Sam Smith: Rooting for Kobe vs. LeBron in the Finals

There's no dispute now--Kobe and LeBron are one/two in some order, best in the East and best in the West. LeBron's going to get there. But it's a little more unclear if Kobe and the Lakers will as well.
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Sam Smith: Rooting for Kobe vs. LeBron in the Finals

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LeBron and Kobe
Who doesn't want to see LeBron and Kobe square off in the NBA FInals?

(Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

I confess I've been rooting for a Lakers/Kobe-Cavs/LeBron Finals for one of these rare times in NBA history when you truly get the two best in the game going at one another in the Finals.

It was the one thing missing from Michael Jordan's resume, though no fault of his. There was no true star for him to conquer then. Magic Johnson in 1991 was past his prime. We didn't know how far with his HIV diagnosis four months away. Clyde Drexler? Hardly, yet Jordan tried to make it something with the threes in the opener. Barkley? Nah. Karl Malone?

Magic had Bird, which was probably the greatest rivalry in the mid-80s. And Russell had Wilt in the 60s. Wilt was headed out when Kareem came and Walton wasn't there long enough.

There's no dispute now. Kobe and LeBron are one/two in some order, best in the East and best in the West. LeBron's going to get there. But I don't know about Kobe and the Lakers.

And not just because it's 2-2 now between the Lakers and Rockets.

It's the way the Lakers have played, and been beaten by the Rockets. I can see the Nuggets taking out the Lakers as long as George Karl doesn't freeze up, which he's done in big playoff series before. The Nuggets have physical play up front in Kenyon Martin and Nene, that Birdman guy off the bench, Carmelo Anthony to offset Bryant's scoring on some level, and Chauncey Billups, who dominates any Lakers' point guard combo.

It's also where the Rockets without Yao Ming Sunday embarrassed the Lakers. Phil Jackson has done a terrific job realizing he doesn't have a defensive team, particularly with penetration from the perimeter, and taking the offensive way out and succeeding. But the Rockets exploited that with small guards Aaron Brooks and reserve Kyle Lowery, often playing both. Derek Fisher has been a liability defensively (the Lakers best game was with him suspended) and the Lakers bench isn't much help. Pau Gasol has come up marshmallow again against smaller tough guys like Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry and Andrew Bynum, the so called missing piece for the dynasty, has been benched and so out of it even he admits he's having mental issues. And it seems the Lakers have become somewhat distracted trying to erase the reputation they are a soft, Western Conference finesse team.

"I think last year they got punked by the Celtics and they don't want that to happen again," said the Rockets' Ron Artest. "That was the word on the street, that they got punked by the Celtics, so this year they came out tough. I kind of respect them elbows."

Bryant was brilliant in winning Game 3 with big shot after big shot, and if the Lakers are to win the series he'll have to do it twice more. The Lakers seem even more a one man team now than do the Cavs.

NBA remembers Chuck Daly

--Chuck Daly died Saturday from pancreatic cancer, and everyone around the NBA knew it was coming. Still, it was a shock. After all, here was a guy playing golf in Florida just about every day with regular group that included Billy Cunningham until a few months ago. Chuck had shot his age just last summer at Oakland Hills. He still had that thick shock of hair—until the treatments—and thick wardrobe. He was the most fun guy to be around who was known as "the Prince of Pessimism" and always counseled not to trust happiness.

They were an odd couple, Daly and Isiah Thomas, the gentlemanly coach into his 50s and the brash, cocky, street kid. But they made one another Hall of Famers in Detroit in a magical run in the 80s. Their many playoff series with the Celtics, Bulls and Lakers were some of the best ever.

"Had he not been coach of the Detroit Pistons we never would have won any championships," said Thomas, now coach at FIU. "And I never would have had the pro career I ended up having if he were not my coach. When he got there we went from being the highest scoring team, scoring 186 points against Denver (in the highest scoring game ever) to being the best defensive team in the league. He was a coach."

Thomas said he didn't know anything about Daly, who'd had a disastrous 9-32 run with the Cavs after coaching at Boston College and Penn and being an assistant under Cunningham with the 76ers. General manager Jack McCloskey fired Scotty Robertson and said he had the guy, recalls Thomas.

"The best impression was there was no impression," Thomas recalled. "He just came in and started coaching. No big speech, no videos, no big team meetings. Strangely enough I had been familiar with that with (Bob) Knight and Mr. (Gene) Pingatore. Too many times you run into these guys with all the other stuff. He knew the right thing to say and what he was doing. The thing I most respected was he was patient enough to wait until we could do it.

"He gave us space and a place where our personalities could come out and be ourselves," said Thomas. "We were young and the personalities they talk about today, we didn't have those then. Those personalities were evolving and developing and he helped nurture what we had. He always could get the most out of the personalities and talents."

Thomas recalled Daly being a wonderful storyteller who would relate the tales of Dr. J's 76ers falling short year after year when they were supposed to win to help the Pistons through the brutal playoff losses to Boston and L.A.

"He had the knowledge and experience to know the climb up the mountain was tough and you had to keep at it," said Thomas. "But I guess the thing I most loved about Chuck was, and I remember this but I won't say who it was, we're playing a big game and one of the guys is coming out of the game and giving it to Chuck good, cursing him out, bad stuff. I'm standing there and I say, 'Chuck, I'm sorry this happened.'

"He says, 'What?'"

"I say, 'We're down 25 and you don't have to put up with that.'

"He says, 'The best thing about being old is you don't hear so good.'

"And then he winked at me," said Thomas with that hearty laugh. "He said, 'Sometimes I don't hear so good and I don't see so good.'

"With Chuck," said Thomas, "Every day was a new day. You got a fresh start. It didn't matter what happened. He had this amazing way of moving on. It's a great talent so few coaches have."

Winds of change in Atlanta?

-- It's going to be interesting to see whether the Hawks bring back coach Mike Woodson given the historic lack of competitiveness of the Hawks despite reaching the second round. They figure to be swept by the Cavs Monday, though that's no shame compared to the way it's being done. The Hawks are 4-6 in the playoffs after the first round seven game win over the Heat. The Hawks wins in that Miami series were by at least 10 points and they lost the three by an average of more than 23 per game. Against the Cavs, the Hawks lost the first two by 27 and 20 and then were down more than 20 late in Game 3 until pulling within losing by 15. No NBA team ever has had four 20-point blowout losses in a playoffs. Yes, the team has been shorthanded with various injuries to Al Horford, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams. But Josh Smith continues to fire away long jumpers and it appears no one pays much attention to Woodson, who is generally well liked but seemingly ignored by his team. Zaza Pachulia got ejected in Game 3 against the Cavs while the Hawks still were in it despite the foul call being correct. Woodson has been overheard yelling at Mike Bibby not to pass to Smith and Bibby yelling back to take Smith out if he didn't want him shooting. Woodson and Smith have been at odds much of the season and it would seem one finally would have to go after the season.

Can't live with 'em...

-- So Dirk Nowitzki had a phony fiancée, too. Hey, who doesn't these days? At least when you're making an eight figure annual salary. It's not as easy as you think being in all that green. Anyway, this time it was Nowitzki, who had his apparent fiancée arrested before Game 3 of the series with the Nuggets last week. It seemed he didn't know who she was. No word if Dennis Green did. It seems Cristal Taylor had used eight different aliases at times and was back in jail for alleged theft and apparent probation violation. Who knows who she said she was. When regular people go on a date and ask what the person does, they generally get something close to the truth. Because why not. Not athletes, necessarily. It reminds me of the story of this woman who lived with Scottie Pippen for almost two years. Was some heiress from South America. I was writing a magazine story about Pippen at the time and he had me to the house to interview her as well. She sold me all the same stuff. I know this because when it all broke, I was on the list to testify, which never quite came about. She tried a phony assault charge and eventually left town, though I believe with some child support payments. I guess you could hire a private detective to investigate your wife to be, though it hardly seems romantic. I suspect there's this question of trust that comes up and how could you do that if you want to have a relationship. Tough stuff. So it wasn't a great week for Dirk. Or Antoine Wright, who had $120,000 in jewels stolen from his house during the series. And, oh yeah, the call.

Tough (no) call for the Mavs

The playoffs finally recovered from the Bulls-Celtics masterpiece with Glen Davis's cold blooded game winner in Orlando Sunday night and Carmelo Anthony's game winning three over the Mavs Saturday to give the Nuggets a 3-0 lead. That shot, though, was the story of the weekend as the Mavs had a foul to give with six seconds left and a two-point lead. Wright gave it. Twice against Anthony. It wasn't called, and Anthony then hit the three to win the game. It was such an egregious miss Mavs coach Rick Carlisle graciously said after the game he felt worst for referee Mark Wunderlich and the NBA issued a statement a few hours later in its post Tim Donaghy transparency saying the ref blew the call. The Mavs bench at the time, predictably, went nuts at the no call, which would have given Denver an inbounds with two or three seconds left. Wright said the referees were telling the coaches and players, who were screaming to give the foul, they should have fouled harder.

Which is how the NBA has gotten itself in this embarrassing situation in this postseason. For some reason, the NBA has gone suspension crazy in recent years, so much so that even Phil Jackson says there's been too many fouls called. That ridiculous Mavs-Nuggets game, by the way, had 61 fouls and 87 free throws before, Carlisle noted ironically, they tried to foul and couldn't get a call. By engaging in so many suspensions, foul calls, flagrant and technicals (this is by league order, by the way, and not referee decision), the NBA has made fans judge games by suspensions and flagrants. Thus the outcry over Brad Miller and Rajon Rondo in the Bulls series. It was a basketball play. Yes, Derek Fisher looked to try to hurt Luis Scola, but rarely anywhere else has that happened. Yet, the NBA for some reason has gone violation happy and thus turning attention away from the great games to the greatest outrages. It's too bad.

But that also put the Mavs in a tough position. The way the referees have been instructed to call flagrant fouls and ejections in these playoffs, if the Mavs had hit Anthony any harder, they had to fear a flagrant foul and thus free throws and the ball for Denver. So the Mavs foul, but not too hard, and there's no call. What's an owner to do? I'm suggesting Mark Cuban this time fine the NBA.

-- Yao Ming turns 29 before next season and you wonder now just how many more he can have with still another lower leg injury, this time a fractured foot that has put him out for the rest of the playoffs. This is the fourth straight season Yao is leaving prematurely with a foot injury. And he's still being considered for play for the Chinese national team this summer. Yao missed two games combined his first three seasons, but played 57, 48 and 55 the three seasons afterward. He played in 77 regular season games and nine in the playoffs this season before the injury. Though it's obvious the stress his body has to put on his feet.

NBA News & Notes

-- LeBron James gave a signed pair of shoes for Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher after Game 2 in Cleveland. James had jumped over Urlacher in his courtside seats chasing a loose ball and Urlacher failed to make the hit, which some around the NFL said has been more common with Urlacher of late. James continues to submerge the Knicks' rebuilding plan, telling ESPN: "I'm comfortable with being in Cleveland. I'm excited about it. I'm loving the direction we're in and I'm loving the teammates I have and the organization. So if that's any indication of me leaving, then somebody must be looking out the wrong box." ... Tough year for the two longtime Midwest franchises with the Bulls losing John Kerr and Norm Van Lier and the Pistons losing Daly and owner and Hall of Famer Bill Davidson. ... More evidence of it being an inexact science. Miami's 2005 first round draft pick Wayne Simien is retiring to enter the ministry. He was taken next to last in the first round just before Isiah Thomas picked David Lee. Second round that year included Lou Williams, Monta Ellis, Brandon Bass, Ronny Turiaf, Von Wafer, Andray Blache and Marcin Gortat. ... Former White Sox player now with the Astros Geoff Blum has a mohawk haircut in support of the Rockets. ... The Hornets say they're not trading Chris Paul or David West, but wasn't this the owner who traded Alonzo Mourning in his prime when he was the star of the team? Larry Johnson, too.

--The entertainer of the Lakers./Rockets series has been Ron Artest with this delightful tale about what really rough play is. "I understand it's the playoffs. I remember when I used to play back home in the neighborhood there were always games like that. I remember one time, one of my friends, he was playing basketball and they were winning the game. It was so competitive, they broke off a piece of leg from a table and they threw it and it went right through his heart and he died right on the court. So I'm accustomed playing basketball really rough. When I came into the league, I was used to fighting on the court. That's how I grew up playing basketball. It took me a lot of years to back off and understand, that's not what the league is about." Someone looked it up and found the story was true with police report and everything. See, it all starts to explain things. Artest on the MVP: "I thought Brandon Roy was gonna get it." Artest on what he was thinking when he ran over to Bryant in the Game 3 Lakers win after an elbowing incident and Artest was ejected. Said Artest: I went over there with the intention of telling Kobe, 'You're hitting the wrong person. Don't you know you're hitting Ron Artest?'"


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