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Kobe vs LeBron: A Year Delayed
by Larry Ness - 02/16/2010
The NBA resumes play on Tuesday after a four-day break for its three-day All Star Extravaganza plus a day of rest (Monday). The weekend was topped by the kind of spectacle that Commissioner David Stern, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had hoped for, a reported crowd of over 108,000 in attendance for Sunday's All Star game at Cowboys Stadium. It easily shattered the previous record for the largest crowd to watch a basketball game of 78,129, set for a college matchup between Kentucky and Michigan State at Detroit's Ford Field on Dec. 13, 2003.
NBA All Star games are usually fun and Sunday's game didn't disappoint, although Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul missed because of injuries. The crowd included the usual celebrities and athletes the NBA All-Star Game always attracts plus members of the U.S. 1992 Olympic "Dream Team" (finalist for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame) were honored on the court during the second quarter. The East won 141-139 with Dwayne Wade (28-6-11) winning MVP honors. Other stars were LeBron (25-5-6) and Chris Bosh (23-10) of the East plus Anthony (27-10) and Nowitzki (22) from the West.
The second half of the season begins with the Cavs owning the NBA's best overall record at 43-11. Cleveland won't play until hosting Denver on Thursday and the Cavs will take a 13-game winning streak into that contest, the longest active winning streak in the league. The 13-game streak matches a franchise-high and represents the longest winning streak in the league this season. The Cavs fell three games short of the NBA's longest win streak entering the All-Star break. The record (16 straight) was set by the 1990-91 Los Angeles Lakers.
Speaking of the Lakers, the defending champs own the West's best record at the break (41-13). Los Angeles ended Utah's nine-game win streak and improved to 3-0 without the injured Kobe Bryant, when it beat the Jazz a week ago Wednesday 96-81 in Salt Lake City. The Lakers host the Warriors on Tuesday night and Kobe is expected to be back in the lineup after missing three straight games since spraining his left ankle against the Denver Nuggets on February 5. Banged-up center Andrew Bynum also returned to practice on Monday and can't be far from returning.
When the 2009 postseason began, a Kobe vs LeBron matchup in The Finals was No. 1 on the NBA's 'wish list' and most viewed it as inevitable. The Cavs dispatched the Pistons and Hawks in eight straight games (7-0-1 ATS), scoring 94.9 PPG while allowing just 78.1, to reach the Eastern Conference finals. Meanwhile, the Lakers took out the Jazz in five games (lost Game 3, 88-86) but then ran into all sorts of trouble vs the Rockets. However, with the series tied 1-1 the Lakers won Game 3 by the score of 108-94, tied at two games all the Lakers won Game 5 by thirty points (118-78) and then won Game 7, 89-70.
Most felt a 'disaster' had been avoided but then the two favorites had trouble winning at home in their respective conference finals. The Cavs lost Game 1 to the Magic in 107-106 (OT) in the East and then needed a 'miracle 3' by LeBron to escape with a 96-95 win in Game 2. Out West, the Lakers struggled to a 105-103 win in Game 1 and then lost Game 2, 106-103. The 'disaster alert' was back. While the Lakers recovered to eliminate the Nuggets in six games, the Cavs were not able to regroup, losing all three games in Orlando and the series in six games. The Lakers would beat the Magic in five games in The Finals.
Are we headed for a Kobe vs LeBron showdown in this year's Finals? One would think so, although that's what we thought last year. In the East, the Cavs should easily clinch the No. 1 seed, as they are seven games up in the loss column over the 36-18 Magic, 33-18 Hawks and 32-18 Celtics. Rumors are running 'wild' that the Cavs are going to get Amare Stoudemire from the Suns and it's hard to argue that wouldn't make Cleveland even better. The Celtics look 'old' these days, coming out of the break 9-13 since winning at Orlando 86-77 on Christmas Day. It should also be noted that Boston is just 1-7 vs the Hawks and Magic this year.
The Hawks own a superb six-man team (Horford, Smith and Williams up front plus Bibby, Crawford and Johnson on the perimeter) but are likely not deep enough of or experienced enough to beat the Cavs, who swept them in four games last year. As for the Magic, the team which eliminated both Boston and Cleveland from the postseason last year, one doesn't get the feeling that Orlando is as good as it was last season. The Cavs signed Shaq in the off-season to help with Howard come playoff time and we won't know that 'answer' until late May or early June but it's hard not to make the Cavs the overwhelming favorite to reach the NBA Finals from the East.
The West's playoff-field will be crowed, as 11 teams own winning records coming out of the break. As of Tuesday morning, the 27-24 Rockets, 28-25 Hornets and the 26-25 Grizzlies would miss the playoffs in the West, while the 26-27 Heat and 25-26 Bulls would be included in the East's postseason 'party.' The Lakers open the second half with a 5 1/2 game lead over the Nuggets for the conference's No. 1 seed and any credible followers of the league surely expect LA to nail down the West's top seed. The West will provide a very interesting 'battle' for playoff seeds but not at the top.
When the "second season" starts, I can't imagine any team in the West beating the Lakers in a seven-game series. The Lakers are two games behind the Cavs for the NBA's best overall record and with Cleveland owning a 2-0 series sweep, the Cavs also own the tie-breaker for home court advantage. LA has its work cut out for itself if it plans on catching the Cavs for the overall No. 1 seed. We didn't get a Kobe/LeBron Finals last year but we will this year. Better late than never plus this year, we get the bonus of Kobe and Shaq each looking for title No. 5.
I'll return Friday with some CBB notes, including a look at some of the weekend's best BracketBuster games, which ESPN is promoting as "98 teams, 49 games and representing 14 conferences." I've got goose bumps already.
Good luck, Larry