Then & Now: Your Weekly NBA Digest, 2/8

Welcome to Then & Now, where Bethlehem Shoals sums up the week in NBA hoops and tells you what to look for. Find it here every Sunday evening. ↵

↵The Kobe/Bron Wars. Through most of this year's early going, LeBron seemed to eclipse Kobe as the NBA's top player, largely due to the novelty of seeing him (and the Cavs) come into his own. Plus, the Lakers were still reeling from their Finals humiliation, and the more mature Kobe was easier to take for granted. But then, Kobe blew up for 61 in MSG, capping off an increase in his scoring numbers. LeBron may or may not have matched him with 52 and a near triple-double, but by Sunday night, though, there was no disputing who came out on top for the week. Forget about the Knicks; the Bynum-less Lakers convincingly dispensed with the Celtics in Boston on Thursday, and on Sunday, neutralized King James and handed the Cavs their first home loss of the season -- despite Kobe battling a flu that forced him to take an IV at halftime. ↵

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↵Apocalypse Sooner. Last I checked, the summer of 2010 was still a year and a half away. But with the Raptors and Suns floundering, and the writing on the wall starting to come into focus, this week the air was thick with Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire trade rumors. It began with a report that Bosh wanted out, which the Toronto Star promptly denied. Still, it was enough to draw attention to just how little incentive the All-Star has to stay in an increasingly hostile city. Then, as Phoenix continued to fragment, and Steve Nash kept on making sure the world knew it (more on that later), you started hearing more and more about Amare being shipped out ahead of 2010. Bosh may have more clear-cut value; there are questions about Stoudemire's outlook on many things, ranging from defense to teamwork. But the Suns make no sense, and if they're headed for oblivion anyway, they might as well cash in their biggest chip -- even if it merely accelerates the rebuilding process, not salvage this season. ↵

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↵Everybody Hurts. Every season brings injury, and I happen to believe they only make the season more exciting. That said, it's jarring when two of the NBA's top four teams suddenly find themselves without key players for a long, long time. The Lakers once again lost Andrew Bynum, who had only just become a real force. They got to the Finals without him last season, and are winning without him -- including topping Boston, the team they supposedly needed his added size and defense to avoid a repeat of the 2008 Finals. What's really worth watching is the tricky matter of his return. Bynum's due back at some point between the very end of the regular season and the second round. Will he be at 100 percent? Will he disrupt the Lakers' rhythm? Has any team tried overhauling itself in the middle of the playoffs? ↵

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↵For the Orlando Magic, things aren't nearly as complicated. Point guard Jameer Nelson, an All-Star whose penetration is key to the Magic's surprising success, is gone till next season. Now, some combination of Anthony Johnson, Hedo Turkoglu, and the recently acquired Tyronn Lue will have to fill the void. Good luck with that. Expect a second-round exit instead of a serious showdown with Boston or Cleveland. Oh, and let's not forget to continually big up the Cavs, who haven't missed a step despite the extended absences of Delonte West and Big Z. ↵

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↵Steve Nash Raw and Real. It has been plain to anyone watching the Suns that, as mentioned above, the parts don't fit. You'd think, from all the talk of moving Amare, that the problem is the young power forward. But Steve Nash was the unofficial co-coach of the SSOL (Seven Seconds or Less) Era and was the player most suited to that up-tempo style; now his favorite area on the court is completely clogged by Shaquille O'Neal. Every man, even the ordinarily cool, collected, occasionally oblique Nash, has a breaking point, and one of the NBA's favorite poster boys seems to have reached his. For the last 10 days or so, he's been on a rampage of candor, telling outlets that will listen that the pieces don't fit together in Phoenix, there's a clash between two philosophies of basketball, and the team's sacrificed a strong roster for business interests. The Suns would sooner move feel-good All-Star Shaq than lose Nash, their franchise figurehead. But all of a sudden, you're hearing a lot more about Nash as part of the Class of 2010, when a reunion D'Antoni seems more and more likely. ↵

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↵A-Mo Briefly Relevant. Speaking of trades, from an actual basketball standpoint, the trade of Adam Morrison from and Shannon Brown from the Bobcats to the Lakers for Vladimir Radmanovic was hardly a blockbuster. Morrison's the consummate bust, and Radmanovic's one-dimensional game has been rendered irrelevant by the continued improvement of Farmar, Ariza, Walton, and Vujacic -- yes, even The Machine has more to offer. The Lakers got some cap relief, but the real question is, did they get anything else? Morrison has done little to earn a spot in Los Angeles's vaunted rotation; I'd argue that Shannon Brown has shown more as an NBA player. You have to wonder, though, if Phil Jackson is secretly planning to rehabilitate Morrison, like a really, really crappy remake of Pistol Pete's time as a Celtic. It's the kind of gesture that would be entirely in keeping with the methodical confidence -- or maybe arrogance -- that makes this team such a force. ↵

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↵FILM CRITIC:
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↵I know this clip of T-Mac dunking over Tyrus Thomas is being heralded as proof that the man's back for real, but for me, it just shows how hobbled McGrady still is. He beats Deng moving at half-speed, on what could charitably be called a miscalculation by the Bulls forward. McGrady saunters through an empty lane, and barely gets high enough to dunk the ball. Thomas more or less tries to pick up T-Mac by falling backward with his arm extended, creating the illusion of poster-ization. And the dunk sure was loud. But to me, this was the definition of faded glory, a shadow of vintage McGrady. I'm not above admitting that it actually made me a little sad. ↵

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↵COMING ATTRACTIONS:
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↵-- Oh, the irony of scheduling. All-Star Weekend is on the horizon, which is supposed to be a carefree celebration of the league's best players. Then, less than a week later, the trade deadline, when there's a serious chance of some of the league's best changing teams. I have no idea what happens if Amare is sent East before the festivities in (gulp) Phoenix. ↵

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↵-- With Orlando and the Lakers dealing with uncertainty, and Boston having just dropped a close one to L.A. at home, pretty soon we'll all realize that the Spurs, who won in Boston as well, have crept into the title hunt. ↵

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↵-- Last week, the first Kevin Durant/Greg Oden match-up ended with a Thunder victory and a clear reminder of just how much better Durant is than Oden. There's a rematch Wednesday in Portland; will Oden give Portland fans reason to stop second-guessing the pick? And, more importantly, at what point does the second-guessing reflect poorly on Kevin Pritchard? ↵

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↵-- Elton Brand may be done for the year, but the Sixers have an opportunity to speed up their play again and end up a legit playoff team. If they finish out the break by beating Phoenix and Memphis, that'll be on a four-game streak and maybe the sixth seed in the East. ↵

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↵-- Despite all the flashy rumors, the most important ones for this season are those that involve Boston or San Antonio getting some reinforcements. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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