Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Paul Williams Tragedy Adds to A Controversial Year in Boxing

No one likes to hear a worst-case scenario in an accident, whether it's a close loved one or simply someone that is known by their trade. Today is no different.

On Monday boxing manager George Peterson confirmed reports that one of his fighters, Paul 'Punisher' Williams, was involved in a motorcycle accident on Sunday in an Atlanta suburb. He also told that doctors have said that Williams in now paralyzed from the waist down and will never walk again.

Williams was scheduled to challenge rising Mexican star and WBC Junior Middleweight Champion Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on September 15.

The apparent end of Williams' career just adds a sad chapter to what has been a controversial year in boxing so far both inside and outside the ring.

Inside the ring two fights stand out so far this year for controversy.

The first fight was on April 14 in Las Vegas, NV as Brandon Rios fought Richard Abril in a match between two top 10 fighters in the lightweight division. Abril was a replacement fighter for Rios as he was originally scheduled to go against Yuriorkis Gamboa, who pulled out of the fight due to unhappiness about his $1.1 million purse. Rios failed to make the 135 lb. weight requirement for the second fight in a row and went into the fight at 139 lbs. Abril came into the fight as a 5/1 underdog. After a good first round by both fighters Abril began to set the tone of the fight. Rios looked sluggish as the fight progressed and didn't seem to have an answer to Abril's defense. Nearly every boxing analyst had Abril winning the fight, but the judges gave Rios a split decision victory. To say that people were not amused would be an understatement. ESPN boxing reporter Dan Rafael called the decision "absolutely disgusting." Freelance reporter Mike Rosenthal said that "No way Rios won that fight." Promoter Lou DiBella said that the decision is why 'We (boxing) suck as a legit sport."

The second fight happened three weeks earlier on March 24 in Houston, TX as James Kirkland fought Carlos Molina in a junior middleweight bout. Kirkland was making his second comeback in the division after suffering setbacks in the ring (a shocking loss to Nobuhiro Ishida) and out (two prison stints for armed robbery and weapons possession by a felon.) The fight was going Molina's way through the first nine rounds as he was hitting Kirkland more accurately throughout. Kirkland looked out of his element as he was trying to out-box Molina even though he's a natural brawler. That started to change in the tenth round as Kirkland started letting his hands go and hurt Molina. Almost exactly at the bell rang to end the round Kirkland scored a knockdown. The rules of the fight stated that a referee has to administer a ten count to a fighter even if he was knocked down at the end of a round. The ringing of the bell caused some confusion in Molina's corner as one member came into the ring thinking that the round was over as the referee was administering the ten count. That caused the referee to disqualify Molina after a short pause. While the referee's decision was technically the correct one, it was panned by analysts. The blame was mainly aimed at the Texas Boxing Commission for their corner inspectors not stopping the man in Molina's corner from stepping in the ring during the ten count. It was later revealed that Kirkland suffered a shoulder injury during the fight.

Outside the ring controversy has stopped two rematches from happening.

The first instance happened on May 9 when a title fight rematch scheduled for May 19 between junior welterweights Amir Khan and Lamont Peterson was cancelled as Peterson tested positive for a banned substance in both his 'A' and 'B' samples. That substance turned out to be synthetic testosterone. Peterson admitted that he did take the substance, but said that he is taking it for medical reasons. It was also revealed that Peterson started taking testosterone in October 2011, which was before his first bout with Khan where he won the IBF and WBA Junior Welterweight belts in a split decision. Khan's main promoter, Golden Boy Promotions, has now asked for the result of the first fight to be changed to a 'no contest' thus giving the titles Khan lost back to him.

Khan and Golden Boy Promotions have now scheduled a fight with Danny Garcia on July 14 in Las Vegas for Garcia's WBC Junior Welterweight title.

The second instance happened only nine days removed from the first. On May 18 it was revealed that Andre Berto tested positive for norandrosterone, a version of the anabolic steroid Nandrolone. That caused his June 23 welterweight fight against Victor Ortiz, a rematch of Ring Magazine's 2011 Fight of the Year, to be cancelled. That fight produced Berto's only loss in his career. While Berto has denied taking the substance, his claims are on shallow water as Victor Conte of BALCO infamy is in his training camp. Unlike the Peterson situation where it was weeks between the 'A' and 'B' sample being tested, Berto's camp informed Golden Boy Promotions (Ortiz's promoter) of the positive 'A' immediately. That allowed Golden Boy time to quickly test the 'B' sample and to find a replacement for Berto to face Ortiz without moving the date of the fight.

Ortiz is now scheduled to face Josesito Lopez on the same scheduled date as the Berto fight in Los Angeles.

Three potentially great fights set for this year lost, two by controversy and one by tragedy.

Luckily it looks like all three fighters that lost opponents to these events won't be stalled by them.
Khan has a chance to retake his spot at the top of the junior welterweight division. Ortiz will get to regain steam after losing his last fight against the world's best pound-for-pound fighter in Floyd Mayweather Jr. Alvarez is now finalizing talks to make a mandatory WBC Junior Middleweight title defense against Kirkland.

It's only been half a year and boxing has been hit hard. There is still time to turn it around though. Khan-Garcia, Ortiz-Lopez, and (potentially) Alvarez-Kirkland all can be good fights. There is also still talks that the dream fight between Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao can still happen this year.

The sweet science can still get up to fight again.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Heat-Celtics: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

It's almost pre-ordained in a way. An old, battle tested team making possibly their last run together facing a younger team built for facing them.

The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are facing each other for the second time since Heat forwards LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined guard Dwyane Wade in Miami. Both teams are coming off two semifinal rounds where their mettle was greatly tested. The Heat are coming into this series still missing Bosh due to an abdominal strain. The Celtics are coming into this series having lost rookie guard Avery Bradley for the rest of the playoffs to a shoulder injury.

Here is how each team got to this point:

Miami Heat

One word can be used to describe the Heat's mindset coming into season: redemption. After falling short in last year's NBA Finals the Heat have been on a championship-or-bust mode. James in particular has been on a personal mission to get back to the Finals and erase the perception of him falling apart at big moments. In a season that earned him his third Most Valuable Player award in four years, James averaged 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. Wade missed 17 games due to injuries and finished the season averaging 22.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game. Forward Udonis Haslem had a down season offensively after coming back from injury in last year's Eastern Conference Finals averaging 6.1 points per game.

In the playoffs the Heat had both an easy and tough matchup. In the first round they faced the New York Knicks in what many hoped would be the sexy series of the playoffs. Instead it became an almost Heat sweep due to Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony having an outstanding Game 4. In the semifinals the faced the Indiana Pacers in a tough, physical matchup. It was in this series that the Heat lost Bosh to injury in Game 1. After that the Pacers seized on their size advantage in Games 2 and 3. James and Wade responded in kind afterwards with almost unstoppable performances in Games 4, 5, and 6. James in particular had a historic Game 4 with 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists, a stat line not seen in the playoffs since 1961.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics came into the season with the possibility of it being the last of the Big 3 era. Forwards Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, along with guard Ray Allen were not getting any younger and the franchise was dealt a blow when forward Jeff Green (whom they traded center Kendrick Perkins for) was lost for the season due to an aortic aneurysm. The team also made some moves like acquiring forward Brandon Bass in a sign-&-trade deal involving forward Glen Davis. Pierce finished the season averaging 19.4 points and 5.2 rebounds and was the healthiest of the Celtic Big 3 only missing four games. The same couldn't be said for Allen as he missed 20 games and finished the season averaging 14.2 points and 3.1 rebounds. At one point Allen was almost traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for guard OJ Mayo. Garnett, after looking sluggish early on, picked it up late averaging 15.8 points and 8.1 rebounds at season's end.

In the playoffs the Celtics had two unexpectedly tough matchups. In the first round they faced the Atlanta Hawks and lost Game 1 along with guard Rajon Rondo to a one game suspension for bumping a referee. While the Celtics did win the next three games it wasn't an easy task. The series went to six games, almost all of them tough. Garnett ad some of his best play in this series averaging 18.7 points and 10.5 rebounds. The semifinals found the Celtics not facing the expected foe in the Chicago Bulls, but the Philadelphia 76ers. This series was...not pretty to say the least. Each team seemed to bring out the worst in each other basketball-wise. This series is also where Bradley was lost to the shoulder injury.

With this matchup both teams have problems. The Heat don't have a complete answer in trying to stop Rondo from penetrating. The overall health of the Celtics may be exposed by the Heat's transition offense. Bosh being out frees up Garnett to get his game going. Bradley being out frees up Wade to continue his recent tear. One matchup though will be a key for each team.

LeBron James vs Paul Pierce:

It is no secret that the Celtics have caused James problems in the playoffs during his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Last year's playoffs helped James overcome this stigma. Unfortunately his NBA Finals performance brought the questions of toughness back. Now he is facing the Celtics once again. Pierce is a good defender has been known for clutch performances in the playoffs. Pierce is not healthy coming into this series though. With James putting up jaw dropping games lately it will take a gargantuan effort from Pierce for Boston to have a chance.

Prediction: Heat win series 4-1

The Heat are on a mission of redemption, and the series with the Pacers may have woken up a sleeping giant. Bosh being out has made role players like guard Mario Chalmers, guard Mike Miller, and forward Shane Battier step up. Couple that with Haslem finding his jumper and the recent play of James and Wade and it will be too much for a Celtics team that is limping their way ti this series.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Spurs-Thunder: Western Conference Finals Preview

This is the series everyone wanted in the West.

It has the great old vs new storyline that sports pundits dream about. It's become more compelling given the teams that the Oklahoma City Thunder has faced in these playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs have transformed themselves almost to directly compete with their only foe standing between them and the NBA Finals.

Here is how each team got to this point:

San Antonio Spurs

Before this season no one thought of an offensive giant when the Spurs came up. What people did think of is sound, fundamental basketball coupled with great defense. This year though, Spurs head coach Greg Popovich has changed his philosophy along with his roster mixing the championship pedigree of forward Tim Duncan and guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili with young players like forward Kwahi Leonard and guard Daniel Green. This move, along with earning Popovich Coach of the Year honors, can almost be seen as a direct response that the Thunder present with their athleticism. Turning the Spurs into an offensive juggernaut has surprised everyone, especially in the last month of the season when they snatched the top seed in the Western Conference from the Thunder.

In the playoffs the Spurs have been unstoppable with both their first round and semifinal series ending in sweeps of theire respective opponents (Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers). Duncan has seen a ressurection averaging 17.6 points, nine rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game this season. Parker is leading the Spurs in scoring averaging 19.1 points along with 7.1 assists. Ginobili has been his usual self coming off the bench averaging 11.3 points and 4.5 assists.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder went into the season hoping to prove that their appearance in last season's Western Conference Finals was not a fluke, and they have succeeded. Led by their own Big 3 of forward Kevin Durant along with guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the Thunder have led the West almost the entire season. The defensive growth of forward Serge Ibaka has made the Thunder front line of him and center Kendrick Perkins one of the toughest in the NBA. The Thunder have also gained some championship pedigree in their roster as they signed guard Derek Fisher after losing guard Eric Maynor for the season due to injury.

In the playoffs the Thunder have literally gone on a journey facing the Old Guard of the West. In the first round they faced the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and swept them. In the second round they faced the Los Angeles Lakers and almost swept them. Durant has led the way averaging 26.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in the playoffs. Westbrook has not been far behing averaging 24.1 points and 4.4 assists per game. Harden, the almost unanimous (but should have been) Sixth Man of the Year award winner this season has stepped up as well averaging 17 points and two steals per game.

Now the Thunder face the last of the Old Guard in the Spurs, who has appeared to have prepared themselves with them in mind. There are matchups galore in this series but one will be the key to this series:

James Harden vs Manu Ginobili:

They both come off the bench, both can penetrate to the paint, and both can take over a game at any moment. Watching Harden and Ginobili play individually can be salivating as their games are almost mirror images of each other. Now they will most likely face each other for majority of the time they are on the floor together. Ginobili will have to use his experience to offset the youth Harden brings to the table. Harden will have to be sore savvy  in order to not get in foul trouble against a known flopper in Ginobili.

Prediction: Thunder win series 4-3

Like I said before, the Thunder have been going on a journey against the Old Guard of the West. Now they are facing their biggest test against a Spurs team that seems prepared specifically for them. While the Spurs have been playing excellent in these playoffs the Thunder may just be athletic enough to slow them down. This series will go the distance with great play throughout, but the Thunder will just have enough to get to their first NBA Finals since the franchise's Seattle days.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Heat-Pacers Game 5: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

The Miami Heat maintained the same domination from their Game 4 second half against the Indiana Pacers as they won Game 5 in blowout fashion 115-83 Tuesday night. That victory gives the Heat a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinal match up. The game also carried over the physical, sometimes chippy play from throughout the series in a big fashion with three flagrant fouls.

Let's take a look back back at the good, the , and the ugly from both sides.

Miami Heat

The Good: Forward LeBron James and guard Dwyane Wade didn't have to combine for 70 points like they did in Game 4. Instead They combined for 58 points in a balanced effort from start to finish in Game 5. Forward Shane Battier had his best game in a Heat uniform so far by scoring early with two 3-point shots and frustrating Pacers forward David West on the defensive end. Center Ronnie Turiaf and guard Mario Chalmers along with Battier scored the first 10 points for the Heat and continued their contributions throughout the game. Chalmers, while having some head scratching moments, finished the game with eight points and 11 rebounds, one less than Pacers center Roy Hibbert. Even guard Mike Miller, while not scoring a point, contributed in his own way by at one point playing defense with one shoe.

The Bad: Despite never trailing in the game, the Heat allowed the Pacers energy lineup of guard Darren Collison, forward Tyler Hansbrough, and guard Leandro Barbosa to keep the game close in the second quarter. At one point the Pacers only trailed by two points before they bailed the Heat out with some bad possessions. The Heat also weren't able to get Hibbert and West in foul trouble like in Game 4, something they need to do.

The Ugly: While the Heat took care of business at home, the main stories after the game were the two flagrant fouls committed by forward Udonis Haslem and center Dexter Pittman. The foul by Haslem on  Hansbrough is seen by many as retaliation for Hansbrough's flagrant foul on Wade. Some called the foul dirty, others called it Eastern Conference playoff basketball. Haslem doesn't have a history of dirty play so a possible suspension doesn't come to mind...until Pittman committed his flagrant foul. Pittman, a seldom used center, took it upon himself to retaliate against Pacers guard Lance Stephenson in garbage time by elbowing him in the neck. Stephenson made himself known in the series by giving the choking signal from the bench in Game 3 as James missed two free throws. If the NBA wanted to follow their own precedent set just this season, then after looking at the play (something the league does automatically when it comes to flagrant fouls) they would've suspended Pittman the same amount of games as Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace when he had his elbow incident. Instead Pittman will only sit out three games.

Indiana Pacers

The Good: The Pacers made the right adjustments to make sure Hibbert and West didn't find themselves in foul trouble like in Game 4. Forward Danny Granger started to get hot early in the game and the energy lineup of Barbosa, Collison, and Hansbrough kept the game close in the second quarter.

The Bad: Unfortunately the other adjustment the Pacers needed to make after Game 4 didn't happen. Hibbert and West weren't able to establish themselves in the paint to take advantage of not being in foul trouble. West was particularly bothered due to the defense of Battier and missed his first five shots finishing the night with 10 points. Hibbert, who is the biggest size advantage for the Pacers, wasn't able to score big despite grabbing four offensive rebounds en route to getting 12 for the night. His biggest highlight was him making a 3-point shot as the shot clock was expiring, something he hasn't done sine April of 2010. The energy lineup, after cutting the Heat lead to tow points in the second quarter, for some reason decided to play hero ball in trying to take the lead. The Pacers had possessions late in the quarter where they shot the ball too quickly in order to shift the game momentum. That bailed out the Heat and opened the door they needed to begin the blowout.

The Ugly: A major factor that turned the game into a blowout were the injuries that Granger and West. Granger sprained his left ankle late in the second quarter by landing it on the foot of James who was defending him following a missed 3-point attempt. He was listed as questionable to return but chose to start the second half after getting the ankle re-taped. He aggravated the injury again in the third quarter while fouling James to avoid an easy transition basket. West sprained his left knee near the end of the third quarter. While he was capable of returning for the fourth quarter the game's outcome was already evident and the Pacers chose to exercise caution. West is note expected to miss Game 6, Granger may be a different story. Had he chosen to stay out of the game Granger would have healed quicker from the injury and at least be available to come from the bench. If his actions in the third quarter lead to him missing Game 6 it will likely be the end for the Pacers. Just as Heat forward Chris Bosh's abdominal strain injury changed the series dynamics in favor of the Pacers, Granger's possible absence will to the same as he is the Pacers' main offensive threat. To add insult to injury Pacers team president Larry Bird, one of the toughest players in NBA history, told the Indianapolis Star flat out that he felt the team has become soft.

Now the series shifts to Indianapolis for Game 6 where an environment not seen since the days of Reggie Miller and Spike Lee might await. It will also present a game that is almost certain to be more scrutinized by the referees. It's become a classic Eastern Conference playoff series.

On to Nap Town.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Heat-Pacers: A Duel of Individual Talent vs Team Strenght

Little more than a week ago the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers had a particular storyline set up for it. A match up between a team with great individual talent (Heat) and a team with no superstar talent but great team chemistry (Pacers).

Little has changed since to change that narrative. The abdominal strain that Heat forward Chris Bosh suffered in the first half of the team's 95-86 Game 1 victory only reinforced it.

The Heat were already at a size disadvantage coming into this series facing the Pacers front line of forward David West and center Roy Hibbert. Losing Bosh for the series to an injury made this advantage greater for Indiana and it showed in their 78-75 and 94-75 victories in Games 2 and 3. It also helps that one of the Heat's Big 3 still standing (guard Dwyane Wade) wasn't playing like himself in Game 3 with only five points in 37 minutes of play.

What Bosh's absence has done is being felt more than just on statistics. Bosh as it turns out, while sacrificing the most in individual achievements when he chose to come to Miami, has become the team's most important player. His presence is what allowed Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra to set up the pick and roll plays in a half court offense as well as his bench rotation, something a coach shouldn't be tinkering so much with in the playoffs. In fact, Spoelstra has used a different starting lineup for each game. One of those lineups featured starting second year center Dexter Pittman in Game 3. Pittman didn't play for three weeks prior to Game 3 and the experiment only lasted a little more than three minutes.

This has put the pressure on Wade and forward LeBron James. They are the two best players in the series and have to play as such for the Heat to win. With Bosh out weakening the Heat bench Wade and James have to force their individual talents to overwhelm the Pacers. However, they also need another player to step up and contribute. In Game 3 one those things happened with guard Mario Chalmers having one of the best games of his career finishing with 25 points, six rebounds, and five assists. That performance was overshadowed by Wade's lackluster effort.

Luckily in Game 4 both those things happened.

James, playing the Magic Johnson role, got Wade going in the second half after only making one field goal in the first. That effort by James led to Wade to at one point make 11 straight field goals in a row. Wade finished the game with 30 points, nine rebounds, and six assists. James, while doing his best to help his teammates, also went on to have a historic performance. James finished the game with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and nine assists. That type of stat line hasn't been achieved in a playoff game since Elgin Baylor did it in 1961.

In other words, what James did in Game 4 hasn't been done since the early days of the John F. Kennedy administration.

It didn't stop there for the Heat. Forward Udonis Haslem, who is having a down season, stepped up with a 14 point performance that included shots late in the fourth quarter that stemmed several pushes by the Pacers to take back cpntrol of the game. He also received a cut above his right eye during the game that required nine stitches afterwards. Haslem is the player that can most replicate what Bosh does for the Heat and Game 4 might get him back in a good groove offensively.

So now with the series tied at 2-2 it has become a best-of-three event with two of those games being held in Miami's American Airlines Arena. The Pacers will try to make the adjustments needed to keep Hibbert and West out of the foul trouble they found themselves in Game 4 and to reinsert their size advantage. The Heat will try to make the adjustments needed to exploit their athleticism like in Game 4 and find ways to negate the size they are giving up in this series.

The narrative is still the same in this series, and that is what will determine the winner in the end.

On to South Beach for Game 5.