouldn't have become that way. The A-T-L is, for many, the home of the mythical nation that is African-America which should make it fertile ground for the NBA. There is money, plenty of it. An urban scene which should sell itself to every free agent in the league.

But it's Atlanta.

So the Hawks have been allowed to become an irrelevancy. Chatting to a bunch of locals in a sports bar last month, the talk was of the Braves (the only local team with any history of accomplishment) and specifically, the demise of the Falcons. Hoops, even after a summer's worth of moves which threaten to provide hope, wasn't even up for discussion.

"(Michael) Vick created a buzz around this city that wasn't here before in football," observed veteran columnist and ESPN commentator Tony Kornheiser. "They've never had it in basketball. They've never had it in baseball, as great as some of those Braves teams were."

He added: "I feel very sorry for these people."

Sympathy is not required. Merely a reason to care. The Hawks haven't been to the NBA play-offs this century. Or, to over-dramaticise, this millennium, not since 1999, in fact. They've not won more than 35 games in any single season since then, a trough which reached its unseemly nadir when 13 victories were all that was managed in 2004-05. And it has been 23 years since a franchise which began as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1946 drafted its own All Star.

Lenny Wilkens, Lon Kruger, Terry Stotts, all good coaches, have all been flummoxed in recent times. Mike Woodson, the latest unfortunate soul to inherit this poisoned chalice, is entering the final year of his present three year deal. That may be the best thing going for him.

For this season, there is dramatic change. A new logo. A change of colours to navy blue, red and white, as it once was when the Hawks belonged to St. Louis.

In Joe Johnston, there is an All Star of current vintage. Josh Smith is one of the league's more promising starlets. Al Horford, drafted third this past summer, retains immense promise.

It could be time for a renaissance. For the doldrums to be left behind. For those who queued up to watch the Human Highlight Reels of Dominique Wilkens to come back.

Expectations, for recent times, are at a high. But will Atlanta take any notice?

Posted by Mark Woods on October 23, 2007, 4:50 p.m. ET

Lessons from Europe Live

So Europe Live comes to an end, for another 50 weeks. The trunks have been packed up. The private jets have slipped quietly from the VIP departure lounges and set course for a route across the Pond. Fun while it lasted? Sure it was. But what did we learn from the dozen or so games on both sides of the Atlantic involving clubs from both the NBA and the Euroleague?

1. A pre-season game is not a genuinely attractive contest when it involves two NBA teams. The best match-ups, at least from the perspective of the paying public, are when you throw in the novelty of Europe against North America – plus the dynamic of one side (guess which?) being fired up to get the scalp.

2. Minnesota is not as bad as people imagine even though they’ll have to win with heart and hustle rather than talent. Boston has got three terrific players but that isn’t enough to contend. Toronto may struggle to repeat as Division champions but the huge positive for the Raps is the clear improvement and enhanced maturity of Andrea Bargnani. As for Memphis, it could be a Grizzly year ahead.

3. There is a market for live games. Sure Rome didn’t sell out but elsewhere, the reception was warm and enticing. David Stern has hinted that the concept of training camps overseas will be re-visited when the review of this whole initiative comes along, given that the coaches aren’t able to do quite as much as they do on home terrain. However we can expect to see as many, if not more, trips to foreign soil – including potentially regular season matches in London – and in 2009, in Berlin.

4. The best clubs in Europe are not that far behind the worst of the NBA. Anyone that claims that the victories of Malaga over Memphis and Real Madrid over Toronto are anything more than one-offs is barking up the wrong tree but neither should they be dismissed entirely. It’s interesting that any of the NBA coaching staffs I spoke to over the last few weeks did actually scout their opponents, indicating an appreciation of their threat and the respect now earned.

The heavy defeats suffered on Thursday by Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv were almost a surprise (let’s remember than neither side, nor their opponents New York or Houston, were at full strength). However the intriguing idea – ventured by Wolves head coach Randy Wittman (see below) – that somehow a European champion could get a berth into the NBA play-offs becomes all the more intriguing.

5. None of this going to happen unless more top notch arenas are built in Europe. The 02 in London is as good as anything I’ve seen across the Atlantic and Stern told me it’s very likely the new Berlin Arena will host pre-season games two years hence and be at the level required to be the home of any European NBA franchise. Plans to have similar buildings in Madrid and Rome are also under consideration, he said. All of which is good for European basketball, not just the NBA.

6. It’s time to bring in the Greeks. There seems to be a fear among league officials about taking Europe Live to Greece which is apparently based on the past behaviour of the fans there. It’s an understandable apprehension but it’s also a great shame that Europe’s second most fervent hoops nation (after Lithuania) has been excluded from the party. Pana against San Antonio in Athens? That would be anything but a friendly.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 12, 2007, 10:03 a.m. ET

A List - and rest - gather in London

As you'd expect for a NBA game - even of the exhibition variety - there was ample celebs attracted along to Docklands to see the NBA hit town.

Top of the bill, fresh off a flight from Beijing, was F1 ace Lewis Hamilton, sitting courtside along side West Ham defender Anton Ferdinand. Perhaps he was being kept discretely apart from Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, who - wearing more glitter than a panto dame - was roundly booed when his face appeared on the Jumbrotron. But Hamilton's security (two of them) took evasive action when he was approached for a photo by an attractive brunette in the fourth quarter.

Footballing NBA fans were in plentiful supply. "I follow the league all the time," Spurs hitman Darren Bent told me. "My team's the Cleveland Cavaliers, because of LeBron James. I thought they did pretty well to do how they did last year getting to the Finals. It's going to be interesting to see if they can do as well this time."

To add to the X-List, the man from the BT adverts and 'My Family' Kris Marshall sat up with his posse in the less expensive seats. To think he could have watched it all on broadband…

Posted by Mark Woods on October 10, 2007, 4:55 p.m. ET

Stern ready to assist

NBA Commissioner David Stern has pledged to help British basketball capitalise on the 2012 Olympic Games by providing additional support to both the national teams and grassroots initiatives.

Speaking at London's 02 Arena ahead of the pre-season contest between the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves, Stern admitted that consideration is already being given to hosting the league's annual All Star Game in the UK as well as, potentially, regular season games.

And with Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng providing the NBA with a British homegrown talent to promote, Stern told me he is eager to take advantage and provide tangible backing to bring together the myriad bodies involved in the sport here.

"We have a meeting scheduled with British Performance Basketball, with the Federation, with the BBL," he revealed.

"We've been asked by the Minister of Sport to use our power to talk to all parties. We met today with the London Olympic Committee. We're going to do all we can to help grow the game of basketball in Great Britain, including anything we can do in the way of training. Of coaching, games, preparation, you name it.

"We think that's a good thing to do. It can only help that GB qualified for the A division of European basketball. Everything seems to be coming together as we head towards 2012. The market is good commercially and economically but has been lagging in basketball. We think that's about to change dramatically. Basketball's a huge part of the Olympic competition. We're thankful that FIFA make the (soccer) competition 23 and under."

The contest in the Docklands was part of the NBA Europe Live tour which has seen four of Stern's teams train and play games overseas. With The 02's standing as the most modern arena outside of North America, I'm told it is all but certain that London will be part of the initiative's schedule until 2012.

However hopes that an accompanying training camp could be staged outwith the capital appear to be unlikely after some coaches expressed concerns over the additional travel involved.

"It's hard to move them around, then to make sure that the teams have the opportunity to really train because that's what they're doing, they're preparing," Stern added.

"The more important thing is the games. When you bring teams over, to have them clustered might seem anti-social but I understand it. Because it's very important for teams which are new together to bond and practice."

Posted by Mark Woods on October 10, 2007, 3:40 p.m. ET

In UK, Allen re-visits old haunts

The Boston Celtics didn't practice on Tuesday, opting instead to rest up with a few among their party to despite to do the court dedication which has become a familiar part of the NBA's community ingratiation wherever it goes in the world.

Most were kept well away from Commissioner David Stern's visit to City Hall to meet London Mayor Ken Livingstone. No word on whether he's planning to hit the league with a congestion charge for any traffic in the lane at the 02 on Wednesday night (boom, boom!) but it was hard to decipher who was the statesmen and who the master of all he surveys.

For one part of this travelling circus, touching down in the UK has provided a touching piquancy. On Sunday, Ray Allen hired a car and drove, two hours north, towards Suffolk.

It was here that he spent two years of his childhood, as an Air Force brat. Before that day came when it was time to leave and suitcases were hurriedly packed without time to reflect and bid farewell.

"It was good to go back and get closure," the Celtics guard said of his visit to Saxenmundo, near Ipswich. "You move around a lot when your Dad is in the Air Force. That's the nature of the job. But I got to go back and see some places where I grew up. It felt good to have that."

There was his old house. The base. A few sights which remain in the memory.

But, I asked him, what sticks out most in his mind of his British sojourn?

"Fish n chips," he replied upon due consideration.

Some cultural icons never die although as a pre-game meal, it'll never catch on.

- The UK's ongoing ties with the NBA were underlined when Steve Bucknall showed up at practice to survey the scene. Buck was the second player from these shores to make the league when he had a brief stint along side Magic Johnson at the LA Lakers before embarking on a glittering career in Europe.

"It was a great time," he said. "Not long enough but I wouldn't swap it." Appropriately, in his new role as a sports development chief in nearby Lewisham, the one-time England cap gets to bring through new prospects (as well as in his other role as a rookie coach of BBL newcomers London Capital). Lakers by the Docks? You never know…

Minnesota v Boston is televised on Five US from 7pm on Wednesday night

Posted by Mark Woods on October 9, 2007, 10:52 a.m. ET

London calling, NBA ready to answer

It was summed up in the words of that Shakespearean wannabe Eminem.

"Please come back. Please come back."

12 years after the Houston Rockets defeated Buckler Bologna to win the (much lamented) McDonald's Championships at the Docklands Arena, the NBA returns to London on Wednesday night when the Boston Celtics face the Minnesota Timberwolves.

'Great!' you might say. 'So what?' you may exclaim.

It's an exhibition game, between two teams who have bigger things on their minds than a minor tune-up in the UK. A chance to have an early look at the C's 'Big Three' before they take a seat in the third period and let the scrubs battle it out for a minimum salary contract and the opportunity to be bit players among the grandees. An opportunity for Randy Wittman to assess just how decimated the wreckage over which he presides is, courtesy of Kevin McHale's trading handiwork.

Like you said, great.

Look beyond this one, though. Focus not on the banality of what looms large and think about the possibilities which lie ahead.

More of these kinds of fixtures, perhaps even featuring top European sides (which makes them altogether more fascinating match-ups). A larger presence for the NBA here - and the resulting spin-offs for domestic basketball, including the Great Britain teams. And the chance to entice new fans and sponsors into the sport thanks to the glad hand of David Stern.

There is no doubt The Commish sees the United Kingdom as a fertile market. Why else would the league's Euro HQ seem destined to cross the Channel in the years to come? Stern views The 02 as the most NBA ready building outside of North America. If anywhere is going to be the epicentre for pioneering new overseas initiatives, it will be by the banks of the Thames.

An All Star Game? Out of season tours and clinics of the kind which China has been staging in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. 2012 is coming next. Expect the Association to follow the trail.

More likely is a regular season encounter (of which there has only even been one outside of the US and Canada), Stern admitted in Rome on Sunday.

"I think that time is coming closer," he said at the half-time of the Toronto Raptors 93-87 win over Virtus Roma. "That has historically been a matter of Euros. It costs many Euros to buy a game from a regular season because our teams do so well.

"But with the new O2 Arena in London, with the new arena in Berlin, with the proposed arena in Rome, Europe is beginning to develop buildings that look much like the ones that we have in the United States. And those buildings will yield more revenue for such a game."

However, before anyone starts saving up for tickets, there is still work to be done. "We need to develop a revenue model that works, both as to ticket pricing and television rights fees," Stern added. "But in the meantime, nothing we do is meant to be against that eventuality, it just all helps the game grow, and we will see what will be will be."

The days when international expansion, particularly in Europe, was the buzz phrase emanating from New York appear to be over. No longer is it Stern's ambition. The D-League is growing on home soil while talk of taking over the league in China appears, currently, a more enticing financial position. It has been a few years since chatter of a European Division of the NBA rose above the hubris. Silence, on that front at least, now is less than golden.

"It's going to be hard, how that would be incorporated," admits Minnesota head coach Randy Wittman, who is getting a taste of the traumas of trans-Atlanticism this week. "I don't think there's an easy way we can have a division which is integrated with the other divisions we have right now, simply because of travel.

"If we end up broadening our horizons to put a European division in the NBA, it will probably have to be that the winner comes over for the play-offs. Down the road, it will be interesting to see how that plays out."

It's an intriguing compromise. Perhaps the victor of the Euroleague enters the NBA play-offs with ties staged on either side of the Pond. Then the title of world champions - still a misnomer for the North American titlists - would be wholly more appropriate.

That would bring a genuinely competitive dimension to the NBA's forays into Europe. It would also be the true showcase for the best of the best. Don't expect that rarefied level of competition on Wednesday. But beyond then, the possibilities are enticing indeed…

Posted by Mark Woods on October 9, 2007, 8:51 a.m. ET

For Rookie Coaches, Relief Starts with a W

There's only one way to win as a first time coach in the NBA. And that's actually … to win. Many have tried, only a few have truly succeeded. The failure rate is high. And the amount of much-hyped arrivistes into the role who have lasted just one season before scuttling back, chastened, to whence they came gives it all the job security of a Tottenham Hotspur manager.

Still, if you were asked, wouldn't you give it a shot? Never mind the decent pay cheque (or check if you prefer, since only Sam Mitchell - and the rest of the Raptors staff - gets a 'cheque' in the NBA). Or the long hours, the nightly tribulations, or the XXL sized egos. It's the pinnacle of professional basketball.

This week, three seasoned playcallers will walk onto the floor at training camp, look around and face an utterly new challenge. My team. My ideas. My responsibility. My word!

For Reggie Theus in Sacramento, Marc Iavaroni in Memphis and Sam Vincent in Charlotte, this is a whole new ball game. And although each has paid differing due to get to the prime seat on the bench, you can bet there will be that exhausting combination of anxiety, excitement and anticipation about what lies ahead.

Iavaroni arrives with the most hype of all, having spent several years as an assistant, most recently in Phoenix where he was seen as the co-architect of the Suns' Fun n Gun system along side Mike D'Antoni. Of the trio, he was the hottest candidate for the unusually limited number of vacancies in the league. And he has had ample time to consider just what his kinda team will be.

"Number one we have to establish an identity that takes into account what this team was good at and was not good at last year, reflecting their personnel," he told me. "And I think if you're familiar with the status of this team they scored more points after the change from Mike Fratello to Tony Barone but their defense suffered greatly.

"It was just a lot of change and no-one is held accountable for that. But you know we were 29th in points per allowed per game and 30th in field goal percentage allowed and that's last in the leagues. So number one I think this team has to bond through the improvement of their defense.

"And I think that's because defense is a weak thing so we have to collectively come together and have pride in stopping other people and then using that type of mentally that confidence to attack the defense of our opponent in transition to create turnovers to create blocked shots, missed shots and take those opportunities and make sure we attack quickly. Because that's something I've become very comfortable from my experiences in Phoenix and also as a player in the '80's when that's what we did.

"So I think number one, we have to play better defense, two we have to have more toughness, three there has to be a feeling that we're all in this together and that we play with a lot of passion because that enabled me to play in the league for 7 years. I had decent talent but not that type of talent that could afford to take every possession or anything for granted."

Iavaroni is in a fortunate position. The Grizzlies had the worst record in the NBA last term. They play in the most difficult Conference. The only way is up. Reaching the play-offs would be an accomplishment. Missing out? Well, it wouldn't be a complete disaster.

Theus and Vincent will not have such leeway. The Kings are re-building, no question. The lottery beckons in California's capitol. However Sacto's owners, the Maloofs, demonstrated last season with Eric Musselman than they are as ruthless with their coaches as they are in their casino business. In Theus, a former NBA star, they are rolling the dice, given his still-minimal experience in the college ranks. But can he win? His predecessor suffered with the slumps of Brad Miller and Mike Bibby and the ineffectuality of Kenny Miller. Entirely his fault? Probably not. But still, the trigger was pulled and a new sheriff installed.

Hired by his old chum Michael Jordan, Vincent will nevertheless feel the greatest heat. The Bobcats are no longer an 'expansion' franchise. The times for baby steps are over. North Carolina - and club owner Bob Johnson - is expecting major strides, into the post-season at least. A still young team in Charlotte will be pushed ever harder with the burden of expectation on its shoulders. No excuses required or expected.

There has been much scrutiny of the personal toll which such pressure extracts. In the NFL, head coaches can put in 22 hour days. The psychological strains are immense. Families are forgotten. Life, as we know it, stops here. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has admitted to going home and watching nothing except more football on television. It is every bit an all consuming passion.

"There are a lot of different pressures that come on and it does not matter what professional sport it is: NFL. Baseball. Basketball," outlines Minnesota Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman.

"At this level you are dealing with the best athletes, the best players, and you are expected to win. I am as a competitor as anybody else. The goal as a player is to win and for the coach it remains the same."

What advice, though, has he received to cope with the stresses and strains? You have, Wittman insists, to delegate and use all the resources provided.

He adds: "You are never as good as you think you are and you are never as bad as you think you are, you are somewhere always in between, if you keep that idea when you're riding high and winning, that keeps you kind of humble and hungry. You know when you go on a downturn, it's the same type of thing. You're not as bad as you are, you're one step away from turning around. Have an overall picture more than living day to day, game to game.

"If you live game to game in our business, given that we play over 100 games a year, you are going to get burned out. Keep the long game plan that you have and not look at it day to day. That will help you survive in this league."

Sport, at its highest level, is a battle. It is the survival of the fittest. For the three rookies, when they walk onto that floor, staying afloat is the foremost ambition. And that's why each defeat is accompanied by that sinking feeling and each victory delivering buoyancy that makes the toil worthwhile.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 6, 2007, 7:38 p.m. ET

Soak it up, Sam

A lot more on the Europe Live games to come in this Blogosphere over the next few weeks but some interesting thoughts yesterday from Toronto Raptors' head coach Sam Mitchell on his team's forthcoming training camp in Italy - and exhibition games against Boston, in Rome, and Real Madrid, in the Spanish capital.

Speaking to all of the coaches involved over the past week - as well as several players and executives - most are looking at these journeys overseas as an opportunity not just to get extra practice time with their teams but also as the chance to do some useful bonding while overseas.

Mitchell, however, isn't quite buying into the programme. "We as basketball coaches don't like change and we don't like situations that you can't control, and right now, going with your team to another country for training camp with an eight-hour flight, in unfamiliar circumstances, doing things totally different, you're going to have to adapt," he said.

"Because regardless of how everyone thinks and what everyone feels and how happy they may be, my job is to try and get this team ready to play. It just makes it more difficult when you're not in your familiar surroundings. But that being said, it's still an honour to be picked to go so we're going to go and do the best that we can and try and keep our players focused."

So it's an honour. But lest you needed the translation … it's also a right pain.

Sam spent two years of his career in Europe. Unlike Memphis' Marc Iavaroni, who told me his time in Italy and Spain, influenced his thoughts on basketball, the reigning NBA Coach of the Year doesn't appear to see much merit in the European game. In fact, he claims he didn't watch any of the recent Eurobasket tournament - even though Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa, his Raptors charges, were in action there.

"I played in Europe so I know that the game is totally different," Mitchell said. Totally? That's an exaggeration perhaps.

"If you have 16 points a game in Europe you are considered a high scorer." And so…? Is the new NBA order not preaching shared offense and defence-first?

"There are a lot more things you can do to slow the game down than in an NBA game where it is more wide open." Actually I'd argue there are just as many in Europe, if not more, simply because there's a much greater commitment to team defence.

So Sam, when you're over, take a good look around. Soak it in. You might even learn something.

PS. Luol Deng's diary on his time spent with Great Britain this summer is great reading for all those who wonder why he'd choose to give up his holidays to trek to Belarus and Birmingham.

Posted by Mark Woods on September 21, 2007, 8:50 a.m. ET

Oden forced to play waiting game

It isn't going to be easy.

Coming back from surgery, any kind of surgery, requires diligent effort for little immediate reward. Hours in the gym. The banality of lifting weights and working with trainers. And for what? Doing the same thing the very next day.

The intensity of games. The thrill of the competition. The acclaim of the audience.

That will have to wait, for now.

Greg Oden's plans for tomorrow, and the next day, just got a lot less interesting. And with one MRI, one doctor's opinion and the incision of a knife, what was set to be one of the most eagerly anticipated rookie seasons in the modern NBA has been put on indefinite hold.

You have to feel sorry for the Portland Trailblazer wunderkind in waiting. He has worked, tirelessly, for many days in his young life to get into the position where he is deigned the best of his class. Where Kevin Durant is assessed as less valuable to a franchise in need. Unbelievable. And now this.

Microfracture procedures do not mean the end of a career and the collapse of dreams. Jason Kidd and Amaré Stoudemire are living proof of that. "There are things about this that are positive for Greg," his surgeon declared. "First of all, he is young. The area where the damage was is small and the rest of his knee looked normal. All those are good signs for a complete recovery from microfracture surgery." That will be far from instantaneous. Oden - already a fragile physical specimen - will be less than … well, Odenseque … for 12 months at the very minimum.

To go through the healing process, one on one, behind closed doors or in a quiet corner of the gym, is hard enough. I had to do it myself once. It takes limitless self-motivation to force yourself to keep going when the payback is asterisked with a probably or maybe.

Oden's every step, every lift and every leap will be scrutinised in minute detail. You can already imagine ESPN recruiting a new surgical correspondent to provide regular updates. "He looks stretchier which must mean his interior angular ligament is internalising by 2 per cent more." Or something like that. I was never much good at Latin.

The former Ohio State centre is just 19. He's already been through wrist repairs which held off his collegiate debut. He sat out part of this summer due to tonsillitis and has had to deal with a bulging disk. That's a lot to cope with, no matter how mature he is. And this is all before he's made a single swat in the rough n tumble world of the pros.

At least, he'll still be getting paid. Three million pounds, plus the already signed endorsement deals, will help soothe the pain. Plenty of room for a few sponsors' logos on the crutches (I want 10 per cent for coming up with that one). And the courtside seats come free of charge.

But that won't make it any easier.

It is a huge let down for Portland, for their organisation and for their fans. They've been through a lot. The Jailblazer era. Cold winters. The ugliest uniforms in the league. Oden represented hope. A bright new dawn. The opportunity to contend, not this year, or the next, but at some point in the 21st century. In short, the big fella was going to ensure that the team didn't suck. Which is a depressing state of affairs. Just look at any Derby County supporter. It's going to be a long winter, and spring won't be any better.

Likewise, the NBA needed the rivalry with Durant in the Pacific Northwest. Especially now. The feel-good factor is in short supply around the Association and to have a marketable and (a rarity) drole newcomer was just the ticket. Personality sells but not when it is loitering in a suit rather than above the rim.

But ultimately, this is one man's tragedy and one man's challenge. To keep going and to stay optimistic. It will require inner strengths which Oden may not know that he possessed. And in each of those hours pushing his knee to recover in full, he will need advice, sympathy and encouragement in equal measure.

Never will patience have been so virtuous.

Posted by Mark Woods on September 14, 2007, 8:50 a.m. ET

Sefalosha Loses Out in Battle of Bulls

Luol Deng and Thabo Sefalosha figure to spend a lot of time on court together this season but the Chicago Bulls pair were pitched against each other on Tuesday representing their countries. In the first of a two game play-off series to earn a place in European basketball's top division, Deng got the better of his team-mate by grabbing 31 points and 12 rebounds to lead Great Britain to a 74-41 defeat of Sefalosha's Switzerland in Sheffield.

The Swiss swingman did produce a dunk on his off-court friend in the first quarter but Deng - now established as the face of the NBA here - returned the compliment in the fourth as the Brits all but killed off the contest ahead of Saturday's return game in Geneva.

Sefalosha led Switzerland with 21 points and nine rebounds but had to virtually carry his team by himself. "We lost by 30 which is tough," he admitted. "But it was great seeing Luol again and playing against him.

"It was a good summer. As a team we did very well. We did great things. I think I really improved and worked on my game. And this will help me when I go back to Chicago, especially with my confidence."

Deng clearly enjoyed the duel within a duel. "Our teams are very different," he admitted. "He's in a situation where he has to create. I always come out at the beginning of the game to get my big guys involved and try to pick it up.

"He has a lot of responsibilities. He's done well to get them this far. I was telling him this is going to help both of us when we go back. We both understand that the level of the NBA is much higher. But here, we receive so much attention that it helps us when we take the positives."

Afterwards, the Brit texted his other Swiss pal, Arsenal defender Phillipe Senderos. No details given but bragging rights, you can assume, will be gladly held.

Posted by Mark Woods on September 13, 2007, 10:05 a.m. ET

Chicago bonds cut loose

Ever seen any Bull on Bull action? Coming right up … for those who like it taurine.

Actually, here we speak of hoops and of exiles from Chicago rather than the joys of a stampede in Pamplona

Great Britain's victory over Belarus means they will be playing Switzerland next week for a place in the A Division of European basketball. And it will create two adversaries who - in a month's time - will be battling in unison for Chicago.

GB's Luol Deng will be up against Swiss star Thabo Sefolosha, who has been as instrumental in his own country's surge as the adopted Londoner for his.

Somewhere, Scott Skiles will be following the action and hoping neither gets injured but there will be ample national pride driving both on.

For Deng, promotion means he will almost certainly get an opportunity to showcase his skills in the 2012 Olympics. For Sefolosha, his burgeoning role model status in the land of Toberlones will be enhanced.

Britain, given their impressive defense in the qualifiers, will be favourites although they must host the home leg in Sheffield on Tuesday before venturing to Geneva four days later.

Whatever happens, the NBA duo have made an impact. As they say, bully for them!

Posted by Mark Woods on September 6, 2007, 3:55 p.m. ET

The good thing is that it wasn't all just about one NBA All Star in the making.

In scenes reminiscent of the 1992 Olympics, it was Luol Deng's autograph that Albania's players were chasing after their 110-78 defeat to Great Britain on Saturday in Edinburgh but it was Robert Archibald, on his first appearance in his native Scotland in a decade, who did most to put them to the sword with a performance which thrilled a capacity crowd which was liberally sprinkled with family and friends.

They included his father Bobby, the former GB international, who made a surprise trip from Chicago and was duly delighted by his son's 21 points and seven rebounds contribution. More significantly, the outcome ensured Chris Finch's side kept pace with Belarus, who beat Slovakia 75-68. Who advances to next week's two-legged Eurobasket promotion play-offs semi-finals will be determined when the rivals meet on Wednesday in Minsk.

Archibald - drafted by Memphis in 2003, then shipped onward to Phoenix, Memphis and Toronto - showing was even more remarkable given that his participation was in doubt until tip-off due to a sore back. Plus Andy Betts, still technically the property of the New Orleans Hornets, converted all of his eight shot attempts as GB dominated under the basket and a 12-0 spurt in the fourth period extended the gap to as much as 39.

Deng - the young Chicago Bulls star - provided his now customary moments of genius with two dunks which defied gravity but he demonstrated his selfless commitment to the cause by facilitating much of a fine all-round offensive outing.

"We were so much bigger inside with Rob and Andy that I wanted to get the ball to them," said Deng, who is expected to feature prominently on British screens this after the NBA agreed a new broadcast package with Five, who will show regular action including the Finals and All Star Game.

"It was nice that Rob did so well here in Scotland. I told him I was going to look for him and throw the ball into him every chance I got. He has been bothered by a back injury but he wanted to play in front of the Scottish fans and it was great he top scored."

Britain could still possibly by joined by Pops Mensah Bonsu for next week's promotion play-offs after his release by the Dallas Mavericks. He will sign for Italian side Benetton Treviso later this week and there are no hitches, it would provide the insurance cover he requires to join up.

Regardless, the proof is undeniable that GB is no solo act.

Posted by Mark Woods on September 4, 2007, 9:30 a.m. ET

Travelling coach or first class is same trip

At first glance, Mike Krzyzewski and Chris Finch have little in common.

One has three NCAA championships to their name, a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame and all the luxuries which a multi-million dollar salary can provide. The other has three league and cups from his sidelines spells in the UK and Belgium and can at least look forward to a few extra Euros in the bank from his summer switch to the mighty Mons. Even if plans to order that Ferrari remain quite definitely on hold.

However if the head coaches, respectively, of the USA and Great Britain sat down and compared notes today, there would be little shortage of shared experience. The headaches of trying to construct a roster whose parts are in a constant state of flux. The traumas of attempting to accomplish international success against rivals teams which, unlike their own, retain a nucleus which has balled together since they were knee high to a Yao.

Plus the thrilling adventure of pushing forward a programme which has its eyes trained on the greatest stage of all - the Olympic Games.

This is not, lest anyone doubted, like a regular coaching gig.

Finch, a still youthful American who moved to the UK to play and quickly ended up as a coach instead, may have the tougher task. Sure, he does not carry any of the huge expectations of his elder counterpart. Only around 3,500 people turned up to witness GB beat Slovakia 77-52 in Birmingham last Tuesday and the result was hardly back page news. Failure will not see him locked up in the Tower of London or placed in the stocks at Her Majesty's request.

Yet this is year zero +1 for the British team, a core group which went 2-2 last summer now enhanced by NBA Draftees Luol Deng, Robert Archibald and Andrew Betts, plus former University of California guard Richard Midgely.

The result? An almost entirely new starting line-up. A massively improved one, no doubt (even without Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who is sitting idle while the Dallas Mavericks procrastinate over his new contract.)

"The talent level has just shot up," GB guard Julius Joseph admits. Finding roles for the incomers and creating cohesion in a short space of time is no mean feat.

"It's been challenging," Finch admitted. "You see things which have improved over three weeks. Defensively, we're pretty solid now but offensively, we've only introduced or used a fraction of what I'd like and we can get better there. That's something we'll look to work on between now and when we play Holland next Wednesday."

Coach K would sympathise with that learning curve, despite the 112 points which Team USA put up on Venezuela in their first game of the Americas Championship on Wednesday night. With the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at his behest, scoring should not be in short supply.

Chemistry, though, is a fragile creature which can slay even the most ferocious beasts. That is why from the last three major global tournaments - two World Championships and the 2004 Olympics - Uncle Sam's finest accrued just two bronze medals. All that star power, so little reward. No wonder then that Krzyzewski is distancing the current crop from those who went before.

"We are the U.S. national team," Krzyzewski told espn.com. "What we want to be called is not a 'Dream Team.' We want to be called a 'championship team.' The other one will not happen again."

The American public, despite that dismal recent record, still demand a dominance on the scale of that storied squad in Barcelona '92 even if there is an understanding that the rest of the planet are not without their own grandees. Krzyzewski, for all that he has accomplished, will be disappointed if his players are not lauded with gold in Beijing 12 months from now.

Finch's immediate sights are set lower down the scale. Britain is merely aiming to win promotion to the A division of European basketball. Beating the likes of Albania next week in Edinburgh would just help to ensure its days among such minnows are at an end. Only then, and if mission one is accomplished, can thoughts turn to pitting wits and skills against giants like Spain, Italy - and later still, the USA - by 2012.

Each of Great Britain's players pick up £70 per day for their troubles. It may be small change for Deng but for a handful of his colleagues, that amount is on a par with their club salary. Hence one thing is certain. None involved - coach or player - would be here, during the inaccurately named off-season, if it were not for patriotic pride and the opportunity to achieve.

Basketball is, the odd rules tweak aside, a simple game whether in Norfolk or Nevada. The same ball, the same hoop, same court. There are still games to win and players to manage, no matter from whence they came.

And when the whistle is blown, the truth is that Coach K and Coach F are not so very different at all.

Posted by Mark Woods on August 23, 2007, 11:00 a.m. ET

NBA class now at Britain's service

Three NBA Draft picks. One extremely competitive team.

That's how far British basketball has moved in 12 months with the ameliorations put in place around the national side.

The addition of Luol Deng, an All-Star in the making, has caught the headlines. That's what happens when you bring a Chicago Bull into the ring. However the introduction of Andy Betts and Robert Archibald, second round picks in their day by (the Hornets of) Charlotte and Memphis, has had just as much an effect.

After fears of a X-ray-ted traumas, Archibald has declared himself fit and ready to make his competitive debut for Great Britain on Tuesday night against Slovakia at the NIA in Birmingham. The ex-Dunfermline Reign forward was a doubt for the Eurobasket qualifier after re-injuring his ankle in Friday's friendly victory over Ireland. It was a blow for the side's lone Scot who had been sidelined for two weeks of the team's build-up but after further treatment, he is confident of taking his place in Chris Finch's line-up.

"I rolled it but don't think it's bad," claimed Archibald, who has eschewed invites to NBA camps to play in the Ukraine next season. "I'll just try and be as ready as I can on Tuesday, I don't think I'll be sharp. It will depend on how it responds but it's felt better every day. I'll play on Tuesday. I just don't know how much.

"It's been a bit frustrating. Friday night was more about getting my legs and getting somewhere near playing rhythm. It's frustrating to take two steps forward and one step back. I tried to learn the plays from watching and from going over them in my head but that's not the same. Now I have to be as ready as I can."

Archibald believes that the preparations, which have seen GB go 4-3 against a variety of international opponents, will stand the team in good stead over their four qualification ties. His partnership with Betts, his team-mate at Joventut Badalona last year, could be as crucial as Deng's intelligent injections. "We have to be consistent with our effort," he added. "We've played very well in stretches and in the New Zealand game we pushed it further. If we're able to get the things we want to offensively, it's going to be OK."

Julius Joseph thinks Britain will be too strong for their continental opponents and will earn a place in the promotion play-offs. And the Scottish Rocks guard insists Archibald's addition, and that of Deng, will provide the lift which can push Britain from third place in their group into top spot.

"We've increased our talent more than any other team in the group by adding two quality centres, who have been playing in the ACB, plus Luol," he said. "It's a whole team so this will be a wholly different game and I'm not sure how much they'll expect that."

Deng's 30 point haul against the Irish underlined his importance to the plans of GB coach Chris Finch and showed just why Chicago are prepared to offer him a new deal worth £8 million per season.

"We know where he can score from and what he can do," added Joseph. "We know what our strengths are. The whole key is that is manipulating both sides of it and using it to our advantage. Luol's giving us points and rebounds, as well as bringing up the ball and that's all been very positive."

Eurobasket Fixtures
21 August Great Britain v Slovakia (National Indoor Arena, Birmingham)
29 August Netherlands v Great Britain (Nijmegen, Holland)
01 September Albania v Great Britain (Meadowbank, Edinburgh)
05 September Belarus v Great Britain (Belarus)

Posted by Mark Woods on August 20, 2007, 2:17 p.m. ET

Penny returns but it was the Magic who were short-changed

Penny Hardaway. And Shaquille O'Neal. On the same team? And not on the latest edition of NBA Live? One word. Unbelievable.

The pair's reunion in Miami may be the most incredulous tale of the summer. More unlikely than Kevin McHale managing to do a deal which would improve the Timberwolves (he hasn't). More impossible than Michael Olowokandi getting any kind of contract (I hear Guildford Heat may be interested). More improbable than George Bush and Gordon Brown going hunting together before attending a Raith Rovers match (OK, maybe a presidential visit to Stark's Park could be foreseen…).

But Shaq and Penny? Who saw that coming …? Over a decade has passed since the pair formed a dynamic duo in Orlando, cutting a stylish swathe through the Eastern Conference before they fell in their first ever Finals appearance, against the Houston Rockets. It should have been the start of something beautiful, a triumphant era so unprecedented Disney would have built a theme park ride in its honour in the nearby Magic Kingdom.

Then Magic owner Rich DeVos should have taken about, erm, one nanosecond to make up his mind to offer Shaq as much money as possible to commit to his tandem with Lil' Penny. Seven years and $115 million were placed on the table. I don't want to get into a bidding war, he cautioned at the time. Six million more greenbacks from the LA Lakers and the Diesel Train was journeying west - and the era was over.

"It wasn't about money," claimed O'Neal later. "The Los Angeles Lakers gave me a good, fair deal, but money was not the main factor. I just want to go have fun, be young, drink Pepsi, and wear Reebok."

Whether that could have happened in the relatively left-field confined of Orlando is anyone's guess. He may not have had an acting career. That may not have been such a bad thing. Blue Chips, anyone? Yet time should not undermine just how good Shaq had it.

Drafted there in 1992, in the Magic's fourth season in existence, Orlando instantly went from zeroes to comic book heroes. Hardaway's subsequent arrival - along with Horace Grant the year after - brought them an Eastern Conference championship in 1995. They'd even conquered London when Orlando played two pre-season games there against Atlanta in 1993. The clubs of the capital benefited hugely from Shaq's largesse.

The party raged on. Hardaway, then in his pomp, was the best guard in the NBA during the initial MJ sojourn. Injuries curtailed his genius and blunted his signature slice n dice move. Those who recall his final appearances in the league early in the 2005-6 season would have barely recognised the marauding, dazzling magician whose potency in the one-two punch with O'Neal knocked many a foe to the canvas. It was more forceful even that the one which his cohort enjoyed (if that is not a misnomer) with Kobe Bryant in LA.

It was not a comfortable co-existence, however. Hardaway, popularised by his quite brilliant Lil Penny adverts for Reebok, hogged a spotlight which Shaq did not wish to share. 'This town ain't big enough for the both of us.' Unsaid, that may have been the principal reason for the parting of the ways.

Left alone, Hardaway became increasingly enigmatic and the affections of the locals ebbed slowly away. "This is the worst place in the NBA to play," he cried at the time. Another black mark. He got the blame for the locker room uprising which forced out then coach Brian Hill, and later wore down Chuck Daly. Even within, his star waned, before he was finally traded away to Phoenix in 1999. Egotism had run riot and combusted.

Now the two grand egos of old must co-exist again. Neither in Miami is the alpha-dog. That role, that privilege, belongs to Dwyane Wade. Hardaway, this time, has everything to prove. At 36, he will be playing for the veteran's minimum salary and not even that is guaranteed. "We have been impressed at his hard work and dedication this summer to get back in shape and return to the NBA," Heat head coach and president Pat Riley said. "He is a skilled player who can help us in multiple positions."

That much remains to be seen. Lil Penny is now old. So is his one-time running mate. There will inevitably be some reminiscence of the storied days of the past. Any glimpses of greatness which remain may remind O'Neal and Hardaway of just how unbelievably good they were together. And the rest of us of just what might have been.

Posted by Mark Woods on August 13, 2007, 10:10 a.m. ET

Deng looks for magic act

Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng is vowing to bring some NBA magic home this summer and help propel Great Britain to a place in the 2012 Olympic Games. The 6'9" forward will feature in several European Championship qualifiers for Team GB this summer at the end of 12 months in which he's become one of the hottest stars in America.

Deng, 23, joined up with his team-mates at training camp in Florida last week to begin preparations under coach Chris Finch. And after a break following the Bulls' exit from the play-offs, he is looking forward to his spell on national duty.

He said: "It will be exciting. I've played in Scotland before when I was 16 with the English junior side. I had a great time. I'm really looking forward to the whole GB programme to play with guys I know, guys I've grown up with and also a whole bunch of other guys."

Deng, who could sign a new £120,000 a week deal with Chicago before he jets back to the States again, will be making his first competitive appearance on home soil for almost five years. And he claims the best thing will being able to nip to the shops in his native Brixton without any hassle from mobs of fans.

He added: "I really like it. Especially this year, it was hard for me, in Chicago, where you get so much attention when you walk out the door. It's different in the UK where I'm not so well known. When you're out, you're not so much of a distraction."

GB Assistant Coach, Tony Garbelotto has warned that the team face a "baptism of fire" in the impending games,

"We have got a baptism of fire coming from Sunday as we play New Zealand, Croatia, and Finland. Especially Croatia and New Zealand as they are World ranked teams, it's going to be an extreme test and those two games will tell us a lot about where we are at," said the BBL coach.

The 'Tall Blacks' are ranked 12th in the World, whilst the Croats, who are hosting the tournament, are ranked 22nd. GB faces Croatia on Sunday 12th, Finland on Monday 13th, and New Zealand on Tuesday 14th in the mini-tournament.

Before that, on Thursday 9th and Friday 10th, there are two warm-up games against Georgia being played in Pau, France. These represent the first games since the squad was assembled, and for most players will be the first games since the end of last season.

Garbelotto is happy with how the camp went. "I can't say anything other than mission accomplished! We got exactly what we were trying to do out of it.

"We had an unbelievable experience in Florida, in my view it was the best camp that any Great Britain team has had and was held in NBA-level facilities.

"Obviously having players like Luol Deng, Andy Betts, and Robert Archibald there made it all the better, the standard of play was extremely high.

"Now we are moving into the more important phase, as of today we have 14 days until the first official game and we still have a lot of work to do and a lot to get done."

Posted by Mark Woods on August 8, 2007, 2:20 p.m. ET

Time for Yi to stop bleating and start playing

So the owner of Yi Jianlian's Chinese team is now saying he was misquoted? Wasn't me, guv. A case of mistaken identity. Lost in translation. You've heard the excuses before when someone is back pedalling faster than Michael Rasmussen in reverse. Particularly when the egg has landed, firmly, on their face.

Yi, it was said, didn't want to go to the Milwaukee Bucks, the team which drafted him last month. There isn't a big enough Chinese community there, apparently. And more specifically, he wouldn't get enough playing time there to abet his preparations for the 2008 Olympic Games.

I'm not sure how you say 'complete and utter tosh' in Mandarin but there are probably ten different words for the concept. For one, the Bucks were one of the worst teams in the NBA last season and anyone who thinks their rookie wouldn't get a decent amount of playing time clearly didn't even take a cursory look at their record.

No Chinatown down the street? Bring a few friends, maybe some family, a satellite dish and extra-fast broadband. When you're getting paid a few million, with the prospect of more to follow, making chums shouldn't really be top of the list of demands. Maybe, perish the thought, he might want to befriend the locals.

Talking in China last week, the big boss of the Guangdong Tigers "specifically ruled out the possibility of Yi playing in the Chinese league next year." It was contrary to all previous pronouncements although there was an admission that efforts would be made to facilitate a trade somewhere more suitable.

Milwaukee should stand firm. The NBA has rules of entry and no-one, not even an unheralded Chinaman, is bigger than the league. Not one European import has ever demanded to go to a city where their compatriots emigrated in numbers. Steve Francis excepted, it's largely a case of doing what you're told at the outset. Let Yi go to the Bucks and if he doesn't like it, he can return to Guangdong and rue missing out on an opportunity to test himself against the very, very best.

Posted by Mark Woods on July 23, 2007, 9:46 a.m. ET

Darko Days could be behind Milicic

He is only 22 years old. With four seasons of professional basketball behind him. Towering 2.10 metres (seven foot to the Luddites amongst you). Athletic, multi-skilled and with good hands. And he has proved that he can turn up his game in the most intense of situations. If he'd just come out of his native Europe to take his place in the NBA, they'd already be tipping him to be the next Dirk Nowitzki. Instead Darko Milicic arrives in Memphis next week trying to salvage his reputation, rather to enhance it.

I must confess to feeling huge sympathy for the young Serb. He was, to coin a new phrase, Chad-Forded, when he entered the league as the second overall Draft pick in 2003. Hyped up by ESPN.com's venerable roving scout, he was then a pimple-faced bench warmer on his hometown club who was never ready to make an impact across the Atlantic. Chosen by the Detroit Pistons moments after the LeBron James era began amid ticker tape in Cleveland and minutes before Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh began their now venerable stints in Miami and Toronto, his was a heavy cross to bear from the very start.

The comparison was never going to be favourable, particularly when Larry Brown buried Milicic six feet under in his rookie year. Especially when his cohorts from the MSG Green Room were all providing regular glimpses of greatness in the making. He may possess what LeBron does not, a title ring, but that was the sole tangible prize for two and a half seasons with the Pistons before Orlando came to his rescue.

In the shadow of Disney World, there was, at least, an insight into what (if you pardon the pun) magic Darko was capable of when he averaged 12.3ppg in the play-offs against his former team. It is understandable that Orlando would value the polished prize of Rashard Lewis above him at this point (although they vastly over-paid) but they may yet regret discarding the still fresh-faced giant like a used nappy. You cannot, as it has often been cited, teach size. Milicic's only crime has been to learn his trade under the intense spotlight of the NBA rather than in college or in the relative backwaters of Europe.

He is the victim of the modern era, where kids are asked to do the jobs of grown men, where the ink is still fresh on high school diplomas or baccalaureats when the million dollar contracts are dangled provocatively under players' noses. In times gone by, there would have been neither rush nor pressure. Not now.

If Memphis was the first port of call for the Serbian international in America, there would be no pessimism, only promise. Under Marc Iavaroni, an excellent coach of big men, he could easily fulfil what the cyber-visionaries proclaimed as his limitless potential.

"Darko is just 22 years old but already has been in the NBA for four seasons," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. "He has been blessed with tremendous basketball skills, excellent size and impressive athletic ability. In Detroit he was exposed to a championship organisation, and in Orlando he practiced alongside a great big man in Dwight Howard and received significant playing time as well as play-off experience."

Milicic will not be the first to have too much expected, too soon. I recall only too well the sad tale of Neil Fingleton, who could have been the highest British Draft pick of all. A| product of the Teesside Mohawks' excellent junior development scheme, the mere fact he stood seven feet and seven inches in his socks was sufficient to earn him a spot, first at high school in Worcester, Massachusetts, and then a scholarship at the fabled University of North Carolina after he was named in the McDonald's All-American team.

If he, like James, had opted to by-pass college for the pros, it could have all been so different. One team executive at the time told me the young Englishman would have been a top five choice. It would have been a huge gamble but someone, he asserted, would have rolled the dice. Instead Fingleton had a miserable year amid an unhappy atmosphere at Chapel Hill, where he played just once, then was forced to red-shirt upon transferring to Patriot League minnows Holy Cross. With family issues a distraction, he failed to graduate, had short spells in the lower leagues in the ABA, Greece and Spain, and has, it would seem, finally quit the game altogether when just a little older than Milicic is now.

The UK's tallest man is now, apparently, trying to make it as an actor. You can only wish him well. Likewise Darko. His only mistake was to attempt to tread the Broadway boards when he would have been served as an understudy in regional rep. Now he will be asked to take on a lead role and we will truly discover if he is an ingénue or a bust. He will be judged and justly so. Milicic's past should be forgotten. The present is where his reputation will be properly formed.

Posted by Mark Woods on July 16, 2007, 9:46 a.m. ET

Weathering the storm

The Great British Summer (or as it's otherwise known, monsoon season) offers few delights. If, like me, you were supposed to spend three of the last four days writing about substantially exciting cricket matches and instead were forced to creatively describe an empty field and the improbably insipid weather, then the relative attractions of sitting inside a temperature controlled arena watching a competitive game of basketball become all the more appealing.

It's now just three months until the NBA stages its first pre-season contest in the UK for almost a decade and there is not a ticket to be had. That it is Minnesota against Boston, hardly the most enthralling of propositions, has mattered little. The public have voted with their feet and their wallets and the Docklands on October 10 will become a Garden for the night.

The popularity of the game comes at a time when other American sports are suffering mixed fortunes on this side of the Atlantic. Although the NFL clash between the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins at Wembley later this year has sold out, the plug was pulled last week on NFL Europe to the great sadness of those of us who followed its fortunes over the past decade and a bit. With David Stern's previous enthusiasm for a minor league in Europe (think NBA Light) now dampened in tandem with the expansion of the NBDL, the message appears to be that European - or more specifically, British - audiences remain receptive to a one-off event but not to regular support.

The good news is that the demand will be increasingly fulfilled (the NHL is beginning its season at The O2 this autumn as well). The bad news is that it means sports like basketball, gridiron and ice hockey, will have to work even harder to grow their roots in the UK through their indigenous efforts rather than expect a concerted assist from across the pond.

It has always been baffling that us Brits are a nation which likes to sit in the outdoors and shiver in mid-winter rather than savour the shelter. There is no prospect of waterlogged pitches disrupting play on the hardwood or under the roof. But the demand to see NBA, NFL and NHL action in London proves one thing. There is a customer out there. It's up to the respective sports' governing bodies in this country to prove to them that the domestic product is worth turning out for any evening - rain or shine.

Posted by Mark Woods on July 3, 2007, 11:00 a.m. ET

High Picks, Great Expectations

So now we know. "With the first pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers selected Greg Oden of Ohio State University." May that work out better for them than Sam Bowie. And with the second, "the Seattle Sonics select Kevin Durant..." Who will no longer be playing along side Ray Allen, if rumours are proven truth.

So no shocks there. Unusually, with two such great young prospects up for grabs, all the talk over the past 48 hours has been about veterans on the move rather than the newcomers learning their fate. Kevin Garnett to Phoenix. Allen to Boston. Atlanta getting somebody, if their haphazard ownership can ever pull its finger out. The Lakers shooting for Jermaine O'Neal, knowing that they have to do something, anything, to appease Kobe Bryant.

By the time the UK wakes up, someone will have pulled a trigger, a GM desperate to shake up a roster or continue the building process around this year's selection. That's the fascination of the Draft. Not until the moment the Commish steps up to the microphone can anyone be sure of what will happen, simply because the only certainty was that Portland were bringing Oden to the north-west.

This was the night, said David Stern, where "60 young men will realise their dreams of those of their families." But after the drama, the moment where one awaits the unexpected, where all those mock boards are proven correct or mildly off beam, it all sinks in. They are all now NBA players, whether they sign their contracts today or in future years when the summons finally comes. That brings status but also acute pressure.

For Oden and Durant, it will be particularly onerous. The chilling build-up to their calls, that moment when the hairs stand up on the back of your neck until Stern issues those now famous words, is the simple part. Delivery is all the trickier, even for so called 'sure fire' choices. Both have ignited interest in moribund franchises. They have sparked an unprecedented rise in interest in buying tickets and wearing jerseys, a break from recent indifference. Durant is expected to score big from Day One. "It's not going to be easy at all," he pleaded. "Everything in my game has to get better." Oden, it is thought certain, can dominate from the start. "People have talked about it since I was in the 12th grade," the 2.11m centre admitted. Winning may take a bit longer, Championships longer still. Neither will be afforded too much time to settle. The honeymoon will not last beyond summer league.

Nothing, no matter what we might all think, is guaranteed except a first round contact. Otherwise, Bowie would not have been a famous bust and the Trailblazers would still not rue the day they passed on a young stud named Michael Jordan. It is a night where there are steps forward (other than for French fashion with Joakim Noah's inexplicably hideous white tux and bow tie combo). But for all of us who observe the NBA at close range, the fascination will be in seeing whether dreams can match reality.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 28, 2007, 11:50 p.m. ET

Draft Night Means Green Room, Orange Suits

Today's NBA.com-slash-UK blog is brought to you in association with Mystic Mark. Yes folks, thanks to our friends in Secaucus and Britain's favourite future see-er (or is it just a futurologist?), we've been given an exclusive advance peek of the opening segment of the 2007 NBA Draft which was recorded last night in a tightly sealed bunker in New Jersey. The same one inhabited by Tony Soprano until recently…

7.29: David Stern has just popped his head round the curtain at the NBA Entertainment studios. And he's wearing a bright orange suit with a fedora. I grab a quick word. "Well, I got fed up with year after year of this kids turning up and stealing all the fashion headlines. Don't they know this is MY league? Mine." Anyone else remember the years when The Commish had a moustache? Bring back the Eighties!

Backstage in the Green Room. All the top Draft prospects have left the canapés untouched. Apart from Joakim Noah, who's the only one who never forgets to put the accent on the final 'e'. Somewhere in Manhattan, New York's finest XXL large size tailor and suit maker is rolling in a bed covered in dollars. He's also colour blind, which explains a great deal.

7:31: Here we go. The big Portland Trailblazers logo is on the screen. Kevin Pritchard is looking like the weight of the world is resting on his hands. No, wait a minute, it's actually a quarter coin. He's flipping it! "This is unprecedented, baby," screams Dick Vitale. "And with the first pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Portland Trailblazers select Greg Oden of Ohio State University."

Stern and he shake hands. Greg gets his Blazers cap. "Don't get yourself arrested, y'hear," Dave whispers. "We have no money left in our Oregon bail fund, none!". Kevin Durant silently ponders the prospect of playing in Oklahoma in 2008.

7.34:03: Seattle are on the clock.

7.34:04: Clock stops. New Sonics GM Sam Presti is overheard saying: "This job is so easy. I can't believe all those years in San Antonio we actually spent days, weeks, months, thinking about who we were gonna choose. Pul-lease."

Dave's back. "With the second pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Seattle Sonics select Kevin Durant of the University of Texas." This may be the most significant moment in Seattle basketball since Sue Bird arrived at the Storm. (As an aside, if there is one reason why I'm annoyed the WNBA isn't on British TV, it's Sue Bird. If she were British, The Sun would be offering a fortune to pose and she'd have been linked with Prince William. But not Harry, because she's much too classy.")

Young Kev takes his green Seattle cap which, incidentally, is the same colour as at least a third of the suits in the Green Room (which is cleverly acting as camouflage). Vitale blasts: "I think this kid has a tremendous upside. He could be the next Michael Jordan." Minor league baseball scouts prick up their ears momentarily before getting back to their dinner. Two words for you: Harold. Miner.

7.38: It's the Hawks' turn. Two draftees mug for the cameras backstage. They're holding up signs with 'A-B-A' on them. That's nice. Respect for the old days. Actually, hold on, they're zooming in closer. There's some other writing at the bottom. "Anywhere But Atlanta." Ouch.

The Commish is back. "With the third pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks select Marc Gasol of Spain." Secaucus goes silent. Even Dave is dumbfounded. "This is un-be-lievable," splutters Vitale. The entire state of Georgia launch their remote controls at their TVs.

With the Girona centre uninvited, Billy Knight, the Hawks GM, bounds up to be interviewed with a huge grin on his face. "This is a deal we felt we had to make. He's been in the league for a few years now. He's an All Star. A leader. And he's shown in Memphis that he can grow as good a beard as you've seen in the entire NBA. He'll help us win now."

Asked for comment, espn.com's Chad Ford proclaims: "I remember uncovering Marc when he was aged 9. It was in a remote village in rural Spain. I was taken there by goat herders who told me of two brothers. They said 'muy grande'. No scouts had even heard of them by then. But when I arrived, they told me they had read all about me on the Internet and liked my work. They also asked if I could send root beer and Hershey chocolate."

7:40: What's thrown me is that I've just seen NBA.com's interactive map of places in the world with potential draftees. I don't mind that Latvia has Vladimir Stimac up for grabs. But Finland (population: 5,238,460) has precisely one more prospect than the entire UK (pop: 60 million, of which approximately 1 million are currently living aboard an ark). You can imagine the conversations involving Petteri Koponen's parents. "He told us he was playing ice hockey. We didn't know." Then again, there's probably only one governing body for basketball in ruthlessly efficient Finland. And it's never been deigned as "unfit for purpose".

"With the fourth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select Mike Conley of Ohio State University." The Commish is visibly excited. At last, a pick he can look directly in the eye. Conley doesn't just walk onto the stage. He long jumps there. "Beat that Bob Beamon! Or even Dad…"

Greg Oden high fives his former college team-mate backstage. They've shared so much together. Now it's time to go their separate ways. Oden to superstardom, a multitude of endorsements and all the Microsoft products he can use. Conley, erm, to Memphis.

7:44: Now it's the Celtics on the clock. Has anyone felt more pressure than Danny Ainge to do something right? Here he is, in charge of the greatest NBA franchise of them all. The one which brought you Red Auerbach, Larry Bird, Robert Parrish and 16 titles. Plus they have a sell-out pre-season game in London at The 02 against Minnesota to look forward to. These are heady days indeed.

Yet we all know the Curse of the Celtics. That's right, the one which has led to a succession of bad trades, terrible drafts and the tragic day when Antoine Walker was given lifetime passes for McDonald's. Can Ainge pull something out of the bag?

"With the fifth pick of the 2007 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics select Yi Jianlian," The Commish announces. His Blackberry immediately vibrates. It's a text from NBA Marketing. 'Order for 17 million Celtics jerseys to China successfully despatched.'

The room holds its collective breath. Yi has just patted Dave on the top of the head and ruffled his carefully groomed mop of grey hair. He makes the hand signal to prime the surviving Sopranos before inviting said rookie, via his translator, to go and sign his rookie contract outside by the dumpster.

Yi stops by the media room. "How can I get tickets for the Red Sox?" he smiles. "I am so pleased to play for the Celtics," states his translator.

It's got to that point where the Draft is becoming less and less exciting and I'm thinking 'wouldn't it just be more fun if every single eligible player was put on eBay and all the buyers were announced at the same time?' Could you imagine if anyone dared to give anything other than '100 per cent satisfied feedback on this transaction'? Instant league fine.

Only another one and three-quarter rounds to go. There is still plenty of intrigue ahead. Lots of drama. And that unfortunate soul who has to sit in the Green Room on his own and suffer for a while in his own personal hell. Perversely, that's what's so fun about the NBA Draft. The unexpected can happen. And as for those suits…

Posted by Mark Woods on June 26, 2007, 9:50 a.m. ET

Solving the Matrix

Why, my buddy asked me, would the Phoenix Suns consider trading Shawn Marion away? As Beverley Knight would say, they cudda, shudda, wudda won the title this season if not for some rather unfortunate refereeing during their series with San Antonio which drew suspensions which were as unnecessary as they were decisive. The Big Three of Nash, Stoudemire and Marion are good enough to go all the way. And anyone who sat through the entirety of this year's Finals would wish them well for the increase in entertainment value alone.

Yet Marion figures to be the first, if not the biggest, trade of the summer. More significant than Kevin Garnett even (and I'm solid in my belief that Kobe will be a Laker come the start of next season, if not the end). It will also be the first move that new Suns GM Steve Kerr will make since leaving the commentator's booth to run a front office. No pressure there then, not when you're talking about smashing up everybody's favourite other NBA team.

The Matrix has been one of the most all-round statistically consistent players in the league over the past five years. His versatility, as much as Nash's playmaking, has allowed Mike D'Antoni to create the wonderfully fluid style which Phoenix has embraced and everyone else, except Jerry Sloan, would love to emulate. You'd think they'd want to give the current group one more go to scale the heights. After all, it has taken careful planning to achieve the present zenith (for more on this, read Jack McCallum's excellent book ':07 Seconds Or Less').

But this is the NBA. Not only is it a business but it is also the ultimate people business, where managing ego is as vital as managing court time. It's been an open secret for some time that Marion and Stoudemire are not exactly close and neither would appear keen to play the third fiddle behind Nash. When flipping the coin to move one, Amaré scores more, is a physical centre (a rarer commodity than athletic forwards), and critically, is the younger man. Plus the new deal which Marion will inevitably seek next summer will push the Suns deep into luxury tax territory, hindering their ability to eventually replace Nash.

So it would seem probable by the time the NBA Draft arrives next week, Shawn will no longer be a Sun. Yet you can imagine the suits who have winced at the low interest and TV ratings of the league's finale will hope that any deal doesn't alter the dynamic in Phoenix. Run n Gun is the best thing it has going for it. The significance of its demise would be felt far beyond Arizona and underline that within the science of chemistry, there are things which should not be lightly tampered with.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 22, 2007, 9:50 a.m. ET

San Antonio earn their Spurs but will respect follow?

(NBAE/Getty Images)
Four championships in nine years - a dynasty or not? The Bulls won six in eight. The Celtics 11 in 13 seasons. The Lakers picking up five in a decade. Now San Antonio are knocking on the door of the pantheon but not all will be delighted to vote them in. The principal excuse? None of their crowns came in consecutive years.

That shouldn't matter. Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the various players who have been a part of the success story in southern Texas have concocted something remarkable and unique in the league's history. A small market, one which does not attract the marquee names of Boston, LA or Chicago. One which even Duncan almost quit for Orlando, only to change his mind and stay put at the eleventh hour. Achieving sustained excellence in such a town is an extraordinary feat, one against all the odds.

The question is whether this current Spurs squad is the best of the bunch? Certainly none has been so dominating in a Finals. That only clouds the debate however. Cleveland has been the worst participant in the climax for a generation, a team ill-prepared for such heights. San Antonio played great. But they were made to look even better by the fallible Cavaliers.

When the media gathered en masse in the bar to gladly bid this series farewell, there was an unusual consensus. My old chum Marty Burns of Sports Illustrated called it horrible. He was being generous. Even the mild-mannered Armel Le Bescon found it hard to admire four dreadful games even if the French could revel in Tony Parker's personal MVP accolade.

Looking back at the season, were Cleveland the second best team in the NBA? Not a chance. Give me Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, in fact any Western Conference play-off side, and they would have pushed the Spurs much harder. I'd even have bet on Chicago to have been a much more obdurate opponent than the Cavs.

There are calls to alter the seeding process and ditch East and West in the play-offs by simply seeding 1-16. David Stern, usually astute in finding means to improve the league, has dismissed the idea but he cannot embrace the status quo. The Bulls and Cavs may improve next term but it is impossible to see them challenging the current hegemony any time soon, but with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant heading for the Pacific. With US TV ratings for the Finals at an all-time low, money will pull at his sleeve and beg for a new approach.

Yet you can only beat the opponent in front of you. And San Antonio doled out one heck of a beating. These Finals were far from classic but the Spurs are a team for the ages. Next time, one hopes they will have an opponent worthy of association.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 17, 2007, 12:30 a.m. ET

We came here for the NBA Finals…

2007 NBA Champions San Antonio Spurs
(NBAE/Getty Images)
… but instead, we attended the world championship. Or so American TV host and trophy presentation MC Dan Patrick would have us believe. According to him, the 2007 World Champions are the San Antonio Spurs. Funny, I thought that title was being decided in Japan in the summer and Manu Ginobili sure ain't taking part. Unless SanAn has declared sovereign independence and got handed a wild card.

Patrick is a fantastic radio host (if you haven't heard his show on ESPN, tune in online) but did he miss the fact that it was the Spurs themselves back in 2003 who dropped the 'world' moniker on the grounds that, well, it isn't an accurate designation? Maybe the Euroleague champions should start calling themselves 'global kings' or something. And then it really would be messed up.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 15, 2007, 12:30 a.m. ET

On Broom Watch

30 seconds to tip off. Game 4. Win one or you're done. Damon Jones is prancing and dancing on the free throw line, swapping moves with Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall as if they're trying to win a place on the next series of American Idol. At the other end of the floor, the Spurs are stoic, motionless and ready. It's all business. Which may tell all you need to know about why San Antonio is on the brink of four titles in nine years and why the Cavaliers still have some maturing to do.

Talking of American Idol, did you know they let a middle-aged guy with grey hair and attire by Bhs win last year? Honest. He sang the Star

Spangled Banner. Badly. I love Kelly Clarkson. But this? Wow. He's the American Sir Cliff.

And speaking of dancing¡K the Cavs in-game entertainment is fabulous, especially when members of the team appear on the Jumbotron urging the fans to get loud. (Video recorded, obviously although wouldn't it be great if it was live). However, their cheerleaders are terrible. I've seen better at a BBL game. Someone call the Rockettes.

Tony Parker has just produced one of the breaks of the series so far, speeding off upcourt, zig-zagging between 2 players and then hooking a lay-up while tumbling off the court. Cavs go down the other end, TP blows a defensive assignment, and Boobie burns him for three. Guess which one Gregg Popovich will remember at half-time?

Usher's just been on the KissCam with his hot girl. Lucky guy. Next up was Tony and Tim. What would Eva think?

Ron Burgundy has also made an appearance. Remember the days when lots of NBA players looked like that. So if they ever make the Larry Bird biopic, our money's on Will Ferrell for the title role.

The Spurs are shooting badly. Tim Duncan's gone 0 for 7 before breaking his duck midway through the second. TP's spent six minutes on the bench. But guess who's 5 points clear? Uh-oh. Shades of Game 3 where the Cavs did so much right defensively but still couldn't close. Anyone seen a broom? We might need it¡K

I'm sure I just saw some ice being diverted to the Spurs locker room. Rumours are abounding that several cases of Dom Perignon's finest are being chilled as we speak. Spurs nine points ahead midway through the third. One of the disadvantages of home n away series in any Finals. We could see the Spurs receiving Larry's trophy to the back drop of people fleeing for the exits. The World Series winners, by convention, received their prize in their home clubhouse regardless of where victory was sealed. Here, it will be the party where nobody is, erm, partying. More like a wake unless the Cavs can do something to halt Parker and ignite LeBron.

Al Pacino is giving his 'We have a game' speech from Any Given Sunday. The fans are erupting. With all this towel waving, someone's going to get injured. It could be Spurs. An 12-2 run has restored their cushion to 6 with 2:29 left. Will the ticker tape be coming down soon or will there be a Sunday addendum?

It's all over. The fat lady is warbling away and the Q is emptying fast. Final score: 83-82 and the broom is sweeping away beneath the fireworks. Eva's marrying an MVP. It could be no-one else, really. The Spurs deserved this. They were a class apart, truly. Cleveland will be back for more undoubtedly but they'll still have to watching for an incoming San Antonio express train for a few years yet.

"It's been a great run, a great journey, a great bunch of guys," Duncan grins. Spare a thought for Robert Horry though. He's now got seven rings. That's more than most women. But most of his team-mates have been telling me they wanted this one for Mike Finley, who fittingly lands two free throws at the close as he finally becomes a champion. He's a class act. Just like the new NBA champions.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 15, 2007, 12:10 a.m. ET

Is a win - or a rest - on the menu?

My first experience of eating out in Cleveland was not, I must report, so good. The portion was small. Pretty tasteless. Under-cooked. And left a nasty after-taste right at the back of the throat.

I hate flies.

Such are the perils of covering the NBA Finals. Most of the time things go to plan. Then something pesky can come along to cause momentary panic. A dropped wireless connection (thank goodness for Starbucks). A mis-read map (but at least I know downtown Cleveland much better). Or trying to cope with the thought of four days in north-eastern Ohio with nothing more to do than wander around the shore of Lake Erie to get away from the roadworks.

Which isn't to say Cleveland isn't a bad city. There's the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. A decent science centre. A mall. Even a decent public transport system. But there's minimal attraction in looking forward to a weekend watching the US Open on TV from a safe distance of 200 km. away.

Which is why I'm rooting for the Cavaliers in Game 4. Call me selfish but I want a postponement of the coronation. There is no doubt San Antonio is hosting a title party. These Finals are a learning tool for LeBron James & Co. They'll be back, several times in the next decade if their young pup stays at home. But it is a year, at least too, soon. One win is now their target here tonight. That would do. It would even provide enough consolation to dine out on something decent for the summer and beyond.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 14, 2007, 8:40 p.m. ET

Value of getting to the top

What is the NBA Finals worth to a city? Putting aside the obvious feel-good factor and the thriving industry in home-made t-shirts declaring 'Spurs Suck', quite a bit, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.

?.3 million into the local economy. ?.5 in extra spending by locals. and ?00,000 in money spent by the likes of your humble blogger.

Of course, that doesn't take in how much getting to the NBA Finals will benefit the Cavs in the long run even if it is all over tonight. "It gives us something to build on," Cleveland GM Danny Ferry told me. "Reaching the Finals is great but this isn't the end of the process." All of which will be boosted by excited fans who want to come see more of this next season and will pay for the process.

There's also extra cash in the share of the play-off pool from the NBA which will help LeBron James and his girlfriend buy some clothes for their new baby boy who was born last night. He has the middle name Maximus, apparently. Which is the size of the benefit of having basketball's biggest circus come to town.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 14, 2007, 10:40 a.m. ET

Don't Pass The Dutchie

Is there a happier soul in these Finals than our favourite Dutchman Francisco Elson? Quality minutes off the bench, the odd question from the media. At least it sounded like a question when he was nattering in his native tongue at the press conferences at the Q. Maybe it was a debate on nuclear physics? We may never know.

What can be said is that Elson is enjoying San Antonio's journey to the brink of a Championship. For all the talk about the Spurs international influence, it is the Latin American and French contingent which gets most attention. But don't overlook Holland's own hooperstar. "I feel good because I'm representing all of Europe in this league," he smiles. "The Netherlands. Germany. England. Scotland. It's a good feeling to be representing your country, especially the country where your parents are from. It's a blast.

Elson, who may play against Great Britain in this summer's Eurobasket qualifiers, is as laid back as one would expect from someone from the country where almost anything goes. In the Low Countries, he stands out like a windmill but can still breeze through with minimal fuss.

"If I go home, the Netherlands is so neutral people don't bother you," he confides, with a degree of delight. "My friends know that if I walk down the street, people will say 'there's Francisco Elson, the basketball player.' But it's not like Tony who's a superstar whether he's here or in Spain or in France. He's on a high level. He's with a star lady. It's like Manu as well. He's a huge star in Argentina, maybe one of the biggest five sports people they've ever had. Me, I'm from a small country. And I don't get bothered."

That's a contrast to Parker, who can no longer wander down the boulevards of Paris, nor most of the world. "I don't envy him," Elson adds. "I want to walk around free. Free like a bird. In San Antonio sometimes it can be crazy but it's OK."

Holland remains the country of Ajax and the Admirals, where football is king and basketball a distant duke. Elson is not the first Dutch player to feature in a Finals. That honour belongs to Rik Smits, once of Indiana. "I'm probably top one right now," Fran laughs. "If I win the championship, I'm top one." Sorry, Rik.

Which begs the question whether victory in Game 4 and a title in San Antonio will put Holland on the map in southern Texas? Probably not. Not any time soon at least. There will still be those questions, about just what, and where, Rotterdam is. "I have to explain it all the time," he grins. "If I say Amsterdam they already know. They ask: 'are the coffee shops for real?' They don't believe it." That's where you go to get happy. But Elson is there already.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 13, 2007, 3:40 p.m. ET

Parker passes his test but as for the t-shirts?

For Cleveland, this was more like it. More savvy, more aggression, more poise. But the same result. And almost certainly a knock out blow to their title dreams. Again LeBron James was less of a heavy-weight and more a welter. To err twice is careless but three times is a letdown especially in a building which tremored with the vocal backing of the red t-shirted, towel waving, larynx bursting hordes. 15 seconds left, with the ball, his team trailing by two, he looked up?and passed to an off-balance Anderson Varejao. A fully matured star would have knocked his opponent to the canvas. Despite a game-high haul of 25 points, LBJ sparred ineffectively. Too tame, too timid, too little. San Antonio go 3-0 ahead in the NBA Finals with a 75-72 victory that was as ugly as it was vital. History, now, has all but anointed them the champion.

At least this time, they had to sweat for their reward. The key to the Spurs triumphs in the opening two games of this series was their ability to disrupt the Cavs offensive with repeated double teams and although the ploy hadn't changed, the hosts did a much better job of setting screens to get its shooters open and getting ample offensive rebounds. It wasn't rocket science. More a rocket from Mike Brown, you suspect. Consequently, Cleveland's defence fed off that and, aided by early foul trouble to Duncan, the Spurs were put under much more pressure than hitherto.

For long spells, it showed. Tony Parker was restricted to just one shot in first quarter (which he missed) and didn't get his first basket until 6:53 left in the second, a volte-face, as the French would have it, from Game 2. Eventually, with James on the bench, the shackles slipped and the Parisian puncher landed a slug as the half-time buzzer expired to put the visitors up 40-38. Yet it was as poor a first 24 as they've played this post season.

But the Spurs have shown they can scrap as well as sparkle. If Cleveland made them look like the Bulls of yore playing a school team before this, then creditably they had to battle for every basket. Tim Duncan was uneasy (he failed to score in the second and the third), Manu Ginobili anonymous until the very end and Parker uncertain yet still they retained a tenuous grip on the lead.

Heart and hustle are fall-backs but terrific qualities to have. It was golfer Lee Trevino who talked about hard work translating into luck. But there was nothing fortunate about the way San Antonio ultimately prevailed. It was admirable that the Cavs held on like a punch drunk bruiser for 42 minutes but Michael Finley's three-pointer which put the Spurs up 67-57 felt like a mortal blow, one lash of punishment too many. Cleveland had their opportunities but they staggered through the final round, James missing consecutive shots after squandering a steal and the unexpected boon of four scoreless minutes from his foes. Chances like that don't come along every night and certainly not on their kind of nights.

There was a close finish. But no sense that these are two teams who are playing on similar levels. It could all be done by Thursday. If this were a boxing match, the ref might even have thought about stepping in to limit any further punishment. The Cavs carry the bruises from the scrap but the pain may linger a good deal longer.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 12, 2007, 12:00 a.m. ET

Spurs box cleve in Game 3 while Cavs stagger towards the canvas

Gregg Popovich is a hard man to please. According to Tony Parker, he just might be insane. Which, Pop says, is absolutely true. If it wasn't, you'd fear for TP. And probably Eva too. I once stepped on the Spurs court mistakenly during practice. The San Antonio's coach's bark is worse than his bite but it's pretty darn severe.
Tony Parker
(NBAE/Getty Images)

All of which has served to mould Parker into a terrific player who, right now, is favourite to be Finals MVP. Take his first training camp, when he was a raw 19 year old straight from Paris St. Germain. "Before the Draft, tested to see if he could handle the physical nature of the NBA and in training camp, all the drills we did with him focused on the physical side," said Popovich. "He rose to the occasion."

Credit, he insists, must go to Parker's personal shooting guru Chip Englund who has spent an extended period of time working on his game. Parker's playmaking might still not be of Nashian levels but as a scorer, driving to the basket, he's become the best in the league.

Think there's any danger Parker, and the Spurs, will be complacent with a 2-0 lead? Unlikely. That's something which the team has discussed but not dwelt on. Likewise, there are no worries about a partisan home support reviving the Cavs. "If we play poorly tonight, it won't be because of the crowd," Gregg The Mad added.

For Cleveland, this will be a huge test and they know it. LeBron was out on the court three hours before tip-off, working up a sweat. Larry Hughes, limited by injury, will start but the Booby will be getting extra burn. If anyone will feel like he ought to bring something new, Daniel Gibson will. "The one thing Daniel is, is really poised. That's given me confidence from Day One," said Mike Brown. It's a lot to ask but then there's a lot at stake. 3-0 would be a hole from which the Cavs would find it difficult to exit. But there are lessons to be learnt along the way, even if insanity might be part of the challenge.

The prize for most enterprising Finals merchandising goes to two guys outside The Q who bought a bunch of white t-shirts, and using markers, drew 'Rise Up' and 'NBA Finals' in almost child-like scribbling. Everyone, understandably, wants a souvenir of a moment in Cleveland's sporting history but best to get one which won't disappear in the wash.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 12, 2007, 8:46 p.m. ET

Answers Required from Cavs

Evening blogettes from outside the Q where it is less than three hours until Cleveland gets its first taste of the NBA Finals. But I can think only of one thing. If Allen Iverson had been traded to the Cavs instead of Denver last season, would that mean we would have been watching the Q 'n' A? Just a suggestion.

(NBAE/Getty Images)
Instead, the slogan of the day is Rise Up. No blue pills required, it's the cry to arms to the public to believe the impossible is possible. There is a degree of pessimism. Everyone I've spoken to today, from other NBA pundits to fans to Mike The Bartender, believes they have to win Game 3 or it's over, finito, done. And anyone hoping to get their photos taken beside the giant-sized replica of the Larry O'Brien Trophy will be rushing to get that done by Thursday.

Perversely, there may be less pressure on the Cavs in front of their home crowd. In truth, they were so poor in San Antonio that there is little expectation in their collective shoulders. There has to be changes. But will they be enough to divert the Spurs from their seemingly unstoppable course? The only possible distraction might be Ian Whittell's hair. Or is it a racoon? Tune in, observe the man from The Times, and decide for yourself.

For the hosts, adjustments will have been made to find a way through the Spurs incessant double teams. "We've got to be aggressive," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "We've got to drive and kick the basketball. We've got to move it. We've got to set screens and we've got to attack the rim." They also have to do something which they have failed to do thus far. Get LeBron the ball and help him attack.

The Q has one of the better homecourt advantages in the league. And there is no shortage of passion for their idols in red. From mid-afternoon, there has been a steady stream of folk with signs around their necks stating 'Tickets Wanted'. They will likely be disappointed, if not once, but twice. Will this be a series or a rout? That really is the most pertinent question on the lips.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 12, 2007, 7:36 p.m. ET

Seeing your team in a Final? Priceless.

$1000 a pop. That's what it will cost you to get a decent ticket to tonight's game at the Q. A bargain, one would suppose, in the success starved city of Cleveland where they haven't had such a big ticket since the Browns were in their pomp. Which is a long, long time ago.

Not that the good citizens are holding back. A pep rally at lunch with the Mayor and the Cavs cheerleaders, just the kind of photo opportunity which could go horribly wrong in the right hands. Another pre-game gathering for those who haven't won the ticket lottery - or perhaps, for those who cashed in and are planning that expensive summer holiday. In every shop window, it seems, are messages of good luck. Even the buses are alternating their route names and numbers with 'Beat the Spurs'.

That's what championships mean. It's not 'The Cavaliers'. It's our Cavaliers. And in Ohio, they are keeping the faith.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 12, 2007, 10:15 a.m. ET

After Game 2 display, is Parker the real anointed monarch?

One is the pretender to a throne left vacant by Jordan but who, as yet, is without a crown. The other is the Crown Prince of France, a country whose previous Royal family was discarded in one of the many Revolutions which have passed through the Bastille. Game 2 of these NBA Finals provided us with a contrast in the maturation process of two of the league's best young performances and how hype and substance are a gulf apart which placed firmly under the microscope.

LeBron James and Tony Parker share the traits of talent, skill and that intangible ability to excite the masses. But in an ultimately critical first quarter, the former was but a by-stander while the other took centre stage. James missed his opening two free throws and then seconds later Fabricio Oberto scored at the other end to complete an early 7-0 run for San Antonio. Then it got worse, as LBJ picked up a second foul for reaching in on Tim Duncan and had to park himself on the bench with less than three minutes gone. The great thing about having cameras trained on the sidelines is that you can see the raw emotion of players from a long distance away. Like another famous monarch, the King was not amused. Actually, he was mightily annoyed. Evidence, perhaps, of just how much pressure is on those still young shoulders and why we shouldn't yet try to compare Number 23s.

Contrast that with Tony Parker. Just two years older but with the benefit of having been here twice before in his six seasons in the NBA. And with two team-mates who are more than capable of carrying the load themselves, he remains relaxed, strutting around with an unrestrained joie de vivre. A spin move on the break, improvisation which wouldn't look out of place on 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' A drive to the basket in traffic should be a cul de sac but somehow he slices a path through the Cavs defence. The beauty about the Frenchman is his adjustments: using his body - his head, shoulders, arms - to hold off much taller defenders while giving himself enough room to shoot over shot blockers like Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And he makes it look so simple, sparking the Spurs into a 12-0 run in the first quarter which put the hosts into a commanding 28-17 lead after the first quarter and as much as 28 ahead in the second.

James was left visibly frustrated with little help from his team-mates and even when the Cavs rallied twice in the third period, the Spurs immediately plugged the gap and re-asserted their dominance. A late 21-4 run from Cleveland eventually helped bring the visitors within eight but when it really, truly mattered Parker delivered and James toiled.

Consider the final stat lines.
Parker: 30 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists
James: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists

The numbers don't always tell the full story but they tell no lies. The Spurs 103-92 victory featured a master class. Just not one from the guy who put on an extraordinary show against Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals just two weeks ago. Instead the treat, and the privilege, came from the future Mr. Longoria. Perhaps it's time we started talking about Tony as a potential future great as well.

James will have many more opportunities, surely, to show he can reign in the Finals, starting on Tuesday night in Game 3. On present evidence, unless the Cavs can make a huge and rapid improvement, Parker could be ordering another ring come Thursday however, one fit for a king.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 11, 2007, 9:30 a.m. ET

Finals dance to Latin Beat

In the streets of Rio and Buenos Aires, generations of kids have dreamt of becoming, one day, a dribbling, dancing futbol idol from the seam which produced idols like Pele and Maradona. There was only one game which captured the imagination and offered an escape for those in slums who dared to aspire for idolatry and glory. Yet in these NBA Finals, millions throughout South America will be gathering round their sets to cheer on local heroes whose riches rival that of Ronaldinho and Simeone. Basketball is not yet the way of life. But it is getting there.

The city which witnessed the Battle of Alamo is an ironic site for the affirmation of the sport's new power base. This corner of Texas is where the Anglos fought with the Hispanics during a 19th century revolution which pushed back the boundaries of Mexico. Now San Antonio's chief combatants are its only professional sporting team, the Spurs, and it has embraced its recruits from the south in Argentine pair Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto.

Both are accustomed to triumph. Each was a key part of their country's Olympic gold medal winning squad in 2004 while Ginobili was an integral to the Spurs line-up which secured the NBA Championship in 2003 and 2005. Brazil though will have its own banners prepared. The Cleveland Cavaliers include Anderson Varejao whose mop top and unconventiality on the floor has marked him out as a fan favourite. The secret? "Playing football helps, with the footwork and spacing" said Ginobili, the undisputed leader of the pack. Plus there is another common factor in the switch. "I started playing soccer," Varejao adds. "But then I started to grow up and lost agility."

Within America, the internationalisation of the NBA is a fad no more. A decade ago, 32 players from 18 countries played in the league. This season featured 83 overseas competitors from more than three dozen countries, with Argentina and Brazil with five apiece (France led the way with seven, the UK had two). Latin Americans bring a huge audience and marketing clout. The league's sole Mexican, Eduardo Najera, earns money from endorsements which far outstrips his status as a competent but unspectacular reserve. Skill and talent counts most though. "Manu has opened big doors for Argentina players," said Oberto. "NBA teams trust Argentina players now."

Gregg Popovich entrusts. But it took a while to adjust to the fluid and often unexpected forays of Ginobili and Tony Parker. "Where most of us like to be in control," he acknowledged, "or at least think we're pulling the strings for the most part, I learned quickly that they had more to offer by being in random situations than I did by trying to control things with things I concocted on paper that in reality didn't do a whole lot but looked good on paper. So they taught me to release the reins a bit, and their play, their random play and their aggressiveness, their passion on the court meant an awful lot. So that was really the change."

Reward was performances like that of Game 1 of these series when all of his imports impacted heavily in victory over Cleveland. Game 2 on Sunday night may be distinct. LeBron James, surely, cannot be kept in a cage indefinitely. Others will find their range.

"They're going to make some adjustments, but we don't know what they're going to be," said Ginobili. "But we're sure they're going to play a better game. They're going to play with even more energy. We're going to expect more from the guys like Larry Hughes and LeBron, of course, but there is going to be a breakout performance and we've got to be ready because if we don't improve, we are not going to win."

"He added: "We've really got to adjust, too, and try to keep doing better." That's been the motive of an entire generation of Latin ballers. And one which has served them well.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 9, 2007, 3:10 p.m. ET

Game 1 Musings 2/2

Third Quarter: Can the Spurs maintain their own version of Texas Hold 'Em? James goes 0-8 FG before finally converting from downtown. With the Cavs trailing by eight, they needed that one but it proves a false dawn as the hometown favourites move up a gear and increase their cushion into double figures.

It was always likely that San Antonio would expose Cleveland's offensive limitations at some point and Mike Brown is showing his frustration. Tim Duncan is grinning. That sums it all up.

As an aside, NBA players, particularly those from overseas, have always been role models. I remember a spell where every time I scored a basket, I stuck my tongue out in an attempt to be like Mike (like that was gonna happen!). But I'm suddenly fearing a generation of Lithuanians wanting hair like Zydrunas Ilgauskas. He's one of my favourite guys in the NBA but he needs a new barber, pronto.

SA 64-49 in front. It's looking ominous.

Fourth Quarter: The Spurs have been involved in three of the lowest scoring Finals games ever. This might make it number four. Down as much as 74-56, back to back three-pointers from LeBron mean the Cavaliers will cruise by the benchmark for scoring futility in a Finals game (54 by the Utah Jazz against Chicago in 1998). It has been a harsh lesson for the Eastern pretenders.

There is a sign in one of the arena sections which says 'Dateline Bums'. I am really intrigued to find out what this refers. Is it some kind of lonely hearts club for posteriors? Resolve to investigate.

Duncan blocks Pavlovic. The Big Fundamental enjoyed that. He almost lets himself grin. He wants to. But that would be un-Timlike so the urge is stifled. We have a minor revival. A 13-4 run, capped by a reverse from the Serbian reduces the deficit to single figures again. You just know that Timmy will be plotting his move. A quick score, capping his night at 24 and 13 rebounds, nudges it back into doubles and James takes his seat to watch the clock count down.

There are a whole bunch of lessons for Cleveland to take from this one, and this time, Mike James can't call Greg Popovich for advice. It's no coincidence that the only times that the Cavs properly picked holes in the Spurs defence were when LeBron was given support to either get good looks at the basket or screens to attack. He did only go 4-16 though. They'll need more than that in Game 2.

Overall, Pop should be pretty happy. For most of the second half, his side looked to be playing well within themselves. Bruce Bowen didn't have to exhaust himself to keep James under control which will be vital over the series. The Spurs big three of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker combined for 67 of their total. "We played well down the defensive end and got it done," said Duncan. Just three more required now. Spurs win 85-76

Posted by Mark Woods on June 7, 2007, 11:50 p.m. ET

Game 1 Musings 1/2

Tip-off beckons: There's a video montage of Tim Duncan helping San Antonio to their previous three titles. And you know what? He doesn't smile once! Poker Face looks pretty serious tonight. Is it because he's fed up with people saying LeBron is the biggest star involved in the Finals? Or does Timmy just want to avoid the need for Botox in his layer years? Either way, he has that look which tells Cleveland 'be afraid, be very, very afraid'. Especially when he wins the opening tip.

First Quarter: The atmosphere is raucous and it seems like everybody in the AT&T Center is wearing one of the white Finals t-shirts. Can hear the voice of Trinny and Susannah screaming 'you MUST wear one this summer!!' I think about putting mine on but resist the urge. Close though.

Spurs up 14-10. Tony Parker drives to the basket and is absolutely splattered by Sasha Pavlovic. Time to start playing 'I Spy something beginning with Eva' (see below). His missus looks worried. He misses both free throws. So now is everyone else. Frenchie's OK though. Spurs soon go up by six. LeBron still on a duck. The hosts are playing terrific defence and turning it into smooth transition offense. That will be one of the keys in the series - not allowing the Cavs to set up in their half-court defensive scheme. SA lead 20-15.

Second Quarter: LBJ starts the quarter on 2 points. Mike Brown has to find a way to get him involved and out of the Spurs double teams. Despite that, the visitors are nudging in front. Ginobili drives at Varejao. A chunk of South America holds its breath. So, for the first time, is this corner of Texas.

Neither side is shooting well but the Spurs need to stop rushing things and use all that Finals experience. Parker finds Francisco Elson for an exquisite high-octane slam. That'll have woken them up in Rotterdam. A 9-0 SA run brings the crowd to its feet. The Jumbotron urges them to 'Get Loud'. Think they probably can manage that without being told.

Spotted David Robinson wearing a white t-shirt. Bet The Admiral is enjoying how his old ship-mates are going now. He looks in good enough shape to get in there and mix it. He'd probably start for Atlanta.

With the break approaching, Gibson sneaks through to close the gap again. Not sure he's old enough to be up this late. He's 21 but looks 15. Manu hits a three to cap a decent first half. Duncan has 14. Bron has zero field goals. SA up 40-35 at half-time.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 7, 2007, 10:00 p.m. ET

The Finals are No Place for a Solo Act.

One of the chief perks of being a journalist is chronicling history in the making. Sometimes, it can be of the bizarre kind. Like the time when Paris Hilton's dog scared the wits out of me merely by moving its head (I thought she was carrying a doll. The sneer I got was priceless though). Makes you wonder if the pouch will get visiting rights.

Sometimes, it can be of the forgettable. Try a cold winter's Saturday watching Raith against Stirling Albion (I did a few years ago. Never has hypothermia been so close).

Occasionally, very occasionally, it can be of the variety which deserves to be recorded and re-told for years to come. Those moments which make the hours loitering in the hope of ten words from a prima donna footballer or sitting through two hours of Worcester Wolves struggling to live up to the pressure of being Britain's most hapless professional team worthwhile. When you have the ring side seat at the Championship bout, so close that the risk of a 200 kg monolith falling, at speed, into your lap(top) is uninsurable. But so what?

That's why, in particular, I'm looking forward to these NBA Finals. History will be made. Either San Antonio will indelibly confirm themselves as a side for the ages. Or Cleveland will obliterate the theory than one man does, in fact, make a team. That would explode every theory of the recent wisdom of basketball, that success should be contrived by five guys playing as one unit with selflessness as their mantra.

Sure there have been dominating individual performances before in the Finals. Like in 1980, when Magic Johnson, at the age of 20, had to start at centre in place of the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game 6 and racked up 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists to clinch the title. Michael Jordan's final 30 seconds against Utah in 1998, including that winning shot over Bryon Russell. Or when Larry Bird willing Boston to the crown in 1984, including a Game 5 when he hit 34 points on 15-20 shooting.

But no-one single player will ever have to contribute so much if his team is to contend than Lebron James. Significantly, the Spurs are no Pistons. Greg Popovich is no Flip Saunders. Under no circumstance will the Cavs All-Star be able to get to the basket with such impunity on Tim Duncan's watch. How much the veteran legs of Bruce Bowen can keep up with LBJ will be a factor in whether Cleveland can make an impression but if he needs help, Robert Horry and Manu Ginobili will be despatched to harangue James at every turn, forcing the lesser lights among his colleagues to step up or be counted out.

James disputes the singularity of his role. "There is no way we would be here in the Eastern Conference finals or winning the Eastern Conference finals if it was a one-man show," he said. "It's never happened in NBA history. It would never happen in the NBA where a team has one guy and he does it all. My team-mates are my family. I'm with them more than I am with my own family, honestly. And every time these guys come to the gym, we believe, and we made it happen."

Still, the Spurs should win this Championship. They're too strong and too savvy. Larry Hughes is hobbling while our favourite Argentine is bouncing feverishly. Daniel Gibson, possibly the best ever Booby prize, will be dazed by Tony Parker. And Duncan will ensure that Drew Gooden, surprisingly effective this season, will have little room for manoeuvre under the basket.

If LeBron succeeds, it will be truly historic. Cleveland is a good team but not an excellent one. San Antonio is just that. Victory for the Spurs would affirm just how good they have become in the present era. Defeat would affirm one man's own standing as arguably the finest among his peers. As with Paris, justice will prevail, most likely in five games.

The NBA Finals are on Sky Sports 1 at 2am with regular reports on talkSPORT.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 6, 2007, 11:10 a.m. ET

Ten Reasons Why It's Worth Staying Up Late To Watch the NBA Finals.

10. It's LeBron James' first Finals. Of how many though? Cleveland's young star has almost single-handedly carried the Cavs to this point, albeit in a singularly weak Eastern Conference. Nothing else about his team is the equal of San Antonio, who have better coaching, better quality from 1-12 and a hugely deeper bench. But still, on the banks of Lake Erie, they believe, because of what LBJ has managed to do thus far.

'Rise up' is the marketing slogan for the Cavaliers this season. It hangs on a banner from the side of the Quicken Loans Arena, is plastered on t-shirts, and punctuates the calls for one more stunning upset in the storybook which this corner of Ohio has been witness to. James has truly risen. He was a phenom in high school and setting aside his fallibilities in international basketball, he has been phenomenal in guiding his local club to their first ever appearance in the Finals. Surely, it won't be the last. But the first time is always one you never forget.

9. Anderson Varejao's hair. The long-lost Brazilian cousin of new England cricket ace Ryan Sidebottom joins David Beckham, the Romanian football team of '94, Dennis Rodman and Rio Ferdinand in the Bizarre Sporting Barnet Hall of Fame with a do we're calling the Permfro. Note to Anderson: the perm and the fro went out of fashion 25 years ago. Don't try and bring them back. Please.

Intriguingly, did you know that Mavericks guard Greg Buckner's own charitable foundation gave away free haircuts to disadvantaged kids in Dallas this year? Making the world a better place, one cut at a time.

8. The Opportunity to play the new game 'I Spy ?something beginning with Eva'. It's a variation of that motorway game to keep kids in the back seat occupied where you get them to count how many Eddie Stobart lorries they can spot. In this NBA Finals, see how many times the camera will pick up Eva Longoria, the other half of the Spurs Tony Parker. Or if that proves too easy, LeBron's mum Gloria.

As an aside, spot the celebrities jumping on the Finals bandwagon. Nobody famous supports the Spurs or Cavs (Usher is a co-owner so doesn't count) so if they're there, shame on them for taking the seat of a real fan. But Beyonc? if you're heading, come say hello.

7. The singing. Speaking of Usher, our favourite RnBer, belted out the US national anthem at the Q before Game 5 of the East finals but it's always fun to compare the choice for the American and Canadian versions. With Alanis Morrisette defecting, that leaves only Bryan Adams and Avril Lavigne in the list of 'Canadians-who-can-sing-that-everybody's-heard-of'. (You'll notice Celine Dion is not included.)

It's always hugely imbalanced that some A-List crooner will perform the Star Spangled Banner while O Canada goes to someone whose only hit reached Number 34 and who probably now earns a living in the Canuckian equivalent of the Working Men's Club circuit. If only Steve Nash could hold a tune?

6. It's the end of an era. After almost a decade, Sky Sports are signing off from covering the NBA. The station took over the contract in the wake of the incomprehensible debacle that was the NBA on ITV (the low point of which was the unlamented Beverley Turner compared Shaq in the shower to ?well, let's just say if an American broadcaster had made those comments, they would have been fired. Immediately.) And their coverage has done exactly what it said on the tin: professional and extensive with Kev Cadle at the helm.

Sure, there have been gripes that there were no live games until after the end of the NFL season and that it was occasionally spoiled by some of the pundits from the BBL who were so ill-informed that, quite possibly, they hadn't appreciated there were teams now in Memphis and New Orleans. But it was as slick a production as everything else on Sky is (kudos to Mick, Trish, Kath et al.).

With the NBA coming to London, talks are ongoing with other broadcasters, including the equally excellent five. Let's hope Bev is allowed nowhere near whoever takes over.

5. Watching how Mike Brown turns Greg Popovich's own knowledge back on him. The Cleveland head coach is a disciple and former assistant to Pop who has called him for regular advice since he accepted his first lead playcalling job. Even during the current play-offs, Popovich has been on the phone with nuggets of guidance for Brown to use in plotting a path past Washington, New Jersey and Detroit.

You'd expect Pop's mobile will now be switched to Ignore if his protég? calls up. But his generosity to several coaches around the NBA, Brown included, reflects hugely well on San Antonio's in-house Yoda.

4. There's a Dutchman playing. This is not the first time one of our chums from the Netherlands has played in the Finals (Rik Smits for Indiana) but if you're a neutral, and you want someone to cheer on, Francisco Elson's your guy. Sure, France is closer and you can make it to Tony Parker's maison in Paris via the tunnel from mainland Britain. But the Dutch have always had the decency to speak our language, sell our beer and provide all kinds of entertainment to generations of British stag weekends away. Sufficient reasons to get behind Rotterdam's finest.

3. You'd only have been asleep any way. C'mon! Where's the fun in that? Unless you're jet-lagged in the States in between covering the NBA Finals, in which case, sleep is good. Alternatively, just think of it as getting up early. It's summer, allegedly, so why not.

If going for Option A, it's a convenient excuse for a lie-in as well. That means avoiding rush hour traffic and/or the morning queues at the ticket machines/coffee/bus. So it's official. Watching the NBA Finals helps conquer stress.

2. No player relishes the play-offs more than Tim Duncan. And this is a guy who never mails in any game whether it's on opening night of the season or Game 7 of a Finals. TD enters some kind of Derren Brown-esque mental zone when there is a sniff of championship jewellery in the air, as evidenced by three Finals MVP awards in the past decade.

Not for nothing does he look poker faced come game time. Duncan sees these kind of occasions as a game where cards must be played at the right moments to end up with the ultimate hand. It takes a cool hand, calm nerves and the ability to look an opponent in the eyes and go 'show me what you got'. That's why San Antonio are so effective. You can dare Tim. But guaranteed, you'll blink first.

1. It's the Finals. You suffered through Memphis versus Atlanta in December. This is pay back. Nuff said.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 5, 2007, 11:50 a.m. ET

A starry night to win over the sceptics

If there's one word which is over-used among those of us who work in a business where you have to find 1001 ways to say essentially the same thing it is 'star'.

"He's the Star of the team."
"He's the Star of the league."
Or heaven forbid, "he's a Star among Stars".

As for the word superstar ¡K Eurgh. If every sportsman or woman was as stellar as they've been described at one point or another, then average would be the new awful and truly great would be located somewhere past Pluto and left at Babylon 5.

Hear this though. I'm not holding back any more. Not throwing out the hyperbole with due care. Not being frivolous with the S word. LeBron James is a star. And a great one. While others painted him as a legend before he even left high school, I refused. Couldn't do it. I'm harsh. You have to earn it. But he's done that and more. And it only took 51 minutes.

Eastern Conference Finals. Game 5. 2 overtimes. 48 points. James dragged, hauled, carried and simply willed the Cavaliers to victory over the Pistons with a performance for the ages. And LBJ still had time to give one of the Cavs assistant coaches a chest bump which almost knocked the poor chap into the expensive seats.

This was something special to watch. (And thank heavens for nba.com, not only for their kind offer to publish these meanderings but for loading the entire 2OT to watch online. What did we ever do before the Internet? But please, next season, get all the games back on TV.) Here was one man just taking over. It was like as if Michael Jordan turned up at my Wednesday night pick-up game, grabbed the ball and dared everyone to get it back. We might try to make a steal or grab a rebound but essentially you'd think 'on you go, son'. And just savour it.

It was simply unbelievable. Not only for how good 23 Red was but for how bad the Pistons were made to look. Or perhaps just how bad they were. Did anyone (that means you Flip) think of a scheme to stop James scoring 29 of his team's last 30 points including the game winner? Like triple teaming. Or even quadruple teaming him. Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had fouled out. It should have been a gimme for Detroit. Instead, meltdown. Defeat. Humiliation.

You have to hope Steve Kerr is a better GM in Phoenix than he is futurologist. During the commentary on TNT, he ventured that the game would come down to other Cavs players stepping up. They didn't. And still the Pistons mis-fired. "We tried to trap," said Saunders. "We'll have to do something different next time." That means denying LeBron at the outset, not waiting for him to eye up the situation in front of him and end up above the rim.

Because that's what great players do. They confound, confuse and conjure. Cleveland may not end up as NBA champions. But they have a bona fide star in their midst.

Posted by Mark Woods on June 2, 2007, 02:12 p.m. ET

Forget Dallas, Dynasty is top rated show in past and present

The definition of a Dynasty, depending on your cultural axis, conjures up either recollections of great clubs such as the Boston Celtics of the 60s, the Los Angeles Lakers of the 80s and the Bulls of the 90s - or, perhaps, Joan Collins in shoulder pads while viciously taking care of all her enemies. Setting aside crimes against good stylistic taste, all were classics of their time and shared the quality of being ruthlessly brutal while retaining an aesthetic beauty which was easily appreciated even by the sceptics.

So why are the San Antonio Spurs so under-appreciated? Having hurled a wrecking ball at the Utah Jazz to reach the NBA Finals once again, the Battlers from the Alamo will have a fourth shot in less than a decade to snaffle up a banner to hang from the rafters of the SBC Center. Tim Duncan is the best player in the game. Manu Ginobili (see below) is the most entertaining. Tony Parker is the most tenacious ?and French. And they have role players in abundance in the shape of Messrs. Bowen, Finley and the hugely under-rated Oberto.

Still the Spurs might ask, a la Black Eyed Peas, "Where is the Love?" One man's finesse is another's uglyball while diligence for one is drab for the other. Duncan may be able to whine for the US and Virgin Isles combined and, in public view at least, he makes Gordon Brown look like Peter Kay. Does that matter a jot? Not when you sit and admire the variety of his moves, his unselfishness on the court and the sheer will he is prepared to exert when times get tough. And that is reflected in his colleagues and the manner in which, year after year, San Antonio seamlessly grind out 50 wins as if their birthright.

In an era where the simplest means of delivering victories is two stars taking their turns on the side with the ball, that - almost regrettably - is refreshing. Don't walk down the streets of Glasgow or Gdansk and expect to see a kid wearing Duncan replica jersey nor walk by a playground in Brixton or the Bronx looking at starry-eyed hopefuls working on their bank shots. Don't ever expect TD to demand that Parker is traded because there is only room in town for one of them. And don't wait around for any self-aggrandisement from the Big Fundamental. He'll leave that for others. All that matters is the W not the peripheral trivia which dogs so much of professional sport.

Still there is the cry. How does this San Antonio squad compare to its immediate contemporaries? During this regular season, both Dallas and Phoenix had more wins but those two are on holiday while the Spurs roll onward. True, the Mavs' dreadful first round was an aberration while the Suns were robbed by suspensions in their semi-final series. Luck? Make your own. That's why the quiet efficiency of Greg Popovich's men is so under-rated even when the purity of their passing and willingness to find the open shooter is the equal, if not the better, of their two heralded Western rivals.

Utah coach Jerry Sloan, now recovering from being trampled by the Spurs, appreciates the formula. "They have got guys that know what they can accomplish as soon as they step on the floor," he said. "They got a lot of great pieces to a great team." Sloan is a perfect judge. He has seen a few of the best, and been thwarted by their excellence.

If you do want a sign for the Finals ahead, regardless of whether it is Detroit or Cleveland visiting Texas for Game 1 next week, consider this. Since Duncan landed in the Draft in 1997, the Spurs have been at their best in odd numbered years. Champions in 1999, 2003 and 2005 (they were pipped by the Lakers in 2001), another banner in 2007 would have an appropriate symmetry. "It never gets old," said Robert Horry of scaling such continuous heights. Dynasties are so often defined by sequential success but four titles in eight years would be as laudable a feat as those accomplished by those in the pantheon.

Time for unity, not farce

There was a time when British basketball was deigned the next big thing, a period when Monday night on Channel 4 brought high-flying acrobats like Alton Byrd into the living rooms dressed in lurid gold nylon and when, quite improbably, the pre-eminent force was based in the small Scottish town of Livingston. It was boom. Then it was a bust.

25 years on, and the portents for the sport in the UK are at their most promising since that heady époque. The Great Britain squad can boast up to three current NBA players and one former one. Just a fortnight ago, the NBA announced its intention to assist the national side ahead of London 2012. And there are hopes a potential medal winning set-up can help kick-start the long moribund domestic scene.

Yet behind the scenes, calamity beckons and amid the in-fighting, a pistol is pointed squarely at basketball's Size 22 feet with the finger hovering anxiously on the trigger. FIBA, the world governing body, is threatening to impose sanctions over perceived interference from government. Richard Caborn, Minister for Sport for England, and notionally the UK, is at the centre of the storm.

Through Sport England, he commissioned a review led by businessman Tony Mallin to address the way in which the game is governed. England Basketball, the designated administrators south of the border, has long been on life support. Nearly bankrupted not so long ago, they have required ongoing resuscitation but have been further hindered of late by the withdrawal of their funding on the grounds they are not "fit for purpose".

The Mallin Review was due in February but will now be published in July. It is understood it has undergone revisions to make it more palatable despite denials from Sport England. The report, said a spokesperson, "has not yet been submitted its final recommendations." Mallin himself, when contacted, would say only that it had "not been interfered with."

The draft document is understood to reveal a number of key recommendations. Some are uncontentious: greater support for the grassroots, greater backing for the elite. Others will stoke the bonfires. That England Basketball should be replaced by wholly new entity, one in which the existing British Basketball League would be asked to accept an integral role. It is a suggestion which FIBA, with vociferous backing from the British Olympic Association, argues doesn't just cross a line but attempts to obliterate it. And significantly, its successor body would be handed control over the Great Britain programme, leaving Basketball Scotland and its Welsh counterpart out of the loop.

Since January, British Performance Basketball, a limited company chaired by Alistair Gray, the former head of the Scottish Institute of Sport, has overseen the GB sides which compete as one at senior and Under 20 level. "The British teams are better prepared than ever," Gray asserts. "That's our sole job." UK Sport provides the funding, there is a buffer from the politics and, critically, it is supported by the home nations.

"If Sport England tries to force all this through, we could end up pulling out of the whole thing," a senior Scottish official counselled. "It just won't wash." It is, you suspect, the kind of cause which the new SNP Sports Minister would be only too glad to espouse.

More pressing a concern is FIBA's proposed ban. Its edict, however, warns of suspensions to "all international activities of England Basketball teams and players." The Geneva-based secretariat confirmed: "If Britain wanted, they could field a team with just Scottish and Welsh players in this summer's European qualifiers." A delightful irony though that might be in some quarters, alas, such a roster would not suffice to salvage the nation's Olympic hopes.

Hence will Caborn relent, harmony be restored in time, and will a report which many believe may yet be quietly buried, in any way, be worth all the fuss?

Posted by Mark Woods on May 31, 2007, 02:12 p.m. ET

Bella Italia makes for Beauty on the Court

So just who is the best Italian in the NBA? Hands up at the back? Andrea Bargnani, you say? Actually, it's a lefty who has been the difference maker in the Western Conference finals thus far. Still not sure? OK, if you weren't aware, Manu Ginobili is a bona fide citizen of La Repubblica Italiana as well as Argentina, so he can be claimed as one of their very own by those in the land which brought you pizza, pasta and the array of bottled sauces on your local supermarket shelf.

While the Argentines might not applaud the notion that their Olympic hero has divided loyalties (as does Fabricio Oberto), there is no doubt that the Spurs guard is the prototype of the modern European player: a good shooter, fundamentally sound, and willing to subsume his own natural instincts for the good of the cause.

It's a line which goes all the way back to the late, lamented Drazen Petrovic, with whom Ginobili shares so much. Regardless of their position, and their individual country of birth, the traits are so similar. Sabonis, Nowitzki, Gasol, they all know what they are good at and they stick to it. Which is why this summer's Draft will be such a rarity, one in which no European is being seriously considered as a lottery pick.

It's the reason that the San Antonio southpaw, when on song, is the best player to watch in the entire NBA, and why in the past he's earned the same accolade in the Euroleague and the Olympics. He's like Zebedee (without the dodgy references) combined with Thomas The Tank Engine. Fire up some steam, watch him chug down the track, and spring into action - entertainment and pure finesse combined in one package - an approach which suits the Spurs sixth man very nicely in his assault on the Utah Jazz. That aggressiveness was utterly decisive in the fourth quarter of Game 4 when the Spurs, sparked by the Argentine, went 12-15 from the line and left the helpless Derek Fisher so pent up that he was ejected.

"It is easier to attack them when we move the ball, when we make a couple of passes, even if they are simple passes," he said. "Those are good because they've got to close out and it is easier to create a lead and try to go to the basket or draw a foul. I think we moved the ball a little bit better, and when we took a 6, 8 point lead, they got a little frustrated and they started even fouling more so we were good from the line."

Nothing too astonishing about that. Moving the ball. Simple passes. Before that contest, which the Spurs won to take a 3-1 cushion, Ginobili talked of making good decisions. All the kind of things which were preached by his coaches back when Manu was just a Boyu. Yet it's a trait which has only been revived in the last year or two in the NBA by teams like Phoenix, Detroit and the Spurs who play and act like a unit.

The strange thing is that outside of the Alamo, the former Bologna star is a bete noire of opposing coaches and fans alike. They accuse him of flopping. Of goading those who guard him. Of conning the refs. And of being, in the words of Denver coach George Karl, "ugly" to watch. They're right. But they're wrong. The game's changed and it is those like Ginobili who are the evolutionists in chief.

In reality, there are always trends in the NBA. The Suns have become the fashionable template because they are terrific to watch. Their style is a la mode europenne. The Spurs are practically a Euroleague squad. In the boutiques of Milan, Paris and New York, what's in and what's out can change overnight. But with the Euro influence here to stay, in time the talk will be of trailblazers from Italy, Croatia and Lithuania, and not Portland.

Deals would provide British booster
If you're a Great Britain fan, keep your fingers crossed that Dallas and Golden State start calling up their lawyers to get contracts on the table for free agent duo Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Kelenna Azubuike. Both were on the fringes this season (Pops even spent time in the D-League) but each has done enough to win another shot in the NBA next term, whether with their current club or elsewhere.

If Azubuike receives his passport in time, he'll be ready to suit up for Team GB in this summer's European Championship qualifiers. Yet like Mensah-Bonsu, the ultimate decision may hinge on having a deal signed, sealed and delivered for the year to come. Otherwise, both men - and their agents - may feel the risk is too great. While national duty (for those not named Corporal Wales) is something to be supported and backed to the hilt, in a sphere where basketball is a business first, their livelihoods will come before waving a flag.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 29, 2007, 10:08 a.m. ET

Form of Cleveland old boy enough to drive Cavs to the Booze

My boy's on the phone. "Cleveland must be really cheesed off."

"What? Why?" I'm thinking: 'is this guy oblivious to the LBJ factor - and the fact the Cavaliers are in their first Eastern Conference finals since the days when MJ used to use Mark Price as his own personal work-out partner to get the Bulls in top shape for the NBA Finals?'

Then two words come back down the line. Two which probably pass for an expletive in Cleveland. And which, if the good burghers of Ohio admit it, sting just as much.

Carlos Boozer.

Yes, the Cavs have reasons to celebrate. Left standing among the NBA's own Final Four, in no small part due to James, the good times are rolling once again. LeBron is not, despite what anyone might think, the best player in the league - yet. He has still to prove that the gigantic amounts of hype are absolutely justified. But take him off that team and you're left with the Grizzlies, which given their Lottery luck, is a pretty miserable thing at the moment.

But ask yourself this. What are the chances that Cleveland can by-pass Detroit? Zilch. Would they have gotten by Chicago if the Bulls had been in their bracket? No way. How much would those odds have diminished if Boozer hadn't wormed his way out of town three years ago and jumped ship to Utah? Significantly.

If you've forgotten about his departure from the club which drafted him in the second round in 2002 (or like most Cavs fans, tried very hard to), let's recap. At the end of the 2003-4 campaign, when Boozer averaged 15.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per night, he became a restricted free agent. The Cavaliers had two options: allow him to opt out. Or keep him under contract for one more year at a miserly $695,000 salary.

The plot was hatched. Boozer would be released and become a free agent. And then offered a much, much larger deal which he would gratefully accept.

And that's exactly what happened. Except Cleveland thought they had an 'understanding' that Boozer would sign with them. Not strictly legal of course but such things happen. Instead, Utah held out a contract worth $30 million more and he bolted for Salt Lake City, leaving his former employers, his agent, and those long-suffering supporters jilted at the altar with the reception already booked.

Boozer maintained he had done nothing wrong, pleading innocence of any duplicity. "I'm not a guy that gives my word and then takes it away, I think I made that clear," he said.

The Jazz have had no complaints. Not only has Boozer blossomed into an All-Star, snaffling 20.9 points and 11.7 boards this past regular season, he has become a monster in these play-offs, scoring 24.7 a night. In fact, if there was a play-off MVP vote right now, it would surely be a landslide.

Utah might have lost the first two games of their series with San Antonio but they are a team on the rise. So, you may argue, is Cleveland. But how much further can the Cavs really go with a good but not quite great supporting cast of Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Eric Snow?

There'll be no help from the Draft this summer with no first or second round pick left in their possession. They have minimal cap room with which to wiggle. So it will be addition by subtraction if, and it's a huge if, a taker can be found for Larry Hughes.

Unlike in Salt Lake, the sky, for Cleveland, really is out of limits. You think they're cheesed about that? You bet.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 24, 2007, 10:08 a.m. ET

Seat on bench leaves Celtic tiger feeling caged in

Play-off time, in the NBA, is where basketball's best of the very best can accelerate their status to being simply great. Points, rebounds, undiluted skill count for much but Championships matter most in defining one's status in the pantheon. Hence why Michael Jordan had his doubters until his Bulls rampaged to a title. And why the man who was named as this season's Most Valuable Player, Dirk Nowitzki, was transformed overnight from hero to zero after the Dallas Mavericks were ignominiously turfed out in the very first round.

Pat Burke is a curiosity. He is the best player in his own country but mostly an afterthought on his own team. Watching the Phoenix Suns take on the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semi-finals, he made frequent appearances on screen. As the tall, white guy, he was easy to spot. But it so often seemed the only time he encroached onto the parquet was to slap his more illustrious team-mates on the hand and hope, albeit forlornly, that the summons from the coach at the other end of the bench might eventually come.

Such is life for the league's only Celt. And it is a choice which Burke consciously took two years ago when he opted to try his luck for the second time among the very elite. An imposing 6'10" forward, he was born in Dublin 33 years ago but moved to the States in his childhood. There were ceildhs, he recalls. "The whole shamrock thing." Since turning professional, a year in Orlando apart, he made his career back in Europe, winning the Euroleague title with Panathanaikos while adjoining David Beckham among the other galacticos of Real Madrid.

Then the call came from Phoenix. Would he give up the Spanish sun for the eternal humidity of the desert? "Financially, my money was cut in half," he admits. "But I wanted to do it." The attraction was the cast which he would support. Steve Nash. Shawn Marion. Amar?Stoudemire. And coach Mike D'Antoni, who as a revered player with Milan appreciated that European basketball is not without its own charms.

Spending prolonged periods kicking your heels as an unused sub can be charmless however. Last season, Burke played in just 42 games during the NBA's 82 night regular season. This year, merely 23. Having been a fulcrum both in Europe and on national duty with Ireland, it was humbling and frustrating. "I thought a lot about that last summer when I had a lot of teams calling me because I wasn't playing many minutes," he reveals. "They know I have that Irish spirit where I love to fight and compete. And I can't do that with a towel in my hand giving high fives. With my family though, this is a better situation right now. Down the road, who knows? I don't know what the future will bring ..."

The answer is a breather before European Championship duty with Ireland in August and September. Hard though it is to take, the Suns will now watch on while San Antonio - after their 4-2 series win - try to plough their way into the NBA Finals. Ireland's finest notched a personal landmark in the second encounter of the Western semis. It was his first play-off appearance. Exactly one minute and seven seconds long, enough time to miss his only attempt at the hoop, block one shot and commit one foul. Small statistics indeed but while Burke was under the bright lights, Nowitzki was home nursing a fractured ego in a darkened room.

"You just have to find your role and see where you can make the team better," he observes. "You need to find something positive to help the team and not be a sideshow who is having temper tantrums."

Burke's season is over. Might his NBA career be too? "Last year, making it as far as we did (to the last four) but not winning it hurt me because I'd sacrificed something with my family," Burke confesses. Out of contract in Phoenix, there are decisions to make. Whether they want him back, whether he'd accept the offer, and whether holding court in Europe is better than watching on from the sidelines.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 21, 2007, 9:36 a.m. ET

London now the focus of Stern's global drive

It was a cruel gag to play on those long-suffering Boston Celtics fans. There they sit, hoping Danny Ainge can pull a leprechaun out of a hat by rustling up Greg Oden via the lottery and what do they see? David Stern, hand out-stretched, handing over a green jersey to Ken Livingstone. Not quite the summer trade they were looking for in Beantown. Even if The Mayor could be an upgrade on Sebastian Telfair at the point.

The purpose of this particular photo opportunity involving The Commish and the clearly jet-lagged Mayor of London was to announce that the NBA is re-establishing an office in the capital later this year. A significant move? Well all signs are that this will not be just a nameplate above a door. Indications from within the league are that plans are afoot to ultimately re-locate its European HQ from Paris, making it easier for staff from New York and elsewhere to spend time overseas without having to figure out how to ask for French Fries in French (Answer, lest you wondered, is Pommes Frites).

"London is a magnificent city and the meeting with Mayor Livingstone today was beneficial in the planning for the future of the NBA and the growth of basketball in Great Britain," said Stern. "The opening of an NBA office in London and the upcoming exhibition game will help establish a more permanent and prominent NBA presence in the region." Note those two words: Permanent and Prominent.

Logistically, it will bring the NBA closer to many of its commercial and media partners whose trans-Atlantic bases are in London rather than across the Channel. Significantly, it underlines the NBA's determination to play a meaningful part in helping British basketball take the fullest advantage possible of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and the UK's near certain participation as hosts.

The office, underlined a statement, "will focus on grassroots and business development efforts in Great Britain" and also "and look to work closely with the British Olympic Association and other basketball groups to grow the world's second most popular sport in the region."

Which, I am told, will extend far beyond just hosting the occasional pre-season contest at The 02 Arena, starting with this October's duel between Boston and Minnesota. There will be more of the same to follow in coming years, given that the Docklands venue has been cited by Stern as one of a very small band of buildings in Europe which are of an equal standard to the most modern edifices in North America. But it won't end there.

Expect the UK, likely London or Manchester, to host a team's pre-season camp next year to give British aficionados a close-up view of what goes on behind the scenes. As has been taking place in China en route to Beijing 2008, there will be additional support to solidify the national team. Any team boss, doing what we can now call a 'San Antonio' by 'encouraging' players not to represent their country can expect an abrupt menu from NBA Towers.

Likewise, you can bet that Stern and Co. will be keenly scrutinising the success of the NFL's first regular season game in the UK. Without major advance publicity, over 900,000 fans registered their interest in the game between the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants at Wembley on October 28. NFL Commish Roger Goodell has already hinted at further games and his own emissary in London, Alistair Kirkwood, told me: "Wembley could be ten times the size and we could still fill it." You think the NBA want to be beaten to the punch by the NFL in a country which now has no professional American football teams? No chance.

It's not that long ago that Stern was dropping huge hints about having a development league in Britain, either in partnership with, or by subsuming, the BBL. While some decried the imperialist overtones of such a ploy, several owners at that time, notably Rick Taylor at London Towers, and Brighton's Nick Nurse, were enthusiastically lobbying for that plan, even if the advent of the NBDL effectively killed it stone dead.

Could that be re-visited? The BBL's currently sorry state means that they need the NBA more than the NBA need them. particularly if assistance - and finance is forthcoming - to make a greater contribution at the grassroots level. With the government review of the sport now scheduled to appear in July, five months late, there is more than a whiff of farce around British basketball. The NBA is a proven brand. And while its arrival, with reinforcements, in the UK is no panacea, at times such as these, all help is welcome and gratefully received.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 17, 2007, 11:16 a.m. ET

Teeth Nashed over Injury Impressions

There's no business, it seems, like nose business. Particularly when it's a bloody nose. After his collision with Tony Parker on Sunday night, Steve Nash looked more like one of the broken down 15th round victims in a Rocky movie (well, ok, maybe it's hard to see the resemblance with Mister T. But I would love to see Nashy shout 'Fool!' at a ref the next time he doesn't like a particular call. Though, upon reflection, our favourite Spurs supporter does look a bit like A-Team colleague Faceman?.

For anyone who thought De La Hoya versus Mayweather didn't have enough cuts, bruises and general skin-splitting gore, here was the ready made lightweight alternative.

"Introducing in the black corner, from Paris, The French Firework, Tooooony Paarker. And in the blue corner, from Victoria, via Johannesburg and London, the Canadian Cracker, Steeeve Naaash." It's a whole new interpretation of boxing out.

All those Suns fans who wore plasters on their conks to Game 2 of the Western Conference finals clearly appreciated a player prepared to put his head where it hurts. (In a similar vein - or is it artery? - can anyone possibly forget Terry Butcher's blood-covered forehead when he was turning out for England in the 1990 World Cup? No matter how hard they try.) It was the ultimate sympathy vote. But is this destined to be the next big thing in NBA fandom?

Imagine the scene. Your beloved star breaks a toe. Suddenly, people are turning up in droves at the arena with bandages on their feet. Torn ACL? Knee straps and crutches. Flu? Boxes of tissues. At this rate, let's just hope Steve never sustains a groin strain.

Let the GM ?be a GM

My old friend Jim Tomsula, now a defensive coach with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, used to have a simple way of delineating his job and that of his charges. 'Players make plays. Coaches don't.' Which was his way of saying that his role is to get his guys ready to go out on the field. And theirs is to deliver when it matters - in the game.

That's probably the reason why there hasn't been player-head coach in the NBA since Lenny Wilkens performed both tasks with the Seattle Supersonics from 1969-72. And why Michael Jordan's unofficial double duty as player and executive with the Washington Wizards was a dismal failure. Like church and state, you need the powers separated as a balance within any team.

However last week, it sounded like Kobe Bryant was itching to add the title of General Manager to his existing responsibilities at the Los Angeles Lakers as guard, anointed shot-taker and chief prima donna.

"Do something, and do it now," Bryant urged Lakers management, after their exit in the first round of the play-offs by Phoenix capped another season removed from the happy times of the Shaquille O'Neal Championship era.

Then, a few days later, there were more specifics forthcoming in the wake of his sit-down chat with actual GM Mitch Kupchak. "I just this summer's about getting us to an elite level, doing whatever it takes to make it happen. This is a competitive city. We're used to winning titles, not just winning games and being in the first round. That's one of the things when I re-signed here. They promised they would build a contender and build a contender now. I don't want to have to wait any more than I already have."

Nothing wrong with wanting to win. It's just that Kobe is forgetting the essential ingredients required. Clever acquisitions, astute drafting, and the need to realise that transformations from mediocrity to greatness don't happen overnight. Ah yes, but there's an exception to that rule. Miami. Last season. Sign Shaq. And win title, with the aid of a fast-shooting sidekick, a Hall of Fame coach and a decent supporting cast. It's a guaranteed formula. And it was working nicely in Los Angeles, at an elite level in fact, until somebody messed with the magic system. Do something? Do it now? Thus speaks a man who, maybe only now, appreciates just how good he had it. And why players should just play.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 9, 2007, 2:38 p.m. ET

Meech, once an NBA idol, now an out and out model

He's spent most of his life in Manchester but made millions abroad, becoming one of the UK's highest paid sportsmen over the last decade. By the barometers of his profession, he is eloquent and savvy. That's just one reason why his recent time spent in America was marked by wall to wall coverage from the Pacific to Atlantic coasts, columnists and talk radio hosts debating the impact from dusk until dawn.

Unlike David Beckham however, John Amaechi's present berth on the A-List of celebrity is not derived by his gifts with a ball nor a place in the pantheon. For any Briton to make it as a starting centre in the NBA is notable but his was a supporting role, not the lead. His career is over, ending last year at the age of 35 when he helped England to a Commonwealth Games bronze medal. His statistics are footnotes in the record books. Yet every show in town currently wants him as their guest. Why? Because John Amaechi is gay.

The London-based giant effectively outed himself to the public at large with the publication of his autobiography. In the maelstrom of the American media, it has been greeted with frenzied analysis and feverish discussion, along with the predictable hate mail which has popped into his inbox.

"Overall, I'm hugely surprised by the reaction. I didn't expect it to become an international incident which it seems to have been," Amaechi admitted. "The general public, straight, gay or otherwise, have been overwhelmingly positive. That's been very reassuring. I can't say there hasn't been any negative reaction at all because there has. But I've been wildly overwhelmed by the positives. But that's good. It's a conversation which is long overdue."

No NBA player has ever before admitted to being gay. In stepping forth, Amaechi has simply enhanced the legend, of sorts, he gained during his career. That he was different, then by talking with a funny foreign accent (posh Mancunian), by drinking tea (the very thought), refusing to buy into mainstream Americana (be being anti-guns and a fully paid up Star Spangled Sceptic).

In contrast to Beckham, Amaechi can fight his own battles and formulate retorts without the need for uber-agents and masters of spin. Since quitting a game which to him was, unashamedly, a profession, not a love affair (another distinction for which he reaped opprobrium), he has espoused a variety of causes: sporting facilities, gun control and children's welfare.

Such advocacy is nothing new. In his book, 'Man In The Middle', there is an omnipresent theme of wanting to use his small slice of fame to give back. It was inherited from his mother, Wendy, who studied medicine in Aberdeen before moving with Amaechi's father to first Nigeria, then Boston, before returning back to the UK as a single parent of three children. During his playing days, his newest cause was one whose name he dared not speak. "It was the pervasive environment," he recalls of the locker room. "The feeling you have always that people wouldn't like you or love you if they knew you. That somehow you are not part of it. That this part of you wouldn't be judged on your merits."

Amaechi's story is largely one of the triumph of diligence and determination, a transformation from a chubby rugby-playing teenager to self-confident slam-dunking sensation fulfilled by his own drive and a plan drawn up and backed to the hilt by his mother. Supportively, his former coach in Orlando, Doc Rivers, admitted: "I think if he would have come out, they would have got on him jokingly?and I actually think when guys do come out, when that day happens, it will make things easier."

"It's not about my comfort or my courage," Amaechi asserts. "This is about workplaces. It's not the employee's job to make the place comfortable. It's not the employee's job to change it. Just like it's not necessarily the job of the individual to change society. Society has a responsibility, just as organisations do, to make a place which is open and embracing and accepting for all people."

A generation of young British players, in Manchester and elsewhere, have been inspired by Meech's hard-fought journey to the best league in the world. Others may now feel emboldened to meet alternative challenges.

Semi Thoughts

Four out of four in the East. In the West ?well, wouldn't life be dull if everything was so predictable. Particularly a Conference semi-final match-up between Golden State and Utah. Who saw that coming? All of which may contribute to making the other western clash between Phoenix and San Antonio the best of the entire play-offs.

Every aspect carries intrigue. If the Suns strength is their ability to create as many offenses as possible, then the Spurs proved in their regular season meetings that they can slow Mike D'Antoni's men down, holding them to 12 points less than their normal scoring average. Steve Nash meets his younger French doppelganger in Tony Parker while Greg Popovich loves a challenge, and none more so than his fellow Europhile on the opposing bench.

The reason I see Phoenix progressing is the confrontation between Shawn Marion and Tim Duncan. TD is the better player, no question (although the refs might not agree) but the reason the Matrix is handed the job of defending power forwards is to use his athleticism and quickness to keep them in check, with valuable assistance from Amare Stoudemire and Francisco Elson. Duncan cannot do everything in the front court on his own, which is why the Spurs may, for once, be over-matched.

Conference Semi-final Predictions
East
Chicago - Detroit: Pistons in seven
New Jersey - Cleveland: Nets in six

West
San Antonio - Phoenix: Suns in seven
Golden State - Utah: Jazz in five

Posted by Mark Woods on May 7, 2007, 3:00 p.m. ET

Deng Dong! Hello, says GB, to Luol

He's already worn the vest. But only for a photo-shoot. He's given his support. But just from afar. Now Luol Deng is ready for national duty and no-one who has seen his rise and rise this season has any doubt it will have been worth the wait.

The Chicago Bulls star has been named in a Great Britain squad for the first time, part of a 23 man party for this summer's European Championships. His addition, coming so soon after his central role in the Bulls ousting defending champion Miami in the first round of the NBA play-offs, will hugely bolster a squad which has high hopes of beating Belarus, Holland and Bulgaria this summer and taking a major step towards inclusion in the 2012 Olympic Games in Deng's hometown of London.

You think those three countries won't suddenly have sensed that sizzle of fear that the Heat felt on Sunday night when Deng was slicing between Shaq and Dwyane like a claymore through butter? That's what one new name brings. Credibility. Recognition. And hopefully, a catalyst to ensure that GB can surge from their current position in the group to first place.

"So far, it's been great working with Luol," British coach Chris Finch told me. "He's been very supportive even when he's not officially been involved in the programme up until now. He did a lot of work behind the scenes last year persuading other guys to get involved and he's been 100 per cent committed which is important at the start. I haven't thought a lot about where he fits in basketball-wise at this stage. Up to now, the priority has been to get all the other stuff ready to make it easy for him and everyone else."

What's great about Deng's addition, and the fact that his next trip to Florida will be for GB training camp in July, is that it doesn't come alone. Add another NBAer in Dallas reserve Pops Mensah-Bonsu (assuming that he has inked a contract by then), possibly a further one in Golden State's Kelenna Azubuike (if he receives his UK passport in time), plus a former one in Robert Archibald - once of Memphis, Phoenix, Toronto, and Orlando but now riding high at Spain's Joventut Badalona - and there is almost an entire starting line-up with experience of the Association. If all show up, and that's a ginormous IF, it will all of Europe who take notice, not just the three countries who are immediately in the way.

Deng brings the biggest hype but also the hugest expectation. With the greatest respect to the good folk of Dallas and Oakland, your average David or Victoria probably isn't familiar with the fine work of the Mavs or Warriors (ok, just the latter). The fact someone, anyone, from Da Bulls, is playing for Britain would cause a stir on its own, even to the uninitiated. That he is good, really good, is just a decided bonus.

And this is where the NBA can benefit British hoops at large, now and over the five years leading up to the Games. Ramping up the PR machine to prove that we deserve a place in 2012 is all very well but it needs names and faces which the suits at FIBA can buy into and believe in. There's no enshrined right for the hosts to get that berth. But imagine the phone call to lobby for inclusion. 'You're bringing one of the NBA's best players, you say? Please come in.' That's what they'll have to say. Carry on Britannia. Or, might one say, Deng-dong!

Dirk's MVP may be overdue - literally

Dirk Nowitzki is likely to be named as the NBA's Most Valuable Player in the next fortnight. I didn't vote for him on the grounds that, well, I don't have a vote (my ballot emails for the Magic Johnson Award and Sportsmanship Award were sent off months ago - Gilbert Arena and Steve Nash, if you're wondering). If I had, it would have gone to Steve Nash - on the grounds that if you're a Tottenham fan, you don't get to celebrate much so?

But if the votes for MVP were re-cast today, would the Diggler still come up on top? Even if Dallas comes back from 3-1 down to the Warriors, you can't forget just how anonymous our favourite German has been. 20ppg, 4.6 points less than his season average. 20 per cent from the three-point line versus 41.6 in the regular campaign. No wonder Avery Johnson is tired of hearing Dirk's bleats about being taken out of his game.

Ironically, Dirk could be set to make some history, good and made. The first European MVP. And the first MVP in recent times to receive his award when the season is already done. You hope the Commish shows up for Game 5 with the trophy. Because if he doesn't, it might require a call to Fedex and an overnight shipment to Wurzburg.

Posted by Mark Woods on May 1, 2007, 1:00 p.m. ET

Winning The West beats Scooping the Lottery

When has finishing worst in the NBA attracted as much attention as this? Sure, there's always that start of season perversion when the Grizzlies/Clippers/Hawks begin the campaign going 0-13 and the debate starts on whether they are 'officially the worst team ever!!' (An attribute which, lest there's any confusion, actually belongs to the losing side in my weekly Wednesday night pick-up game). But all eyes have been on whether Memphis or Boston could do the best job of tanking (allegedly) to grab themselves a Yao Ming-sized bunch of Lottery balls and achieve instant redemption by winning the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden sweepstakes.

Good for them. May they savour the promise of a better tomorrow while sitting by the beach for the next two months while everyone else is battling for a ring. (OK, being terrible still has its benefits). But has anyone noticed that three really, really good teams are not going to make it to this year's NBA Finals? Yes, that's three. One of which could only finish third in their own Division. How's that for being born under a bad sign?

Dallas, San Antonio, Phoenix and the aforementioned Houston are the best quartet in the league. No question, no debate required. Eastern Conference? Mere Finals fodder. Yet four into one just doesn't go and that makes for an incredibly competitive play-off bracket out West.

The Rockets may only be seeded fifth - courtesy of Utah getting fourth for winning the Northwest Division - but they simply can't be overlooked. The Jazz have slumped over the last month and are horrible on the road but at least they'll give Yao, T-Mac & Co. four games to acclimatise while their rivals are stomping over their own first round foes. If Houston's Big Two hadn't missed a combined 43 games, they'd be a 60 win contender.

Fast forward to the Conference semi-finals. An almost certain meeting with Dallas, who split the season series with their Texan rivals. As good a duo as Dirk and Josh are, Houston have ample weapons to hold them in check. That little drive then pull up which our favourite German likes? Not so easy when the Mighty Arms of Ming are waving back at you.

Coming down the other route are Phoenix and San Antonio. It's hard to find faults in any side which has won 58 times but you have to worry about the Spurs. As last Sunday's loss to Dallas proved, there are frailties there which are impossible to explain. And although the sheer speed at which the Suns continue to break, even after 82 games, Tim Duncan's fighting skills might not be enough to keep Phx from bullying them aside - from inside.

Whichever one of the two progress, bar any of those infrequent early shocks which will quickly turn this corner of cyberspace into pulp fiction, it will make for a stunning Conference Finals. But they might as well give out the rings then. Fans of the Perverse can come out of hiding at that point. The Finals will be about how much the Eastern challengers can lose by. Only that time, there'll be no Lottery love to soften the blow.

First Round Predictions - East
Heat-Bulls: Chicago in seven
Wizards-Cavaliers: Cleveland in four
Magic-Pistons: Detroit in five
Nets-Raptors: New Jersey in six

First Round Predictions - West
Lakers-Suns: Phoenix in six
Warriors-Mavs: Dallas in four
Jazz-Rockets: Houston in six
Nuggets-Spurs: San Antonio in five

London is a can't miss opportunity

Lest it had escaped your notice (and if so?how?!?!), the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves will bring the NBA back to the UK on October 10 at London's new 02 Arena. Pre-season games, let's face it, are a bit like watching the trailers at the cinema. You get a small taster of what's on offer, enough to impress but insufficient to get the entire plot.

But there's one very good reason to get the tickets booked - and it's not the opportunity to see how they've turned a white elephant into a green wolf (or is that leprechaun). The NBA Europe Games are fun. It's not the play-offs, and don't expect KG, assuming Kevin McHale maintains his pledge to keep him, to play 48 minutes. The Wolves GM has promised this much. "We have to try to put together a product on the floor that's a lot more competitive and a lot more pleasing to watch," McHale vowed this week. "I mean there were times out there where I thought we were very hard to watch. You'd be watching the game and I'd be like, 'Ugh. That's bad.'"

Regardless, for those who don't get a shot at seeing the Association up close and personal on a regular basis, it's a chance which doesn't come along every year. And it could still come down to the very last shot.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 20, 2007, 09:30 a.m. ET

Some traditions are best forgotten - especially losing.

I remember a conversation at the Air Canada Centre with the then Toronto Raptors General Manager Glen Grunwald a few years ago about the problems in establishing a proper basketball 'tradition' in the land where hockey rules and moose roam free. It was a summer's day but nonetheless, you could still find kids in the street with their sticks and pucks, dreaming more of pulling on Leafs blue than Raptors purple.

Now some of that may have been to do with the cartoon dinosaur that used to peek out on the front. Cute n Cuddly 1, Street Cred 0. But it's always been amazing that in the homeland of the Original Dr J, hoops has struggled to really grab the centre stage and smash the ball through the hoop. My old chum Jim LaBumbard, or Lombo as he likes to be known after dark, must have had the hardest job in Canuckville as the Raps PR chief. They built it but not everybody came, even back in the day when Vince Carter had more hops than Molson.

No longer though. The Raptors are a champion. OK, so it's only of the Atlantic Division, in the (L)eastern Conference. Heck, that's the closest you get to the WNBA in the winter. But it's the first banner the club's won since it came into being - assuming you can discount the world renowned and highly prestgious Naismith Cup they and the old Vancouver Grizzlies used to contest in pre-season.

Is it any coincidence it's all arrived early into the reign of Bryan Colangelo north of the border? Grunwald told me that the poor value of Canadian dollars and the cold winters made his efforts doubly hard but there's no longer any talk of Toronto as the NBA's very own in-house Siberia. Give B-Col credit. He's delivered one intangible - credibility while ensuring a safe passage to a genuine reward. And Chris Bosh is safely secured under lock and key for the foreseeable future with, no doubt, the Mounties keeping guard.

It's good for Canada. There are still plenty of folk in Montreal who miss the Expos and who regard their departure as treachery. Now the next Steve Nash, if the lottery balls fall the right way, could stay home and shoot for the stars. It's good for the NBA. Since the Grizz swapped places with Elvis (you mean you didn't hear he's living in British Columbia now?), the Raptors have been seen by many as an outpost of the League. Welcome, finally, to the establishment.

And, as a Brit, it's jolly marvellous, quite frankly, that one of our Commonwealth cousins is in the play-offs. Who knows? The Queen might even show up for a game. Just don't ask her to wear the Dino jersey. Some traditions are best forgotten about.

Posted by Mark Woods on April 13, 2007, 12:00 p.m. ET