Friday February 26th, 2010

Boston and Cleveland measure themselves against the other, and as the Celtics look up Friday morning LeBron James suddenly appears 11 feet tall.

The Rivalry. I will admit approaching the Cavaliers-Celtics game Thursday in Boston with the belief that theirs is the league's most competitive feud. "It's the most compelling, in some ways,'' Boston coach Doc Rivers had agreed. "I think the Lakers-Celtics is the best, you can't beat that. But as far as style of ball and matching, it's really good. I don't think you'll get better basketball.''

Over the previous two years when both teams were whole and in synch -- which neither had been lately coming into this game -- they had been two contenders seeking to dominate each other defensively, like opponents in an NFL championship game from the 1960s.

"It reminds me of how we played,'' Rivers said of his era, "like the New York-Chicago matchup [in the late days of Michael Jordan]. When two teams kind of mirror each other, it makes for a great game. It can be ugly, which means it can be low scoring. But it still can be great.''

Then, all of a sudden, the Cavs overcame a torrid Boston start to destroy the Celtics 60-32 over the second half to conclude a revealing 108-88 victory, their first at Boston in 10 games. They did so after Shaquille O'Neal left in the second quarter with what was termed a "significant'' sprain of his right thumb (he was ruled out of Friday's game at Toronto while awaiting further tests).

"We haven't had much success here,'' James said after producing 36 points and nine assists with two turnovers. And yet he did not behave as if something important had been achieved. "It's not about which teams you beat,'' he went on. "It's about playing well, keeping your momentum up all year, and playing well going into the playoffs.''

Now that is a scary thing when a 25-year-old plays with the wisdom of someone five years older and puts it all in perspective afterward like he's 35. The Celtics, ironically, need to develop that perspective, but the only way to embrace it is to live by it. The NBA does not believe in Cinderella stories, as this league demands and rewards consistency of effort and success over the length of the interminable season.

All season Kevin Garnett has been preaching the need to play all-out, even while recognizing that his injuries have prevented him from fulfilling that goal.

"I know you guys are tired of writing it in your columns, I apologize for all that,'' he said. "At some point there has to be some action, you're right, you're totally right. Doc has a saying, 'You have to run through the whole race,' and we've got to do that. Until we players decide to do that, we're going to be in this predicament.''

But here are three things to remember before you kill off the Celtics. (1) On opening night they were the team that overcame an early 14-point deficit to win at Cleveland for the first time in 12 visits, which at that time set off alarms around the Cavaliers. (2) Paul Pierce was sidelined from this game with a sprained right thumb of his own. (3) Their collapse was altogether predictable because they aren't yet capable of the 48-minute effort. But the Celtics' fluid opening half was a long-awaited sign that they aren't quite dead yet, for while Rajon Rondo was pushing the tempo, there was Garnett running along with him. If Garnett's legs continue to strengthen and they take this embarrassment to heart ...

That's as far as hope for this team goes. No one should be predicting good times to come for the Celtics; this is nothing more than a warning to not bury the patient too early.

The point guards. Mo Williams had been struggling to regain his form since returning Feb. 18 from a left shoulder sprain that sidelined him for a month. "It won't take long,'' he told me before the game as LeBron and Shaq lay on training tables across the room receiving treatment. "Maybe I'll have my breakout game tonight.''

He was looking forward to his matchup with Rondo, who had taken over Williams' place as a reserve point guard on the All-Star team. "He dominates the ball, so you've got to be prepared for a lot of pick-and-roll,'' Williams said. "You try to take him out of his comfort zone. Make him make a few jumpers -- and hope he makes a few jumpers, and he'll want to shoot the ball more.''

That optimism backfired on him early as the Celtics ran out -- literally -- to a 21-12 lead with Rondo responsible for all of the points, hitting 5-of-7 shots and assisting on the other five baskets. Williams was so yielding defensively that he was benched in the eighth minute.

The truth is that a team effort was needed to cut off Rondo's lanes to the basket, and a team effort indeed met him and began to turn him away. The Celtics, predictably, slowed and then stopped running altogether as James began to take over at the other end. From an early 20-point deficit, the Cavs pushed themselves out front in the fourth quarter and then pulled away on a trio of threes from Williams, who was inexplicably left uncovered by Boston's hopelessly disorganized transition defense. The flurry was preceded by an airballed three from Rondo, true to Williams' intentions.

"After the game I told him, 'Welcome back. Welcome back, Mo,' '' James said.

Williams (7-of-13 overall in 31 minutes) wound up equaling Rondo's 19 points on six fewer shots and in 14 fewer minutes. Afterward I reminded him of his predictions. "Oh, yeah,'' he said, lighting up. "Write that.'' No kidding.

The difference-maker. As much as it has helped Cleveland to trade for Shaq (who has limited Dwight Howard this season) and will help to have recently arrived Antawn Jamison (who had nine points and four turnovers while exploring his newfound role), the biggest improvement in the Cavs this year may come from Anderson Varejao, their backup big man now in his sixth year with the team.

As strong as the 6-foot-11 Garnett looked at times in the first half, he was outplayed at both ends by the 6-11 Brazilian. He outscored Garnett 14-10 while taking three fewer shots. Varejao went 6-for-7 with startling versatility, whether he was canning an open 19-footer, scoring across the lane or tip-slamming a teammate's miss. He has turned into an effective passer, and his defense is more aggravating than ever in ways that no one can appreciate better than Garnett. Varejao blocked three shots, flopped at midcourt to draw a foul and was crucial in shunting Rondo's drives.

If Garnett cannot reclaim his title from Varejao as the most active big man on the floor, then the Celtics have no hope in an eventual playoff rematch, if they should get that far.

The urgency to win now. Before this game the teams warmed up to a background of military music that accompanied video highlights of Boston's championship two years ago, including its excruciating seven-game victory over Cleveland. The Cavs did not look up at the video screen to see what they'd lost. It hung over them like a cloud, that which they wanted and which the Celtics already had.

The promise of James' talent and the curse of possibly losing him to free agency this summer have driven Cleveland to pursue an expensive now-or-nothing approach, even though he remains, by his potentially unprecedented standards, an unfinished talent (another fright for his opponents). The complementary acquisitions of Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, as well as the foundational trades for Shaq and Jamison, have been presented as gifts of devotion to LeBron as well as pieces toward winning a championship, which, in light of the 2010 conjecture, can sometimes appear -- altogether inaccurately -- to be the secondary goal.

The Celtics are under similar pressure, but it isn't nearly as severe throughout their organization as the need to succeed that is driving these Cavaliers. Of course, the Celtics must win now because the air is running thin for Garnett, who at 33 has been limited by knee problems over the last year, and 34-year-old Ray Allen, who becomes a free agent in July with little fiscal opportunity for the Celtics to find a replacement of his standard. And yet it stands to reason that the Celtics cannot be as hungry as Cleveland. These Celtics already have their championship, and they may find out that their ambitions to win again are defined and ultimately limited by their health and age, and that nothing can be done to change their nature.

The future. With this win the Cavaliers have given themselves one more reason to believe, and yet they've suffered too many playoff losses -- against San Antonio, Boston and Orlando over the last three years -- to celebrate these little victories.

Before the game I asked James if it's possible to have too much talent, which is a concern some around the league have raised now that Cleveland has squeezed Jamison into a frontcourt replete with Shaq, Varejao, and J.J. Hickson, with Leon Powe making his homecoming return from knee surgery Thursday (he celebrated his Cavs debut by scoring four points in four minutes against his former team) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas expected to return next month following his contract buyout from the Wizards.

"It's a good problem to have,'' James said in the early evening.

Later that night he picked up that point. "Someone asked if we had too many bigs,'' he recalled, and now it's clear they don't. They are deep, versatile and yet humble enough to play hard around the game's greatest talent. The Celtics may have hopes of catching and overtaking them, but the former champions have been made to realize now that their opponent is no stationary target. The Cavs are rising and rising fast.

On to the rest of the Countdown ...

The problem with the idea that NBA owners and players should act like "partners" is that they're not. Players take ZERO risk. They sign a contract and they get paid, guaranteed, regardless of personal performance or injury. If players want to be partners, then it's time to pay for performance. Only an agent would argue that franchise value appreciation is "income" that owners should share with players. Again, where was the player risk? An owner pays tens (or for recent owners, hundreds) of millions of dollars to purchase a team and arena. If that value goes up, why should the players share? Will they give back a portion of their pay if they suck and the value of the franchise goes down? Of course not. Player money flows one way: to their pocket, never back the other way. Partners share risk. If the players are willing to do that, then fine, they can be partners. But as long as all they want is to get paid with no responsibility to perform and no risk if overall league revenues fall, then they are not partners and deserve none of the upside. -- Dan Palmer, Evanston, Ill.

Well put, Dan. My point is that both sides need a partnership. I thank you for spelling out the price the players would pay in order to be so engaged.

The free-agency era in sports is relatively young and still evolving, dating back to the Andy Messersmith ruling in 1975 that did away with the reserve clause in baseball. A players' union in one of the major sports eventually will recognize the upside of partnering with the owners, with an understanding that the shared risk will liberate the players to grow the game and ultimately make more money via that growth. It is the next phase.

I cannot understand how the Nets could be this bad when I compare them with the Wolves, who are the worst team in the West. I believe they have a more balanced starting five and veteran leadership at the point, and they play in the much weaker conference. Is it the bench? Coaching? Chemistry? Or just plain luck? -- Donguk, Seoul, Korea

All season I've agreed with your point of view that the Nets ought to be performing better. But maybe you and I have been giving them more credit than they deserve. I know Devin Harris has been diminished by a groin injury, but he hasn't shown any of the leadership you'd expect from an All-Star point guard before or since Lawrence Frank's dismissal. As promising as Brook Lopez has been, he is by no means a dominating center; Courtney Lee is a complementary player at shooting guard; and interim coach Kiki Vandeweghe took over with zero head-coaching experience.

The Nets can springboard back to the playoffs next season around a new rich owner, max cap space, a high lottery pick, those young players and the promise of an eventual move to Brooklyn. But I regret making excuses for them. If they become the NBA's worst team by losing 74 or more games, then they'll have earned that record and all of the ridicule that goes with it.

Please stop posting Cleveland-in-the-Finals predictions. Every article you publish with this foolishness puts us inevitably one step closer to losing in the first round to the Bobcats and LeBron subsequently leaving town for New York. If you must publish Finals previews, stick with L.A.-Orlando, because invariably whatever you reporter-types predict in columns in February never happens. Thanks from Northern Ohio. -- Jeff Scheid, Cleveland

I hear you, Jeff, but you ought to have more faith. You Cavs people are more insecure than Red Sox fans used to be.

Do you think having Michael Jordan taking over the Bobcats would be good or bad for the franchise? He's noted for his lacking managerial skills, but he did trade for Stephen Jackson -- a player who has guided Charlotte to what may be the first playoff berth this season. -- Stephanie, Matthews, N.C.

Here's one thing I don't understand: Why isn't job experience a commodity when it comes to running an NBA team? Isn't it natural to think that Jordan will grow better at his job the longer he does it? Instead of always looking for new faces to run NBA teams, I don't know why former GMs and franchise presidents aren't recognized for their experience. It takes a couple of years for rookie GMs to become trained for the job. Usually they learn the hard way by making mistakes, and sometimes they're fired before they can profit from that education. I'm not saying everyone should get a second chance, but I do think if Jordan becomes Charlotte's majority owner, then he'll apply his experience in a positive way. It's not fair to think of him as the same guy who hired himself to play when he was president of the Wizards.

The Knicks' coach can't wait for July 1, when New York will have more than $30 million in cap space.

On All-Star center David Lee, who is averaging 20.3 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists through Thursday. "It's hard sometimes to evaluate a guy when you don't make the playoffs; then it's [the criticism that] his numbers get skewed. And they are a little bit, but that doesn't change from him being really good. He has a great sense of offensive timing, of passing the basketball, of being able to finish as a pick-and-roll guy, and if you're running that he may be one of the best I've ever seen at it.

"He's undersized, he can play '4,' though. Would that cut him down? I don't know. He's developed his 15-foot shot and he shoots the ball really well in that [distance], so I see him as a very good player on a very good team.

"Now, maybe he doesn't put up 20 on a good team. Maybe he does have 12 points and 10 rebounds, and now you have to determine what that is worth. But I know he'll be a positive force on any team he plays for."

On the deadline trades that generated cap space for two near-max players. D'Antoni slowed the offense in December. "And we had our best month, and we felt that was the key," he said. "We're now ramping it back up. We want to finish the next 20-something games and see if we can run again and get them out. To be honest, Gallo [second-year forward Danilo Gallinari] shoots the ball better when we run because he gets more open perimeter shots, and with Sergio [Rodriguez, the up-tempo point guard acquired at the deadline], we need to push the tempo.

"Getting that cap space is what we set out to do. It was our main goal other than to develop as many guys as we could. We developed David Lee into an All-Star and we got Gallo and Wilson [Chandler] to pretty good levels, and now, hopefully, Sergio we can plod along too. And then we open the space. Still, we're disappointed we didn't make the playoffs [New York is nine games out of the No. 8 spot], and we're disappointed for the fans, but they've hung in with us so far, and hopefully we'll all benefit from it."

On losing in New York. D'Antoni was 253-136 in five years with the Suns, and before that, eight years as a championship coach in Italy.

"Losing tears up any coach," he said. "But losing at other teams is maybe even worse. If you're [with] the Phoenix Suns and you lose a game, it's like, Oh my God. Here, you take it in stride a little bit knowing the grand plan is what we're doing.

"I signed on knowing this could be a reality. But I didn't really believe it: I'm thinking, We'll switch it around, we'll win anyway. But after we made the trade with Zach Randolph and Jamal [Crawford] and these guys [to clear cap space], the reality sank in that this is going to be some tough sledding. And it has been.

"I don't really get a whole lot out of losing. You re-examine everything, you see a lot of different things. It's just the life experience. But I wouldn't recommend losing to learn something, because that doesn't help anything.

"The only upside is the experience the young players are earning. Every game we're competitive, it hurts when Wilson and Gallo go down and miss a big shot. OK, you missed a shot here, we lose, big deal. But being in those situations and being able to react defensively or offensively is very crucial for their development."

Larry Bird. HBO's new documentary, Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals, emphasizes a major difference between the two stars: Johnson sought attention while Bird shunned it.

Earlier this season I asked Bird if fans in Indianapolis respect his privacy. "It's better here than anywhere I've ever been," he said, while emphasizing that he wasn't a recluse in the past. "I go out. I don't stay at home just because I'm worried about somebody coming up to me. I never was like that. My thing earlier in my career at Boston -- it was all new, and Boston's completely different than anywhere I've been."

So you've made peace with your celebrity? "Well, yeah, after 30 years," he said, laughing. "You know, I was very uncomfortable because I was pretty shy early on, but [the attention] is just expected now. It's part of the game. But it always amazes me: I haven't played for 17 years and they still talk about the days we played and comparing us to guys who play now. It's always been interesting to me.

"It's always been amazing to me, but fans are fans, I guess. If you really think about it, all the guys who are in their 60s and 70s and 50s now have seen us play, and there's a majority of them still alive. It really meant something to them. A lot of the letters I get and the support I get are from people who watched my whole career or seen me play in Boston. If you play in a place like Boston, it's different from anywhere else."

Tiger Woods. May we please settle one fact? He is not the most famous or popular athlete in the world. He is a golfer, and most of the world knows nothing of and has no interest in knowing anything about golf. When I read numerous reports casually describing Woods as the most famous athlete in the world, it comes across as us Americans deciding that Woods must be popular everywhere because he is popular here.

As a matter of common sense, the most famous athlete on the planet used to be Muhammad Ali, because boxing is universally understood. Pelé has been up there as the top star in soccer, which is the world's most popular team sport, and Michael Jordan -- star of the world's second-most-popular team sport -- took over for him following the 1992 success of the Dream Team and the newfound access to American entertainment and products behind the Iron Curtain after the Berlin Wall went down. You can't be the most popular athlete globally unless you accomplish something of universal appeal.

I remember speaking a decade ago with one of the top sportswriters in England about the importance of Jackie Robinson. He asked, "Who is Jackie Robinson?"

It is just so arrogant to imagine that hundreds of millions of people in China or South Africa or great swaths of Eastern Europe and Russia have ever noticed anything Tiger Woods has done at the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship. Probably he is more famous now around the world because of his affairs than he was because of his play. The man is a golfer, and golf makes as much sense to billions and billions of people as cricket makes to Americans.

From Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. On Tuesday, the former Suns playmaker will hold a news conference at City Hall to formally endorse Kings point guard Tyreke Evans for NBA Rookie of the Year and support a campaign the Kings are naming "RekeROY" (as in Rookie Of Year). This makes perfect sense for Johnson, as the best candidate to endorse is the one whose election is assured.

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