What to make of Miami’s XMas win

 

LeBron James may have stood tall over Kobe and the Lakers on Christmas Day, but their is no hiding his team's flaws.

 

 

Watching Miami’s blowout 96-80 win over the Lakers on Christmas Day, only one thing in particular struck me about the much-hyped, sensationalized game between one NBA heavyweight and another supposed contender.

That thing was this: How blatantly obvious it was that the Lakers did not care.

This was supposed to be a game that declared the Lakers’ supremacy as the league’s best. It was supposed to be another opponent that the Heat fell to; one that showed that Miami still has quite a way to go, no matter how sexy its winning streaks.

Instead, this was a Los Angeles team that showed little effort or heart, aside from the first play of the game on a beautifully designed alley-oop set from Kobe to Lamar Odom.

Instead, it was all Miami, all the time. The Heat held the Lakers 25 points below their season average. LeBron James earned his third triple-double of the season. Chris Bosh destroyed Pau Gasol in the paint, opening a lot of eyes for those who suggested the Lakers’ frontcourt would deem Miami’s laughable.

The bottom line came to this: Miami, simply, cared. Los Angeles did not. This was a game that was so much more important to the Heat that I’m not exactly sure what to take away from it. Yes, I was impressed by Miami’s relentless defense and a much improved passing game thanks to an offense that is moving freer and more often.

But this was a game the Heat needed to win if it wanted to be amongst the true legit title contenders. The problem was, the Lakers so willingly let them have it. Phil Jackson might as well have been absent, refusing to pound the Heat inside or go zone to negate the driving and passing lanes and force jumpers. Kobe forced some things, showed some anger but otherwise seemed disinterested. And when Kobe and Phil are disinterested, it’s very easy for the rest of the Lakers to follow suit.

As two-time defending champs, the Lakers – rightfully so – don’t have anything to prove until the playoffs. These games mean little to them, no matter how much ESPN and the media wish to hype them up. Kobe and Co. are clearly saving their energy for the more important games in late April, May and June. After all, a third consecutive title won’t be won in December, no matter how titanic the matchup.

“These games mean more to our opponents than they do us,” Kobe acknowledged following the game, stressing a need to fix that.  “We always suck on Christmas … they should just take us off this day.”

As far as Miami, it was a solid road victory. Impressive? At the very least. Their defense was excellent. We knew that. The offense looks a whole lot healthier. That’s a positive sign.

But no matter how many wins they compile in the regular season, their true essence lies in this: They are weakest at the league’s two most vital positions, center and point guard. And until that is resolved, this is a team bound for the Eastern Conference semifinals, maybe the East finals if the cards fall right. Individual games can be easily won courtesy of individual greatness. But in a seven game series against the likes of a Chicago, Boston or Orlando, that lack of size and a true playmaker – not to mention substantial depth – will become their downfall unless it is addressed before March.

The Lakers, meanwhile, are not a cast of emotionally empty talents, which is why it’s simple to cast Saturday’s episode as an aberration. They will be heard from when it counts, and it’s because of what they DO have – superior size, depth and playmaking – that I’m not sure their ugly holiday loss should mean much in the big picture.

 

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My Top 5

I haven’t done this in a while, so I thought I’d report my starting lineup if I was given a pick of today’s players; my top players at each position in the game.

Wasn’t easy, obviously, and I think some picks may surprise some. But, here goes. Stats are compiled before Sunday’s games.

POINT GUARD

DERON WILLIAMS, UTAH JAZZ.

Anyone who knows me knows I think Williams is the best PG on the planet. His combination of size, speed and strength is second to none at this position, and he has continued to evolve as a leader and playmaker, someone who knows when to take over games. I love how recklessly he attacks the rim, and he is always looking for the open teammate, a dying art in today’s game.

2010-11 STATS: 21 games, 21.6 ppg, 10.0 apg, 4.2 rpg, 1.43 spg, 46.7 FG%, 35.2 3%.

SHOOTING GUARD

KOBE BRYANT, L.A. LAKERS.

Every year, Kobe is supposed to take that inevitable dive down back to mortality. Apparently, that’s not this year. Bryant is as good as ever, and why not? There’s not a more dedicated student of the game. Over the years, his game has evolved radically, and he is the best player on the league’s best team. I learned to stop doubting Kobe years ago. The so-called “experts” should learn to do the same.

2010-11 STATS: 20 games, 26.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.6 apg, 43.1 FG%

SMALL FORWARD

KEVIN DURANT, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER.

There’s not a better pure scorer in the league, and while Durant has struggled – by his standards – early this season, he’s still a dominating scorer and someone whose defensive ability has progressed so much that he’s guarding whoever necessary in order to win games late (see Durant on David West in the Thunder’s recent victory over the Hornets).

2010-11 STATS: 16 games, 27.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.19 spg, 1.o0 bpg, 41.9 FG%

POWER FORWARD

KEVIN LOVE, MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES.

We all know what a great rebounder Love is – he leads the league – but did we see him eventually becoming a 20-point per game scorer? Love is having a beast of a season, but what I specifically like about him is his ability as a 3-point shooter and his great passing. He’s unselfish and can step out and spread the defense and open lanes for teammates. If he wasn’t abandoned in Minnesota, he’d be on everyone else’s radar as well.

2010-11 STATS: 20 games, 19.4 ppg, 15.3 rpg, 2.1 apg, 43.4 FG%, 38.6 3%

CENTER

DWIGHT HOWARD, ORLANDO MAGIC

Howard wins this almost by default, because the lack of the true center in today’s NBA is embarrassing. But he has expanded his offensive game, thanks to a summer learning under the wing of Hakeem Olajuwon, and that tells me he truly cares about the game, something I doubted before this year. He’s still the best defensive big in the league, though Joakim Noah is hot on his tail, and his growth as an offensive player is very encouraging. He now has more offensive moves other than a dunk, as seen in his slight drop in field goal percentage. That’s a good thing, as it means he’s taking more liberty with his shot selection. His immense athleticism is such that he averages more steals per game than Bryant and almost as many as Durant.

2010-11 STATS:  18 games, 21.3 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 2.39 bpg, 1.17 spg, 58.5 FG%

Getting the rash out of the NBA’s Rasheeds

Rasheed Wallace would have never made it considering the NBA's latest crack down.

The NBA announced earlier this week that it was cracking down on “overt gestures” players and coaches offer in response to foul calls.

These gestures include swinging a fist in the air at a perceived bad call, waving off an official in disgust, gyrating in disbelief, clapping sarcastically, et cetera. The league feels there is too much whining and complaining from players, and apparently, fans do as well.

The league did this as a means to encourage respect for the game. It makes sense, because I certainly agree. But this will not end well.

In the heat of competition, emotions can get out of hand. A player may be reacting to his own act, not necessarily an official’s. He may be unable to contain his feelings about calls – not necessarily whining – considering the magnitude of the moment.

In large part, this is further proof of David Stern’s master hand in restricting players; not good considering a lockout is on the horizon, in all likelihood, next year. This only further distances players and the league.

If players already feel enslaved to the league – i.e. because of the dress code, fines and overall Big Brother environment – this does nothing to help.

It’s my belief that only a select group of players act excessively out of hand in response to officials; it does not help, however, that some of those names include players the league hangs its hat on, like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

And ultimately, no, I don’t feel the players are truly being unsportsmanlike. Again, these are players often acting in the heat of battle, at the top of their game, and I’m not sure you can curtail human nature.

As a fan, I would much rather just let the players be than for a game to be decided by some silly point off a technical free throw awarded because Kobe swung his fist in the air disapprovingly after a bad call. Let’s face it, referees certainly make their share of bad calls as well, and it will be amusing to see what happens when James is slapped for a T when he, rightfully so, acted aggressively in response to a poor call.

In the end, this will not go over well, and I do think the refs already do a fine job punishing those who do outwardly exhibit disrespect, like Rasheed Wallace and others.

It’s even more ironic that Rasheed – heck, we might as well call this whole shebang the “Rasheed Wallace effect” – retired this summer. I wish he would, for the sake of us fans, unretire just so he can smash his single-season technical foul record.

Forget the Miami Heat. That would surely be something to see.

Reading Game 7: Kobe’s legacy

The Los Angeles Lakers are 2010 NBA World Champs; repeat NBA champs since they did it thrice in a row the last decade.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers admits Boston will look different next season. His future, specifically, is the cloudiest.

It was so aggressively taxing on the emotions, these 2010 NBA Finals.

The greatest, most spectacularly intense rivalry of any sport completed another chapter on Thursday, with the Lakers taking an 83-79 decision over the Celtics in Game 7 in L.A.

Boston now holds a 9-3 advantage all-time against L.A. But this one will sting. The Celtics, in a game so ugly it was beautiful, blew a 13-point third-quarter lead and completely expired down the stretch, when it mattered most.

On a night when Kobe Bryant shot 6-of-24, the Celtics never could gain more than enough ground to avoid a Lakers rally that everyone knew would eventually come.

Though he was named the series’ Most Valuable Player, Bryant was anything but. He forced shots. He turned the ball over too much. Too often, his propensity for trying to win minutes, quarters, games by himself doomed any hope his teammates have of developing a rhythm.

In this Game 7, in fact, it was Pau Gasol and Ron Artest and Derek Fisher who made the monumental plays; the supporting cast Kobe has implied too often that he’s never had actually carried him to his fifth NBA championship. How ironic is that?

He did grab 15 rebounds in Game 7, but there were more than enough to go around. Pau Gasol grabbed 18, Lamar Odom snared seven and Andrew Bynum, on one leg, snatched six.

The common topic of discussion from here until next season will be how this series affects Kobe’s legacy. The answer? It doesn’t. He, simply, will never equate to Magic Johnson, let alone Michael Jordan.

LeBron James is the game’s top player. Kobe is the game’s top champion; it’s top winner. But he has done his winning in a watered down league lacking superior opposition to sincerely pose a threat.

The Celtics are the lone team to have done that. Kobe admitted as much, saying these Finals were the most physical and toughest games he’s ever played. But even these Celtics’ days are numbered. Doc Rivers has hinted at quitting, Rasheed Wallace has hinted at retirement and Ray Allen is a free agent.

Rivers emotionally stated that the Celtics will be a new-look team next year, and he did not say it with the spirit that would suggest it’d be for the better. As much as that should concern Boston, it should legitimately concern Kobe. The Celtics were the one team who consistently could make life difficult for him. With them out of the picture, he could win two or three more championships next year, and that’s not a good thing.

In terms of which teams helped make them and develop them into the champion they finished their careers as, Magic had the Celtics, Sixers and finally the Pistons to fight through. Jordan had the Celtics, Pistons and Knicks.

Kobe’s had the Celtics and the Spurs, to a lesser extent as I’m sure they’re now nothing but a figment of his imagination. Indeed, it’s been a much lighter ride for Bryant than the two other icons that people want to place his name beside.

It doesn’t take away that Kobe had a dramatic impact on the turnout of these Finals. He just didn’t lead the Lakers. When it came down to it, in the fourth quarter of the close games and when the Lakers needed the big plays the most, it was Fisher, Gasol and (gasp!) Artest leading the charge. Not Kobe.

Personally, I think Gasol should have been named MVP. With Bynum struggling, he still kept countless possessions alive and was a source of dominant consistently offensively, save for his putrid Game 5. Gasol kept the Celtics from getting too comfortable in the paint. He altered shots, manned the defensive glass and was a steady source of dependability whenever Kobe or Artest decided to play one-on-one offensively.

Gasol’s superior progress from the 2008 Finals to these Finals was significant, and downright impressive. He’s still nowhere near a “tough” player, but he atleast can give us reason for argument whenever a detractor flat-out labels him “soft.”

It’s a shame these Finals had to end. They brought out the best basketball has to offer, and the fact that a superstar like Kobe can struggle so greatly on the league’s most prominent stage is a testament to how badly each team so desperately wanted to win.

There is no questioning Kobe’s will to win. There is plenty to question, however, of his way of handling which way was the best to get that ultimate victory.

Five rings! Five rings! The joyous cry of all Kobe admirers. And, yes, all respect and credit should be awarded. Five championships in any sport is tough and demands our appreciation.

However, it’s not always about the number of rings. A large part is how you got there, and what you had to persevere through in order to get to that number.

Magic and Mike had it pretty darn hard; Mike, specifically, sunk a lot before he finally learned how to swim. Kobe did not, as he was born into a prominent NBA franchise that got that reputation based upon Magic’s credentials.

So, yes, Kobe Bryant is indeed a premier champion; one of the 10 greatest players to step onto an NBA floor. But he is anything but a Magic or Michael, no matter how much the public, media or he (seeing as he’s completely aware of his place in NBA history and where his name lies with each passing title) wishes.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with such failure.

Reading Game 5

The Celtics need one more win in order to claim another NBA championship.

The Boston Celtics finally got the monstrous game they needed out of Paul Pierce, in pivotal Game 5 no less. The Los Angeles Lakers finally got the breakout game they had been looking for out of Kobe Bryant.

It’s Pierce’s team that is one win away from a championship.

Bryant scored a game-high 38 points in Sunday’s 92-86 Game 5 defeat in Boston, including a dazzling 19 in the third quarter, but the difference is it was Pierce, who scored 27, who had help from his teammates.

Bryant, who accounted for 44.2 percent of his team’s offense, did not.

For that, Kobe can thank a vicious Boston defense that has made life difficult for the All-World talent. Bryant, seeing that no other teammate would match his intensity on Sunday, fired at will, many the breathtaking, unbelievable shots that often bring to mind the likes of Michael Jordan. He was brilliant, Bryant was, but if the Celtics have proven one thing, it’s that Kobe cannot beat them alone.

He needs help. He needs someone else to help put pressure on defense. That was unavailable on this night, as Pau Gasol was the only other Laker in double figures, scoring 12 on 12 shots.

Pierce, meanwhile, saw Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo (so far my Finals MVP) get 18 apiece, and Ray Allen added 12. That kind of balance, which his team lacked so desperately, had Bryant seething in frustration in the fourth quarter.

Ron Artest is pathetic offensively, and his main (and only?) positive trait, his defense, was nowhere to be found Sunday. Andrew Bynum is clearly ailing and serves little purpose aside from the occasional rebound here and there.

Derek Fisher is up and down, the bench play is nonexistent, and Gasol had his worst game of the playoffs when the Lakers – i.e., Kobe – needed him the most.

This, more and more, is looking like the 2008 series, when Kobe could depend on no one else to aid him offensively. Just as then, this Lakers team is horrific defensively. It is passive and lax and seems to not completely grasp the sense of urgency that a championship series demands; which is mind-boggling considering this is, in large part, the same team that has now made three consecutive trips to the NBA’s premier stage.

The Boston defense has been far superior, especially lately, as the Celtics won the last two games in convincing fashion, making seemingly every big play down the stretch.

L.A. has not moved the ball well, is shooting too many shots under great duress and is too slow and unaware defensively. Doesn’t exactly speak of a championship pedigree, and makes you wonder how poor of a foe Orlando must have been last season to where it could not take advantage of weaknesses the Lakers had even three years ago.

All substance and no style, these Lakers. They’ll “ooooh!” and “ahhhh!” you more than any team in the league, but they won’t get the rebound in traffic, they won’t rotate on defense and they wont assert their will offensively by attacking the rim aggressively and putting pressure on the defense every quarter of every game.

I still think the Celtics will win this thing in seven games; it would befuddle me to no end to see them beat the Lakers in three straight championship games, though I dare not deem that task impossible. But the Lakers just do not have what it takes to win two straight against a team that is making as unprecedented a run as any in NBA history (the Celtics were the No. 4 seed in the East entering the playoffs; only the 1994-95 Houston Rockets were seeded lower -6th – and won a title).

The big question for the Lakers, even after what they learned in the ’08 Finals to Boston and after such a demonstrative Finals win over Orlando last season, is that, should they flame out like they’re looking to do at the moment, where do they go from here?

Kobe is surrounded by great talent; a solid, solid No. 2 man in Gasol, a defensive ace in Artest, an interior presence in Bynum and capable role players in Fisher and Lamar Odom. He has arguably the greatest coach in NBA history manning the sidelines (I still think Red Auerbach is the greatest NBA coach ever). What more can be done?

Either way, changes, surely, will have to take place if Los Angeles goes out on a whimper, for the second time in three years against those dreaded, hated rival Celtics.

But one thing is for sure, because we have seen it at least twice already: If L.A. falls so helplessly, the Lakers can not return next season with this same roster intact. Unless, of course, they want an unhappy camper in Mr. Bryant.

Reading Game 2

The Los Angeles Lakers had no answer for Rajon Rondo, who had a triple double in Game 2 of the Finals with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.

Game 2 of the Finals produced history as well, as Ray Allen scorched the nets for a Finals-best 8 3-pointers, on 11 attempts. He hit on his first seven.

Everyone will be talking about Celtics sharpshooter Ray Allen following Sunday’s 103-94 Game 2 Celtics victory over the Lakers that evened the NBA Finals at 1-1.

He certainly deserves the attention, after scorching the nets for a Finals-record eight 3-points, including hitting on his first seven attempts.

But the reason Allen had a field day was because of a better tempo for Boston all night long; a pace that earned a plethora of transition opportunities and had the Lakers backpedaling for most of the night.

Rajon Rondo was responsible for that tempo, and he directed the game from start to finish. And while Allen carried the Celtics’ offense for most of the night, the reason he could do so was because of Rondo, whose Game 2 triple double of 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists will be overlooked due to Allen’s precision from 23’9″ (even though Rondo made the two biggest plays of the game late in the fourth: a 20-foot jumper that expanded Boston’s lead from 3 to 5 and then a block on the ensuing Lakers possession on a Derek Fisher jumper).

It always amazes me how teams can let their guard down so easily in the playoffs. In Game 1, the Celtics played horribly, as if the Lakers had to prove to them something before they deemed them a worthy foe. Los Angeles, of course, took advantage of that and ran away to an easy win.

In Game 2, it was vice versa. It was Boston that came out hungry and ferocious, while the Lakers were willing to sit back and gauge how hard they’d need to play by determining the level of the Celtics’ play.

It’s infuriating. But it is what it is. Either way, the Finals are headed to Boston for three consecutive games with the series tied at 1-1.

We’ve seen enough of the two teams to determine that this is a series likely to go seven. One team punches. The other team punches back. Neither has shown enough resolve or commitment to keeping either down and keeping the foot on the throat.

Ant any given moment, either team could fold and allow the other into the game. I suppose that’s what happens between two teams that have been hardly tested this postseason until now.

The Celtics appear easy to stop. You control Rondo, you limit their chances of success. It’s that simple. The only other consistent offensive figure has been Allen, but he needs Rondo to be pushing and creating for him to be most effective.

And when the offense is effective and running strong, it severely hurts the Lakers because then they can’t get out in transition. Instead of running out and using their speed and length to their advantage, they’re being forced to set up against Boston’s pitbull halfcourt defense. Never a good thing.

Right now, the defensive matchups favor Boston immensely. Rondo has torched Kobe and Fisher. Allen has torched Kobe and Fisher.

Fisher has done little to make his defender work and exert effort, and Kobe was pretty much a non-factor in Game 2 because of his five fouls, limiting his aggressiveness.

The Lakers are a little more difficult to get a read on. Kobe and Gasol are dynamic, and it takes the grace of God for both to be off their games on the same night. You can always have the theory of forcing Kobe to shoot jumpers, but that’s easier said than done.

Gasol is so versatile and dangerous, but lacks the killer instinct. He showed it at moments during Game 1, but that sort of intensity and fight is not his nature. The moments are few and far between.

Still, the Celtics have made this a series by playing smart defense and efficient offense. They’re getting strong bench play from Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis and Nate Robinson. The Lakers are only getting contribution from Jordan Farmar. Lamar Odom, in particular, has been ghost. The fact that he is so maddeningly inconsistent is not even a storyline anymore. We’ve come to expect his lax play and inability to rise to the occasion.

The Lakers, on talent alone, should win this series. Their adjustment will have to come defensively, as in who guards Rondo and who guards Allen. Right now, they need to try something. Perhaps Artest on Allen. Ron is not as quick or agile, but he’s a physical disturbance who could make Allen’s life miserable offensively.

Yes, that would probably open the door for Paul Pierce, but exchanging 3s for 2s at this point isn’t a bad idea, especially considering how close the games have been.

But something needs to change for the Lakers. They cannot depend on the refs to take Allen out of a game, as was the case in Game 1 when Allen was whistled for petty fouls that had him sidelined most of the night.

Whatever takes place, I’m just glad we have a series again. I thought the Lakers looked too at ease in Game 1 and I’m glad the Celtics responded accordingly, simply for the sake of the game.

For the 12th time around…

The Lakers and Celtics are meeting in the NBA Finals for the 12th time, their last being 2008, a 4-2 Celtics domination,

Are we really surprised that the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles are the two NBA teams left standing as the NBA Finals approach on Thursday in L.A.?

Such exceptional tradition surrounds the two that it only seems fitting that we get a rematch of the 2008 series that redefined Boston as the league’s top club while also serving as a much-needed wakeup call for an underachieving Lakers squad.

The Lakers and Celtics meet for the 12th time in the NBA Finals this year. Boston has dominated the series, to the point where it seems incredibly offensive to call the matchup a “rivalry.”

The Celtics have claimed 9 of 11 Finals meetings, and won the first eight clashes. The Lakers have a long way to go before they can seriously claim even ground with Boston.

This series, however, is obviously highly anticipated. The primary changes this go-round from 2008, when the Lakers were effortlessly handled in six games, is the growth and progression of Rajon Rondo, the acquisitions of Ron Artest (for the Lakers) and Rasheed Wallace (for the Celtics), as well as the maturity of invaluable role players like Shannon Brown (Lakers) and Glen Davis (Celtics).

I feel this particular matchup favors the Celtics. They have the height and size the throw at Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and to a much lesser extent Andrew Bynum. They have better guard play (particularly at point guard), and the defense is as sharp as it’s been all season.

The Lakers have the edge in versatility. one-on-one plays and size, but they’re defense struggles, the shooting is here and there and we may see huge series from Rondo and Nate Robinson against the likes of Derek Fisher and Brown.

There’s no question Kobe Bryant is the best player in this series. But is it enough? The Lakers will need a lot more than just Kobe and Gasol in this series, making Artest the wild card (in every essence imaginable). If he can get physical and aggressive with Paul Pierce and push him a few feet farther from the rim (on jumpers and attacks) and if he can limit the unconscious 3-pointers, he could be the Lakers’ saving grace toward a second consecutive championship.

But history shows that it’s never been the best of circumstances when so much rides on the hit-or-miss Artest.

The Lakers have revenge on their minds (and that’s always been a positive thing for Kobe), but the Celtics have their share of motivation as well.

Pierce is again playing against his hometown team and Kobe always tends to bring out Ray Allen’s best.

This series is as even as one could possibly hope for in a Finals series. After last year’s ugly showdown between Orlando and LA, we deserved this. The basketball gods were great to us this year.

Not only that, but tradition is once again revived in the NBA. For the next month, the NBA will dominate the headlines, and its premier showcase does not lack in passion, intensity, star power or resilience.

While I would have loved to have seen a Phoenix-Orlando Finals – I can never hate against young blood making it to the top – this is what basketball needs, at least this season where the playoffs have been so underwhelming.

Can’t wait to get it started. Celtics in 7.