Spurs, Nets seek commanding leads
LOS ANGELES, May 9 (UPI) -- San Antonio and New Jersey take to the road Friday night, looking to take 3-0 series leads in the NBA playoffs.
The West's top-seed, the Spurs, are two wins away from dethroning the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers after Wednesday's 114-95 home-court rout.
To get the conference finals again, the fifth-seeded Lakers must win four of the next five games from the Spurs, who led the NBA with 60 wins this past season, never dropping four of five. They have not had a 1-4 run since Jan. 25-Feb. 1, 2002.
The second-seeded Nets need two wins to return to the Eastern Conference finals following Wednesday's 104-95 home win over the Boston Celtics. The fifth-seeded Celtics are one of just two teams yet to lose at home in the postseason.
It has been quite a long time since the Lakers have been down 2-0 in any playoff series. They have won three straight titles since getting swept by eventual champion San Antonio in the 1999 conference semifinals.
Only seven NBA teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to capture a best-of-seven series. The Houston Rockets were the most recent team to do it when they rallied past the Phoenix Suns in the 1995 Western Conference finals. No NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.
"We view this as an opportunity," said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. "They did what they had to do. The pressure's on us to do what we have to do. It's on us to do the same."
In addition, the Spurs have won 18 of their last 20 road games. Including the playoffs, they are 6-0 against the Lakers this season.
"We have to go in with the same energy," said Spurs forward Tim Duncan, the NBA's two-time reigning MVP. "We did our part, keeping home-court. We have to focus on the first game and put the pressure on their shoulders."
The Nets will battle not only the Celtics but the Boston fans at FleetCenter.
New Jersey took a 2-0 lead into Boston in the conference finals last year, only to watch the Celtics overcame a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit to win.
However, the Nets won the next three, and are 8-1 against Boston since that crushing defeat.
"Last year was last year," said Nets point guard Jason Kidd. "We lost our composure. We knew we blew a big opportunity, but we never do anything easily. We learned from our mistakes, and knew that it wasn't going to happen again."
"I think we are happy where we are," said New Jersey Coach Byron Scott. "I feel real good. We know that going (to Boston), the momentum is in our favor. We are playing pretty well, but we haven't done anything special. We took care of our home court, and that's all we've done so far."
Kidd was taunted by Celtics fans during that game, and will be the target again after Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan said he wanted to smack Kidd's wife, Joumana, who often sits in the first row during games with their son, T.J. Kidd's family will stay home for Friday's game.
"They're going to try to make it as tough as possible for us," Kidd said. "You have to expect the worst. Celtics fans try to get under your skin. You can't fault them for that. You also can't focus on that. If you start to get rabbit ears, you can get distracted. I don't pay attention."
NHL playoffs take a day off
MINNEAPOLIS, May 9 (UPI) -- The mighty Western Conference has been reduced to a battle for the glass slipper while the East has been played by the book rather than like a storybook.
With the Minnesota Wild having added another chapter to an improbable postseason story, the NHL playoffs take Friday off before the conference finals get under way Saturday.
The Wild made it an all-Cinderella Western Conference final by stunning the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven on Thursday, becoming the first team in NHL history to rally twice from three games to one deficits in the same postseason.
After dumping the fourth-seeded Canucks, the sixth-seeded Wild actually will have home-ice advantage against the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in a battle to see which "Cinderella" makes it to the ball.
Midnight came early for the top two seeds in the West. Anaheim dumped the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars, losing only twice along the way. The Wild shocked the heavily-favored Colorado Avalanche before dumping Vancouver.
The East has been more predictable, with the top two seeds making it to the conference finals for the first time since 1991. The top-seeded Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils both had relatively easy runs to this round.
Led by a high-flying offense and the goaltending of Patrick Lalime, Ottawa dumped the New York Islanders in five games and the Philadelphia Flyers in six to reach the conference finals for the first time.
Led mostly by the goaltending of Martin Brodeur, the Devils needed only five games to bounce both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning, making it to this round for the third time in four years.
The Devils are by far the most accomplished franchise in hockey's final four, winning a pair of Stanley Cups and making three Finals appearances the past eight years. In fact, they're the only team of the four that has been in existence since 1991.
Since joining the league in 1992-93, the Senators have made seven playoff appearances and have won only four series, but this is their best team, one which won the Presidents' Trophy this past season.
The Senators host the Devils in Game One of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night.
The penultimate round of the postseason begins Saturday afternoon with a showdown between Minnesota and Anaheim, possibly the most unlikely Western Conference final matchup when the playoffs began.
The Wild may be just three years old, but in knocking off Colorado and Vancouver, they eliminated the top two teams in their own division, the Northwest.
Minnesota is known for a trapping defense employed by former New Jersey Coach Jacques Lemaire, but its offense has totaled a playoff-high 42 goals, and Dwayne Roloson has established himself as a legitimate goalie.
In each of their first two years of existence, the Wild finished last in the Northwest.
The Ducks know how they feel, placing last in the Pacific Division three straight seasons before reaching the conference finals for the first time in franchise history. They had made only two playoff appearances, winning one series.
Anaheim boasts arguably the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, as the MVP of the playoffs, as goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere led surprisingly easy series wins over Detroit and Dallas, who have combined for four of the last seven Stanley Cup titles.
Alabama names Mike Shula for Price
TUSCALOOSA, Ala., May 9 (UPI) -- As rumored, Miami Dolphins quarterback coach Mike Shula has been named the new head football coach at Alabama.
Shula replaces Mike Price, who was fired by the school last weekend after an off-the-field incident in Pensacola, Fla.
Shula, a former Crimson Tide quarterback, was given a six-year contract worth $900,000 per year.
"I am obviously excited about this job," Shula said. "There is a bright future ahead for Alabama, especially with the new construction plans for the addition to the football building, the new weight room, and the renovation of Bryant Hall. These new facilities will all be great recruiting tools for this staff. I am thrilled to once again be a part of Alabama football."
"Mike brings a mixture of youth and experience to our program, while at the same time, a 15-year career in the NFL has prepared him for the step he is taking today," said Alabama Athletic Director Mal Moore. "It was that mix of enthusiasm, experience, and ties to the University of Alabama that made Mike the perfect for this job."
Moore began the head coach selection process with a fairly long list of possible candidates, then developed a shorter list of candidates who were interviewed. Both lists included minority candidates, experienced assistant coaches, and head football coaches.
On Saturday, Alabama made the stunning decision to fire Price before he even coached a game for the school. He was unable to defuse the controversy surrounding his off-the-field behavior, which included a visit to a topless bar, and unusual charges to a hotel bill.
Also, it was reported by Sports Illustrated that Price says he was so drunk that he does not remember that night.
"The best advice I've been given is to move forward and not dwell on it," Shula said.
As a player, he never won an SEC championship or a national championship for the Tide.
"Those are some of the things I have as far as unfinished business," Shula said. "Again, that's why I'm here, and I'm looking forward to it. I can't say enough about how I feel and how excited I am. I can't wait to get started."
While Price had no previous ties to Alabama when he was hired away from Washington State last December, Shula quarterbacked the Crimson Tide from 1983-86, and was a starter each of his last three seasons.
At a school where traditions run deep, finding a coach with Alabama roots emerged as an essential requirement.
"I am obviously excited about this job," said Shula. "There is a bright future ahead for Alabama. I am thrilled to once again be part of Alabama football."
Shula is the son of former Dolphins Coach Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history. He becomes the third Alabama coach in less than a year.
Price replaced Dennis Franchione, who left abruptly to become coach at Texas A&M. Like Price, he had no previous ties to Alabama.
Price coached the team during spring practice, and apparently made a favorable impression as many players argued on his behalf.
Mike Shula inherits a program that is on NCAA probation. The Crimson Tide went 10-3 last season, but were under a bowl ban that stretches to 2003 as part of NCAA sanctions that include scholarship reductions.
Alabama is one of the most recognized programs in college football, but has just once national championship since Bear Bryant retired in 1982, and that was 11 years ago under Gene Stallings.
Mike Shula played under Ray Perkins at Alabama, and was an offensive coordinator with Tampa Bay from 1996-99.
At 37, he is the youngest Alabama coach since Frank Thomas was hired in 1931 at age 33.
Mike Shula has been an NFL assistant since 1990, and has been with the Dolphins since 2000. He was tight ends coach of the Chicago Bears from 1993-95.
"I'm very happy for Mike," said Miami Coach Dave Wannstedt. "I think he will do a great job at
Alabama. He is an outstanding leader, a person of unquestioned integrity, and a fine coach who has worked for many years to prepare himself for such
an opportunity. He is extremely organized, thoroughly understands the game, and is an outstanding teacher. In addition, he has great people skills, and
always has related well to players and coaches he has worked with. Perhaps the highest compliment I could give Mike is that if I had a son, I would be thrilled if he were to play for him."
Beckett has a mild elbow sprain
MIAMI, May 9 (UPI) -- The Florida Marlins Friday placed pitcher Josh Beckett on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Thursday, with a mild elbow sprain.
The team might consider that news a blessing, considering the numerous injuries to its rotation. At least this news was not the worst-case scenario.
The talented but oft-injured Beckett left his start Wednesday after one inning because of elbow soreness, and met with world-renowned specialist Dr. James Andrews Thursday in Birmingham, Ala.
Andrews gave the Marlins good news for a change, diagnosing a mild elbow sprain after an MRI did not reveal any ligament damage. The righthander was advised to rest for a week before undergoing a treatment program.
"One week of no throw and resume, I would put that as encouraging and good news," Florida General Manager Larry Beinfest told the Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Beckett, who turns 23 on May 15, is regarded by many scouts to be one of baseball's best young pitchers, but he spent three stints on the DL last season because of recurring blisters on the middle finger of his pitching hand. As a minor leaguer in 2000, he was sidelined with a rotator cuff injury.
This season, Beckett is 2-3 with a 3.76 ERA in eight starts.
"(In the San Francisco game) I went up to him in the dugout, as soon as he came off the field," said Manager Jeff Torborg. "I said to him, 'How badly do you hurt?' He looked at me in disbelief. He said, 'I could give you a good five innings.' I said, 'That wasn't the question. I asked how your arm feels.' He said, 'A little tight.' He didn't want to wear out the bullpen. I said, 'That's it. You know what we just went through?' We're not going to go through that again."
The Marlins considered their rotation a strength before losing three-fifths of it.
After placing Beckett on the disabled list, they purchased the contract of pitcher Dontrelle Willis from Double-A Carolina of the Southern League. The lefthander will make his major league debut Friday against Colorado.
Willis was 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA for Carolina, and is 27-5 with a 2.31 ERA in 54 minor league games, including 46 starts.
The Marlins have lost six in a row to fall to 15-21, tying them with the New York Mets (14-20) for fourth in the National League East.
Mariners activate Sasaki
SEATTLE, May 9 (UPI) -- The Seattle Mariners got their closer back on Thursday, activating righthander Kazuhiro Sasaki from the 15-day disabled list.
Sasaki has not pitched since April 22, when he left an 8-5 win over Cleveland with a lower back strain. He made one rehabilitation appearance with Single-A Inland Empire on Tuesday, walking one and striking out two in a scoreless inning.
Sasaki, 35, has struggled in 10 appearances this season, going 1-1 with four saves in eight chances and a 9.00 ERA. He has given up 14 hits in nine innings, with four walks and 11 strikeouts.
The game plan is to give Sasaki at least one non-save appearance before he returns to the high-pressure closing role. He has four saves this season, but also has four blown saves, three of them right before he went on the DL.
"We'll try to pick the right spot," said Seattle Manager Bob Melvin. "It could be in a game when we're up or down (a few runs). Then we'll move him back into the closer role."
Last year, Sasaki was 4-5 with 37 saves and a 2.52 ERA in 61 games. Seattle was 9-4 without him and lead the American League East with a 21-12 record.
To open a roster spot, the Mariners optioned righthander Rafael Soriano to Triple-A Tacoma. Recalled from the minors on April 24, Soriano gave up one run and two hits in four innings over three relief appearances.
"We are very pleased with what he has done," Melvin said, "but we feel he needs to work on a regular basis."
Indians activate Bradley
ANAHEIM, Calif., May 9 (UPI) -- The Cleveland Indians have brought back one player from the disabled list, then had to put another on it.
Bradley, who came off the DL before Thursday's game against Anaheim, and went 0-for-2 in the Indians' 7-1 loss, had been hobbled by a strained right hamstring.
He originally strained the hamstring running the bases on April 15 against Baltimore, and re-aggravated the injury on April 22 in Seattle.
Bradley is hitting .375 (30-80) with 16 runs, 10 doubles, three home runs and seven RBIs in 19 games. He has compiled an on-base percentage of .433 in the leadoff spot this year.
Garcia has been bothered by the left wrist all season long and missed five games in April with inflammation in the wrist.
It was thought that Garcia had re-injured the wrist by making a diving catch Wednesday. However, Cleveland Manager Eric Wedge said that was not the case.
"Karim's wrist has been bothering him for the last three or four days," Wedge said. "I talked with him before (Wednesday's) game about the wrist, that's something he was concerned with. He didn't re-injure it. It's different than what it was before. It's most of a tendon on the top of his left arm that has been bothering him."
Garcia was hitting .194 (18-39) with eight runs, a double, five home runs and 14 RBIs in 24 games. He has made 16 starts in right field, six in centerfield and one at DH.
Rangers gets Benes from Cubs
ARLINGTON, Texas, May 9 (UPI) -- Veteran righthander Alan Benes Friday was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Texas Rangers for a player to be named.
Benes was designated for assignment by the Cubs on Monday, giving the team 10 days to trade, release, or assign him within the organization.
Benes, 31, the younger brother and former teammate of Andy Benes, has appeared in only 19 major league games the past three seasons. He started seven times for Chicago last year, going 2-2 with a 4.35 ERA.
The Cubs signed Benes to a minor league contract in January 2002. He spent his first seven major league seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, who let him go following 2001.
Benes debuted with the Cardinals in 1995, and went 13-10 with a 4.90 ERA a year later. He blossomed in 1997, going 9-9 with a 2.89 ERA in 23 starts while allowing only 128 hits and striking out 160 batters in 161 2/3 innings.
He ranked third in the National League in strikeouts before his season was cut short by a right shoulder injury. He had surgery to repair a partially torn right rotator cuff and damaged cartilage on Sept. 3, 1997.
The once-overpowering righthander has never been the same. He missed the entire 1998 season, undergoing a second shoulder procedure exactly a year after the first, and didn't appear in another major league game until August 1999.
The pitching-poor Rangers don't care. They rank last in the American League with a 5.71 ERA, using 19 pitchers in the process.
Benes will be added to the Rangers' major league roster. They will make a roster move prior to Friday night's game against Cleveland.
Agassi bows out of Hamburg
HAMBURG, Germany, May 9 (UPI) -- World No. 2 Andre Agassi of the United States Friday withdrew from next week's Hamburg Masters, the fifth Tennis Masters Series event of the season.
This is the second Tennis Masters Series tournament Agassi has pulled out of, having missed the Monte Carlo Masters last month.
Agassi, the Australian Open champion, attempted to defend his TMS Rome title this week, but lost in the first round to David Federer, giving back the top ranking to Lleyton Hewitt a week after he had claimed it.
Former No. 1 Pete Sampras, and last year's finalist, Marat Safin, also will miss this year's tournament. Sampras has not played since winning the U.S. Open last September, and Safin withdrew because of a wrist injury.
The Hamburg Masters is a major claycourt warmup for the French Open, which begins on May 26.