Let’s remember the 2008 Finals…

…when the Celtics and Lakers last met in the Finals. Celtics Hub refreshes our collective memory:

The presence of Artest as LA’s starting small forward is, on its own, a large enough change to make the 2008 Finals a near-irrelevant precedent. In other words: If both rosters were entirely the same, and everyone’s skill level had remained the same, making the single change of replacing Vladimir Radmanovic with Artest as LA’s starting small forward is big enough to blow up any ‘08/’10 comparisons.

The Lakers started Vlad Radmanovic at small forward in 2008! And he wasn’t a token starter! He played 21.5 minutes per game in the Finals, shooting 39 percent from the floor and playing mediocre defense against Boston’s best offensive player.

Luke Walton played 11 minutes per game in the Finals and shot 31 percent. Trevor Ariza, who supplanted both Rad Man and Walton in ‘09, was a total non-factor, logging just 7 minutes per game in the ‘08 Finals.

Those three players, combined, logged about 40 minutes per game in the 2008 Finals. I realize those minutes sometimes overlapped, but still: Forty minutes per game.

Artest makes this Laker team a very different unit, for the better. We can argue about whether or not he was an upgrade over the less combustible Trevor Ariza, but no one is advocating for a return to the Radmanovic/Walton days.

Here is what Artest has done with Paul Pierce in their last eight meetings:

18.8 PPG, 43 percent shooting (46-of-107), 36 percent from three (14-of-39), 52 free throw attempts.

Plus, he brings a certain amount of toughness that was definitely lacking on the ’08 Lakers. It will be fascinating to watch Artest’s impact on this series.

To get you ready, here’s a link to an inside look at Game 1 of the ’08 Finals.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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What’s wrong with the Lakers?

Like most NBA fans (outside the greater Houston area), once the news broke that Yao Ming was going to miss the rest of the playoffs with a foot injury, I wrote off the Rockets. How could they possibly keep pace with one of the top two teams in the league without their best player?

Since the injury, the Rockets have taken two of three from the Lakers, and if Kobe and Co. were truly championship worthy, they would have gone on the road and won Game 4 or Game 6. Laker apologists will probably just say that their team will still win in Game 7 and they’ll go on to win the championship, but really, they shouldn’t be in this position in the first place. Anything can happen in a single game, and sometimes, no matter what you do, it’s just not your night. What if the Rockets collectively catch fire like they did in Game 4? What if Kobe has one of his 5-for-20 days? Or what if Pau Gasol goes down with an injury that knocks him out of the game?

By letting the Rockets get back into the series, the Lakers have no margin for error. That’s the whole point of a seven-game series — it’s designed so that poor luck and bad nights don’t send a true champion home early.

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TSR’s running diary of March Madness, Part II

My apologies for not posting during the last round of games last night, but JC and I got into a 45-minute debate about whether I was as good as Luke Walton when I was in my prime. This has been an ongoing “discussion” for the last two or three years and, simply stated, we’re just never going to see eye to eye. The debate took an ugly turn last night when he said that I “couldn’t hold Luke Walton’s jock,” which is a true statement if he’s talking about the present. But I was talking about my prime, and in my prime I could most definitely hold Luke Walton’s jock.

Luke Walton is in the NBA because his dad is Bill Walton. Is he a good player? Of course. You can’t hang around the league if you are a complete fraud, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a thousand players out there that are just as good as he is. JC’s pro-Walton argument is that he’s a “great interior passer” (whatever that means) and that Phil Jackson, who is a brilliant coach that has won forty seven championships, says he’s a good player, so he must be good. (For the record, I’ve never heard Phil actually say that he’s a good player, so this may in fact be an urban legend.) I think that the Lakers are stuck with him because no one wants his horrible contract and Phil tolerates him because he’s a willing passer on a team full of prima donnas.

He has an assist to turnover ratio of 2.3 to 1. If a player is in the NBA solely for his wonderful passing ability, I’m expecting a A/T ratio of at least 3:1. Sure, Walton’s A/T ratio is fourth-best amongst small forwards, but he trails Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince in this category and neither of those guys is known as a “great interior passer.” Hell, he’s barely ahead of Ricky Davis in this category. Ricky Davis! The guy who once took a shot at his own basket in an attempt to get an extra rebound to give himself a triple-double. Ricky Davis!

This probably sounds like sour grapes, but I don’t care — I could hold Luke Walton’s jock when I was in my prime.

Anyway, back to the tournament. Gonzaga and Villanova both got off to rough starts, but they settled down and eventually went on to win by double-digits. Despite having them in my Sweet Sixteen, I was sort of rooting against Villanova because JC has them going to the Final Four in his pool and after he said that I couldn’t hold Luke Walton’s jock, it would have been nice to see him lose one of his deep picks. He’s also a big UCLA fan, so I started a V-C-U chant at the bar (complete with Y-M-C-A-esque hand gestures) when the Rams made their run.

Western Kentucky pulled of the classic 12/5 upset, which isn’t a huge surprise considering how Illinois has been up and down this season. On the whole, Jeff Sagarin’s 2+ point favorites were 11-4. That’s not bad, but it’s not near his usual success rate of 85%. We’ll see how he does today.

I’m going to start watching the games here in a minute — check back to see what’s going on in the world of March Madness.

10:57 AM: It was weird to see my former coach, Bo Ryan, on television after he took the Wisconsin job, but it’s even stranger to see a former teammate, NDSU’s head coach Saul Phillips, roaming the sidelines at the NCAA tournament. The Bison are hanging in there against Kansas.

11:40 AM: Well, Utah State gave Marquette a helluva run, but the Golden Eagles move on. I finally got one of those 8/9 games right — Oklahoma State beat Tennessee is a tight one. Sagarin had the game as a pick’em, but I picked the Cowboys because they have better guard play, and it helped them today. Byron Eaton had the go-ahead bucket that sealed the win for OSU.

3:52 PM: Sorry for the delay, but I was laid up with a little stomach problem. Must have been something I ate. Anyway, I TiVo’ed the late set of the early games (yeah, that makes sense) and I have my first bracket buster — West Virginia lost to Dayton. I had the Mountaineers going to the Elite Eight in my official picks, which really hurts, but isn’t a complete dealbreaker. I did take Kansas in my other pool, so hopefully the Jayhawks can come through. Now if Pitt had been the first #1 seed ever to lose its first round game, then I would have had to tear up my bracket. There’s nothing quite like watching your overall winner struggle in its opening around game against a #16 seed while one of your Elite Eight picks can’t get over the hump. Did you see Jamie Dixon’s face after ETSU cut the Pitt lead to two? Can you imagine what was racing through his mind as he was faced with being the first coach ever to guide a #1 seed to an opening round loss? He looked like he was about to crap his pants. Needless to say, I’m not feeling great about my picks, but we’ll see how things shake out. There’s still a lot of basketball to play.

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The NBA’s 68 worst contracts

The economy is really starting to take its toll on professional sports, and the NBA is no different. Bad contracts are bad even when the economy is pumping, but they really stand out in tough times like these. So I decided to look through the payrolls team-by-team to try to identify the worst contracts in the NBA. I expected to list 15-20 names, but I ended up scribbling down 68. That’s right, there are no fewer than 68 bad contracts in the NBA.

I didn’t include any of the players that are in the final year of their contracts because…well, what’s the point? They’ll be off the books in a few months anyway. Instead, I wanted to focus on those contracts that are going to haunt teams for years to come, so to be eligible, players have to have at least a year left on their current deals.

It’s tough to compare someone making superstar money to an average, everyday role player, so I split these 68 contracts up into three groups: the Overpaid Role Players, the Not-So-Super Stars and the Injury-Prones. I will rank them from least-worst to most-worst with the thinking that I wouldn’t trade the player for anyone further down the list but I would trade him for anyone previously mentioned. So, for example, if a guy is listed #7 within a particular group, I’m not trading him for anyone ranked #6-#1, but I would think seriously about moving him for a guy that is ranked #8+.

So let’s start with the role players and go from there…

(Note: In most cases, I don’t blame the player himself for his outrageous contract. The fault lies with the general manager that inked the guy to the deal. However, this rule goes out the window if the player has a history of only producing in his contract year – I’m looking at you, Tim Thomas.)

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Spurs nip Lakers in a beauty

The NBA regular season is tedious enough to put even the most ardent basketball fan to sleep, but there are a few matchups that will perk those ears up real fast — and the Lakers/Spurs is one of them.

The two teams didn’t disappoint tonight. It looked like the Spurs were going to win this one in a walk — they were up 100-89 with 8:05 to play, but the Lakers fought back behind Kobe Bryant (29p, 10r, 7a) and Josh Powell, who hit three clutch shots as part of a 11-2 run. With Pau Gasol guarding him (and Andrew Bynum sent to the bench) Tim Duncan (20p, 10r, 8a) made a pair of shots to give the Spurs a 109-108 lead with 0:28 to play.

Sixteen seconds later, Kobe made a clutch three-pointer to give the Lakers a two point lead. He even did the Sam Cassell “big balls” dance as the teams went to a timeout…

But Kobe celebrated too early. On the Spurs’ next possession, Roger Mason hit a clutch two-pointer from the corner and was fouled awkwardly from behind by Derek Fisher. He hit the free throw to give the Spurs a one-point lead. The Spurs double-teamed Kobe on the next play and he gave the ball up to Trevor Ariza near the top of the key. Ariza drove and there was some (no-call) contact with Ginobili, and he was called for traveling. It wasn’t a travel, but the shot didn’t fall and the game was over anyway.

(Catch the highlights here.)

It was a nice comeback, but their vulnerability at small forward continues to plague the Lakers. Ariza is a good player, but right now he doesn’t seem comfortable making a play in the clutch. Smart teams are going to double Kobe to get the ball out of his hands. Unless you can force him into a difficult, deep trey, you’re better off taking your chances with Ariza, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom or whoever else is out there. I know I wouldn’t want to take the game-winner knowing that Kobe will be there bitching me out if I happen to miss.

As for the Spurs, they have to be feeling good about two of their offseason acquisitions — Roger Mason and George Hill. Mason has been clutch all season and he did a pretty nice job making life (somewhat) difficult for Kobe with little or no help. For a rookie, Hill looks confident and is a very capable backup for Tony Parker, who looked oddly out of sorts when the Lakers made their run.

It was a great game. The Lakers are still the class of the West, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was a preview of the Conference Finals.

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