• Ricky Rubio improves. Instead of sharing the Timberwolves' backcourt with fellow rookie point guard Jonny Flynn, Rubio famously decided to remain in Europe for two more seasons. Not only was he able to remain in his hometown by transferring to Barcelona, the favorite to win the Euroleague championship at the Final Four from May 7-9 in Paris, but he also has emerged as a better NBA candidate than ever.
"I think he has improved in two things," said coach Ettore Messina of Real Madrid, which lost to Spanish rival Barcelona in the Euroleague quarterfinals. "His three-point shooting is much better. He has improved his follow-through and his extension of the arm, so that I think he will have no problem adjusting to the length of the three-point shot in the NBA."
The more significant upgrade has been Rubio's floor leadership. Last season with Joventut Badalona -- a smaller Spanish club also based in Barcelona -- he had pushed the tempo ceaselessly, but that recklessness wouldn't do for the championship team he now leads. He has become a more disciplined point guard for Barcelona.
"Sometimes he was not taking into account the value of the ball and knowing the moment of the game," Messina said of Rubio's former style. "Now in the Euroleague, he knows when is the moment to try something and also when it is better to be safe and control the situation -- and he has done this without losing his killer instinct."
The discipline of contending for the biggest championship outside the NBA has toughened Rubio. In the Euroleague's best-of-five quarterfinals, Barcelona surrendered home-court advantage with a Game 2 loss to Real Madrid.
"[Rubio] was not a factor in the first two games," said Messina, who then watched Rubio respond by leading Barcelona to victories in Games 3 and 4 at Madrid. "He was the key. He was able to handle the pressure and he showed he has the patience to know when to step up."
American executives will continue to debate whether Rubio has enough athleticism to star in the NBA. While the 19-year-old has become a household name for European hoops, the hype does not dwarf the substance. What can no longer be doubted is his leadership and resolve to win -- a drive that was responsible for Rubio's decision to remain in Europe. Messina believes Rubio was not turned off by the wintry climate of Minnesota so much as he was concerned with the Timberwolves' long-term plan to rebuild, with several losing seasons likely to come.
"I understand how it is for the best players here in Europe," Messina said. "After playing so many years to win games, it is difficult for them to go to [an NBA] team and think maybe I will lose 45 games out of 82 and I will never have a chance to win. It is very difficult for them to think maybe in four years we will have a shot. Even for myself as an observer, I see the New York [Knicks'] situation where for two years they cleaned house and made space under the cap -- and I don't know how they can handle that. For me, it takes inhuman patience to do that. I respect it is part of your mentality, your world, but over here people could not do that -- not coaches, not players, not fans."
• Josh Childress, Season II. Childress has come to accept the pressure of European basketball to win every game. In his second year with the Greek club Olympiakos, the former sixth man of the Atlanta Hawks has helped lead his team to the Final Four while emerging as arguably the second-most-important player in Europe behind Rubio.
"I read an interesting quote by his coach [Panagiotis Giannakis], who pointed out how Josh managed to understand the pace of his game depending on the situation -- when to go slow, when to go fast," Messina said. "When he arrived in Europe last season, he could only play one speed. Now he reads the game much better. He is much more a complete player. He has been a tremendous piece for Olympiakos. He has always played with a very good attitude, always been open to the mentality and culture of Europe, to understand Europe and how we live sport."
Childress had a frustrating "rookie" season in Greece after leaving the Hawks in 2008 to sign a three-year, $20 million contract. He averaged a disappointing 8.8 Euroleague points last year, and then, to his credit, appraised himself with painful honesty.
"I wasn't really the focus of their plans last year," he said. "I was kind of an additional piece, and they wanted me to learn and to grow into the system. It's different in the NBA when you're the highest-paid player -- whether it's LeBron or whoever it is -- you're going to get a bulk of the minutes, the touches, all of those things. That wasn't the case last year, but in all honesty that helped me mentally. I went through a lot -- I was frustrated, angry, whatever -- but I think I grew from that. I learned I have to be more patient, smarter. I have to think the game."
Expatriate American players often play with one foot in Europe and one foot in the NBA -- they think of Europe as a penance to be paid before they can return home. This season Childress stopped thinking about how things used to be for him in the NBA, and he clearly devoted himself to the European style. The result has been a 15.1 points Euroleague average and a more dynamic role in the offense.
"It's a common misconception that people think the basketball is weaker over here, that it's the J.V. league," he said. "That's definitely not the case. I did have to prepare for it physically by getting stronger, and also with my game, by working on more specific things tailored for the European game.
"After the season I watched some film and broke down parts of my game that I felt I could work on. One of them was my shooting. One was also being able to make a move on a second defender -- I didn't have any issues getting by one guy, but it was the second guy coming over and being able to make a pass or a move on that guy. And also the pick-and-roll and being able to read those better, because that's pretty much all we run."
Childress has also adapted to the lifestyle realities of European basketball. When we spoke by phone last month, he had checked into the team hotel following a five-hour bus ride for a domestic-league game against Greek rival Trikala. He now takes it for granted that police in riot gear will surround the edges of the court during each game.
"Last year, I saw police getting beat up by fans and it was crazy, it was really like a riot in the middle of a game," he said. "In the NBA, you get booed a few times, but it's nothing compared to getting cell phones and cameras and lighters and coffees thrown at you. The only thing that has come close to hitting me was a roll of receipt paper. You know, the kind you see from a cash register. They'd thrown that and it came close to hitting me, and that would have hurt.
"They've shot flares on the court a few times, and you get the firecrackers still, the M-80s. All my teammates said you always run away from [a lit firecracker on the court] or kick it, because I think some [player's] finger got blown off one time.
"During the games they throw stuff at you, they're trying to spit at you, they're doing everything to try to get to you. But off the court, I haven't had too many issues. Maybe some opposing fans have keyed my car a few times; I was at the grocery store and I came back out and someone had keyed a big, long stripe down the side and the hood. If it was my car, I would have been a little angrier, but it's a team-issued car, and I'm sure the team is used to that happening."
As part of his contract, the club has provided him with a Volvo SUV and a townhouse. "It's something I would purchase in the States," he said. "Nice size, nice pool. They really took care of me."
He also likes playing for the Angelopoulos brothers, who control Olympiakos basketball. "They're true basketball fans," he said. "One of the brothers is in the gym all the time working out. He plays in a men's league. They truly enjoy the game and being around us and supporting the team. You see them during the games cheering or shouting at the referees just like Mark Cuban."
American fans may have trouble believing this, but players in Europe feel more pressure to win each night than stars of the NBA do. "They treat every game like a playoff game [here]," Childress said. "We stay in a hotel on game days because they don't want anything to interfere with the mind or the performance.
"Last year, we lost a game and I tried to go eat afterward, and it was like I was walking around like a crazy man -- like, what is he doing out when he should be home sulking? The type of fan support obviously is great, but it can have its drawbacks, too. We went back to our training facility one time after we lost a game and [discovered] some things had been broken and the fans had kind of rioted. On the court, you try to focus on the game, but if you're not playing well, they'll let you know. I've gotten used to it, but last year it was a tough adjustment."
Consider how much one year in Europe did to elevate and harden Bucks rookie point guard Brandon Jennings. Childress, 26, has undergone similar improvements. Not only is he tougher, but NBA scouts say he has become a better shooter and a more versatile decision-maker. As one NBA team executive put it, "He's making more money over there than he could have made in the NBA, and he's going to come back with a better understanding of how to play different positions. At the end of the day, he made a good decision to go over there."
But he insists he hasn't decided whether to stay with Olympiakos for a third year, or to try to return to the NBA before the anticipated lockout of 2011.
• To bet or not to bet? The Euroleague broke ground this season by negotiating a provocative endorsement. Go to the league's official site and you'll see that a main sponsor is Sporting Bet, an online sports gambling service that enables fans to bet on Euroleague games.
"We feel comfortable with Sporting Bet and our relationship with them," Euroleague communications director Kirsten Haack said. "Everything indicates that our players, our referees and our coaches aren't influenced by the betting results."
Sporting Bet trades on the London Stock Exchange. "They have alarm systems installed in their betting systems, so that when they notice sudden peaks or algorithms that don't make sense, they freeze the betting," Haack said. "Betting on the games is an accepted part of European culture. In Spanish football [soccer], there has always been some kind of lottery or betting system -- that has always existed in Spain and a lot of countries in Europe."
European soccer has been dealing with a gambling scandal based in Germany and other countries, but basketball has yet to generate similar big-money interests.
When NBA referee Tim Donaghy was betting on the games he was officiating, he was doing so to win money on his bets. But European basketball operates on a different dynamic. When European referees have been accused of fixing a game, the riggers haven't been interested in gambling on the outcome -- they've simply wanted their team to win the game.
The Euroleague hopes its partnership with Sporting Bet will enhance interest in basketball by encouraging fans to literally invest in the games and therefore care more about the outcome. The bottom line -- despite the official denials -- is that all leagues probably want fans to bet on the games. The NFL is so popular in part because of betting; the hysteria over the NCAA tournament has everything to do with the entire nation gambling on the 64-team pool. If your games aren't attracting wagers, it means your league is irrelevant and in trouble. The example of the Euroleague's breakthrough partnership with an online gambling partner was one reason NBA commissioner David Sterntold me in December that someday his league may view nationally legalized gambling as not only a "possibility" but also a "huge opportunity."
• Shorter summers? League sources said the NBA is negotiating with FIBA for new guidelines that will limit the time players spend with national teams over the summer. While no firm agreement has been established, the NBA and FIBA have discussed limiting NBA players to a maximum of four weeks with national teams -- to be spent training and playing exhibition friendlies -- in addition to time spent at the summer tournament. The sources said a limit of some kind will be enforced at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, which runs Aug. 28-Sept. 12.
• The Final Four. As much as NBA fans are looking ahead to a potential Finals showdown between the Lakers and the Cavaliers, so are fans abroad anticipating an Olympiakos-Barcelona final. The big difference is that the Final Four is a one-and-done event, which provides semifinal underdogs CSKA Moscow and Partizan Belgrade a strong opportunity to knock off Barcelona and Olympiakos, respectively.
I've said this before: The Euroleague Final Four is the world's best basketball event. It combines the best of March Madness with a more fanatical fan base and a higher level of talent than the NCAA can imagine. The NBA Finals surely operate at a higher level of talent, but they fall short of the passion and unpredictability created by Europe's Final Four.
While Barcelona has been the top team in Europe and will be an overwhelming favorite, my hunch (with thanks to an educated adviser) is that Olympiakos will prevail based on the athleticism of Childress.
On to the rest of the Countdown ...
• Please address Joakim Noah's disparaging remarks toward Cleveland in this series. I realize trash-talking is part of the game and Noah is just trying to fire himself and his team up, or whatever, and is probably just goofing around. And Clevelanders have developed fairly thick skins over the years. But doesn't the league office have an opinion about a guy trashing an entire city that has been pretty good to the NBA through fan support in recent years?-- Steve, Madison, Ohio
I can't imagine the league fining Noah for exercising his freedom of speech, just like the league won't discourage you from trying to boo him out of the building. Don't you wish players would speak as freely as Noah? Every series needs its villain, and you have to give Noah credit for coming up with his best performance (25 points and 13 rebounds in Game 2) after exposing himself. I'm also pretty sure you Cavs fans are going to have the last laugh in this case.
• Do you think it's fair that Kevin Garnett got only a one-game suspension for intentionally elbowing Quentin Richardson when, a few years ago, Boris Diaw and Amar'e Stoudemire got suspended one game for just barely moving out of their boundaries off the bench as an instinct reaction to protect Steve Nash after he got clocked by Robert Horry?-- Bob, Vancouver, British Columbia
All of these rules are meant to snuff out fights before they can start. Those Phoenix suspensions reminded players once and for all to stay on the bench when trouble starts on the court. Likewise, the ruling on Garnett is designed to punish an elbow to the head as if Garnett had delivered an actual punch -- the "victim" shouldn't feel any need to retaliate knowing that the NBA will punish the aggressor severely and swiftly. So while Stoudemire's offense may appear gentle compared to Garnett's, both rulings are concerned mainly with the potential aftermath.
While we're talking about these kinds of fines, I want to bring up Stern's threat Thursday night to severely punish coaches and players who criticize referees. "It would be whatever a day's pay is and then two day's pay and then a week's pay," Stern told reporters in Oklahoma City. "And if someone wants to try me in the rest of these playoffs, make my day. Because the game is too important, and I don't think people who trash it are respecting it."
I understand Stern's view that coaches are damaging their own product by questioning the integrity of the officials and the NBA, but I'm sure he also understands the frustrations of the coaches and players are based in part on their view of refereeing as a murky and mysterious area of the game. Some of their criticisms of the referees are spun cynically in hopes of gaining advantage in the next game, but other criticisms are sincere.
While Donaghy adamantly denied fixing games -- which you can choose to believe or not -- many of his disparagements of NBA officiating rang true. Instead of (or in addition to) punishing coaches and players for venting their sincere frustrations, wouldn't the league be better served by showing in a transparent way how referees do their jobs and how the league office manages those referees on a daily basis?
I am 100 percent certain that public scrutiny of the NBA's officiating department would lead to improvements, as the league would be held accountable for its practices and be forced to consider the insight and suggestions of Phil Jackson and others. At the same time, Jackson and his fellow critics might be less inclined to condemn if they were better able to understand things from the referees' point of view. At this highly sensitive moment, too many players and coaches and fans -- as well as people like me -- are still wondering if the NBA has responded in meaningful ways to the core problems of impartiality and accountability that were unearthed by the Donaghy scandal.
• Isn't today's news that the salary cap is expected to come in around $56.1 million really bad news for Cavs fans? It is well-established that a team needs at least two star players to win an NBA championship. Cleveland does not have that second star -- Shaq is too old; Mo Williams is a good, not great player; Antawn Jamison is the same. Plus, the Cavs are getting older (Jamison will soon be 34) and they have no cap room or assets to get that second star. Compare that to the Knicks' situation, particularly now that the cap has increased. The Knicks can provide LeBron with that second star of his choosing (Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Dwyane Wade) or three or four excellent players if he wants to go that route instead. The supporting cast in Cleveland is completely overrated, but the real trouble is the Cavs are over the cap for the foreseeable future and they don't have the room or the assets to get better.-- Lenny, New York City
You just recited the Knicks' pitch, Lenny. Maybe they should hire you.
If LeBron sees it your way, then Cleveland is in trouble. But the truth is he knows more about the long-term potential of his own franchise than anybody. I'm guessing he also has learned the hard way just how long it takes to build an NBA championship team from scratch, and that it's not just about talent but also girding the players to alter their games to the needs of the team, especially at the defensive end.
There is no chicken-and-egg argument to this. Winning has to come first for him. The real power and money won't come until he wins multiple championships. He needs to win in the biggest way, and where is that most likely to happen?
• How can people reasonably question the Lakers when they're 2-0 in the first round against the Thunder, with Kobe dropping 39 points in the second victory?-- Bryan, Glendale, Calif.
It's important to know that Bryan sent this before the Lakers lost Game 3 on Thursday at Oklahoma City. But there was reason to question them even before that loss. They needed all of Kobe Bryant's 39 to maintain home-court advantage against the league's youngest team. They are the older and wiser team, and yet they've been unable to execute at a high level against a team of postseason virgins.
By comparison, the Cavaliers aren't dealing with as many questions, though possibly as much criticism. Chicago has given them a tough time over the last couple of games, but I envision the Cavs responding and improving over their first-round series because that has been their trend throughout this season. The Lakers are a different story. They're still the favorites in the West, without a doubt, but I think they're going to face more of a struggle.
• On Heat president Pat Riley criticizing him for his conditioning early this season. "I had mixed emotions about it," Wade said. "I took it at one point as a cheap shot to me, and I took it at another one as a sign of respect as well, from a guy who would do anything in the organization to make sure that you have what you need. But I thought he was wrong. I thought they displayed my numbers up against last year, when they don't understand the focus of this season -- that it wasn't about me scoring 30 a night. So it was mixed emotions, but at the same time, [I have] a tremendous amount of respect for him. We have that kind of communication where we talked about it and we got through it and moved on."
Wade understands the importance of playing for a boss who will push him.
"I've always had it from Jack Fitzgerald, my high school coach, to Tom Crean at Marquette, to coming here -- I've always had that," he said. "Even when my father was my coach, I always had someone to push me and overpush me at times. [And I may] not like it at times, but I appreciate it when I leave. At the end of the day, I always appreciate it.
"The relationship here works in Miami. It's been a great relationship. It's not always going to be rosy, but if you can have many more good times than bad, that's good. That's what we've had here. ... We all respect each other, and that's a recipe for success."
• On playmaking and scoring to max out his team's potential this year. "It has been an underrated achievement. I look back at three games -- the Lakers game when Kobe hit that shot [a banked-in, game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer], I look back at the Boston game when we were up with 0.4 [seconds left], I look at the Cleveland game we would've won but I turned it over ... that's [potentially] a 50-win season for us, and that's a great, great accomplishment.
"When I came in [for the 2003 draft] and I was doing my interviews for the teams, I said, 'I'm not a point guard, I'm a basketball player.' That means I can do whatever you ask me to do, and right now they ask me to make plays for my teammates, they ask me to score, to rebound, to defend -- they ask me to do all those things. And when I came in, that's one thing I said: 'You're going to get somebody who can play the game.' I'm not a typical '2,' a typical '1' -- I'm a basketball player.
"We knew it was going to be a struggle throughout the year because we're still a young team. On paper, we're not as talented as those other teams, but you know what? Just stay with it, stay with it, and there's a part of our schedule like everyone in the league has where we can put a run together, and we put a darn good run together [in winning 18 of their final 22 regular-season games]."
• On looking forward to leading a contending team next year, whether Miami adds talent around him or he leaves for another franchise as a free agent this summer. "No question I'm excited about the possibilities of summer. I really am. Last year and this year has helped that even more, and I try not to think about it much because I have a season to focus on. But whenever I let my mind wander about my future and me wanting to win championships and what it takes to do that, I'm excited about it because I know the opportunities are a lot greater in the future even than in my past.''
Both of these came from an expert in the Western Conference on Thursday morning.
• On the Lakers, who lead the Thunder 2-1 after losing at Oklahoma City on Thursday night. "The first thing I notice is how poor of a defender Derek Fisher has become, because they've had to switch and put other people on [Russell] Westbrook to keep him out of the paint. I think [Ron] Artest has a defensive edge on [Kevin] Durant, that he's gotten to Durant a bit, but I'm not convinced he could have the same effect on a veteran scorer like Paul Pierce. Then I look at Kobe, and how [Thabo] Sefolosha can't guard him all the time because the Lakers are refusing to guard Sefolosha at the other end. Until Sefolosha learns to knock down the three like Bruce Bowen did, other teams aren't going to guard him."
That's why the decision to put Durant on Bryant in the fourth quarter of Game 3 worked so well for Oklahoma City -- not only was Bryant troubled by Durant's length, but the Thunder were more complete offensively without Sefolosha on the floor. The problem is they can't afford to risk foul trouble for Durant by having him guard Bryant the entire game.
• On the Jazz, who are 1-1 with the Nuggets going into Game 3 at Utah Friday. "Chauncey [Billups] cannot contain Deron Williams. He has no shot of guarding him, so Denver has to find other people to put on Williams -- [Arron] Afflalo maybe. Most people in the league would now say that Williams is the best point guard in the league, that right now he's moved ahead of Chris Paul, though they'll be going back and forth on that argument for the rest of their careers. But I also think it's a huge benefit to Williams and the Jazz that they've been running the same system and doing the same things over and over. All of those Utah players learn all of the wrinkles, and even though the system has grown and diversified, it's still the same playbook that has been there forever. As Williams has grown within that offense, he's learned the little details that make you better as a player. Look at how Peyton Manning has been with the same offensive coordinator his entire career. That kind of comfort helps in a big way.
"Having said that, my fear for Utah is that the Nuggets are going to just wear it out. Utah is down two starters [forward Andrei Kirilenko and center MehmetOkur are injured] and that makes Denver substantially better. Over one game, I'd pick the Jazz to win in Utah. But over five games, I don't know how they'll continue to overachieve unless Denver faces an injury problem too."
• From my brother. Glenn Thomsen is a Blazers season-ticket holder in Portland, and before the series -- like Joe giving the candidates a piece of his mind -- he predicted with uncommon accuracy that they would win Game 1 at Phoenix:
"I'm delighted we're playing Phoenix," he e-mailed before the series. "It's sad that BROY [Brandon Roy] is out, but he has not really played well since his bad hammy three months ago. In a few little ways we are a bit better in certain situations without BROY in my opinion.
"Plus, I love Phoenix and the way they play. This will be very entertaining even if we get whupped on.
"The BROY of 2009-10 is not the BROY of 2007-08 and 2008-09. The old BROY was Portland's version of Larry Bird/Mr. Clutch/Dr. J. I worshipped the old BROY. This year's BROY just has not been there since the hammy injury. I hope next year's BROY can recover and return to the old glory.
"We're a team that needs to make our shots more than most -- well documented I know. MVPs on this team are now Andre Miller, [Marcus] Camby and [LaMarcus] Aldridge -- if the other two aren't pulling.
"Rudy [Fernandez] is starting from now on -- now he can quit crying about not having started and show us how he does when he starts in the Spain First Division. We'll need an excellent game out of Rudy each time out -- if he hits his shots it'll open up a lot of other stuff.
"[Jerryd] Bayless must not be allowed to attempt any outside shots under any circumstances.
"I really like this team a lot. Yes we might lose in five -- but this will be an absolutely sensational series from a Joe Fan perspective. Even if we get slayed, which everyone expects, it'll be great.
"Final pick : BLAZERS IN SEVEN. It'll shock the world but not me. Please note -- I did not feel this way last year going into the Houston series.
I thought the one dimensional BROY show back then could be shut down in a playoff series. I like this team a lot more than last year's team.
"P.S.: Without Camby, we're a bad team -- as simple as that."
The Blazers have lost Games 2 and 3, but even after their 108-89 clobbering in Portland on Thursday -- the Suns led by 31 in the first half -- my brother believes adamantly in a Game 7 upset.
"Believe it or not, this is how we win this series," he e-mailed first thing Friday morning. "Let them slaughter us, lull the opponent into a sense of smug security and then we strike. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow ... it's all about tomorrow."
Forget Joe the Plumber; he's Scarlett O'Hara.