By Ben Fisher
LeBron James had barely let the now-infamous words “I’ll be taking my talents to South Beach” out of his mouth before fans, critics and fellow players rushed to place the Miami Heat firmly in the crosshairs as the team to beat this season.
But in spite of the Boston Celtics’ thoroughly dominant defensive effort last night, it won’t be easy keeping the Heat’s powerful hydra of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down all season. In fact, there are only a select few players who can shift the balance of power in the NBA away from Miami, players who might be able to stop the big three.
As we saw last night, the Celtics happen to boast two of those players. Kevin Garnett may have slowed down a step and is going to be an injury risk for the rest of his career, but few players can play the type of commanding defence against an elite power forward like Bosh that KG displayed in last night’s opener. Offering his counterpart precious little space to operate, Garnett held Bosh to eight points on 3-of-11 shooting and a -17 +/- on the night.
On the offensive end, Rajon Rondo showed that he can be a game changer in any of the Heat-Celtic tilts to come. Rondo, whose speed at the point poses match-up headaches for the Heat, didn’t do much scoring, but had more assists (17) than Miami’s entire team (15). In Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Shaquille O’Neal, Rondo has enough capable scoring options at his disposal to be dangerous as a distributor.
Boston isn’t the only team that could shine this year with the right players emerging.
The title hopes of the Orlando Magic rest on the broad shoulders of Dwight Howard. A physical specimen who is already a dominant inside presence, the often-smiling Howard has been criticized for the lack of any evident mean streak to his game that some believe he needs to reach the next level. Without being willing to knock an opponent over in pursuit of inside position, some reason, he is not making full use of his muscular 6’11”, 265-lb frame.
Howard’s off-season work with NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon, plus his eager anticipation of a budding in-state rivalry with the Heat, seems to have him on the right path so far, but it doesn’t mean anything until he shows an edge on court in meaningful game action. If he can find that next level of dominance, the Magic have a strong enough supporting cast that suggests a title could be within reach.
Derrick Rose may not be facing the same level of scrutiny as his fellow former No. 1 pick, but pressure is rising for the Chicago Bulls point guard. That’s not to say that Rose has not been performing well (nor should that be said of Howard, for that matter), but an improved Bulls team will need their floor leader to make the jump to ‘superstar’ status in order to find themselves among the elite.
Rose’s summer wasn’t quite as successful as that of the team for whom he plays. True, being part of the gold medal-winning Team USA at the FIBA World Basketball Championships is hardly a poor summer. But while his NBA club reeled in Carlos Boozer and added key supporting parts like Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer, Rose was being out-performed at the Worlds by Russell Westbrook and involved in a reported tiff with Rondo. Not the best off-season for a very good player who, entering his third NBA season, should soon be ready to make the leap to great.
One common thread amongst these players except for Garnett is youth, meaning that even if they don’t step up and take their game up a notch, this won’t be their lack shot at a ring.
The same may not be said for Steve Nash, however, who enters this season with a new cast of Suns teammates, none of whom happen to be the departed Amar’e Stoudemire. If anyone can help Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick become viable scoring options, it’s Nash. But whether that’s enough to keep the 36-year old’s championship window open remains to be seen.
Heck, if Nash’s level of play fades in his 16th NBA season, Phoenix could go from the Western Conference Finals to out of the play-off picture in one year.