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Friday, April 21, 2006
State of NBA, love & trust

By Bill Simmons
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What does Pearl Jam have to do with the 2006 NBA Playoffs?

Eddie Vedder
Mookie Blaylock is no longer in the NBA, but Eddie is still going strong.
More than you think. No successful musical artist has deeper NBA roots, with the possible exception of Toni Braxton. They launched the band in 1991 under the name Mookie Blaylock -- yes, they took the name of the former point guard -- even touring as Mookie Blaylock in the Seattle area before trademark issues forced them to switch names. As a consolation prize, they named their first album "Ten" after Mookie's jersey number. They appeared in the movie "Singles" along with then-Sonics star Xavier McDaniel. Two of the band members (Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard) regularly attended Sonics games during the glorious Kemp-Payton era, which ended up self-destructing almost as fast as Layne Staley.

Now their highly regarded comeback album (inventively titled "Pearl Jam") comes out May 2, as they look to break Bruce Springsteen's record for "Longest time between two great albums by the same artist." Coincidentally, the NBA is making a little comeback of its own, as the 2006 playoffs include nearly every marquee star, old and new -- Kobe, LeBron, Nowitzki, Carmelo, Duncan, Wade and Shaq, Arenas, Nash and Marion, Kidd and Carter, Ginobili and Parker, Brand and Gasol, all the Pistons guys, even Ron Artest -- as well as some genuinely compelling subplots (we'll get to them). With a little luck, this could become the most fascinating spring of basketball since 1993. You know, back when Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world.

More stories
ESPN.com's Playoff predictions
Sheridan: Daily Dime
Complete NBA Playoff coverage

Can they both bounce back? That remains to be seen. During their "Saturday Night Live" appearance last Saturday, Pearl Jam sounded as good as ever -- a little older, a little wiser, completely in control -- and you would never have realized how much time passed since the band's first SNL appearance until you compared the hosts. (Back in 1992, when Pearl Jam brought the house down with "Alive," host Sharon Stone was fresh off her electric appearance in "Basic Instinct." Last week's host? Lindsay Lohan.) It's hard to imagine more likable members of a rock band -- their hearts were always in the right place; they avoided celebrity as much as they could; and they always valued their fans and their music over anything else. Nothing would make me happier than to see them pull off a major comeback. Except for an entertaining NBA playoffs, of course.

Anyway, in lieu of a preview, I'm handing out Pearl Jam lyrics to the featured players and teams for the 2006 playoffs:

1. One, two, three, four, five against one
Five, five ... five, five ... five against one

LeBron James
The King has arrived: LeBron makes his first playoff appearance.
To LeBron James. I know, I know, you thought this was going to be Kobe. But at least Kobe's supporting cast plays defense. At least those guys make open shots. At least they have a great coach. At least they have a second banana (Odom) who has been playing excellent basketball since the All-Star break.

On the flip side, I'm not sure what to make of this Cavs team -- the players can't guard anyone; their alleged "shooters" can't actually shoot; and Larry Hughes (who was supposed to play the Pippen/McHale/Worthy role here) has been banged up all season like he always is. On paper, they shouldn't even get past the Wizards in Round 1 unless LeBron pulls an "MJ against the '89 Cavs" on them. And even that might not be enough.

Of course ...

2. Spin, spin ... spin the black circle
Spin, spin ... spin the black, spin the black ...
Spin, spin ... spin the black circle
Spin, spin ... whoa

My least favorite Pearl Jam song ever goes to my least favorite subplot of this and every other playoffs: The referees.

Take it from someone who attended 30-35 Clippers games in person this season and watched another kajillion NBA games on TV -- not only are the officials worse than ever, they favor the stars like never before. You can't even look cross-eyed at LeBron, Kobe or Wade in the fourth quarter of a playoff game without the refs whistling you for a foul (terrible news for Kurt Thomas, by the way). And if you don't think we're going to have about 500,000 embittered, furious, ranting-and-raving Wizards fans on our hands in about two weeks, you're crazy.

(E-mail of the week, courtesy of Brad in Potomac, Md.: "I am a huge Wizards fan and believe they match up pretty well with the Cavs. While the Wizards were 3-1 against the Cavs during the regular season, here is my analysis of the upcoming series: Dick Bavetta, Dick Bavetta, Dick Bavetta.")

3. Saw things ... saw things
Saw things ... saw things
Clearer ... clearer
Once you
Were in my ...
Rearview mirror

This one goes to Shaq, who admittedly isn't the same guy from 2000-02 ... but I can't stomach one more alleged NBA expert making a "watch out for the Nets in Round 2 against Miami!" prediction.

Hey, here's an idea -- what about "watch out for Shaq?" Didn't anyone watch last year's playoffs? Who's guarding Shaq on the Nets? Jason Collins? Nenad Krstic? Come on. Even in the first stages of his semi-decline -- and by the way, nobody knows whether he's actually slipping or has been on cruise control since last June (which seems more likely) -- he's still a guaranteed double-team every time, as well as a 25-10 every night. There's only one way New Jersey hangs with the Heat: if Vince goes off every game and carries them, something he hasn't done for an entire playoff series in his entire career (and yes, he's 28).

(Speaking of Vince, everyone knows about Pearl Jam's ongoing problems with its record label and Ticketmaster, culminating in two recent albums that lacked the band's usual energy and explosiveness. After the band parted ways with that same label and went on its own, the new album was deemed by none other than Eddie Vedder to be "the best work we've ever done," leading some to believe that maybe, just maybe, the Pearl Jam guys were, um, saving themselves for their first post-Sony album. That's right, they might have pulled a Vince Carter on us. And just as a word of caution, don't ever mention this to one of the irrationally overboard Pearl Jam fans, because they will absolutely fight you to the death. In fact, let's forget we ever mentioned this.)

Live! From Seattle ...
ESPN.com's Kevin Jackson, a Northwest native, recalls the dawn of the Grunge Hoops Era in Seattle:

The early 1990s were an amazing time to be living in the Pacific Northwest. Nirvana and Pearl Jam came seemingly out of nowhere at the same time. "Singles" actually made it look cool to live in a city where it's overcast and gloomy all the time. And the Sonics drafted a brash young point guard who never shut up (Gary Payton), paired him with this raw kid out of high school who simply embarrassed people with his slam dunks (Shawn Kemp) and brought in a coach who was described as "unstable" by one fan on a local newscast the day he was hired (George Karl).

For me, it's impossible to separate the Sonics and Pearl Jam in my memories. I still vividly recall the night it became cool to be a Sonics fan again -- when GP led them out of the tunnel wearing short black socks and all-black shoes before Game 1 of a first-round playoff game at Golden State in 1992. (The seventh-seeded Supes went on to upset the No. 2 Warriors in four games, punctuated by a Kemp dunk-for-the-ages over Alton Lister in Game 3.)

I also recall the first time I heard Pearl Jam's "Ten" album playing in Cellophane Square records in Bellingham, Wash., where I was in my junior year of college. It was an amazing sound that seemed to stop everyone in the store.

From there, my love for the Sonics and PJ became one affair. The "Slam Jam" poster featuring leaping images of Kemp and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, which was given away at the 1993 home opener, became the featured piece of art in my apartment.

Pearl Jam songs became the sound track for the Sonics' playoff runs in those years, and any Seattle fan worth his salt could close his eyes and tell you what was happening on the floor at the Seattle Center Coliseum by the tune being played during timeouts. "Even Flow" meant our boys had blown the game open, "Alive" meant they were waging a comeback, "Go" meant they had a big lead in the fourth quarter but the house was urging us to "not go on them now" and bolt for the exits.

Sure, this era didn't end well. The Supes laid a historic egg in the 1994 playoffs against Denver. Kemp went to Cleveland and got fat. Pearl Jam recorded "Vitalogy." Eddie Vedder later hung out with the Bulls and Dennis Rodman. And I became the only person to graduate from Western Washington University between 1990 and 1993 who never saw PJ play live in an unannounced gig at a small Bellingham bar.

(And that doesn't even mention Kurt Cobain's suicide and what it was like to leave a Sonics playoff victory on a sunny Sunday afternoon, walk outside the arena and immediately find yourself in the middle of thousands mourning the Nirvana front man at the Seattle Center fountain.)

But for one era, it's hard to imagine a band being more associated with a town and a team than Pearl Jam and the Seattle SuperSonics. Those songs will always take me back to those games. Now, if I could only find that "Slam Jam" poster.

4. Is something wrong? she said
Well of course there is
You're still alive, she said
Oh, and do I deserve to be?
Is that the question?

To the Pacers, Bucks and Bulls, who snuck in with a combined record of 122-124 and are just crummy enough that I won't require you to watch even one minute of every first-round matchup in the East (not including Wizards-Cavs, which should be fantastic) unless Jalen Rose is prominently involved.

(One other prediction: The Pacers getting blown out by 30 points at home in one of the Jersey games, followed by Barkley making his annual, "Thass terrible, thass an embarrass-munt" speech and questioning the manhood of everyone on the team.)

5. And now my bitter hands chafe beneath the clouds
Of what was everything?
Oh, the pictures have all been washed in black
Tattooed everything

Maybe the gloomiest Pearl Jam song ("Black") goes to the gloomiest playoffs subplot ... the looming possibility of another Pistons-Spurs Finals. I like watching both teams separately, just not at the same time, if that makes sense. Kinda like Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn.

(Random Pearl Jam note: When comparing PJ to the other defining bands of the past 25 years, you have to factor in its performance in "Singles," right? Name another rock band that brought something to the table in a good movie? Go ahead, name one, I dare you. And even if you can name one, who could top Eddie's "A compliment for us, is a compliment for you" moment, or the scene when they're watching the insect documentary? On the flip side, Kurt Cobain married Courtney Love and reproduced with her, and U2 gave us a "Rattle and Hum" documentary that gets inducted into the Unintentional Comedy Hall of Fame this July. Just remember to bring these points up in your next "Pearl Jam vs. Everyone Else" argument.)

6. Clearly I remember pickin' on the boy
Seemed a harmless little [bleep]
Ooh, but we unleashed a lion ...
Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady's breast ...
How can I forget?

To Kwame Brown, one of the true surprises of the past six weeks. Michael Jordan famously questioned his manhood in Washington. Phil Jackson questioned his manhood as recently as five months ago. So did every Wizards and Lakers fan who watched him on a regular basis. And then the Lakers stuck Luke Walton into the lineup, and he started getting Kwame the ball, and Kwame started trying a little, and then Odom started playing unselfishly and, suddenly, they looked like a real team -- did I tell you that Luke Walton would be an important pro, or did I tell you? -- and now Kwame plays hard every game and looks like a young Jermaine O'Neal. Only in the NBA.

(By the way, when I was in elementary school, we had the kid who threw chairs, as well as the kid who made weird voices and the kid who touched his own poop, but we never had the kid who bit the recess lady's breast. Think I would have remembered that one.)

7. I seem to recognize your face
Haunting, familiar, yet I can't seem to place it

To every casual fan watching crunch time of a Nets game this spring who says to himself, "Man, that guy looks familiar. I swear, I know that guy. Where is that guy from? Wait a second ... is that Cliff Bleeping Robinson?!? Is that the Cliff Robinson from UConn? Good God, it is! It's Cliff Robinson!"

8. I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down
I wish I was a radio song, the one that you turned up
I wish ...
I wish ...

And I wish the current playoff seeding system didn't suck so much.

Look, it doesn't bother me that the Clippers tanked the last two weeks, capped off by a bunch of phony injuries and Vin Baker starting in an alleged "must-win" in Memphis on Tuesday night, just so they could land the sixth seed instead of the fifth seed. What bothers me is that they would have been crazy not to tank. Seriously, why would any NBA team in its right mind rather play a 60-win team that owns it (without home-court advantage) over a 45-win team that it owns (with home-court advantage). If the only goal of an NBA team is to advance in the playoffs as far as possible, how can you fault the Clips (or anyone else) for tanking to create the best possible matchup?

(Easy way to fix this: Go back to two divisions, with the division winners making up the top two seeds in each conference, and home-court advantage for each series determined by record. Under this scenario, Dallas would have been the No. 3 seed in the West, gotten home court against the Phoenix-Lakers winner in Round 2, and wouldn't have faced the Spurs until the Western finals. Plus, Memphis and the Clips would have played hard Tuesday to avoid playing Dallas in Round 1. It's a no-brainer all around.)

9. All these changes taking place,
I wish I'd seen the place
But no one's ever taken me
Hearts and thoughts they fade, fade away ...

To the Heat, who would have beaten Detroit last spring before Wade's bizarre injury, and then they mixed things up too much, and then Alonzo Mourning went down, and now the Shaq-Wade window is passing, but they're still destined for another showdown with the Pistons, only they don't have the horses, and they don't have the cap room to land a major player next summer, and they definitely don't have the draft picks, and then Shaq will be another year older, and you know the Cavs and LeBron will keep getting better, so it seems like maybe the window has already passed ...

(Of course ... )

10. Even flow, thoughts arrive like butterflies
Oh, he don't know, so he chases them away

Hey, Pistons ... do you realize that you haven't suffered an injury to one of your core guys in three full seasons? Not even a badly sprained ankle? Seems weird for a team on pace for 320-325 games (including playoffs) in a 33-month span, right? Especially when you've had some luck the other way (Kidd's knee in 2004, Malone's knee in 2004, Wade's muscle pull in 2005), right? Unfortunately for Miami, this is its only real chance to make the Finals -- an injury to Billups, Hamilton, or one of the Wallaces.

(By the way, you need at least four bong hits before you can even begin to understand the lyrics to "Even Flow." Not that I would know or anything.)

11. Ooh, someday yet, he'll begin his life again
Oh, whispering hands, gently lead, lead him away ...
Him away ...
Him away ...
Yeah!

Eddie Vedder
It's about time. Pearl Jam's loyal fans have been waiting for a big comeback.
One of the best moments of any Pearl Jam concert -- the crowd screaming "Yeah!" along with Eddie near the end of "Even Flow" -- goes to the best media-related announcement of the 2006 playoffs: TNT hiring Jalen Rose as a sideline reporter for the next two months.

You know how I feel about Jalen: Just in the last 48 hours, he told The New York Times that he was stunned by the horrible Knicks season, explaining, "I put together our roster on NBA Live and we're pretty good," then described his new TNT gig to USA Today by saying, "I want to make the most of my college major in communications -- and being on a team that doesn't make the playoffs." Now he's going to be wearing crazy suits and interviewing players and coaches on live TV? I haven't been this excited since my buddy J-Bug told me Anne Hathaway got naked in "Havoc."

(I've pitched it before, I'll pitch it again: Why can't ESPN2 run the "Jalen Rose Show," with Jalen just doing the show out of his hotel room on the road every week -- along with a depressed Steve Francis as his hooded sweatshirt-wearing sidekick -- interviewing other players and teammates, doing man-on-the-street pieces, heading to various player's houses to check out their possessions and their cars ... it would be like a cross between "Wayne's World" and "Cribs." Come on, would you turn the channel if Jalen said the words, "And coming up, Tracy McGrady shows us his car collection!" Why couldn't a show like this ever happen? Have we ever figured that out?)

12. Drop the leash, drop the leash
Get outta' my [bleeping] face!

This goes to my buddy, Camp. ... We were driving home from a bar one time; he was in Relationship Hell with whomever he was dating; he had more than a few in him; and then "Leash" came on and he immediately started belting out the lyrics with Vedder-like intensity from the backseat. You really had to be there. Anyway, I will always think of this as The Camp Song and could never award the lyrics to anyone else. But it needed to be in the column. So there.

13. I took a drive today
Time to emancipate
I guess it was the beatings
Made me wise
But I'm not about to give thanks
Or apologize

To the Clippers, the Cinderella story of Cinderella stories (we covered this two weeks ago) ... and now they're looking at an exceedingly beatable Nuggets team in Round 1, followed by the hair-rising potential of the Lakers (if they can shock the Suns) in Round 2, which would be a classic "Weak Little Brother suddenly punching Strong Big Brother in the face" sports moment and potentially get the city of Los Angeles excited about sports for a change.

(Quick explanation of the comically one-sided, Clippers-Lakers rivalry, which was personified by the Clips clearing cap space for Kobe two years ago, then Kobe going back to the Lakers at the last minute: Clippers fans hate Lakers fans with a passion, but Lakers fans dismiss Clippers fans and take condescending approaches like "It's cute that you guys support such a joke of a franchise" and "It's cute that you guys think this is the year that the Clippers won't fall apart," which drives Clippers fans even crazier than they already are. You know those college cities where the townies detest the rich kids from campus, or a multicollege city where the kids from the lesser-respected college openly loathe the kids from the well-respected college a few miles away? That's how the Clippers fans feel about the Lakers fans. Pure hatred. They even have fights in the stands during Clippers games and stuff. I'm telling you, keep your fingers crossed for a Clippers-Lakers series -- if you ever wanted to see a fistfight between Frankie Muniz and Jack Nicholson, this is your chance.)

Meet The Champion
Congratulations to Bill Simmons, your 2006 NBA.com Celebrity Fantasy League Champion!

How did he do it? Check out Bill's NBA.com interview to find out.

14. Everything has changed
Absolutely nothing's changed

To Robert Horry ... no explanation needed.

15. And I listen, oh, for the voice inside my head
Nothin', I'll do this one myself
Oh, ah, and the barrel waits, trigger shakes
Aimed right at my head, won't you help me
Help me from myself

To the GM who ends up signing this year's version of Jerome James after the playoffs (aka, the underachieving free-agent-to-be who breaks a sweat and makes himself an extra $20 million to $30 million). Whatever happens with Bonzi Wells, Drew Gooden or Lorenzen Wright over these next few weeks, don't be fooled. You have been warned.

16. Walks on his own ... with thoughts he can't help thinking ...
Future's above ... but in the past he's slow and sinking ...
Caught a bolt 'a lightnin' ... cursed the day he let it go ...
Nothingman.

To the poor Grizzlies, feel-good overachievers this season ... sadly, they're headed for their third straight sweep against a Dallas team that's a mirror image of the Grizz, right down to their style and their reliance on a foreign forward with goofy facial hair. Thanks for coming, guys.

(On the bright side, Mike Fratello receives more than 10 minutes of time in NBA TV's latest documentary, "The Most Ridiculous Hairdos in NBA History," which also includes a roundtable discussion on the 1987 Pistons-Celtics series that featured Larry Bird's blonde afro/mullet, Kurt Nimphius' curly trailer-park mullet, Bill Walton's bouffant, matching perms for Celtics coaches Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford and, of course, Dick Versace's removable snow-white afro/mullet that remains the single-most frightening haircut in the history of organized sports.)

17. Seems my preconceptions are what should have been burned
For he still smiles, and he's still strong
Nothing's changed, but the surrounding bulls***.
That has grown
And now he's home, and we're laughing like we always did
My same old, same old friend
Until a quarter-to-ten
I saw the strain creep in
He seemed distracted and I know just what is gonna happen next
Before his first step, he's off again

To Sam Cassell ... may you end your career with the Clippers and stop reminding people of songs like this.

18. Got a gun, fact I got two
That's OK man, cuz I love God

To ABC ... if you break out that horrible Rob Thomas song for the Finals again this year, there's going to be gunfire. We're just warning you. Don't do it. I can't make this any clearer.

(By the way, I know the TV networks are required by law NOT to use a cool song for sports telecasts as a recurring hook unless it's either white-bread or totally overplayed like that Outkast one from two years ago; I have given up hope that someone will create a theme song along the lines of CBS's NBA music from the '80s, or NBC's song from the '90s; and I know they're afraid to break out the likes of 50, Snoop, 2Pac, Eminem and the like for the playoffs; but at the very least, couldn't ABC throw us a bone for the Finals with an old-school rap song like Public Enemy's "He Got Game" or Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," or even "Ch-Check It Out" by the Beasties? Would it kill them to play anything that gets us in the mood for a basketball game? I wouldn't start out the NBA Finals with Rob Thomas any more than I would start an episode of "Desperate Housewives" with the Wu-Tang Clan. Some things just don't mesh.)

19. She loved him, yeah ... she don't want to leave this way
She feeds him, yeah ... that's why she'll be back again
Can't find a better man

To the great Chauncey Billups, who's one more killer spring away from moving into the pantheon of Big Game Guards, along with Sam Jones, Jerry West, Dennis Johnson and Walt Frazier. Out of anyone in the playoffs other than Kobe, he's the one who can make the biggest leap historically. Well, unless Artest charges into the stands again.

(By the way, out of any Pearl Jam song, this is the one that gives me one of those party flashbacks -- you know, when you hear a moment in a song and it makes you remember standing in somebody's kitchen at 4:45 a.m., bombed to smithereens, holding a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, waiting for the guitar transition near the end to wrap up so everyone still awake could scream, "She loved him!" at the same time ... and you can't even remember where you were or who else was in the kitchen. Have to love the party flashbacks. They're almost like acid flashbacks.)

20. You think I got my eyes closed
But I'm lookin' at you the whole [bleeping] time ...

To the Spurs, who have to be mildly terrified of the Kings in Round 1, right? Bibby has been a much better playoff performer over the years than Parker. Artest could single-handedly take Ginobili out of the series. There isn't anyone on the Kings for Bruce Bowen to shut down. Brad Miller is twice as good as any Spurs center. They have three power forwards to throw at Duncan, who's playing on one leg to begin with. And given that they've only been playing with Artest for three months and would have been a 55-win team with him, it's safe to say the Kings are the first truly dangerous 8-seed since the '99 Knicks. Yes, the '99 Knicks who made the Finals.

(One major plus for the Spurs: Can you see Rick Adelman outcoaching Gregg Popovich anytime soon? Me neither. I see this one going seven, with the Kings somehow botching the game in the final three minutes, followed by Artest committing a crazy foul after the game's over -- along the lines of Ginobili flopping to get a call, followed by Artest helping him up, then coldly body-slamming him to the ground without his facial expression ever changing -- followed by another 50-game suspension and us spending the summer talking about how crazy Ron Artest is. In other words, Game 7 should make the perfect ending to the "Rick Adelman's Greatest Playoff Collapses" DVD. I can't wait.)

21. On a weekah onawasta onawaya yeah.
And they called nine-a-said and I won't and they said
Andacalled out again
Anda reason on a levah gone buy no
I said I dunno wear on a bicycle back
Awaaaaaaaay hey! Can you see them?
Ow on the porch! Yeah, but they don't wait!

The most impossible-to-decipher Pearl Jam song ("Yellow Ledbetter," in which Eddie sounds like Jame Gumb for five straight minutes, although it's still one of their greatest songs, so you figure it out) goes to the most impossible-to-decipher Round 1 series: the Suns and the Lakers.

Is this one of the all-time goofiest matchups in playoff history? (I say yes.) Did the Suns look worn down over the past few weeks, to the point that they look vulnerable heading into the playoffs? (Yes, again.) Is anyone dumb enough to bet against Kobe in a seven-game series when nobody on the other team can guard him? (Probably.) Will it even matter? (I say yes.) Will the Suns just run them off the floor? (With Phil Jackson involved, probably not.) Will you feel much differently about the 2006 MVP Race than you did before this series? (I say yes.) Can Kobe break MJ's record for most points in a series? (I say yes). And can you see where I'm going here? (That's right: Lakers in six.)

22. The north is to south what the clock is to time.
There's east and there's west and there's everywhere life.
I know that I was born and I know that I'll die.
The in between is mine. I am mine.

To Carmelo Anthony, who was wildly underrated all season. Now he has a chance to enter the LeBron-Wade discussion with two monster rounds against the Clips and Lakers-or-Suns. (And by the way, none of those teams has a player who should be able to handle him, with the notable exception of Quinton Ross). So where are we at, 'Melo? Are you headed for a Mark Aguirre-type career, or do you have some Bernard King in you? You're not going to let Ross -- aka, the next Bruce Bowen -- get into your head like you did during the last Clips-Nuggets game, are you?

(My prediction: Cassell and Brand carry the Clips in six; the Ross-Anthony battle becomes one of the most entertaining running subplots of Round 1; the world becomes a little more curious about an alien center who goes by the earth name, "Chris Kaman"; and we see a ton of cutaways of George Karl looking like Bruce from "Survivor" and making the "I think there's a blockage between my intestine and my colon" face. Also, if Jim Gray ever comes to interview me in the stands during any of the home games, I'm going to tell him, "Look, I did not bet on baseball!")

23. And sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky
A human being that was given to fly

I'm giving this one to Kobe. For better or worse, this has been his season over anyone else's. More importantly, he has reached that same point that Jack Walsh reached near the end of "Midnight Run," when he's driving the Duke through the desert as the helicopters are circling over him, and he looks up and starts muttering, "No, no, no way, I've come too far, I've come too [bleeping] far." That's how Kobe carries himself every night -- not only is he unstoppable right now, you would have to chop his head off Voorhees-style to beat him. He also has managed (in a roundabout way) to bring the best out of his teammates, who are killing themselves for him and doing everything they can to win games. And sure, it's a bizarre dynamic, but it's working.

What does this all mean? I see them shocking the Suns in Round 1. I see them beating the Clips in Round 2. And I see them losing in the Western finals to the ...

(Actually, they get their own song.)

Playoff Predictions
FIRST ROUND, EAST
Detroit over Milwaukee in 5
Miami over Chicago in 6
New Jersey over Indiana in 4
Cleveland over Washington in 7

FIRST ROUND, WEST
San Antonio over Sacramento in 7
L.A. Lakers over Phoenix in 6
L.A. Clippers over Denver in 6
Dallas over Memphis in 4

SECOND ROUND
Miami over New Jersey in 6
Detroit over Cleveland in 5
L.A. Lakers over L.A. Clippers in 7
Dallas over San Antonio in 7

CONFERENCE FINALS
Dallas over L.A. Lakers in 6
Detroit over Miami in 7

24. Hear my name, take a good look
This could be the day
Hold my hand, lie beside me
I just need to say
I could not take-a just one day
I know when I would not ever
Touch you
Hold you
Feel you
In my arms ... never again ...
Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

The all-time most underrated Pearl Jam song, as well as the song that always brings the house down in every concert ("Porch") goes to the most underrated team in the 2006 playoffs: the Dallas Mavericks.

I'm not saying it makes sense on paper, because it doesn't. But they have a superstar playing the best basketball of his career (Nowitzki). They have a point guard (Terry) who has been doing a poor man's Billups routine. They have professional scorers at the wings (Daniels and Stackhouse), as well as the best Glue Guy in the league (Josh Howard), a game-changing guard off the bench (Harris) and an endless supply of guys who know their roles and take nothing off the table (Diop, Dampier, Mbenga, Griffin, Powell, none of whom is bad). And they have a coach who developed into a true weapon this season (Avery Johnson); I caught the Mavs in person twice and thought they were the best-prepared, best-coached, smoothest-running team that passed through the Staples Center all year.

Why this year and not last year? Because Nowitzki took it up a notch. Because Avery knows what he's doing. Because they left their nucleus alone for the first time in four years. Because the Spurs aren't as good as they were last season, mainly because of Duncan's foot. And because it just feels right.

So where does this leave us from a prediction standpoint? With a wildly entertaining Final Four -- Lakers-Mavs, Heat-Pistons -- followed by a Dallas-Detroit Finals that would be intriguing on about 40 different levels, most notably the thought of David Stern potentially handing the NBA trophy to Mark Cuban (who would obviously be sobbing like Rocky Balboa at the end of "Rocky 2").

But will it happen ... ?

25. And I listen for the voice inside my head
Nothin'
I'll do this one myself

I say no. Pistons over the Mavs in six.

(Now if we could only get a Mookie Blaylock sighting during the Finals ... )

Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy's World site here. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.