The NBA: Knicks Tickets for the Finals and Other Surprises

After the first weekend of NBA play, it appears all is well. The slate of games actually increased from 6 million to 6.2 million from last year to this. Many feared repercussions similar to those after the NBA lockout in 1999. However, the players and owners proved most wise to save the Christmas dates. Besides, it is rare that the league enjoys much national attention (read – a national broadcast) until the holiday weekend.

While the league must be ecstatic about these developments, the fans should be just as thankful the NBA season is destined to challenge any notion of favorites. The Lakers are 0-2 and Dwight Howard has looked like anything but the best two-way player in the NBA. New York is already abuzz, ready to coronate the Knicks as true contenders. Of course, it is far too early for anyone in Los Angeles, New York, or any other basketball-obsessed city to expect a championship. That discussion has to include the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, and even the Denver Nuggets have to be mentioned. Knicks tickets, Heat tickets, and Lakers tickets oh my!

Ignoring the flurry of early predictions, the beginning of the NBA season also had a few surprises. Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio lived up to every expectation. He only played 26 minutes, coming off the bench and scoring 6 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds. Rubio ran the break like a magician and discovered seams in the half court only a player like Magic Johnson could see.

The other Los Angeles basketball team provided the fire power with power forward Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul. These two will be one of the best combos in the NBA. They may just steal the spotlight from Kobe and the Lakers.

Last season was one of the best in the history of the NBA, and this season is shaping up to be an even better one. The powers are shifting and we the fans get to watch traditional powers burned and the youth rise like the sun.

Lakers Tickets: Worth More Without Paul?

While the rest of the basketball universe is busy condemning David Stern for blocking a blockbuster trade that could have jumpstarted interest in the NBA, I am wondering if the Los Angeles Lakers would be that much better with if they had acquired Chris Paul and traded away Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.

Without Gasol and Odom the Lakers are going to be starting Andrew Bynum at center and a free agent to be named later at power forward. Bynum is hyped as a developing superstar every year, but the fact the Lakers front office was talking about acquiring Dwight Howard is pretty solid anecdotal evidence Bynum is not the man in the middle of the future.

Even with the best backcourt in basketball (CP3 and Kobe), the Los Angeles Lakers would have to survive with Metta World Peace jacking up unadvised three point shot, whoever is playing backup center, and the future free agent power forward. This would require Kobe and Chris Paul to score a combined 70 points a game.

I venture a guess that Lakers tickets would not go much farther into the postseason than with a three-headed monster. Meanwhile, the teams involved are appealing the decision to veto the trade. If anything, the other teams in the trade actually benefited from the trade. The Houston Rockets get the center they wanted to replace Yao Ming as well as a few first round draft pick. The New Orleans Hornets get Odom, Luis Scola, and Kelvin Martin, warding off futile seasons for a few years.

The Top Ten NBA Trios of 2010-11

The NBA has an obsession with the number three. The ultimate expression of dominance in this new era of basketball is the three-peat. Every team must have a three point specialist to space the floor in this age of unimaginably tall basketball players at every position. And now the rule of three is being applied to the championship equation.

The Celtics brought the championship back to Boston for the first time since the 1980s with three superstar veterans at the tail end of their prime, the Lakers became the dominant team in the Western Conference and repeat champions by keeping their big three together, and now the Heat have entered new territory by signing three superstars in their prime to begin a new dynasty in Miami.

So in this new age of the roster trifecta, who are the top contenders? Below is a list of the Top Ten three-man rosters in the league.

Number 1: The Miami Heat – SF LeBron James, SG Dwayne Wade, PF Chris Bosh

Every one of these players is coming into their prime and can score at will if covered by a single player. Remember basketball only allows five players per team on the floor at once, so even if the Heat can find D-League rejects to fill out their starting five at least one of these guys is going to be able to post 30.

Number 2: Los Angeles Lakers – SG Kobe Bryant, PF Pau Gasol, F Lamar Odom

Add on part ultimate competitor (Bryant), one part superb low post scorer with a midrange jump shot (Gasol), and one part versatile forward (Odom) and you have two championships in a row. Sure bail outs from Derek Fisher help, but this team is great because these three present match up problems for every team in the league.

Number 3: Boston Celtics – PF Kevin Garnett, SF Paul Pierce, PG Rajon Rondo

Garnett re-emerged as a defensive stopper this season and Pierce and Rondo took turns taking over games all season long. Yes, Rondo replaces Allen on the Celtics, but he has become a top-five point guard and that trumps the aging Allen’s sweet jumper.

Number 4: San Antonio Spurs – PF Tim Duncan, SG Manu Ginobili, PG Tony Parker

The Spurs are a perpetually understated team. They have perhaps the best power forward of all time in Duncan, a gritty and creative scoring force in Ginobili, and a quick point guard in Parker who can get to the bucket against anybody and manages to knock down big shots despite having a poor outside shot. These are three guys that just know how to win. They only finish below the Celtics because I’d rather have Pierce than Ginobili.

Number 5: Houston Rockets – C Yao Ming, PG Aaron Brooks, SG Kevin Martin

This one comes with a caveat, Ming – when healthy. Brooks blossomed last season, taking over the leadership role in Ming’s absence after T Mac was traded to the Knicks. Add a terrific perimeter shooter in Martin and this team is terrifying. Brooks drives, Ming dominates the post, and Martin will catch you sleeping on the outside. It is the perfect inside-out combo with a penetrating guard to poke and prod the defense.

Number 6: Orlando Magic – C Dwight Howard, PG Jameer Nelson, SG Vince Carter

Say what you will about the Magic and these three, but after the Rockets it is rather difficult to find a clear big three and this combo did go to the Eastern Conference Finals before falling apart. Nelson continues to prove he is a big time player despite my inability to accept such a reality. Howard may not be a gifted offensive player, but he is beast o the boards and blocking shots. On occasion he may even make a decent back-to-the-basket move using his freakish quickness. Then there is Vince Carter. While he is hit or miss, so is a third banana like Lamar Odom and the Lakers are listed at number two.

Number 7: Dallas Mavericks – PF Dirk Nowitzki, G Jason Terry, PG Jason Kidd

The big German is still a seven-foot shooting guard despite his declining ability to make plays in the post, and that means something huge in games often decided by mismatches. Add the sage-like play of Kidd this past season and the rejuvenated play of the microwave Jason Terry and this is a team capable of decimating clubs on the perimeter.

Number 8: Oklahoma City Thunder – SF Kevin Durant, PG Russell Westbrook, PF Jeff Green

League’s most prolific scorer, a point guard whose dominance defies his stats, and a glue guy who happily accepts his role – give this trio another season or two and they will be a top three combination. Right now they are too young and lack the nitty, gritty playoff experience for me to leapfrog them over the past three or four teams.

Number 9: Milwaukee Bucks – PG Brandon Jennings, C Andrew Bogut, SF Corey Maggette

Jennings is going to be a top-five point guard, Bogut is a low post scoring force with vision despite having no hops, and Maggette is a solid 20 point-5-board forward who is still a superb athlete. The talent here may be flying under the radar of casual NBA fans, but die hard fanatics know this is a team to be feared.

Number 10: Chicago Bulls – PG Derrick Rose, PF Carlos Boozer, C Joakim Noah

Rose came back from poor play early on because of a lingering ankle injury to shock and awe Bulls fans. Boozer is a 20-10 guy with a midrange jumper. Noah is an energetic center with a knack for rebounding and just getting in the way on defense (in a good way). If Noah had any kind of an offensive game, this trio could jump up a few spots, but he is only good for put backs and fast break dunks.

Lakers and Celtics Part Deux, the 2010 NBA Finals

The 2010 NBA Finals (and yes, I am preemptively giving the Western Conference Finals to LA.) is neither a rematch of the Celtics and Lakers from the 2008 season nor a series between the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics and the 2009 NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers. This may seem perfectly obvious to many, but pundits are sure to compare a Celtics team with a healthy Garnett to the championship team two years ago and a Lakers team with a healthy Andrew Bynum to the championship team from last season. This could conveniently by billed as a battle between the optimal incarnation of both storied franchises in the 21st century, especially as the NBA tries to steal attention from the LeBron watch.

Rather, this is an NBA Finals between a Lakers team with two and a half seasons of chemistry under its belt and a Celtics team with the Big Three finally ready to pass the torch to Rajon Rondo. This could also be a much better series to watch than the 2008 series in which the Lakers quite obviously were ill-equipped to handle the Big Three at the end of their collective prime.

Rondo, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are going to be a difficult trio for Jackson to contain. Typically, the opposition has at least one weak link on the perimeter and Derek Fisher is hidden away guarding that player.

The Celtics do not have a weak link for Fisher to guard, so then what is the plan, put Fisher on the player having the worst night? Fisher cannot keep up with Allen around screens, Fisher cannot handle Pierce in the post, and Fisher cannot stay in front of Rondo.

The Lakers have their own troublesome triumvirate. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom can be taken out of the game individually by Kevin Garnett, but considering the Lakers will be playing at least two of these players at a time, the Celtics have no answer for the length and skill of this group.

Gasol can do everything. Bynum is beast five feet in, and Odom is a terrific passer with a decent midrange jump shot and the ability to move like a ninja without the ball. Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis are not the answer, they are just 12 fouls. Rasheed Wallace is not an all-world defender. What are the Celtics to do?

The Celtics still have hope, as long as Wallace and Garnett can continue to draw defenders out of the lane on offense, allowing Rondo free reign to drive to the basket or Allen and Pierce to make cuts to the basket. The Lakers have an answer if they bring in Odom at small forward though.

Boston and Los Angeles seem to compliment each other, meaning this series could be the best since the Celtics and Lakers were great teams in the 1980s. I am definitely looking forward to this series and wish I had season Celtics tickets for TD Garden or Lakers tickets for the Staples Center.

Biting The Hand That Feeds: The Derek Fisher Story

Yesterday I was watching the replay of PTI on ESPN2 and caught an interview with Derek Fisher. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were asking his thoughts on the aging of Kobe Bryant and on the backlash from Utah Jazz fans during the last playoff series. This is where I get angry. He has the gall to summarily dismiss the anger of the Jazz fans, saying that he simply plays a game.

For those who forgot, back in 2007 Fisher asked to opt out of his contract with the Jazz so he could move his family closer to a city with specialists who could help in his young daughter fight with retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye). The Jazz organization let him leave and he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, playing out the rest of the season as the most sympathetic player in the NBA.

Fast forward three years and Fisher is still playing for the Lakers, leaving a gaping hole in the Lakers perimeter defense and occasionally playing Robert Horry in big playoff games. The Lakers played the Jazz in the second round of the 2010 NBA playoffs and two girls wore shirts accusing him of lying about his daughter’s illness to escape Salt Lake City and the terrifying reach of the Mormons. The spirit of the accusation infected the rest of the raucous crowd and they chanted “Cancer” as Fisher walked up to the free throw line.

Are those fans who chanted “cancer” and wore shirts stating “Fisher lied” despicable? Yes, of course, but they are also wonderfully inventive and exactly what a sport needs to create a television-worthy rivalry. Are not who I am angry at? No.

I am angry at Derek Fisher. I do not think he lied, but the fact that he was amazed and dismissive of fans’ ridiculous devotion is what pissed me off. Yes, basketball is just a game, as is football, baseball, soccer, and plenty of other professional sports, but their devotion to a silly game is the reason he is making $5.3 million this year.

This is not a rare occurrence. Professional athletes, high profile sports writers, movie stars, and ridiculously popular musicians say the exact same thing about their industry after a few years in the spotlight. Dogs are smart enough to not bite the hands that feed, so why are jaded rich people allowed to do so?

Understand that if you are willing to take the paycheck to play a sport for a living, watch sports for a career, act for a multi-million dollar payday, or sing before crowds of thousand paying a week’s paycheck for the concert tickets, then you must respect the very insanity of the world in which you live.

These athletes, writers, actors, and musicians play an important role in our society. They provide escape from the mundane, soul-crushing existence that is the 50- to 60-hour work week. Being meta-aware of the situation is not helpful to the illusion keeping millions of people sane.

Do not tell the middle class fans depleting their bank account to purchase three hours of entertainment with New York Yankees tickets to the overpriced Yankees Stadium or Los Angeles Lakers tickets to the equally overpriced Staples Center they are being ridiculous.

I am not asking them to give back all the money they have been paid (I hesitate to say earned after watching some these people play, reading what they have wrote, watching them soil the silver screen, and listening to the atrocious discordant sounds of a tapped out music mind). All I ask is these people fortunate enough to earn millions living out a dream to be thankful and respect the improbable situation in which they live, lest they want to see their world implode and reality to wreak its revenge like a George Romero movie toppling consumerism.

The NBA Playoffs, the Magic, and the Three Pointer

The Orlando Magic are down 0-2 in the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers. Sports sites and basketball experts are busy decoding every game and pinpointing the Magic’s struggle and one of the arguments you and I are sure to hear is that the Magic take too many threes.

The Magic have struggled to connect on the long range bombs making only 34.8 percent of shots beyond the arc in game one and 33.3 percent of those shots in game two. Considering that the good three point shooting teams hit around 38 percent of their long shots this is a problem, especially when you consider that 23 of the Magic’s 77 shots in the first game and 30 of the Magic’s 79 shots came from beyond the arc.

The Lakers have taken a mere 24 three point shots in the two games combined, so though the team has only made 33.3 percent or eight of those shots, their offense has not been devastated by the misses.

This will of course begin the conversation that I began to hear from the announcers in the Eastern Conference Finals when it became clear that the Magic were going to bury the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the NBA’s, finals dream. The sentiment was reiterated several times, seemingly at each miss, that the problem with the Magic is that they live and die by the three.

Common basketball wisdom states that the closer you are to the basket the easier it is to make the shot, so if the majority of your shots are from a farther distance then you are simply playing tempting fate to give you a bad night at the worst possible moment in a series.

I think that there is more to the distain color commentators and some (not all) experts have for the three. The first is that many times you have coaches, a Jeff Van Gundy or a Mike Fratello, dispersing their basketball wisdom from the safety of the sidelines where they do not have to suffer the wrath of fans seeking blood for losses and where their sports philosophy can be neatly justified on a single play.

These coaches like to win and to have control and it is easier to exert control by focusing on defense and slowing the pace of the game (i.e. not taking 20 threes and pounding the ball inside instead). A few do not mind letting the players have fun and play within a loose system. There are coaches like Don Nelson with 100+ points per game teams in the early 21st century when the game was still coming out of the guerilla play of the 1990s and suffering from an influx of high schoolers unaware of how to actually play the game. However, most coaches are like Jeff Van Gundy who expresses some disdain for the three and favors a suffocating defense (look at the Knicks in 1996-97) that has the effect of decreasing his team’s own scoring ability thanks to the level of control over the tempo of the game.

The second reason for the doubt of the power of the three is that in single-game elimination tournaments like the NCAA Tournament the great equalizer in every match up is the three point shot. No matter how overwhelmed a lower seed is by the size of the players and the level of talent on the higher seeded team, if they can shoot lights out and hit 50 percent of their shots from beyond the arc they have a chance for an upset. Thus, the three point shot take on this almost underdog association, so if a team takes a lot of three point shots then they must be covering up for a deficient offense.

The third and final reason I think people have issue with the three is that some of the teams that take the most three point shots do so with little regard to an actual offensive system that sets up good shots. This season the NBA saw a number of very good teams adopt the three point shot into their system successfully. Still, there were still teams like the Indiana Pacers and the New Jersey Nets that took 20 plus threes a game and missed the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. These teams did not get back on defense and played seemed to give up on the court sometimes.

The problem with all these arguments is that they do not necessarily apply to the Orlando Magic or today’s game. From a league stand point, if you look at the ten teams that took the most three point shots this season seven made the playoffs. There combined record was 474-346. If you look at the ten teams that took the least three point shots five made the playoffs, but the combined record was 365-455.

After years of changing rules to encourage a perimeter game and up the scoring it appears as though the three point shot has become a serious component of the best teams’ game. Cleveland, Orlando, and San Antonio were among those teams that took the most three point shots and they were all within the top three seeds in their conferences. The three point shot is no longer a weapon of choice for the underdog, but increasingly a nail in the coffin from the favorites.

From a team stand point, the Orlando Magic are not the happy-go-lucky shooting team that jacks up the long range bombs with abandonment. The team has an offense built around the post, or built around Dwight Howard. With Howard in the middle, four perimeter shooters, and solid ball movement the average three point shot is a good set shot. If anything, the offense is based on solid fundamentals, going in then out or simply finding the open shot. They get back on defense too, holding teams to 94.4 points per game during the regular season and 94.3 points per game in the postseason on their way to the finals.

If anything, John Hollinger of ESPN notes in the Daily Dime that the problem may actually be that the Orlando Magic guards are not pushing the ball for a secondary break. In a secondary break the ball is pushed up the court to one side quickly and then reversed to the other side where one of the solid shooters has set up for a good three point shot.

That lack of ball movement has, yes led to bad three point shots, but the answer is to find better three point shots, not abandon the perimeter. Then you may see Howard posting 40 point games where he faces single coverage and is free to get those thunderous put back dunks that killed the Cavs.

So, yes the Magic will live and die by the three, but after winning 59 games in the regular season and winning playoff series against the Celtics and the Cavs they are not predestined to die because of the three point shot. In fact, the answer to the 0-2 hole is take better three point shots and let those quality perimeter players make their open shots.

That will open up the inside game and make the Lakers choose between single coverage on Howard or hoping its defense can recover with three perimeter defenders on four good shooters.

So, yes, only three teams have come back from a 0-2 start to win the finals, but let’s not forget that the Magic have the great equalizer, the three point shot, on their side.

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The Cavs-Lakers NBA Finals: The Shattered Storyline

Every year just before the NBA playoffs begin, the postseason, the 16-team tournament or “second season”, seems to be sold as a story with plot points at every round and a black and white biopic for every charismatic player or superstar for each remaining team.

Last season the playoffs unfolded beautifully in a Finals match up between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics. The stock footage of the two most storied franchises in the league was dusted off and played over and over again on ESPN Classic. The return of the Celtics from the lottery abyss was celebrated as the story of the return of an aged hero like in a Die Hard movie where John McClane has to overcome super-human German mercenaries or martial arts experts half his age.

In the end, the NBA bathed in the profits of this fairy tale playoffs complete with the Lakers-Celtics series and the Celtics win. David Stern truly had his cake and ate it too. This season the story boards were laid out and a new concept was conceived.

This year was to be the official passing of the torch from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James. No number of MVP trophies, scoring titles, or triple-doubles can compare to the validation of a championship (a.k.a. the Bill Walton rule) and this year James is supposed to meet Bryant in the NBA Finals and undeniably usurp him as the best player in the league.

The major networks quickly put together all the footage comparing the King and Black Mamba. Analysts compared their careers, two players who came into the league out of high school and the paths they have taken. The advertisers quickly put together imaginative comparisons of their own (my favorite is Nike’s Most Valuable Puppet series). This may be all for not though, after four games complete in the conference finals.

The Los Angeles Lakers are tied at with the Denver Nuggets at two games a piece. I may have miraculously foreseen the series evolution in my conference finals prediction blog, but I do not know if my conclusion will be correct.

I, like everyone else, though the Lakers would win. However Denver seems to have truly embraced defense and the only way the Lakers can win is if Kobe eclipses the 40-piont threshold. It has been a long two years for Kobe with an NBA Finals last season, the Olympics, this year’s regular season, and the current postseason that has demanded his best efforts to keep the team advancing. I do not know if he will have enough left to post 40 points two more times.

In the Eastern Conference the Cleveland Cavaliers are down three games to one to the Orlando Magic. LeBron has done his part averaging 42.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.3 rebounds a game and making unbelievable last second shots, but the rest of the Cavs seem to be just giving him the ball and waiting for him to make beautiful basketball.

In the meantime, I have seen far too much single coverage on Dwight Howard, lazy double and triple teams, and a pathetic perimeter defense that is simply playing to Orlando’s strengths. Last night’s overtime loss may have been the big blow that has the Cavs just trying to find their feet while waiting for the final smack to the head before they are eliminated.

It appears that a second storybook ending with all the right players landing in the right circumstances is not on the horizon. David Stern will neither have his cake nor eat it.

Instead he will be left in the stands with an agonizing forced smile on his face if the Cavs or the Lakers do not end up in the finals and the smile will surely turn into a grimace if neither team is able to come out of the conference finals victorious. That worst case scenario will leave him holding the abysmal marketing share projections of a Denver Nuggets-Orlando Magic NBA Final.

This potentially shattered storyline is a reminder that the playoffs are not a Hollywood human interest story. They are a competition that often never results in the anticipated match ups, leaving those scenarios as conjecture to be discussed inanely at bars and at the office while trying to avoid work.

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NBA Playoffs Predictions

After a month prelude that was at times compelling (Celtics-Bulls) and at times uninspired (Mavs-Spurs) the conference finals have finally begun. The Los Angeles Lakers, who won last night thanks to Kobe’s fourth quarter performance, play the Denver Nuggets for the Western Conference title and the Cleveland Cavs play the Orlando Magic for the Eastern Conference title.

I expect much from each series this postseason, a season that has lived up to its billing as the second season, a long season that really needs to end soon before it saps all the excitement out of the game (seriously, this game is supposed to be fast paced, instead the ending seems to be as prolonged as biopic getting the Oliver Stone treatment).

I have looked at each series after mourning my Bulls loss in the first round and decided that five things should happen in each series. Some of these things are based on facts, but most are based on quasi-objective observations and my imagination.

The Los Angeles Lakers versus the Denver Nuggets

1. Pump Up The Scoreboard

Despite the relative low scoring affair (Lakers 105- Nuggets 103) on Tuesday night I expect the series to be a high scoring affair. Critics will argue that the Lakers have been playing the third best defensive efficiency in the playoffs and the Nuggets have been fourth, but both defensive performances need to be presented with asterisks.

The Lakers played a second round series against a Rockets team without any Tracy McGrady and with Yao Ming lasting just three games before ending his season with an injury. That left offensive powerhouses Ron Artest (Mr. Good Shot Selection) and Aaron Brooks (who led the Rockets in scoring in two games with 14 and 13 points) to confound the Lakers and “challenge” the defense.

The Nuggets played a first round series against the Hornets, a team that gave up before the playoffs began, which had a profound on the numbers. I think the true series to gage Denver’s defensive ferocity is the Dallas series, in which Denver gave up 106.8 points per game. Of course the Nuggets also scored 114 per game to win it in five.

I expect this series to have both teams scoring around 110 points a game for the rest of the series. These are two squads that loved to score during the regular season (L.A.-106.9 PPG, Denver- 104.3 PPG) and only played defense because they were told they had to. I think each team will serve as an enabler for the other, allowing the Nuggets bench to put up uncontested jumpers with 20 seconds left on the shot clock and allowing the Lakers to put on an interior passing clinic.

2. The Birdman Will Arrive

Chris Anderson’s career was destined to fall well short of respectable not a year ago. He was known for taking a day and a half to complete a dunk at the 2005 Dunk Contest after uttering the phrase, “It’s time for the Birdman to fly.” He also was kicked out of the league for two years for smoking pot. Had he not appealed the life time ban he would never get a chance to shine again and would forever be known as another terrible token white guy in the NBA.

Now he has a shot to become America’s favorite role player. Despite the hilarity of watching him fail to throw an alley oop to himself (a feat Nate Robinson repeated the next year and won the contest because he is near midget status), the Birdman is an incredible leaper with a penchant for grabbing a lot of rebounds and blocking a lot of shots in very few minutes.

The Birdman will fly all series long, blocking Gasol and Bynum a couple of opportune times and spurring fans to ponder how his or her team can pry Anderson away from the Nuggets for their team to start at center.

3. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups Will Shine

Carmelo Anthony has been playing the type of basketball that made him the best player on the USA Basketball Men’s team in 2006. He is averaging 28.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 4.3 assists a game in the postseason. A strong performance in this series should take him from reserve on the All Star team to unquestioned starter. This has been a long time coming for a guy that has largely been forgotten by the casual fan thanks to the exploits of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade (to other players drafted in 2003).

Chauncey Billups is averaging 21.7 points and 7.4 assists a game and, more importantly is being recognized as the key proponent in transforming the Denver Nuggets from a Rocky Mountain side show good enough for a series or two of high octane basketball to a suddenly serious contender for an NBA title. He will prove that his time and his numbers with the Pistons downplayed his greatness. He will finally get the respect he deserves and solidify his reputation as one of the best point guards in the NBA right now.

4. Kobe Will Dominate

The Lakers have failed to play to their potential this postseason (Really, it took seven games to beat Houston?). Their play has been lackluster at best. One player will find that fire again this series and he is, of course, Kobe Bryant.

Bryant already single handedly won Game 1 with 40 points and six clutch free throws in the final half a minute. I expect Kobe to continue taking over games, averaging near 40 points a game as the rest of the team fails to grasp that the Nuggets could actually beat them in a seven game series. Bryant’s competitive fire will not allow the Lakers to throw up such a dud in the series and eventually his passion will become contagious.

5. The Lakers Will Finally Wake Up

After Kobe dominates for the first five games the Lakers will find themselves down three games to two and finally Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and the host of role players will play like they actually want to win a title.

Shannon Brown and Derek Fisher will start hitting every three point shot they take even if they are falling out of bounds and cannot see the basket, the refs will make some questionable calls along the way that give the Lakers an obscene free throw advantage over the final two games, and analysts will say that the Nuggets were not robbed, but that they failed to finish the series in an effort to downplay the fact that a everybody really wanted to see LeBron take on Kobe in the Finals.

The Cleveland Cavaliers versus the Orlando Magic

1. Identities Will Be Revealed

After realizing that the only player he or she knows on the Cavs is LeBron, the average basketball fan will shocked to learn that the starting backcourt consists of Mo Williams and Delonte West, two players they have never heard of before. The fans will also be shocked to learn that these two players are the second and third leading scorer on the team and that they are actually quite good.

2. The Spelling Bee

Thousands of sports bloggers will learn to spell Zydrunas Ilgauskas without referencing ESPN. They will recount his name time and again as the Cavs fail to utilize his mid-range jumper and he serves as a perpetual poster child for Dwight Howard.

3. Turkoglu Will Collapse

Hedo Turkoglu will collapse on the court by Game 4. Turkoglu has served as the very poor man’s Magic Johnson for Orlando since last season, and the Magic’s postseason fate seems to depend on how much Turkoglu has left in the tank. The addition of Rafer Alston in midseason helped, but Turk still directs the half court offense.

He will also be matched up with LeBron James. Turk is not a naturally good defender, so he will have to put forth a great deal of effort to keep LeBron from completely embarrassing him and beating Orlando by himself. With such difficult demands on both ends of the court the 6 foot 10, 220 pound versatile forward will leave everything on the floor in the first four games and be hailed by the announcers for his incredible effort in the face of impossible circumstances.

4. Dwight Howard Will Outplay James For One Quarter

Dwight Howard will have one quarter where he unleashes his unique combination of freak athleticism and pure power on the Cavs in the paint. Nobody will be able to stop him as he takes a quick step and rises to dunk the ball over any defender. He will split double teams, grab every offensive rebound, and catch every impossible lob for a shattering throw down. He may even break a backboard or two or rock the hydraulics so hard that the basket collapses.

This will be a single quarter that peers into the future and reminds everyone that Howard is a future Hall of Fame player. He will be compared to Shaq while he was on the Magic when he won with pure power, quickness, and incredible skill (before the NBA officials gave him a license to play like a skill-less brute during the Lakers three peat).

5. LeBron Will Be Everywhere

I am not just talking about emphatic jump from behind blocks. LeBron will take his game to the next level and prove that he is more than just a capable defender, covering every position on the floor. He will smother point guard Rafer Alston while he brings the ball up the court and he will decimate Dwight Howard with stonewalling blocks on the block in the post.

With his performance this series he will put to the rest the old argument that he can do everything but defend and make a case that perhaps he, not Howard deserved the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

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Cavs-Lakers NBA Finals? What About Everyone Else, Part 2

This year’s NBA Playoffs is turning out to be as predictable as I expect the summer blockbusters to be this summer. The Eastern Conference has only one possibility for the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics and Magic are an injury or a year or two of experience away from cancelling the coronation of LeBron James. Despite the abundance of quality teams in the Western Conference(the first six seeds had a winning percentage of at least 60 percent), the Los Angeles Lakers appear to be playing on another level, with a deep bench, a penchant for smooth interior passing, and a superstar. Still, there or more storylines than simply the finals this spring, there are 14 other teams in the postseason and yesterday I discussed the Eastern Conference seven, now I get to take a look at why exactly the rest of the Western Conference is playing.

Western Conference, Year One PP (Post Parity)

The (2) Denver Nuggets are playing…to prove that good basketball exists in the Rocky Mountains.

I am still a little unsettled to see the Nuggets as the number two seed in the West and I think just about everybody else beyond Boulder is equally lost in disbelief. George Karl can certainly not expect a team that allows 100.9 points a game to actually reach the finals, but he can expect to get his team some camera time on TNT and ESPN (if you stay up for the late game) so that the look of disbelief when you see the powder blue uniforms of the Nuggets as the favorites in a series.

The Nuggets have come a long way since Chauncey Billups joined the team. Sure the team lost Marcus Camby and everyone thought the team would become a sieve in the interior, but a solid team game engineered by Billups and surprising play from Nene (maybe enough to justify the single name) and Chris Anderson (the NBA’s poster boy for marijuana legalization) have been quite successful at least somewhat balancing out a team that has scoring spark plugs in Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Linas Kleiza. If anybody would actually watch them play they would see that this team rivals the Alex English-Doug Moe days of the early 1980s. That is exactly what the Nuggets are playing for, a little recognition.

The (3) San Antonio Spurs are playing…to show the world they are stricken with debilitating arthritis just yet.

Ever watch a father and teenage son play basketball. The fathers are playing against as much as against the son in reality. The Spurs have won four NBA titles since 1999 with Tim Duncan as the face of the franchise and feel like the father of the NBA. This is more than just perception though. According to RPI Ratings, the average age of the Spurs roster is 29.96, making them the oldest roster in the league by over a year. The league average is 26.81 and a professional athlete’s age is kind of like dog years, one year is probably comparable to two or three in the real world.

Of course these statistics are only half true. Yes Tim Duncan is 32 and the beginning of the end, when his 260 pounds of muscle begin to ravage the joints in his lower body, is looming. Yes Manu Ginobili is only 31, but his reckless abandonment on the court is taking a toll on his body, evident by the 38 games he missed this season and the fact that he is missing the playoffs. Yes Michael Finley is still the starting small forward at the age of 36 and Fabrico Oberto and Kurt Thomas are getting so old that Matt Banner is starting at power forward.

Still, the future seems bright with Tony Parker young and spry at the age of 26, Drew Gooden a potential long term solution at the age of 27, and Roger Mason giving the team the outside stroke it needs at the age of 28. The Spurs may not be out on the court to realistically win another title, but they are playing to prove that they are not going to fade away, and limp and whimper out of contention in the years to come.

The (4) Portland Trail Blazers are playing …to prove they are ready to make good on the promise of all that young talent.

It is poetic justice that the Trail Blazers would follow the Spurs. They are the youngest team in the NBA according to the same RPI Rankings that aged the Spurs. The Portland roster is an average of 24.46 years old. This is a roster that includes starters like Brandon Roy (24), LaMarcus Aldridge (23), Travis Outlaw (24), Rudy Fernandez (24), and Greg Oden (21, really). Steve Blake is a wizened old point guard at 29.

This team went 54-28 when a litany of sports sites, including ESPN, expected them to barely make the playoffs, despite everyone singing praises with regards to the potential talent on the young roster. Remember, the establishment is often not ready for change and the Trail Blazers are playing to create some dramatic change in the landscape of basketball west of the Mississippi River. This sense of arrival is what they are playing for.

The (5) Houston Rockets are playing…to get out of the first round.

The last time the Houston Rockets made it out of the first round was way back in 1997, when Hakeem Olajuwon still had the dream shake. The pairing of 7-foot-6 Yao Ming and scoring sensation Tracy McGrady was supposed to take the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals if not the NBA Finals. However, nagging injuries and simple playoff disasters have thwarted the Rockets postseason hopes every year since.

The Rockets are hoping their stingy defense (94.4 points allowed) is able to confound the Trail Blazers. Really, just escaping the first round has to be considered a victory for this franchise which is pretty close to coming up with a curse to explain the annual ineptitude.

The (6) Dallas Mavericks are playing…to justify the Jason Kidd trade.

Jason Kidd was supposed to push the Mavs over the edge last season and return them to the NBA Finals to redeem themselves after a dreadful breakdown in 2006. That year the Mavs dropped four straight games to the Miami Heat after easily winning the first two games of the series. The next season the Mavs, with the best record in the NBA, lost in the first round to the Golden State Warriors. Since then Avery Johnson has been fired and the team has seemed to have dropped out of the elite as Dirk Nowitzki has struggled to play like an MVP again.

The trade for Jason Kidd was supposed to give the team the experience it needed to return to the top, but instead Kidds ailing quickness resulted in a first round debacle in 2008 in which Chris Paul owned the old man. This season the Mavs need to make a strong play to vindicate Mark Cuban and to save him from his continual slide from the fans favorite team owner to another crazy billionaire taking unwise risks (isn’t great when the sports world mirrors the real world).

The (7) New Orleans are playing…to give Chris Paul more experience for the future.

The Hornets franchise is undoubtedly tied to the future of Chris Paul, the best point guard in the NBA. His future is a bright one and thus so is New Orleans’. This season the team was struck with an injury bug took out Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler, and seemingly every other player at least ten games. This is not the season to watch for the Hornets to mount a strong challenge for the championship, so fans should really just be watching as Paul gets even more playoff experience in his young career that will surely come in handy when the Hornets have had enough time to play well together down the stretch.

The (8) Utah Jazz are playing… to prove that they can compete despite having close to no athleticism.

This Jazz team is an oddity in a time when basketball is dominated by smooth players that gracefully fly to the basket. The Jazz have a roster full of strong players like Mehmet Okur, Paul Milsap, Matt Harpring, and Andrei Kirilenko that hardly make the game look beautiful. Still, Deron Williams continues to make this team a winner thanks to his impassioned passing and will to win.

Unfortunately, the only way this club can defend anybody is by playing prison rules. The first round match up with the Los Angeles Lakers is series of contrast – tall, lean, athletic players in gold and blue and short, brutish players in blue and white. The Jazz are not going to win this series, but they can at least put up a good show and wait until next season when Williams can play 82 games healthy and work with what he has to somehow create a winner again.

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Forget the Celtics-Lakers, Watch These Regional NBA Rivalries

Whenever anybody thinks of the NBA and can’t miss games, the same match up comes up, the game between the purple and gold Los Angeles Lakers and the green and white Boston Celtics. This is perhaps the only nationally recognized rivalry in basketball, which is odd considering that the NBA has been around since the 1940s (which is also why everyone was so excited about last year’s finals). However, if you live near a city lucky enough to have one of these professional basketball teams you know that there are plenty of regional rivalries that have as much passion or are revving up to be as intense as the ultimate East Coast-West Coast showdown.


Down in the deep swampy South there is a great rivalry brewing that pits two of the NBA’s younger teams against each other. Yes the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat seemed to have been created in conflict. Many may not remember, but the Orlando Magic almost never came into existence. The NBA was looking to expand by a total of three teams in the late 1980s with only one team in Florida. That team was going to be located in Miami, but at the last second David Stern decided that the league could use a game in Orlando as well.

Thus, in 1988 the Miami Heat played their inaugural season and a year later the Orlando Magic played theirs. It is a historical match up of South Beach babes versus the Walt Disney World suburbia in the swamp lands known as Florida. The franchises have rarely been competitive, with the Shaq-Penny Hardaway days in Orlando giving way to the Pat Riley Atlantic Division champion days to close the 20th century.

So far the championship scale is in the Heat’s favor, 1-0, but both teams are becoming something special. The Orlando Magic are on top of the division with the league’s best big man Dwight Howard, a poor man’s Magic Johnson in Hedo Turkoglu, and the underscored Rashard Lewis. They look poised for a slew of Eastern Conference runs with Howard and Lewis tied up for five years and Turkoglu for the next two.

The Miami Heat are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference right now with a 39-35 record and do not have nearly the roster the Magic have, but they do have Dwayne Wade. Wade may not as much of a physical impossibility as LeBron James, but at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, he is imposing his will and is leading the league in scoring at 29.9 ppg and has a complete game with 7.5 assists, 5 rebounds, 2.27 steals, and 1.38 blocks a game. In last night’s 101-95 loss to the Magic he kept he Heat close with 42 points.

The team was supposed to be a lottery bound this season, but the “Will of Wade” has made this club of rookies and unwanted vets a real competitor. This timely rivalry should be worth watching as long as Wade and Howard are playing, giving it a David versus Goliath theme every time on the court.

East Coast

This region is rightfully dominated by the Boston Celtics, but a little microcosm of bad feeling exists between the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets. The Knicks are one of the most recognizable basketball franchises in the world, and, until Jason Kidd worked some magic, the Nets were the forgotten team across a state border. Now, after Isiah Thomas’s disastrous term as team president, the Knicks are driving fans away. Many of those fans ended up loving the Nets. Add in a new Nets owner named Jay-Z and plans to move the team to Brooklyn and you have a regional rivalry worth watching in the New York City Metropolitan area.

Last season this rivalry was a chance to watch two dreadful teams disgrace the game of basketball, but this year the seeds of change have been planted and are already startinfg to bloom. Yes, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni had fans thinking playoffs earlier in the year. The team has dropped off since and landed firmly in the lottery, but the style of play is once again beautiful and the future may include a player named LeBron James. The Nets have an exciting young point guard named Devin Harris (22.2 ppg and 7 apg), a possible future All Star center in Brooks Lopez (12.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, and 1.8 blocks in his rookie season), and they have Vince Carter for four more years with an un-tradable contract (4 years, nearly 15 million per season).

Both teams are going to improve dramatically over the next couple of seasons and get to do battle for the title of best team near New York City. I may not want to watch either team in many other games, but I definitively want to see these teams play each other.


This region always seems to involve the Bulls. It was once a matter of whoever could beat the Bulls and Michael Jordan, then (after a very dark period) it was if the young Bulls could make a run at the Detroit Pistons, and, even now while the Cleveland Cavs are the best team in basketball, the best rivalry exists on I-94 between the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bulls have the probable rookie of the year winner in Derrick Rose and are quickly trying to forget the players’ revolt against Scott Skiles. The team is making a run at the 7th or 8th seed in the playoffs for a first round exit against the Cavs, Celtics, or Magic.

The Bucks, meanwhile have hired Skiles and are trying to make a team loaded with talent turn its losing ways around. They have Andrew Bogut, who will never be a great player, but could be a very good one; Richard Jefferson, whose future as a Buck is unclear; and Charlie Vilanueva, who shows flashes of brilliance as well as periods of complete ineptitude.

This rivalry dates back to the Jordan days and has been a treat for years. The only rationale is the logistics, the 92 miles of expressway that separate the Midwestern cities. While the Cavs games will surely be given national prominence (as they should), this game seems to bring up local latent frustrations from the Bears-Packers games during the NFL season.


The Southwest rivalry lies in the heart of Texas, where three teams are perpetually fighting for chance for the title. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, and Dallas Mavericks have been playing for the state title as well as the state title since the inception of Mark Cuban’s ownership of the Mavs.

It seems every single year since the beginning of the 21st century all three of these teams make a serious playoff run. Though the Spurs almost always come out on top thanks to four NBA titles since 1999, each season the Mavericks have a shot and the Rockets look like they may actually get out of the first round.

I like to look at this like a family with three brothers. The Spurs are the oldest brothers whose accomplishments are tormenting the younger two. The Mavericks are the middle brother that has defied conventional wisdom and is a constant threat to the oldest to best him. The Rockets are the youngest brother, constantly getting into the game and almost making a huge impact, but ultimately a few years away from stomping over the older two.

This tri-team rivalry seems to be a battle of the big men, with Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Yao Ming sure never to leave the Spurs, Mavs, and Rockets. As long as the big state of Texas dominates the bigs this rivalry should dominate the region, though the battle of the unknowns, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the unappreciated, the New Orleans Hornets, could be pretty interesting to watch in a couple of years.

West Coast

It is difficult to find a real rivalry out here since the Los Angles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, and Sacramento Kings seem to spend most of their time, historically, looking for a way to shoot themselves in the foot. Looking at the Pacific Division the Lakers-Suns season series seems like an obvious must-see, but the Suns always seem more of a true Southwest franchise and they have been thwarted by the Spurs more often than the Lakers. No, the regional rivalry out west is between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Portland Trail Blazers.

If you look back at the Trail Blazers history you will see a team with Clyde Drexler, Tery Porter, and Jerome Kersey that almost broke through the Lakers, Pistons, and Celtics dominated era. They were outrun by the aging Showtime Lakers and simply could not become the team in the Western Conference to replace them.

Then in the late ‘90s and early 2000s the Trail Blazers were loaded with players like Rasheed Wallace, Arvydas Sabonis, Damon Stoudamire, Kenny Anderson, and Scottie Pippen. Though this team would shortly become the Jail Blazers, they were first the only real challenge to the Shaq-Kobe era Lakers championship teams. A terrible job by the referees in the 2000 Western Conference championship series robbed the team of an assured NBA championship and set things in motion for the unstable personnel to eventually destroy the once promising roster.

Now, the Trail Blazers have again created a superb young roster. They have guard Brandon Roy, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, a potential defensive stopper in center Greg Oden, the super-athletic Travis Outlaw, and a European sensation in Rudy Fernandez.

This is definitely a one-sided rivalry right now, but this potential is widely recognized throughout the NBA and with the Lakers set for the future with Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum (if he can ever stay healthy) this is definitely the game to watch now and in the future. Let’s not forget, this is the game the NBA chose to open the season with and the NBA front office is a bunch of scheming marketers who know what games matter and what games do not.

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