Friday June 11th, 2010

Now that the NBA Finals has turned into a best-of-three, here are a handful of players who are prepared to make a difference -- one way or another.

Pau Gasol. Gasol has spent the last decade steadily leaving one doubt after another behind him. As a teenaged prodigy with the Spanish champion club Barcelona he didn't play big minutes. Yet he was picked No. 3 in the 2001 draft at the insistence of Memphis GM Billy Knight, despite protests within his front office that Gasol was too skinny.

"I was trying to make myself known, because for me it was an adventure," said Gasol. "I was the second Spaniard that got into the league, so a lot of people thought I wasn't going to make it."

Gasol was the surprise Rookie of the Year as a 21-year-old, and within four years he helped lead the Grizzlies to 99 wins over a span of two playoff seasons. But that success gave rise to more questions about whether he could help lead a contending team. Gasol was adamant he could and his request to be traded sent him two years ago to the Lakers in a deal mocked by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich as lopsided.

Gasol isn't (yet) a No. 1 star but he's the next best thing. He stands now on the verge of becoming for Kobe Bryant what Kevin McHale was for Larry Bird -- a tremendous secondary star with more than a few MVP-level skills. Gasol's versatility as a face-up shooter, as a scorer off the dribble or with his back to the basket, as a passer, as a shot-blocking defender and as a rebounder has succeeded in punishing the Celtics for the defensive attention they've paid to Bryant.

Two years ago Gasol wasn't prepared to make such an impact during the Lakers' loss in the Finals to the Celtics, when he was growing accustomed to the demands of Bryant and Phil Jackson as well as the unique environment of the L.A.-Boston rivalry. He was accused of being soft.

"It's pretty amazing to me," Gasol said. "You have a couple of bad games and all of a sudden you've got a label there. I feel like most Europeans, we get that label no matter what. It's just a given, it's like you've got to prove yourself every single game that you're a tough player. It's pretty interesting. But it's more interesting that I keep getting [the question], which feels like there's nothing better to talk about, which is a little sad."

Gasol is more thoughtful and eloquent in his second language than are many American players in their first. Early in the Finals he was made to sound as if he was criticizing Kevin Garnett based on this response to a question about how he and Garnett have changed over the years.

"Well, it's been nine years past [in the NBA], so everybody has grown," he said. "For me I understand better the nature of the game here. I grew as far as my body and how I play the game. So I could say that I'm a more mature player and more effective now. I was athletic, lanky; I had more explosiveness than I have now, but I was weaker also, and I wasn't accustomed to the physicality of the league and the amount of games that are played. But little by little I've gotten better, and I've grown to be the player that I am today.

"And also on Kevin's part, he's also lost some explosiveness. He's more of a jump shooter now, you could say, comes off the lane. Before he had a really, really quick first step and was getting to the lane and he was more aggressive then. Time passes and we all suffer it one way or another, but he's still a terrific player, a terrific competitor, and he's going to bring everything he's got. You can count on that. I expect a very tough series, and every game will be a battle. So we've got to be ready for it."

Gasol could not have been more accurate in his analysis. Neither could he have been more effective over the first four games: In a Finals defined by defense he has averaged 20.5 points and shot 54.5 percent with 3.3 assists to go with a series-leading 9.5 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 46.5 enervating minutes. He has created foul trouble for Garnett and other Celtics without indulging in that weakness himself. He has been the most reliable -- and therefore the toughest -- player of the Finals thus far.

Now he must finish the job, which threatens to grow tougher if center Andrew Bynum's recurring knee issues prevent him from playing to his level of the first three games. If the Lakers are to win, their triumph will be led by Bryant and Gasol -- and we know the Celtics will focus on stopping Kobe first. A victory for Gasol in this setting will be a victory for European players everywhere in proving that toughness can be expressed in a variety of ways.

Ray Allen. Like Robert Redford in The Natural, Allen has been suddenly and mystifyingly unable to hit the fastball -- which in his case amounts to whiffing on all 12 of his threes over the last two games. Anyone who cares to know does appreciate that this slump followed Allen's Finals-record performance of eight threes in Boston's Game 2 win at L.A., including seven in the first half. Previous to Games 3 and 4, Allen was converting 44.4 percent of his postseason threes against four of the top five field-goal defenses in the league.

But Allen is more than a shooter. He has led the teamwide defensive effort against Bryant, who is shooting 40.9 percent in the Finals; and Allen was essentially the leader for most of the Celtics' fourth-quarter charge of Game 4 when he was the lone starter on the floor.

At 34, Allen's vitality will always be under suspicion, even though it is his ridiculously high level of conditioning that has enabled him to excel years beyond the normal lifetime of a shooting guard. More than any other Celtic, his ability to flash open at the three-point line in transition or around half-court screens could position him to take the pivotal shot of these Finals. Imagine, after his slump of the last two games, if he makes that shot.

Lamar Odom. Two years ago he was a nowhere man in the Finals loss to Boston. Last year he was magnificent in the breakthrough Finals against Orlando. Now Odom has been in and out while averaging 7.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in the four games.

"I thought Lamar was going to kind of sit this one out," said Jackson after watching Odom go for 10 points and seven rebounds in 39 minutes while filling in for Bynum in Game 4. "He wasn't really having success, and I thought the scoring [Glen] Davis did at the other end of the floor affected Lamar's game. Then he got going, he got productive a little bit in the fourth quarter."

Now they need Odom to be productive a lot. During a big third-quarter stretch when Garnett grew suddenly energized, he greeted Odom defensively with claps and screams. The truth is Odom has the skills to attack Garnett off the dribble to inflict fouls as well as points and assists.

Whether or not Bynum is available, the Lakers will need more production from Odom. The Celtics evened the series by outscoring the Lakers' bench 36-18 in Game 4. "They really stepped on it in the fourth quarter," said Jackson. "We seemed to not be able to stop the momentum of their game. Their bench outplayed us in that sequence." Odom gives L.A. the opportunity to win those battles.

Glen (Big Baby) Davis. No player has benefited more from playing alongside Garnett than Davis, who in these playoffs has turned into a relentless attacker. He doesn't shy away from the open jump shot, which falls with surprisingly regularity considering its flat line, but Davis is more in his element when trying to outrun defenders in transition -- a highly entertaining sight for someone 6-9 and 289 pounds -- or attacking the rim as a cutter or offensive rebounder. When defenders are able to swarm, the undersized Davis is often victimized by a blocked shot, but those misses are a small price to pay for all of the havoc he creates.

Davis won a playoff game last year at Orlando with a last-second jump shot, and when Garnett was suspended in the opening round this season Davis filled in with 23 aggressive points against Miami. So there is more substance than suggested by his behavior early this season, when he missed most of the opening two months after suffering a broken thumb while punching a friend two days before the first game.

"This incident that happened at the beginning of the year was not the best thing for him or our team, and I wouldn't want it to happen to any other player," said coach Doc Rivers. "But in some ways it may have helped him understand that he had to mature now. He understood that the team was not going to wait for him, we were going to move on. And when he came back he didn't immediately play, and I thought that all of that in some way helped him.

"We laugh, but he did earn the name Big Baby, and it wasn't from his size. But he's growing up as a guy in front of our eyes. We go to him on the post now if we feel like he has a matchup, and that's something we would have never done two years ago."

Ron Artest. Jackson has related Artest to Dennis Rodman, and that comparison now appears to be self-fulfilling. Artest appears to have regressed offensively this season, in part because he has been so focused on his defense. He is shooting 32.4 percent for his 8.0 points, and many times Bryant and other teammates have scolded Artest for holding the ball and not releasing it into the flow of the offense. But Artest has committed only four turnovers throughout the Finals, and in any case he wasn't brought to L.A. for his offense. He was hired to strengthen the Lakers defensively, and in the four games he has done his job by limiting Paul Pierce to 41.7 percent shooting and liberating teammates to converge upon Allen.

But Pierce may have turned the corner in Game 4 by going 7-of-12 for 19 points and attacking the basket more often. Is that the beginning of a trend? Or was Rivers being too optimistic when he insisted that Pierce "had it going" and that the Celtics should have given him scoring opportunities. A breakout game by Pierce could turn the series, and it is Artest's job to prevent that from happening.

Can you really consider Kobe Bryant equal to Michael Jordan if Jordan leads him in every individual or team award and statistic except for career three-point and free-throw shooting percentage? -- Holden, Duluth, Minn.

You're right, Holden, at the moment that would be a tough call. My point was that perspectives will change if Bryant wins two or three more championships. If somehow Bryant were to finish with seven titles -- a longshot, for sure -- then we'd hear a lot of debating.

Since 2003, people make excuses for why the Lakers lose or win in the playoffs. I love Kobe, but why are the Lakers always favored? -- Vlad

Come on, Vlad, they aren't always favored. There is a lot of anti-Lakers sentiment working against them. But they often have had the best player -- whether it has been Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal or Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- and so it's understandable that the team with the best player would be favored.

I just think much has been discussed, but when I look back to Celtics teams missing Cedric Maxwell and Robert Parish and with Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot against healthy Lakers teams in the '80s, is it unreasonable to think the Celts couldn't have won them all? Bynum's knee could end up being McHale's broken foot, couldn't it? -- Bill, Andover, Mass.

I suppose they could have won all of them, Bill; I guess that would have been possible. (I don't remember Parish being unavailable.) But as I remember it, neither Boston nor L.A. was superior to the extent that it should have swept the Finals rivalry in the '80s. If either team was going to win all three it was probably going to be the Lakers, who should have won the '84 Finals in which Magic Johnson played badly.

Bynum's knee had held up well through three-plus games, and the matchups against Boston have helped him because he hasn't been forced to wander too far from the basket. McHale was a more important player and his injury was more devastating than Bynum's has been.

How can Dan Gilbert honestly say LeBron has no say in the Cavs' search for a coach? Is he not the reason they're willing to shell out $30 million for one? -- Brett

Gilbert doesn't want everyone saying that James is responsible for their coaching hire. But, of course, they're going to ask for his advice. Why wouldn't they? It would be bad business to hire a coach without knowing whether James would be willing to re-sign in order to play with him.

That $30 million contract (reportedly offered to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo) demonstrates to James that they're willing to pay for the best coach available.

But I cannot understand why the Cavs would fire Mike Brown on the grounds that he failed to coach at the highest level, only to replace him with Izzo, who will need time to adapt to NBA coaching standards. Maybe I'm missing something, but how does that help them win a championship next season or retain James this summer?

I'm not in any way saying that Izzo would be a failure as an NBA coach. But I am wondering how he could become a championship coach in his first season. That would be one of the most amazing NBA successes of modern times if he could pull that off.

With the football (yes, that's what it is) World Cup kicking off this weekend in South Africa, it seemed like a good time to look at how the NBA actually circulates its Finals to 215 countries and territories in 41 languages.

It happens from the back of a truck. Actually the brain center is a highly expensive trailer parked behind secure gates outside the TD Garden in Boston. Within the far wall are a dozen flat screens, each split into four screens and faced by row after row of technicians. Altogether they take the video feeds supplied by ABC and "clean" them of many of the American accents, which is to say that the world receives a purified view of basketball in comparison to the commercialized version we view in the U.S.

"We take so much of what they do and work around the edges to stay away from domestic references -- a promo for Wipeout [the ABC program in which one contestant after another is knocked painfully into the water by enormous paddles and other mechanized weapons] or the guys [the ABC announcing team of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson] going on camera," said Tim Kane, NBA senior director of production and programming. "I'm listening to the ABC producer, my director is listening to the ABC director, my A.D. [assistant director] is listening to the ABC A.D. So when they say, 'Let's promote Dancing With the Stars,' we'll know there's a graphic coming that we really don't want to see [internationally]. So we don't."

They'll move to an announcer of their own who hosts the international broadcast, or they'll cut to one of the views that is dedicated to the international feed. "We have four of our own cameras that give us a chance to create clean pictures around the world," said Kane.

You would not believe how many video cameras are operated by ABC and the NBA entities during a Finals game. "It's upwards in the 100s, maybe 150," said Kane. "It's a lot of cable, and the setup you have here, you also have in L.A. It's all set up and ready for us when we arrive."

The talent. The NBA launched this global endeavor 20 years ago. In the early '90s the league welcomed a memorable broadcasting team from the former Soviet Union.

"The first time RTR Russia came on board was probably the first time the announcers were out of the Soviet Union," said Peter Skrodelis, NBA vice president for broadcast operations, sitting behind his console in the broadcast trailer. "And they never knew what a minibar was. They actually emptied the minibar in their hotel room every single day. We were kind of comping them the hotel incidentals, so when the NBA got the bill after the Russians checked out, it was like thousands of dollars of minibar bills."

Ten announcing teams arrived from abroad for these Finals, including the esteemed George Eddy, an expatriate American who played overseas before becoming the John Madden of French basketball. "We always like to see what George is wearing on gameday," said Kane. "He had a shirt on the other night that I'd never seen before -- it was the [Jerry West] logo man in a kind of puzzle."

"He shopped the morning of Game 2," said Matthew Brabants, NBA vice president of business operations for global media distribution. "I saw George getting in a cab and he said, 'I'm going over to UCLA to get a shirt to honor John Wooden.' "

Before every game each announcing team is given two minutes on the court to tape its pregame opening. Many still talk about a Middle East broadcaster who requested a special allowance.

"He wanted 15 minutes because he was doing an entire show, so we said OK," said Kane. "He spoke for the entire 15 minutes. And he counted down to the second. I counted him from 10 minutes to seven minutes to five minutes to three minutes all the way down and when he hit the 15 minutes he shut up. But he went the entire time. And we were like, Let's hope he doesn't have to re-do that."

The future. It is now possible for international fans to buy access to NBA games streamed live to their computer via the Internet. A similar league pass is available in the U.S., but the international version enables viewers to watch playoff games -- including the Finals -- online.

When I lived in Europe for six years in the '90s, I essentially lost contact with American sports. As much as the NBA has grown via televised markets around the world, that growth could multiply when Internet access replaces satellite, cable and over-air as the means for delivering games to countries outside the U.S.

The next phase will be to continue improving access to live games via smartphones as well as televisions connected to the Internet. The future of the NBA is based on fulfilling these global markets and growing its business beyond the potential of the NFL or baseball. "On a global basis there's no question those other leagues' international audiences are a fraction of the NBA's," predicted NBA Digital general manager Bryan Perez. "And that's good."

These came from the Finals coaches on Friday. ...

From Jackson. "That's not fair play," he said when asked if he hopes to entice Celtics center Kendrick Perkins and his backup Rasheed Wallace to each earn another technical foul that will result in suspension from the following game. "That's not the way to play games."

Can't the Lakers capitalize on the Celtics' emotions?

"Yeah, you can be provocative and get out there and act kind of like they do if you want to and get in people's faces and do that," said Jackson. "But that's not the way I like to coach a team. That's not what I consider positive coaching, and that's what I like to think is the right way to do things."

From Doc Rivers. "We're going to work on it," he said of Rajon Rondo's slumping free-throw shooting, which has plummeted to 26.7 percent (4-of-15) in the Finals. "He knows what he's not doing, we know what he's not doing. There's certain things that he has to do. Clearly the first two he was -- nothing that he can't be taught, I can tell you that -- he fell away, his elbow was out. So we'll get it back.

"But then the confidence part has to come back as well. I will say this: I was really proud of him because I thought in Game [3], when he missed a couple, he stopped driving, and that's what happens when you miss free throws and then you don't want to get fouled anymore. I thought last night [in Game 4] he kept taking it to the basket, and for me that was huge. That's a good sign for him."

So his poor foul shooting did limit his aggressiveness?

"Just in Game 3, I thought he just tended not to drive more. But [in Game 4] he went right back to it.

"So that's how much he's grown. A year ago or two years ago, that may have been the last layup of the series, you know, and last night in the third quarter he was aggressive, he was attacking, and that's who he has to be. The free throws are a go for him. I think he was basically saying that to himself, I'm going to go in here and get fouled and make my free throws. That might have been the best sign of the night for me for him because that showed me that he was going to be aggressive the rest of the series. And I think because of that he'll be a factor the rest of the series."

On the length of the Finals. This is going seven games. Whichever team is on the verge of being knocked out is going to survive a Game 6. That stubbornness -- keyed by the defenses -- has been a theme to this Finals, and it will be out of character for either team to lose in six games.

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