Take a look at photos from the playoffs, including the Magic finishing off LeBron and the Cavs in Game 6.
But now we're into the NBA playoffs, and, well, there's no room for pretty good anymore. There were 82 games to determine who was good and who was great — now there are two months to see if any of those good teams can rise up and knock off the great ones. It could happen. It has happened. As NBA commissioner David Stern said just before the start of the postseason, "We're looking forward to an exciting and possibly unpredictable playoffs. Or maybe totally predictable, and that's the beauty of playoffs."
For the playoffs to be at their most beautiful, though, teams need to be at their best. And so, Sporting News contacted more than a dozen scouts, coaches and personnel executives and asked key questions — not about the pretty good or the just enough but about the best and the most. Then we took the resulting lists into locker rooms and press conferences to ask players and coaches (past and present) for their thoughts.
The result: SN's list of the best at the stuff that's most important to success in this year's playoffs.
THE BEST ... player to take the final shot
1. Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers
2. Dwyane Wade, SG, Heat
3. LeBron James, SF, Cavaliers
4. Paul Pierce, SF, Celtics
5. Brandon Roy, SG, Trail Blazers
Was there any doubt this would come up Kobe? Nope, not with 152 games of playoff experience and five trips to the NBA Finals on his resume. But don't take our word for it. We'll let some pretty good players explain why Bryant rules.
Hall of Fame center Robert Parish: "If you want somebody to be in a foxhole with you, Kobe is an assassin. He is cold-blooded. He has a killer instinct. If the game was on the line and Kobe was on my team, I would do everything I can to get the ball in his hands. He has the same mentality as Larry (Bird). No matter where the shot is taken from, he believes it's going in. That's the true mark of a great player."
Wade: "That's one thing I've learned over the years, if you want to be the star player on your team, you can't shy away from those shots. I think guys like me, LeBron, we have been learning that. Kobe, though, has been there time and time again. He's just made so many of those shots in big situations."
Hall of Fame guard Walt Frazier: "Kobe has such terrific range. LeBron can overwhelm you, but he's not the perimeter shooter that Kobe is. The same with Dwyane Wade. Kobe can hit the fadeaway with three or four guys clinging to him." Former NBA scoring champion Bernard King: "I didn't play against him in the playoffs, but the most clutch playoff performer when I played was Michael Jordan. So, Jordan then and Kobe now. It's pretty clear cut for me."
Hall of Fame guard Magic Johnson: "Kobe, now, has the trust of his teammates. You can really see that. He has always been able to take over a game when he needs to, but now he gets his teammates involved, so when it comes time for him to take the big shots, he is going to do it. Because he does not have to do it for the whole night, it makes him more lethal at the end of the game."
THE MOST ... ferocious defender
1. Ron Artest, SF, Rockets
2. Kevin Garnett, PF, Celtics (when healthy)
3. Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers
4. LeBron James, SF, Cavaliers
5. Bruce Bowen, SG, Spurs
When he lines up an opponent on defense, the wheels in Rockets forward Shane Battier's head get spinning. He knows his foe's tendencies, knows the opposing coach's playbook, knows how he should play a pick-and-roll or a ball fake.
The two wind up making a nice tandem. They're both about the same height (Battier is 6-8, Artest 6-7), but the muscle-bound Artest weighs 260 pounds, 40 more than Battier. Because both are accomplished wing defenders, they switch assignments during the course of a game, giving star perimeter scorers very different defensive looks.
"We complement each other that way," Artest says. "I like to try to shut my man down and just focus on that. Shane directs things out there, which is good. I just want to know who my man is, then focus on him."
The pairing with Battier was one of the more intriguing angles of the offseason deal that brought Artest from Sacramento to Houston. Artest's ferocity could be just what the Rockets need this postseason. They'd better hope so, at least. Despite averaging 47 wins over the five previous years, Houston has not made it past the first round of the playoffs since 1997.
PBT: San Antonio executed its game plan well in Game 1, shutting down Grizzlies star Zach Randolph.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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DPS: Lionel Hollins tells us how he plans to play against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.
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