Kobe vs LeBron: NBA finals seem to be preordained

(AP) – Long before anyone ever heard of Tim Donaghy there was always a nagging suspicion among casual fans that the fix was on in the NBA playoffs. To be sure, in a league when almost every foul can be contested and almost every game is decided in the final two minutes, there is always plenty for conspiracy theorists to ponder.David Stern knows that, which is why the league was so quick to issue a statement the other night admitting that its referees blew a crucial foul in the final seconds that might have cost the Dallas Mavericks their best shot at the Denver Nuggets.No sense letting these things simmer, not that it helped the Mavericks any. Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t accepting any apologies and neither was owner Mark Cuban, who may be the real Big Baby of these playoffs.There’s a lot of things you can get away with when you’re a billionaire and own an NBA team. But taunting an opposing player’s mother as Cuban did to Kenyon Martin’s mom after the end of Game 3 might be the one line you don’t want to cross.In the end, though, it’s not likely to matter much. Dallas isn’t going to go to the finals anyway, and the Nuggets would also be wise not to begin printing tickets for games that begin in June.The Celtics are winning games they shouldn’t, but they should be realists, too. And the Rockets and Magic seem to exist in this postseason only to fill up hours of cable TV programming.No, the fix isn’t in. Donaghy isn’t directing things from a smuggled cell phone in a prison cell somewhere, and Stern isn’t huddled in meetings with Nike executives to make sure it happens.As far as anyone knows it’s not predetermined. But from the All-Star break on it sure has seemed preordained.Kobe versus LeBron. Could it ever be anything else?No, and nothing that has transpired so far in these playoffs suggests that we won’t get the finals matchup that everyone outside of a few selected cities wants. That includes the little hiccup the Lakers suffered in Houston when Bryant and his teammates found out Yao Ming was gone and simply didn’t show up to play on Mother’s Day.That was so embarrassing that the Zen Master himself, Phil Jackson, uttered a naughty word on national television. But Jackson hasn’t coached teams to nine NBA titles by not having them ready when it really matters, and there’s little reason to think that injury-depleted Houston or even a team on a roll like the Nuggets will derail the Lakers early.That’s especially true when Bryant can still take over at will late in games no matter how befuddled his teammates sometimes seem to be.So, of course, can James. But he hasn’t needed to as Cleveland swept its first two series, winning all eight games and winning them all by double digit margins. The Cavaliers are all business, a team on a mission marching its way to the inevitable showdown against Bryant and the Lakers.They barely traded a few high fives after dispatching the Atlanta Hawks in the series final Monday night, taking their cue from their 24-year-old leader who truly does play like a man among boys.”Why should we celebrate?” James said. “We’re playing for a championship. An advance is an advance. It doesn’t matter if you win in four games or you win Game 7. We’re happy that we’re playing great basketball … but we’re not taking for granted what we’re doing right now.”While Stern and company have to be salivating over a Lakers-Cavs finals, they have to be happy with the undercard so far. TV ratings have been up and there have been some good subplots from the overtime excitement in Boston and Chicago to Cuban’s buffoonery in Dallas.But it’s all little more than filler before the main event begins.Officially it will be the Cavs against the Lakers, but anyone who pays any attention to the star hierarchy of basketball knows it’s much bigger than that.Last year’s MVP against this year’s MVP. One of the greatest players of his time versus a player who someday could become the greatest of all time.The Nike marketing machine will kick into overdrive. Beautiful people will be at courtside, even in Cleveland.And network television will suddenly become relevant once again.

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