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Friday, December 31, 2010
2010: A very good year for championship basketball

By Mark Haubner

The saga of LeBron James' free agency was unquestionably the dominant basketball story of 2010, sucking oxygen away from lots of other stories, perhaps including this simple fact: 2010 offered hoopheads a whole lot of compelling championship basketball at all levels, all around the world.

In the NCAA Tournament, we were treated to a taut, Hoosiers-tinged final in which Duke held off Butler 61-59 after we came within an eyelash of the greatest shot in basketball history.

One of the most exciting games I watched all year was Game 3 of the Spanish ACB Finals, in which Caja Laboral defeated Regal FC Barcelona in a 79-78 OT thriller to complete an upset series sweep over a previously dominant Barça team. Watch the highlights before you scoff - it was played at a much higher level than the NCAA Final Four.

The FIBA World Championship final lacked suspense, and the tournament suffered in quality as superstars from around the world stayed home, but Kevin Durant's tour-de-force performance - throwing in 99 points in the final three knockout games with a stunning display of outside shooting - was a welcome tonic for basketball junkies suffering late-summer hoops withdrawals.

And, oh yes, in case you'd forgotten, we were treated to another installment of the league's iconic rivalry - Lakers vs. Celtics - in one of the better NBA Finals in years, hopefully a good sign for the 2010s after the 2000s strangely featured more drama in the conference finals on multiple occasions.

Games 2 through 5 were all well-played and entertaining, delivering such memories as Ray-Ray hitting eight threes in Game 2, Fish going to coast-to-coast to deliver in the clutch yet again in Game 3, Big Baby's game-defining drool in Game 4, and Rondo's acrobatics overcoming a classic Kobe explosion for 38 in Game 5.

Ultimately, we were rewarded with the fifth Game 7 in Lakers-Celtics history, only the third NBA Finals Game 7 since 1988, and probably the best Game 7 since then, as well.

It was an ugly Game 7, for sure, but I agree with the assessment of Christopher Reina of RealGM, who called it "The Greatest 'Bad' Basketball Game in History." No, it wasn't pretty, but what it lacked in beauty was compensated by the palpable intensity, veteran pride, tension, drama and superior defense which were all left out on the floor.

The Celtics played world-class D to hold Kobe to 6-24 field-goal shooting, and KG was shockingly unstoppable on the low block, but in the end, L.A. got too many offensive rebounds and Ron Artest knocked down the three of his life.

If there's one play I wish had turned out slightly different, it was this one. Rondo hits a crazy three to pull Boston within 81-79 with 16.2 seconds left. Instead of fouling Kobe along the sideline in the backcourt, Rondo reaches in for the steal and tips the ball right to Ray Allen... only to see it bounce out of bounds by inches. Just imagine if it had stayed in, and Ray Allen would have been able to charge toward the goal, with the option of a three or a two, with Kobe back on D to try to avoid becoming the ultimate goat - it could have been a career-altering play for three different star players all at once, with a championship in the balance.

But it wasn't to be. Instead, L.A. fans avoided that heart attack, Kobe got ring no. 5, Dr. Santhi got an all-time postgame shout-out, and the Lakers pulled to within 17-16 of the Celtics in all-time franchise titles. All in all, a very good Finals, probably the best one since Jordan held the follow-through in Salt Lake City. We'll see if these old codgers can outlast Miami and San Antonio and Orlando and Dallas and Chicago and Utah and OKC and everyone else to meet for the 13th time in June '11, or if we open a new chapter.

On we go. Basketball Year 2010 ends and we roll on into Basketball Year 2011. Happy New Year, everyone, and many thanks to Henry for inviting me to guest host today. Always respect the game.