Kobe going for title No. 5 vs. Celtics

Sam Smith at Bulls.com

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Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant goes for championship No. 5 to equal Magic Johnson and one behind Michael Jordan.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

It will be the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics… again! Are we supposed to be excited about this NBA Finals? Kobe goes for championship No. 5 to equal Magic Johnson and one behind Michael Jordan. OK, that’s something.

Can the Lakers avenge 2008? Yawn. We expected the Lakers to be here. But I have to say hardly anyone expected the Celtics. Everyone looks good when they’re winning, and it’s been a more impressive path for the Celtics, beating Dwyane Wade and the Heat, LeBron James and the Cavs—and making LeBron give up—and then Dwight Howard and the Magic. Heck, the Celtics took care of just about all the MVP voting. Do they have enough left?

It should be interesting in an academic way, at least. No way Derek Fisher can handle Rajon Rondo. So does Phil go with Artest or Kobe on Rondo, at least in spurts? The Lakers don’t like to run much, but that’s when Boston is most vulnerable. If they set up their defense, they’re pretty tough to score on. Not generally a team that closes out on shooters great, they have in these playoffs. Kevin Garnett has shown at least he can stop Antawn Jamison and Rashard Lewis, but what about Pau Gasol? The Lakers didn’t like the Celtics’ physical play in 2008 and Pau didn’t drop that soft label until last year’s Finals. Can the Celtics make him cry again? It looks like Andrew Bynum is going to limp through another series, and I’d sure let Artest keep shooting.

Before the season, I picked a Lakers/Celtics Finals with the Celtics to win. But that was before I saw Garnett hobbling around. By midseason, I switched to Cavs/Lakers with Cavs winning. Never mind. Kobe’s mad again and has it going with 30 or more in 10 of his last 11 playoff games. I had the Lakers going down in either case, so I’ll stay with that. Celtics in six. Otherwise, how does my LeBron to the Lakers thing work out?

Before we open the Finals Thursday, he’s a look back at the best of this season’s playoffs. It hasn’t been a great one with several sweeps. But there was some great stuff. Here were the highlights:

1. Kobe in Game 6 over the Suns. It wasn’t just that refuse to let his team lose and making amazing shot after shot and nine points in the last minute-plus to close out the Suns. After a rough playoff start with injuries, Kobe’s back on top of the NBA. LeBron just finished his seventh season, which is when Jordan won his first title, and LeBron has yet to win a Finals game. Kobe keeps lifting his team no matter the circumstance. LeBron may be the greatest physical talent in the game, but Kobe’s shown he’s the best player in the game. Big games are when you show what you have.

2. LeBron and the Cavs’ semifinals loss. This was to be the year of the Kobe/LeBron and Shaq Finals. Kobe did his part. More than the Cavs and LeBron losing, it was the way the Celtics took their hearts in Game 5 as LeBron has just 15 points and shot three of 14. Though he had a triple double in the Game 6 loss, his team seemed anxious to get away and didn’t even attempt to foul in the last minute to try anything to win. LeBron had some moments, most notably those 21 points in the Game 3 Cavs rout over Boston. But it was shocking the way the team with the best record and the MVP went out with so little fight.

3. Lakers Game 3 111-110 win over Utah. Great playoff moments usually involve head shaking or an unbelieving smile, like Alvin Gentry gave Bryant after that last shot over Grant Hill in Game 6, or just a warm feeling of enjoyment. If you were a Jazz fan you didn’t feel that way, but this was probably the best game. It was tied five times in the last minute. No, nothing like the Bulls and Celtics in 2009. Bryant and Derek Fisher hit big threes, the Jazz stole the ball to have a chance to win on an Artest inbounds pass and Wesley Matthews’ tip rolled off the rim for what would have been the winner.

4. Pau Gasol’s put back tip in to give the Lakers the series 4-2 over the Thunder and avoid a seventh game when Bryant was at his worst in these playoffs and the young Thunder was gaining confidence and the Lakers were having trouble defending their speed.

5. Rajon Rondo. There was his terrific 28, 18 and 13 triple-double and his symbolic rundown of Jason Williams when the Celtics went up 3-0 on the Magic and effectively won the series. That game also had the classic of Garnett running into and taking an elbow from Stan Van Gundy. Paul Pierce came on strong after that in the Magic series, but Rondo proved the catalyst for what the Celtics accomplished in this post season on the way to the Finals.

6. Goran Dragic’s 23 point fourth quarter to give the Suns a 3-0 lead on the way to the unexpected sweep over the Spurs. Coming off beating the Mavericks, the Spurs were looking like the Lakers’ eventual conference finals opponent. But the Suns never let them off the floor and Dragic’s amazing fourth quarter left you—and the Spurs—shaking your head. Then Steve Nash closed out the sweep with 10 points in the fourth quarter looking through one eye after his right eye was almost closed with six stitches following a Tim Duncan elbow.

7. Ron Artest’s game winner. It was the unlikeliest of all after Artest had missed a pair of ill-advised threes in the last seconds and then Artest avoided overtime in Game 5 by catching Bryant’s air ball for the win and putting it back in as Jason Richardson missed the box out much like Serge Ibaka did in the first round on Pau. The Lakers aren’t exactly blowing teams away, but they just count wins in the playoffs.

8. Manu Ginobili coming back with 11 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter after his nose had been broken by Dirk Nowitzki to take a 2-1 lead and begin sending the Mavs to defeat. After the big midseason deals with Washington most considered the Mavs a conference finals contender and even with a chance to upset the Lakers. But the Spurs were grittier and tougher and sent the Mavs home in the first round yet again.

9. Fear the Deer. The surprising Bucks without Andrew Bogut and Michael Redd long lost got 25 points from Brandon Jennings and took a 3-2 lead in Atlanta over the Hawks before losing Game 6 at home and eventually the series in what was looking like the biggest upset of the playoffs. Similar drama in Portland when Brandon Roy returned a week after knee surgery to hit a big three late and inspire the Trail Blazers to a 2-2 tie before the Suns eventually won the series.

10.Pierce’s game winner to send Boston up 3-0 in the first round over the Heat. Dwyane Wade did come back with 46 in Game 4 to avoid the sweep. But the Heat fell asleep in game 3 and let Pierce get to his favorite spot at the right elbow—didn’t they watch any of those Bulls/Celtics overtime games last year?—to make the winner and effectively end that series and Wade’s season.

I even left out my personal favorite when Joakim Noah was asked why he was being so tough on Cleveland and in one of those “duh” responded wondered if the questioner ever went to Cleveland for vacation. Noah had a 21 and 20 game in the series whose highlight probably was LeBron attempting that last free throw of the first round left handed to produce two weeks of speculation about his allegedly injured left elbow. Though you hear now LeBron was jealous of Pierce’s act in the 2008 Finals of being carried off in a wheelchair and then coming back to play minutes later. LeBron is making a movie this summer and apparently believes he is the biggest actor in the NBA.

Addressing post-playing financial concerns

-- The latest is Antoine Walker filing for bankruptcy. There have been money problems for Derrick Coleman, Rick Mahorn, Eddy Curry, Kenny Anderson and who knows how many former NBA multimillionaires. How is it possible these guys making all that money could be broke, you ask? And they didn’t even invest with Madoff or with Bear Sterns or Lehman Brothers or any number of other “legit” organizations or institutions that failed in the recent financial crisis. No matter how wealthy you are, you can go bust. But it’s time for the NBA and the players’ association to say, “No more!” This doesn’t have to happen, and shame on the NBA, and especially the union for letting down its players. There’s an easy remedy and with a new collective bargaining agreement coming up in the summer of 2011, that should be one of the priorities. Simply require a certain percentage of money in all contracts to be tied up and then protected—like pensions—with deferrals. Players are eligible for league pensions when they reach 50. But in the interim years they could lose fortunes. Plus, after your playing career is over is the most difficult time to begin to adjust to society.

Chicago attorney George Andrews, a former player agent who represented the likes of Magic Johnson, Mark Aguirre, Doc Rivers and Isiah Thomas, was one of the first to begin discussions on this two decades ago. Actually, Thomas when he was president of the players’ association in the 1980’s began work on a system to create a pot of money for retired players and also to work with the league and league sponsors in job placement.

But Thomas was fought by the top stars of the game and their agents, who wanted more money in the salary cap so the maximum salaries could be higher. Wonder who got those salaries? Those union fights were probably one of the main reasons why Thomas was left off the 1992 Dream Team. The agents for many of the top players who were fighting—and beating Thomas—helped turn their players against Thomas, and many believe that was a big reason Thomas was left off that team.

They’re all gone from the game now, and with the rash of player financial failures of late it’s time for the union and the league to do something to protect the people who do the most for them, their players.

“A responsible union would be working on something of the kind,” said Andrews, who previously proposed the unions of all the major sports working together, perhaps for some sort of legislation. “The problem with even those large salaries is players are not always equipped to make the right decisions and often don’t get the proper advice. The league cannot want to see its players in these straits. There’s a great opportunity now with the new CBA coming up to make some sort of escrow account that cannot be drawn upon until a certain age. It’s heartbreaking to see guys who made so much money having so much trouble.”

Suns use of zone makes teams think

-- Yes, the Lakers defeated the Suns to move to the NBA Finals. But the Suns may have changed some thinking in the NBA as a result. The Suns had a lot of success, if not ultimately, by using zone defenses for long stretches of the game. It generally worked better with the more aggressive second unit, but it gave the Lakers pause and limited Pau Gasol substantially. The Celtics won’t do that as they play an aggressive man to man. But you can see teams not so defensive oriented taking a harder look at the zone next season. The zone isn’t particularly popular in the NBA as, even as Suns coach Alvin Gentry joked, it’s viewed as sort of a “girly man” way to defend. But, hey, if it works… Most teams use it for a few possessions a game, but coaches generally quickly change. One of the bigger advocates of the zone in the NBA is Wizards coach Flip Saunders, and he believes the reason it isn’t used more in the NBA is a combination of fear and ignorance.

“Reason No. 1 it isn’t used much is you have to spend time on it,” says Saunders. “A lot of coaches haven’t played it and so they don’t have a lot of confidence in it. Then a guy makes two straight shots and they say you can’t stay in a zone. But they’ll make eight straight shots against a man to man and it won’t make a difference and they won’t change. A lot of coaches are not comfortable and it is a more passive defense.”

Saunders says it works reasonably well against the Lakers because it’s a good defense for the triangle offense and takes away a lot of that offense’s cuts. He admits it can hurt with rebounding position and is hardly a panacea. But Saunders says he’ll also use it to jump start the offense given the guards are on top and it can make for a good switch to transition offense. But players have to believe in it also, says Saunders. He said in Minnesota Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell routinely would call for it, but in Detroit the players were uncomfortable with it. “In Detroit we would have been a great zone team (and Saunders did get the players to use it with some success in the 2007 playoffs), but we had so many guys weaned on the man to man,” said Saunders. “(Bill) Musselman (who taught it to him at Minnesota) always said other teams wouldn’t have much time ton prepare for it because they don’t see it much. We could be seeing more of it.”

Turkoglu wants out of Toronto; NBA news and notes

-- So Hedo Turkoglu wants out of Toronto, or so he supposedly told a newspaper in Turkey. I’m quite sure the Raptors want Hedo out even more after an awful season that culminated in a late season benching and media speculation Turkoglu was faking illness and out drinking and partying. With his $53 million five-year deal, you can be sure the Raptors would love to trade him. But that’s not likely. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Vince Carter cratered again in the playoffs (the team did better when J.J. Redick was on the floor) and Rashard Lewis was invisible without a playmaking forward. And Carter has two years left on his deal and Turkoglu four. Maybe Orlando trades Carter to Toronto for… just kidding. Vince has been there and was another player who asked to leave. They give me a hard time in Toronto from when I wrote a column a few years back asking what the heck the NBA was doing in Canada. I must say I love the city once I’m there, and when it’s not snowing. But it’s such a hassle to get in and out with customs and all the silly little stuff like currency and TV differences and players keep asking out with Chris Bosh supposedly giving them a list of several places he’d rather be, though not including Cleveland, I believe. They have developed a great appetite for the NBA and the fans base is strong, but how do you keep players? … The latest in the coaching world has Avery Johnson talking to the Nets, though there is continued talk that Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau has the inside track for the Nets job. He remains vaguely on the Bulls radar and likely will get an offer from the Hornets. With Boston’s playoff run and unending endorsements from Jeff Van Gundy and Doc Rivers, Thibodeau’s stock never has been higher. … One of the bigger, albeit quiet, mysteries of the playoffs is the fate of Doc Rivers. There have been rumors he’ll take a year off to follow his kids’ sports or that he’ll replace Doug Collins on TNT. He is supposed to have a year left on his deal. Would the Celtics let him out if he wanted to go home to the Bulls? Would he leave a chance to go for three in four years if the Celtics win again? His story will bear watching. … Apparently that “back channel” thing ESPN manufactured for the Phil Jackson to the Bulls story was Jackson texting the Bulls about considering assistant Brian Shaw as coach. The Bulls get those texts and emails daily, as do all teams with openings from coaches all over the league supporting staff. It’s a requisite. The Shaw rumor is LeBron wants to play in the triangle, which Shaw knows. Although, it’s hard after Vinny Del Negro to see the Bulls bringing in another relatively inexperienced coach. I loved Mark Heisler is the L.A. Times’ line that ESPN had on its crawl, “ESPN’s Chris Broussard confirms Alvin Gentry threw up from fried artichokes.”

-- Doug Collins, not surprisingly, has jumped in feet first with the 76ers, already meeting with players. There’s much written about life under Collins, but players learn, and it’s perhaps no surprise some of the players who’ve had the longest NBA careers, like Theo Ratliff, Lindsey Hunter and Grant Hill, were in Detroit with Collins, who is one of the best at teaching players the game. Said Hill: “I've lost some athleticism, but I've learned to think the game playing for Doug,” said Hill. “I look back at Hunter, Theo, (Michael) Curry (who’ll be on Collins’ staff). We all had long careers, and that's not by coincidence. Doug wants to see everyone get the most out of their careers. Philly now reminds me of Detroit, a group of young guys who need the right leader. He's not easy, but in the long run you appreciate it and enjoy it."… Those were some awfully sharp comments to the Cleveland Plain Dealer from Mo Williams after Mike Brown was fired. Said Williams: "Do I think he deserved it? No. My question is: Who's out there that's better? To fire him, that's making a big statement. After him, you have to get a Hall of Fame coach. I thought we prematurely acted on our emotions, as an organization. I think we just could have gotten better instead of blowing it all up. Now we're starting over.” This was the second straight playoffs Williams has gagged, and you have to assume if they hope to bring back James and given Williams comments they’ll be looking to move Williams for a more reliable point guard. Given the strength at the position now, can Williams be in the top half? Doubtful. Plus, he’s much better with the ball instead of catch-and-shoot, which he has to do with James. … Dwight Howard didn’t name names after the Magic lost to the Celtics in the conference finals, but seemed to be talking about Carter and Lewis when he said, “Next year we’ve got to have guys that are willing to give everything they’ve got to get wins. In games like this or a series like this, it’s not about skill or talent, because it’s the Eastern Conference championship. Both teams were talented and skilled. It’s about who wants it most and who is willing to do it for a series. Those guys played like they wanted to win the championship the whole series. That’s why they’re in the position they’re in now.” But maybe Howard after six years in the NBA can learn to make a free throw, can pick up a move in the post or a shot and an ability to pass out of a double team. What does that guy do all summer? Great players get better between seasons, and it doesn’t seem Howard ever does. If the Magic want to improve, they won’t be afraid to demand it of Howard. … Amar’e Stoudemire averaged 6.6 rebounds in the playoffs, six in the conference finals with four each the last two games. In 16 playoff games, Stoudemire had double figure rebounds three times. Tough to invest max money in a center/power forward who averages fewer rebounds than Luol Deng. Deng averaged 5.0 rebounds in these playoffs and 8.7 the previous time he played in the playoffs.


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