Finals picture hardly crystal clear
NBA Finals picture has been shaken up because of early upsets, Lakers' struggles
Winner of the Heat-Celtics series will likely come out as the top team in the East
Other topics: Zach Randolph, Tyson Chandler are now invaluable; youngest MVPs
The Lakers have been my default choice to reach the NBA Finals. I'd been assuming we'd see them meet either the Celtics or Heat in June, a dreamy matchup that would build on the tremendous following the league has been creating all season.
So what are we anticipating now?
The Miami-Boston winner is still likely to come out of the East. The top-seeded Bulls are excellent defensively, but they've been unable to score in the playoffs -- their 41.7 percent shooting ranks last among the eight remaining contenders. As long as Carlos Boozer is averaging 10.3 points and shooting 38.2 percent in the postseason, is seems unlikely that MVP Derrick Rose can drive Chicago past the peaking Heat by himself.
I'm not saying it's impossible, because the '08 Celtics looked as clunky in the early rounds of their championship run as the Bulls do now. The Hawks also have enough talent to challenge anyone in the East. The difference is that neither team knows how to reach or win a conference finals, while the Heat and Celtics are led by players who have not only done it but have spent this entire season focused on doing it again.
If the Celtics were able to come back against Miami, then their push through the East would create a terrific story and generate enormous fan interest, given the farewell ages of their stars and their appearance in two of the last three Finals. But let's look at Miami: Over the last two months this has not been the fraud team it was made out to be last summer or early this season. If you were offended by the staged celebration of their three stars in July, then you have to respect how they've grown together as a team under the most difficult circumstances. They've defended, they've shared the ball and they've attacked at both ends. Based on the difficulties they've created for Boston and the problems the Lakers were having while going 4-4 to open the postseason, Miami has been the most impressive title contender of the early postseason -- followed close behind by the Mavericks.
The Mavericks are title worthy. They have an MVP Hall-of-Famer in Dirk Nowitzki, a second household name in owner Mark Cuban and a compelling story in future Hall-of-Fame point guard Jason Kidd, who at 38 is still seeking a championship. The national audience will be let down if the Lakers aren't there to defend their championship against Miami or Boston, but the Mavs are a highly entertaining alternative.
Oklahoma City -- provided it survives its second round against Memphis -- would also provide some drama around Kevin Durant and its high-scoring style. A Heat-Thunder showdown would create a LeBron-Durant rivalry that could extend well into the next decade.
There is no sense predicting how the Finals would be affected if the remarkable Memphis Grizzlies make it that far -- because there was no predicting they'd make it this far already. They are the most impressive No. 8 seed (in a non-lockout year) I've ever seen, and should they be able to knock off the Thunder, they'll be plowing entirely new ground. There is no way of telling their impact because no team like theirs has reached the Finals in modern times.
Don't write off the Lakers. They came out of their two-game homestand looking horrible, though a few threes here and there might have changed everything. The question now isn't so much whether the Lakers can come back; it has more to do with whether the Mavs can finish them off. This is going to be a very difficult team to kill in the fourth quarter of a closeout game.
Watching them fall 0-2 in this series, I had the feeling the Lakers needed to face enormous tension in order to squeeze out another championship after reaching the Finals each of the last three years. They weren't going to win another title without surviving some kind of enormous scare, mainly because they need to be scared after being so blasť for much of this long season. As long as they aren't numb to the adrenaline created by their deficit, then they are the one contender capable of any kind of comeback, even if it means having to win four straight games.
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
"How do I inspire a bunch of guys in their 30s to compete against three All-Stars in their 20s?"
-- D.R., Boston
Doc Rivers, as coach of the Celtics all you can do is to continue to invoke discipline. Your four All-Stars have been together longer than any quartet in these playoffs, and that unity -- if it can be conjured -- can compete with the athleticism, hunger and impressive teamwork of Miami's three stars. The one thing Miami hasn't proven is the ability to win in Boston. Hold on to that advantage and the momentum can be yours.
"Is this how it ends?"
-- P.J., Los Angeles
Phil Jackson, I agree with you: Your series will return to Los Angeles. Say you split Games 3 and 4 in Dallas and return home to win Game 5. Then the Mavs will go back to Dallas knowing they must win Game 6 there to avoid returning to your place for Game 7. The pressures on both teams will be enormous. And I would think you'd like your chances in that environment. Your Lakers are in bad shape, but you aren't finished. Not yet.
"Hello? Can you hear us now?"
-- L.H., Memphis
Lionel Hollins, it's a good thing for the Grizzlies that they signed you last month for three more years. In two seasons you've reorganized that team, created a winning offensive style to fit your talent, overcome the season-ending injury to perimeter star Rudy Gay and -- most impressive of all -- you've improved the team defensively. This is more than the streak of a hot team that will flame out. This is the stuff of fundamental basketball, and there will be demand among title contenders for your services moving forward.