Saturday, May 30, 2009

Desperate Lakers Will Top Magic in Finals

Before we tackle the NBA Finals, we must first congratulate LeBron James for being a hero, even in ultimate failure. To see someone play so unbelievably well in a losing effort is both disheartening and something to admire. He played his ass off, putting up numbers reminiscent of a young MJ, and like young Air he deserved better than the outcome. But he never really had a chance. With Mo Williams playing poorly this postseason, Cleveland reverted back to the one-man team of yonder, er, the past five years. Didn't matter for two rounds against an expired Detroit and a Hawks team that didn't nearly stack up, but it did now against a troubling Orlando squad. It was already a bad matchup and now it was worse with LeBron forced to go 1-on-5. His absurd 39-8-8 over the six games wasted. A ridiculous 35-9-7 over 14 playoff games gone down the drain. But he gets none of the blame. In fact, he deserves a consolation prize. Stephen Jackson, anyone?

As for Who would have thunk it? Before the season began, no one thought of Orlando as a legit championship contender. After winning 59 games during the season, they still got no respect. Then few, Charles Barkley notably included, thought they had a shot against Cleveland. No head coach took more of a beating than Stan Van Gundy, roasted mercilessly by Shaq, called out by his best player in the Boston series. No franchise player took more heat than Dwight Howard, scolded for being too nice, mocked for his lack of post moves. Then he put 40 on the Cavs Saturday night. That's what makes their rise seem so premature and surprising, almost like it wasn't supposed to be - they seemed on the verge of imploding during that Celtics series, and Dwight didn't yet seem equipped to lead a team so far, especially if he had to go through a fully-formed superstar to get there. But here they are. The question is, How?

Once again, the answer is the matchups. Orlando is built around a big man and four perimeter players. It starts there. Howard controls the boards better than anyone since Rodman, protects the rim with urgency, and dunks everything if you don't wrap him up first (and center Marcin Gortat proves a reliable backup in limited minutes). Rafer Alston (and before him Jameer Nelson), Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Anthony Johnson, and, when called upon, J.J. Redick, surround him. They slash, pass, but most and best of all, they shoot it, 38 percent during the season and a whopping 10 per game. It is, by far, the most effective inside-out game in basketball, and it creates nightmares for other top teams.

The keys, I think, are Lewis and Howard. Lewis, the de facto power forward, completes the spreading of the floor, giving Orlando a fourth shooter. That's the small ball part of it. The difference between them and say, '05 and '07 Phoenix or '07 Golden State, is that it never seems to leave them at a disadvantage down low. Orlando will never be dominated on the boards with Howard in the paint, and he can protect the basket by his lonesome - plus Lewis drags traditional power forwards out on the floor, distorting their influence around the hoop, like he did against Varejao in the Cleveland triumph, and leaving Howard to have a one-man house party in the paint. When Cleveland focused their attentions on Howard, Lewis seemed to get lost behind the three-point line. It's like pick your poison.

I rooted against Cleveland in that series for a few reasons. 1) They were measured against L.A. so closely, and I didn't want them to struggle versus Orlando any less than the Lakers were against Denver, 2) I was scared of having to see LeBron for seven games, and 3) I was able to take solace in the fact that Orlando's two wins during the regular season came in very close ballgames, and that L.A. does have the homecourt advantage. I think L.A. has the potential to exploit the slender Lewis down low by force-feeding the 7-foot Gasol in the post against him - effectively canceling out Lewis' considerable mobility edge on the other end, something the Cavs couldn't do with Varejao. Or they can just start Odom - don't even really have to, he'll play big minutes with Bynum inevitably in foul trouble. They're better with him and Gasol at the big spots, anyway.

These are two pretty evenly matched teams on the court, but I think what will get L.A. over the hump is that they need it more. A fire burns in their belly since last year's Finals, it was under control, but it began to rage in Game 6 of the Denver series, as they could practically taste their rematch with destiny. They seem ready to play their best ball of the season, but if there is one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's that when a new series starts between two teams, nothing that happened before matters except the history between those two teams. And as I said, Orlando took both meetings during the regular season. At this point, it must be considered foolish to ignore regular season results when trying to gauge playoff contests.

So while L.A. looks ready to roll now, and they will be fully motivated, and they are a monster when filled with inspiration - does any of that matter against a team that simply matches up well with them? History says no. But I do think their exigency will come into play, at the very end, at what I envision to be the conclusion of the series: Game 6 in Cali, Lakers up 3-2. Their experience in this setting has helped get them a lead in a very competitive series. Now we're down to the very wire, fourth quarter, championship minutes, ballgame up for grabs. What stops it from going the seventh? The Lakers are too close, too hungry. They won't wait another game. They snatch it as if their lives depended on it. They make every big play and come up with every 50/50 ball because they have to, because they must throw water on the flames. Desperation, the literal deciding factor.

Of course, I hope the Lakers sweep. But at last we must give the Magic more credit than that.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kobe Bryant Burnishing His Legend In Jordanesque Fashion

13 seasons. Numerous lengthy playoff runs. The basketball mileage of a man several years older than his actual age. Played in all 82 regular season games last year, played in all 82 regular season games this year. Played in 21 playoff games last year, has played in 14 playoff games and counting this year. In between, he took on the toughest defensive assignments as he helped our country bring back gold. The Rockets employed a defensive genius and a swarming help defense that closed off driving lanes to try and contain him last series, which went seven games. In the current series, the Nuggets beat him up for 40 minutes a night with multiple defenders and a strong help defense that meets him at every turn. And for the first time you can see the weariness from all of that wear and tear is finally starting to take its toll on him.

He's exhausted.

And now that he's become more human, he has begun the process of becoming forever inhuman.

This is the real stuff legends are made of.

This past NFL season, I wrote an article about how Peyton Manning was turning himself into a mythical athlete right before our very eyes, by playing himself into form coming off the first major physical ailment of his career (two knee surgeries in the summer) while carrying the Colts into the playoffs for the umpteenth straight season and winning a record-tying third MVP for his efforts, all at the relatively old age of 32.

Bryant is now doing something similar.

Bill Simmons suggested this week that Bryant is now a tad past his prime, and J.A. Adande joined him on his podcast to illuminate that he heard Kobe admit to being tired for the first time ever - and J.A. has only been following the dude his entire career, through all of those playoff marathons.

The statistics show that Bryant has already played in only 95 fewer games (regular season and playoffs combined) than Michael Jordan did in his entire career with the Bulls (1114 to M.J.'s 1209), even though Bryant is only 30 and Jordan retired from Chicago for the last time at 35.

Speaking of Jordan, considering that Simmons is the guy that put Jordan's final stand in red and black into its most proper perspective ("Jordan's collective performance against Indiana and Utah in the playoffs -- when he fought the effects of a 100-game season, paced his 36-year-old body, shouldered some of Scottie Pippen's burden (when Pippen was derailed by a bad back) and still managed to carry the Bulls through the final two rounds -- was simply the most extraordinary basketball achievement of my lifetime. Just thinking about it gives me the chills."), I'm surprised that he has yet to mention the parallels between that accomplishment and what Kobe is doing right now (although he's probably just ignoring it).

Think about it. It's not exactly the same scenario, but the essence of it is the same, mainly the fact that, like Jordan, Bryant is older and showing more fatigue than ever, which makes the holding off of intruders all the more admirable and warrior-like.

Kobe's been The Man for years, but now he is being chased by hungry youngsters who want what he's got. Some are beginning to call Carmelo Anthony the game's best pure scorer, and more are designating LeBron James as the league's new best player - two unofficial titles Bryant has held a grip on for most of this decade. The Nuggets are arguably just as talented as the Lakers (especially now that Anthony is turning into a superstar, a poor Game 3 showing notwithstanding), and Kobe's own team has struggled to find their footing. The funny thing is that for all the talk about how deep and gifted this Lakers team is, his supporting cast behave so often like stooges that in many ways the on-court burden he carries is just as heavy as it's ever been.

So what has he done? A huge 40 point outing to lead La La to a tough win in Game 1 of the Nuggets series. 32 in a valiant effort in a Game 2 loss. And then, Saturday night, on the road, in a hostile environment, he puts up a 41-6-5, 12-24 from the field, 15-17 from the floor.

That's 113 points over three consecutive playoff games, in the conference finals, at a time when the adversity has never been greater and the doubts have never been more prevalent (and don't forget that the Jazz were favored over Chicago in 1998 because they had home-court advantage).

People are questioning his energy and he is being challenged mightily. His bounce is not what it used to be, his burst is not as explosive (he has to play more physical on drives now as he can't always accelerate by people like he used to), and during his right-after-the-game interview with ABC's sideline reporter, he couldn't even stand up straight, instead conducting the short Q+A while bent over, tugging on his shorts, barley even able to catch his breath, and no, Kobe has never given a right-after-the-game interview that spent.

Which makes what he is doing, the way he is rising to the challenge, all the more exhilarating to behold. Kobe Bryant is playing the most impressive and inspiring ball of his career, like it or not it has been quite Jordanesque, and he is turning himself into a truly immortal basketball player right as we speak. He shall be pictured in black and white, looking weary yet triumphant, because that was when the great Kobe Bryant was at his greatest.


As Game 3 was about to tip-off, I was leaving my 21st birthday party/dinner. Kobe was hugging and dapping teammates on the bar's television screens. By the time I got in the car on the way home, L.A had a 12-11 lead in the first quarter, according to Lakers radio play-by-play man Spero Dedes. I listened to the remainder of the first quarter on A.M. frequencies. By the time I got home, the Lakers trailed by two, 28-26.

For the rest of the night, I joined the rest of my Lakers Nation affiliates in cheering my team to a hard-fought victory on the visitor's court. We had regained the home-court advantage. And let me tell 'ya, I couldn't have possibly asked for a better birthday present.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I love the Lakers, but I hate them

If you came up to me on the street one day and told me that a team that featured Ron Artest, Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola My Friend From Argentina, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry, Von Wafer, Kyle Lowry, and Brent Barry would be facing a team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, Derek Fisher, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton, Josh Powell, and Shannon Brown, and they were going to play 100 times, just based on the names you just gave me, I would pick the latter team to win all 100 times. Seriously. That's what should happen. And yet, the first team has beaten the second team by double-digits in two of the last three games - even though they lost the game in between by 40 points, and even though this is the playoffs and its supposed to matter.

As a Lakers fan, it makes me sick to my stomach. Watching them struggle against themselves to beat this courageous Houston team, it reminds me of the time in 2003, when the Pacers lost a first-round playoffs series to the Celtics, and Bill Simmons bashed Isiah Thomas for losing a series in which he had 10 of the 12 best players. Why will the Lakers be hosting a completely unnecessary and embarrassing Game 7 to the Rockets on Sunday night?

Let me count the ways, in no particular order.

1. They don't know how to play defense

I'll give them this much credit: At least they're trying to play defense. That's more than you could say for them in the Utah series, or pretty much the entire regular season. But still, even with the effort (it tells you something about the team when I am commending them for actually making a valid attempt to stop the other team from scoring), the Lakers are still pretty pitiful on that end of the floor. Before the season, Phil Jackson appointed assistant coach Kurt Rambis as a kind of defensive coordinator for the team. Rambis came up with a scheme that overloaded the strong side of the floor, trapping the man with the ball and forcing passes to the weak side. It made them vulnerable to open threes and scramble situations, but they conceded that. I guess it worked well enough, I don't know. After the first 20 or so games of the season, the Lakers just stopped playing defense altogether. I noticed a bit of that defense Thursday night, but in this series the Lakers have mostly just played defense like idiots. That's what we'll call it: The Idiot Defense. I have news for anyone on the Lakers coaching staff this may concern: Your defense sucks. It doesn't work. Someone is always open. The players help out on everyone. They'd double my grandma. This is hurting them against Houston. The Rockets have no one who demands a natural double-team (by that I mean no one on Houston commands a second defender unless an uncommon match-up happens where they have a gross size advantage, such as when Brown was matched up with Artest). The only help should come when Brooks gets past Fisher. If Artest wants to post up Ariza, let him. If the Lakers let Artest post-up Ariza without help for a whole game, is he going to score 40 points? In the slim chance that he does, does that help the Rockets? Of course not. But no matter who on Houston has the ball, it seems that the Lakers are cheating off of their individual assignments, then bringing help whenever the guy with the ball makes a move. Why not just play everyone straight up, rather than let Houston's stellar ball movement pick them apart?

Also, Kobe chases the ball on defense, and can wreak havoc playing that way. But when he leaves Battier alone like he does, it often results in a clean look at a three for the No-Stats All-Star, as he's too far away to get back, and his teammates are not covering for him. Either Kobe needs to stop playing that way, play a little more honest, or his teammates need to, as Jeff Van Gundy put it during the telecast, "help the helper." But something needs to be established. Game 4 excluded, Battier has made only four threes in five games. But he's too good of a shooter and it's too much of a risk to leave him open. It's almost like playing Russian Roulette. I don't get it.

One other defensive problem...

2. Aaron Brooks is owning them

Playing against the Lakers has the same affect on fleet point guards that using steroids has on baseball players. It jumps them a level. I believe it was none other than that old despised prophet Jose Canseco who said that steroids help turn a decent player into a great player and a great player into a superhuman player.

And whether it be because of their utter lack of a clue as to how to guard the screen roll, the inability of Derek Fisher (God bless his soul) to keep quick guards in front of him, or a combination of both, the Lakers have been making opposing point guards look better than they actually are for years.

Mike Bibby has been a terrific NBA point guard for more than a decade now, but the last (and only) time he played the Lakers in a playoff series, he looked an unearthed legend, like he was going to be an All-Star for the subsequent ten years.

Why? Because being defended by (mostly) Fisher (God bless his soul), he was able to get anywhere on the floor that he pleased at any time. Furthermore, maybe even worse, the Kings would put Bibby in the screen-roll...and Lord knows the Lakers haven't been able to defend that thing since before Shaq got here. No switch on the play, and Bibby picked them apart with long jumpers.

That was in 2002. Seven years later, Bibby still has not cracked that first All-Star nut. In that series, however, he looked like a superstar (and they had similar struggles with the young Tony Parker in 2004, several years before he was a top-three point guard, and yes, Gary Payton, you get a little of that blame, too, although of course things would have been different if you had been in your prime).

Now enter Chris Paul, er, Aaron Brooks, who looks like Chris Rock but doesn't make me laugh as much. Brooks is a good player. There is no disputing that. His speed and quickness are blinding, making him more valuable in today's NBA than ever before, and he can score. But seriously...Aaron Brooks? We shouldn't be able to corral Aaron Brooks? He should be wreaking havoc in the NBA playoffs? Really?

He has been the single most important player in this series for the Rockets - he's only in his second year, and he's only started 40 games in his career, so he's still learning and he's still inconsistent, but when he has played well the Rockets have won: 19 points in Game 1, 34 in Game 4, 26 in Game 6, mostly on layups and threes. The assists totals have not been high, but they disguise the baskets he's making with his penetrating, which causes the defense to react, and then his dishing, which even if it doesn't end in a dime ends up being the pass that led that to a pass that led to a bucket.

Just shoot me already.

3. They still show no heart, toughness, or drive on a consistent basis

Now let's see: L.A. rotates 7-1 Bynum, 7-0 Gasol, and 6-11 Odom (the best rebounder of the three) at the big spots. And not only are those guys tall, they have extra long arms. Meanwhile, Houston competes with 6-9 Scola, 6-9 (yeah, right) Landry, and 6-6 Hayes as their 4-5's.

And yet, Houston still manages to compete on the boards, because L.A.'s big men allow their bigs to seal them off without making a real effort to fight for position. I know guys like Landry and Hayes are beefier and stronger than thin guys like Odom and Gasol, but come on...if L.A.'s big guys try hard enough, if they push back a little and move their bodies, they will own the boards.

To be accurate, the Lakers have outrebounded the Rockets 131-124 in the last three games, and are pretty much dead even on the offensive glass (33 to Houston's 34). But that's the point: they should be dominating. To make sure I was being fair to the Lakers, I looked up the rebounding numbers for Cleveland's 4-0 sweep of Atlanta. Just as I suspected: the Cavs outboarded the Hawks 178-123 overall, and 53-41 on the offensive end. Now that's a team that's doing what it needs to be doing.

In particular, if I were the Lakers big men, and I had the kind of height advantage that they have on the inside, I would be crashing the offensive glass even more than usual, with all my might, because I knew the other team was too small down there to handle me.

But that's just me.

Which brings us to our final point.

4. Phil Jackson?

I do think the guy cares. He's famously nonchalant, but he was up off the bench early and often in Game 6. And I'm sure he wants a tenth ring. He's clearly great at managing great talent, his teams have rarely underachieved, and he instills a calmness and confidence in his players that prevents them from panicking under any situation.

But think about it: He can't get these guys to play defense, they play with even less nightly purpose than the Shaq-Kobe teams (even those guys blew a couple of playoff games with lackadaisical performances, knowing they were superior and could turn it on and off, only occasionally the switch wouldn't come on), and I just don't see any adjustments from them (for example, why don't they post Kobe up more against Battier, so that he can get some shots closer to the basket?), unlike in his first stint here, when he and his staff always made excellent game-to-game adaptations and counter-moves.

Hey, I love Phil Jackson. I am forever indebted to the guy. He came here and turned EVERYTHING around - the Lakers had gotten swept out of the playoffs in consecutive years before his arrival and were looking like a talented team with no direction, a team with potential going nowhere fast, and then he comes in and they immediately win three straight championships. Think about that. That was an incredible job by him. No one else could have done what he did in such a short period of time. There is some genius in Phil Jackson. He doesn't get enough credit. Anyone who thinks of Phil Jackson as some cat who just won a grip of titles with the best players in the league needs to seriously contemplate the first half of this paragraph.

It's just that, since his initial year back in 2006, when he coached a team with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown as starters to a 45-win season, then came up with the brilliant game-plan that nearly allowed the underdog Lakers to topple the favored Suns in the first round of the playoffs, it doesn't seem that he's done much, except sit back and watch the team become stacked. That's why I wonder how much he cares. They're paying him $12 million for this year and the next. Is that the main reason he's still coaching?

Of course, I'm writing all of this after an extremely bad loss. If the Lakers win Sunday, which is likely but not a sure thing, obviously, I'll still be disappointed in them, and more relieved than happy. No way this thing should have gone seven. But if they end up winning the championship, all of this will be either dismissed as a speed-bump on the road to a ring, or forgotten all together. No one will care.

Still, though, if you're a Lakers fan you can't help but be frustrated, and this was my way expressing mines.

Now, for another full day of anxiety. I understand that the game should be on Sunday, but for my health, why couldn't it have been on Saturday?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Only One Thing Can Stop LeBron James

If you like boxing even a little bit, go here.

The site belongs to a cat by the name of Shoefly. No less than Bethlehem Shoals himself has called him the FreeDarko originator; Shoefly wrote the orignal FD petition. No surprise, then, that Boxiana reads like FD-meets-boxing. That's what it is. And it's brilliant.

Why do I bring this up? Well, in the final part of his three-part preview of last weekend's Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton fight, Shoefly predicted that Pacquiao would win, because while Hatton was a great fighter, he didn't possess the magic Manny now holds, and it was going to take something greater than him to shoot down the Filipino as fast and relentless as he is flying now. Shoefly focuses on the seemingly inevitable Pacquiao-Mayweather bout. I echo his sentiment in my recap of the fight: If anyone is going to beat Pacquaio, as ferocious and mesmerizing as he is performing at the moment, it is going to have to be Floyd, the only fighter playing on the same historic field.

As I watch LeBron James tear through the Eastern bracket of the NBA playoffs, I think of this scenario. On Saturday, the Cavs defeated the Hawks 97-82 to take a 3-0 lead in their conference semifinal series. James finished with 47 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists on 15-25 shooting. For the postseason, he is averaging 33.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.6 assists on 55 percent shooting, and his team is 7-0. But more than just the phenomenal production, it's the way it's done that makes you realize you are watching an icon of icons. Every game LeBron makes a couple of highlight-reel worthy dunks, and occasionally he'll hit a three-point shot from near the half-court line, followed by a cool ass pose. He's not only the most dominant player since Michael Jordan, he's the most spectacular, too.

Right now, he's the basketball equivalent of Pacquiao, something so awesome and good that you feel privileged to be able to watch it. The difference is that LeBron isn't even at his peak yet, he's just better at 24 than most great players were in their primes.

And just as Mayweather is about the only thing that could deter Pacquiao right now, there appears to be only one thing that can stop LeBron.

I think you know who I am referring to.

Dwight Howard is a great player, but he's like Hatton: not great enough for this task. No, it will take something more. Enter the 2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers, a team of superior talent to the Cavaliers that is not as impressive to watch. But basketball is about matchups, and the Lakers beat the Cavaliers, handily, both times they faced them this season, including handing them their only legitimate defeat on their home court (the other came in the last game of the season, a one-point loss to the 76ers in which Cleveland rested their starters after already having locked up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs). Sure, LeBron is going to be unstoppable, he is going to put on a show, he didn't play well in those two games but that is irrelevant now as he has ascended once again this spring, a man on a mission, not unlike Ethan Hunt, Omar Little, and Jake Shuttlesworth. He makes his team better like no one ever has.

But L.A. has not yet reached their potential as a team. What if the Lakers are saving their best ball for the Finals, and once they get there they become the team they are capable of being? The team that plays focused and resolute and defends, like they have in their biggest games this year. The squadron that is hungry, the team that crushes you with their strength in numbers, coming at you and at you and at you, in waves, until you are overwhelmed. What if Andrew Bynum gets his timing down, and Kobe, in his prime, starving for a fourth ring, approaching the most important battle of his career (if the Lakers can beat the Cavs, there is hope for his very own mini-dynasty; if they cannot, LeBron rules autocratically for the next six years) that perfect basketball balance that he has shown at times in the past? What if their desire, to avenge last season's failure, surpasses Cleveland's, to avenge theirs of two years ago?

That is what it will take. Nothing less. LeBron James is great, demanding more reverence with each outing, and his presence alone almost guarantees that the Cavaliers will be competitive regardless of the opponent; the Lakers will just have to be better. It is the only way.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Is Manny Pacquiao the Best Boxer Ever?

It cost me $49.99. It ended 2:59 into the second round. It was worth every penny.

Watching Manny Pacquiao, right now, aged 30, with it all clicking, is like watching Michael Jordan go for 41 a game in the Finals against the Suns in 1993. It's like watching Babe Ruth club 60 homers in 1927, more than any other single team hit that season. It's like watching Tiger Woods win the 2001 Masters, completing the "Tiger Slam."

We get to see a historically significant boxer and athlete and A-list entertainer, during a period when few will ever match his prowess - his natural ability meeting halfway with his learned skills, a simultaneous happening of physical superiority peaking and years of practice and fine-tuning culminating.

A great star at his greatest.

For the second consecutive bout, Pacquiao turned a supposed super-fight into a mismatch, demolishing Ricky Hatton in slightly less than two rounds. Now, some are beginning to wonder if we are not witnessing potentially the best pound-for-pound fighter ever.

A clash looms between him and a recently un-retired assassin, in which a Pacman victory could answer the question definitively.

What happened Saturday night was brilliant, something I'll never forget, but we must consider all of this on a grander scale.

When Pacquiao first entered the pro ranks, he was a dazzling raw talent but not a particularly technical or versatile fighter.

Eight years of tutelage from Freddie Roach (the Phil Jackson to his MJ), however, have turned him into an all-around dynamo. "The Coach" has helped improve Manny's defense (specifically his head movement, now stellar) and diversify his punch selection. In addition, his power has followed him as he has moved up through the weight classes, and with Saturday's victory over Ricky Hatton he is now only the second ever six-division title-holder (joining Oscar De la Hoya), and the first ever four-time Ring Magazine champion.

About the only questions left are, Who could beat him, and where does he rank all-time?

The first query may be single choice.

Pacquiao has actually lost three times before, but not since 2005. If Floyd Mayweather Jr., who officially announced the end of his "retirement" at a press conference hours before Saturday night's fight that gave notice to his July 18 comeback bout against Juan Manuel Marquez, can defeat the Mexican legend, then all signs will point to a battle between him and the Filipino sensation.

And if Mayweather, now 32, does indeed return to his previous form, the form he possessed when he knocked out Hatton (who may now retire despite being merely 30, and if not will never fight a top-flight opponent again, anyway) two Decembers ago, then he may be able to do what no one else right now seems capable of.

Floyd may be the only person on the planet capable of matching Manny's speed and quickness, although he deploys it in a different way. Whereas Pacquiao is a relentless attacker who stops throwing only to adjust his trunks, Mayweather is a counter-puncher, an in-and-out fighter trained since childhood not to get hit. He is also the sports best defensive fighter, as well as its most disciplined.

In short, he may be the only man with the talent and gameplan to thwart this peak Pacquiao. He may be the only man with the hand-speed to compete with Pacquiao's bobbing and weaving and ducking. He may be the only man with the reflexes to avoid Pacquaio's whirlwind offensive attack. He may be the only man who can frustrate Pacquiao and dictate the style of the fight.

Winner takes all.

If Floyd can take down a true ring superstar in Marquez, then pick apart Pacquiao at a time when Pacman seems unbeatable, then we will call him not only the best boxer of his generation, but perhaps the premiere pound-for-pound boxer of all-time.

If Pacquiao can hand the extraordinary Mayweather his first loss, many will call him the G.O.A.T.

All I know for sure is this: If Floyd, cocky and confident (he said he would be out bowling with his daughter during the fight) and undeniably good as he is, watches what happened Saturday night and doesn't get at least a little nervous, then quite frankly, he's crazy.

Saturday night's knockout punch - a perfectly timed, perfectly placed left hook to Hatton's chin that left the "Hitman" in such a bad way it quite literally had my heart pounding with fear for his well-being - landed near the close of the second round. It collided so flush, so compact that Hatton's face barely turned with its force, not whipping nearly as much as a punch of such magnitude would seem to command - which is how you know it couldn't have connected any more violently.

My heart raced, too, when Pacquiao knocked Hatton down twice in the first round. I turned to my grandmother and asked her if she would split the fee with me if the bout lasted fewer than three rounds. Initially I wanted Hatton to hang on, yes, so that my $50 bucks would be spread out, and worth more per round.

By the time it was over, though, I fully appreciated what I had witnessed and realized that I didn't wish I could have a dime of it back, because I was clearly watching someone special.

The funny thing about Pacquiao is how calm and well-mannered he is after such beatdowns. He wore a smirk in the dressing room before being introduced, while Hatton, during the requisite stare-down as referee Kenny Bayless gave the pre-fight instructions, sported an expression that said, "What have I gotten myself into?" It's no surprise, then, that in the post-fight interviews, Pacman made it sound as if all he had done was gone and bought some donuts, then shared them amongst his friends.

He says he was just doing his job. He always says he's just doing his job.

Once again, job well done.

But there are larger things at stake.