The Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Suns.
Four teams with very different personnel, attitudes and playing styles who have battled all season long, beaten all challengers and now stand on equal footing as the top four teams in the NBA. What is it that separates them from the other 26 teams?
The Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Suns all play as a team. Although they all have superstars who can take over games, they know that it takes a team effort to win championships and no player can do it on their own. This is exemplified by the Celtic’s big three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, who stepped down from their career long alpha dog roles and took on a specific role for the good of the team, though at the detriment of their personal statistics. Kobe Bryant tried to do it on his own for three years after Shaq left town and now appreciates, especially since Gasol joined the roster, that it takes more than one man to reach the pinnacle of the NBA. Steve Nash has had a commitment to team his entire career and as the leader of the Suns, the rest of the team follows suit. The Magic have a superstar center in Dwight Howard though because of his limited offensive game he has learnt to rely on his team down that end of the floor while focusing his efforts on controlling the boards and defense. The Magic offense is predicated on swinging the ball, finding the open man and getting the best available shot.
Other teams in the Playoffs, such as the Cavs, Nuggets and Mavericks, rely too much on one player. They run repeated isolation plays, leaving Lebron, Carmelo and Dirk to create opportunities to score or set up their team mates while their teammates stand around watching. This removes ball movement, screens and cutters while not letting others get in to the flow of the game. Because the offense is run so much through these guys, if they are having an off night, their team struggles mightily.
The Lakers are the defending champs and the Magic were ousted in last years Finals. If either of these teams doesn’t win the championship, their year will be considered a disappointment. Their whole seasons have been geared towards the Finals and because of the high expectations they have brought that extra desire and hunger necessary to stay on top of the pack. With aging stars, both the Suns and Celtics windows of opportunity are closing and they have been facing questions all season as to whether they can still compete. With classy, motivated veterans such as Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Steve Nash and Grant Hill, this would surely just be fuel for the fire and make them want it that much more. All four teams have owners and GM’s who have invested large sums of cash and pulled off big trades the last few years to ensure they have the most competitive rosters. They are eager to see those investments pay off.
Teams such as the Spurs and Mavs would seem to have a similar sense of urgency to the Celtics and Suns, though they both seemed to lack the same fire. The Spurs and Mavs, led by the quiet, relaxed personalities of Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, came in to the Playoffs lacking the level of aggression necessary to compete with the top four. Other teams, such as the Hawks and Jazz, seemed to be happy just to make it that far, never showing any signs of hunger or belief to play for the championship.
The defending champions, who have made the Finals every year since Gasol was traded for, are led by Kobe “21st Century Jordan” Bryant and Phil “Ring on Every Finger” Jackson. They ooze confidence which rubs off on the rest of the team and they just may be the most confident, almost arrogant, team since the Jordan led Bulls of the 90’s. The Celtics won the title two years ago and took Orlando to seven games last year even with Kevin Garnett sidelined with a knee injury. Even though no-one else believed in them this season (they were written off as “over the hill”) with a core of vets and a strong coach in Doc Rivers their belief never wavered. The Suns and Orlando have been to this stage before and have kept most of their core players together while making a couple of crafty acquisitions (see Matt Barnes and Channing Frye) to only further the strength of their rosters. They might not have won any championships recently, but they both believe that their time is now.
The Mavs, Spurs, Cavs, Hawks, Nuggets and Jazz have all looked like bystanders in the Playoffs for the last few years. Apart from the Cavs, none were seriously considered as threats to win the chip this year. The Spurs and Hawks have been early exits the last few years and, apart from last year, the Nuggets were consistent first round cannon fodder. The Jazz have never won a title and with all the injuries they sustained at the end of the season, they would have had a hard time believing in themselves with two of their starters out. The Cavs gambled everything to win this season, though with the Cleveland curse, the fact Lebron has never won a Finals game and the reliance on one man to lead them to glory, their confidence was false hope more than anything. The Mavs? After being beaten in the Finals by Miami after being up 2-0 and then losing to the 8th seeded Warriors the following year they no longer have an ounce of confidence and have no hope of even recovering a semblance of hope.
The Lakers, Celtics, Suns and Magic are the four best teams in the NBA this year and deserve their places in the Conference Finals. They are more focussed, determined and they all play a style of basketball which has traditionally been more successful in the Playoffs. They are all capable of winning the championship and I can’t wait to see which team comes out on top!