Talking The Talk — Hoop Style

By John Smallwood
Updated: May 19, 2009

NBA Playoffs PHILADELPHIA — Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers are one series away from advancing to the NBA Finals, look for vitaminwater to up the rotation of its “Great Debate” advertising campaign.

Kobe “The Black Mamba” Bryant vs. LeBron “King” James. Who is the greatest basketball player on the planet?

Undoubtedly, the sports drink company, the NBA and much of the free world would love to see this debate settled in the glitzy atmosphere of an NBA Finals.

It would be the biggest individual matchup of superstars in their primes since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson last squared off in the Finals in 1987.

A word of caution, however, to those who think Kobe and King James is a preordained collision.

Remember Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson — the much-hyped American decathletes of the 1992 United States Olympic trials. Reebok ran a summerlong campaign touting Dan’s and Dave’s impending battle for the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Everything crashed when O’Brien failed to qualify for the games at the trials.

These conference finals in the NBA have that kind of feel about them.

The Orlando Magic in the East and, especially, the Denver Nuggets in the West are fully capable of advancing to the Finals.

The chance of a Denver-Orlando Finals isn’t that much lower than a Los Angeles-Cleveland matchup.

I think Nuggets-Cavaliers might have the best odds of all.

The Lakers, who play Denver tonight at the Staples Center in Game 1, are vulnerable. Los Angeles needed a Game 7 to move past the Houston Rockets, who did not have Yao Ming for the last four games of the series; it’s hard to see the Lakers as a lock to advance.

And that’s not simply because the Lakers have been wildly inconsistent throughout the playoffs – sometimes playing at a high level and sometimes coming out flat.

Next to Cleveland, which is 8-0 through two rounds, Denver has been the most consistent playoff team. The Nuggets needed just 10 games to move past a talented New Orleans Hornets team in the first round and the Dallas Mavericks in the conference semifinals.

With Carmelo Anthony averaging 27.0 points and Chauncey Billups averaging 22.1 points and 7.3 assists, Denver has the two-pronged star attack that championship teams need. The Nuggets are averaging a playoff-high 111.5 points and have a scoring differential of plus 16.0. Counter to the Lakers, Denver has displayed a level of toughness and determination throughout the playoffs.

If the Lakers needed seven games to take out the Yao-less Rockets, I don’t see them beating a Nuggets team that is clicking on all cylinders and playing like they really want to win a title.

Say goodbye to The Black Mamba; the Nuggets win in six.

The temptation in the East is to say that James and the Cavaliers haven’t faced anyone in dispatching Detroit and Atlanta. But to be 8-0 through two rounds, no matter whom you’ve played, is an impressive feat. It says that Cleveland has zoned in and fully focused on the task at hand.

Good teams are supposed to bury inferior teams in the playoffs, not give them even the slightest glimmer of hope.

James has been amazing, averaging 32.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 6.8 assists while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor.

Still, as good as James has been, Cleveland is dominating because of a total team commitment to stellar defense. Of the four remaining teams, the Cavs have the lowest scoring average, 94.87 points, yet they lead the playoffs in scoring margin at a whopping 16.75 points, allowing just 78.12 points a game.

That kind of defense coupled with a player like James, intent on winning his first championship in building a legacy as an all-time great, makes the Cavaliers extremely difficult to contend with.

I just don’t see the Magic as a team capable of stopping Cleveland. The Magic gets a lot of credit for going into Boston and winning Game 7, but don’t forget, the Celtics were without All-Star Kevin Garnett.

Dwight Howard has established himself as the best young big man in the game, and has been a leaping double-double in the playoffs, averaging 19.8 points and 16.6 rebounds.

What I can’t understand is how Magic coach Stan Van Gundy can allow his team to sometimes forget it has a presence like Howard in the paint.

The entire problem with Orlando is that it occasionally loses focus – it happened in the series against the Sixers and against the Celtics. A series against Cleveland won’t allow for those types of gaffes.

This series should be closer than it will be; Cleveland wins in five.