NBA finals, Celtics Lakers: 2010 ain't 2008

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Thumbnail image for Rondo_Fisher.jpgThe players are mostly the same. The franchises, the mascots, the colors, the pageantry, the history, the bad blood. All that’s still there. But this finals matchup is uniquely different from 2008 for five reasons.

1. The Lakers are better: When last these two teams met in the finals, the Lakers were less than a half season since the Pau Gasol acquisition. They were still figuring one another out, still learning each other’s tendencies. This team was not whole, as it is now. Furthermore, Andrew Bynum was out after knee surgery. Granted, Bynum’s still struggling with a faulty knee. But even in limited minutes, Bynum can be a huge factor, helping LA to dominate the glass and get easy points down low, two things the Lakers will need in this series. Ron Artest gives LA a wing defender they can sick on anyone and expect him to deliver. And he does.

2. The Celtics are better: You thought that 2008 club was tough? Try this one, that knows it’s a championship caliber squad. The Celtics simply have that much more swagger to their step this year because they know they’ve already gotten that ring, reached that summit, climbed that hill. They are not lacking confidence in that regard. They’re also more familiar with one another, and have learned different ways to beat teams. This is also a deeper club, with Tony Allen, Nate Robinson, and Glen Davis all providing significant minutes off the bench. This team is fiercer than it was 2008, as incredible as that sounds.

3. Rajon Rondo has come of age, Derek Fisher has become aged: Rondo has been phenomenal throughout the playoffs, arguably the best player in the league. Rondos’ shown a driving ability that can help the Celtics to not only attack the basket of LA but can open up opportunities for his teammates down low. It doesn’t take much for the Celtics to go into attack mode. Rajon Rondo is the high pitched squeal that lest the Celtics off. Derek Fisher’s having himself another playoffs full of huge shots. He’ll be called upon even more in this series to try and equalize Rondo’s contribution a bit.

4. Boston is better on the road and worse at home: TD Northbank Garden was a house of horrors for the Lakers in 2008, as they wilted in Boston time and time again. The Celtics are no longer unbeatable in Boston, losing games to Cleveland and Boston in the playoffs and it has become somewhat of an issue. The bad news is that they’re significantly better on the road. The Celtics have developed a knack for winning one of the first two games, stealing home court, and putting the fear of God into their opponent from the get go. LA has to hold serve if they want to put the C’s on ice.

5. The legacies are different: The 2008 Celtics were on a mission  to destroy everything. It was their first real chance at a championship, and when they realized that, they pushed their play to another level. But now the Celtics expect to in. They can point to that ring as the ultimate in validation. The Lakers on the other hand have just realized how good they can be at full strength, and are still struggling to get everyone at the same level.

Both teams are storied, both teams are champions, both teams are the cream of the NBA crop. We’ll have to see how this series shapes their legacy in the years to come.

Dwight Howard still feeling ‘super’ expectations with Hornets

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DETROIT – Dwight Howard went from leading Orlando in the NBA Finals to playing in star-studded Los Angeles to joining a Houston team that also fancied itself a contender to being the highest-paid player in his hometown Atlanta to… landing in Charlotte, a small-market franchise with modest ambitions.

The spotlight finally off the former No. 1 pick, Howard doesn’t feel reduced pressure.

“Everybody expects me to be Superman every single night,” Howard said.

Howard is diving into his new situation – his third team in three years – headfirst. He’s leading pregame huddles and the Hornets onto the court.

“I have the most experience,” said Howard, in his 14th season. “So, it’s not to come in and fit in. It’s to come in and be a leader.”

This is the latest referendum on Howard. Despite eight All-NBA selections (most of them first-team) and three Defensive Player of the Year awards, he faces relentless criticism of his legacy.

His exit from the Magic was so ugly, it’s known as the Dwightmare. His feuding with the Lakers great is the stuff of legend in Kobe Bryant mythology. Howard never clicked with James Harden with the Rockets. The Hawks unloaded him for a paltry return in what was more salary rearrangement than salary dump, and his former teammates reportedly cheered.

Howard just seems to rub people the wrong way.

That makes his latest test in Charlotte so interesting. Howard is supplanting maybe Kemba Walker as the face of the team and definitely Cody Zeller as starting center. The Hornets have found success with Zeller, going 63-53 when he starts and 57-73 otherwise the last three seasons.

“The nature of his game, he plays in a way to help other people play better,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said of Zeller. “He is a screener. He is a ball-mover.”

In other words, the type of player teammates love.

Is Howard?

Howard is still solidly productive. In Charlotte’s season-opening loss to the Pistons, he posted 10 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks – and ruffled a few feathers. Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

https://twitter.com/Vincent_Ellis56/status/921100491362365440

Dirty-work players who irritate opponents are revered. High-priced players who irritate their teammates are loathed.

Howard walks a fine line.

He returned to Atlanta with emotion and expectations. By the end of his time with the Hawks, everyone seemed unhappy. Still, Howard says he’s grateful for the opportunity to play in front of people, especially his grandparents, who watched him grow up.

“Atlanta is going to be my home,” Howard said. “The Hawks is always going to be my favorite team.”

It’s just never easy for Howard.

Even a career Basketball Reference pegs as 99% likely to end in the Hall of Fame based on his tangible accomplishments stirs controversy.

“He’s a Hall of Famer right now if he never played another game,” Clifford said.

Said Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, who coached Howard in Orlando: “It’s mind-boggling to me that would be any debate there.”

It’s probably easier for Van Gundy and Howard to recall their time together fondly than it was to enjoy it while partnered. Clifford, who was an assistant in Orlando and Los Angeles while Howard was there, is just getting into his time as Howard’s head coach.

It’s those middle moments, in the throes of long seasons, that have proven difficult for Howard and those around him.

Here he is in Charlotte, hosting the Hawks tonight, and facing another challenge. The Hornets would probably be happy just making the playoffs and ecstatic advancing, which would be their first playoff-series victory since reemerging as the Bobcats in 2004. Howard, who has reached three conference finals, is counting on himself to lead them there – even if nobody else is anymore.

Kobe Bryant still has it, bounces shot in from near half court

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This was a Nike gala, an event with a basketball theme. The court was lit up from below, there were tables at half court, and people had drinks in their hands.

Kobe Bryant was there, stylishly dressed in black. So was famous model Winnie Harlow.

Know that regardless of the setting, Kobe still has game.

Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala cleared to play vs. Pelicans Friday

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Without Draymond Green in the fourth quarter Tuesday night in the opener, and with Andre Iguodala out for the game, the Warriors defense fell apart against Houston. The Rockets scored 34 points in the quarter and came from behind to beat a Warriors team that had been in control of the game up to that point. There was more to it than just Green’s balky knee, but without the Defensive Player of the Year they are not the same.

Bad news for the Pelicans: Green and Iguodala have been cleared to play in New Orleans Friday. Green had an MRI and it came back negative.

Green admitted he was concerned that the injury, via Anthony Slater of The Athletic.

Now it is the Pelicans who should be concerned. The Warriors will want to wash the feeling of that opening night loss off them.

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.