AP Photo/Winslow Townson

A week ago J.O wrote his piece on the potential Celtics vs Lakers Finals match up, which at the time felt like a perfectly reasonable idea. A few days later it seemed a little premature, with Orlando winning a couple of games and the Suns leveling the series at 2-2.  Now, thanks to LA finishing off the Suns in Game 6, we can resume normal programming. Celtics vs Lakers is going to happen in 2010. The biggest rivalry in the history of the NBA lives on.

I watched both close-out games for Boston yesterday and LA today. Yesterday was a complete demolition job from Boston, who gave the Magic a dose of their own medicine by bombing 10-22 threes (Pierce and Ray 8/12 combined). I thought Orlando had a sniff when Rondo, the inexhaustible engine for this Celtic team, left the court with an injury, putting Nate Robinson in the cockpit. That turned out to be the game-changing move, as Robinson scored 13 points in the second half in one of those deflating “even their crap players are playing well” moments for Orlando.  To the Magic’s credit, they didn’t cave in, even when they were down 21 points starting the fourth quarter. When your team has that many three point weapons you’re never out of a game. There were several times in the fourth when Orlando cut it to 14 or 15 points, and were only a couple of shots from getting it below 10. But each time the Celtics would come back with a dagger three, usually Paul Pierce, to kill off their momentum.

There is a lot that will be said about the Orlando Magic this off season. You can’t help but ask the question, would things have been different this year with Hedo in the line-up? Just today I see this piece on ESPN saying Hedo doesn’t want to return to Toronto – kind of a problem when you just signed a five-year deal. With Orlando bowing out, I guess you could say this was Hedo’s moment where he looked in the mirror and said “I screwed up”. At least #10 on my list of pre-season story lines has been answered.

A lot of blame will probably be pointed towards Vince Carter, some of it fair, some of it unfair. Vince proved he wasn’t the #2 dog for this Orlando team that could take over games when Dwight was struggling, or when their three-point game was failing. He proved what I knew all along – that he’s just a good complementary scorer, good at creating his own shot, but not someone who will do it enough to win games. He can have success with this Orlando team, but not as their #2 or even #3 guy. And that really is the weakness with the Magic when I look back on their playoff run. They were supremely balanced, and Dwight lead them with his defense and rebounding as he always does, but they lacked a legitimate second banana to take over games. Nelson did it sometimes, Lewis did it a couple of times, as did Carter, but it wasn’t consistent enough to know who was going to step up when the pressure reached boiling point. Last year that was Hedo. Just check these posts from the ’09 playoffs if you don’t believe me:

After leading Orlando to the win in Game 7 in Boston: “After hitting the dagger three with a minute left in Game 6 and turning in a 25 point-12 assist performance in Game 7, we can safely say Hedo Turkoglu is still The Man”.

After Game 4 of the 2009 Finals: “I was flabbergasted to see Jameer Nelson play so many minutes in the fourth when Rafer has been far more dangerous and seemed far less likely to just fall over at any time, but then it occured to me – Stan Van Gundy doesn’t really want the ball in either of their hands down the stretch. He wants it in Hedo’s hands. It’s been one of the more surprising things I’ve learnt about the Magic this postseason, just how dependent they really are on Hedo Turkoglu.”

Hedo Turkoglu was the Orlando Magic’s MVP during their 2009 playoff run. Honestly, I thought they could still cover up his absence with a healthier Jameer Nelson, a deeper bench, and the added athleticism of Vince Carter. But I was wrong. I don’t like playing the what-if game, but if Hedo is still with Orlando, there’s no way they go down 0-3. There’s no way he doesn’t pull out some flukey last-minute heroics like he did all last playoffs to rescue game 1 or game 2, or both.

But I’m probably taking too much away from the Celtics, because even with Hedo, Boston would have rolled them anyway. They did it with their defense, with their physicality, with their unselfishness, and with the resolve of a champion not ready to surrender their title. Watching the Boston Celtics these playoffs you get the feeling their playing with the mindset of a defending champion. I heard Doc Rivers say after Game 6 that “this starting five has never lost a playoff series”, as if 2009 never happened. They really do believe that if healthy last year they would have been champions, that in a different universe, they would be going for the three-peat right now.  “Obviously, one is special” Doc said, “but the other groups have a couple, and we would love to join that club. No one can ever take away that first one, but we want to join the other club, too.”

3 votes – Paul Pierce. An outstanding game from Pierce, from his sharp shooting (9/15), to his rebounding (a playoff high 13), to his passing (5 assists). He controlled the game just as he did in the close-out game of the 2008 Conference Finals, a great way to finish his best series of the 2010 playoffs so far. If Pierce really is hitting his straps, it couldn’t have come at a better time with Ron Artest looming in the Finals. That is, for me, the single more important and intriguing match up of this years Finals.

2 votes – Nate Robinson. The pocket rocket who steadied the ship in the second quarter for Boston when Orlando should have cut the deficit.  Continues the tradition of 2009 Eddie House and 2008 James Posey.

1 vote – Ray Allen. Hit a couple of back-to-back threes early in the third that crushed Orlando’s spirit. That’s when I knew the game was over. Random Kobe vs Ray historical note: check the list of all-time 3-point FG leaders for the playoffs. Kobe and Ray currently in 4th and 5th position, and you think would finish 2nd and 3rd on that list by the time they retire.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The Lakers v Suns game was a ripper, for all sorts of reasons. We got to see Vujacic smack Dragic in the face, then Dragic go on to lead an epic Suns rally, then Kobe completely murder the game in typical cold-blooded fashion. Words really can’t describe some of the ridiculous shots Kobe hit in this game, so I’ll go to the video:

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And then there’s these quotes:

“Kobe’s so good, he makes incredible normal for us.” – Lamar Odom
“Those aren’t shooters shots, they’re scorers shots. Those are best-player-in-the-game type shots.” – Steve Nash
“I always thought he was the best player in basketball, and I don’t think it’s even close” – Alvin Gentry

It was that kind of game for Kobe, capping off one of the best playoff series of his career. Some are even calling it his best, but to me that mantle belongs to the 2008 Conference Finals against the Spurs, when Kobe was in career-best form. In Game 1 of that series he scored 25 points in the second half to rally the Lakers from a 20-point deficit – the 2nd largest second-half  rally in NBA playoff history. In Game 5 of that series he scored 39, including 17 in the fourth quarter as the Lakers came back from being 17-down to win (and advance to the Finals). That was a tough defensively-minded Spurs team who draped Kobe with Bowen, Finley, Ginobili and Barry, not to mention Tim Duncan on the interior. Doing what he did to the Spurs in that series ranks above what he did the Suns this time, but it wasn’t far off.

The question I’m left asking more than anything is how Kobe Bryant, in his 14th NBA season, is able to keep playing at this level. And it’s not just an elite level. It’s a best-player-in-the-game type level. It smacks history in the face because he shouldn’t be able to still dominate games like this, and as he begins to move past Jordan in games and seasons played (he passed MJ on the all-time playoff minutes list this week), it seems Kobe’s legacy is destined be likened more to Kareem’s than His Airness. Kareem won Finals MVP’s 14 years apart (’71 and ’85), and while Kobe never won a Finals MVP early enough in his career to equal that feat, he seems to be one of the few players in NBA history who could seriously challenge that 14-year span of elite play.

Having already answered the critics by winning a title as The Man last year, Kobe now has chance to reach very rarefied air. Not only would a 5th title put him equal with Magic Johnson, probably cementing his position as the greatest ever Laker, but doing it against the Celtics would hold even more special importance. Not only because it’s revenge for 2008, or because it’s the greatest rivalry in NBA history. But because it’s against a team with three future Hall of Famers, and the only team in the league who could mount an argument for being “better” than the Lakers. You couldn’t argue that last year. Last year’s victory over Orlando left me feeling a bit hollow about the Lakers championship, and I was doubting whether they could have replicated the feat against a healthy Boston team:

I don’t mean to take anything away from LA. You can only be as good as your opposition, and this championship is not tainted in any way shape or form. But beating Orlando in five games like they did, just seemed a little… anticlimactic. Like sitting through a twenty minute porno without the money shot. If they had knocked off Cleveland it would have at least proved the winner of the Kobe-Lebron debate. If they topped the Celtics it would have proved they’d grown into the hard-assed team we thought they couldn’t become.  But beating the baby-faced Magic reeking of ‘happy-to-be-there’ syndrome, kind of proves… nothing.

This is the challenge that lies ahead for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Beating the Celtics in these finals is worth more than a ring and a championship trophy. It’s proving unequivocally they’re one of the greatest teams ever, that Kobe is peerless in today’s game. Last year’s championship was about greatness. This year it’s about immortality.

3 votes – Kobe Bryant. Enough said.

2 votes – Ron Artest. 25 points on 10-16 shooting, and I’m noticing that Lakers fans are starting to yell at him less.

1 vote – Goran Dragic. Gets the vote for abusing Sasha Vujacic, both verbally and with his play on the court. This kid has a seriously bright future ahead of him. Joe, see if you can get him in a Detroit uniform, ok?

One last note on Nash and the Suns. As my Phoenix-supporting friends will know (especially you Chucko) I never was a big believer in the Suns this year. I may be old school, but defense wins championships and the Suns simply didn’t play enough defense, or have any great defensive players, to warrant the “contender” label this season. I was wrong. I was wrong, not because of the Suns defense – it really is average at best – but because this team was the most united, most spirited, most in-sync team that has existed for several years in this league. They play with a passion from 1st to 10th on that roster that you can’t help but admire. You could even say they play above themselves, with a false belief that they are more talented than reality would dictate. But it isn’t false belief – it’s just belief. Thanks to their fearless leader in Steve Nash and the positivity of Alvin Gentry (who I’m liking more each time I hear him speak), these guys really did think they were better than the Lakers, and almost proved it. Nash said as much himself in the post game press-conference. Before the series started he thought the Lakers were the better team, but once they leveled at 2-2, he was starting to question himself… maybe his Suns really were the better team?

Watching Nash stare down blankly while reflecting on the series, you couldn’t help but feel for the guy. Again he has come up short. It’s different to earlier Phoenix teams that were expected to go further. This 2009-2010 version wasn’t even expected to make the playoffs. I’m not sure if that makes the experience more bitter or sweet for Steve… I don’t know. What I do know is that Steve Nash is one of the classiest most professional people to have ever played this game. After last year’s Shaq debacle where the Suns didn’t even make the playoffs, Nash could have been excused for a Kobe-esque rant about his organization not surrounding him with the talent to win. That he only had so long left in his prime, and that these years were being wasted. But not Steve Nash. He’s too nice, too unselfish to ever make it about him, and the cold hard reality of the situation is that this is also his weakness.

I have always believed that selfishness, in varying doses, is a necessary ingredient of greatness when it comes to basketball. The true greats all have a selfish streak in them – for some it just materializes in more apparent ways. Steve Nash on the other hand, has not one selfish bone in his body. He could be shooting hot in a big playoff game, yet still pass to guys like Channing Frye or Jason Richardson for potential game-winning threes. He is perpetually consumed by the team game. It’s the only way he knows. It is also the reason I have ragged on Nash over the years – if he really was the great two-time MVP that everyone made him out to be, why haven’t I seen him take over a series-clinching game before? Why was it Dirk who dropped 50 points in Phoenix in Game 5 back in 2006, instead of Nash being hero on his home floor? I don’t think Steve Nash can ever be selfish enough, for long enough, to win a title unless he has another alpha-male Hall of Famer alongside him. You can’t always stick to the team game for every game in the NBA playoffs and finals. God knows how many times Michael Jordan said “fuck the triangle” and went about destroying the opposition through the postseason. And maybe you’re thinking that a non-athletic white guy with a natural passing ability just isn’t built to take over games and dominate in the NBA? To that I say two words. Larry Bird.

My intent wasn’t to be harsh on Stevie in this post, really. I’m in awe of the guy more than I’ve ever been before. But I’m also not falling for the “victim” angle here, because Steve Nash has played on some seriously talented teams (several 60+ win teams I might add), and I don’t want people to forget that. What he did this season was surprising and spectacular, but ultimately he lost to the better team. The team with the best player on the floor. That’s what makes Kobe Bryant great. Over the last two minutes of this game, when Nash was on the floor playing to keep alive his dream of making the Finals, Kobe single-handedly ripped his heart out, rammed a knife through it, and then stepped on it for good measure. He wasn’t having any part of the fairytale, not in this game, not on his watch.

Call it selfish if you will.

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