Posted Dec 24 2009 6:05AM
From opening tip to the final buzzer, the Cavs at Lakers is all about the high-level showdown between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Who throws down the meanest dunk? Who tosses in the most ridiculous 3-pointer? Even during the TV commercials, you'll want to keep your eyes glued to the big screen to see how the world's most famous babysitters handle their latest adventures with L'il Dez.
While Nos. 23 & 24 will get most of the TV close-ups, the key matchup will be in the middle between Pau Gasol and Shaquille O'Neal. Last season, while Kobe (21.5 points) and LeBron (18.0) scored below their season averages in the head-to-head showdowns, it was Gasol, with a combined 40 points and 25 rebounds, who made the difference in a pair of Laker wins.
If you squint your eyes just enough when Boston visits Orlando and try to picture him in a red suit with white fur trimming, isn't it easy to believe that Santa finished delivering his presents and then decided to spend the afternoon on the Magic bench? After all, who's jollier than Stan Van Gundy, who promised to drop his negativity after a chat with Dwight Howard and then just laughed when Rashard Lewis didn't want to go back into the game?
Firing away from behind the 3-point line is hard-wired into Orlando's DNA and the Magic's success or failure in any given game is going to rise or fall with the output. Mikael Pietrus went 4-for-4 and the Magic made 10-for-22 (45.5 percent) when Orlando took an 83-78 decision in Boston last month. The Celtics, still looking to avenge last spring's playoff loss, managed to connect on just 2-for-19 from long range that night.
Now that Jermaine O'Neal is healthy again, Michael Beasley is blossoming, Dorell Wright is finding his place and Quentin Richardson has been solid, all eyes are on Dwyane Wade as the Heat enter Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. Is D-Wade simply lacking physical conditioning, as Pat Riley suggests, or is the falling off of his efficiency numbers from last season cause for alarm with free agency drawing near?
It's about the only place from which Danilo Gallinari hasn't yet attempted a 3-pointer this season as he leads the league in shots from behind the arc. In their second straight season of essentially treading water and waiting for the "Summer of 2010 Free-agentpalooza," the second-year sharpshooter can light it up with a bucket load of 3s at any time to make the Knicks a handful.
It's still early, but when the Suns host the Clippers, keep an eye on the venerable Steve Nash and see if you don't think he's playing at the level that earned him back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. Back in those days, Nash averaged 17 points and 11 assists and shot 50.5 percent from the field and 43.5 on 3-pointers to win the hardware. Now he's averaging more than 18 points and 11 assists and shooting better than 53 percent from the field and 43 percent behind the arc and has Phoenix back in the top half of the West standings.
And don't bother to pout for the Clippers, either. After losing top draft pick Blake Griffin to a fractured knee and stumbling to an 0-4 start, coach Mike Dunleavy's team is quietly getting things together. Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Baron Davis, Al Thornton and Marcus Camby are cruising below the radar and are a sleeper pick to make some noise when Griffin makes his belatedly debut, probably in January. Find a seat now, before the bandwagon gets crowded.
When the Nuggets come visiting in Portland on Christmas night, will Andre Miller be feeling as ignored as that sweater from Grandma now that Jerryd Bayless is looking like the Blazers' favorite new toy? It was one thing to be battling for favor with coach Nate McMillan and minutes on the floor against Steve Blake. But the 21-year-old Bayless, with all of that raw speed, could be staking his claim as the real Portland quarterback of the future.
It's certainly entertaining to watch Carmelo Anthony at the offensive end of the floor. You'll get plenty of chances to shake your head and drop your jaw when he goes strong to the basket or gets into a rhythm and starts stroking in that sweet-looking jumper. But for a real measure of where Anthony has grown over the past two seasons, watch him on defense. He's rotating quickly, making the right switches, boxing out, making steals and doing all of the things that win playoff games.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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