By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

The NCAA tournament is a nice little three-week party. As a fan, it's easy. You meet your Cinderella that first weekend, and dance and laugh with her a while; and then she goes poof. And soon after, you head home.

The NBA playoffs, on the other hand, are an eight-week extravaganza, the kind of party where you fall hard, where teams and players get under your skin and into your blood. You make commitments. You invest yourself.

I know some of you are just waking up from your Super Bowl hangover. And I know some others of you don't tune into the NBA at all until the playoffs appear on the horizon.

Kevin Garnett
KG's got fight, but is it enough to get him out of the first round?

So with a little more than a month left to go now, you're coming into the playoff party blind.

Don't worry. I got your back. Here are ten commitments worth your time and worthy of your love. Take your pick.

1. KG, Minnesota Timberwolves. Let's start with the obvious one. If you don't love his heart, if you don't love the glare in his eyes and the way he jumps like a kid on a trampoline in the moments before tip-off, if you don't love the 24.8, 14, 5, and 2 numbers he puts up, if you don't love the idea of a kid who's due, if you don't love a guy who's hungry, and if you don't love the idea of loving someone other than the Lakers and Kings ... well, brother, you best check your heart, because maybe you don't know how to love at all.

2. Earl Boykins, Denver Nuggets. All the Denver talk has been about 'Melo, and no doubt he's deserving. But Earl's undersized body and oversized heart have been just as big a part of the Nuggets story. How does a 5-foot-5 man go for 10 points in 20 minutes a night? Desire. And quickness. And more desire. And, of course, there's always a bit more quickness.

Muggsy was tough and Spud was charming, but Earl is the real little-man deal. Should the Nuggets hold on and make the postseason show, Boykins is your symbol of the whole longshot vibe. His improbable skills are the embodiment of Denver's turnaround -- they just don't compute. Root for Earl and you root for Denver, and for underdogs everywhere. Do it. Get shirts made. Print bumper stickers. Develop a secret Boykins handshake for admission to your secret Boykins treehouse club. Can you get cable up there in the treehouse, by the way? You can if you have the desire. And the quickness, of course.

2a. Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom, Miami Heat. I'm throwing this one in for free, because Miami is currently in the ninth spot in the Eastern playoff race. But I'm throwing it in just the same, because once upon a time, the Heat were a slow, plodding, physical team to make your eyes hurt; and nowadays, with these two guys and Eddie Jones, they're running and cutting and slashing and making the game look purty. Cast your lot with these guys and you may have to wait until next year. But the wait should be worth it.

Keith Van Horn
Keith's playing at a level worthy of the height of his socks.

3. Keith Van Horn, Milwaukee Bucks. This one surprises you, right? You've heard he's soft. You've heard about the trades. You didn't even know he was in Milwaukee. Here's the thing, though: He's putting up very solid numbers, and you could be on the leading edge of the wave of Van Horn euphoria if he comes through big in the big show. Hell, you could be the only one on the leading edge. You can't put a price on that kind of cool.

Plus, you know, he's still got the knee-highs and you gotta love the knee-highs.

Of course, if none of this sways you, you might want to throw your support behind Michael Redd who, in case you hadn't noticed, is a quiet, killing, scoring machine of the kind that can go on a run to make your heart sing, make you see flowers and hear trumpets, make everything dolorous and heavy about your life seem light and full of promise.

4. James Posey, Memphis Grizzlies. You can't go wrong with any of the Grizz, actually. From Hubie to Pau to JWill and right on down to reserve forward Bo Outlaw, every story in Memphis is a good one. They play 10 guys a night, they play hard, they play defense, they play to run; and each and every time they win, they make history (12 games past their all-time win mark and counting).

Posey's an especially good choice because he does a little bit of everything the Grizz do well. He's second on the squad in scoring. He ballhawks on the perimeter. He bottles up the other guy's best shooter. And he hits the boards.

He also looks hip in a headband, has a name your momma will love, and is tough as nails. The Grizzlies are the best story in the league this year, and Posey's at the heart of it.

5. Manu Ginobli, San Antonio Spurs. With TD, the Spurs are likely to be in the playoff haul for the long haul. But you can't get psyched about TD. He just doesn't do that to people.

Manu, on the other hand, is a joy to watch. He works the gaps, does everything with a little Ginobli se qua, if you know I'm saying.

Lawrence Frank
The jokes about Frank's boyish appearance are getting old.

Even after a title run last year, Coach Pop isn't completely sold on Tony Parker, and he's experimenting with Manu at the point. You smell that? It's creativity and flair about to hit the playoff grill. Line up and get you some of that.

Uh, you know about LeBron, right? Right. Good. O.K., on to number ...

6. Lawrence Frank, New Jersey Nets. Two reasons: 1.) After the exciting 13-0 start, now things are tougher, and now things really begin, and he's going to need all the support he can get. 2.) He looks, maybe more than anyone I can think of in public life, maybe more than anyone I've ever known, maybe even more than Legend himself, like a "Larry." But he will not let you, me, or anyone else call him that. Principles, Lawrence. We like that.

7. Baron Davis, New Orleans Hornets. Just kidding. There isn't really anyone to get excited about on the Hornets.

7a. Yao Ming, Houston Rockets. The giant is waking up and he's got Shaq in his sights. If we all join together and think good Yao thoughts, we can help lift his great blue heron wings up and over the Big Aristotle. Imagine the view.

Speaking of O'Neal ... No, not that one. Jermaine.

8. Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana Pacers. He and Yao are making the low post worth watching again. When he comes on screen next time, assume the lotus position in front of the set and find your body-mind center and repeat after me: Your feet are fleet and your hands are subtle for one so fierce, Grasshopper. Call it Zen and the art of O'Neal. Call it the antidote to Shaquilization. Call it your happy place for the next few months.

AI and the Sixers could make a run, but it's not looking likely. If Utah gets in, Andrei Kirilinko's your man.

But if the playoffs began today, you'd have to consider ...

Darko Milicic
Let's hope Darko doesn't have to watch LeBron in the first round.

9. Darko Milicic, Detroit Pistons. Sometimes you throw your love at a guy out of pity. Every time the camera flashes on his bench-bound mug, he's going to feel the sting, and he's going to need a hug. Can you be there for him? He promises to pay you back one day. Big.

If you're not feeling pitiful, it's always good to keep your emotional cash in the First Bank of Big Ben Wallace.

And maybe you want to think about Luke Walton, too, or Peja, who's deserving of both your admiration for his smooth stroke and your derision for that beard. He looks like a kid doing the Hobo bit with mom's mascara.

But then again maybe you want to settle on ...

10. Steve Nash, Dallas Mavericks. It's not just Steve; it's the whole freelancing Dallas thing. Don't you get the feeling that if you were sitting courtside during pregame warm-ups, you could just run right into the weave and they'd pass you the ball? These guys move it the way it ought to be moved, and it's a kick to watch them do it. You'll hear a lot in the next several weeks about how playoff basketball comes down to toughness and deliberate play and men being men. Whatever. I say throw your lot in with these guys, or with the Kings, with teams of men being boys.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.




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