LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Professional basketball was on a long break because of the lockout, but on Christmas Day the NBA kicks off its shortened season with a five-game package featuring exciting games and glittering superstars. There's a rematch between defending champion Dallas and everybody's favorite team to hate, the Heat from Miami. Younger folks ready to break through playing for Chicago and Oklahoma City are in action, as are the storied Boston Celtics and the L.A. Lakers.
To preview these games we turn to NPR's Tom Goldman. Good morning, Tom.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: So will this Christmas Day offering help fans forgive and forget all this nasty labor talk?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GOLDMAN: Oh, they'll forgive. You know, sports fans have very high tolerance for abuse. So even though it was galling for many to hear players and owners sniping about many millions of dollars during a down economy, the promise of a Lebron dunk or a Kevin Durant three-pointer will light up TVs from coast to coast. Now, forgetting the lockout may be tougher when we see the product starting on Sunday.
WERTHEIMER: How so?
GOLDMAN: Well, this rush to a Christmas Day opening meant shortening training camps by half and cutting the pre-season from eight games per team to two. And then you had lots of players switching teams during a quickie free-agency trading period. So, a number of teams won't be in sync right away and that could mean sloppy basketball and maybe more injuries because of this rush into full tilt action.
WERTHEIMER: Now the last game, Christmas Day, has the Los Angeles Clippers playing Golden State. Now in past years, this would hardly been a marquee matchup. I gather there must be some new excitement about the Clippers.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GOLDMAN: Just think about what you said, pre-season excitement about the Clippers, amazing but true. They are one of the most maligned pro sports franchises in history - from their bad play on the court to bad ownership. But now the Clippers, and not the Lakers, are creating this big buzz in L.A. and really throughout the league. And it's largely due to one player, the game's best point guard, Chris Paul. He came to the Clippers via trade last week and that was, of course, after NBA commissioner David Stern nixed a deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers.
Now like any great point guard, he makes his teammates better. And amazingly, again, for the Clippers, they have made smart moves and laid out the money to surround Chris Paul with really good teammates. They've got the great veteran guard Chauncey Billups and a former all star forward Caron Butler, and last year's Rookie of the Year power forward Blake Griffin. He's known for his huge dunks. But during short pre-season, showed off a variety of great offensive moves.
WERTHEIMER: So that sounds good, but you think the Clippers could actually get to post-season?
GOLDMAN: Well, you know, no one's crowning them the next champion, or even NBA finalists. There are a number of good teams in a wide open Western Conference - Dallas, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, even the Lakers. But if the Clippers stay healthy and they can blend that talent with some mental toughness, they could win and they could make a run in the playoffs.
WERTHEIMER: Now, of course, in the East you still have that big trio down in Miami - Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James who commands most of the attention. So, what does he have to do to silence all the criticism he got last year?
GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, he's so talented and such a crowd pleaser. But his worth as a player has been distilled down to this: Can he deliver in a clutch to win a title, which he didn't do last year. And that's what he has to do. And that's what's expected of you when you're called The Chosen One and King James.
Now he spent some of his off season working on his post play - near the basket - with one of the great former post players in NBA history, Hakeem Olajuwon. We should see a new, improved LeBron James this season, but vindication won't come until June.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome.
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