The good part of the NBA season starts Saturday, the part where all the games count and all the players play like the games count.
Even in those series in which the ultimate outcome is very close to predetermined -- that is, most of them in the first round and a fair number in the second -- the games themselves are usually hard fought and well played. This is a goal the NBA should pursue for what it calls, with a straight face, its regular season.
The Dallas Mavericks pretty much lapped the field, winning a Jordan-Bullsesque 67 games, and that's including a desultory 6-4 April. The Mavs put their feet up after closing March with nine straight wins, including a 6-0 Eastern road trip.
Their chief threats in the Western Conference, which is vastly superior to the East, are the Phoenix Suns, winners of 61 games and the fastest team in the league, and the San Antonio Spurs, who are the San Antonio Spurs. Enough said if you've caught a glimpse of the NBA in the past few years.
The defending champion Miami Heat stumbled this year, chiefly because of injuries to Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal but also because they're old and that bunch of suddenly team-first veterans who helped carry them to the title came into this year as owners of a ring for the first time. So the Detroit Pistons are again the team to beat in the East, just as they were last year, when the Heat beat 'em.
The LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers figure to be the Pistons' chief threat, but the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and New Jersey Nets can all make an argument of varying quality that they've got a legitimate shot at the Finals. The Heat too if Wade pulls another Superman routine and Shaq can avoid injury and foul trouble.
The Houston Rockets, who like the Bulls are a defense-first bunch, but with a couple of elite scorers in Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, are the top underdog in the West.
Thanks for coming: Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers and, for the first time since the two-hand set shot was the hot new thing, the Golden State Warriors.
By the way, because my predictions are so rarely any good, I want to point out that in my NBA season preview I accurately picked 14 of the 16 playoff teams, missing one in each conference.
I had the Los Angeles Clippers rather than the Warriors in the West, and considering the Warriors beat the Clips out on the last night of the season, I'm not hanging my head over that one. In the East I had the Indiana Pacers instead of the Raptors. Hey! Look over there!
But I did say nice things about the Raptors. They came a little quicker than I thought they would.
I say this not to crow about my prognosticating ability, which remains laughable, but to point out the dreary predictability of the NBA season. Fortunately, the NBA gets good now, and my prognosticating success rate figures to return to normal, which is to say head-hangingly bad.
1. Dallas Mavericks (67-15) vs. 8. Golden State Warriors (42-40)
The Warriors owned the Mavs during the regular year, and coach Don Nelson ought to know how to beat his old team. The Warriors' win with a small lineup and a fast pace, and their backcourt of Jason Richardson and Baron Davis provides some matchup problems for Dallas.
That said, forget it. Good as the Mavericks have been during the season, they still carry all their old questions into the playoffs. Can they defend well enough to go all the way? Can Dirk Nowitzki carry them when the going gets brutal? Those are serious questions, but I don't think the Warriors have the horses to force the Mavs to answer them.
Good for the Warriors for getting to the playoffs for the first time since 1994, when Nelson was their coach the first time. That's what the club brought Nelson back to do. But when the money's on the table, those regular-season wins are going to seem a long way away.
Prediction: Mavericks in five
4. Utah Jazz (51-31) vs. 5. Houston Rockets (52-30)
I'll get some e-mail from Jazz fans for dismissing them. That's OK. I like e-mail. I've got this deal going with a Nigerian guy that's going to make me rich, and I owe it all to e-mail!
The Rockets get to start at home under a newish NBA rule that awards home court to the team with the better record, not better seeding. That's big because this figures to be a bruising series that could come down to that seventh game, and seventh games are usually won by home teams. The Rockets' defense, under old Eastern Conference guy Jeff Van Gundy, should win it for them.
I dismissed the Jazz not because they're no good. They could beat the Rockets. But I think that'd be it for them. I don't see them causing a lot of problems for the Mavericks.
Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming have to stay healthy, but if they do, the Rockets could put a scare into the Mavs in the second round -- just as they did in the first round in 2005. This is a better team than that one was, but then, so is Dallas.
Prediction: Rockets in seven
2. Phoenix Suns (61-21) vs. 7. Los Angeles Lakers (42-40)
This should be a glorified warmup for the Suns, who will again try to run-and-gun their way to a championship. Here's hoping they succeed and that every team in the NBA adopts Mike D'Antoni's style of play. I'm starting to hold my breath right ... now.
The Lakers are pretty much Kobe Bryant and a bunch of guys in bright yellow rompers. That's right, I've stopped waiting for Lamar Odom to blossom into a star. You? There's no way this team should be anywhere near the playoffs, but Bryant carried them here. Congratulations. Take a seat.
The Suns will have a brutal road once they get past Jack Nicholson's team. They'll probably have to get through the Spurs and the Mavericks just to make the Finals. Of course, the Spurs would have to get through the Suns and Mavs and the Mavs would have to get through the Suns and Spurs. Are you dizzy yet? Tough bracket is what I'm saying, and I haven't even mentioned the Rockets, at least in this paragraph, which I'm about to wrap up and leave out in the sun for a while to see if that helps it.
I just don't think the Suns have enough interior defense to go all the way, but I'm sure looking forward to watching Steve Nash, the healthy-again Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and their pals try. I think the Lakers will steal a game.
Prediction: Suns in five
3. San Antonio Spurs (58-24) vs. 6. Denver Nuggets (45-37)
The Nuggets are a fun team to watch. They have two of the game's best scorers, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, and they play at a faster pace than anybody except the Warriors. That means they give up a lot of points as well as scoring a lot, but they're not terrible on defense.
The question is whether they can force the Spurs to play an up-and-down game. And even if the answer to that question is yes, the bigger question is can they beat the Spurs in an up-and-down game. The answer to that one is probably no.
That's the thing the Spurs have shown over and over this century: They can beat you playing their game, which is a methodical one, but if you want to play your game, they can beat you at that too.
With the familiar cast of characters -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen et al. -- the Spurs, even as the third seed, should never be considered much of an underdog. They'd make a mistake by taking the Nuggets lightly, but the Spurs tend not to take teams lightly. Or make mistakes.
Prediction: Spurs in six
1. Detroit Pistons (53-29) vs. 8. Orlando Magic (40-42)
The story of this series is Darko Milicic matching up against his old team.
The story of this series is can the Magic win a game. Because this column is a dashing, risk-taking, let the chips fall where they may kind of column, the answer, it says here: Yes!
Prediction: Pistons in five
4. Miami Heat (44-38) vs. 5. Chicago Bulls (49-33)
The defending champs have to start the playoffs on the road despite winning their division. That's tough, but ultimately it doesn't matter. The Heat found the playoff switch last year, but I don't think there's a switch powerful enough for them this time around.
The 2005-06 season was one of those magical years for the Heat, when everything came together at the right time. That hasn't happened this year, and with Dwyane Wade nursing a bad shoulder and Shaquille O'Neal showing his age -- ESPN's John Hollinger's efficiency stats have him as the eighth best center in the league without considering his half-season of missed playing time -- it doesn't figure to happen this year.
The Bulls played well down the stretch, notwithstanding the season-ending loss to New Jersey that dropped them from the second to the fifth seed. Goodbye Wizards and Raptors as likely opponents in the first two rounds, hello Heat and Pistons.
Still, if you're looking for a dark horse in the East, why not the Bulls? They play tough defense, and these next two or more weeks is why they went out and got Ben Wallace last summer.
Are you really looking for a dark horse in the East? Try getting out more.
Prediction: Bulls in six
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (50-32) vs. 7. Washington Wizards (41-41)
The Wiz are going to try to do it without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. Good luck with that!
LeBron James' team looks to me like it's a player away from being a serious title contender, but the Cavs are a serious contender to win the conference now. They'll get to warm up against the Wizards, then probably play Toronto. It's not a smooth path to the conference finals against, most likely, Detroit. But it's not a rugged one either, and it would take a pretty good upset to stop the Cavaliers before the third round.
Prediction: Cavs in four
3. Toronto Raptors (47-35) vs. 6. New Jersey Nets (41-41)
Everything about both of these teams screams middle of the pack. The difference is that, as franchises, they're headed in opposite directions, the Raptors up and the Nets down. But that doesn't matter much in a seven-game series.
The story of this series, for real, is ex-Raptor Vince Carter matching up against his old team. But the Nets are more than a .500 team with an interesting story. They've finally gotten healthy in the last month and they finished the season with a 10-3 run, including wins in their last four games. With three of the big four of Carter, Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Nenad Krstic healthy, they're a dangerous club. Krstic is out for the year.
The Raptors are the new kids on the Eastern block, newer even than the Cavs. Toronto is young and hungry -- or inexperienced, take your pick -- and it has a dynamite player in Chris Bosh. I'll go with them in a torch-passing kind of way.
Prediction: Raptors in seven
My preseason prediction was San Antonio over Cleveland in the Finals. I think I'd make that San Antonio over Detroit if I were starting now, but the Pistons aren't good enough to make me abandon the original call. On the off chance I was right, I want to be able to crow about it without qualification.
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