A star is born

A star is born . 1) As part of the heavily decorated rookie class of 2003, Dwyane Wade often took the backseat to more celebrated contemporaries LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But this year’s playoffs changed all that. After averaging more than 27 points a game in the regular season and scoring the winning basket in the All-Star Game, Wade led his Miami Heat into the playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Once there, Wade carried his team of aging former superstars (yes, we’re talking about you, Shaq) on his back, leading the Heat to tough playoff victories over the Chicago Bulls, New Jersey Nets and Detroit Pistons, before summoning some memorable clutch performances since you-know-who (a certain bald, tongue-wagging superstar from Wade’s hometown of Chicago) in Miami’s stunning six-game NBA Finals victory over the Dallas Mavericks.

Playing in the championship series for the first time in team history, the Heat appeared overwhelmed against the Mavericks, dropping their first two games in Dallas before falling behind by 13 points late in the second half of Game 3. However, Wade would not allow his Heat to wilt under the pressure, scoring 42 points, including 15 in the final quarter, to help Miami eke out a 98-96 win. From there, Wade used the Finals as a platform to exhibit his considerable greatness, scoring 36 points in Game 4 and 43 in Game 5 before capping off his epic performance with 36 points and 11 rebounds in the Heat’s title-clinching 95-92 victory at Dallas in Game 6.

He was named Finals Most Valuable Player. Wade responded to the inevitable Michael Jordan similarities with his own trademark humility: “The comparison is flattering, but at the same time, I always stay from them because there will never be another Jordan.”

Iverson’s new clothes

2) For 11-plus seasons, Allen Iverson gallantly poured his heart out for the Philadelphia 76ers (perhaps not in practice, as he has famously admitted, but most certainly on game day) without a single quality running mate to match his otherworldly talent. Finally fed up, Iverson demanded a trade, despondent after another dreadful start to the season by a painfully inadequate Sixers squad. After a monthlong wait, during which seemingly every team expressed some sort of interest in A.I., Denver finally stepped up to the plate, sending point guard Andre Miller, forward Joe Smith and two first-round picks to the Sixers for the mercurial superstar and Ivan McFarlin, who was promptly cut by the Nuggets.

Kobe drops in 81

3) Jaw-dropping single-game performances have defined Kobe Bryant’s career, but the Los Angeles Lakers’ star’s 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors on Jan. 22 defied even his most memorable spectacles. Playing to the deafening chants of “M-V-P!” Bryant nailed 28 field goals, drained seven 3-pointers and sank 18 foul shots to account for his 81 points in the Lakers’ 122-104 win. The scoring outburst was the second-highest in NBA history, behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s memorable 100-point performance in 1962.

Another brawl

4) It wasn’t your average Garden party. A little more than two years after the Malice at the Palace brawl between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons, the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks traded punches following Mardy Collins’ hard foul on J.R. Smith on Dec. 17 at Madison Square Garden. Although much tamer than the Palace melee, commissioner David Stern doled out stiff punishment, including a 15-game suspension to Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony and $500,000 fines to each team.

National effort

5) Spurred on by the embarrassing effort of teams in past Olympics and world championships, Team USA went to a new format that included naming Mike Krzyzewski coach and getting stars to make a three-year commitment to represent their country. Although more cohesive, Team USA lost in the world championship semifinals to Greece 101-95.

Ball game

6) Leave it to Stern to drum up controversy over something that shouldn’t be controversial. The commish introduced a new microfiber ball, allegedly tested to be an upgrade from the old leather version. Players immediately grumbled, saying the ball was slippery and cut their fingers. Just two months into the season (and with scoring ironically up), Stern relented and said the league would revert to the old leather ball Jan. 1.

M-V-P! M-V-P!

7) After his standout MVP season of 2004-05, when he led the Phoenix Suns to the brink of NBA Finals, there seemed to be little left that point guard Steve Nash could do for an encore, especially after dynamic forward Amare Stoudemire was sidelined for most of the season with a knee injury. Nash proved all doubters wrong, piloting his band of unknown run-and-gun teammates back to the Western Conference finals, while capturing his second straight MVP award in the process. Nash once again topped the league in assists at 10.8 per game, while scoring 18.8 points per game and shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 90 percent from the line.

No talking back

8) The Sheed Rule came into full effect as commissioner David Stern finally buckled down on the post-call bantering that permeates so many NBA games. Unofficially named after volatile Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace (a perennial contender for most technical fouls racked up), Stern prodded NBA refs to tell players to zip it or get T’d up. It has noticeably cut down on players and coaches bickering with refs.

Big Apple turnover

9) Is there a bigger mess in professional sports than the ongoing quagmire that defines the New York Knicks’ organization? With a roster stocked full of overpaid, underperforming stars and a carousel door of high-profile coaches, the Knicks can’t seem to buy a victory, much less two. Vagabond Larry Brown said coaching his hometown Knicks was his “dream job” — but that lasted just one season and led to a bitter divorce. Brown was booted after a 23-59 season, with four years and $40 million left on his contract. Eventually, Brown and the Knicks settled their contentious separation, with the ex-coach getting $18.5 million.

Artest on the move

10) Between promoting R&B albums and beating up NBA spectators, Ron Artest apparently lost his interest in playing in the Midwest. Just a few months into the 2005-06 season, Artest shocked absolutely no one when he demanded a trade from the Indiana Pacers. After a lengthy wait, the Sacramento Kings opened their arms to the surly forward, who served a 73-game suspension for the famous Palace brawl.

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