Despite the speed bump the Lakers hit in Utah Thursday night, there remains little doubt that the two best basketball players in the world will keep their date with destiny in the NBA Finals this June.
The inevitability of LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant may have sapped the first round of some of its drama, but it hasn't stopped a handful of young stars from providing a tantalizing glimpse of a future NBA where the roadmap to the Finals is not etched in stone.
Five young players have emerged in these playoffs to remind us there is a league that exists beyond the two megastars.
Rajon Rondo, 23, is proving that just because a title defense without Kevin Garnett might be improbable doesn't mean it can't be a thrill-a-minute, end-to-end joy ride.
Brandon Roy, 24, and Derrick Rose, 20, are the best players on their young teams and could be ramping up for a rematch of the 1992 NBA Finals as early as 2011.
Michael Beasley, 20, and Courtney Lee, 23, have served notice in their two-game playoff careers that they may be just the running mates their teams' superstars need to contend for a title.
Like Malcolm McDowell with his eyes propped open in "A Clockwork Orange," Celtic fans have been forced to envision a world without KG. Thanks to the one-of-a-kind Rondo, it hasn't been as bad as they might have imagined.
- Hornets 95, Nuggets 93 (Nuggets 2-1)
- Spurs 99, Mavericks 90 (Mavs 3-1)
- Heat 107, Hawks 78 (Heat 2-1)
- Lakers 108, Jazz 94 (Lakers 3-1)
- Cavaliers 79, Pistons 68 (Cavs 3-0)
- Sixers 96, Magic 94 (Sixers 2-1)
- Rockets 86, Blazers 83 (Rockets 2-1)
- Playoff results, schedule
- 2009 NBA Playoff Central
- Rosen: Blazers need to adjust
- Hench: 5 stars for future Finals
- Rosen: Celtics play like champs
- Highlights: Thursday's games
- Friday's action | Thursday
Though the Heat found themselves on the wrong end of a blowout loss to the Hawks in Beasley's playoff debut, the kid did go for a double-double with 10 and 10 and two steals and two blocks. When Miami evened the series with a 108-93 Game 2 victory Beasley had 12 points and 7 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
D-Wade led the Heat (and the league) with 30.2 points per game this season. Beasley was second on the team with 13.9 points per game. As the teammates' scoring gap closes over the next few seasons the Heat will close in on a return to the Finals.
If the Magic reach the Promised Land in the next few years Dwight Howard will have carried them there. But even Superman would appreciate being able to shift a little of the burden to other less-broad shoulders.
Enter Courtney Lee. Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis were Howard's main double-team thwarters during the season, but in the playoffs Lee has stepped into the void created by their woeful shooting. Turkoglu is 5-for-18 from the floor in the first two games against Philly. Lewis is 9-for-25. That Scud-like 14-for-43 works out to 32.6 percent.
Lee, a rookie out of Western Kentucky selected with the 22nd pick, has made 18 of 34 shots in his first two playoff games, a 53 percent clip. He scored 18 points in Orlando's shameful series-opening loss to the Sixers and then dropped a career-high 24 on 10-of-17 shooting as the Magic drew even.
It's only two games and a split at that but Howard may have discovered a teammate whose shooting percentage actually goes up the more the shots matter. The Magic have tried to get away with surrounding Howard with shooters and playing Lewis (and his 5.7 rpg average) at power forward. But if Lee proves a consistent scoring option at the 2, the Magic can put some non-scoring beef up front with Superman, which will beef up their chances of one day reaching the Finals.
Make no mistake, none of these guys will play for a championship this year. But LeBron and Kobe won't have the party to themselves much longer.
Author: Fox Sports
Author's Website: http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 24, 2009