The Conference Finals have been a blessing from the heavens for the NBA, the greatest possible outcome imaginable. For a league based around promoting their superstars nothing could be finer than watching one player after the next step into the spotlight, ensuring that – regardless of how it plays out – the Finals will be loaded with intrigue, as well as the season to come.
At the outset of the Conference Finals Lakers GM Jerry West came out and made the proclamation that LeBron James had officially surpassed his own superstar talent Kobe Bryant, that inevitable time had finally come.
"If I had to have somebody make a last-second shot, it would be Kobe Bryant," said West…But even though it's hard for me to be objective, because I brought Kobe to Los Angeles, I do think LeBron has surpassed Kobe as a player."
For a player like Kobe, rivaling the competitive nature that ‘His Airness’ possessed while in the game, to hear that from his GM, from the logo himself, the man who built various Lakers dynasties over his time as GM in L.A., it had to sting. It’s quite obvious that as much as it may have been the truth it was also used to motivate Bryant, who was not the best of the best in the pervious series against Houston.
It appears that the words of West were received, but not just by Bryant however; all the superstars left standing in the playoffs have stepped it up a level this series. The Conference Finals round has been a superstar cavalcade, serving up one outstanding performance after another and proving the best ball of this postseason would not just be reserved for that outstanding Celtics-Bulls first round tilt. There are now a handful of NBA players that Most Valuable Puppets be damned will give the title of player that made the playoffs this year a serious run before it’s all said and done.
But before things get too crazy the two men of the hour have done their part. Kobe has certainly proven his worth, not to discount ‘Black Mamba’ in any way. Averaging 35.25 ppg so far throughout the first four games, on top of many clutch shots late in the game (something West did give the man sufficient credit for doing). And all the while having to deal with the far more physical Denver defensive strategy. And LeBron has also answered the call, and beyond the Jordan-esque buzzer beating three from way downtown in Game 3. The reigning MVP has put up nearly half of his teams total points all series long averaging 44 ppg for the postseason and 42.25 this series, scoring nearly two-thirds of their total Fourth Quarter points. And now he’s moved on to playing the entire second half of games (and all of last night’s Overtime as well!). If Cleveland’s bench production was not so minimal (at best!) the Magic would not be enjoying the 3-1 series lead they have right now. King James is playing like a man possessed, and I think it’s fair to say that people would not have been surprised had his running 3 point attempt at the buzzer from just over half gone in last night (almost did too, just rimmed out).
But there are other players grabbing the spotlight as well, with no interest of letting go. While Carmelo Anthony has had the spotlight shone on him for some time now this playoff run has been his coming out party. He’s become a physical force under the net and his Defensive game has proven to be quite troublesome for Kobe. His teammate Chauncey Billups, who came out West to gel the Denver squad and take them to new and unexpected heights this season, has proven himself the best floor general still standing in these playoffs. His clutch shooting and the very intelligent way he manages the pace of the game can’t be underscored.
And Dwight Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year, has also given the highly favoured Cavaliers fits on both sides of the ball. While not reaching the spectacular level that his superstar counterparts consistently last night was certainly Superman’s moment. After a game where the Magic heavily relied on the outside shot Howard dominated the Paint in Overtime, scoring 10 of his 27 points in that frame.
The NBA runs on their superstars, marketing and promotion seems to be given more importance in Basketball in comparison to the other major 4 North American sports. To see the Conference Finals take the form they’ve taken so far has to give Commissioner David Stern the biggest smile on his face. While the Most-Valuable-Puppets commercials may prove to be a wash, and Doug Smith of the Toronto Star may prove to be a genius for his playoff predictions of an Orlando-Denver Final, the star power is being established on every team that remains thus far.
Jerry West called out Kobe to take it up a notch, to reach that higher level, knowing the man could and would as well, but unfortunately for West he did not take into account that there were others around not interested in letting Bryant go it alone. It has been fortunate for the League however, and the fans as well, to watch the superstar showdown. The NBA Playoffs are the best action being played anywhere right now, thanks to the re-emergence of the superstar.