Conspiracy theories about the NBA are always burbling beneath the game's glossy surface. But they started bursting into plain view as this season progressed, a development powerfully reinforced by Nike's much-discussed advertising campaign for the playoffs, featuring puppets of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. For a while, as the Lakers stumbled in the first two rounds, the idea that Kobe's team might screw-up a Madison Avenue dream was regularly invoked. As it turns out, though, it was LeBron's squad that couldn't get the job done. He certainly can't be faulted. He may not be the pure shooter that Kobe is, but he did more than enough for the Cavaliers to make the Finals. The problem was his supporting cast. Defense in the regular season, lackluster much of the time, can mask the weaknesses in a team with a superstar of James' stature. But the playoffs are another matter. I feel bad for Cleveland's long-suffering fans -- are fans from Cleveland ever described as anything other than "long-suffering"? -- like siyeh, not to mention LeBron and the people who wanted to see him face off against Kobe & Company. I'm a little disappointed myself. At the same time, though, I'm heartened by the realization that the fix wasn't in after all or, if it was, countervailing forces broke its hold on the game. And it will certainly be interesting to see how Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum match up with Dwight Howard in the post.