NBA Playoffs: LeBron vs. Kobe? Inevitable?

by Phil Kehres

Kobe Bryant once was the best player in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Now it seems he and the successor to his throne, LeBron James, are on an unavoidable collision course. Is the matchup of Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers versus James' Cleveland Cavaliers inevitable for this year’s NBA Finals?

Things are looking good for both the Lakers and the Cavs after dominating their respective first round opponents. The Lakers took out the Utah Jazz in five games, winning by double digits in each of their four wins and only slightly faltering in Game 3. The Cavaliers took the Detroit Pistons to the woodshed, completing the only first-round sweep, denying the Pistons a shot at their seventh consecutive appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals and driving the final nail in the coffin of a once-proud era of Detroit basketball. Bryant and James led the way for their respective teams. Despite the strong supporting casts, there’s no doubt these two heavyweights are calling the shots.

The Cavaliers have the more difficult path to the finals at this point. They will have to face a surprisingly well-rounded Atlanta Hawks team or the Miami Heat, led by rejuvenated superstar Dwyane Wade (Atlanta leads the series 3-2 as of this writing). Should they advance, the Cavs’ likely Eastern Conference Finals opponent is the other “Beast of the East,” the Boston Celtics. However, the defending champs are sans superstar Kevin Garnett and their depth has taken a hit due to injuries. The Celtics have also been tested by the “Baby Bulls” of Chicago in the first round, narrowly eking out a 3-2 series advantage (as of this writing) after three heart-pounding overtime games and what has been easily the most exciting series so far. Regardless, Cleveland’s path to the Finals will likely have to go through the Celtics, barring an unexpected second-round exit by either team. The Lakers simply haven’t been challenged in the Western Conference this year. While that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily sweep their way to the Finals, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that doesn’t find Kobe getting another shot at his first Shaq-less ring.*

While there’s no doubt that NBA execs are drooling at the possibility of a Kobe/LeBron showdown in the finals, there’s a more intriguing storyline here. It’s new wave vs. old guard. Bryant has been the game’s best for years, but James has finally surpassed him. If the Cavs can stay as focused and loose as they have all year, the championship is a very real possibility. There’s just one thing: Kobe’s Lakers are the only team to hand Cleveland a legitimate loss on their home court this season. If the seemingly inevitable happens, it will be LeBron’s chance to quash the remaining few doubters and claim his rightful throne as best in the game. But the difference between LeBron and Kobe is that LeBron has never been about himself first and foremost. His singular drive and determination to bring a championship to the city of Cleveland might be too much for even the mighty Lakers to handle.

*For those who have short memories or who do not follow the NBA closely, Kobe Bryant won three titles with Shaquille O'Neal (now with the Phoenix Suns) earlier in the decade.

(Phil Kehres also is the co-author of Excuse Me, Is This Your Blog?)

(To see the schedule of NBA playoff games on various cable TV networks, please go here. To see one of LeBron James' best plays from the series against Detroit, please check below.)

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