Monday, February 9, 2009

How the West Will Be Won

After yesterday’s highly anticipated games, I will say again what I have said for weeks or months now: the 2009 NBA Finals will be a rematch, with the losing team’s star player - and the league’s best - out to atone for the previous result. And I don’t think Kobe Bryant and the Lakers will end the season wearing rings. Nope, this year’s championship round will be a repeat of 2007, only this time LeBron James, fresh off his first MVP award, will lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

For this post, however, I will focus solely on the Western Conference.

I know a lot of people are picking the Lakers to win the title. Even with Andrew Bynum out, the Lakers look incredible right now, with recent wins over the Celtics and the Cavs on the road – not to mention Kobe’s 61 at MSG. The Knicks don't count for much, but the last two wins are important because this team’s fundamental flaw is a lack of “toughness” on the interior, and paramount to those victories was getting some contested rebounds and finishing with contact, as well as defending the post with physicality – in short, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom both looked very good. Those guys play well and Kobe hits some big shots and they don’t lose, right? What if Andrew Bynum comes back and picks up where he left off? True - in those scenarios, the Lakers are nearly impossible to beat (though I wouldn’t count on Bynum getting them over the hump in May).

The Lakers are a force in large part because Kobe Bryant is a winner who fearlessly makes plays in clutch situations. Even I will admit that he does this better than anyone in the game today. Kobe Bryant is LA’s Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger – capable of extreme calm and heroic action under even the most strenuous of circumstances.

The reason that I don’t think the Lakers will represent the Western Conference in the Finals again is because too often he has to do those things; too often he has to be great down the stretch and in the clutch. It is what is expected of him, and it is what he expects of himself. All indications right now are that you don’t want to bet against KB24 in any situation, not the way he is playing. Not after a week where he scored the most points ever at MSG, beat the defending champs in Boston, and ended Cleveland's home domination at 23-0. The problem here is that these are the first three games they have played without Bynum and already they’ve needed Bryant’s heroics. If he’s asked to do more and more during the regular season, how much will he have in the tank in May and June?

Kobe is getting more adept at scoring without taking his teammates out of the game and picking his spots, and I think that he can carry a winning team doing this, at least for stretches. What I don’t think he can do is beat other elite teams this way on a consistent basis, and this is because the better he plays the less help he gets – his genius is not structured and therefore difficult to sync with.

Conversely, San Antonio follows the lead of a different pair of stoic gentleman: Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan. These two robots go about their business, game in and game out, seemingly without thought, feeling, or expectation. The team has a system, a way of doing things, which takes all conscious effort and emotion out of the game of basketball. People hate this about the Spurs. They hate it because it makes them “boring” and “hard to watch.” Really, they hate it because it allows them to beat their favorite teams.

Take yesterday’s win over the Celtics, for example. It was a game that Boston appeared to be on their way to winning after a third quarter in which they held the Spurs to 14 points. Clinging to a one-point lead with under 30 seconds to play, the Celtics needed one more stop to secure a win. When Tim Duncan set a screen at the top of the key for Roger Mason, I’m sure Kevin Garnett and company were most worried about Duncan rolling to the basket, or popping out for a 15-foot bankshot, and rightly so – Timmy will hit either shot 80% of the time or more, taking the situation into account (I have no stats to back this up - if you don’t believe me, do your own research and post a comment). This isn’t to say Boston wasn’t concerned with Mason, just that they probably didn’t know he would be so quick on the trigger. They probably assumed he would look for Duncan before unleashing a shot himself with nearly 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Roger Mason’s stats this year aren’t that surprising, given what he did last year in Washington and considering he is playing more minutes on a more talented team this season. What can be shocking is his willingness to take game-winning shots. The Spurs system is his auto-tune and, like T.I. and Lil Wayne, Mason is showing some swag.

Is Roger Mason’s ascendance as the neo-Horry the reason I’m picking San Antonio to upend the Lakers? Not exactly. What I’m trying to say is that Spurs basketball is best in the playoffs, as evidenced by their number of titles with Tim Duncan, and the pieces in place now are just as good as any they’ve had in championship seasons since the Admiral retired. Kobe Bryant can hit big shots, and Derek Fisher is a rock, but nobody can match Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Roger Mason, etc. at the end of games, or the fourth quarter as a whole. The fact of the matter is it almost doesn’t matter who Pop rolls out there – even Michael Finley and Matt Bonner have some big jump shots in them, as long as that’s all you ask them to do. Not even one Kobe Bryant can match the Spurs team performance. He might get a lot of help in a game or two, and he might win a game or two almost by himself, but I don’t think he'll accomplish both of those things and it will not be enough to win 4 out of 7.

After all that gushing how can I possibly pick Cleveland to beat this juggernaut? My next post will explain why the same logic does not hold true for a Cavs-Spurs matchup for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

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