— This is nothing against San Antonio or Utah or Phoenix. Orlando and Atlanta and Boston are perfectly fine playoff teams too. They just all need to get out of the way. Now. Between LeBron James wavering about whether to leave Cleveland and start over elsewhere, and Kobe Bryant looking like the odometer on his 31-year-old legs just turned over, that Cleveland-Lakers "dream matchup" in the NBA Finals that everyone thought was such a fait d'accompli around the All-Star break is starting to get a now-or-never feeling, isn’t it?
If Bryant and James don’t finally face each other in the Finals this year, then when?
James and Bryant are the two best players of the last 10 years not named Tim Duncan. Yet they haven’t met in even one NBA Finals though their careers have now overlapped for seven seasons.
Kobe is playing out his 14th year, hard as that is to believe. But at least he already has four titles.
James is in his seventh season and if he doesn’t win a ring this year and then moves on via free agency to the beyond-lousy Knicks or even Miami or Chicago, it could be years before he’s in this position again. By then, will a 35-year-old Kobe still be willing the Lakers to greatness? Will Phil Jackson still even be the Lakers coach?
Even if the Knicks land James and another max free agent, James won’t be sitting as prettily as Kobe did when he walked into Los Angeles and the Lakers had Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, or Duncan went rolling into San Antonio to play alongside David Robinson. Robinson became a Hall of Fame center and Shaq’s on his way.
We didn’t have to worry about these sorts of complications getting in the way when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s rivalry was in full swing. The two of them arrived in the NBA the same year, and the idea that Bird would ever bolt the Celtics or Johnson would test free agency rather than stay a Laker was never a consideration.
Both Magic and Bird also hit the league touted as superstars and they quickly delivered. Magic won his first title his rookie year; Bird took the championship in his second season. From the start, they used their twice-a-year regular season meetings to measure each other for what always felt like the inevitable showdown to come in the NBA Finals.
Neither Kobe’s Lakers nor LeBron’s Cavs throw off that same sense of inevitability.
The Lakers are defending champions and Cleveland did have the league's best record this year. But the Lakers looked lackluster the last two months of the season and they barely survived their seven-game first round series against Oklahoma City.
The Cavs had to come from behind to beat visiting Boston by eight in Game 1. Then they were routed in Game 2 and looked suspiciously like a team that had been admiring itself in the mirror and pretty much just enjoying itself too much while helping James celebrate his second straight MVP award in his hometown of Akron.
After Boston spanked the Cavs 104-86, Cleveland coach Mike Brown was beyond annoyed.
“They kicked our behinds from the beginning,’’ Brown fumed in his press conference “We did not fight back until late. We’ve got to decide if we’re going to take the fight to them. There ain’t a thing that is going to be given to us in this series. Coming from behind in the first game, coming from behind in the second game, that’s not good enough.
“We’ve got to bring a greater sense of urgency.”
The Lakers had the same self-assessment after they barely won their opener against Utah in L.A.. The Lakers needed a 12-for-19 shooting night from Bryant to survive the Jazz. Though Phil Jackson’s reaction — “I’m concerned” — certainly had a little Zen Master motivational intent behind it, it wasn’t all coachspeak.
The bench has been a no-show for the Lakers for a while now. Clutch guard Derek Fisher often looks a step slow. Bryant — who’s been nursing a sore right knee and a season-long finger injury on his shooting hand — scored 10 of the Lakers’ final 14 points and finished with 31, but even that came with an asterisk: It was the first time he’d put together back-to-back 30-point games in nearly two months.
Bryant later said his knee feels “a lot better.”
For how long? There’s probably already a prop bet in Las Vegas on what injury will hamper who first: Kobe’s knee or LeBron’s sore right elbow. James admitted before the Celtics series started that he’s never had to play through a significant injury before, and though he was fine in Game 1, some Cavs observers thought he began Game 2 more tentative on offense than he has all season. He attempted only five first half shots.
But maybe Game 2 was just an off-night for James.
Maybe Kobe is indeed rejuvenated and that sore knee will be fine.
Maybe all these red flags are all just the usual blips any title contender faces and the NBA will finally get the Kobe-LeBron Finals matchup so many fans want.
They just better get on with it already.
Lakers-Cavs and Kobe vs. LeBron used to look like the closest thing the NBA had to two sure things in February. But now? Nobody knows what next week, let alone next year, will bring.