In a matter of days, the season will be over, the standings will be set and the definite first-round (and possible later-round) NBA playoff matchups, intriguing as we likely will find them anyway, will be fixed. From that point on, the postseason becomes a gigantic combination lock, with tumblers having to fall into place just right if we're going to get the clashes we might find most competitive, compelling or even just entertaining.
Right now, though, we're not bound by seedings. Consider this playoffs unbound, a chance to cherry-pick the draws as if some Higher Power Himself was a hoops fan, clamoring for the best possible clashes. (Nice vertical, by the way, H.P.H.)
Never mind which round. Forget the constraints of conference. We asked a handful of NBA people (players, coaches, scouts, ex-players, ex-coaches) to momentarily put aside their current affiliations and to suggest a seven-game series they would like to see, maybe even pay to see. Because at the point the wallets actually open, you know for certain that their curiosity is piqued.
Some of these are our ideas, too, for the ultimate in NBA dream postseason showdowns. Here are a baker's dozen of them:
The granddaddy of them all, offering a little bit of everything. Tradition. Star power. New faces in familiar jerseys. Genuine dislike on the court spanning generations. And the NBA bean counters' seal of approval for what it could mean to recently dismal Finals TV ratings.
"It would renew the old rivalry,'' said longtime NBA executive Wayne Embry, now working for Toronto. Embry had a ringside seat for that rivalry, playing with the Cincinnati Royals for most of the 1960s before joining Bill Russell and the Celtics for two seasons. "Both of those teams made significant moves to get to where they've gotten. You know there would be a tremendous amount of interest in it from the fans.''
In at least one individual matchup, this would be like the epilogue of a classic 007 movie, Auric Goldfinger confronting James Bond one last time. We'll let you assign the roles, but we're talking about Kevin Garnett vs. Tim Duncan, who butted heads twice in first-round playoff series out West while matching up about 40 times in regular-season contests. Getting seven in a row between them in two weeks' time would be for-the-ages.
"You have two great players, playing the same position, but their styles are very different,'' longtime NBA marksman Trent Tucker, more recently a broadcaster for the Big Ten Network, said. "Duncan's more of a half-court player who will bang some and do more of his scoring down low, while KG will try to take him outside with turnaround shots and fadeaways.''
And that's just the start. "Then you've got Paul Pierce as a huge X factor for his team at the offensive end,'' Tucker said, "and it would be interesting to see how Bruce Bowen would match up with him in seven games. There's Ray Allen on one side and Tony Parker and [Manu] Ginobili on the other ... really, you've got two teams that can play both ways [transition and half court].''
Hornets guard Chris Paul, after his team's victory in Minneapolis on Wednesday, said: "That would be a crazy seven-game series to see. Both of them are so solid defensively.
"But I don't want to see it this year. 'Hypothetically speaking,' yeah. But they can do that during the summer some time.''
Some guys, you can see, were better than others at momentarily putting aside their current affiliations.
Even without alignment limitations, this was a popular choice. The East's reigning power (five consecutive appearances in the conference finals) vs. its team of right now. And Celtics-Pistons, thanks to Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Robert Parish, Bill Laimbeer and all the rest, has nearly as much vivid history as Celtics-Lakers.
"People have taken Detroit a little lightly this year,'' former Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey said, "but they have the experience of being there and a veteran group. Rasheed Wallace probably is as serious as he's been in a long time. With that whole group of players and coaches, they're at a point where it's almost now or never.
"Boston has got experienced players, but the one thing they don't have is deep playoff experience. None of those three guys [Garnett, Pierce, Allen] has played in a Finals.''
For Hornets center Tyson Chandler, who was 8 years old the last time Bird and Thomas faced each other in the playoffs, recent history is more important than "ancient'' in this one.
"Paul Pierce went through some struggling years, rebuilding. Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, obviously, they've got a lot of hungry All-Stars on that team trying to get over the hump," Chandler said. "Then you've got a team like Detroit that is poised and experienced and has been there time after time. I think they want to knock [Boston] off. And the key thing is, they match up so perfectly at every position.''
For sheer business reasons, the NBA might want to avoid this one; the 2005 Finals between Detroit and San Antonio sent Nielsen numbers plummeting to near-record lows. But there are diehards who wouldn't miss a second of the 336 minutes, spread across seven regulation games, between these veteran-heavy and postseason-tested teams. If nothing else, it would give Wallace a do-over for when he left Robert Horry open for that overtime three-pointer in Game 5.
"I'm an old-fashioned, traditional type of person,'' Hornets forward David West said. "So I'd like Pistons and Spurs. I like the fact that they play the game the right way. There's not a whole lot of flashy lights with either team. They just go out and get the job done. Now, NBA marketing people wouldn't like that. But I'm a basketball fan."
Few mention either of these clubs as Finals favorites, but they authored two refreshing stories this season. The Hornets set a franchise record for victories, chasing the West's No. 1 seed almost out of nowhere. And Houston ran off 22 straight victories, a dozen of them after Yao Ming went down with what so many assumed would be a season-snuffing injury for the center and his team. And we haven't even mentioned the clubs' best players yet.
"Here is this young team emerging with a great player like Chris Paul, entering the playoffs for the first time as a contender,'' Tucker said. "Then you have T-Mac [Tracy McGrady] in Houston, a veteran but still a player who never has won a playoff series.''
Point-guard aficionados would be in heaven, watching Jazz wheelman Deron Williams (the third pick in the 2005 NBA draft) and Paul (the fourth pick moments later) battle through seven games over the paper-thin differences between them. Then you throw in West vs. Carlos Boozer, Chandler vs. Mehmet Okur, Peja Stojakovic vs. Andrei Kirilenko in a Euro undercard match ... and it still probably would come down to the point guards.
"To see Chris Paul and Deron Williams play against each other, that's what I want,'' Wolves guard Randy Foye said. "That brings intensity, a little extra fire out of both of them. They know that the media will hype it up, so they'll know that they both have to get assists and points.''
As if there wasn't enough bad blood here already, left over from Horry's slam of Steve Nash into the scorer's table in Game 4 of the teams' series last spring, there was another incident Wednesday. Bowen delivered what some Suns felt was a rough forearm shiver to Amaré Stoudemire, causing a minor kerfuffle late in Phoenix's victory. But the Suns sounded more ready than whiny, knowing that they have O'Neal on their side (they are 2-0 vs. San Antonio since acquiring the big fella).
"Shaq has aged,'' a Western Conference GM said. "But it's all about the playoffs now, and whether can get that surge of adrenaline that the great players get at this time of year. Of course, it always depends on how a coach decides to use you.''
How far can one man carry a supporting cast? That really is what Cleveland-Houston -- otherwise known as LeBron James-Tracy McGrady -- would boil down to. While both teams have gotten valuable contributions from their role players, the Cavs and Rockets can only go as far as their ball-dominating superstar. If this were a Finals, James or McGrady would achieve the ultimate, thanked by as much as helped by his teammates.
Combined, these two teams launch nearly 52 three-point attempts per game. The Magic hit them at a better clip, while the Warriors do almost everything faster offensively than their counterparts. As strong as both teams can be from the perimeter, the breakthrough season of Orlando center Dwight Howard could continue right through seven games against Golden State, giving the Magic a big advantage in the paint.
The Nuggets have Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, a pair of offensive weapons that would challenge the game-planning of any defense, especially over seven tense postseason games. (We're covering ourselves here, with matchups that include both the Nuggets and Warriors, who are battling for the eighth seed in the West.) Meanwhile, the Wizards have Gilbert Arenas back in a new and dangerous role that makes them a scarier matchup than they were earlier this season. Irrepressible Agent Zero is the basketball equivalent of a hot goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a player whose shooting touch and unflappability -- especially the way coach Eddie Jordan is using him these days, as a sixth man -- could swing a series all by himself.
"That's pretty potent to have Gilbert Arenas come off the bench,'' Jordan recently told Washington reporters. "Who comes off the opponent's bench to match up with Arenas?'' Forget who, it's more like what: pain and anxiety.
This was Byron Scott's series of choice, a natural for those of us who like studies in contrast. In this case, it's finesse against physical, alternate paths to triple-digit point totals.
"Phoenix is very much up and down. Even though Shaq is there, they still run the court just as well as anybody,'' the Hornets' coach said. "And Utah is going to be very deliberate in what they do.
"Utah can score enough points,'' Scott added. "I think the trick is, how physical would [the referees] allow them to play? If it's physical all the way around, it favors Utah. Phoenix has got one, maybe two real physical basketball players, and that's Shaq and Amaré. Other than that, they're a very finesse team.''
The theme here would be hot vs. not. Philadelphia was 14-7 since March 1, as of Thursday morning, while Toronto was in a 5-14 skid over that same stretch. They're both near the bottom of the playoff pack in the East but, in this make-it-up matchup, could make for fascinating viewing.
"Toronto could be in trouble against a team like Philadelphia,'' a scout for an Eastern Conference team said. "The 76ers can get the ball out of the point guard's hands, so somebody who relies a lot on him handling the ball, Philadelphia can hurt them defensively. They'd need to find somebody else to initiate the offense.''
The Magic, Pistons or Cavaliers might have their hands full with Philadelphia. "They scramble it defensively, pressuring an opponent just enough to shave an extra six or seven seconds off the shot clock,'' the scout said. "Offensively, Andre Miller doesn't get enough credit -- he can push it and get them to score in transition. He's very good at finding the right man and making the right decision. And there is something about Mo Cheeks that the team plays hard for him.''
Some folks like contrasting styles. Others just like to stomp on the gas and go. A Phoenix-L.A. series would offer that, and while it might not be as high-octane as, oh, Denver-Golden State, it also would pit O'Neal against Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson and his other Lakers pals. The NBA would pinch itself over this matchup, ratings-wise.
"They've both got big men now,'' Wolves coach Randy Wittman said. "The Suns have Shaq and the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol. Both teams know how to play now with the changes. That would be pretty intriguing.''
Then again, Wittman plans to be intrigued by whatever the dance cards say after 82 games. "All of the series in the West should be good,'' he said. "I think 1-8 is going to be a helluva series, 2-7, 3-6 ... take your pick. With 4-5, 5 is probably going to have home-court [advantage].
"In the East, everyone's probably pointing at Boston-Detroit. But I'm prejudiced -- I think the most intriguing matchups are in the West. It's hard to pick one.''
Not if you can make them up, like we just did.