Taking care of business By Gabe Kahn
I don't want any upsets in the second round, and as weird as it sounds, I don't even want any close games. I just want the favored teams to advance so we get Detroit-Miami and Phoenix-San Antonio in the respective Conference Finals, and I don't want anything to interfere with that outcome.
Look at the four current playoff matchups and tell me if any of them give you a glimmer of excitement. Detroit's streetfight with Indiana? Maybe if Ron Artest was playing there would be some drama over who would win, or at least which team would lose more teeth. The Spurs/Sonics series didn't have any drawing power to begin with, but after injuries to Ray Allen and Vladimir Radmanovic, is there any reason to tune in? Phoenix against Dallas should be the most competitive, but I'm wondering exactly who expects the Mavs to come out on top. Miami-Washington?! Please.
No, the real action won't start until the Conference Finals, and it would be wrong for it to happen any other way. There's been a lot of talk about the NBA fixing games, and while I'm generally against even discussing these conspiracy theories (almost all of them are voiced by those who feel their team should have won and cannot fathom a reason they didn't other than cheating), I wouldn't have a problem encouraging the league to make sure the top four seeds make it at whatever cost.
If the stars do line up correctly (and realistically, they will), there will be three separate matchups that I really don't have any clue as to who will win. Any one of those four teams could walk away champions, but I couldn't tell you which team would beat any of the others in a 7-game series. Sure, you have a couple of series like that every year, but all of the final three? What, did you think the Wolves would outduel LA last year? Did San Antonio surprise you at all by beating Dallas in the year before? And who predicted Boston over Jersey in 2002?
If you love basketball, your mouth has to be watering with the possibilities. In the East, you've got the champs out to prove last year was no fluke, and, like last season, they'll have to go through Shaquille O'Neal to do it. Of course last year, things were a little bit different. The Lakers were the very definition of dysfunction, Shaq was out of shape, and a most untimely injury to Karl Malone derailed their championship aspirations (or their coronation, as they saw it). This time around, Shaq is motivated and has chemistry with Dwayne Wade that surpasses any he ever had with Kobe save for their first title together.
It's a classic battle of the greater team vs. the greater individual talents. Either Wade or Shaq is a better player than any one Piston player, but all of the Piston starters could be All Stars. For those of you who say that Detroit proved last year that the overall team concept is superior, we will give you 25 straight years (up until last season) where the team with the greatest player or players won it all: LA had Shaq and Kobe, the Spurs had Tim Duncan, the Bulls had His Airness, the Rockets had Hakeem, the Pistons had Isiah Thomas, the Lakers Magic and Kareem, the Celtics had Larry Legend, and the Sixers had Moses Malone and Dr. J. That goes all the way back until the '78-'79 Sonics, who did not have what we would call a superstar. While last year was phenomenal and inspiring for Detroit, it's now up to them to show that it was the rule, not the exception.
[As an aside, I got into a bit of a flap a couple of months back with a reader that told me that either Detroit or Boston would come out of the East, and not Miami, because the Heat weren't a proper "team." I had said that I didn't think the Celtics could beat Detroit, but if they did, they couldn't possibly make it past the big guy in Miami (I know, Earth-shattering, huh?). The reader used last year's finals and three football games (Ohio State beating Miami, the Pats beating the Rams and the Colts) to prove that the better TEAM wins every time. I would like to say that A) The Celtics are not a better TEAM than Miami, B) Never ever use an example from one sport to prove something about another sport, especially when one of those sports is football, and C) Like I just said, there are 25 straight examples of superior talent beating better TEAMS. The guy also said he could tell from my writing that I had absolutely no personal athletic experience. That is just so off base it kills me. I am too an athlete; just not a very good one.]
The other series that must be played is the Suns against the Spurs. Even though at the start of the season I predicted the Spurs to win it all and (moron alert!) the Suns to miss the playoffs, I have to say I'm pulling for the Suns to emerge from this one. Hey, I love the Spurs, Duncan and all that his team represents: fundamentals, teamwork, defense and post play. They're a how-to on building a team. And I'm not one of those guys who thinks they're boring, either. But how can you root against a run-and-gun team like Phoenix? If they're the new IT in the NBA, then I'm all for it. But the Suns have to win it all if other teams are going to try to copy their fast and furious blueprint.
Put a gun to my head and ask me who wins, I say shoot. These teams are in two different stratospheres when it comes to style. The Spurs are slow and steady, while the Suns are the young and the reckless. Conventional NBA wisdom gives the edge to the team with the better post player, but the Suns have been anything but conventional all year, and I can't believe this will be any kind of romp for either team. Regardless, though, the NBA absolutely needs this series to happen.
So if you're the Pistons, Miami, San Antonio or Phoenix, I implore you to do what you have to do to advance. Nothing short of you four meeting up will be good enough for me, for you, and the entire NBA.