Published May 03, 2010
Kevin Durant's been sent off for the summer with his first NBA playoff scar, courtesy of the Lakers. Brandon Jennings also has left for vacation after learning what it takes to win a Game 7.
The young upstarts are gone, and the remaining eight playoff teams all have one thing in common: loads of playoff experience. But only three -- the Lakers, Celtics and Spurs -- know what it takes to win, having won the last three titles.
So, does that automatically eliminate the Cavs from the championship conversation? Of course not. As LeBron James said the other day about his chances of winning his first title: "This is the closest I've been to it.''
In one form or another, every star player still in contention and looking for his first championship ring has paid his dues. Not that it's made a difference for Steve Nash, who's still looking for his first trip to the Finals. So, playoff experience will only take you so far.
James was hopelessly overmatched in the 2007 Finals against the Spurs and endured last year's disappointment of not even forcing a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals against Orlando.
It's not just that James is better equipped to lead a team to the title in his fifth playoff season. His supporting cast now includes Mo Williams, Delonte West, Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison. Compare those four to the 2007 supporting cast of Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones, and it's easy to see why the Cavs were swept.
Of course, the Cavaliers first must get by Boston, which has all the championship experience a team could want. Yes, the Celtic bench is not nearly as productive as the 2008 reserves, and the Big Three are long in the tooth. But Rajon Rondo's sterling play in the first two games in Cleveland, including Monday's 104-86 win, means this series is suddenly very interesting.
If the Cavs survive, Orlando again stands in the way, assuming the Magic handle the Hawks. After bouncing James in the East finals in 2009, the Magic learned a hard lesson last spring against the Lakers, throwing away a chance to tie the NBA Finals 2-2 at home. To take the next step, it could come down to whether Dwight Howard, in his fourth trip to the playoffs, can stay out of foul trouble, then also prove he's capable of stepping up to the foul line and making free throws with games on the line. He failed in the clutch last spring against the Lakers, and he's no sure thing a year later.
Howard's taken the Magic deeper into the playoffs every year since his maiden voyage in 2007, and now he has another teammate who can create his own shot in Vince Carter. So, that can't help the Hawks. As many valuable scars as Atlanta's core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford have picked up in three playoff seasons together, the Hawks won't be able to overcome the home-court disadvantage against the Magic.
Out west, the Lakers are safe bets to keep advancing, as long as Kobe Bryant's right knee doesn't present any more problems and Andrew Bynum's able to play on his bad knee. Utah's Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer have been through some playoff wars over the last three years, getting as far as the West finals in 2007, but the Lakers have too much size and length and Bryant owns the Jazz. Plus, they're the defending champs.
What does that mean, exactly?
"We've been through so many battles, we've seen every defense and every adverse situation,'' Bryant said during the regular season. "So, it's kind of like we know what's coming before it comes.''
The Spurs also possess that sacred knowledge, which can only help as they try to send Nash home for the fourth time since 2005. But they lost Game 1 in Phoenix as Nash went off for 33 points and 10 assists. And like Boston, they've seen their better days since they last staged a victory parade in the Alamo City.
Although they've incorporated some younger athletes, starting with George Hill, it still will come down to their championship core of Tim Duncan, owner of four rings, and guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, with three each.
"Ginobili is playing as well as he's played in a few years,'' Suns coach Alvin Gentry noted. "He's pretty much put the team on his shoulders and lifted them up.''
But in terms of the biggest lifting to come, we'll still go with Kobe over LeBron.
Read more of Mitch Lawrence's columns at the New York Daily News .