Updated: April 20, 2006, 3:45 PM ET

We've got the winners

It was well past midnight on the East Coast by the time all the NBA playoff matchups were finally set, and now there will be just two short days of downtime before the real season gets started.

The defending champion San Antonio Spurs will go up against Ron Artest and the Sacramento Kings, who won't be a pushover if their 10-point victory on the Spurs' home court just two weeks ago was any kind of a preview.

The defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons will get an opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks, generally regarded as the postseason's most legitimate pushover candidate, although the Bucks took the Pistons to overtime in their first visit of the season to The Palace and were up by 17 in the third quarter of their second visit before crumbling down the stretch.

The East playoffs will have three heavy favorites -- Detroit over Milwaukee, Miami over Chicago and New Jersey over Indiana -- along with one series that should be more of a toss-up: the playoff-tested Washington Wizards vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first postseason game of LeBron James' NBA career.

The West offers slightly more intrigue, at least on paper. The Spurs will be solid favorites over the Kings, and the same goes for Dallas over Memphis, but the Phoenix-L.A. Lakers series has the Kobe Bryant factor at play, and the Los Angeles Clippers-Denver series offers the oddity of the sixth seed, the Clips, having home-court advantage over the third seed by virtue of having a better regular-season record.

"This is the most wide-open I've ever seen the NBA playoffs," TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. "If the Clippers make it to the Western Conference finals, I wouldn't be shocked -- and if Denver makes it to the Western Conference finals, I wouldn't be shocked."

ABC, the league's network rights holder, got first choice of which games to televise and selected Wizards-Cavs for the Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET time slot and Lakers-Suns for the same slot on Sunday.

The playoffs begin Saturday with Wizards-Cavs at 3:30 p.m. ET, Sacramento-San Antonio at 5:30 p.m., Bulls-Heat at 8 p.m. and Nuggets-Clippers in the uncoveted 10:30 p.m. slot.

Sunday's games are Pacers-Nets at 1 p.m. ET, Lakers-Suns at 3:30, Bucks-Pistons at 7 and Grizzlies-Mavericks at 9:30.

Here's the briefest of looks at each series, along with the Sheridan picks (I went chalk, big-time).

EAST:

Bucks-Pistons: Detroit's experience will be the determining factor in each fourth quarter, but the Bucks have the right combination of size, speed and shooting to keep up with the Pistons. Detroit in 4.

Heat-Bulls: Miami has too much size and too good a player, Dwyane Wade, to be threatened much. But Chicago has been playing playoff-type games for two weeks. Heat in 5.

Pacers-Nets: The Nets are pretty high on themselves these days, but Indiana never goes down easy in the playoffs. We'll tab Jason Kidd as the difference-maker here. Nets in 7.

Wizards-Cavaliers: LeBron takes the big stage for the first time, but is everyone going to underestimate Gilbert Arenas again? Cavaliers in 7.

WEST:

Spurs-Kings: Two of the game's best defenders and loosest cannons, Bruce Bowen and Artest, could make this a combustible series, and the Mike Bibby-Tony Parker point guard matchup is nifty. Spurs in 5.

Suns-Lakers: Kobe Bryant scored 39, 37, 51 and 43 in the Lakers' four games against Phoenix, three of which were losses. If you had to pick only one series to watch, this would be it. Suns in 7.

Nuggets-Clippers: Anyone who bets against Sam Cassell will eventually part ways with his money, although the Clips haven't been in the second round since 1976. Clippers in 7.

Grizzlies-Mavericks: There is no one on Memphis who can defend Dirk Nowitzki, and the Grizz still have zero career playoff W's. Mavs in 6.

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Dimes Past: April 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15-16 | 17 | 18 | 19


All Present And Accounted For

Ron Turenne/Getty Images
Allen Iverson and Chris Webber were on the bench during the finale against Charlotte. The Sixers' stars apologized for their late arrival the night before on Fan Appreciation Night in Philadelphia.


Marc Stein's All-NBA Ballot
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First Team
F Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas)
F LeBron James (Cleveland)
C Shaquille O'Neal (Miami)
G Steve Nash (Phoenix)
G Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers)

Second Team
F Shawn Marion (Phoenix)
F Tim Duncan (San Antonio)
C Ben Wallace (Detroit)
G Chauncey Billups (Detroit)
G Dwyane Wade (Miami)

Third Team
F Carmelo Anthony (Denver)
F Elton Brand (Los Angeles Clippers)
C Yao Ming (Houston)
G Tony Parker (San Antonio)
G Vince Carter (New Jersey)

Toughest omissions: Pau Gasol (Memphis), Gilbert Arenas (Washington) and Jason Kidd (New Jersey)

Voters are instructed on the All-NBA ballot to "vote for the player at the position that he plays regularly."

This ballot would have looked different if voters were given a little more latitude.

I wanted to name Duncan and Gasol as centers because (A) Shaq and Yao both played less than 60 games because of injuries, and (B) Duncan and Gasol play enough in the post to justify billing them as centers.

In that scenario, Duncan would have been my first-teamer largely because he grinded through a nagging case of plantar fasciitis to appear in 80 games and help the Spurs secure the West's No. 1 overall seed. Gasol would have been my second-team center and Shaq would shift to the third team, enabling me to move Carter to third-team forward and thus make room for Arenas.

But there wasn't room for Gasol (eclipsed by Anthony since the All-Star break) and Arenas (his Wiz didn't quite win enough) because the league wants us picking "real" centers. Yao had the best individual season of the three, but the Rockets' disastrous season as a team relegated him to third on this scorecard behind Shaq and Big Ben.

Kevin Garnett, Allen Iverson and Paul Pierce didn't get serious third-team consideration from me because none of their teams reached the playoffs. The tougher call on the third team was trying to figure out which Net to choose: Carter or Kidd.

-- Marc Stein



Cavs: I'm 50!
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LeBron James didn't play in the final game, but his team's 100-99 win over the Hawks may have boosted his MVP candidacy by meeting a threshold of 50 wins.

With the one-point victory, the Cavs improved to 50-32 -- only the fourth time in franchise history they've won 50 games in a season and the first time since 1992-93. Also, Cleveland's Mike Brown became the first rookie coach to win 50 games since Rick Carlisle did it for Detroit in 2001-02.

• Detroit's 64 wins were the most in the NBA since the Lakers went 67-15 in 1999-2000.

• Mavs coach Avery Johnson said F Keith Van Horn likely will be the 13th man on the newly expanded playoff roster in hopes that his broken right hand will recover in time for the later rounds.

-- The Associated Press


Wash. And Wear

The Wizards got the highly coveted No. 5 spot in the playoffs by downing the Pistons.

Washington Statement

Meadowlands On His Mind

AP Photo/Darron Cummings
Pacers center Jermaine O'Neal slams home a solid game as a warm-up for the Nets with 24 points, 13 rebounds, nine turnovers (!) and six blocks in the 89-83 win over the Magic.


Extreme Behavior
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Wednesday's Best
Wizards forward Caron Butler: In his third game back from a thumb injury, scored 33 points and pulled down 12 rebounds as the Wiz clinched a playoff date with the Cavs by beating Detroit. The Pistons, it should be noted, were so unconcerned about winning that 'Sheed was chucking T-shirts into the crowd in the fourth quarter.

butler

Wednesday's Worst
Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen: The Dance Party tossed up 15 shots in his team's finale, more hoisting than he had attempted in all previous April, 2006 games combined. Um, Mad Dog made one. And all seven 3-pointers went awry. The Wolves season ends with a 102-92 loss to Memphis.

shaq

Quote of the Day
"Our season is starting in a couple of days. The last 10 games, you just wanted the regular season to finish and get ready for the excitement. The atmosphere changes in one second."
-- Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, whose team beat Houston and earned a franchise-best 63rd win.

See how all 262 who played stacked up

The NBA playoff matchups

-- Andrew Ayres



Lakers? Not So Fast
al

DannyB, California: How is Phoenix going to stop Kwame, Lamar, and Kobe from scoring inside without Kurt Thomas? I say Lakers in 7. How about you?

Chris Broussard: Well, I think Phoenix is going to win that series. They're hoping Brian Grant can stay healthy. Now, Boris Diaw is also a solid post defender. He's quick and long and strong enough to handle those guys. Then they've got Marion. One thing that enables Diaw to defend the post is they front a lot and have Marion come to help. I don't expect Kwame and Odom to punish Phoenix.

Zander (LA): Now what do the Blazers do? Zach Randolph and Darius Miles ask to be traded. I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel? What exactly is that? Share with me please.

Chris Broussard: Well, Miles has been one headache after another there. He feels like he's a superstar already, even though he hasn't performed to that level. This year when he was putting up some decent numbers, that went to his head even more. He's not a good influence on the younger players. He hasn't bought into what the coach is trying to good. As far as Zach, they feel like he's had his issues, but if they can get him away from some of the negative influences, he'll be a team guy. He's kind of a follower, if he's with a negative team he'll go that way. I think they'll try to stay with Zach and try to move Darius.

See the full Chris Broussard chat Insider



Elias Says
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Kobe Bryant scored 35 points Wednesday to finish the season with 2,832 and surpass the single-season career-high point total of both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2,822 in 1971-72) and Bob McAdoo (2,831 in 1974-75) in the process. The only players in NBA history to score more points in a season than Bryant are Wilt Chamberlain (four times) and Michael Jordan (twice).

• Elias Sports Bureau | More from Elias Insider



Hardwood Hopes
shirley

Travis (MI): So what about playing basketball again ... anywhere?

Paul Shirley: I'm thinking about changing direction and entering the priesthood. I feel like a nice vow of celibacy is what I need right now ... actually, basketball is on my mind right now. When we finish editing the show, I'm back to it. It just pays too well. And since I'm a greedy bastard...

Jim (MD): Do any basketball players smoke cigarettes or cigars regularly?

Paul Shirley: The European ones. Like it's their job.

Mary (Los Angeles): Back in November, I bet my co-worker lunch at Wahoo's that you would get picked up for at least one 10-day contract at some point this season. Since this is the last day of NBA regular season play, I think I lose. Can you please make this up to me?

Paul Shirley: First, it's amazing that I was the subject of a bet. (Had to get this one posted so that it will go down in evidence.) Second, it was a pretty good bet on your part -- it's happened the last three years. If my descent into Hollywood self-parody had not happened, I think a 10-day might have.

See the full Paul Shirley blog Insider



 

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