Finals Examination

NEW YORK, Jan. 8, 2007-- The NBA season is more than 40 percent complete.

Is it too premature to ask, "Who in the heck is going to The Finals?"

Last year the Pistons got off to a historic start and were coming off of two straight trips to the championship round. When people asked me who the favorites were, it was easy to point to Detroit's balance and experience and be done with the question.

Can't do that this year.

Phoenix has been hot and went on a 15-game tear already, but that streak was stopped by MVP candidate Gilbert Arenas and the Wizards. Meanwhile, the Wiz were playing as well as anybody in the league in December, but lost to a young Toronto squad on Sunday.

Then you have the Mavericks, owners of the best record in the league, whose 13-game streak was one-upped by Kobe Bryant's 14 fourth-quarter points that lifted the Lakers on Sunday.

The candidates continue with a Spurs squad that remains consistently dominant, a Jazz team that is playing in perfect harmony together and a group in Houston that keeps on winning despite alternating injuries to Yao and T-Mac.

And that's just the West.

What about LeBron and the Cavs? Dwight and the Magic? Miami, the defending champs, once Shaq returns? Detroit? Chicago?

Who do you think will be competing for the rings come June?

And now, these are the 10 things I learned from last week ...

1. Keep an eye on Ben and the Bulls

In the first 190 games of Ben Gordon's career the fiesty guard had zero 40-point outings. In games 191-194 he registered two of them.

Gordon followed up a career-high 40 points on Dec. 27 against the Heat with 41 points on Jan. 2 vs. the Suns. His numbers have helped Chicago, a team many people picked to be the best in the East this season, go 18-5 after stumbling out of the gate to a 2-9 start.

2. 900 levels of Zen

As Kobe did his thing on Sunday to overcome a nine-point deficit entering the fourth quarter, he helped his coach, Phil Jackson, reach a pretty hefty milestone.

Jackson became the fastest NBA coach ever to win 900 games, needing just 1,264 tries to do it (besting Pat Riley's mark of 1,278).

"It's become a game in which us elderly guys are now coaching, which was an age that coaches didn't extend themselves into when I was a player," Jackson said. "It says something about the longevity of coaches now.''

3. Speaking of Riley ...

The Heat's slicked-back figurehair, err, figurehead Pat Riley announced last week that he will be taking a leave on absence to take care of lingering knee and back problems.

When is the last time a championship team has gone through three coaches in a season and a half? Has this ever happened? Stan Van Gundy, Riles and now Ron Rothstein (who was Miami's original coach back in the Keith Askins days).

Rothstein's job got a little easier on Sunday when Dwyane Wade returned from a wrist injury and scored 33 points to help the Heat to a win in Portland.

4. What can Brown do for you?

That's what I asked myself, seeing as I'm a Philadelphia fan and all. LB, the travelling salesman of great NBA coaches, has returned to the town where he did some of his best business.

Brown takes on the title of Executive Vice President and is charged with the task of helping GM Billy King turn the once-proud Sixers into a winner again.

King praised Brown's basketball knowledge, which no doubt Brown has an abundance of, but as a skeptical Philly follower, I'm not sure how easy revamping the 76ers will be for even the wisest of sages.

5. Stars were off on Friday

When looking through Friday night's boxscores, I couldn't help but remember going to a Cardinals-Reds game during the "Great Homerun Race" back in 1998. Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. combined to go something like 0-for-6 with five strikeouts between them. Talk about a let down.

That's what fans in L.A. had to be going through when they saw Allen Iverson only score about half of his average (16 points) and Kobe net less than a third of his (eight points) when the two superstars locked horns.

It wasn't just A.I. and KB24 though, LeBron James mustered just eight points against the Bucks. It was like in Space Jam when the Monstars steal Larry Johnson's, Charles Barkley's and Patrick Ewing's talent.

6. Nets lost in the middle

With Nenad Krstic out for the year with a blown ACL, Jason Collins on the shelf with back pain and Josh Boone sidelined with migraine headaches, the Nets started 40-year old Clifford Robinson at power forward on Saturday.

Robinson played admirably, getting his middle-aged body to contribute five points and three blocks in 25 minutes of work. The real contributor in the post for New Jersey however was Mikki Moore (pronounced Mikey) who pumped in 18 points (two off his career high) and a season-high 10 rebounds.

7. A line fit for a King

Ron Artest seems to get more attention for his failed hip-hop album and mercurial temperment than he does for his playing ability and it's just not right. Look at his line against the Knicks on Jan. 2: 39 points, 15-for-22 field goals, 3-for-5 3-pointers, eight rebounds, two assists, five steals and one block.

How many other players in the league could have a game like that? Sure there's LeBron, Kobe, T-Mac and D-Wade, but then it gets harder to think of other guys capable of such versatile numbers.

8. Score one for the former team ...

Allen Iverson didn't have to wait long before squaring off against his former team as Denver and Philadelphia played on Jan. 2 in Iverson's sixth game as a Nugget. But he will have to wait until next season to get a win against them.

Iverson scored 30 and had nine assists, but he also had seven turnovers and was ejected in a 108-97 loss. The A.I. era in Denver has started out 2-6.

9. Score one for the current team ...

Changing teams has worked out for Ben Wallace just a little bit better so far.

On Saturday Big Ben won his first meeting with the Pistons since bolting for Chi-town this summer. Wallace put up 12 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in the Bulls' 106-89 win over Detroit.

10. Revisiting the Mask

Many, many readers took offense to my gentle ribbing of Rip Hamilton for still wearing his mask last week. My point was that his nose is no longer broken, and he has been quoted saying that he still wears it for good luck.

There have been conflicting reports, (which many of you readers so kindly pointed out to me), about the severity of Hamilton's previous nose injuries. I don't know how much cartilage remains in his olfactory organ, but I will ask the man himself when he comes to town to play the Nets at the end of the month.

I agree with all you Rip supporters out there, however, who claim that he wears the mask as a preventative measure to protect against further injury.

Now, without further ado, your all-time mask-wearing starting five:

G- Rip Hamilton - No way I would leave him off.
G- LeBron James - As Noel in Manhattan said, "I have no arguments with the five whatever it is, as long as Lebron "KING" James is in there. 27-7-7 the year Mutumbo broke his Cheekbone, and a career high 56."
F- Bill Laimbeer - Laimbeer was easily the biggest vote-getter. Travis in Michigan summed it up best, "Lamb was tough, physical and had a total disregard for style. The mask fit him perfectly."
F- Dennis Rodman - Luke in Sydney, Australia wrote, "Without question Dennis Rodman. He looked and played crazy without the mask, add it to the mix and he just looked insane."
C- Alonzo Mourning - He just looked so damn intimidating tending the paint with that thing on.

Honorable mention - Carlos Arroyo, Sue Bird, Andrew Bogut, Kobe Bryant, Monta Ellis, Lucious Harris, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Moses Malone, Antonio McDyess, Tracy McGrady, Harold Pressley, John Starks, Rudy Tomjanovich, Chris Webber, Brandon Williams (the Zorro look), and James Worthy.

Have a question or comment for The McTen or care to share what you learned this week? Get at me.