Ball Don't Lie - NBA

Each weekday morning, BDL serves up a handful of NBA-related stories to digest with your bag of lettuce.

Howard Beck, New York Times: In the mystical, everything-Zen universe of Phil Jackson, happenstance and happy endings are a way of life. After closing out the Suns on Saturday, Kobe Bryant(notes) and the Lakers will face Paul Pierce(notes) and the Celtics. It is the 11th N.B.A. finals between the teams since the Lakers moved West in 1960. Not long after winning the championship last summer, Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers coach, visited his daughter's apartment complex. There, improbably, he bumped into Paul Pierce, the Boston Celtics star. The Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 finals but had failed to make it back for the rematch. Jackson had a request. "I said, `Get it back. We want to meet you in the finals,"' Jackson said, recalling his moment with Pierce. Wishes were fulfilled this past weekend, when the Celtics finished off the Orlando Magic and the Lakers closed out the Phoenix Suns. The N.B.A's most storied rivalry will resume once more, for the 11th time since the Lakers moved West. The finals will be colored in green and white, purple and gold, and several shades of redemption. The Lakers want payback, after getting pummeled by the Celtics two years ago. The Celtics are seeking validation, after having their title defense short-circuited by injuries last year. The finals begin Thursday in Los Angeles. "It's a great challenge for us, to see how much we've improved, how much we've gotten better, to be able to go up against this team in a playoff series," Kobe Bryant said Saturday night, after the Lakers closed out a six-game victory over the Suns. The Celtics are seeking an 18th championship to add to their record total. The Lakers are seeking their 15th title, their 11th in Los Angeles, and their fifth since 2000. If the Lakers win the championship, it will also be Jackson's 11th, further separating him from the Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach (nine). Bryant would earn his fifth ring — breaking a tie with Tim Duncan(notes) and Shaquille O'Neal(notes), among the biggest stars of the post-Michael Jordan era. He would be one shy of tying Jordan, the league's modern standard-bearer. And he would further separate himself from LeBron James(notes), who has won the last two Most Valuable Player awards but has yet to distinguish himself in the postseason. But mostly this will be about a rivalry renewed, about legends forged over four decades. "Obviously, this is a matchup that's very easy to talk about," Bryant said. "There's a lot of things that people can write about and talk about. It's a sexy matchup."

Mitch Lawrence, New York Daily News: Given the injuries and advanced age of some of his key players, it was by necessity that Doc Rivers decided over the last 10 games of the regular season that he would surrender wins in April for victories when it mattered the most. So here the Celtics are, ready to compete in their 21st Finals and looking to hang banner No. 18, after going 4-6 down the stretch. Since then, with Kevin Garnett(notes) and Paul Pierce healthy and playing like All-Stars, the Celtics have won 12 of 17 playoff games and have been even more dominant than they were in winning the title in 2008. In that run, they were forced to play two Game 7s and finished the postseason with a 16-10 mark. But over the last seven weeks they eliminated Dwyane Wade's(notes) Miami Heat in five games, and took out LeBron James' top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers and Dwight Howard's(notes) defending Eastern Conference champion Orlando Magic without needing to play a Game 7. Next up are Kobe Bryant's Lakers in a renewal of pro basketball's greatest rivalry and a rematch from 2008, when the Celtics overpowered the Lakers in six games. But if you had told die-hard Celtics fans back when the playoffs started that they would be getting a chance to chant "Beat L.A." in June, they would have questioned your sanity. "That stretch the last month, we formed a game plan, and I thought it was the right plan," Rivers said late Friday night after the Celtics had finished off Orlando in Game 6 in Boston. "Obviously it didn't look right because we were losing games, but guys were resting and conditioning, and I thought that was the only chance we had. Because the one thing I did learn through the injuries was, we were not good enough injured. But we had a chance if we were healthy. There were no guarantees, but we had a chance healthy. So, my gamble was let's take health. So we lost some games, but we got healthy.'"

Julian Benbow, Boston Globe: The numbers made it easy for the Celtics to stand pat. Over the past three seasons, the starting unit of Rajon Rondo(notes), Ray Allen(notes), Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Kendrick Perkins(notes) has won 124 games, seven playoff series, and one NBA title. The only team in the NBA that went into this season with the same lineup it had in 2008 was the Celtics. While everyone from championship contenders to upstart franchises reworked their rosters, the Celtics held steady. The core, they figured, was their key. "The core players here have won a championship," said Pierce. "So once you get that under your belt, that's experience you can't take away." The Celtics will head to their second NBA Finals in three years with eight players who were there for the first run. Players such as Glen Davis(notes) and Tony Allen(notes) have seen their roles increase from one title run to the next. The dynamic among the starters has morphed as well, with Rondo emerging as an All-Star peer of Allen, Garnett, and Pierce. The Celtics have added pieces, but by and large the players that were there to bring Boston its first NBA title in 22 years are the ones who have led the charge toward banner No. 18. "Regardless of who you bring in here, the number of players that come in from free agency and who we pick up, the one constant that we've had was the great leadership on this ball club because of the starting five that's been together for a few years now," Pierce said.

Howard Ulman, AP: When Paul Pierce and Boston's other starters need a rest in the NBA finals, they can watch their replacements with confidence. Just as they did two years ago against the same opponent. Two years ago, when the Celtics won their 17th title by beating the Los Angeles Lakers. Boston's key backups have changed since then. The importance of their contributions hasn't. "Somewhere along the line these guys that are role players that people don't really talk about come along and help us win games," Pierce said. "They really get overlooked." The Celtics, who return to practice Monday after a two-day break, have the same starting playoff five for Thursday night's opener at Los Angeles that they had the past two years, a source of comfort for coach Doc Rivers. That group has led them to playoff victories in five games over Miami and six each over Cleveland and Orlando this year. But through that run, substitutes Rasheed Wallace(notes), Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tony Allen and Nate Robinson(notes) have had their moments-and more. The latest and most surprising? Robinson's 13 second-quarter points in Friday night's 96-84 win over the Magic in Game 6 that sent the Celtics to the final round. In Boston's other 16 playoff games, Rivers didn't use the 5-foot-9 leaper and long-range shooter in seven of them and played him for more than nine minutes just once even though he was healthy. In the 26 games Robinson played after being traded by New York on Feb. 18, he averaged only 14.7 minutes. "I told him at some point it was going to happen for him and it was all up to him to stay engaged," Rivers said. "And he did. I get no credit out of this."

Mike Bianchi, Orlando Magic: Was the season a failure? A sad Stan Van Gundy stood in a mostly empty hallway in the bowels of Boston's arena late Friday night after his Orlando Magic had been dumped from the playoffs and he contemplated this basic, blunt question. Failure. Such an ugly word. "I don't know what you call this year," Van Gundy said in the aftermath of the Magic's 96-84 season-ending loss to the Celtics "It's certainly not a success because we didn't reach our goal of winning a championship, but it seems a bit harsh to tell those guys in the locker room that they are failures after winning 59 games and going to the Conference Finals. Call it a failure for me if you want, but not for our players. That's just not fair."

Tom Withers, AP: Fresh from a postseason vacation, LeBron James was back among Cleveland fans for the first time since the Cavaliers' playoff flop. The reunion was somewhat awkward. James, whose impending free agency could change the course of several NBA franchises, was a guest judge at an amateur dunk contest that drew a large crowd because of the two-time MVP's appearance, his first public outing since the Cavs lost in the second round to the Boston Celtics. Wearing a blue "Witness" T-shirt and designer sunglasses, James had little interaction with fans after arriving in a four-car motorcade and being escorted by police and security personnel through the crowd to a basketball court set up on the banks of the Cuyahoga River. Some in the crowd seemed uncertain how to act around James, perhaps fearing the wrong comment could drive him away for good. James ducked under a tent and slid into a folding chair next to former NBA player Darryl Dawkins to judge the final round of dunks as fans and several star-stuck competitors snapped photos with their cell phones of one of the world's best players and Cleveland's most revered pro athlete in generations. As he sat at a table and held up scores, some Cleveland fans pleaded with him to re-sign with the Cavs. "Don't leave, LeBron!" one yelled. "Please, please don't go!" offered another. James, who is eligible for free agency on July 1, smiled nervously as one of the dunkers missed several attempts and he politely applauded when the runner-up finally got a two-handed reverse down. After the event sponsored by Sprite, one of James' corporate business partners, he posed for a group photo with all the dunkers and signed a giant check for the winner. James did not speak with reporters as he excited and offered no hints about his future, adding more suspense to a story already spinning off rumors and guesses about his plans. Maverick Carter, James' manager and business partner, said "there's nothing to say right now" when asked for details about James' next move.

Brian Windhorst, Cleveland Plain Dealer: Andy Miller, the agent for several Cavs, including guard Sebastian Telfair(notes), said Saturday that Telfair has elected to pick up his $2.7 million option for next season. The Cavs have not yet received the paperwork, but it is expected to become official next week. Telfair was limited to just four games with the Cavs after being part of the Jamison trade in February as he recovered from a ruptured muscle in his leg. The quick point guard averaged 9.8 points in games at the end of the season. Telfair's future with the team is uncertain. He is a trading chip because of his expiring contract, but the Cavs are expected to attempt to trade backup guard Delonte West(notes) and that could make Telfair more valuable. West has a partially guaranteed contract of $4.6 million that is worth just $500,000 if he's waived by August 5. That type of deal that could provide more than $5 million in savings for another team depending on how a trade is structured.

Ronald Tillery, Memphis Commercial-Appeal: They still plan to take the best player available regardless of position during the June 24 draft. They still plan to re-sign Rudy Gay(notes) and Ronnie Brewer(notes) during the free-agent period. They still plan to negotiate with Zach Randolph(notes) regarding a contract extension. They still are lecturing Randolph on being more careful about the company he keeps. The Grizzlies are in the same mode of operation they employed a week ago before Randolph produced his latest double-double: mentions in two separate police reports in less than 24 hours. Randolph was implicated in an Indianapolis drug investigation and Los Angeles-area strip club fight but the All-Star forward has avoided charges and arrest in both cases. Yes, the Grizzlies are frustrated in the wake of this public relations hit. But to the question of whether Randolph's latest controversy will re-shape the Grizzlies' draft and/or free-agent strategy, the answer is no. The organization finds Randolph's predicament disappointing but not at all detrimental to their offseason plans. The issue of whether Randolph will receive a contract extension that will keep him in a Grizzlies uniform beyond this season remains centered on finances. Randolph's future hinges squarely on how much of a pay cut he's willing to accept. In the meantime, the Griz will continue to look for shooting, backcourt help and ways to bolster their bench with Randolph wholeheartedly in their plans.

John Jackson, Chicago Sun-Times: Bulls management and former players were quick to dismiss Dwyane Wade's comments questioning the organization's "loyalty," and even Wade backed off the comments shortly after they became public a few days ago. But regardless of whether those comments are accurate, an NBA source said the Bulls better be prepared to address the issue when the free-agent recruitment period begins July 1. "It doesn't matter if it's true or not," the source said. "There is a perception by some around the league that the Bulls didn't reward Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen — or even coach Phil Jackson — enough for the six championships they brought to the organization. The Bulls can easily refute that allegation and point out how they have former players working in the organization. But they shouldn't ignore it and assume it won't be a problem." The source believes the Bulls can do that during the sales pitch they make to free agents.

Dave D'Alessandro, New Jersey Star-Ledger: Rod Thorn will officially begin his coaching search with the first interview this weekend, but the real question is how flexible the Nets president might be about his candidates' timetables, and how competitive he might have to get when these coaches already have concrete offers. Tom Thibodeau is the one Thorn will watch most closely: The Boston assistant coach — who is everybody's flavor of the month since the Celtics' postseason resurgence — is on the verge of being offered a job from the New Orleans Hornets. But two of Thibodeau's peers — both of them friends, who request anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for him — say that while he is understandably eager to jump head-first into his first head coaching opportunity, he also wants to sit down with Thorn before he commits to Hornets GM Jeff Bower. The other guy pacing the floor is Avery Johnson, who will meet with Thorn Saturday, but that doesn't necessarily make him a favorite for the Nets' job. Indeed, despite his brilliant record in his three-plus seasons in Dallas (a .735 winning percentage), Johnson hasn't exactly been regarded as a hot commodity, and it is clear that he has asked for a high salary and personnel power from other teams. But he is no longer the top candidate in New Orleans — which is his hometown team — because the ownership transfer to Gary Chouest, his primary advocate, has been delayed. And Johnson now has serious competition for the job in Atlanta, where GM Rick Sund has a relationship with the other frontrunner Dwane Casey.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: BDL posting will be a little slower Monday, but we'll be here. Have some fun outside, then come check us out and we can all be friends again.

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