By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
NBA FINALS SO FAR? GIVE IT A 'D'
The NBA has long been a game of dynasties, and while they all have their individual sizzle factorShowtime, Shaq Time, and the Reign of King Michael Ione common thread links the league's superpowers: defense.
The Pistons, the Bulls, and both editions of the championship Lakers all played dogged half-court D, which is what counts in the playoffs. And through the first three games of the Finals, Gregg Popovich's Spurs have shut the Nets down like a kiddie porn site, holding them to 84.3 points and 39 percent shooting. Without a Shaq-Nowitski-style matchup problem, Tim Duncan and even David Robinson have been at their shot-altering best. This allows perimeter players like Manu Ginobíli and Tony Parker to gamble on defense, first playing as close as a lap dancer, then backing off and gambling for the steal. Seem familiar? This is an improved version of the Spur D that fived the Knicks in the '99 finals. However, no defense is good enough to hold a 49-win team to nine points in a quarter, and the Nets have to take the heat for their anemic scoring. After a playoff run that was democracy in action, with Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin stepping up as serious scoring threats, New Jersey's motion offense has gone inert, with most of the supporting cast standing around, waiting for Jason Kidd to score. Unfortunately, Kidd has reverted to his old waysthink Phoenixshooting 21 for 60 from the field. The only reason Byron Scott isn't tearing out his hair is that he doesn't have any. And speaking of numbers, defense may win titles, but ABC is learning that it doesn't draw eyeballs to the tube. The ratings for the first two games were down 40 and 29 percent, respectively, over last year's Nets-Lakers matchup. These Finals have been no "showtime" in more ways than one. Allen St. John
PUT A CORK IN IT
Pedro Martínez was off base in playing the race card in his deconstruction of the Sammy Sosa bat-corking brouhaha. "If it was [Mark] McGwire, it would still be a big deal, but not like this," Martinez told reporters. "We might be Latin and minorities, but we're not dumb." Earth to Pedro: The Sosa saga was not given saturation coverage because he's from the Dominican Republic. It was front-page news because Americans like to see the fall of the mighty, whether it's Sosa or Martha Stewart or Howell Raines. And we will remind Sosa that it was a big thing when the steroid-like over-the-counter supplement androstenedione, which raises testosterone levels, was found in McGwire's locker in 1998, a year in which Sosa finished second in the home run race, but first in the NL MVP voting. And of course, that flap was quickly forgotten the same way that Sosa's transgression will become background noise, especially if the vastly improved Cubs make the playoffs. (When was the last time anyone raised the specter of Jason Kidd's spousal abuse?) And as for the long-term effects of the corking saga, rest assured that someday both Sosa and Martínez will be able to discuss this over tall drinks during induction weekend at Cooperstown. Allen St. John
No-fry zone rescinded: Officials reportedly removed a Code Orange alert for all U.S. burger stands last week after Mo Vaughn ended his nationwide tour in search of second opinions on whether he ought to have his surgery on his knee. Apparently, the only knife Vaughn will undergo is the steak knife. Coaxial of evil: Chuck Dolan can't leave bad enough alone. The Cablevision emperor has already made a mess out of the Knicks and Rangers, and now he's telling Congress that ESPN and regional sports networks like FSNY ought to be moved from basic cable to premium cable, thus jacking up everyone's monthly cable billand requiring customers to rent cable boxes for every TV they own, if they want to keep watching sports. Speaking of the Knicks, the latest mock draft on NBAdraft.net has the Dolan family's dystopic duo of GM Scott Layden and coach Don Chaney selecting seven-foot goofus Chris Kaman of Central Michigan with the ninth pick in the first round on June 26. Previous speculation had the Knicks picking either mundane guard Kirk Hinrich or ho-hum forward Nick Collison, both from Kansas. Help! It's not bad enough that other Eastern Conference teams will be loading upthe Cavs will have LeBron James, for starters. But the conference rivals scheduled to pick after the Knicks are showing the imagination that the Knicks simply lack. The mock draft has the Celtics tabbed to take Brazilian point guard Leandrinho Barbosa at No. 16 and Sofoklis Schortsanitis, a muscular and smart 17-year-old Greco-Nigerian who's been dubbed "Baby Shaq," at No. 20. The Pistons, already slated to take the pride of Vojvodina, Darko Milicic, at No. 2, are expected to choose Argentine small forward Carlos Delfino at No. 25. The mock draft also has New Orleans taking Senegalese big man Malick Badiane at No. 18, Atlanta picking Serbian forward Aleksandar Pavlovic at No. 21, and the Nets nabbing French small forward Boris Diaw at No. 22. Ward Harkavy