- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Poker has never been the preferred gambling discipline here, or at least not since my once-a-week card games in high school. At Stein Line HQ, the game of choice is blackjack, now and forever.
Count with me, then, to 21.
To supplement those snazzy player cards in ESPN.com's playoff section, here are the first 21 things that hit me when my editor Joey Lags asked what I'm dying to see in these playoffs.
1. I want to see six or seven of games' worth of Shaquille O'Neal vs. Yao Ming, although I suspect the Rockets -- while back in the playoffs for the first time in five years -- really aren't thrilled about this. That's because even though Yao seems to play his best against Shaq, the prospect of playing game after game against Yao with so much at stake pretty much guarantees that Shaq's going to bring it every night in Round 1. Shaq hates it when the pundits suggest Yao can play him evenly, so don't be surprised if the Lakers dust Houston in five.
2. I want to see how the Lakers fare in general now that they've lost their Fear Factor that used to intimidate playoff foes. Unless they quickly get a roll going, I don't know who's really scared of them anymore.
3. I want to see, quite naturally, what happens on April 28. Kobe Bryant has a pre-trial hearing scheduled in Eagle, Colo., that day ... and Game 5 against the Houston Rockets scheduled that night. Chances are he'll get back to L.A. in time for tipoff, as he did twice during the regular season when hearings fell on game days, but it's not the sort of playoff variable anyone's accustomed to.
4. I want to see what happens in Sacramento if the Kings lose to the Mavericks in Round 1. That'll be the most entertaining first-round series, because those teams ring up a combined 250 points every night, but what happens if the Mavs can capitalize on Sacto's ongoing nosedive? Chris Webber, Public Enemy No. 4, will surely get lots of the blame, but you can safely assume that Rick Adelman will be a fall guy, too. For all the uncertainty surrounding Don Nelson's job security, it's tough to see Adelman surviving a first-round exit in today's unforgiving climate for coaches. Of course, Sacto and Dallas aren't the only teams that figure to proceed from the playoffs into a summer of major changes. The Lakers could have a completely different look next season even if they win it all.
5. I want to see copious amounts of the effortless Marquis Daniels. My esteemed colleague David Aldridge predicted on the final "NBA Fastbreak Tuesday" of the season that Dallas' Josh Howard would be the best rookie in the playoffs. Given how Daniels has been blowing up lately, I don't think you can say Howard is the best rookie on his own team anymore.
6. I want to see Arvydas Sabonis on somebody's playoff roster, preferably Dallas' roster, but the deadline for such moves is Thursday at 3 p.m. EDT and the Mavericks' efforts to get Sabas to come back from Lithuania for a playoff cameo were rebuffed twice early in the season. Our good friend Yaron Talpaz of Sport 5 TV in Israel attempted to ask the 39-year-old last week if he'd be interested in an NBA comeback once his Lithuanian team's Euroleague obligations were complete, but Talpaz received a stern "no." In standard Israeli (full-court) press procedures, Talpaz boarded the Lithuanians' team bus just to make sure he heard right. The angry glare and scolding Talpaz received next convinced him to quickly disembark.
7. I want to see Memphis and Denver, even though I'm not giving either team much of a chance to win more than one game against the Spurs and Wolves, because I never expected them to be in these playoffs and it's always unpredictable how the new blood will handle new pressures.
9. I want to see something compelling in the East that makes me watch before the conference finals. Something. Anything. I had high hopes for Nets vs. Knicks -- since Jason Kidd vs. Stephon Marbury has to be good, right? -- but then New York, in the week-plus before it clinched a playoff spot, visited Detroit, New Jersey and Indiana and fell behind by 27, 27 and 28 points in those games.
10. I want to see, at the very least, a big first-round series from Reggie Miller against Boston. I still remember how icy Uncle Reg was at the FleetCenter last spring, and I want to see shooting that makes me forget all those bricks and air balls.
11. I want to see that Lakers-Spurs rematch in the second round, because it's going to be great. Four stars against one in the ultimate contrast of styles. Kobe vs. the real Kobe Stopper: Bruce Bowen. The strange sight of Robert Horry in black and silver. Somebody find Mills Lane and let's get it on.
12. I want to see the spectacle of Jerry West trying to squrim through a Lakers-Grizzlies series, but that would require a Grizzlies upset of the Spurs in Round 1. So we're not going to see that, but it's still fun to think about.
13. I want to see Kevin Garnett in Round 2, once and for all. Of course, so do the Kings and Mavericks, who, in spite of their own issues, are quietly celebrating the fact that they can get to the conference finals without having to see the Lakers or Spurs until Round 3.
14. I want to see, if the Wolves can take a step further and make it to the conference finals, a steel-cage showdown between KG and Tim Duncan ... after KG has won the MVP trophy. That would spice things up. Duncan would then be trying to exact revenge on Garnett like Hakeem Olajuwon did at David Robinson's expense after The Admiral collected the MVP trophy in 1995.
15. I want to see Rasheed Wallace pledge his future to the Pistons, especially if the Pistons win their first two series, because Detroit is such a good situation for him.
16. I want to see Darko Milicic get some meaningful playoff run, but I know I'm getting greedy with that one.
17. I want to see if Detroit can really make a Pacers-Pistons conference finals happen like so many folks expect. Because I don't think it'll be that easy for the Pistons to brush the Nets aside in the second round. In spite of all its health concerns, New Jersey feels invincible against everyone else in the East. The Pistons are going to have take Jersey's confidence away, which won't be easy if the Kidd-Kenyon Martin-Richard Jefferson trio is reasonably healthy.
18. I want to see the Pacers, if they can get to the Finals, put up the good fight all their e-mailing fans have promised me. Yes, it's true: Indy was 20-8 against the West this season. Don't forget, though, that the Pacers were only 3-5 against the Wolves, Lakers, Spurs and Kings. And my biggest doubt about these guys matching up against the West champs is their lack of size to pair with Jermaine O'Neal. Indy is smaller than it was last season without Brad Miller, and still lacks dependable play at the point. Everyone talks about how deep the Pacers are. It's a myth. Indy looks deeper than it really is because Jermaine and Ron Artest are better than they were last season, which covers up holes in the regular season, and because Rick Carlisle's coaching always gets more out of less.
19. I want to see whoever represents the East in the NBA Finals give us a quality Finals, because we all deserve that. In the past five Finals, the Least has won seven games. In the past six years, since the Bulls' last championship, the Least has served up five different No. 1 seeds. Two of those teams -- Miami in 1999, Detroit in 2003 -- didn't reach the Finals. The Heat, remember, didn't even reach the second round in '99. The Pacers, meanwhile, are the only team in that group to hold the No. 1 seed. Before 2004, Indy advanced to the 2000 Finals as East "beast" and lost to the Lakers in six games after falling behind, 3-1.
20. I want to see what I always want to see: Good health for all. No more major injuries. And a speedy recovery for everyone who brings a significant injury into the playoffs. Sam Smith has a good list going, but we're sending get-well wishes to two guys he didn't focus on: New Orleans' Jamal Mashburn and the Lakers' Karl Malone. Mailman tweaked his ankle in Wednesday's regular-season finale and that's the last thing we wanted to see.
21. Most of all, I want to see at least a few playoff endings as good as Kobe in Portland on Wednesday night. That's not too much to ask for, is it?
(Actually, it probably is. Kobe might be the only guy in the league who could make two shots like that.)
6dEthan Sherwood Strauss