April 20, 2006
Mark Cuban:
Gives away a free plane ticket to every fan at the Mavs home finale last night, making him the Oprah of the NBA.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

Marc Stein has nailed it:

The NBA Finals will come down to a Pistons vs. Spurs rematch, with the Pistons capping a dominant season with a title to reclaim the one they lost to the Spurs last season.

There: I've just saved you two months. See you at the draft.

With the playoff field now set, would it really be the best Finals ever? Hardly.

For all the chirping from traditionalists about how the Pistons and Spurs play the best -- "team" basketball, the best defense, blah blah blah, let's all agree:

It ain't a thrilling prospect.

After last June's bran muffin, fans wouldn't mind a Pop-Tart Finals.

So leave the rooting for a "Pistons-Spurs II" collision course to the pulse-challenged purists. Here are a few alternative Finals pairings to root for:

Super-Mega Star Power!
Lakers-Cavs: Kobe vs. LeBron, settling the MVP debate, along with battling for a ring? Wow. This is an NBA dream Finals -- the most-watched since MJ retired. Too bad both players are going out in round one.

Who's the Real Star Here?
Mavs-Heat: Mark Cuban and Pat Riley. Is there an arena big enough for both egos? Between Cuban blogging live and Riley trying to manipulate the mainstream media, even Shaq may have trouble getting air time.

(By the way: The Mavs giving away free plane tickets to everyone in the arena last night is the greatest stadium giveaway ever. Bobbleheads? Magnet schedule? Manute Bol growth poster? Bah! Cuban has reset the bar.)

Bring on the Crazy!
Kings-Wizards: Mix one part Ron Artest with one part Gilbert Arenas, with a couple of Maloofs thrown in for spice, and you've got a kooky concoction that would at least keep you guessing what might happen on any given night. (And that's on the off-nights!)

Offense, Offense, Offense
Suns-Nets: The two best passing point guards (Nash and Kidd) pushing the tempo. Two of the most high-flying players (Marion and Carter) attacking the rim. More than star wattage, the NBA needs a telegenic series defined by invigorating offense to return the Finals to glory.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with the best two teams meeting in the championship series: It sure worked for college football in January.

But with the NBA playoffs looming like a repeat of last year, the sense of excitement over the next two months must be found rooting for playoff upsets -- geared around marquee performers or electrifying offense.

NBA P'Offs Glance
Here's the overview, and be sure to check out the Daily Dime's sneak peek. Here are a few talking points to get you started:

Pistons-Bucks: Your answers are "4, 5, 6 or 7." The question is: "How many games will the Pistons need to dispatch the Bucks?"

Heat-Bulls: Chicago has won 12 of 14, including that 24-point blowout in Miami on Sunday. But the Heat were mailing it in.

Nets-Pacers: Last time they played, Indy won (but that was before NJ ripped off that 14-game win streak and became a much tougher out).

Cavs-Wiz: LeBron's playoff debut could be a short one; Wiz won season series 3-1 (Arenas averaged 31 ppg in the last 3 games, all Wiz W's).

Spurs-Kings: If Bruce Bowen and Ron Artest, the NBA's two best defenders, guard each other, will the universe collapse?

Suns-Lakers: The Lakers can't stop the Suns' offense, and the Suns can't stop Kobe. That makes this the most fun series of the round.

Nuggets-Clippers: Who's the lower seed here? 6-seed Clips get home-court advantage thanks to a better record than Denver.

Mavs-Grizzlies: You get a plane ticket! And you get a plane ticket! (Oh, wait: Let's see what Dallas' new commitment to D yields.)

Tomorrow: NBA Playoff picks.

Kobe Bryant: Wins NBA scoring title (7th-most points ever)
Joey Harrington: To sign with Dolphins as backup to Daunte
Ray Allen: Sets the new NBA record for 3s made in a season
Bartolo Colon: Angels put 2005 Cy guy on DL (shoulder)
Royals: Lose 10th straight; 2nd-slowest start ever ('92)
Ace Young: Unlikable hunk finally gets the boot on "Idol"
MLB Punishes Bonds!
MLB has punished Barry Bonds! Wait, does a $5K fine for a uniform violation of oversized wristbands count?

(Well, yes, if you've been waiting for them to punish him for something related to oversized arms.)

More MLB Notes:

Schilling is unstoppable: If you thought his best years were behind him, please note his 4-0 start in '06 is a career first.

Weirdest D ever? The D-Rays' funky defensive shift on David Ortiz continued Wednesday: Tampa plays one infielder (1B) and backs the other three IF into a six-outfielder alignment. Ortiz went 0-3.

O's slug back: A day after losing to the Indians 15-1, the Orioles regained some pride by returning the shellacking with an 18-9 win last night. With 43 runs in 2 games, the offenses are more productive than the Ravens and Browns.

Braves starters sizzling: After a rough stretch to start the season, Braves starters have combined to allow six hits in the past two games to the previously explosive Mets offense. Hudson allowed 3H in 9 IP.

Fish can't win close one: The Marlins dropped to 0-5 in 1-run games after blowing an 8-4 lead they spotted Dontrelle Willis. Even if they don't want to trade him, maybe he just wants to leave at this point.

Duke LaX Update
The two students arrested have been reportedly suspended, and one defense lawyer believes his client's case will be dismissed, but the most intriguing development comes from Darren Rovell's must-read reporting:

The demand for Duke lacrosse merchandise is hot. Actually, it's a little sickening, .

I'd love to think that people were rushing out to buy "Duke Lacrosse" apparel because the women's team is ranked No. 1 in the country.

But you just know that's not the case. Who would want to sport a Duke lacrosse shirt right now?

I have to believe that you won't get a warm reception from people if you're trying to suggest you're cool or an ironic hipster by wearing the shirt.

Lance vs. NYC's 26.2
If Armstrong thought cycling fans on the hills of the Pyrenees were intense, wait until he runs through Brooklyn.

When Lance runs the NYC Marathon this fall, he can expect to command a huge following (and you have to believe there will be a "Lance Cam").

After all, if P. Diddy can pack the sidewalks when he walks down the street, how about America's most celebrated athlete?

Quickie NBA Awards
Today's category: Best Coach

My Winner: Flip Saunders. Larry Brown taught the Pistons how to win with D, but his "Right Way" shackled the team's offensive talents; Detroit was 24th in PPG in 2004-05.

This season, Flip showed the players more respect, and they rewarded him by scoring an extra 4 ppg -- and winning 10 more games. Larry Who?

Runner-up: Avery Johnson. Two years ago, the matador Mavs allowed the second-most points per game in the NBA.

This season, Dallas finished allowing the 7th-least, a 7.6 ppg improvement you can attribute to Johnson's attention. The win total didn't change much; the playoff prospects sure do.

Friday: MVP! Kobe? 'Bron? Nash?

NFL Draft Watch
49ers making a move? With a second 1st-round pick (acquired from Denver for their own 2nd- and 3rd-round picks), the Niners would be in position to offer a sweet deal to move up.

Two questions: (1) Would the Texans be better off with the 6th and 22nd picks or Reggie Bush? (2) Would the talent-thirsty 49ers be better off keeping their two picks than going for a home run in the Top 5?

(There are all those rumors being floated by the Texans that they are intrigued by DE Mario Williams. If they took Williams over Bush, I think Houston fans would revolt. It smacks of a leverage ploy with Bush.)

Meanwhile, George Mason hoops star Jai Lewis will hold a workout for NFL teams this afternoon. Is he the next Antonio Gates?

NFL Fan Draft
Latest from SportsNation's NFL Fan Draft:

No. 16 (DEN): RB D. Williams
Another RB for the stable?
17 (MIA): CB Tye Hill
Shore up DB with an athlete.
18 (MIN): LB Ernie Sims
Brings speed more than size.

Get a recap, and vote today for the Cowboys (9 a.m. ET), Chargers (noon ET) and Chiefs (3 p.m. ET).

Quickie Draft Challenge! Sign up now for the new "Daily Quickie Readers" group of ESPN.com's "Draft Forecast" game. (Open to everyone; no password needed).

Madden '07 Cover
Which NFL player will get the coveted/cursed cover of the '07 edition of the uber-popular "Madden" football video game?

Best player available?
(LaDainian Tomlinson!)

Leader of Super Bowl champ?
(Ben Roethlisberger!)

So due for Madden Curse?
(Tom Brady!)

What a quandary for a player and his fans:

On the one hand, it's arguably the sport's hottest honor; on the other, you're staring at that eerie legacy of season-wrecking injury.

The cover will be unveiled tonight at 6 p.m. ET on "SportsCenter." Prediction for over/under on "Curse" jokes floating around online: within 15 minutes after unveiling.

Larry Brown:
Makes it back to sitting behind the bench for the Knicks season finale. When "missing 60 losses" becomes the moral victory, you know it's been a bad year.
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie: Live!
NBA Playoffs
Page 2 Index
Stein's NBA Playoff Top 5
Hungrier than ever
Revamped bench is key
It's all about the D
Run without a big man?
Krstic makes it Big FOUR

Woods Update: Tiger reportedly will sit out of PGA events over the next month before the U.S. Open to be with his father, who is battling cancer.

Adam Morrison going pro: The big question, of course, is will his new team's veterans let him keep the 'stache? Or that hair? Or the crying?

Cal's Leon Powe testing NBA: I was really impressed with him, but I've read some scouts who say he's a little too small to be a true NBA four.

Speaking of Madden, the annual Madden Bowl is on ESPN (9:30 p.m. ET). Competing: McGahee, Edge, Chad J, Gates, Clayton, Moss, Alex Smith (TB).

Congrats to Adam Silver, named David Stern's No. 2 at the NBA. Coming soon to an NBA draft podium near you to emcee all that hot 2nd-round action!

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