Madness not reserved for March

Updated: May 14, 2004, 5:07 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It was a tiny great moment following quietly on the heels of the two planetoid-sized great moments that had just occurred. As Phil Jackson prepared to walk away from the finest carnival stop yet of this NBA postseason, Game 5 between his Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, he stopped briefly to ponder the miracle of mystery.

"That's the thing you love about basketball," Jackson said. "You never know how it will end."

Right: It might come out a bit more eloquently had anyone the time to compose stanzas of poetry to the thing. But the larger point is that Jackson just stole the NCAA's line.

And for that, the NBA may thank its lucky stars.

Generally speaking, Tha League and wild unpredictability go together like hippos and trampolines. Put it this way: Those two teams, the Lakers and Spurs, have won the last five NBA titles between them, and in several of those years there was a feeling of knock-over-the-pins inevitability that carried all the way through the postseason.

Not so in 2004, where a fairly dependable first round has given way to the free-for-all you now see before you. Anyone who sees a clear-cut favorite for the league championship is either stranded on the Isle of Fanatic or simply can't pull off his original prediction, made weeks ago before the world realized just how alternately brilliant and vulnerable every one of the NBA's Elite Eight really are.

It's crazy good. It's a postseason with no overdogs. It's the NCAA with more bling.

It's even historic, for those who like their statistics as arcane as possible. Until this spring, there had never been a postseason in which all four NBA conference semifinals stood tied 2-2 through the first four games.

We normally see shots like this in the NCAAs.
The Lakers went out Thursday night and busted their tie, and you've already read the hosannas at the ways in which that unforgettable game went down. Kobe to Duncan to Derek Bleedin' Fisher -- that's the kind of stuff that will tend to get people talking about pro basketball again.

But, look, they could all go like that, for all anybody knows. All the series could be that close. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves had played four times before Friday night and come up with a composite score of 393-387, the Kings' overall margin of advantage coinciding exactly with their 87-81 victory in Game 4 earlier in the week.

The Kings won in Minnesota. The Wolves won in Sacramento. The only shock here would come if the series actually held form down the stretch. Or, to quote Sacramento coach Rick Adelman, "Both teams are very similar, so it's going to be interesting."

It's interesting about the numbers. What they say is that Game 5 is the swing game; of the 115 NBA playoff series that have gone to a fifth game and then beyond, the Game 5 winner has gone on to capture the series 96 times -- an 83 percent success rate.

Does it matter to Detroit and New Jersey right about now? They'd played four games before Friday night and delivered a composite score of 316-312 in favor of the Pistons. Detroit looked like a menace at home and a falling-down house on the road. The Nets barely woke up in time to play the first two games, then sparked to life like a legitimate championship contender.

And the Miami Heat have delivered the college-style feel-good moment of these playoffs, taking down mighty Indiana in two straight games after looking for all the world like a team just happy to have survived the first round. The Heat stand for every team that has ever been deemed not fit to stand on the court with the giants at the other end of the floor. It's the playoffs. Stuff happens.

You'd love to make the connection between NBA teams getting younger (and younger, and younger) and the college mood of this postseason tournament, but the truth is, it's probably more a harmonic convergence of events than any single great factor. The Lakers and Spurs are delivering a riveting and wholly unpredictable finish, it's true, but they're doing so on the backs of many of the old dogs for whom playoff basketball isn't a new trick.

These playoffs, on the other hand, have an entirely new feel about them, and maybe it's because for the first time in forever nobody is too certain he's got them figured.

Pick your NBA champion right now, today. Come back tomorrow to see if you're still standing. The pro league is borrowing from the college kids this spring. That's the good news.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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