Network Bulletin - NBA Final Week Plus NFL Draft

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NBA Stretch Run Weekend and Playoffs Start Next Saturday

A Look at The Top Offensive & Defensive Backs in The Upcoming Draft

POSITIONING FOR THE NBA PLAYOFFS

Okay, so now that the proud state of Connecticut officially rules the entire college basketball world, it's time to shift our attention to the pro hoopsters ... and can you believe it that there's less than one week left in this 2013-14 regular season? The 82-game grind for the NBA's 30 teams comes to an end Wednesday, April 16th but we're far and away from knowing the first-round playoff matchups or even who's exactly in/out and so let's take a few moments to examine what's straight ahead:

EASTERN CONFERENCE
There's just one playoff spot available in the NBA East although you're hard-pressed to know whether the Atlanta Hawks or the New York Knicks really want it!
Both teams have been fumbling/stumbling down the stretch and now the Knicks have another woe in that star F Carmelo Anthony's shoulder is hurting him - guess that means gunner J.R. Smith (who attempted 22 three-point shots in last Sunday's 102-91 loss in Miami) will be getting revved up to shoot it plenty in remaining games against Toronto (both home and away), Chicago and Brooklyn.

The real scramble in the East centers around - of course - the fight for the No. 1 seed between Miami and Indiana and keep in mind the two-time defending champion Heat hosts the Pacers on Friday night and we'll see if Indiana's internal squabbles have ceased-and-desisted by then. Hey, you would think both of these teams would be fighting like mad to grab the top spot in case they meet in a best-of-seven set in the Conference Finals but fact is Indy entered Wednesday night's game in Milwaukee having dropped seven of its last 10 games with head coach Frank Vogel hearing loud-and-clear criticism from boss Larry Bird while the Heat can't seem to get always-hurting G Dwyane Wade back on the floor.

Dig a lit bit deeper in the East and you see some spirited battles for positioning as playoff novices Washington and Charlotte each eyeball the #6 seed and thus avoid a first-round playoff matchup with either Miami or Indiana while it's shaping up that we'll have a playoff repeat in Round One between Chicago and Brooklyn and who out there doesn't think it'll be another seven-game marathon series?

WESTERN CONFERENCE
As of press time, only five of the West's eight playoff berths were established with Golden State, Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis -- in that order - fighting for three playoff spots and isn't it something that right now the Grizzlies' .584 winning percentage won't be enough to get into the post-season party while the team's solid 45-32 mark is equal or better than any Eastern Conference team save for Miami and Indiana?

The Grizz may be one game out of the playoffs at this moment but it's not exactly a real grind to get there following the Wednesday night home game against the Heat as the remaining sked includes a home game against tanking Philadelphia and a road game at the beleaguered Los Angeles Lakers with a stop in Phoenix and then a regular-season finale home game against Dallas - might Memphis win three-of-four and slip into the post-season wars after all?

No doubt Oklahoma City is fighting hard to maintain the #2 seed behind San Antonio (60-18) so that the Thunder has home-court advantage should a Western Conference semifinal series versus the Los Angeles Clippers comes down the pike but check out Portland sitting now in the five-hole - the Trail Blazers probably can't/won't inch up into the four spot occupied by the Houston Rockets but Portland could slide down a peg or two if it's not careful and note the T-Blazers' remaining tilts are in Utah, home to Golden State and home to the Clippers ... odds are Portland stays put at #5 and fends off Golden State for that fifth seed.

What to watch when we finally get to the final couple of nights out West? The aforementioned Memphis at Phoenix tilt on Monday will be huge and - quite possibly - so too will the Wednesday games between Dallas at Memphis, Phoenix at Sacramento, Golden State at Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers at Portland.

Ask us and the first-round series we'd like to see in the West would be a Mavs vs. Clippers hoedown should they go #6 vs. #3 in the pecking order, so stay tuned!

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What To Look For In The NBA This Final Weekend

On Saturday, it’s …
MILWAUKEE (14-64) at WASHINGTON (40-38)
– 7:05 p.m. ET, NBA TV
The Wizards truly have undergone a renaissance season near the nation’s capital but there’s some thought that Randy Wittman’s club is running low on gas these days. Washington entered its Friday night game in Orlando having merely split its last 10 games overall and the Wizards managed just 88 points (in an overtime loss to Charlotte) and 78 points against Chicago in recent home setbacks and even PG John Wall’s triple-double versus the Hornets wasn’t enough to hang a “W”. Let’s see here if Bradley Beal (16.9 ppg) can give the Wizards an energy jolt here against the lowly Bucks who sport the NBA’s lowest win total (14) and could well be headed for an NBA Draft Lottery date with either Kansas’ Joel Embiid or his teammate Andrew Wiggins.

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On Sunday, it’s …
CHICAGO (46-32) at NEW YORK (33-45)
– 1 p.m. ET, ABC
The Bulls really want to avoid being part of the famed #4 vs. #5 seed matchup in Round I of the upcoming Eastern Conference Playoffs – sure, they beat Brooklyn in a seven-game set a year ago but right not Chicago’s not nearly as deep as the Nets and so finishing with the #3 seed is of paramount importance to the Second City crew. In this clash with the wobbly New York Knicks, look for Bulls’ big men Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah to hammer the boards – we’re thinking this duo will get 20-plus caroms between ‘em here – while heaping pressure on Knicks C Tyson Chandler who has been downright awful on the defensive end of the floor this season. If you’re looking for a Bulls’ X-factor in this matinee tilt, then check out F Taj Gibson who has more blocked shots than anyone on his team save for the aforementioned Noah (that’s 114 blocks to 108). If the Knicks get a bit intimidated by some Gibson rejects then NYK’s three-point-happy ways may continue here.

OKLAHOMA CITY (57-21) at INDIANA (54-25) – 6:05 p.m. ET, NBA TV
The drama in this tilt is swirling around the Indiana Pacers – hey, unless something odd happens the Okie City Thunder will be the number two seed in the West but the $64,000 question is what’s the Pacers’ mindset and where will they finish at the end of this oft tumult-filled regular season? We’ve already seen Indiana head coach Frank Vogel “rest” his five starters in this past Wednesday’s 104-102 road win in Milwaukee (note the Bucks felt quite disrespected in that tilt and so imagine how the Indiana starters were feeling!) and now we’ll see if the Pacers can snag that numero uno seed in the East and we want to know if C Roy Hibbert “comes alive” after shooting 0-for-5 in a loss last weekend against Atlanta prior to him being one of the starting five getting benched during the week. Is there a major riff – as being reported -- between Hibbert and Vogel?

MEMPHIS (46-32) at LOS ANGELES LAKERS (25-53) – 9:35 p.m. ET, NBA TV
You can round out your pro hoops weekend with this game on the left coast as the Memphis Grizzlies attempt to stay alive for the eighth and final playoff berth: Note that the Grizz entered Friday night’s action one game back of Dallas and Phoenix – the Grizz has copped two-of-three against the lowly Lakers this year including an 89-86 triumph at Staples Center way back on November 15th when F/C Zach Randolph went off for 28 points.
The big lefty is averaging 17.2 ppg and 10.1 rpg – he may not get much MVP mention but this has been another great year for the former Michigan State star.

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MLB NEWS & NOTES FROM THE FIRST TWO WEEKS

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We know, we know. It's terribly early in this here-and-now 2014 Major-League Baseball Season but already we have two starting pitchers in new places that are making quite a "first impression" - and, boy, don't their 2013 teams wish they had 'em back!

First up on our born-again pitcher's look is San Francisco Giants RHP Tim Hudson who's bounced out of the starting gate with back-to-back wins against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Hudson's debut this year was a 2-0 win in Phoenix on April 2nd where the former Atlanta Braves/Oakland A's hurler threw 7 2/3 innings of three-hit, shutout ball and then Hudson followed that up with Tuesday's 7-3 home win against the admittedly woeful D-Backs as this time he went eight innings while allowing three runs (two earned) on seven hits while not walking a single batter.

Keep in mind Hudson had his 2013 season end abruptly when he suffered a gruesome broken right ankle injury at Citi Field last July 24th and so this rather amazing start - which has helped buoy a Giants team that doesn't quite have the same pitching as it did from the World Series champion teams in 2010 and '12 - has been welcome. Hudson's first two starts sees 'em at 2-0 with a tidy 1.15 ERA and right now his two-year, $23-million contract is looking to be a bargain ... think the injury-ravaged Braves' rotation could have found a spot for him between the likes of Aaron Harang and Ervin Santana?

Then there's a guy on the other side of the Bay Area ... Lefthander Scott Kazmir of the Oakland A's also is a spiffy 2-and-oh out of the starting chute after banging out victories against Cleveland (his 2013 team) and Minnesota. Note that Kazmir - once the pride-and-joy of the New York Mets organization till an ill-fated deal with Tampa Bay some 10 years ago - so far has pitched to a 2.03 ERA in the 6-1 win against the Tribe and this past Monday's 8-3 road win in Minnesota.

Okay, so it remains to be seen if he's the "missing piece" to the A's pitching puzzle this year that lost out on RHP Bartolo Colon to free agency (and, ironically enough, to the Mets) but so far, so good for the 30-year-old Kazmir who wasn't thrilled with his lack of efficiency against the Twins (four walks and 101 pitches in just six full innings) but the new environment so far suits' em well.

Keep your eyes on Hudson and Kazmir - they could tilt the balance of power in the National League West and American League West, respectively, this year and who would have guessed that last winter, right?

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THE NOT-SO-BIG RED MACHINE

Okay, so it’s exactly as if any media folks described the modern-day version of the Cincinnati Reds as this era’s “Big Red Machine”, but did you happen to notice that heading into this weekend’s Interleague series against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays that Cincy’s averaging a meager three runs a game?

Cincinnati’s rotten 3-6 start has first-year manager Bryan Price’s club right there in the basement of the National League Central, and optimists out there will be quick to tell you that things automatically will get better in a few weeks when flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman returns from his scary spring training head injury but it’s all not on the current bullpen.

The aforementioned bats have been deadly silent — note that in Cincy’s first nine games it’s scored 0, 1, 6, 3, 3, 2, 3, 5 and 4 runs while losing two-of-three against St. Louis, losing two-of-three at the New York Mets and then dropping two-of-three in St. Looie — not a real good pattern so far, right?

The Reds rank 26th in the bigs in runs scored with 27 overall runs, 21st in batting average at .234 and 23rd in on-base percentage at .298 — worse yet, 1B Joey Votto is hitting just .250 (8-of-32) with one RBI thus far and really looking lost, and our Jim Sez preseason MVP choice RF Jay Bruce is hitting a tepid .188 (that’s 6-of-32) and he’s already struck out nine times.

The stats on the back of the respective baseball cards of both Votto and Bruce suggest things will turn in their favor sooner than later, but might the free-agent departure of Shin-Soo Choo to Texas had a damning effect on the rest of this Reds’ lineup? We keep hearing about base-stealing threat Billy Hamilton, but so far he has only a .250 on-base percentage.

Maybe the Reds won’t get healthy this weekend against a standout Tampa Bay pitching staff but you have to wonder if — perhaps — the NL Central club will be quick to deal in another month or so for an extra bat (and preferably one that lead off with some pop). Hey, wonder what Dusty Baker is thinking about these days?

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THE NFL DRAFT REPORT: The Secondary and Running Backs

CORNERBACKS

JUSTIN GILBERT, Oklahoma State
- Most draft boards consider this 6-0, 202-pound senior to be a top 10-type selection although he could drop simply if there's more of a run on offensive players following those three QB selections of Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater. The most positive part of Gilbert's game is that he's ultra-competitive and backpedals well in coverage but some NFL scouts believe he could get called for lots of penalties with his "grabby" nature in pass coverage. Don't be shocked if he winds up at pick #15 with the secondary-needy Pittsburgh Steelers.

DARQUEZE DENNARD, Michigan State - Last year's Jim Thorpe Award winner is a shade smaller than Gilbert at 5-foot-11, 199 pounds but truth is there's not much that separates these two top corners who could go back-to-back here in the NFL Draft's opening round on May 7. Dennard wasn't challenged much by Big 10 quarterbacks last year but when he was the Georgia native displayed great ball skills and wound up with four INTs and 14 passes broken up. If he's still on the board when the aforementioned Steelers are up at #15 - and if Gilbert's been picked earlier - than Dennard winds up with Mike Tomlin and Company. There is a chance that this former Spartans star could leapfrog Gilbert - with St. Louis at #13 a possibility.

KYLE FULLER, Virginia Tech - Expect this former Hokies star to wind up getting drafted late in Round I behind both Gilbert and Dennard but keep in mind this six-foot, 190-pound Baltimore native plays "bigger" than his listed size and could zoom into the top 20 should either Miami at #19 or Arizona at #20 feel that's their biggest need on the board. Fuller plays with great energy and awareness but he's not the greatest open-field tackler.

JASON VERRETT, TCU - This California native battled through a series of injuries last year with the Horned Frogs but still earned Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year and now the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder figures to be a late first-round or early second-round choice with rumors building that Super Bowl runner-up Denver could be hot for his services with that #31 overall pick.

BRADLEY ROBY, Ohio State - This former Buckeyes star sports 4.39 speed in the 40 but he's a bit of a wild card considering he is generously listed at 5-feet-11 and he was suspended for the 2013 opener and so he does come with some potential baggage. Odds are he'll drop into the early portion of Round II with Jacksonville a likely destination.

SAFETIES

HASEAN CLINTON-DIX, FS, Alabama — Better known as “Ha-Ha” during his stellar career with the Crimson Tide, this 6-foot-1, 210-pounder has great ball skills, keen awareness and a general sense of how to play the game right but he’s not without faults as his numbers dropped last year and he was suspended for two late-season games. Still, odds are he’s a top 15 pick in this May 8th NFL Draft, and could zoom up even higher on some boards with Detroit or Tennessee (at picks 10 and 11) maybe looking a spot or two down for someone that really wants Clinton-Dix and thereby snag an extra pick … St. Louis could be that team but may think it won’t get ‘em at #13.

CALVIN PRYOR, FS, Louisville — This 5-foot-11, 208-pounder is right there in the mix of top 15 picks according to all the draftniks out there, and why not? Pryor sports great closing speed and he loves contact and if there’s any fear about the way this former U of L Cardinals star played it’s that he may be flagged in NFL-land for some excessively-violent hits. If you scan the first-round draft board you could make a nice match with Pryor and the Chicago Bears at pick #14. Just sayin’!

JIMMIE WARD, SS, Northern Illinois — The NFL folks love his ability to cover the slot receivers and he was among college football’s most elite cover guys in this role last year while he vied for the Jim Thorpe Award. Note that the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Ward is great at taking the proper angle to pass-catchers and he doesn’t back down from bigger/stronger foes. Look for him to go somewhere late in Round II or very early in Round III.

TERRENCE BROOKS, FS, Florida State — Here’s another likely late second-rounder/early third-rounder who sports nearly the identical height/weight as Ward even though they play different safety positions. Brooks has long arms/good balance but he’s shown bad hands in college while dropping a slew of potential INTs. It doesn’t hurt that he comes off a national championship season, you know.

Looking at the other side of the ball, here are the top Running Backs:

TRE MASON, Auburn – By all accounts, this Heisman Trophy finalist will be the one-and-only running back chosen within the top 50 picks of this year’s NFL Draft as most boards have ‘em going in the 40-to-45 pick range. Mason – who stands just 5-feet-9, 207 pounds but still rushed for 1,816 yards a year ago – is a physical back with quick feet and a penchant for busting through the gaps in a nanosecond and many folks have compared him with an in-his-prime RB Ray Rice. Note that Mason is not considered a good pass-catcher coming out of the backfield and that’s hurting his draft status a bit. Gut feeling is he gets tabbed right at the top of Round II with Houston or St. Louis looking to snap ‘em up.

BISHOP SANKEY, Washington – Lots to like about this 5-foot-10, 210-pounder from Spokane who sports good vision and a quick burst and keep in mind this former Husky last year broke the school’s single-season rushing mark with 1,870 yards and 20 TDs in 13 games. Sankey probably will get picked somewhere ‘round the 55th-to-65th pick and you could see San Francisco trade up a few spots to make him a second-round choice.

CARLOS HYDE, Ohio State –Many draftniks rate this six-foot, 230-plus pounder as the second-best back behind Mason but we’ll slot him down to #3 behind Sankey mainly because he does have some past baggage and isn’t always overpowering just when you think he’ll run over a defensive back. Hyde’s likely gonna get nabbed somewhere in the draft’s top 60-to-65 picks and you might see the Cleveland Browns make a move for him. Hey, Hyde did rush for 1,527 yards last year even though he was suspended for the Buckeyes’ first three games.

JEREMY HILL, LSU – There’s a handful of running backs that will be vying to be second-round draftees including Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey, Boston College’s Andre Williams and even little-known Towson RB Terrance West but expect this former Bayou Bengals’ star to land up in someone’s lap late in Round II (maybe Denver?). Hill is a real bruiser at 6-foot-1, 234 pounds and he averaged nearly 108 rushing yards per game a year ago despite being part of the “rotation” utilized by head coach Les Miles.

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