WITH APOLOGIES toJohn Lennon: Imagine there's no conference/It's easy if you try.... In such aworld, NBA playoff teams would be seeded 1 through 16 without regard toconference affiliation, meaning that the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks could meetthe Phoenix Suns or the San Antonio Spurs (the second and third seeds,respectively) for the NBA championship. In such a world, we would not have toconcern ourselves with the likes of the New Jersey Nets and the Orlando Magic,the bottom-feeders of the (L)Eastern Conference bracket.
Alas, we do live ina world of East and West, and so, with the postseason set to begin on Saturday,two major questions loom: First, is there anyone in the East who can make theFinals besides the Detroit Pistons? (Quick answer: no.) Which is another way ofasking, Can we discount the defending champion Miami Heat? (Yes.) Second, isthe West, which boasts five teams that are arguably as good as the Pistons,about to embark on one of the best postseasons ever, which is to say one asgood as the 2006 postseason? (Yes.)
So can anyone beatthe Pistons? Certainly not the Cleveland Cavaliers. It has become increasinglyapparent that the Cavs are the closest thing the NBA has to a one-man team, andLeBron James is nowhere near the singular force Michael Jordan was in his earlyyears. Probably not the Chicago Bulls, the conference's best team since theAll-Star break, who don't have the inside presence offensively to beat Detroit.And then there's the Heat, which in recent weeks has lost to the IndianaPacers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Charlotte Bobcats (twice). That does notsuggest the pedigree of a playoff team, never mind an NBA champion.
In short, thePistons will get back to the Finals, where they beat the Lakers in 2004 andlost to the Spurs in '05. They are grumpy and sometimes downright petulant, butthey get stops, they execute their half-court offense when they need to, andthey pulled off the deal of the year by plucking Chris Webber (above) from theunemployment line. Plus, they are in the East.
The bestfirst-round matchup is between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets. TheRockets' Tracy McGrady will finally lead a team to the second round, where theMavericks await. Houston will be a popular upset pick against Dallas, but it'snot going to happen: The Mavs are too good defensively to let McGrady (right)and Yao Ming steal the series.
Ah, Suns-Spurs inthe second round. One is tempted to say that it doesn't get any better for aconference semifinal, except that it will have to be good to top last season'sSan Antonio--Dallas seven-gamer. Though the Suns will have home courtadvantage, Tim Duncan's interior defense on Amaré Stoudemire gives the Spurs aslight edge.
Which leaves theno-holds-barred Texas showdown that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been anglingfor. Dallas has been the league's best team all season, and the Mavs' depthwill get them by the Spurs and into their second straight championshipseries.
Dallas in six. Thehard part, after all, was getting out of the West.