By Michael Wilbon
Friday, May 22, 2009
The obstacles to the dream match up of Kobe vs. LeBron in the NBA Finals have grown very suddenly from infinitesimal to possibly insurmountable. What seemed inevitable 10 days ago is now precarious. Kobe and the Lakers could easily be down 2-0 to Denver in their series, which the Nuggets evened at a game each Thursday night in Los Angeles. The Cavaliers actually are down 1-0 to Orlando in their series after a stunning comeback victory Wednesday night, one in which the Magic trumped LeBron's playoff career-high 49-point outburst with their own ensemble performance that made plain Orlando has some clear advantages.
Folks hoping for a late-spring look at LeBron and Kobe might want to get it now because each appears to have met his match. LeBron, in 41 minutes, took 30 shots and made 20 of them, put on a show that was equal parts Bird/Jordan/Erving ..... and still lost, for the first time in the post-season.
Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said afterward, "The one thing I don't leave this game with is any idea of what to do with LeBron James. As a coach, you're supposed to have a clue. I don't have a clue." It was LeBron, asked before his game about the Lakers' narrow victory at home the previous night, who said, "I looked at it as a missed opportunity for the Nuggets."
So, it's actually the Lakers and Cavaliers, having both been outplayed to start the conference finals, who had to spend the ensuing hours trying to find clues as to how to stop their opponents. The Cleveland coaches spent Thursday trying to figure out how to get more out of everybody except LeBron, and how to guard Orlando which shot 55 percent in Game 1, 45 percent on three pointers. Asked even before the game about trying stop Orlando's running game, LeBron said that getting back on defense, "it's not always [getting back] to your man. It's getting back to a man. You get cross matched and may have to get to a guy that you wouldn't [guard] in half court."
The Cavaliers didn't do that in Game 1 ..... or couldn't do it. When Cleveland took away the perimeter shots Orlando prefers the Magic players -- specifically Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkoglu and Mikael Pietrus -- simply drove to the basket time after time until they created space to shoot (and hit) three-pointers late in the game. Cleveland Coach Mike Brown told his Cavaliers before the game, "We cannot afford to get hammered in transition, like we did in the regular season." Despite the warning that's exactly what happened.
It wasn't rust; Cleveland raced out to a 16-point lead and led by 15 at halftime. But Mo Williams (6-for-19 shooting) and Delonte West (4 for 13) went cold. Zydrunas Ilgauskas was uninvolved for long stretches. And the Cavaliers spent too much time just watching James, which is what the Lakers used to do when Kobe took too many shots. Orlando's players looked so much faster and moved the ball so much better. And let's make one thing perfectly clear: the Magic absolutely must get the ball to Dwight Howard as often as possible. He was 14 for 20 in Game 1 and neither Ilgauskas nor Anderson Varejao can guard him, and Ben Wallace's time as a great defender is over.
Orlando also has the luxury of having a primarily offensive player, Pietrus, who is for some reason excited at the prospect of trying to guard LeBron. Two years ago, stuck on the bench for a Golden State team that seemed tailor-made for him, Pietrus told me that if he got away from the Warriors and onto a contender he could shoot and defend at a level that would make him a legit contributor on a team of consequence. Here he is making good on that promise. By simply being unafraid to try on James, it keeps Turkoglu, Orlando's most important offensive player, out of foul trouble.
Cleveland's too smart not to make the necessary adjustments in Friday's Game 2, but it has come down to a one-game season for the Cavaliers, despite the 8-0 start. If the Cavaliers lose at home Friday night, they're going down. The Magic players aren't simply convinced they can win; they're convinced they will win, and more importantly they're playing like it.
Out west, the Nuggets' starting front line outscored the Lakers starting front court 68-25 in Game 1, and Anthony was the dominant player again in Game 2 Thursday night. It's been essentially a playoff coming out party for Anthony, who not only scored 40 points in Game 1 and 34 in Game 2 but dueled Kobe to a standstill in physical battle straight out of the 1960s or 1970s that announced Anthony as not just an unstoppable offensive force, but as a star who's willing to at least try to guard the greatest offensive player in the game.
Still, the Nuggets blew Game 1. And as LeBron accurately suggested, "I looked at it as a missed opportunity for the Nuggets." So did the Nuggets after making an unseemly number of goofy mistakes, including George Karl's strange decision to have Anthony Carter, not one of the team's better decision makers, throw the ball inbounds late in the game on a critical possession, which wound up being intercepted.
It couldn't have helped matters that Karl, in his post-game news conference, slumped in his chair looking like the Nuggets had just played and lost a one-game series. See, the reason why it was risky to pick Denver to win this series in the first place is that the Nuggets have any number of guys capable of turning into sulkers. One bump in the road could lead Denver to flip the car. The rap on them is, according to opponents, they'll implode, they'll make just the kind of silly mistakes they made at the end of Game 1.
But they were the new-and-improved Nuggets, not the old knucklehead ones in Game 2 in Los Angeles. Chancey Billups played 40-plus minutes, scored 27 points and committed just one turnover as Denver came from 14 down to even the series, take home court advantage and make the Lakers win in Denver, where the Nuggets have won 16 straight games.
If the Nuggets can continue to play with Billups's calmness and attention to detail, then Kobe vs. LeBron really could be in big jeopardy, as each struggles to lead his team to the place so many presumed just a few days ago would be almost automatic.