Old Ben on Sports: The 5 Most Interesting NBA Finals Matchups


In a very particular order….

5. Knicks vs. Nuggets

Carmelo Anthony returns to showers of boos in Denver and Chauncey Billups plays for the away team in front of his hometown Denver fans.  The post-Melo intrigue is palpable just thinking about it.  A rag-tag bunch of middling talent playing team ball against a team led by two ball hogs who don’t play D.  America would fall in love with Denver in this series.  The Nuggets were supposed to be rebuilding after Anthony forced his way out yet they make a Cinderella run to the Finals…sounds like a movie for Christ’s sake.

If this series happened Ray Felton and Ty Lawson would go off for the Nuggets.  Felton, mired on the bench after the Melo trade, played All-Star caliber ball for the Knicks; he’d play with a huge chip on his shoulder in this one.  Lawson, mired on the bench BEFORE the Melo-trade, has played lights out since.  He’d want to show that he was always a better option than Billups.  They’ve created a great point guard tandem for Denver lately.

Anthony would score in droves for the Knicks.  He’d be out to show the American public why the Knicks got the better end of the trade. This series would go 7 and the last two games would be in Denver.  Each game the Knicks win in this series would kill whatever love was left for Anthony in Denver.  The atmosphere in game 6 and 7 would be extremely hostile and Anthony would feed off of it.

Ultimately, the Knicks lose in 7 because they’d have no answer for Nene and the Nuggets much deeper rotation would run the worn out Knicks into the ground in the second half.

Sadly, this is one of least likely Finals match-ups.  The Knicks have no chance to get out of the first round let alone the make it to the finals.  Denver can’t make it to the finals either, though don’t sleep on them making a little run in the playoffs.  They’re on a roll and as of today they have a better home record than the Celtics, Lakers, Mavericks, Magic, and Heat.  In fact, they have the 3rd best home record in the league behind the Bulls and the Spurs.   AND they just won on the road against the Celtics.

4. Celtics vs. Thunder

Kendrick Perkins is starting center for the Oklahoma City Thunder.  That’s a fact affecting the Boston Celtics to this day.  Since the Perkins trade, the Celtics have had an identity crisis.  Before, they were a tough bruising unit that have never lost when at full strength, now they’re….well…something else, we’re still waiting to see.

The waiver pickups haven’t done much.  The O’Neals can’t find the court.  Rondo looks lost out there.  Perkins may have just been a glue guy, but he was 1/6 of a group that had unparallel chemistry, something that should never be taken for granted in basketball.  If the Celtics make it to the Finals, it will be as a team, but not as the team we’ve seen.

A matchup between the Thunder and the Celtics would be oh so bittersweet for the team from Boston.  The glory of another championship appearance would be upon them, but against one of their own.  For Perkins, winning would be just as bittersweet.  A taste of victory at the expense of his brothers, a victory they should have reveled in together.

In addition to the drama at hand, a matchup between the Thunder and Celtics would answer a question many have wondered about since the Perkins trade.  And that’s “Is Perkins really all that valuable?”

He was a big part of the Celtics identity and he gelled fit in perfectly for them as a role player on the court, but is he a difference maker.  Beating the Celtics requires a dominant performance on the boards and the defensive low post.  The thought behind the trade deadline move was that the Thunder would get that in Perkins.  For the Thunder to win, he’d have to prove that he can contribute big time in a Championship win playing that role for a team that doesn’t wear green.  In this matchup, we’d find out just how much the Celtics really lost and see whether they can overcome such a shift in personnel when game 7 pressure is at hand.

Oh, and also we’d get to watch Durant swishing jays, Westbrook flying around with reckless abandon, Serge “The Urge” Ibaka swatting shots down low, and all three of them throwing down explosive fast-break dunks.   They’re just so fucking fun to watch!

3. Thunder vs. Bulls

A Thunder-Bulls series represents the beginning of a new era.  Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose: all barely old enough to drink, all superstar talents.  In the next five years, these players will only get better.  The league will be theirs, if it isn’t already. (Rose MVP? Durant Scoring title?)  This series creates the perfect moment to signal the beginning of their reign.  Why not make 2011 the year Kobe, Garnett, Duncan, Nash, and the rest fade into the background?

This series offers something for everyone.  For the casual fan, it would be a spectacle of athletic prowess.  Durant can run with almost anyone and he’s 6’11. (that 6’9” listing is bullshit, just look at HIM!!)  Westbrook and Rose can jump out of the building.  Ibaka can dunk from the foul line.  Heck even Deng can slash to the rim and make highlight plays.  And Kyle Korv…oh wait.  For the Celtics fan, this series would test the Perkins question.  Can he really get it done against Noah and Boozer?  Does the move really put them over the edge?  Did we really lose a championship difference maker?  (No, No, Yes)  For the hardcore strategy nerd, this pits a defensive minded philosophy against a run and gun philosophy.  Finally, for the basketball purest, it pits two teams that buy into the idea of TEAM ball against each other.

On an individual level, this series represents the chance for the Jordan torch to be passed once again.  After Jordan, the torch clearly passed to Kobe.  Right now, the torch is up for grabs.  Lebron lost his chance at it when he went to Miami.  Wade could have gotten it, especially given his 06 Finals performance, but it’s gone for him too.  Rose, with his stellar play, leadership, and obvious Jordan connection has the best chance at it, but he would need to win this series on both ends of the court.  If Durant and the Thunder won, he’d have a chance to take it.  Shit, even Westbrook has a chance if he dominates the series like Wade did in 06.  In fact, the three stars in this series have a better chance to be “the next Jordan” than anyone else in the league.  Why?  Westbrook is all heart out on the court and runs the point with great skill.  Durant quietly signed the long term extension with his original team in the midst of  “the summer of me.”   Rose is the lone star scorer at the guard position for a team-oriented Bulls squad.  These guys all clearly care about winning, just like Jordan and they’re all high volume wing scorers, just like Jordan.

2. Lakers vs. Heat

If the Heat make it to the finals, it almost doesn’t matter who they’re facing, it’s going to be an interesting series…UNLESS they played the Lakers.  Then it would be a series for the ages…on par with the 08’ Celtics-Lakers match-up.

Why?  The storylines.

Storyline One: LOSE-LOSE:

For the Heat to make it to the Finals they would have had to beat the Celtics or the Bulls, or both.   What would Celtics and Bulls fans do if this series happens?  The Celtics can’t see the Lakers win again this year because then the two franchises are tied at 17 NBA Championships.  The Bulls can’t see the Lakers win because Phil would complete his second Lakers three-peat, matching his total with Bulls.  But they just LOST TO THE HEAT.    Regardless who wins, this series match up would strengthen this 4 city rivalry for years to come both on the court and off.

Storyline Two: CHANGES

The Lakers represent old-school basketball: a dominant, bruising big man in Bynum, an alpha-dog, win or die player in Kobe, a quintessential second in command in Gasol, true role players in Odom and Artest.  The Heat represent the new breed, they’re a Myspace generation team: LeBron toying with his hometown and using the media to play up his decision, Bosh and Wade all over twitter over recruiting him, no role-players in site, just three buddies banding together regardless what everyone else thinks, under a microscope only the modern media and internet landscape could create.  This series would represent more than just changes in basketball, it would represent changes in the sports as entertainment.

Storyline Three:  GREATNESS

This series would feature Kobe Bryant trying to match Jordan against three guys too afraid to do it themselves.  He would relish the opportunity and play like a man possessed.  The Heat, with the world against them would band together with massive chips on their shoulders….they wouldn’t even have shoulders.  If Kobe can beat the Heat, average something like 30 points per game in a 7 game series, and outplay all the Heat stars, he gets himself even more in the conversation for greatest of all time.  Kobe will never stack up to Jordan statistically but he might have time to pass him in championship wins.  After this season the Lake Show might have one last run in them before teams like the Thunder, Heat, and Bulls can get themselves into Championship shape.  That gives Kobe a chance at 2 more titles for a total of 7: 1 more than Jordan.

Storyline Four: HATRED

The Lakers are one of the most hated teams in the NBA, but in this series, they’d be America’s team.  With each playoff series the Heat pull off in the their march to the finals, America’s hatred for the them would grow exponentially.  YouTube would go nuts with videos of Cleveland fans dressed in Kobe Jersey’s burning LeBron memorabilia again.

All in all, this series would solidify the 2010-2011 NBA season as one of the best in history.

1. Celtics vs. Lakers

As fun as some of the other potential matchup are…this is the one people really want to see and there are three reasons why:

Reason 1:  GREATEST FRANCHISE?

The Celtics clearly have the most to lose in this series.  Defeat means they not only lose the 2000’s trilogy vs. the Lakers but also their slim 17-16 overall titles lead.  With a win, the Lakers would become the greatest NBA franchise in everyone’s eyes but those in New England.  Sure, the Celtics had the late 50’s and 60’s, but a Lakers victory over the Celtics in 2011 puts them up 12 to 6 in championship wins, 20 to 10 in championship appearances, and 4 to 2 in head to head wins since 1970.

The Celtics 50’s-60’s dominance over the Lakers and the 17 championship trump card barely gives them the edge in the discussion as it is.  Lose this series and what argument can one make for the Celtics over the Lakers?  None.  The historic significance will only intensify this already heated rivalry both on the court and off.  Whoever wins, they’ll be riots in the streets of both cities.  (hopefully not mean riots, just sports riots.)

Reason 2: KOBE vs. SHAQ

Imagine this:  The last second ticks off the clock of game 7.  Shaq is swarmed by his Celtics teammates at center court as they celebrate a nail-biting 93-89 victory in which he scored 18, grabbed 15 rebounds, and shut Bynum/Gasol down in the last 5 minutes.  Kobe tears off in disgust. The Staples Center crowd stares on in stunned horror.  Shaq, in green, walks off into the sunset a champion.  It could happen…and that’s why this series could be epic.

The storied Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal rivalry could come to a thrilling conclusion if this series becomes a reality.  Kobe has 5 rings; Shaq has 4.  If Shaq can play an important role in a Celtics victory over the Lakers, he wins the rivalry, matches Kobe’s 5 titles, and destroys what might end up being Kobe’s last chance to match Jordan’s 6 rings.

Kobe hates Shaq.  He hated being Shaq’s sidekick and the chip on his shoulder Shaq created propelled him to his recent greatness.  Kobe would play lights out in this series to prove that he is the greater of the two…and that’s why he’d lose.   Down the stretch in a close Game 7 Kobe would let his pride get to him and try to take over, jacking up shots and driving to the paint trying to get to the line but it wouldn’t work.  Kobe is not the player he once was.  He’s 95% that player.  He still might be the best in the game and he definitely still has what it takes to win a title, but not by going old school Kobe.  Getting his teammates involved down the stretch is the only way he can open himself up for heroics.  HE KNOWS THIS.  Take a look at how he’s played this year.   They’re an inside out team.  The presence of Shaq will lead him astray however.  He’ll realize this too late and try to get the big men involved, but they won’t be there…because of Shaq.

Shaq, if healthy for this series, would take away the Lakers true strength, low post dominance.  He too would be lifted by the Shaq-Kobe rivalry and would use his energy in a very pivotal way, defending the paint and crashing the boards.  Shaq’s defense late in game 7 will stop Kobe and the Lakers.  A healthy Shaq makes this matchup one for the ages and gives the Celtics a slight edge.  Remember, early on this year, the Celtics with a healthy Shaq at center, was the best starting five in the NBA.

Reason 3: THE END OF AN ERA

Kobe Bryant is 32. Pau Gasol is 30.  Ron Artest is 31.  Lamar Odom is 31. Kevin Garnett is 34. Ray Allen is 35.  Paul Peirce is 33.  Shaq is 38.  The newest incarnation of the Lakers-C’s rivalry has been incredible to watch, but this might be the last season we see the Kobe’s squad and the Big three competing against each other for a title.  Where a Thunder/Bulls matchup signals the start of a new era, the Celtics/Lakers matchup signals the end of one.

Some say the Lakers will compete for the next 5 years because Dwight Howard is coming to LA.  He’s not.  Unless the Lakers drop Gasol and Bynum from the payroll it’s not happening.  Take a look at Kobe’s contract, he’s getting A-Rod money and then some for the next 4 years.  On top of that, the Lakers won’t have the freedom they have now once the new labor agreement is reached.  They’ll decline as Kobe declines.  They might have a shot again in 2012 but after that, the Heat, Thunder, and Bulls will be championship teams in their prime.

For the Celtics the situation is even more dire.  Their core is older than that of the Lakers. Garnett and Peirce will decline rapidly in the next three seasons.  Ray Allen, because of his obsessive diet and workout regimen, may produce at a high level until he’s 40 but then again another contender like the Bulls might lure him away with a big contract for that very same reason.  If they do, the Celtics won’t have the money to match it.  Even if Ainge can keep sure the big three together with Rondo for another two years, they’ll just be too old to compete with the Heat and the Bulls.  They won’t get out of the East in 2012 and beyond.

The core players in this matchup represent the first post-Jordan crop of stars, the Millennials.  Allen, Pierce, Garnett, Kobe, Odom, and Artest were all drafted in the late 90’s.  McGradey is on his way out.  Iverson is already out.  Duncan has little time.  There aren’t many of these guys left.  The Myspace generation is here: D-Wade, Lebron, Rose, Howard, Love, Durant, Griffin, etc…  This series would present the perfect bookend to the Millennial’s reign over the NBA.  Their time may have begun ugly with a lockout in 99’…but it could end beautifully with an old school showdown and a game 7 for the ages.

Bonus: Least Interesting

Spurs vs. Anyone.

Does anyone care that Duncan is going for his fifth title?  No.

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