The NBA playoffs begin Saturday when the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers tip off at 3 p.m. EDT, a tipoff you almost certainly won't see unless you're in the majestically named Quicken Loans Arena because the game will be broadcast by ABC, which always seems to have bigger artistic fish to fry than showing you such mundanities as the opening tip.
The playoff career of a certain third-year man and league savior will be getting underway as your flat screen treats you to a gathering closeup of the floor at the center circle. But LeBron James isn't the only notable playoff debutante.
Long-suffering Shareef Abdur-Raheem, a sturdy Golden Bear like your humble servant who has suffered through nine playoff-free years in Vancouver, Atlanta and Portland just as I've suffered through nine Pulitzer-ineligible years at Salon, finally gets to late April as a member of the Sacramento Kings.
Yes, kids, Vancouver used to have a team. They moved to Memphis, which is why the Memphis team has the geographically inappropriate nickname Grizzlies. What's really strange is that when they were in Vancouver, they were called the Kings of Rock 'n' Roll.
Elton Brand, one of the game's best power forwards, makes the postseason for the first time in his seventh year, his fifth with the Los Angeles Clippers, who have been waiting even longer than he has. The Clippers last made the playoffs in 1997 and last won a series in 1976, when they were the Buffalo Braves and they beat the Philadelphia 76ers two games to one.
Yes, kids, there used to be a team called the Buffalo Braves, and there used to be three-game playoff series. In those days they had a 24-second grandfather clock.
Andrew Bogut, the top pick in last summer's draft, makes the playoffs as a rookie with the Milwaukee Bucks. I still think the Bucks wasted the first pick on a player whose ceiling is "better than average," but good on him and his teammates, most notably Michael Redd, for improving enough on last season's disappointment to get back to the playoffs.
Where they're going to get smoked by the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons freed themselves from drama queen Larry Brown, who went on to preside over a New York Knicks season that made the Titanic look like a successful moon shot, and roared out of the gate under new coach Flip Saunders, the former boss of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
They raced to a 64-18 finish, 10 games better than the 2005 Western Conference championship team, without having changed the roster beyond some fiddling with the bench. Dare we think it wasn't the genius of Larry Brown that made the Pistons so good the past two years?
Saunders let his team play at a faster pace than Brown's teams did. Never mind all that talk of "playing the right way," the Pistons played whatever way was best that night. They're a better team for it.
The chaos in New York wasn't all, or even mostly, Brown's fault. We can debate for decades how much the success in Detroit, where he won his only NBA championship, was his fault. But the farther these Pistons go under Saunders, the less it will look like Brown dragged the Pistons to the promised land.
And Saunders' Pistons look like they'll go far.
But while the Pistons look like the favorites, there's a lot more intrigue than usual in this year's NBA playoffs. Aside from Detroit, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat and the New Jersey Nets can all make pretty compelling arguments that they can win the title.
And the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns can make sort of half-believable arguments.
A quick look at the eight opening-round series, starting, as always around here, in the West.
(8) Sacramento Kings vs. (1) San Antonio Spurs
This is no ordinary hopeless 1 vs. 8 first-round matchup. The Kings are better than an 8 seed because they transformed when Ron Artest came over from Indiana in January.
Well, maybe not transformed, but they went 26-14 after Artest showed up, and he gives them a ruggedness and a defensive presence they've always lacked. The Spurs, meanwhile, come limping into the postseason, with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both hurting.
But they're still the Spurs. They're the playoff-tested defending champs, and they can beat you at your game or theirs. Duncan had his worst year as a pro, it's true, but a so-so Tim Duncan is still pretty great. And Tony Parker had his best year. The Spurs are the team to beat in the West, and the Kings are not the team to beat them.
(7) Los Angeles Lakers vs. (2) Phoenix Suns
OK, Phil Jackson doubters. Now do you think he can coach? He took a Lakers roster that was probably worse than last year's 34-win bunch and won 45 games and a playoff spot. And he did it by saying the uncoachiest thing a coach can say: "Guys, give the ball to Kobe Bryant and get the heck out of the way."
Mike D'Antoni of Phoenix can coach a little too. The Suns looked like toast when Amare Stoudemire went down with a knee injury, for all but three games as it turned out. But the Suns kept right on winning as D'Antoni emphasized his team's strengths, namely Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and a solid supporting cast. That cast includes center Kurt Thomas, who'll miss this series with a broken foot.
The Suns play exciting, uptempo basketball. The Lakers have a guy who can do things like score 81 points in a game. This should be a fun series. The Suns should win it, unless Bryant ropes the moon.
(6) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (3) Denver Nuggets
Which brings us to the best team in Los Angeles ...
This is the series that will likely make the NBA change its seeding rules. The lower-seed Clippers have the better record and home-court advantage. They looked for all the world like a team losing games down the stretch to make sure they played the Nuggets, not the more powerful Mavericks, in the first round, so they'd better win or they'll look pretty dumb.
The Nuggets have some talent, especially Carmelo Anthony, but they're banged up, and this just doesn't look like their year. The Clippers, behind Brand, should win this series, and they'll probably root for a Lakers upset, which would mean a second-round series played entirely at Staples Center for L.A. bragging rights.
Actually, people in L.A. don't brag. They disparage everyone else. Same net effect, more fun. Ever notice how I talk so much about what dopes the rest of the commentariat are? You can take the boy out of the smog ...
(5) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (4) Dallas Mavericks
Good on the Grizzlies for playing hard down the stretch, earning the fifth seed and becoming target practice for the Mavericks. A solid goal for the Grizz would be to avoid a third straight opening-round sweep.
Memphis, a team that floats around the upper levels of the Complicated Calculus of Teams I Root For, doesn't get a lot of national attention, so get a load of Pau Gasol while you can. He's the one with the unfortunate beard.
Dallas is once again a serious title contender. I fell for them last year after Avery Johnson took over as coach from Don Nelson and preached defense, with quite some success. The Mavs still run and gun, but now they can actually stop people. Looks like a championship recipe.
The problem is their go-to guy, the guy they lean on when the chips are down, is Dirk Nowitzki. He's a great, great player, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. But I don't think you can win a championship with him as your go-to guy. He's just too soft. Maybe he'll prove me wrong someday, but I won't be betting on the Mavs to win a title before he does.
(8) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (1) Detroit Pistons
I love the Bucks because they actually made a prediction of mine come true, which is more than most people ever do for me. I said they were going to be the best last-place team in the NBA, and with a 40-42 record and a fifth-place finish in the brutal Central, one game back of Indiana and Chicago, that's exactly what they are.
They had a nice season, improving from 30 wins to 40. They're not nearly good enough to challenge Detroit, which also improved by 10 games -- from 54 wins to 64.
The Pistons have had a magical season, with nary a hangnail slowing down their pixie-dust-sprinkled players. They'll hardly notice the Bucks. The Heat, Nets and Pacers could all give them trouble in the conference finals, but probably not enough trouble to keep them out of a third straight NBA Finals.
(7) Chicago Bulls vs. (2) Miami Heat
The Heat did that thing I always say teams should do, especially teams reliant on aging big men: They kind of coasted through the regular season, with the idea that they'll be ready to rock at playoff time. It's a beautiful theory. The only problem is it usually doesn't work.
The Bulls won six in a row and 10 of 11 to finish the season, so they're red hot. They're a tough bunch of customers, led by guards Ben Gordon and Kirk Hinrich. I wasn't a big fan of the Heat's offseason roster shuffle, but with Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, they have plenty of talent to hold off the Bulls. The Bulls, though, have enough juice to win this series if the Heat aren't on their game.
(6) Indiana Pacers vs. (3) New Jersey Nets
The Pacers lost Ron Artest and Reggie Miller, gained Peja Stojakovic, and went from preseason title contender to inconsistent, injury-riddled playoff field horse.
Or not. It's easy to dismiss the Pacers because of their 41-41 record, but they've got Jermaine O'Neal healthy and they seem to have gelled, going 5-1 down the stretch. Not much to go on, but they're now a chic pick to pull the upset over the Nets, who won 49 games and feature a deadly trio in Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson.
The Nets ambled to a 3-5 finish after a 14-game win streak, but with that trio plus center Nenad Krstic, who's playing well, I think they'll outlast Indiana in a tough series.
(5) Washington Wizards vs. (4) Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA playoffs, meet LeBron James. After two years in which his Cavs faded down the stretch and missed the postseason, the Future arrives.
Washington has its own stud in the not-nearly-as-famous Gilbert Arenas, a spectacular scorer. His matchup with former teammate Larry Hughes is one of the most intriguing of the first round.
These are two good, evenly matched teams without much hope of going deep in the playoffs because the Pistons will be waiting for them in the second round. The Wiz actually swept the Pistons in three games this year, for what that's worth, which is, to be precise, nothing.
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