Friday June 12th, 2009

5. Will Courtney Lee be scarred for life? If we're talking about his last-second alley-oop layup that would have won Game 2 of the NBA Finals for Orlando, the answer is no. After he missed that shot, Lee -- a rookie from Western Kentucky -- stood at his locker and answered every question without taking offense.

If we're talking about the surgical scar he suffered early this postseason, the answer is a superficial yes. The toughness Lee showed while returning four games after a frightening head injury says everything about his ability to recover from one unfortunate shot off the backboard.

In Game 5 of the opening round against the 76ers, Lee was elbowed in the forehead by teammate Dwight Howard.

"All of his weight came down with his elbow," Lee said. "Oh, man, you have no idea. I've never been hit like that before. I didn't know where I got hit because the pain was all over my face, and I was throbbing and then my nose started bleeding and my teeth started clinging. When I went to the bench, I'm thinking my nose got broke, and then I look in the mirror and I got a big old knot right here."

He rubs at his forehead. "And then I rub right here and I can feel a dent. So I told Dwight, 'You put a dent in my forehead.' "

A CT scan revealed a fractured sinus. "First the doctor, who wasn't a specialist in the surgery, told me they would have to go ear to ear -- I mean an ear-to-ear incision -- and pull my skin over my face," Lee said. "When I heard that news, it was over for me. I was like, Man, I'll keep the fracture before I do that."

A specialist, Dr. James Palmer, told Lee he could repair the fracture by operating up through his nose. "But then, he said there were 12 fractures in there," Lee said. "He had to go under my eyebrow to screw the plates in."

Ten days after the injury, Lee was back on the court and outfitted with a protective mask that would enable him to play in the second round against the Celtics. He had been in the game a few minutes when he dived head-first for a loose ball.

"I was so caught up in the game," said Lee, who retains a small surgical scar under his left eyebrow, just above the eye. "I really wasn't too worried about it. I got the mask, and I know if I made that decision to go out and play, I couldn't be timid."

In summary, he should be able to overcome a missed layup.

4. Kobe's grim look. Is he playing it up? Of course. Is his refusal to smile or enjoy himself a reflection of his desire to win this championship seven years after his last title with Shaquille O'Neal? Absolutely.

A necessary byproduct of Bryant's serious look is that it focuses his younger teammates to the urgency of the mission. This is his way of demonstrating leadership.

And that is what is needed for this team. With 3:08 remaining in Game 2 and the Lakers seeking to overcome an 82-81 deficit, Lamar Odom walked off the court to shake hands with Sean Combs, who was seated courtside. Bryant had to have noticed this: He was standing above the top of the key waiting to shoot a pair of free throws. He made no issue of it. He focused on making his free throws. But it is scenes like that one that explain the need to demonstrate a serious side.

3. The Rafer/Jameer rotation. Jameer Nelson is the leader of the Magic and an All-Star at point guard. But when he suffered an apparent season-ending shoulder surgery in February, the Magic traded for Rafer Alston to run the team and help steer them through the Eastern Conference tournament.

Now Nelson has returned to health, and coach Stan Van Gundy has made the bold decision to play him in the Finals, and there have been times when Nelson has played surprisingly well for someone who hadn't played at all in four months. But the rotation between Nelson and Alston has created an imperfect balance.

The surprise was to see Nelson on the floor and Alston on the bench throughout the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4, which turned into a devastating loss for the Magic to give the Lakers a 3-1 lead.

"I thought we had a very, very bad third quarter, and then it wasn't so much one guy over the other," Van Gundy said. "It was just we had a unit in the fourth quarter that I thought was playing real well. And then you get down to the point where Rafer hasn't played in 10 or 12 minutes, I thought it would be hard to bring him back. Jameer wasn't doing a whole lot, but he also wasn't hurting us at all. The unit had played pretty well, so that's why I stayed with it."

Van Gundy made the right decision in bringing back Nelson for the Finals. The Magic were underdogs in the Finals -- in terms of home-court advantage as well as public opinion -- and if they were to lose the championship without seeing what an All-Star leader could give them, they would have regretted it forever. The downside, predictably, is that it has been a difficult rotation to figure on short notice.

2. Are the old buildings louder? "When they were building these arenas back in the day, they tried to build it such that the crowd and everybody was [tight] together," Magic guard Anthony Johnson, 34, said as he sat in the home locker room of Amway Arena. "It gets pretty loud in here when we're making plays and everybody is behind us and things are going our way."

Orlando's fans sound louder than the Lakers fans in Los Angeles, in part because the relatively new Staples Center is enormous with the lower-bowl seats spread further away from the court beneath three tiers of quiet (but lucrative) luxury suites. But the noise in Orlando works both ways. It also inspires the Lakers, and Kobe in particular.

"Our team actually responds better when we're in hostile situations," Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw said. "A lot of places we go, the crowds are hostile and it helps us. It wakes us up and we enjoy that type of ruckus and atmosphere."

1. Stan Van Gundy is the John Madden of NBA coaches. In his coaching style, Van Gundy is every bit the boisterous character that Madden was when he was coaching the old Oakland Raiders. And when giving interviews, Van Gundy is no less outspoken, either.

Before Game 4, Van Gundy was asked for his opinion of the regulation that prohibits players from entering the NBA until one year after their high school class has graduated. It's called the one-and-done rule because most teen stars go to college for one year in which they cynically pay little attention to academics before entering the NBA draft.

"I don't like the one-and-done," Van Gundy said. "First of all, I don't really understand how we get away with that as a league, that we tell a guy out of high school he can't come and play in our league. I don't know how we work that out. The guy should have the right to make a living and to come into our league.

"And what I really don't like is the way our system is set up. I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous," he said with noticeable sarcasm, "but kids should be going to college if at least part of what they want to do is get an education. The way it's set up, these guys that are on the one-and-done, they've got to take 12 credit hours their first semester, they have to pass six. Then they don't even have to attend class in the second semester.

"To me, it's a sham. But I don't want to get going in this press conference on the NCAA because I think that's about the worst organization going, so let's not get going on that one."

Van Gundy is a terrific coach. But when he decides to stop coaching, he will turn into an even better commentator on television.

4. What is the rule for goaltending? In Game 2, replays showed Pau Gasol forcibly rock the rim while attempting to block the lob pass to Courtney Lee that ultimately lost the game for the Magic. It was identical to Dwight Howard's goaltending call on the same hoop in the first quarter. I have heard of swallowing your whistle on foul calls, but that was a VIOLATION. Can the NBA retroactively allow the basket and proclaim the Magic victorious? Please respond, this is making me lose faith more than ever in basketball and Hollywood. -- Fernando Macias, California

The rule states that touching the rim, backboard or net has to affect the outcome of the shot. There was no goaltending on that play. Stan Van Gundy said he had no complaints that goaltending wasn't called.

3. Are you kidding me? Have you been going to the same Lakers games as me? Go sit in the upper rafters and then let me know how lethargic fans we are. Most of the die-hard Lakers fans simply cannot afford to go to games. -- Ali Beituni, Anaheim, Calif.

Thank you, Ali, for affirming my argument: The "die-hard" fans sit in the upper deck above three tiers of luxury suites as well as the expensive lower bowl. Without criticizing their fans, the Lakers themselves refer to the Staples Center environment as '"laid back."

2. Why do the media refuse to give Kobe credit for his role in Shaq's three championships? -- Sterneck Calixte, Miami

First off, I respect the proper analysis of Kobe Bryant. He is confident, not cocky. Do you agree that the media confuse his confidence as cockiness? I feel the media still see him as the immature Kobe of five years ago. -- Tyler Woods, Dallas

Why do so many of Kobe's fans carry such a large chip on their shoulders? They complain about media coverage of Bryant, but my impression over the years has been that much of his harshest criticism has come from his own coach, Phil Jackson.

Writers can't win when they write about Bryant. I get complaints from both sides -- from those who say the media are out to get Kobe as well as from those who say I'm much too nice to him.

As for your question, Tyler, which I appreciate, I think winning this championship would update everyone's understanding of and appreciation for Bryant. By winning in two eras -- a difficult achievement for a perimeter star -- he will leave behind many of the old complaints.

1. Is Tiger Woods a big basketball fan? -- Jack, Columbus, Ohio

He must be a big fan as he has attended many of the Magic games this postseason. But it's hard to tell how he feels about the game because he is so quiet and respectful. When he's sitting courtside, he behaves like he's sitting greenside.

3. Sacramento Kings: They're always a difficult team to predict, and president Geoff Petrie will have no problem taking a player at No. 4 -- such as Jonny Flynn or Tyreke Evans -- who is rated as a second-tier talent by rivals. A surprise choice here could change the lottery picks of everyone behind Sacramento.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves: They have three first-round picks (Nos. 6, 18 and 28) and a new general manager in David Kahn, who will unveil his management style at this draft. Will they package the picks in a trade to move up in the draft -- or to move out of the first round? No one knows.

1. Memphis Grizzlies: Another looming mystery. Do they pick Ricky Rubio at No. 2 and try to persuade him to play in Memphis? Doubts on that subject have helped Memphis, raising interest in the pick from rivals who believe they have a chance of acquiring it. The rest of the draft will be adapted to the Grizzlies' whims.

2. Should they have rested the starters in the final game of the regular season?

Had they won that home game -- they lost in overtime to Philadelphia as LeBron James and other starters watched -- the bottom half of the East draw would have been changed, matching the 76ers against Boston in the first round. The argument can be made that the Celtics might have had an easier time against the Sixers than they ultimately had against the Bulls, who took them to seven enervating games. That would have left the Celtics fresher going into the second round against Orlando. Would the Celtics have had the energy to close out their 3-2 lead against Orlando? Would Cleveland have used its home-court advantage to knock off Boston -- the Cavaliers having matched up better against the Celtics than against the Magic -- and would they be in the Finals as a result? This is all highly far-fetched, but these are the things that keep executives and coaches up late at night after the kind of bad loss that Cleveland suffered in the conference finals against Orlando.

1. What could they have done against Dwight Howard?

The young Magic center had 40 points in the decisive Game 6 against Cleveland, which has been out of character for his postseason as a whole. In the second round, the Celtics held him to 16.4 points on 11.7 field-goal attempts, and through four games of the Finals, the Lakers' harassing team defense has limited him to 16.5 points on 8.5 attempts.

Against the Cavaliers' relatively passive interior defense, however, Howard managed 25.8 points on 13.8 attempts. Was this an issue of personnel and mismatches, or was the problem in the schemes? The likely answer is that both sides must be addressed. But I don't believe for a second that coach Mike Brown is in danger of losing his job. He was Coach of the Year for winning 66 games with a team that was viewed in the preseason as lacking firepower around James. If you fire him, who becomes his replacement? Good luck finding someone who can seamlessly improve on the foundation Brown has established. It isn't going to happen.

1. To the family of Stephen T. Johns, the security guard who was murdered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. My 14-year-old daughter was among a large group of students from Boston-area middle schools touring the museum Wednesday when they heard gunfire. She ran to an interior window overlooking the lobby to see people lying facedown to avoid the gunfight.

Not 15 minutes earlier, Mr. Johns had greeted the children with a warm smile as they entered the museum. He stood guard to protect them, and I am certain that all of us -- the children who were there, and the parents grateful beyond words for their safety -- will forever respect and honor the heroic sacrifice made by Mr. Johns, in addition to the quick response of his colleagues. My prayers are with his family, and in particular his 11-year-old son. It is a sad day.

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