Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wednesday's Starting Five

1. The Los Angeles Lakers. After a patriarchal undressing on Mother's Day, the Lakers regained control of their second round playoffs series with the Houston Rockets. Basketball's most talented (but not most insatiable) club rolled over the Yao-less Rockets in Game 5, taking a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Kobe - playing shockingly like a superstar - paced the winning side with 26 points. He went for 12 in the first quarter as Lakers jumped out to an 11-point lead. They never looked back from there - playing with the sort of purpose and determination that, while commonplace for Cleveland and Denver - has been a rarity for Phil Jackson's squad. The purple and gold team entered the fourth quarter with a 40 point lead. They maintained that margin right through to the final buzzer.

2. Carlos Beltran. With all due respect to Albert Pujols, Beltran is the best player in the National League right now. He makes playing center field at the expansive Citi Field look so easy that you don't always notice that what he is doing is so hard. And, at the plate, he is locked in. He carried the Metropolitans to their eighth win in nine games. With his club trailing the Braves by a run entering the ninth on Tuesday night, Beltran led off the frame with a double to left. The Metsies were alive. After David Wright popped out, Fernando Tatis was hit by a pitch. Beltran moved over to second. But with the bottom of the order coming up. It seemed that the distance from second to home plate was a mile if it was a foot. So, Beltran took off for third. Sliding in just before (or after, depending on which replay angle you watch) Larry Jones' tag. Safe! Luis Castillo, against my prediction, was able to loft a ball deep enough to the outfield for Beltran to tag up and come home with the tying run. One out later, we were all treated to some free baseball. In the bottom of the tenth, Beltran strode to the dish with the bases full of runners. There were two outs and the Braves pitcher had walked two straight after allowing Jose Reyes to start the rally with a two-out double. Patiently, Beltran waited. With a full count, he barely flinched as the fourth ball popped the catcher's mitt low and away. It was close. Close enough that most players surely would have either attempted to foul it off or just pounded it into the ground for a frustrating out. Beltran didn't. The calm confidence that is often mistaken for apathetic arrogance enabled him to trot down to first as Jose Reyes bounded home with the winning run.

3. Roy Halladay. The doctor was in last night at Yankee Stadium. Doc Halladay went the distance in defeating the Yankees and his former teammate A.J. Burnett. It was the 41st complete game of his career and his first of the 2009 campaign. The righty from Denver allowed five hits and one run over the nine frames that he tossed. The Blue Jays won, 5-1.

4. Ryan Zimmerman. More than the home run or the no-hitter, the hitting streak is the most baseball-ish of achievements. Because it's about the grind. It's about repitition and consistency. Like baseball. It's about playing each day. In the cold. In the heat. In front of sell-out crowds at Fenway Park. And in front of dozens of disinterested spectators at Nationals Park. That's why Joe DiMaggio's record 56-game hitting streak will never lose its luster. Well, unless Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman catches him. With his two singles against the Giants on Tuesday night, Zimmerman has extended his hitting streak to 30 games.

5. Anaheim Ducks. After riding a season-ending hot streak into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Ducks continue to cause trouble for the NHL's elite teams. With a win in Game 6, Anaheim has forced the heavily favored Detroit Redwings into a win-or-home pairs skate later this week. These are the same Ducks that previously ousted the President's Cup-winning San Jose Sharks (the President's Cup is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points). The pluckiness of this underdog side almost makes me forgive the franchise from moving away from the color scheme and designs of its namesake series of films.

Sixth Man. Stephon Marbury.
And, coming off the bench in Thursday's Starting Five is the pride of Coney Island and purveyor of affordable footwear. After playing in round 1 of the playoffs with the fear that he used to instill in opponents at the Garden (and I don't mean Madison Square, I mean the asphalt court on Coney Island), Steph got his groove back. And put the Celtics on course for the Eastern Conference Finals. I barely watched this game because A) Beltran and the Mets were staging a comeback in Queens; B) For whatever reason, this series just hasn't captured my attention the way that others have. C) Whenever I would pop over to TNT to check the score, it looked like the Magic were cruising to a 8 to 12 point victory. But then a 12-point outburst from the outcast from Ocean Parkway (also known as the bane near Brighton Beach) woke up the defending champs. His early fourth quarter explosion energized his teammates and turned the tide of the game. Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy referred to Marbury as "the key to game" in his postgame comments.

Benched. The Orlando Magic. The were so close. There are those who say that Game 1 is the most important game of the seven-game series. Others who speak up on behalf of Game 2. And even a healthy crowd of Game 3 partisans out there. For me? It's all about Game 4. Someone is winning 2-1 at that point. And the swing from 3-1 to 2-2 is, for my money, the most dramatic. The Magic entered Game 4 of their playoff series with the defending champion Celtics leading 2-games-to-1. They had the Eastern Conference Finals in their sights. And they let it get away in Game 4. And, then in Game 5 they watched as a double-digit fourth quarter lead evaporated. From a 2-games-to-1 lead to a 3-games-to-2 deficit in two easy steps.