By Chris Mannix
January 25, 2010

After last Thursday's heavyweight tilt between the Cavaliers and Lakers, the LeBron James-Kobe Bryant NBA Finals hype is in full swing. Nike is manufacturing puppets, Shaq is testing out one-liners for Los Angeles and the world is bracing for the series that will ultimately determine the best player in basketball.

Not so fast, though.

While the Lakers are widely considered the class of the Western Conference, the Cavaliers are in for a dogfight in the East playoffs. Atlanta plays tough against them, and Orlando is largely the same team (sub in Vince Carter and a healthy Jameer Nelson in, sub out Hedo Turkoglu) that bounced the Cavs from the conference finals last year.

But if you ask NBA scouts, Cleveland's path to the Finals will be blocked by one long obstacle: Kevin Garnett.

"If KG is healthy, Boston is a better team than Cleveland, period," a West scout said. "That defense is light years better when he is in the lineup."

The Celtics and Cavaliers haven't seen each other since opening night, when a stifling Boston defense limited the Cavaliers to 89 points on 41.4 percent shooting. Garnett didn't defend LeBron much that night but he did, an East scout said, "coordinate the attack against him."

"Boston can score with Cleveland without Kevin," the East scout said. "And [Kendrick] Perkins is a very good interior defender. But KG is the guy who moves the pieces around out there. When he's in the game, Boston is rarely out of position. And you need to play smart defense when LeBron is in the game or he will carve you up."

(All stats and records are through Jan. 24.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 1
After dumping the Lakers for a second time this season, the Cavs followed with a narrow win over the upstart Thunder to extend their winning streak to four. The question is, How many more injuries can Cleveland endure? Delonte West (broken finger) joined Mo Williams (sprained shoulder) as the second Cavs point guard to be sidelined this week.
2 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 4
The Nuggets wouldn't be complete without the headache that is J.R. Smith. His behavior on the bench rubbed George Karl the wrong way, and a suspension was threatened. But even with his antics and shooting slump, the Nuggets have won six in a row.
3 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 2
Win or lose, Kobe Bryant is going to get his points. It's the way he gets them that has the Lakers worried. Bryant is shooting more than 10 percentage points better in L.A.'s wins than he is in losses (48.5 percent to 38.4 percent). In the Lakers' loss to Cleveland last week, Bryant shot 41.8 percent; a day later in a win over the Knicks, he was 8-for-24 from the field, including 3-of-9 from beyond the arc.
4 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 3
Atlanta Hawks (28-14)
Jamal Crawford's new nickname ("The Difference") is a little Jersey Shore-ish, but that's exactly what the super sub is going to have to be if Atlanta is to survive this upcoming stretch. The Hawks will face Houston, San Antonio, Boston and Orlando before the week is out.
5 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 6
Jason Kidd sure looks old, doesn't he? The 36-year-old point guard dished out a combined 32 assists in back-to-back wins over Boston and Washington. He ranks fifth in the NBA in assists (9.2). "He's like Cal Ripken," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. "He's got a real pulse on the team and a good hand on the controls."
6 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 8
Orlando Magic (29-15)
Jameer Nelson is starting to find his mojo. The '09 All-Star has been slow to return to form after November knee surgery, but he logged a season-high 39 minutes and chipped in 21 points and seven assists in a win over Charlotte. "I have to be in attack mode at all times," he said.
7 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 5
You get the feeling the Celtics are just praying Kevin Garnett's oft-injured right knee holds up until April. KG returned to the lineup last week after a 10-game absence, and for Boston's D --which gave up 96-plus points in eight of the games Garnett missed -- it wasn't a day too soon. "He's the guy who holds everyone else accountable on the Celtic way to play, and without him, I thought that was slipping," coach Doc Rivers said.
8 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 9
Add Brandon Roy to the Blazers' absurdly long injury list. The All-Star guard is expected to miss at least the next three games with a hamstring injury. Portland players have missed a total of 209 games to injury already this season -- four more than all of last season.
9 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 10
Utah Jazz (25-18)
Welcome back to the starting lineup, Andrei Kirilenko. The ex-starter turned sixth man has return to his previous role, and the Jazz are 5-1 since the switch. AK-47's 26-point, eight-rebound effort powered Utah to a rare win at San Antonio. "He's given us another guy who can make plays," coach Jerry Sloan said. "I probably should have had him [starting] all along, if I'd been smart enough."
10 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 7
The good news is they are scoring at a very un-Spurs-like clip (101.1 points per game). The bad news is their defense doesn't look like them either. San Antonio surrendered 60 second-half points to both the Rockets and Jazz last week and have dropped four of their last five games. "We seem to be two different teams at different times," Tim Duncan said. "We always talk about playing 48 minutes the right way. Right now, we're nowhere close to that."
1 - 10 11 - 20 21 - 30

You May Like