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Catfight

It was no holds barred in last Saturday's best boxing match.

By Bruce VanWyngarden

Man, you missed a good fight. At least you did if you weren't in The Pyramid Saturday night.

No, I'm not talking about Tyson vs. Etienne. That was a pathetic excuse for a boxing match, over before it got a chance to be remotely interesting. The only compelling thing about that mugging was how the vanquished "Black Rhino" carefully removed his mouthpiece with his glove before settling his head to the mat and waiting out the 10-count. It was one of those things that make you go hmmm, as they say. In fact, Etienne fought harder trying to get to the fans who were heckling him as he left the arena than he did against Tyson.

On the other hand, there was no doubt that the battle between Tonya Harding and Samantha Browning was the genuine article. Oh sure, it was a Jerry Springer-esque setup -- disgraced, nekkid-posin' ice skater takes on a beer-joint brawler from Mississippi -- meant only to be comic relief before the big boys went at it. But that was its charm. You had the hope that maybe they'd confess to lovin' the same man or something, then really go at it. Reality television at its best. All I can say is you shoulda been there. It beat the hell out of "Get Me Out of Here. I'm a Celebrity."

Browning entered the ring first, surrounded by a motley crew of goobers in bad haircuts who looked like they just got off work. And maybe they did, come to think of it. They all wore white T-shirts with "Advanced Fire & Water Restoration, Tupelo, MS" on the back. Talk about your big-time sponsors.

As she shed her robe and began bouncing around the ring, Browning looked confident, ready to kick some skater butt. A rangy, statuesque woman, she raised her arms over her head, clearly enjoying the cheers. If her white sports bra had had a pocket, the crowd would have been in it.

Tonya's entourage came to center stage wearing black jackets emblazoned with "Team Tonya." They looked cool, confident, like real boxer-handler guys. Their fighter, however, looked scared spitless. As the crowd loudly booed her entrance, Tonya screwed her face into a cartoonish scowl and stared at Browning's ring antics, awaiting instructions from the referee, clearly overwhelmed by the spectacle. But hey, that's life. One decade you're trying to nail a Hamill Camel and outskate some Boston blueblood, the next you're trying to avoid getting nailed to the canvas by a big ol' redneck girl.

At least in boxing you don't have to worry about those pesky Russian judges.

Not long after the opening bell, it was obvious Harding should have given ice-dancing pairs a try. Her strategy -- perhaps "strategery" is the better word -- was to extend her left arm and run at Browning, rubbing her glove in her opponent's face and clutching with her other arm.

But Browning quickly proved she knew how to, uh, take a push. She pounded Tonya upside the head, shoved her away, then pounded her upside the head again. It looked like a classic bar brawl. You half-expected someone to douse them with a pitcher of Bud Lite and yell, "Yeeeeeehaw! Cat fight!"

Or throw a hubcap in the ring.

After repeated shots from Browning's automatic right, Harding's pug nose was lit up like a baboon's ass. But she was a gamer, coming back for more time and again. What the woman lacked in finesse, she made up for with moxie and a lack of talent. Browning had the edge in reach and punching power, however, and it was too much for Tonya to overcome.

It was the only fight of the evening to go the distance, in this case, four rounds. But by the end, the only question was whether the judges would have the nerve to take the fight from Browning and award it to Harding. One did, scoring it 39-37, Harding. (He must have been from L.A., where celebrities get extra credit.) Boos cascaded down like a three-year mullet before order was restored and Browning was awarded a split decision.

Afterward, Browning danced around the ring some more, milking the crowd, then headed for the exit -- and probable instant obscurity. As she and her entourage walked through the nearly empty media room, they high-fived each other and giggled. One of them said, "You don't [bleep] with a Mississippi woman. I know, I'm married to one." And Browning repeated her best line of the night, which was that she felt good but not good enough to "go barrin'" -- not that night anyway.

Which is too bad. I'd love to have bought her a beer.


Miller Time

What can Grizzlies fans expect from new acquisition Mike Miller?

By Chris Herrington

Monday night at The Pyramid, the under-manned Memphis Grizzlies beat a Utah Jazz team that had demolished them in three previous games this season. How is it possible that such an unlikely victory carried a tinge of disappointment? Because most of the crowd showed up anticipating their first live look at the team's newest player, recent trade acquisition Mike Miller, who made his Grizzlies debut on last week's two-game road trip against New Orleans and Houston but missed his first game in Memphis after a freak turf-toe-like injury in shootarounds prompted back spasms.

Miller, who has no history of back problems, is expected back in the lineup in about a week and will probably take a couple of weeks to get comfortable in the system. What can fans expect from the newest Grizzly?

Before we discuss what Miller is, let's establish what he isn't. Mike Miller is not an "emerging superstar," as one over-excited local radio personality enthused the day after the trade. Nor is he likely to become the team's "go-to guy," as many sources have intimated. It's also unlikely that he'll dramatically improve on the 16.5 points per game scoring average he brings over from the Magic. In Orlando, Miller was a distant second option to league-leading scorer Tracy McGrady on a team without a decent third option. For Memphis, he will likely be a close second option to Pau Gasol on a team with plenty of viable third options. Call it a wash.

But Miller also isn't just a spot-up shooter, as some sports-radio callers and message-board posters have claimed. In fact, though Miller can certainly stretch defenses with his shooting range, he's not really a Wesley Person-caliber marksman, at least not yet. Miller's three-point shooting percentages have actually gone down in each of his three NBA seasons, from 41 percent as a rookie to 38 percent last season to 34 percent so far this season. Prior to the trade, Miller was mired in a horrible shooting slump from beyond the arc, making only 14 of 65 three-pointers (22 percent) over his previous dozen games.

But if Miller isn't yet a sure thing from downtown, that's okay, because what he is is more impressive than what he isn't: He's a kind of player this franchise has never had -- a rangy, talented athlete on the wing who can get you 20 on a regular basis. While Miller isn't superstar material, he is a great complementary scorer with superb all-around offensive skills, and he's young enough (he turned 23 the day the trade went through) and talented enough to develop into a borderline All-star.

At 6'8" and 220 pounds with speed, agility, and surprising explosiveness, Miller is a quantum leap athletically over the team's other options on the wing. Person may be a better shooter and Shane Battier certainly a more hard-nosed defender, but neither can match the variety of skills that Miller brings to the floor.

And though Miller's local debut was spoiled Monday night, he gave what amounted to a seminar on his game in his first Grizzlies appearance Friday at New Orleans. Miller entered the game at the 5:09 mark in the first quarter, the team down 14-22. When he left at the 6:15 mark in the second quarter, the Grizzlies led 44-39. Over that stretch, Miller showed us just about everything: his raw speed and ability to finish on the break with his first basket, blowing past Hornets point guard Robert Pack after a steal; his ability to make the pass in half-court sets, coming off a curl and finding Mike Batiste for an open look; his playmaking, by leading the break and setting Stromile Swift up for a lay-up with a left-handed scoop pass into the lane; his ability to create off the dribble, by driving past Kirk Haston and finishing with a dunk; his mid-range game, by jab-stepping Stacey Augmon and rising up to sink a 17-foot jumper. And he showed his range by knocking down a deep three. Monday night, after the Utah game, Hubie Brown looked back at that stretch in New Orleans and called it "a glimpse of what we can be."

But what's perhaps most exciting about the addition of Miller is how his skills seem to mesh with those of Gasol and Jason Williams. On November 13th, Brown's first day as coach, he talked about the need to establish a style of play, an identity, and this trade, perhaps more than anything else, is a step toward accomplishing that.

In Miller, the Grizzlies have added an athletic finisher on the break to fill the other lane opposite Gasol -- someone who can beat defenses down the floor, catch Williams' passes (not always a sure thing with other Grizzlies, as Monday's game attested), and finish plays. Miller is also, like Gasol, the rare forward capable of getting a defensive rebound, handling the ball in the open court on the break, and making the correct pass. With Person as the perfect trailer, spotting up for open three-point shots, the Grizzlies now have the makings of one of the best fast-break offenses in the league. The only component that's missing is a defensive-oriented true center to get things started. And the addition of Miller also gives the Grizzlies three playmakers in the half court as well. Miller, Williams, and Gasol can all pass, shoot, and handle the ball, and all are unselfish players.

That sure wasn't a style of play developing with Drew Gooden, the player the Grizzlies gave up to get Miller (with Gordan Giricek heading to Orlando and Ryan Humphrey and two marginal but not meaningless draft picks coming to Memphis). The hunch here is that Gooden will put up numbers for Orlando that will lead a lot of fans to question the trade. The Grizzlies' attempt to develop Gooden into a small forward was an utter failure and he will get to play his "natural" position in Orlando. I put that in quotes because Gooden is really a tweener, too slow to guard the three and too small to ever be an All-star-caliber four, at least in a Western Conference with the likes of Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, and Rasheed Wallace. In the East, the only comparable talent at the position is Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, so Gooden should be able to get away with being undersized. He's also going to a team that previously boasted perhaps the worst interior talent in the league, so he'll have all the minutes and shots he wants.

But Gooden was never going to work out here. Some have said that trading the player he earlier claimed would be the Rookie of the Year is an admission of failure on Jerry West's part. Others have defended the move as in keeping with West's stated strategy of stockpiling talent and making moves from a position of strength. Both are valid arguments. Mike Miller may be but a piece to a puzzle at least a couple of years away from completion, but he makes the team better, now and in the future.

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