Category Archives: Uncategorized

Can Baseball Fill the Gap During the Dead Season of Sports?

As a diehard basketball and football fan, I generally consider the time between the last pick of the NBA Draft and the first Saturday afternoon kickoff as the dead season of sports. But I’m trying a glass half-full approach this year. The Summer Olympics will take up a good chunk of sports time in August, so that helps.

In the mean time, I’m going to do my best to pretend I’m more than a casual baseball fan. The Midsummer Classic is just around the corner. The best part of baseball’s all-star break is the Home Run Derby. That’s an event worth watching.

And I have to be honest. As much as I love to give baseball a hard time, there are some storylines worth following in the Major Leagues this year. Here’s what I’m watching the rest of the way.

  • The Pittsburgh Pirates look to avoid making history. On the verge of tying a record with their 16th straight losing season, the Pirates currently sit at 39-44. Maybe they should bring back a player from their last division-winning team to help them fight for .500. Barry Bonds, anyone? Tell me that move wouldn’t fill some seats in Pittsburgh.

  • The best records in the American League belong to the Tampa Bay (Team Formerly Known as “Devil”) Rays and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. What a heavenly ALCS pairing that would be (and not just because they’re not the Yankees and/or Red Sox).

  • In the National League, no one’s playing better than the Chicago Cubs. I’d love a World Series pairing where scores of lifelong suffering Cubs fans squared off against the one and only (insufferable?) Rays fan known to man, Dick Vitale.

  • Atlanta Braves third basemen Chipper Jones is batting a whopping .393 this season. Everyone will be following his chase for .400, but I’m more interested in how he’s kept the Fountain of Youth a secret. It seems like he’s been playing forever.

  • My team, the Oakland A’s are in contention again this year. Their crop of young pitchers have a 3.41 team ERA, second only to that of the Chicago White Sox.

  • The Yankees are in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since the strike in 1994. They trail both Tampa Bay and Boston in the division.

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Owning Up to the Overconfidence

What happened?

Heading into the playoffs, I wasn’t sure what to make of the Lakers. Then after losing just three games in three rounds en route to the NBA Finals, I bought in to the popular notion that this team could win it all this year. Youth? Injuries? Untested in the playoffs? I pushed all those questions aside and decided their playoff run was impressive enough to pick them to win the Finals in five games.

Meanwhile, I was high on the Celtics during the season. In fact, in the April 2 podcast, my brother Mike and I both dubbed the Celtics as the best team in the league. But after they were pushed to seven games in the first round by the Atlanta Hawks (the 37-win Hawks?!), I was skeptical enough to pick them to lose in round two. Instead, they advanced, but only after being pushed to seven games again by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It looked like their best games were in the past, and most people wrote them off against the Lakers.

As it turns out, both teams were misleading during their respective runs to the Finals. The Celtics rose to the occasion, and the Lakers shied away from the moment. Now the Celtics are the 2008 NBA champions. So let me take this opportunity to revisit my NBA Finals prediction column. It’s scary to see how the Celtics basically refuted every point of my 14-point argument in favor of the Lakes. Ouch.

1. Killer instinct
No one has put teams away like the Lakers in this postseason.

I was talking about a killer instinct in closing out a series rather than an individual game, but the Lakers never had a series lead in the Finals. They did, however, have a chance to even the series in Game 4 when they blew 24-point lead. That devastating loss was really the turning point in this series.

2. Offensive fluidity
The triangle offense is clicking right now. The Lakers are the best passing team in the league.

The offense was stagnant all series long. The ball stuck when it got dumped into the post. Passing was sloppier than it was crisp. And the triangle simply didn’t flow like the well-oiled machine it was in the first few rounds of the playoffs.

3. Balanced attack
Number 24 is the known entity. Watching different players step up each night around him is what catches other teams off guard.

Look at the two Lakers’ wins. In Game 3, Sasha Vujacic stepped up with 20 points off the bench. In Game 5, Lamar Odom stepped up to score 20 points. No one other than Bryant managed to score 20 or more in the rest of the series.

4. Education
Phil Jackson may have some unorthodox methods, but no one teaches a profound lesson quite like Phil Jackson.

The Zen Master didn’t win his would-be record 10th NBA championship as a head coach, and he didn’t deserve it. Rookie Finals coach Doc Rivers was better. He made all the right substitutions and lineup adjustments, kept his team motivated and never let his team lose sight of the prize. Jackson doesn’t deserve all of the blame, but Hall of Famer or not, he deserves his fair share of criticism.

5. Boston’s road woes
If the Lakers are able to steal one of the first two games on the road, the Celtics are in serious trouble of losing the series in five games.

It turns out the Lakers nearly lost the series in five – at home. Boston won Game 4 on the road and had their chances in Game 3 and Game 5. It was the Lakers who seemed unnerved on the road, falling behind big in Game 2 and, fatally, in Game 6.

6. Experience at point guard
Rondo has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs, but he’s also shown flashes of inexperience.

Derek Fisher didn’t exploit the point guard matchup. In fact, you could argue that he lost it. All three Celtics point guards had their moments. Rondo played his best game in the clincher. He filled up the stat sheet: 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 6 steals and, more importantly, just one turnover. Eddie House had 11 points – including the jumper that gave Boston its first lead – in the Celtics’ historic Game 4 comeback. Even Sam Cassell, villainized by Boston fans after poor play throughout the playoffs played well in limited minutes, including 8 points in 13 minutes in a 10-point Game 1 win.

7. A gift from Memphis
Pau Gasol’s impact on the Lakers cannot be overstated.

Perhaps Gasol’s impact was overstated. He remains a versatile, talented player, but his flaw as a soft big was exposed against the tenacious defense and fearless rebounding of Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett. Perhaps Gasol will be more comfortable next year when he slides down to play power forward next to Andrew Bynum because he did not connect the dots from Mikan to Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to O’Neal with his performance at center in the Finals.

8. No glaring weaknesses
The Lakers have not shown any blatant weakness for the Celtics to exploit.

They may not have shown blatant weaknesses, but the Spurs had the blueprint for containing the Lakers offense and the Celtics had the will and manpower to execute it. They made life extremely difficult for Kobe Bryant, clamping down on any space for the MVP and effectively stifled the Lakers’ high-powered offense. They also exposed the Lakers’ lack of an interior defensive presence

9. Belichick
Cheaters never win. Consider this the new curse, Boston.

I don’t know what the city of Boston did to earn three Super Bowls, two World Series championships and an NBA title in the span of six years, but I feel like the Charlie Daniels Band could sing a song about it.

10. Rebounding
This will be one of the most interesting stats to watch in this series.

It wasn’t interesting for Lakers fans; it was frustrating. The Celtics dominated the battle of the boards, especially offensively.

11. Youthful energy off the bench
The Celtics bench is veteran-laden with James Posey, P.J. Brown, Eddie House and Sam Cassell.

And that has made all the difference. Posey made huge contributions. Even if he didn’t drain several dagger threes in the series, his defense, rebounding and hustle was something that no one from the Lakers’ bench mob matched in this series. Brown played like a 38-year-old realizing this might be his last shot at winning it all, and the rest of the bench filled in admirably when they were called upon. With the exception of Sasha Vujacic in Game 3, the Lakers bench was noticeably absent from this series.

12. Allen, Ray, version 2008
Without an all-star Allen, Boston’s hopes are seriously diminished.

Fortunately for Boston, all-star Ray Allen returned just in time. His jumper was falling all series long, as he set a new Finals record for threes made in a series. You could make the argument that he even won the series shooting guard matchup versus Kobe Bryant, and no one predicted that.

13. No Boston Garden
Boston has home court advantage in the series; it’s just not the same kind of advantage it once was.

I can’t speak for what it was like to play in the old Boston Garden, but the decibel level in TD Banknorth Garden was amplified by the fact that the Staples Center was celebrified into silence in Game 3. It didn’t recover much in the other games in L.A. either. Credit the Celtics fans, fault the Lakers’ pricing out their true fans. The fact remains that the crowd pushed the Celtics to another level in Game 6, and the Lakers cracked under the pressure.

14. Talent
Match up the players down the line and the Lakers simply win more individual matchups than Boston.

Most people won’t argue this point. The Lakers’ players would probably fair better in a one-on-one tournament against the Celtics, but basketball is a team game. In this series, it was very evident that the Celtics were the better team. Their defensive rotations made it seem like they moved with one mind, one collective purpose.

*Kobe Bryant
If you didn’t catch it the first time through, the first letter in the 14 reasons spell out Kobe Bean Bryant. I figured the NBA MVP was the X-factor in the series. Commonly referred to as “the best player on the planet” and “the game’s greatest closer,” Bryant was undoubtedly the most talented player in the series. But during the six games that were actually played, he was not the best. That honor goes to Paul Pierce.

One could argue that Bryant wasn’t among the top three best performers in this series. Ray Allen was consistently good for Boston, setting an NBA Finals record with 22 made 3-pointers. And Kevin Garnett, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, became just the eighth player in NBA history to record a double-double in each of his first six NBA Finals games.

I maintain that Bryant is the game’s best all-around player, but his less-than-great performance was more uninspiring than awe-inspiring. When combined with the 2004 Finals loss against the Pistons, this series casts a shadow over his legacy.

Bryant will turn 30 in August. The window of his prime is still open, but not forever. The Lakers believe that a healthy Andrew Bynum will result in a return trip to the Finals with a different final result. If this series taught us anything, it’s that Bryant may need that help a bit more than he – or we – ever realized.

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Yes, This (NBA Finals) is About Kobe

There are many ways to measure a basketball player’s impact. And Kobe Bryant measures up pretty well against all of them.

Scoring titles? He won two of those.

MVP Awards? He has one of those.

All-Star Games? He’s played in 10 of those, winning two MVPs.

Championships? He’s won three of those, and you might have heard he’s playing for number four starting Thursday.

But there’s one measuring stick that Kobe can’t seem to live up to: Michael Jordan.

The 10-time scoring champ, five-time MVP and six-time NBA champion also played in 14 All-Star Games, winning the MVP three times, and won two gold medals in the Olympics for Team USA. (Despite being a 20th century performer, Jordan even beats Kobe in the ultimate 21st century who’s who litmus test: Google search hits. See image at right.)

Yet of all the players to earn “the next Jordan” label, no one has come close to Kobe in terms of coming close to Jordan. Harold “Baby Jordan” Miner won dunk contests. Vince Carter won dunk contests and made All-Star teams. Jerry Stackhouse even won a scoring title (in terms of total points) in 2001. But none came close to putting together a package comparable to MJ. And none won a championship.

Except Kobe.

In a recent interview with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, Bryant tried to shrug off any comparisons to Jordan, saying, “Michael is Michael…I just want to be the best player I can be.”

And maybe that’s the way we should let it be. Because right now, Kobe Bryant’s game is top notch. He is the best basketball on the planet today. For the next 4-7 games, let’s put aside Kobe’s place in history among the greats. Those debates will surely linger on. At 29, Bryant has several good years left in him.

I wasn’t fully aware of what I was watching when Jordan won six titles in eight years, capped with that freeze-frame follow-through to seal the ’98 championship against Utah. I was 13 when Jordan hit that shot – only six years old when he beat my Lakers for his first title.

I don’t want to take Kobe’s performance for granted now. My appreciation for the game is too great not to appreciate his game. If you don’t like the Celtics or Lakers, fans of basketball, put on your color blinders for a minute. Turn the green and white and purple and gold to shades of gray and watch Kobe and company play the game at the highest level on the biggest stage in the 2008 NBA Finals.

You won’t see Jordan, but you might glimpse Jordanesque moments. That’s something you just can’t measure.

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The NBA’s Two Marquee Franchises Meet Back in the Finals

The stat was staggering when I first heard it. The Celtics and Lakers have combined to win 30 of the NBA’s 61 championships. With Boston and Los Angeles opening the 2008 NBA Finals on Thursday, the two franchises are on the verge of yet another title.

That means that in approximately two weeks the two franchises will account for exactly 50 percent of all NBA championships. Half the teams in the league have never won a championship. To put the Celtics-Lakers domination into perspective, compare the two teams against the top two from the other major pro leagues:

  • NFL
    The Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers each have five Super Bowl victories. Using any pairing, the top two NFL franchises account for less than 24 percent of all Super Bowl winners.

  • MLB
    The New York Yankees lead the way with 26 World Series Championships, followed by the St. Louis Cardinals at 10. They’ve combined to win just under 35 percent of World Series in the modern era.

  • NHL
    Dating back to 1926, when the NHL assumed control of Stanley Cup competition, the Montreal Canadians lead the way with 22 Stanley Cup Championships. The Toronto Maple Leafs have the second highest total with 13 Stanley Cups. The two teams come the closest, having won 43 percent of the NHL’s Stanley Cups. But even that number will dip slightly this year after Detroit or Pittsburgh wins the 2008 Stanley Cup

The Boston-L.A. stranglehold on the NBA Finals is equally impressive.

This is the 29th Finals appearance for the Lakers. They’ve won 14 titles. Their longest drought without a Finals appearance was nine years between their 1991 loss to the Chicago Bulls and 2000 victory against the Indiana Pacers.

For the Celtics, this is their 20th appearance. They’ve won 16 titles. This year’s berth ends their longest drought without a Finals appearance of 21 years.

Head-to-head, the Celtics are 8-2 vs. the Lakers in NBA Finals history, though Los Angeles won the last two meetings in 1985 and 1987.

Individual experience

The two franchises are steeped in NBA Finals tradition, but the players from both teams are much less familiar with the big stage.

Most of the Finals experience for the young Lakers comes from its starting backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher. The two helped the Lakers to 3-1 series record in the NBA Finals with the Lakers earlier this decade. Also, Luke Walton was a rookie on the 2004 Lakers team that lost 4-games-to-1 in the Finals against the Detroit Pistons. The only other Laker with Finals experience is Ira Newble, who saw limited action as a member of last year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs were swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Celtics are a veteran-led team yet they have even less Finals experience. Their only Finals experience comes from their bench. Sam Cassell, who is playing only 13 minutes per game in the playoffs, won two titles with the Houston Rockets in his first two NBA seasons, 1994-95. Backup forward James Posey won a title with the 2006 Miami Heat. And Brian Scalabrine was a little-used member of the 2002 and 2003 New Jersey Nets teams that lost in back-to-back Finals appearances.

The Celtics Finals appearance is knocking several players off the list of “playoff games without a Finals appearance.” It took Kevin Garnett 67 games. It took 57 apiece for Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. For P.J. Brown, 100 games was the magic number. Now they’ll all contribute to the next chapter of the historic Celtics-Lakers rivalry.

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Back, Back, Back, Back to the Days of Marcus Allen: Why the Raiders drafted Darren McFadden

The case against the Oakland Raiders decision to draft Darren McFadden with the fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft was that they already had depth at running back and had more pressing needs elsewhere. It’s a reasonable case, but an examination of recent Raiders rushing history shows why the silver and black couldn’t resist the opportunity to bolster their ground attack.

Since 1989, the Raiders have had just five 1,000-yard rushers. Only one – Napoleon Kaufman in 1997 – topped the 1,200-yard mark in a season. But even more frustrating than the lack of quantity production was the inconsistency in the Raiders backfield. No Raider has rushed for 1,000 yards more than once since Marcus Allen did the trick three straight years from 1983-85.

Prior to this year’s draft, Allen was one of only two running backs ever taken in the first round by the Raiders. Allen went 10th to the Raiders in 1982 and Napoleon Kaufman was taken 18th in 1995.

Justin Fargas, the reigning Raiders rushing leader from last season, was a third round pick in 2003 who re-signed in the off-season with the belief that he might improve upon his 1,009-yard effort from 2007. Fargas was atop a depth chart that also included Lamont Jordan, a free agent acquisition in 2005 and former second-round selection of the New York Jets and Michael Bush, an untested fourth-round pick of the Raiders last season.

All three rushers – Fargas, Jordan and Bush – may be serviceable NFL backs but none is a heavy hitter. Jordan flourished as Curtis Martin’s backup with the Jets. Fargas lacks size. And Bush has yet to play a down because of injuries. None of the three elicit thoughts of Marcus Allen’s graceful 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII or Bo Jackson’s explosive 221-yard performance against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football more than 20 years ago.

The new guy in town is the only one drawing those comparisons. McFadden is the highlight reel, big-play-in-the-making back. It’s part of what made him the runner-up for the Heisman trophy in each of the past two seasons despite playing for a team that went just 18-9. At 6’1” and 211 pounds, McFadden has good size and power. And after clocking in with a 4.33 in the 40-yard dash, it’s clear he has blazing speed too. He also topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his three college seasons despite playing no more than 14 games a year.

In addition to all the tangible elements McFadden brings to Oakland, his arrival to Raider Nation should also help lessen the burden on last year’s number one overall selection, JaMarcus Russell. The buzz around McFadden should help the young quarterback as the two former SEC rivals try to become a vaunted one-two punch in the AFC West.

Running backs are expected to come in and produce results more so than any other rookie position, and expectations will be especially high after Adrian Peterson’s impact from a year ago. McFadden has a lot riding on his shoulders. The Raiders are banking on the notion that he can carry it – and them – all the way back to respectability. In the end, he’ll be judged by carries, yards and touchdowns, but most of all, by wins for a starving franchise that implores him to just win, baby.

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Headlines Tugging at My Heartstrings

Generally I have a one track mind this time of year, but March Madness and bracketology have to share the spotlight for the moment. While I’m picking my favorite college basketball team (besides Michigan) UCLA to win the NCAA Tournament this year, my other favorite teams are all making headlines of their own in the sports world.

Headlines by ESPN, comments by me:

Los Angeles Lakers
Bynum likely to return during first round of playoffs

  • The first word on an estimated return plan since the Lakers center went down in January is not great news for Lakers fans. I’m not so much worried about the Lakers faltering down the stretch run of the regular seasons as I am about them gelling together on the fly in the playoffs. Bynum and Gasol, who is now injured as well, have yet to play a game together. There’s no telling how the two young 7-footers will coincide. Talentwise, there’s enough room on the court for them, but until it plays out that way, I’m cautious about the Lakers chances of winning it all this season.

Michigan Wolverines (football)
Top-ranked QB Pryor commits to Ohio State

  • After leading Jeannette High School to the Pennsylvania Class-AA state championship in basketball, Pryor formally announced his much anticipated decision to attend Ohio State University, spurning the likes of Penn State, Oregon, and most importantly to me, Michigan. Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez now has to come up with a Plan-B that does not include the 6’6” quarterback with 4.3-speed in the 40-yard dash. Michigan hasn’t beaten Ohio State on the field much lately. Losing this recruiting battle off the field doesn’t help their chances of changing that trend over the next few years.

Oakland Raiders
Davis, Raiders in the midst of eye-popping spending spree

  • Counting the playoffs, the Raiders won 13 games during the 2002 season, which culminated in an embarrassing Super Bowl loss. They’ve won just 19 games combined in the past 5 seasons since that game, and become a league laughingstock along the way. Perhaps only the Clippers are a bigger pro sports punchline. And 78-year-old owner Al Davis gets much of the blame, especially for his handling of coaches (5 coaches the past 7 years) and players (benching Marcus Allen?) This off-season seems like a make-or-break proposition for Davis. He’s doled out huge contracts in an attempt to be competitive and to “just win, baby.” But that method of spending big to win big hasn’t always paid off (see: Snyder, Daniel). My heart wants Davis’ payout to succeed, but my head tells me the silver and black is still not back.

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Kobe Bryant Blog Day

Today is Kobe Bryant Blog Day at Hardwood Paroxysm and the basketball blogosphere is taking the time to do it right.

Not one to miss out on a holiday, I thought I’d join in fashionably late.

My first glimpse of Kobe Bryant came live and in person on March 23, 1996, nearly twelve years ago when he led Lower Merion Aces into the Hersheypark Arena in Hershey, Pa., to face the Cathedral Prep Ramblers for the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association Class AAAA state championship.

That’s right, the same Hersheypark Arena where Wilt scored 100 on March 2, 1962. Kobe was the main attraction in the building some 34 years later.

But heading into the game I knew very little of Bryant other than the fact that he was “very good” and “possibly going to go straight to the NBA.” My focus, as an 11-year-old fan and cousin of Prep’s senior point guard Keith Nies, was on the Ramblers and their defense of this “high school phenom.” And defense it was (take note, Toronto Raptors of the future). In fact, the Ramblers held Kobe scoreless in the first quarter and to just 8 points at the half while building a 21-15 lead.

In the second half, however, Lower Merion surged ahead and Kobe delivered a few highlight reel glimpses of his athleticism en route to a hard fought 48-43 win. What I didn’t know then as I lamented the end of my hometown high school’s loss was that in a span of about three months, Kobe would be drafted into the NBA and immediately dealt to my favorite team, the Los Angeles Lakers.

All of a sudden, the too-talented-not-to-boo Bryant was donning the same purple and gold that I rooted for. And before long, he was making it look too good not to cheer with breathtaking dunks and that potential – perhaps the most dangerous word in basketball – to be great.

Fast forward to March 11, 2008. Kobe is the best player one of the best team’s in the league. That 6’6” high school bean pole – unfortunately, the program didn’t list their weight – has been chiseled, hardened, sculpted, matured and perfected into a basketball art form. Stick it in the opponent’s eye jumpers that give you goosebumps. Crossovers so smooth they break both ankles. Dunks that unleash primal roars from within. And a cockiness/confidence that transforms every Lakers fans into bloodthirsty carnivores when they see Kobe with the ball in an end-of-game situation. We simply know he’s going to make the play.

Notice the ‘we’? We’re all guilty of it. We want to stake our piece of ownership to greatness. And in sports, perhaps more clearly than in any other facet of life, we know greatness when we see it. I was introduced to Kobe as a rival, as a villain. And many have portrayed him as such since. But between those painted lines, whether wearing #33 (his high school jersey), #8 or #24, Kobe has always seen himself as the #1 player on the court. When he retires, and don’t blink because it’ll happen all too soon, don’t be surprised if you tend to agree.

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Kupchak Deserves Credit, No Kidding

When the Lakers were trying to deal for Jason Kidd last season, New Jersey was intent on landing either Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum. Most Lakers fans assumed any deal to land a big name would include one or the other, as they represented Los Angeles’ two greatest assets next to Kobe Bryant.

That’s what makes today’s acquisition of Pau Gasol such a steal for the Lakers. If Bynum is able to return healthy by April, the Lakers can head into the postseason with a starting five of Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Bryant and Derek Fisher. There’s no weak link to be found. Plus they have a deep, young bench.

What did the Lakers give up in the deal?

  • Kwame Brown. I understand why Memphis took him for his huge expiring contract, but let’s face it. He had to go. After he was booed at home against Phoenix, there was no chance Brown was going to be a vital piece of a Lakers championship team.

  • Javaris Crittenton. A lot of potential here, but definitely more expendable than Farmar, who has really shown flashes of becoming their point guard of the future.

  • Two first round draft picks. Never easy to part with first rounders, but the Lakers have to expect these will be picks in the upper 20s.

  • The rights to Aaron McKie and Marc Gasol, Pau’s brother.

I’ll admit it. I was clamoring for the Lakers to trade Bynum last season to acquire Kidd. And I was upset when they didn’t. But Bynum has had a breakout season, and now I’d much rather have Gasol than Kidd.

I like the combination of Fisher and Farmar at the point guard position. While neither is as talented all around as Kidd, both are better shooters than he is, which is important when teams are double-teaming Kobe.

Mitch Kupchak took a lot of heat for trading Shaquille O’Neal, and perhaps rightfully so since Miami went on to win the NBA title, but if his succession of moves—bringing in Odom as part of the Shaq deal, holding onto Bynum rather than acquiring Kidd, and now trading for Gasol—result in a championship for the Lakers, he deserves more just this heartfelt apology. Congratulations Mitch Kupchak on officially restoring the Lakers as a Western Conference power, or should I say Pau-er.

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LeBron for MVP?

Put your MVP arguments for Kevin Garnett, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy or anyone else aside. Yesterday’s matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers featured the NBA’s two biggest stars. They are LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and neither one has won an MVP award—yet.

LeBron’s Cavs won back in December when they met the Lakers in Cleveland. With no football on TV, Sunday’s center stage was all set for the rematch, and the game lived up to the hype.

The Lakers led 26-24 after one quarter. The Cavs rallied back to take a 49-40 halftime lead. Then the Lakers dropped 31 points in the third to reclaim a 71-69 lead. In the fourth quarter, the Lakers extended that lead to 84-75 with just over eight minutes to play and it looked as if the Lakers would ride the momentum to split the season series with the Cavs.

Instead, LeBron led the Cavs back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win 98-95, making a bold MVP statement in the process. View extended game highlights here.

Kobe was good, but LeBron was better. Kobe scored 33 points on 10-of-21 shooting. LeBron netted 41 on 16-of-32 shooting. Kobe may be missing Andrew Bynum, but LeBron’s supporting cast includes no one as skilled as Lamar Odom or big game tested like Derek Fisher.

I had made some “Kobe for MVP” claims to friends in recent weeks, but after watching LeBron’s Cavs beat Kobe’s Lakers twice this year, my MVP vote today would go to LeBron, hands down.

What stood out most of all in this one was crunch time. That’s usually Kobe time. He’s made a career out of late game heroics. But LeBron outperformed him on Sunday. After Luke Walton split a pair of free throws to give the Lakers a 93-92 lead with 1:28 to play, LeBron shined while Kobe fizzled. Just look at the play-by-play breakdown.

1:15 – LeBron James makes driving layup (94-93 Cavs)
1:07 – Kobe Bryant offensive foul
0:54 – Larry Hughes misses 6-foot jumper
0:53 – Ronny Turiaf defensive rebound
0:42 – Lamar Odom misses layup
0:40 – Ira Newble defensive rebound
0:20 – LeBron James makes 22-foot jumper (96-93 Cavs)
0:20 – Los Angeles full timeout
0:15 – Derek Fisher misses 26-foot three point jumper
0:14 – Ronny Turiaf offensive rebound
0:13 – Ronny Turiaf makes layup (96-95 Cavs)
0:13 – Larry Hughes bad pass (Luke Walton steals)
0:13 – Larry Hughes blocks Kobe Bryant’s layup
0:12 – Kobe Bryant offensive rebound
0:11 – Kobe Bryant lost ball (Daniel Gibson steals)
0:10 – Cleveland full timeout
0:09 – Kobe Bryant personal foul (LeBron James draws the foul)
0:09 – LeBron James makes free throw 1 of 2 (97-95 Cavs)
0:09 – LeBron James makes free throw 2 of 2 (98-95 Cavs)
0:09 – Los Angeles 20 Sec. timeout
0:00 – Lakers fail to get off shot before time expires. Game over. (98-95 Cavs)

In the final 1:15 of the game LeBron scored six points, including a long step-back jumper in Kobe’s face and two critical free throws. In that same span, Kobe was called for a charge, missed a layup, lost the ball and failed to get off a shot as time expired.

Is LeBron flat out better than Kobe? LeBron will tell you no. He still says Kobe is the best player in the NBA. But Kobe was only the second best player on the court on Sunday, and that’s unfamiliar territory for him.

It’ll be interesting to see if these two match up against one another in the all-star game. Unless they meet in the NBA Finals—a marketer’s dream, albeit an unlikely one—the all-star game will be the last time they share the court this season. Basketball fans have to be disappointed by that.

There is no better one-on-one matchup in the game today. And it may go down as one of the all-time best. Rarely do two players go head-to-head while playing at such an elite level.

Early in his career, Shaquille O’Neal was dominated by Hakeem Olajuwon. Similarly, in his younger days Michael Jordan routinely came up short against Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. But neither Shaq nor Jordan had a worthy adversary during the prime of their careers. You have to go back to Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain or Bird vs. Magic to find a superstar matchup that rivals Kobe and LeBron today.

Kobe is 29, still in the prime of his career. And he does have three rings to his credit. But if he doesn’t get the MVP this year, his chances of winning one are only going to decrease. As for LeBron, whose age matches his jersey number of 23, there’s no telling how good he can become. His prime is likely still in the future, and he hopes championship rings are in his future as well. But by beating the man he calls the best, LeBron is already making a claim—even if only on the court—to be the best player on the planet and win this race between two greats a first MVP trophy.

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