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Countdown: LeBron was MVP, but Kobe is the King of Clutch

Kobe Bryant is No. 1.LeBron James was undoubtedly the regular-season MVP, and his talent is peerless. But when it comes to getting things done when all is otherwise lost, no one is better than Bryant. After reportedly having more than an ounce of fluid drained from his swollen right knee in the opening round of the playoffs, Bryant has averaged 32.5 points in his last 10 playoff games and has scored 295 points in nine games while shooting 52.4 percent. He has created 43 assists over the last four games.

If it were possible to quantify a statistic to recognize talent and focus on winning important games, no one would rank higher than Bryant. He went through those long mid-career seasons of being viewed as a failure against his potential. But that baggage was abandoned a couple of years ago. He is now cashing in relentlessly.

The Lakers had lost two in a row at Phoenix when 6-6 Bryant -- in his 1,211th career game -- found the energy to respond with 30 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks. When it was time for the Lakers to make a big play around him, Ron Artest lunged across the lane to pluck a Bryant air-ball and bank in the game-winner at the buzzer to put the Lakers up 3-2 in the series.

Artest has sought validation all year from Bryant. He clearly wants to be viewed as a champion and a peer in Bryant's eyes. Bryant understands this and he has applied it to make the Artest experiment work thus far, to overcome all of the potential difficulties that have emerged throughout Artest's previous seasons. When Artest made that shot he instinctively turned away from his bench and ran to Bryant for a certifying hug. Their celebration says everything about Bryant's unique form of leadership, which is based on his ability to command respect.

Now think about James, who finds himself in the limbo of possibilities as he exercises his right to free agency amid frustration with his team's inability to reach the NBA Finals. Bryant was in the same frustrating place a few years ago when he demanded a trade in hope of forcing his way back into championship contention. Then the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol, and now Bryant is on the verge of a third straight run to the Finals and a second championship in a row.

Bryant needed years of experience to learn how to lead, and he also needed a proper blend of talent that could be led. At this moment he holds the advantage over James in both categories.

Big men are relevant. The NBA rules have been revised to liberate perimeter players, and point guards in particular. Defenders can't hand-check on the fringes of the court, enabling the quicker players to create space to drive or shoot. But size still wins.

Look at Dwight Howard, who has never been more intimidating than in the Magic's two victories to force a Game 6 Friday. Not only has he been clobbering the Celtics' big men, he has also been inflicting foul trouble across their front line.

The rules call for two styles in every NBA game -- patty-cake above the foul line, and greco-roman below it. The difference has been viewed as being unfair to Howard, who can be double-teamed and hammered in the paint. But he has turned that dynamic to his advantage by becoming the aggressor and forcing the Celtics to stop him by fouling him.

In turn the Celtics have renewed themselves around a trio of long defenders in Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis -- with the latter three capable of shooting from the perimeter to draw big men away from the basket.

Even Robin Lopez (8.4 points, 4.9 rebounds during the season) has been viewed as crucial against the Lakers' 14 feet of big men.

Then there is Lakers 7-foot forward Pau Gasol, who was viewed as soft while being victimized two years ago in the Finals by Boston. Hasn't he put that past behind him? Gasol was impressive defensively against Howard in last year's Finals, and in this postseason he has averaged a sensational 20.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 blocks. Gasol applies his European sensibilities to produce in a variety of ways, whether it's out on the floor or in the post. He bears little resemblance to the player who succumbed to Garnett in '08.

Zone defense is still under construction. The Suns worked their way back from a 2-0 deficit by relying on the zone more than any postseason team has done since it became legalized in 2001-02. Coaches have remained stubborn to fully deploy the zone, considering it to be a passive device.

Think about how much the NBA has changed over the last decade of the new defensive rules. All you hear coaches discuss now is the need for ball movement, which wasn't as much of a priority in the previous era of boring isolation play.

The pragmatic Suns weren't ashamed to do whatever they could to extend their conference final, and they've created a new awareness for the zone's potential. This is a copy-cat league and I bet we'll see more of the zone next season, which will lead to offenses responding with more ball movement and dribble-drive penetration (the latter is being sold by coaching candidate John Calipari).

Now consider this: Commissioner David Sterntold me in December that the league will consider doing away with the three-second limit on defenders in the lane, which would result in a European approach to team defense based on zone principles. Styles and strategies will continue to grow.

The regular season means little.Mike Brown and Mike Woodson combined to win 114 games this season, and both were fired after poor showings in the playoffs.

Woodson's teams improved over each of his six years with Atlanta. But there comes a time when management knows a coach too well and wants someone new. The feeling in Atlanta was that Woodson had reached his ceiling -- a very high ceiling at that.

Brown was let go not only because the Cavs needed to win a championship while James was under contract, but also because they'll need a new coach to compel him to re-sign in July. It's a business decision, as Robert Duvall used to say in The Godfather movies. Winning in the regular season means little if it doesn't lead to winning in the playoffs.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers understood this when he accepted regular-season losses in hope of turning the last three months into an extended training camp meant to rehabilitate Garnett and Paul Pierce for the playoffs. It was a high-risk strategy that underlines the fact that regular-season success is prolog.

Rookies need not apply. It has been 30 years since Magic Johnson was MVP of the NBA Finals as a rookie. The draft no longer yields such instant success stories.

No rookie was playing a meaningful role for any of the final four teams this postseason. One reason is that rookies today are too young and unprepared to transition to the highest level.

Over the previous two years no more than two rookies have played a meaningful role in the NBA final four -- Courtney Lee helped Orlando reach the NBA Finals last season, and Rodney Stuckey was part of Detroit's rotation in the '08 Eastern finals. Each was a non-lottery pick who had spent three or four years at a small college. They weren't the most talented rookies, but they were far more experienced than most of the players picked ahead of them.

Who has been the most surprising player to you thus far in the postseason?-- Lenny, Los Angeles

It has to be Rajon Rondo, not only because of his elevated leadership role and the importance of his production, but also because of Boston's surprising dominance throughout these playoffs. He has been the bridge extending the postseason careers of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen -- and they in turn have created the floor balance that has enabled him to excel. As they head into a closeout Game 6 at home against Orlando, the Celtics need Rondo more than ever.

LeBron to the Bulls: A total conspiracy theory or does it actually have merit?-- Laura, Springfield, Ill.

It is a total conspiracy theory that does have merit. Put it this way: It has as much merit as any other rumor. Their coaching hire will put their chances in perspective. If they were to somehow hire a big-timer like Phil Jackson or an FOL (Friend of LeBron) like John Calipari then you'll know the Bulls are in the running. If they go instead for a developing or inexperienced coach making a small salary, then I don't see them as a player in the market to sign James.

I took a look at your mock draft and saw you said if the Timberwolves take [Kentucky forward DeMarcus] Cousins that would allow them to deal Al Jefferson. Don't you think that's a bit risky considering all the red flags surrounding Cousins' attitude and the fact that it takes forever for big men to develop? Jefferson is now a polished offensive player, Cousins is a huge question mark.-- Marrell, Cleveland

How far can Minnesota go with an undersized center and an undersized power forward? That would be one question. Cousins' size and potential in the paint would enable them to invest fully in Kevin Love at power forward. The Timberwolves would do a full investigation of him before picking him, and if they come up with a red flag then, of course they won't take him. But they have a patient long-term approach to rebuilding their franchise, and Cousins' youth shouldn't be a negative. In any case, I don't see Cousins falling out of the top five.

People have lamented Cleveland (and other teams) to try and get their superstar a championship so that superstar stays in town. How much input do you think LeBron had in the team picking up Shaq and Antawn Jamison (and even bringing back Zydrunas Ilgauskas)? How much input do you think he'll have (if he re-signs) in getting rid of Delonte West and some of the other players? If he said 'get these guys,' it is hard for him to pass the buck on them.-- Rusty, Cincinnati, Ohio

I don't view James as having ownership of those acquisitions. Of course the Cavs would have sought his opinion, but ultimately the decisions were theirs to make. If we assume James wasn't a big fan of Mike Brown's offense in belief that it didn't bring out the best in him or his teammates, then it stands to reason that James didn't feel entirely responsible for the Cavs' offensive failures in the playoffs, either.

Now that he holds all of the leverage because the franchise will wither financially if he leaves, the Cavs undoubtedly will be asking for his feelings about potential coaches as well as players. But there isn't a lot they can do to improve the roster as they wouldn't get equal value in trades for Mo Williams or Jamison or West. Will a new coach succeed in changing how the Cavs play while reformatting and bringing out the talents in the current roster? Let's not forget that Mike Brown won 127 games over the past two years, so it's not like there is a lot of undiscovered productivity on this team.

Joe Maloof, who owns the Sacramento Kings with his brother Gavin, spoke with me Thursday.

On selling the Kings. "It's not for sale. Earlier, we were looking at selling a minority interest, but not total control. We were going to sell about 5 to 6 percent of the team. When you start having $25 million to $30 million losses, you start to consider your options. But we've turned it around. I don't ever see us selling it -- you never want to say never, but I don't see it.

"Our situation has drastically changed for the better. Our [player] salaries are in line, we're going to have cap space available, we have a good core of young players, we have a coach we finally feel comfortable with [in Paul Westphal], a consummate professional. Believe it or not, we're at 88 percent [ticket] renewals.

"The [plan for a new] arena -- that's another story. We've got to get something done there eventually. But never did we think of selling majority control, never. There are a number of teams for sale, but we're not one of them. Probably that rumor started because we were looking to sell a minority interest. But we're too bullish on this league. As many problems as we've had in the past, the NBA is still a very special fraternity and basketball is very popular around the world.

"All this pain we've been through, everybody goes through it. Unless you're the Lakers in a market like that."

On missing the playoffs. "We've been in a state of depression not getting in the playoffs. When my dad [owned] the Rockets we made the playoffs every year. When we bought the Kings, the first seven years we made the playoffs. We haven't been in the playoffs for three years. It's very depressing. Extremely depressing.

"There's no feeling like that in the world when you're in contention. Only sports can give you those feelings that we had back in those glory years with the Kings. Give you a taste of that. When you're stuck in the valleys we've been in, you just try to get back in the playoffs first.

"We're going to have a lot of flexibility this summer. We're going to be at [a payroll of] $33 million, and the cap is going to be close to $56 million, so we're going to have lot of space. I can't speak too much about who we're going to go after, but if a free agent or a player comes around who can help the franchise, we're going to look very strongly at him. We're in the game, too.

"There's going to be two views: Some owners are really looking at free-agency strong, and others are going to take a wait and-see approach, because you don't know where collective bargaining is going to go. You do have a lot of power with an NBA team when you're under the cap -- you can take players on, teams can trade into your cap space. We've never had that amount of money under the cap before. We have to see what comes our way."

On skateboarding. Joe and Gavin are running the annual $250,000 Maloof Money Cup, the richest event in skateboarding, June 5-6 in New York. Next year the Money Cup will move to South Africa.

"We had the Sacramento Kings basketball camp every July, Gavin and I, it was like 120 degrees outside and the camp was stale -- we'd been doing it for nine years. Every time I looked out the window I saw these skateboarders. I said, 'Why don't we do a skate camp in Orange County for a week and hang out at the beach, get out of the hot sun?' Then it evolved and we were getting calls from people saying why don't you guys do a competition?

"Now you have the X Games, which is partly skateboarding, they're the biggest of them all and they've done a wonderful job of promoting action sports. But I don't consider them competitors. You want everybody to do well -- you want the Mountain Dew Tour to do well, we're going to do very well. The only way to expand the lifestyle or the sport of skateboarding is through success stories. It's good to have us involved, because we understand the athletes -- the skaters -- are the real celebrities. It's like the NBA, where it's not about the owners or the coaches, it's about the players.

"All you need is a skateboard and the street, just like basketball where you need a ball and a basket. It's very inexpensive to get into, and kids don't have to be 6-6 and 240 pounds to do it -- though I bite my tongue because if you look at some of these skaters, some of them do look like linebackers. They have to have the talent and the skill and they have to practice -- they get knocked down and they get back up a thousand times.

"For us it can turn into a wonderful business opportunity in a positive way, which means remaining steadfast to the core values of skateboarding and at the same time enhance it with these contests and make it a big deal. We haven't made any money on it, and when I do make money I'm going to plow it right back into the Maloof Cup and grow with the sport."

Doug Collins. He will instill discipline and energy, but there are issues that no coach can fix and the biggest of these is playmaking. Andre Miller is not walking back through that door. This is a league dominated by point guards and the Sixers let a good one move to Portland last summer. Maybe they'll play Evan Turner as a rookie, but they still need ballhandling to pull together the disparate parts of their roster. The reason so many of their players appeared to regress and go their own way was simply because they didn't have Miller to keep everybody on the same page. Finding a replacement for Miller will define Collins' success or failure.

Tom Thibodeau. Of course he knows the Xs and Os, but head coaches live and die based on their relationships with players. Just as Thibodeau has succeeded in preparing defensive game plans as an assistant for the Celtics, my hunch is that as coach of the New Orleans Hornets -- or Chicago Bulls, if that's where he winds up next season -- he will move out of his comfort zone and prepare himself thoroughly to develop relationships with his players. He'll hire assistants who can help him in that crucial area, but even more so he will work hard to get to know his players. The two things that define Thibodeau are hard work and a drive to succeed, and he'll know better than anyone that he won't succeed as a rookie head coach until he proves he can yell at his players while commanding their attention and respect. The only way to do so is to build personal relationships. I'm not betting against him.

The Jinx. Last week I wrote a story about Rondo that wound up on the cover of SI for good reason -- he was the breakout star of the Eastern playoffs and, when the cover was finalized Monday afternoon, his Celtics held a 3-0 lead over the Magic.

Yet, the threat of a jinx thrives to this day. When I told Rivers we were thinking about putting the Celtics on the cover, he responded with a shivering grimace. (I think he was joking.) No sooner had the cover been decided than Rondo appeared to be limited by cramping in his right leg throughout the Celtics' Game 4 loss Monday. (But can that be blamed on us? We hadn't even published the magazine at that time.)

The most recent case of SI jinxing was with Chris Ballard's May 17 cover story on Shaq, whose face was still on newsstands after his Cavaliers had been eliminated by the Celtics. This was not forgotten by the Boston Herald, which featured the Rondo cover on its front page Wednesday with the headline, DON'T JINX US!

I try to remind people that Michael Jordan was on SI's cover more than anyone, and it worked out well for him. We'll see how it goes for Rondo.

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