AP Photo/David Richard

Could you have asked for a better start to the Conference Finals? The two games so far were decided by a total of three points, we saw 40 point games from Kobe and Lebron (and a just as impressive effort from Melo), a broken shot-clock by Dwight Howard, a 70-foot hail Mary from Mo Williams and a game-saving steal from Trevor Ariza. The two teams that have cruised so far these playoffs – Cleveland and Denver – both lost, and all things point to getting two very hotly contested series.

Game 1 – Lakers v Nuggets

3 votes – Kobe Bryant. Kobe carried his team in a game where he didn’t even play that well – by Kobe standards, that is. He didn’t shoot the lights out, it was a hard-fought forty. That, combined with the fact that no other Laker really stepped up offensively makes me struggle to see how Denver – the highest scoring team in the playoffs – managed to lose this game. I’ve heard too many people blame it on the refs or the Nuggets poor FT shooting – me, I’d rather point the finger squarely at Anthony Carter who’s massive brain fart cost his team the game. You can’t control the referee’s whistle, but you can control a fu**ing inbound pass at half court.

2 votes – Carmelo Anthony. Melo spent too much of this game smiling after he made his buckets. His offensive outburst was almost the opposite to Kobe’s – it wasn’t hard work, it was effortless for Melo. He shot 14-20, which only begs the question why he didn’t take more shots? My good pal Chucko emailed me after the game, saying that the headlines “Kobe out-duels Melo” was grossly unfair because Melo was so much more efficient and had a better game. My answer: if Melo really did have the better game he would have found a way to score more over the final minutes. He didn’t, Kobe did. That’s the ball game.

1 vote – Pau Gasol. Really didn’t demand as much of the ball as I thought he should have, didn’t exactly contain K-Mart/Nene, and didn’t bring the inner-caveman that I demanded of him. But he did help the Lakers control the boards in this one, grabbing 6 offensive boards out of his 14. Almost gave this vote to Ariza for his defense – not only that game-winning steal, but for the earlier steal out of nowhere against Melo that resulted in a breakaway dunk. Watching him now I can’t help but wonder, what difference would he have made in last year’s finals?

Game 1 – Cavs vs Magic

3 votes – Rashard Lewis. Mark this down as one of the best clutch performances so far these playoffs. That game winning three was plain cold-blooded, Varejao was right in his grill. Here it is again:

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Lewis was 7/8 in the second half and didn’t miss a three. This was after scoring only five points in the first half and looking like he had total stage-fright. It says a lot about the Magic’s mental resolve that guys like Turkoglu and Lews, who both stunk early in this game, can come back and carry the team to victory. This Magic team just keeps surprising me. That Game 6 win in Philly without Dwight, the Game 7 win against the Celtics IN Boston, and now beating the team that never loses at home in Game 1 on their floor. This is all very important. In the course of two and a bit rounds of playoff basketball they have fundamentally shifted the basketball world’s perception of them – they are no longer the post-season chokers who embarrassed themselves two straight years against Detroit. They have been clutch, they have won big games, on the road, without their superstar, against the odds, with a coach that was supposed to be the master of panic. It is character building, and it has utterly surprised me.

2 votes – Dwight Howard. The lone-hand early on – without Dwight that Cavs lead would have blown to 20+ and the game might have been over. That thing I said about Dwight vs Ilgauskas looking him playing against your dad? Pretty much exactly what happened today. Ilgauskas is a very stressed man right now.

1 vote – Lebron James. Guess we gotta give Lebron a vote for a 49 point explosion. He was unreal in this game, switching between facilitator and scorer so effortlessly that it never seemed like a concious decison – but I guess that’s what we get from LBJ every game now. The perplexing thing is how the hell did Lebron let this game slip? Since when does Lebron James lose in a 49-point effort? I’m not going to blame one posession, but the last one of the game was a good example of the double-edge sword that is Lebron’s unselfishness. He drove to the lane and dished it to Delonte West in the corner – maybe not such a bad decision because West hit a three a minute earlier. But really, a Delonte West three instead of a Lebron shot in the key? If that was LA, Kobe is taking that shot every time. I don’t want to get into the whole debate that erupted when Lebron did the same thing by passing to Donyell Marshall a few years back (see Day 30 of 2007 playoffs) – the fact is, if West’s shot goes in Lebron looks like a hero. But I do find the whole scenario interesting. Passing to your teammates on a potential game-winning shot: Lebron probably sees that as “trust”. Kobe probably sees that as “risk”.

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