Return of Sports Beat

After a long hiatus, the Sports Beat is back and ready to update on the world of sports, LA style:

--I've been telling anyone who would listen that the Houston Rockets posed the toughest challenge the Lakers would face in the Western Conference. With all due respect to the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers and Rockets are the two best teams in the West. Last night, Houston showed how tough they can be after upsetting the Lakers 100-92.

The Rockets might not have the offensive firepower that some other elite NBA teams possess, but they do have two of the game's best man-up defenders in Shane Battier and Ron Artest. They also have one of the smartest GMs in sports in Daryl Morey, who is changing the way basketball is played. Check out Michael Lewis' New York Times Magazine article from last February to learn more about how the Rockets game plan against the Lakers.

Last night Kobe Bryant took 31 shots to score 32 points, in large measure because Battier manipulated him into taking lower percentage shots. Yao Ming is also playing as well as I've ever seen him play and Pau Gasol isn't physical enough to handle him. If the Lakers want to get back into this series, then they will need Andrew Bynum to snap out of his funk, trust his rehabilitated knee, stay out of foul trouble, and make life as difficult for Yao as possible.

The Lakers also need Lamar Odom to remove his invisibility cloak and they need to set up plays for Gasol to speed through the lane.

I still think the Lakers will win the series. This season, they went 4-0 against the Rockets because they had more offensive weapons and that proved to be the difference in the fourth quarter. I don't think Ron Artest will be able to go for 21 every game, and the Lakers should find a way to slow down Aaron Brooks. But I do expect this series to go 6, possibly 7 games, with many of the games being close.

--After beating the Diamondbacks last night, the Dodgers now have the best record in baseball. Are the Dodgers really the best team in baseball? Well, I don't think so, but they're pretty darn good.

This Dodger lineup as good as any that I've ever seen. It's certainly the best since the late-1970s teams of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Steve Yeager, Dusty Baker, Rick Monday, and Reggie Smith. The best in Dodgers history overall was probably the 1950s Brooklyn teams with Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Carl Furillo. But this year's lineup is special.

Manny Ramirez is the most dominant right-handed hitter in the game not named Albert Pujols. Rafael Furcal is finally healthy and hitting well. Orlando Hudson has had a tremendous impact in just one month. And the "kids" named Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney have all grown up and are hitting like pros. The only one who's struggling is Russell Martin, and he's generally reputed to be one of the 2-3 best catchers in baseball.

Only the Dodgers pitching staff can hold them back. While "kid" Chad Billingsley is pitching like an ace and getting little credit for it, the team could absolutely use another arm. Randy Wolf is doing "OK", but his health is always a concern. Clayton Kershaw has one of the best curve balls I've ever seen, but he's still going through growing pains. Eric Stults is not a long-term answer for anyone's rotation. And Jeff Weaver doesn't exactly inspire confidence. James McDonald has the talent to be in the rotation, but he needs to learn out of the bullpen for now... the same way Billingsley did a few years ago. It stands to reason that Ned Colletti will trade for a starting pitcher near that trade deadline, but that's much easier said than done. Hopefully for the Dodgers, Hiroki Kuroda will come back soon.

I'm not quite as down on the Dodger bullpen as some other people might be. I will never understand why they pursued Trevor Hoffman in the offseason when it was so clear that Jonathan Broxton was ready, able, and cheap. After throwing several 100 MPH fastballs, Broxton looks like one of the best closers in the National League. Now that Cory Wade is back from the DL, the Dodgers should be able to get by with him, Ronald Belisario and Ramon Troncoso in middle relief, with Will Ohman serving as the situational lefty and McDonald in long relief.

That's not the highest profile bullpen in the world, and it will probably raise the anxiety of Dodger fans in the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings, but there isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't like to have a stronger middle relief corps. For now, it's perfectly fine.

I would like to see the Dodgers go back from 13 to 12 pitchers, because who wants to see Eric Stults pinch hit again?

--If you haven't been following the NHL Playoffs (and I know most of you haven't been), then you've missed the Anaheim Ducks upset top-seeded San Jose in the first round, and win a 3 OT game on Sunday against Detroit to even the series at 1-1. The Ducks have been riding the coattails of Swiss sensation Jonas Hiller in goal.

--Two weeks ago, the Arena Football League's LA Avengers folded operations. There have been 10 arena league teams that have shut down this decade, but only the Avengers have garnered a front page story. The headline led off with "LA Lost:" and the snarky tone of the article pounded home the point that this city lost two pro teams 15 years ago.

LA residents probably aren't aware of this, but sports fans from around the country make fun of this city for not having an NFL franchise. Now, I don't think most LA residents care, and they certainly don't have to, but I've long been bothered by the way the rest of the country talks about our ability to support our sports teams.

The Avengers did not fold due to a lack of fan support. The team's attendance was above the league average in each of the past two seasons, and it was one of the better-run organizations in the AFL.

Instead, the Avengers folded because the arena league is an absolute mess. The league is already on hiatus this season to "write a new business plan," and Avengers owner Casey Wasserman has said he wasn't satisfied with the results of the AFL's reorganization. Rather than own a team in a league with a business model that he didn't believe in, Wasserman chose to fold the franchise, which is perfectly understandable. In the meantime, AFL franchises in Nashville, Austin, New Orleans, Charlotte, Miami, Houston, Milwaukee, Oklahoma, Detroit, and Indiana have folded in the past decade -- some due to poor fan support -- and few in the media seemed to care or notice. Yet the Avengers wind up on the front page of

There should be no doubt that LA can support a pro football team, as evidenced by the 90,000+ who cram into the Coliseum for USC and the 70,000+ who go to the Rose Bowl for UCLA, sometimes on the same day that the Dodgers are also drawing 50,000 at Dodger Stadium. LA lost two football teams in 1995 because they had two owners who did everything possible to alienate and anger their local communities. The right owner in LA with the right team, playing in Ed Roski's proposed City of Industry stadium, would absolutely be a success and help make LA one of the strongest markets in the NFL.

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