23-5, 23-8, 23-5. These were the records of the top three teams in the NBA after Christmas day. These records only tell a fraction of the story of the season so far. With not much to choose between the teams, the 2010 NBA champions would be anyone's guess. However, something happened on Christmas day that would reverse the fortunes of all three teams...
The 23-5 Boston Celtics, playing without Captain Paul Pierce who went down with a minor injury, thwarted the Orlando Magic's offense in Orlando and looked to have made a statement. In the closing moments of that game, the Celtics season took, on face value, a turn for the worse. Defensive anchorman Kevin Garnett went down, again. Since then the Celtics have been 9-13 and looked distinctly average and lacking in motivation. As a result, crisis, turmoil, hopeless are the words most commonly associated with the C's in 2010.
The 23-8 Cleveland Cavaliers played at the 23-5 LA Lakers and made a statement consisting of a beat-down where their 15 point win actually flattered the Lakers. After what many deemed a weak start to the season, the Cavaliers, seemingly a distant third favorite behind the Celtics and the Lakers, propelled themselves back into contention. The Lakers took a knock-back that scared (and continues to scare) many Laker fans (particularly now that they have been swept again by LeBron and the Cavs). Since then, the Cavs are 20-3 and the Lakers are 18-8.
As of All-Star weekend, the Cavaliers are the outright favorites, the Lakers are banged up and the C's are "washed up" at 4th in the East behind Cleveland, Orlando and the Atlanta Hawks. This time two years ago, the Lakers were mediocre and a San Antonio-Detroit Finals was still a very realistic possibility. Less than a week later the Lakers got Pau Gasol and steamrolled - before being steamrolled - to a Finals showdown with the Celtics. LeBron has always dominated, but sometimes lacked that killer instinct of a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant.
So what is different this year to previous years? Nothing.
If years of watching the NBA has taught me anything, it's to never get excited or downbeat early on. As of June, barring injury, the Larry O'Brien trophy will be hoisted by either Paul Pierce, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. While the Denver Nuggets are playing great basketball, no one in the West can match the Lakers. The Magic and the Hawks have gotten worse and better respectively, but will not match up with Boston or Cleveland in the post-season.
Two words in that last paragraph will have stood out for most readers: barring injury. The Celtics have a long list of health concerns, first and foremost is Kevin Garnett. The Lakers, as of now, have worries about Kobe and Andrew Bynum, but come playoff time, neither of their current injuries will prevent them from playing and the Cavs are confident Mo Williams will be fine. Of course, health does determine where the NBA title goes. If Kobe were to go down for the playoffs, the Lakers may not even make the Finals. The same goes for LeBron and the Cavs and Garnett/Rondo and the Celtics.
Right now, the Celtics seem to be sealing their own fate with a lack of effort and togetherness and "Ubuntu" which brought them to a euphoric 17th title 2 years ago. Seem to be. It should be noted, however, that runs throughout the regular season mean nothing. All-Star selections mean nothing. 81 point games mean nothing. The elite teams peak in the playoffs, and the elite players rise to those big occasions.
What we as fans need to be aware of is that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. For prime and fresh examples look at the Mavericks in 2006 and 2007, the New England Patriots in 2008 and even the Celtics in 2009. Who will be 2010's example? We don't know and we can't guess. It's 6 days until the trade deadline and any of those teams could get stronger. Alternatively, another team could shock everyone and acquire a superstar and make themselves a contender. Whatever happens over the course of the next two months, it will be nothing compared to what will happen over the two months commencing April 17th...