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Shaq and the Celtics
Lost in all the hysteria surrounding the new-look Heat is a pretty fundamental fact: the team that won the 2008 NBA title, and almost snared another championship last season before fading in Game 7 against the Lakers, has a darn good (albeit aging) Big Three of its own. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen of the Boston Celtics are back for another run, and this year, they'll plug the Big Shamrock, Shaquille O'Neal, into the middle. Shaq, the league's oldest player at 38, has slowed, but he is still a legitimate low-post scoring threat who can complement the strong perimeter game of Boston's established stars.
The Celtics aren't just a legitimate title threat they're also fun to watch. Point guard Rajon Rondo is an expert at winding through traffic and has quickly morphed from a weak link into one of the league's elite players. Off the bench, Glen "Big Baby" Davis has shown flashes of dominant play good luck powering through Shaq and Davis (who was nicknamed "Baby Shaq" at LSU, O'Neal's alma mater) if they're ever on the court together and mighty mite Nate Robinson is liable to score 10 points or commit 10 turnovers within 30 seconds of entering a game. Plus, Robinson snapped the picture of the preseason, posting it in his stream-of-conscious Twitter feed.
Lakers ... for Three
When we last left the NBA, Los Angeles Lakers forward Ron Artest, with his teammates around him celebrating a second straight championship, thanked his psychiatrist on national television for her calming effect on his mind. Kobe Bryant should have thanked the shrink too. Artest's clutch shooting helped the Lakers survive Game 7 and a less than stellar performance from the game's most lethal player against a gutsy Boston squad. The Lakers have Bryant, Artest and the rest of their key components back for a run at three-peat. It would be Bryant's second trifecta with the Lakers, his other being the 2000-02 championships, which would match Michael Jordan's achievement. Lakers coach Phil Jackson has already pulled off the triple three times (with Jordan and the Chicago Bulls from 1991-93 and 1996-98, and with the Lakers during their 2000-02 run). If anything should strike fear in NBA players, it's Bryant's poor performance in Game 7; he took a ton of flak for the near miss and would relish nothing more than squashing LeBron and the Heat in a dream finals for the league.
Mr. Wall Comes to Washington
The Washington Wizards are coming off a(nother) tumultuous season. They finished 26-56 in 2009-10; mercurial scoring guard Gilbert Arenas was suspended for the season after bringing firearms into the Wizards' locker room and then mocking the incident by mimicking gunshots in a pregame huddle. Arenas is back this year but has already ceded the spotlight to a rookie, John Wall, the top pick of the 2010 draft. Wall, who played one season of college ball at Kentucky, is the rare player who moves as fast while dribbling as while running. His long arms and exquisite athleticism had scouts across the country salivating. With a stellar rookie controlling the point, it looks like basketball, not controversy, could be back in the nation's capital, though Arenas proved he could still be a distraction when he faked a preseason injury, supposedly to get a teammate more playing time.
Is B-Ball Back in the Big Apple?
Basketball is known as "the City Game," but in New York City over the past few years, pro hoops has all but disappeared. The New York Knicks have averaged just 29 wins per year over the past six seasons. In New Jersey, the Nets finished last season with a 12-70 record, one of the worst in league history. This year, however, there's hope on both sides of the Hudson. The Knicks missed out on the top free-agent prize, James, but the team did sign 6-ft.-10 forward Amar'e Stoudemire, a five-time All-Star with the Phoenix Suns whose versatile game will return some glamour to Madison Square Garden (though probably not enough rebounds). The Knicks have a legitimate chance to end their six-year playoff drought, and Denver's Carmelo Anthony may soon join Stoudemire in the New York frontcourt.
New Jersey's mysterious new owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, has promised to spend whatever it takes to build a winner. The team is finally set to move to Brooklyn and will spend the next two seasons playing in the Prudential Center, the shiny downtown arena in Newark, instead of the mausoleum known as the Meadowlands. Prokhorov has predicted a title for the Nets within five years. Such hubris may seem foolish, but at least a charismatic owner, intense new coach Avery Johnson, rapidly maturing big man Brook Lopez and promising rookie Derrick Favors give fans reason to follow New Jersey.
Big Men's Health
In 2007, the Portland Trail Blazers selected Ohio State center Greg Oden with the top pick in the draft over Kevin Durant. Of course, back in the 1984 draft, Portland took another injury-prone college player, Sam Bowie, over an athletic scorer named Michael Jordan. But who's counting? Oden missed his rookie season after having microfracture surgery on his knee, was serviceable in 2008-09, and in December of last season went down for the year after rupturing his left patella. Oden just returned to practice this week. He's a loose, likable and mature kid whom you'd like to see escape Durant's shadow one day.
Other big men will return this season. In Houston, Yao Ming has looked sharp this preseason after missing all of 2009-10 with yet another foot injury. And in Los Angeles, Blake Griffin, the top pick in the 2009 draft, will try to prove that the Clippers aren't jinxed. He missed his rookie year after suffering a stress fracture in his left knee but will slip right into the starting lineup of an athletic team with potential to steal some of the spotlight from the Lakers. Though we've heard that song about the Clippers many times before.