- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The ratings-winning, hype-ready prospect of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James meeting in the NBA Finals is no longer a foregone conclusion.

The Nuggets are possibly only two brain lapses in the final seconds from having swept the Lakers in the Western Conference finals.

The Magic would have been up 3-0 in the Eastern Conference finals if James had not channeled Michael Jordan and converted an impossibly difficult shot as time expired in Game 2.

The Magic and Nuggets look to be the stronger teams, unsettling as that development is to David Stern, the commissioner long said to orchestrate all postseason events behind a curtain.

A Carmelo Anthony-Dwight Howard showdown lacks the glitz of Kobe and LeBron, not to mention demonstrative Jack Nicholson and middle-aged bimbos with incredibly stretched facades and the requisite chest augmentations.

Let’s take a 20-second timeout to check on the physical well-being of the face-contorting James, who appears in jeopardy of bleeding to death because of a paper cut. An anxiety-filled trainer is working feverishly to stem the flow of blood, while the television announcers voice their medical expertise.

The ability of James to avoid death by paper cut is almost as dramatic as his pain-filled pause on the court after Game 1, when he was overtaken with leg cramps and emoted as if he were dodging fire on the sands of Normandy.

James may be the No. 1 player in the NBA today - and we have the Logo’s say-so on that - but his pain threshold is suspect.

Part of the appeal of a Kobe-LeBron duel extends beyond their dominance. Both are easy to loathe. Both are prima donnas. Both are insufferable.

A Magic-Nuggets NBA Finals would give fans no one to hate unless you count Kenyon Martin, and it is hard for a glorified role player to elicit that kind of passion. His four-letter attack on Mark Cuban in the Nuggets-Mavericks series almost went unnoticed.

At least the Nuggets are giving everyone the curious sight of Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who has a zillion tattoos, spiked hair loaded with gel and a hard-partying past.

Andersen looks like a rooster overdosing on caffeine. He has no discernible skills, other than high energy and the occasional flapping of his arms. That has been enough to set the Lakers askew.

If Phil Jackson often looks half-asleep, George Karl, the long, lost brother of John Lithgow, often looks as if he has stepped in something.

That is possibly because the Nuggets can go long stretches in harmony before they are unable to make a perfunctory inbound pass.

The Nuggets and Magic are refusing to go along with the master plan, which Chauncey Billups apparently has read in full.

“I’m sure the world wants to see Cleveland and the Lakers,” he said. “You’ve got the two best players in the world, a chance to see them play in a seven-game series. I don’t want to see it. Man, I don’t want to see it. And I’m trying my best not to make that happen.”

Of course, it still could come down to LeBron and Kobe, one as annoying as the other is smug. It would be easy to root against both in the NBA Finals, although ultimately fruitless. No NBA Finals ever has ended in a tie, the best possible outcome with those two.

Other than Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers are an uncertain bunch.

Derek Fisher is sometimes too gassed to shoot straight, and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom are sometimes content to stay out of Bryant’s way. But then what choice do they have? Bryant might get offended if they demanded to touch the ball more than once a half.

“I wish we would take more advantage of our height and the inside game because it’s pretty effective,” Gasol told the Los Angeles Daily News. “It’s unfortunate that we don’t recognize it enough.”

Sound familiar? Stop chuckling, Shaquille O’Neal.

And stop the planning of the June coronation of LeBron and Kobe.

They have been downgraded to maybe.

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