LeBron is in, Kobe is back
Welcome to the postseason, LeBron. And welcome back, Kobe.
Sure, the Pistons and Spurs made for a great NBA Finals last year, and they would surely do it again if both get back, as expected, this time.
But for the playoffs to really be special, they need the league’s superstars to have their time in the spotlight. And make no mistake: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are the biggest the NBA has to offer right now.
Both were sitting at home this time last year, and a couch or golf course is no place to cement an NBA legacy. That can only be done in a packed arena in May and June.
“That’s a road you have to follow if you want to be considered among the great ones because it demonstrates that you’re either making the players around you better or management is putting better players around you in order to showcase your talent longer into the playoffs,” commissioner David Stern said last week.
“The campaign last year about the finals was, ‘Where legends are born’ and I think you could have said that for the playoffs. You clearly ” in order to write yourself large in NBA history ” you’ve got to be in the playoffs.”
James thought he was headed there last year before a late-season collapse left the Cleveland Cavaliers at home. Now in his third year, he’s ready to make up for lost time.
“I don’t put timelines on anything,” James said following practice Thursday. “It’s unfortunate I didn’t make it the last two years, but I’m here now.”
Not surprisingly, James and Bryant get the prime TV slots this weekend. The Cavaliers open their first postseason since 1998 on Saturday afternoon against the Washington Wizards, and the Lakers got the Sunday 3:30 p.m. EDT spot for both their opener at Phoenix and Game 4 back at Staples Center next weekend.
In the other best-of-seven series that open Saturday, defending champion San Antonio hosts Sacramento, Chicago visits Miami, and the Los Angeles Clippers host the Denver Nuggets. Also Sunday, New Jersey hosts Indiana, Milwaukee heads to Detroit, and Memphis visits Dallas.
That last one has caused plenty of debate. The Mavericks (60-22) had the West’s second-best record, but they fell to the No. 4 seed because they are in the same division as the Spurs (63-19). So Dallas is forced play a tough opening-round opponent in the Grizzlies, who went 49-33.
“The Mavericks are getting the short end of the stick,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. “They’re playing the five seed when they should be playing the seven. The fair way to do it is just seed one through eight based on records.”
Then again, they may not have wanted to play the No. 7 seed anyway. That’s where Bryant lurks ” and he scored 62 points in a game against the Mavs this season.
Neither James nor Bryant is expected to go far: Even if Cleveland gets by Washington ” the Cavs dropped three of four meetings this season ” it would draw powerful Detroit in the second round. The Lakers, the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference, won only once in four matchups with high-scoring the Suns.
But count them out at your own risk. Bryant averaged 42.5 points against Phoenix, and James finished a sensational regular season with averages of 31.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.6 assists.
“I think we’ll see the best of him,” Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “There is nobody in this league that can stop him. He’s going to get his.”
For those who prefer teams to individual stars, there’s plenty of good ones, too.
Detroit, San Antonio, Dallas and Miami have had title hopes all season, and how about this ” the Staples Center fans will see the Clippers twice before they see Bryant.
The Clippers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 1997 as the No. 6 seed in the West. And with a better record than third-seeded Denver, Los Angeles has home-court advantage against the Northwest Division champions and will try to put it to good use starting Saturday night.
Talk about California dreamin’: How about a Clippers-Lakers second-round matchup?
“I’m very happy for the city,” Bryant said. “The city is used to championships and I am as well.”
He won three in a row from 2000-02, then got back to the finals in 2004 before losing to the Pistons. The Lakers missed the playoffs last year after Phil Jackson departed and Shaquille O’Neal was traded, but Bryant made sure they would have a short absence by averaging 35.4 points and winning his first scoring title.
Jackson has never lost a first-round series, and he says the way to win this one won’t necessarily be with Bryant shooting all the time.
“It’s not going to be about Kobe getting 45 points a night,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be about how are we going to use all the talents to do what we have to do to take a team apart.”
No team does that better than Detroit.
The NBA champions in 2004, the Pistons are motivated by trying to reclaim the title after losing to the Spurs in seven games last season. Detroit won an NBA-best 64 games behind the best starting five in the NBA that included four All-Stars ” and the Pistons don’t need to be told they are good.
“We don’t change our style of play,” coach Flip Saunders said. “A lot of teams, they play one way during the regular season and their style of play has to change once they get to the playoffs. When you play for seven months one style, and now you’re going to change in a three-day span, you’re not as prepared, you’re not as comfortable.”
The Pistons shouldn’t have any trouble with the Bucks (40-42), the only sub-.500 team in the field. San Antonio figures to have the tougher first-round opponent, facing a Sacramento team that went 26-14 after acquiring Ron Artest.
“We’ve had people’s attention (for a while),” Artest said Tuesday. “I think people are going to come after us like we’re the No. 1 seed, like we’re favorites.”
The No. 6 seeds could feel that way, too. The Clippers won three of four against the Nuggets, and the Pacers took two of three from the Nets.
Washington might think it’s a favorite after winning three of its four games against Cleveland. But now the Wizards will have to get by an even more focused James, who knows playoff success is the next step to becoming one of the greats.
“I think he’s going be exciting,” Cavs forward Drew Gooden said, “and he’ll pick up his play ” if that’s possible the way he’s been playing.”
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