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Dream matchups for the playoffs


Steve Nash is multinational, multicultural and more of a participant than a spectator. Which is going to make it tough on him this spring to be on the outside looking in at the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2000.

The Phoenix Suns' point guard and two-time NBA MVP was supposed to be chasing a championship again, rather than shutting down and giving his 35-year-old bones a premature rest. Would he have any interest in the postseason now, staring up from Phoenix's spot as the league's best lottery team?

"Yeah, I'll watch some,'' Nash said. "Casual observer. I'm not that big a watcher -- I haven't had the NBA [League Pass] package for five or six years now.''

Not a problem. Most of the playoff matchups we would love to see won't be available on the tube, even if you sat through 400 games in 400 nights. Until the brackets calcify and things commence this weekend, we still get to dream. Actual series are dictated by the bracket, which is determined by six months of sweat, toil, air travel and trainers' rooms. But the versions suggested here are cherry-picked for their intrigue, back stories and sheer entertainment value.

A year ago, we offered up a potential baker's dozen and were rewarded with three that actually happened. Phoenix-San Antonio, at least for Game 1, was everything we hoped for, though the Suns' hasty exit was a downer. Boston-Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals was a natural, and about as good as billed. And the Celtics-Lakers clash in the Finals woke up all the old warhorses and hunting dogs, bringing back not just memories of historic championship meetings but some of the actual icons.

Maybe we can improve on that 3-of-13 rate this spring. Here, for Nash's theoretical viewing pleasure, is another batch of 13:

Why? Because it would decide so much. We would find out whether LeBronJames, at the tender age of 24, has reached the pinnacle of both individual and team success. We would learn whether Kobe Bryant, in his second try in two years, could achieve what he's been aching to do since 2004-05: win a title as his team's main guy (i.e., sans Shaquille O'Neal). And one side or the other, in one of the most polarizing arguments in sports today, would add compelling evidence to its case that their guy, at least for the next 12 months, gets the imaginary traveling trophy as the NBA's best player.

Yet another Finals clash of the storied franchises? With all the attendant history and hype and honor and, for some fans, hate? And with Andrew Bynum available this time, to give us a glimpse of what the 2008 Finals might have been like had he been healthy (though, please, Coach Jackson, no digs about an "asterisk'')? What's not to like?

Where is it written that LeBron and Kobe get to duke it out for the unofficial title of "best player in the game'' without a proper bracket or qualifying rounds? Ignoring Dwyane Wade from that discussion is like gushing over Ali-Foreman and forgetting about Joe Frazier's portfolio in a barroom debate over the greatest heavyweights of the '70s.

No offense to Orlando, but this is the Eastern Conference finals that most folks want to see. Defending champs vs. the new-and-improved Cavaliers. The franchise with the most championships in league history versus a franchise whose solid tradition would desperately benefit from its first. Two teams whose fortunes could change dramatically in the near future, thanks to advancing years or looming free agency. A best-of-seven series of battles dictated, perhaps, entirely by home-court advantage.

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Oh, and never mind the 107-76 spanking administered by the Cavaliers in their hometown on Sunday. Just remember that in the East semifinals last May, the Celtics won in seven games, but the Cavaliers outscored them overall 596-588. Also, this series would give us a chance to say, The kings are dead, long live the King! Unless, y'know, the kings aren't dead after all.

We got the home-court thing played out over seven games last year when the precocious Hawks nearly showed Kevin Garnett -- six weeks ahead of schedule -- that anything truly was possible. After so much talk that the 5-hole in the East is the most attractive for an under-seed, setting up a first-round matchup with the not-quite-ready Hawks, it would be nice to see Boston's old guys, a year older, try to fend off young guys who now have an extra season of experience and development behind them. If only we could plop down the seventh game in a neutral site this time around.

These clubs pack intriguing young talent. Portland has a deeper bench, but in Mike Bibby, Atlanta has the sort of veteran leadership at a key position that the Blazers still crave. Al Horford against LaMarcus Aldridge, and Joe Johnson matched up with Brandon Roy, are the sort of individual showdowns that elevate both guys' games. In lieu of any remodeling of the NBA playoffs as an everybody-into-one-pool format, this would have to wait until the Finals, some way, some year. But Atlanta-Miami is pretty dreamy enough -- Wade vs. Johnson, Josh Smith vs. Michael Beasley for all the southpaws in the crowd -- and it's real, in the first round.

What would the playoffs be without some bad blood? That brought the intrigue to last year's first-round set between Phoenix and San Antonio well beyond what a Spurs-in-five outcome would have warranted, thanks to Robert Horry's introducing Nash into the scorer's table in 2007. Well, now there is some freshly tainted red stuff between the Lakers and the Blazers. Phil Jackson took exception to the operations crew at the Rose Garden when it showed video of Trevor Ariza's flagrant foul on Rudy Fernandez during a March 9 game just before Friday's introductions. Jackson noted the NBA's stance on inciting crowds and said, "That's something that [league execs] try to prevent in the spirit of good sportsmanship, but Portland has been like that.''

All together now: Oooooh. Jackson's umbrage might be from his psychological bag of tricks, too, given the Lakers' inability to win in their past eight trips to Portland. Most of us expect the Western Conference torch to be passed at some point from La La Land to Rip City, and there's no reason that it has to be done amicably.

This is our sentimental selection, which probably will make Spurs coach GreggPopovich vomit in his mouth. San Antonio doesn't need anyone feeling sorry for its team, but c'mon, without Manu Ginobili, it's going to be tough for these guys to go very far this spring. And if it doesn't happen this spring, well, then when exactly? The window seems to be closing. Navigating 82 games looks to be too much to ask, based on the injuries the Spurs' Big Three have incurred. But if it has to end, it would be nice to see that happen in the Finals rather than in some preliminary round, like the way Charlotte snuffed out the Kevin McHale-Robert Parish era in Boston (Larry Bird already was gone) in the 1993 first round. Detroit is the East team most like the Spurs, so a 2005 rematch would be nice for old time's sake.

Both of these teams still have much to prove. Orlando, despite pushing 60 victories, still is way too reliant on three-point shooting to strike a lot of playoff fear into opponents' hearts. Denver, despite its lofty perch behind only the Lakers, needs to get out of the first round for once to be taken seriously. These two might as well duke it out for first claim of legitimacy.

Looking for a surefire seven-game series, the home team winning each one? It's this revisiting of the '97 and '98 Finals. Between them, the Bulls and Jazz won't win 30 road games this season, the worst showings by any playoff teams. At least Chicago is finishing well, with an 8-2 mark through Sunday in its last 10 games, regardless of locale. Utah's recent 3-7 slide is making Phoenix -- so focused on Dallas for the past month or so -- really regret a few stumbles along the way. Added bonus to this series: Jerry Sloan, now aHall of Fame coach, faces the team that fired him sometime around the Paleozoic era.

For the Mavs, a rematch with Miami -- without Shaq involved, and figuring they'd do at least no worse with the refs than they did the first time around -- would have some appeal. Maybe Dallas would maintain its composure this time, rather than going into lockdown mode, switching hotels midway through its stay in Miami and otherwise tightening up when Wade happened to them. Lots of folks still think the better team did not win that 2006 Finals and that the trophy, in fact, was lost rather than won.

This probably wouldn't be fair to Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, the likely Rookie of the Year this season. But he sure would get a crash course in team leadership and defending dribble penetration if he were locked in seven games against Hornets playmaker Chris Paul, the gold standard at their position. OK, well, maybe four games.

Which team would miss its (ahem) superstar least: the Sixers (Elton Brand) or Rockets (Tracy McGrady)? It's not a good thing when you call in sick and the boss assures you they're doing fine without you and, gee, maybe you should take an extra few days to make sure you're really healthy before coming back.

Out of sight, out of mind? More like out of the way. Philadelphia without Brand is playing at a quicker, more efficient pace, and the Rockets aren't compelled to run everything through T-Mac now and are far tougher defensively. The Board of Governors would love this series, to demonstrate that superstars and their salaries aren't always the answer.