Best of seven: The playoffs we need to see
The season is about to slide into best-of-seven mode, and we hope you're ready to skip ahead with us.
Here, then, is our "Seven Best" list ... what we see as the seven tastiest playoff matchups from each conference leading up to the NBA Finals.
It's a tough list to crack, mind you. The potential pairings are so good that there's no room here for the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James' first foray into the postseason. Or the upstart Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, who are on course to meet in Round 1. Or the Philadelphia 76ers with Allen Iverson and Chris Webber in the shared role of heavy underdogs against Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal's Miami Heat. Or even the Houston Rockets, featuring the first playoff venture for the tag team of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.
But comb through the list and it'll be obvious why they didn't qualify.
The Pacers' recent surge without the injured Jermaine O'Neal looks like it'll result in a first-round series against the Celtics for the third successive spring.
And this should be the best of the three, pitting a Boston team replete with personalities against an Indy group that has O'Neal and possibly Jamaal Tinsley back for the playoffs. The Pacers, as a result, will be a popular pick to upset the seedings and punish the Celtics' defensive frailties.
Not that the result really matters. Any team with Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce, Gary Payton and Ricky Davis along with a slew of talented kiddies would make us want to watch. Against anyone, frankly.
So if we have to settle for Celtics vs. LeBron's Cavs, that's a fine consolation prize.
You wouldn't find a tastier first-round pairing than this potential 3-6, which would give George Karl a chance to inflict some playoff pain on the Seattle exec (Wally Walker) who ousted him years ago. It would also give Karl an opportunity to sit on the underdog side in seeding terms, at least of a Nuggets-Sonics series after Denver famously became the first No. 8 seed in history to topple a No. 1 seed in 1994.
Given the Sonics' late-season injuries (Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic) and issues (Danny Fortson's discontent), it figures that Seattle will be picked by many to go out in the first round in spite of its amazing regular season, whether the Sonics face Denver, Sacramento or Houston in Round 1. Opening with the Nuggets, mind you, would have to be considered the worst-case scenario, given how well Karl has these guys playing. And Furious George, bless his honest soul, doesn't even try to deny that he's wishing for a Nuggets-Sonics start.
"So much of what has happened here reminds me of when I went to Seattle," Karl told us on Tuesday night's NBA Nation, recalling his first playoff series as Sonics coach against another team (Golden State) that had fired him. "There's so much karma between the two situations that I think that's where destiny is pushing it."
Are we greedy? Probably.
Spurs vs. Wolves makes this list because (a) Tim Duncan vs. Kevin Garnett would be a wholly unexpected first-round treat given that these teams were projected to meet in the conference finals when the season started, and (b) because this list is probably the only place you'll be able to see TD vs. KG in the first round. If Minnesota can swipe the West's No. 8 seed from Memphis, the likelihood is greater that the Wolves will open with Phoenix, since San Antonio is reluctant to burn out Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker chasing the No. 1 seed while Duncan strengthens his tender ankle for the playoffs.
"We feel like, if we make it there, then it's free game," Wolves swingman Wally Szczerbiak said of seizing a playoff berth after a season of tumult. "I don't think any team would really like to see us [in the first round]."
That's probably true, but the suspicion here is that the Wolves would definitely prefer seeing the Spurs as opposed to the Suns. An aging Minny squad that will have used up so much energy just to scramble into the playoffs won't want to run with the Suns. Then again, who does?
Indiana Pacers vs. Detroit Pistons, East Round 2
We loved it when Jermaine O'Neal brazenly told us that he'd "love to play them in the first round" them being Detroit. The chances are better now, with the Pacers surging, that these teams meet in Round 2 as opposed to Round 1, but the season would feel somewhat incomplete without the East's foremost rivals meeting at some stage in the postseason after the November brawl that linked them forever.
You struggle to see the Pacers, without the suspended Ron Artest, winning a seven-game showdown with the defending champs, but know this: Detroit would be shouldering all the pressure and expectations. Which would give the Pacers an added bonus on top of the recent signing of Dale Davis, a move that has O'Neal and the retiring Reggie Miller giddy.
"I feel extremely confident," O'Neal said, "that we're going to be a tough team to knock out."
Do we really need to explain this one?
Steve Nash vs. Mark Cuban.
A team that has taken freewheeling and defenselessness to a new level vs. the new Mavs and their (gasp) defense-first new coach (Avery Johnson).
The Mavericks will have to get by Houston or Sacramento (or maybe even Denver) first, and the Suns aren't guaranteed a second-round slot if they have to open against Memphis' depth and physicality, but this is a series I simply can't wait for. Are you with me?
Detroit Pistons vs. Miami Heat, East finals
With apologies to the Pacers, this is the matchup the masses expect with a spot in the Finals at stake.
The Pistons, as discussed here before, stunned the Lakers in last spring's Finals and then became the Lakers, thinking they could flip a regular-season switch and turn on their best whenever they needed to. The Pistons, like the Lakers before them, actually haven't been able to do so and thus won't have home-court advantage if these clubs do meet.
Yet the champs still do have the defensive concept that allows them to send one Wallace or another at Shaquille O'Neal straight-up and limit what his teammates do. We're eager to see if Shaq's Heat can cope with that challenge better than Shaq's Lakers did.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns, West finals
This is your McEnroe-Borg duel. Your Leonard-Hagler redux. It would be the ultimate contrast in styles and the ultimate series to determine who represents the West in the Finals, provided that Duncan is healthy in time for the playoffs.
The Spurs would have to possess the edge, given their championship experience and the fact that they've proven they can play at the Suns' pace when they need to ... whereas the Suns have yet to show that they can win grind-it-out games in the playoffs. Yet the number of Suns skeptics out there is steadily dwindling, with Phoenix still on pace for 63 wins and the league's best record. You hear a lot less doubt these days about the Suns' ability to run in May and June, since they've consistently moved too fast all season to stop and care about what anyone else thinks.
BONUS: OK, OK, OK. If you insist on a Finals wish before ESPN.com trots out its extensive playoff preview section, how 'bout Suns vs. Heat? I picked San Antonio vs. Detroit at the start of the season and again at midseason but who am I to deny that Phoenix-Miami would be more fun?
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