A Lakers-Heat showdown in Tinseltown might be just what all NBA fans want for Christmas, but here’s what we have to say about a Lakers-Heat Finals for this June:
Call me Scrooge, but just because the league’s two marquee teams are playing on Saturday doesn’t mean that Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and the two-time defending champs will automatically be going up against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
It’s not just me, either. There are a number of pro basketball experts who can see other teams representing the East and West in another six months when the Finals are played.
No surprise, the Celtics are still seen as the team to beat in the East by many observers. They have the experience normally needed to win a title, having won it all in 2008 and advanced to Game 7 of the Finals last June, and the key to their defense, Kevin Garnett, seems to be moving better than he did last season.
Sitting atop the East for most of the season, the Celtics have established themselves as the class of the conference, even as they await Kendrick Perkins’ return from a serious knee injury that KO’d him from Game 7 against the Lakers. Because of their great start, some experts, including ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy, have jumped off the Heat bandwagon and climbed aboard Boston’s.
“I know earlier I had Miami as the clear-cut winner,’’ Van Gundy said. “But I look at the Shaquille O’Neal signing and how well the Celtics fit together, and I can see them winning the Eastern Conference. I think it’s their starting lineup, first off. Along with the Lakers, it fits together about as well as a starting lineup can. They’re balanced. They’re a very good defensive team. And they shoot the highest field-goal percentage in the league. To compete with Miami, you’ve got to have a ‘two’ and a ‘three’ who can both score and also want to compete against Wade and James. With Allen and Pierce, they have that.’’
Frank Layden, the old Jazz coach and general manager, thinks Boston has an advantage over Miami in one critical area.
“The experience of having been there and won it all a couple of years ago is going to help them in the end,’’ Layden said. “That’s where the Lakers have an edge over all the teams in the West, besides having Kobe Bryant. The fact that teams have won titles before is huge. It’s two different seasons, the regular season and the playoffs, and teams that have won it before usually have the upper hand.
"Miami is having fun now, they’re able to go up and down. But it’s a little tougher when you get to playoff time. They’re good; there’s no doubt about it, with those three guys. But it’ll be interesting to see what happens in the playoffs, especially if they have to face Boston. Doc Rivers does a good job. The Celtics are unselfish, they play hard, they’re very aggressive and they’ve got a lot of spirit. If there’s one team in the East that Miami is going to have trouble with, it’s the Celtics.’’
The other team in Florida, Orlando, blew up its team last weekend. In the opinion of some longtime NBA watchers, the Magic potentially have put together a more dangerous team than the one that went to the Finals in 2009.
“The Magic were a team you had to consider at the start of the season, and now that they made two huge deals and brought back a lot of firepower, they’re definitely a team that can potentially win the Eastern Conference,’’ said Hall of Famer Rick Barry. “They’re going to have to go through a transition similar to what the Heat needed to do when they first came together. They’ve got to get used to one another. But they’ve got a little more than four months to get to understand how they have to play together. So they’ve got plenty of time to do that.
“It’s all going to come down to how well they do at the defensive end,’’ Barry added. “Offensively, with Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson now playing with Dwight Howard, they’re a much more dangerous team than they were before they made the deal, when they had Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis. All those guys they brought in are capable of scoring 30, on any given night. So it’s a pretty explosive team.
"The guy I really like is Turkoglu, who was a big part of getting them to the Finals a couple of years ago. A few years ago, I talked to him and told him that if he started going to the basket more, he’d make himself a threat and open his game up to where he’d be more than just a perimeter player. He’s done that. He’s a tough cover for most teams because of his size and ability to put the ball on the floor and create. Knowing how Stan Van Gundy coaches, I’m sure he’s going to emphasize defense and make them understand that they can go a long way if they do what it takes to win, defensively. Because when it comes to scoring, that will come easily for them. They might have as much firepower as anybody now.’’
Chris Webber is another former All-Star player who thinks that the Magic’s recent deals can lift them past the Heat.
“I wouldn’t want to play Orlando in the playoffs,’’ said Webber, who now can be seen on NBA TV. “They were not as good when they didn’t have Hedo Turkoglu the last few couple of seasons. But when he and Dwight Howard run the pick-and-roll at the top of the key, he’s one of the top guys in the league. Nobody can step back and shoot the 3 like he can. And he’s also a great passer when he has the ball because then Jameer Nelson doesn’t have to be a pure point guard in that situation. He can score more when Hedo can work with the ball. Hedo’s size and skill-set really makes Orlando a difficult matchup.’’
In the Western Conference, the Mavs have surprised everyone by posting more quality wins –10 — in the first third of the season than any other team. So far, Rick Carlisle’s team has defeated Miami at home and on the road; Boston; Utah at home and on the road; San Antonio on the road; Atlanta on the road; Denver on the road; Oklahoma City on the road and New Orleans at home.
“I see Dallas as a real threat,’’ said Knicks president Donnie Walsh. “I think they can beat anyone in the league. I really like them because they’ve really improved their team with the addition of Tyson Chandler. He’s really helped them a lot and you can see the difference he’s made when you watch them. He’s a legitimate shot-blocker and a great athlete. You can also throw lobs to him and he gets them and dunks them. He’s been a huge addition.’’
Chandler has been averaging a team-high 9.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in only 27 minutes per game. He’s been a stellar defender, with his presence helping to cover for Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive weaknesses. Overall, the Mavs are also one of the top defensive teams in terms of field-goal percentage defense. Last year, they allowed opponents to make 46 percent. This year, with Chandler anchoring the back line, they’ve limited opponents to 43 percent, including stifling the Heat to only 40 percent shooting to end the Heat’s 12-game winning streak earlier this week in Miami.
“Chandler was hurt last year in Charlotte, so you didn’t see this kind of play from him,’’ Walsh said. “But he’s 100 percent healthy now. So that makes a difference. They had a lot of good players before him. But when you take what they had, with guys like Nowitzki and Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, and now you put a young center who is athletic and an active shot-blocker, that makes a big difference for them, especially on the defensive end.’’
As much as Walsh and other experts, including Charles Barkley, think the Mavs have the best chance of stopping the Lakers’ three-peat bid, another team in Texas, with championship pedigree, is also getting a lot of attention for its amazing start. The four-time champion Spurs won 24 of their first 27 games for the best start in their history. They are also shaping up as a team that will challenge LA.
The Spurs’ championship trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is healthy, with Duncan making the most of his reduced playing time. Ginobili took the summer off from international competition for Argentina to get his ankles healthy, and he has shown renewed spring in his weary legs from the start. Richard Jefferson has rebounded from a dismal first season in San Antonio with some rejuvenated play.
“I like San Antonio because they’ve got the championship mettle,’’ said Boston’s Hall of Famer, Kevin McHale. “They’ve won championships and they’ve been together, so they’re not going to run into the playoffs and be afraid to be there or be intimidated by the Lakers. None of those emotions will go through them, because once you’ve had success, you then get a workmanlike approach that comes when you’ve won. As much as Oklahoma City gave the Lakers a series in the playoffs last year, they were just excited to be there. It’s those veteran-laden teams that have won that won’t be intimidated by the Lakers and won’t roll over and die if they lose a game in the playoffs to the Lakers by 20 points.’’
TNT’s Kenny Smith, who won two rings with Rockets in the ’90s, also likes the Spurs.
“The Spurs are for real,’’ he said. “They have already proven that they are injury free. They have proven that when the playoffs start you only have to win four games over a week and a half. That is what makes them dangerous. Those players are saying, ‘Not only can we win over a week and a half, but we are winning over the long haul of the season because we took the summer off from basketball and just worked out. We didn’t stop playing basketball, but we worked on our individual games, didn’t play any team sports, didn’t go anywhere else, we worked on our game.’
"The Spurs basically say, “Most teams are dumb.’ They say, ‘We are going to take good shots every possession, and we don’t think you’re disciplined enough to do that to beat us. We don’t think that you’re smart enough to make good plays for 48 minutes.’ They bank on the fact that they don’t have as much talent as everyone. But you will take dumb shots and quick shots and play out of character. The Spurs will be there, and the Los Angeles Lakers will have to contend with them.’’