Friday June 4th, 2010

The NBA Finals has greater meaning whenever the Celtics and Lakers meet. Here are five potential outcomes we'll be discussing in a couple of weeks.

Kobe Bryant's place among Lakers. He has four titles and needs a fifth to equal the achievement of franchise leader Magic Johnson. But this is no normal series for Bryant: This is his opportunity to make right all that went wrong two years ago, when Boston beat his Lakers for the ninth time in their 11 Finals together.

Johnson faced a more traumatic atonement when his favored Lakers lost to Larry Bird's Celtics in 1984. That upset was blamed almost entirely upon Magic, and he avenged himself by beating the Celtics twice in the Finals over the next three years.

The Celtics' 2008 victory wasn't Bryant's fault -- he was beaten because his younger teammates were unprepared to win a championship. They matured to win last year's Finals while holding home court to finish Orlando in five games. Yet, Bryant is taking personal responsibility for beating Boston this time. Since he first joined the Lakers 14 years ago, he has been keeping score with the goal of matching or surpassing the most accomplished players of his franchise, and the league overall.

The first time SI featured Bryant on the cover in 1998 -- one of my first stories for the magazine -- he was pictured with Magic. His father, 6-foot-9 Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, had the same skill-set as Magic, and after Joe retired from the NBA to extend his playing career in Italy, he and young Kobe would sit in front of the TV watching videotapes of Magic's Lakers that had been shipped overseas by Joe's parents. Bryant grew up viewing Magic's triumphant career through the prism of his rivalry with the Celtics.

Now the ball is in Bryant's court. This is not the main reason he needs to win this Finals, but it is important nonetheless: He does not want to look back on his career knowing he went 0-2 against Boston. In terms of titles won overall, he may yet surpass Magic, but a second loss against the Celtics would leave Bryant in second place behind his hero and friend in terms of this crucial rivalry.

This mission to beat Boston was behind the quiet in their locker room last weekend as the Lakers received their trophy for winning the Western conference in Phoenix. The mood was so sober and introspective that you might have thought they were the losers. Which, in a sense, they were: Bryant establishes the tone and approach for his teammates, and he continues to view the '08 loss as a result that must be overturned. Bryant has since won a championship without Shaquille O'Neal, as well as an MVP award and Olympic gold medal. But my feeling is that nothing will be more important to him than recovering the championship against the ultimate rival.

For most of his career Bryant has been identified as a potential successor to Michael Jordan, but before he can incite that debate he must first equal the achievements of Magic. How can Bryant be compared favorably with the greatest player when he hasn't outdone the greatest Laker?

The mighty 11. Since Magic and Bird entered the NBA in 1979-80, a total of 11 players have won all but one of the 30 championships:

6: Michael Jordan 5: Magic Johnson 4: Kobe Bryant 4: Tim Duncan 4: Shaquille O'Neal 3: Larry Bird 2: Hakeem Olajuwon 2: Isiah Thomas 1: Kevin Garnett 1: Dwyane Wade 1: Moses Malone

Some of the championships were shared, which is why the numbers don't add up. I'm sure that some of you will write to remind me that Julius Erving played a big role in Malone's championship, as did Joe Dumars for Thomas', and Paul Pierce/Ray Allen for Garnett's, and so on. But this list resonates because the NBA championship tends to be won by one or two special players. Each of the stars on this list was an MVP-level talent, including Wade, who surprised by leading Miami through the 2006 Finals but has since demonstrated that his breakout championship performance was merely a reflection of his talent and not some flukey hot streak.

Consider what is at stake in this Finals. If Bryant wins, he'll stand one title short of Jordan with reason to hope that Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum can help him to equal or surpass Jordan. Jordan is viewed by many as the greatest player of all time, but if he eventually falls to second place on this list then what will be said of the player who has moved ahead of him? Bryant's ultimate goal is to leverage that question.

Garnett is on this list because his presence on the Celtics two years ago -- when he was an MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year -- enabled them to win that championship. He is no longer playing to that high level, but then again, neither was Shaq when he won his fourth ring alongside Wade in Miami. The fact remains that the Celtics can't go anywhere without Garnett, as proved by their second-round elimination in last year's playoffs while he was injured, and he too will move up on this list by winning another title.

Pierce's legacy. This is what Pierce is up against as he fights to become one of the greatest Celtics.

11: Bill Russell 10: Sam Jones 8: John Havlicek 8: Satch Sanders 8: K.C. Jones 8: Tom Heinsohn 7: Frank Ramsey 7: James Loscutoff 6: Bob Cousy 5: Don Nelson 5: Larry Siegfied

If they hold a small party to celebrate the Celtics with the most rings, then Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish -- three apiece -- aren't walking through that door, because even they don't rate among the winningest players for their franchise.

Pierce ranks No. 3 all time among Celtics scorers with 19,899 points, and he should move ahead of Bird (21,791) sometime after next season -- though he likely will never catch franchise leader Havlicek (26,395). To understand how important Pierce rates his place in the history of the Boston franchise, remember how he reacted as the 17th banner was raised before last season and he was greeted by Havlicek, Cousy and Heinsohn. As he lifted the trophy, Pierce sobbed, understanding that he was now part of their club.

Pierce won't retire with as many titles as the others, but he will be credited for his perseverance and loyalty over the nine years he spent waiting in Boston for the arrival of talent to contend for championships. Just as the outcome of this Finals means everything to Bryant, so too will it carry the same impact for Pierce if he is able to help Boston win twice in a row.

The Pistons' example. The one championship team of the last 30 years that didn't contribute a player to the "Mighty 11" was the 2003-04 Pistons -- the only titlist without an elite scorer. They triumphed as a team, and if the Celtics prevail then they will be likely to follow a similar dynamic by winning with a well-balanced roster.

Is Garnett the most valuable Celtic, or is it Rajon Rondo? They need the driving of Pierce, the three-point bombing of Allen and the interior defense of Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.

The Celtics' current method is the most difficult way to win a championship because it depends on teamwork and balance. When the Lakers are in trouble, they depend on Bryant to pull them along. The Celtics' answer to hard times is to move the ball and create the best shot regardless of the identity of its shooter.

The coaches. Phil Jackson is all set at the top of his list, though an 11th championship would surely mean something special to him after he watched with embarrassment as his team lost Game 6 by 39 points at Boston two years ago. This may be his farewell (though don't count on that).

A win in this Finals would help Doc Rivers, who is among the 28 coaches to have won an NBA championship. Should he win this Finals he'll join the 11 peers who have won two or more titles. He'll also join Red Auerbach (9), K.C. Jones, Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell (2 each) on the short list of Celtics coaches with multiple rings.

If the Lakers succeed in utilizing their home-court advantage, they'll win their 16th franchise championship to leave them one behind the Celtics. And Los Angeles owner Jerry Buss will have won his 10th championship since buying the team before Magic's arrival in 1979-80.

Kobe is great, but the fact the Lakers are winning and the Cavs did not is not because Kobe is better than LeBron; it's because the Lakers have more talent than the Cavs. The Lakers would be in the same position if LeBron was on Lakers and the Cavs would be in the same position, if Kobe was with the Cavs. -- Raj, Los Angeles

Ian, the problem with your comparison of Kobe and LeBron is you ignore teammates in a team sport. Leaving aside Kobe and LeBron, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum (when healthy) are better than anyone LeBron plays with. And Kobe has 10-time champion Phil Jackson as a coach. Kobe has had a better postseason, but he plays with much better teammates than LeBron. By the way, I'm a life-long Laker fan. -- A. Joseph, Chicago

Bryant has better help. But I'm going to argue that he has helped bring out the best in his teammates (which is something a lot of people doubted he could manage). It's a chicken-or-egg argument: His success has much to do with his teammates, but they're success depends on him as well. Based on what we've seen in the playoffs so far, I don't see how anyone in the league could be rated equal to or ahead of Bryant.

I know that teams can't publicly talk about free agents until July 1, but what about coaches? Why are the Bulls and Nets allowed to openly speculate about Phil Jackson's availability? -- Chris, Fullerton, Calif.

The reports stated that both teams were connecting with Jackson's people via "back channels." Whether that means speaking with his agent or a friend is unknown, but if the Bulls and Nets had openly contacted Jackson then they, too, would be guilty of tampering.

I read a rumor that Evan Turner may not be a lock with the No. 2 pick, as so many people seem to think. Would the Sixers have any legitimate reasons NOT to select him with their second pick? -- Anthony, Philadelphia

Turner needs the ball and for him to achieve his potential much of the offense will have to be run through him. But I don't view this as a bad thing for the Sixers, as they're in need of floor leadership. Maybe they'll prefer to take DeMarcus Cousins as a true center, or even Derrick Favors as a highly athletic power forward. But there is no reason to anticipate them souring on Turner, who could share the wing nicely with Andre Iguodala.

Why is everyone ranking Xavier Henry so high? The guy is almost entirely left-handed, did not show a real ability to take the ball to the hole his freshman season, shot well when wide open but not so great otherwise (he does not have a quick release -- needs to load up when taking the three), etc. Although he's got the big body, he didn't show a lot of athleticism in his game this past season. He's definitely not a 3, and it seems to me there have got to be better two prospects out there. -- Mike, Oklahoma City

I hear you, Mike. But he interviewed very well with teams at the Chicago pre-draft camp and made a strong impression.

It's always this way with young players in the draft. In Europe they can never believe that someone like Danilo Gallinari or Nicolas Batum is ready for the draft. I remember hearing the same kinds of responses a year ago from Syracuse watchers who couldn't understand why Jonny Flynn could be rated as an upper lottery pick. But these NBA teams have to pick somebody.

George Gervin phoned me Wednesday from his home in San Antonio.

On Kevin Durant. "I do see similarities in the fact he's tall, he's slim, he can put the ball on the floor and he can shoot. But I had the left hook, the right hook, the finger roll -- I had more weapons than he does right now. He's young, he still can develop them. Next year, guys are going to make him drive more and be more physical with him.

"The NBA has a mentoring program, and I'm Kevin Durant's and Jeff Green's mentor. I have a chance to talk to Kevin and I always invite him here to San Antonio to let me work him out, show him some of these tricks of the trade. I'm not going to push on him to do it, but I look at a guy Kevin Durant's size and say, why wouldn't a guy like that call George Gervin and say, 'Ice, I'd like to come with you and really learn the tricks of the trade that I saw you use when you played.' It only makes sense.

"If you're a young player, there's nothing stopping you from calling me or Kareem or Artis [Gilmore] or somebody who was dominating in the position you play. That's common sense if you want to get better. I'm not selling myself, I don't have to know what I can do, but I'm bringing it up for young pros to see they do have that opportunity to go to a veteran they admire and emulate and say, 'Can you spend a week with me? Because I want to get better.'"

On timing and rhythm in golf. "I was starting to play golf when I retired from playing overseas [in 1987]. I'm a 6-handicap, I'm pretty consistent. But golf is the hardest game in the world. I've got so much respect for these professional golfers, because one day you're at the top of your game and next day you wonder 'where did my game go?' I knew how to fix things in basketball: If my jumper was not going, I knew to get to the hole or get to the foul line until my rhythm came back. In golf, I'm still learning it's all about managing your game.

"It comes back to fundamentals and timing, and as a ball player that's what I had. I had great timing -- I could set you up to go right, to shoot the right-hand hook. That's timing. Shoot a jumper to create space. Take it to the hole and slow down and fake and then shoot over you. Then it comes down to touch, and I had a great touch off the glass. I think now I have great touch on the putting surface, I can hit to the line where the ball is getting ready to break and then watch it break into the hole."

On his figurine. It features Gervin executing a finger roll and is available via his website with proceeds benefiting the George Gervin Youth Center, a non-profit serving thousands of San Antonio's at-risk youth and their families.

"I have eight programs here in San Antonio for kids and I have a charter school for about 830 kids this year, from kindergarten through high school. I was born and raised in Detroit by a single-parent mom. She raised six of us -- four boys and two girls -- and kept us in different programs, cub scouts, boy scouts. I'm a product of programs, so I understand how important it is to keep young people busy to stay focused and get your education. I've got a saying: You can do your 1-12 in a school education setting, or if you don't you can do your 1-12 in prison."

The maker of the figurine "did a great job executing my posture of me finger-rolling an ABA basketball with an ABA uniform. I don't think people understand how I did the finger roll. You hear all the time on college games -- the WNBA or NBA -- you hear announcers saying somebody scored on a finger roll. I'd be saying, 'What? That wasn't a finger roll. That was a jelly roll.' Because they don't understand it. It's almost like you're downplaying that ability and skill that I made famous. A guy will go to the hole and just scoop it and they'll say, 'Finger roll.'

"I remember I was in Michigan one summer playing pick-up, and I scored on a finger roll. And afterward, one of the other players said, 'Mr. Gervin, you rolled one on me, and all I wanted to do is go get the coffee so we could have coffee and rolls.' That was just so funny."

Rebounding. During much of the regular season, the Celtics were a horrid rebounding team, but in the playoffs they corrected that weakness. From the start of Game 1, however, the Lakers controlled the boards -- and eventually the game -- through Pau Gasol (14 rebounds), Andrew Bynum (six) and others. Boston has no hope if Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins aren't providing more than the seven combined rebounds they managed over their 59 minutes in Game 1.

Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. Not only did he outrebound every Celtic but Paul Pierce with seven boards in Game 1, but Bryant generated six assists (more than anyone but Rondo) and a game-leading 30 points while his defense against Rondo took the Celtics out of their offense. Boston won two years ago by restricting Bryant, but in Game 1, he did whatever pleased him -- an enormous breakthrough for the Lakers.

• Times have changed. Two years ago when the Celtics and Lakers brought their NBA Finals to Los Angeles, Stern gave a news conference to defend his league against allegations from Tim Donaghy that NBA referees had conspired to extend the Kings-Lakers conference final of 2002. On Thursday, without referring to Donaghy, Stern appeared on the same L.A. stage to passively declare that his league had survived the refereeing scandal. He cracked jokes and appeared to take joy in the absence of questions about fixed games.

My own feeling is that I still cannot believe the scandal came and went without more damage to the league. Does the public really not care? Has the league truly improved its oversight of officiating to deal with the issues raised by Donaghy's actions? I have my doubts on both points.

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