For yet one more round of NBA Playoffs, the NBA world can continue to dream: a Kobe and LeBron NBA finals matchup remains a very strong possibility.
This is what we want. The 2 best players, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, in the NBA playing against each other on the world’s biggest stage. Cleveland fans think they have the next Michael Jordan. Lakers fans think Kobe is King. And even Vitamin Water can’t help but stay out of the “Great Debate.”
Yesterday’s two game sevens made the thinkable one-step closer to becoming a reality. First, the Lakers pounded the Houston Rockets in Los Angeles, 89-70. The Rockets were just overmatched. LA’s big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, finally stepped up with two stellar performances against a team playing with a 6’9” power forward at the center position. Kobe Bryant himself did not have to do much, scoring just 14 points with 5 assists, as he got an all-around effort from his team, including one of his backcourt mates, Sasha Vujacic. The Lakers were up by 10 points after the first quarter, and then up by 20 going into the half. They never looked back, as the Rockets could not even muster up a 20-point quarter until Aaron Books hit one last 3-pointer to give the Rockets 20 points at the end of the 4th quarter.
As for the nightcap, the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic squared off at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts Sunday night. With the Magic on the road, not many thought they could come away with a victory. But they defied the historical odds against them, and took it to the Celtics right from the beginning. Orlando led 27-17 after a first quarter that included a multitude of uncontested dunks by Dwight Howard. Michael Pietrus, who in my opinion is one of the most underrated players in the league, scored a surprising 17 points off the bench on only 7 shots. And Hedo Turkoglu, who with the exception of one game in these NBA Playoffs has been a tremendous disappointment to his team, came up with his best performance of the postseason, scoring 25 points while dealing out 12 assists against the Celtics. The game ended in a rout, with Orlando beating Boston 101-82.
The ends of those games and series couldn’t have gone any better for our hopes of a Kobe-LeBron NBA Finals matchup. First, it is obvious that the Lakers needed to win that game in order to stay alive in the playoffs. However, you also have to account for the fact that perhaps their series against the Rockets gave the Lakers a wake-up call, so that they will really put it all on the table when they face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.
In the East, the Orlando Magic would be the team I want to face, strategically speaking, if I’m LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. I know Boston is without Kevin Garnett, but Cleveland is a team built around perimeter players, and I think the experience of Boston’s perimeter players could give the Cavs more of a test than the perimeter players for the Magic. That being said, the Cavs facing Orlando is really the easier series for them, because Orlando is one of the worst coached teams in basketball. They execute poorly, their best player is rarely the player who has the most shots at the end of the game, and they don’t play at a tempo favorable to their style of play. A well-coached, well-oiled machine like the Cavs have to be salivating at the prospect of playing this unsystematic squad of athletes that could barely beat a KG-less Celtics team.
So all things look good as we enter the second to last round of the playoffs. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James will square off against their conference foes for now, but in 14 days (or less), we could have the matchup we wanted (and that I have been predicting) before the 2009 NBA postseason was even a thought.