An NBA Buffet
If you want to see great basketball without the pretense, without the self-righteousness that has become an inescapable part of March Madness worship, then settle in for the next eight weeks and watch the NBA playoffs. It's a postseason with greater promise, potentially better basketball and more melodrama than any season since 1998, the year Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls.
There's certainly something for every basketball disposition, beginning with the kickoff game, the very noisy confrontation between the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers. If you're a purist who likes to see basketball played by the book, the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs bear close watching as always, as do the Utah Jazz, the dark horse pick among people who prefer screen-and-roll to run-and-gun. If great defense is your thing (or you mistakenly think professionals don't play it) you'll want to lock in on the Boston Celtics or Detroit Pistons.
Of greater mass appeal is unrestrained offense, and there's plenty of that, the gradual move away from the bump-and-grind of the late '90s and early 2000s having now taken full effect. The Magic, Jazz, Lakers, Suns and Nuggets all score between 105 and 111 points per game. All the Nuggets do, with Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson leading the way, is score.
And there's no need to warm up slowly to the big action. From Day One starting this afternoon, there are matchups worthy of the conference finals. The league couldn't ask for a first-round series more glamorous than Spurs-Suns, matching the four-time champs against the perennial bridesmaids. We might as well find out right away if the Suns' stunning midseason trade for Shaquille O'Neal was worth the risk.
It's hard to imagine a basketball sequel with greater anticipation.
Last May, in one of the most unsatisfying endings ever in playoff basketball, a coming-off-the-bench suspension doomed short-handed Phoenix in Game 5 at home. The Spurs took the series and the rest of the playoffs crashed (except for a LeBron game or two in the Eastern Conference finals). The Suns exited bloodied and feeling the NBA did nothing to protect the battered team while rewarding the instigator, which is pretty much true.
Now, the Suns are bordering, if anything, on overconfidence. They want the Spurs as badly as the Wizards want the Cavaliers. They believe Shaq will guard Tim Duncan straight up in a battle of four-time champion big men, and that the Spurs now have no answer for Amare Stoudemire, who has been having a picnic now that he can roam free and leave the bigger opponents for Shaq to guard.
At its best, Suns-Spurs is basketball nirvana, competition between teams with intelligent players who can (especially with the acquisition of Shaq) play multiple styles at the highest level. The shame is somebody has to go home early, and this time it would appear to be the Spurs, who limp into the postseason after not playing particularly well the last two weeks. Still, Robert Horry is 15-0 in first-round playoff series. More important, Duncan is 9-0 in the first round. And the Suns' Grant Hill, fighting a groin injury, has never made it out of the first round.
The Lakers will beat the Nuggets, but it may take six games simply because the Lakers, though the No. 1 seed, don't play great defense, which will allow Anthony and Iverson to move without obstruction too much of the time. The Lakers will win, but had better be careful of not wearing themselves out in the first round chasing Melo and Iverson.
The popular "upset pick," if you can call anything in the Western Conference an upset, is seventh-seeded Dallas beating second-seeded New Orleans. It's a pick made purely on the basis of experience. The Mavericks have been to the NBA Finals; the Hornets have little idea what playoff intensity and grinding are all about.
Houston vs. Utah is anybody's guess. Once again, Tracy McGrady walks into a playoff series in which his team is the underdog, still carrying the pressure of never having advanced to the second round. The Jazz has the league's best home-court record, is pretty lousy on the road, but has the experience of reaching the conference finals last year.
Look for the Lakers, Mavericks, Suns and Jazz to advance in the West.
The East is so much easier to call. The Atlanta Hawks, of all people, are now swelling with pride, despite a 37-45 record in the regular season, telling anybody who will listen how they match up favorably with the top-seeded Celtics.
The eighth-seeded Hawks, no matter what they say, aren't this year's Warriors. There will be no 1-8 upset in the East. The Celtics won't lose a game, probably will win every game by double-digits and increasingly as the series goes on. Detroit's personality is to simply sleepwalk through a game or two, meaning Philly could steal one, but the Pistons will still win easily, as will Orlando in its series with Toronto.
The one real battle in the East will be Wizards-Cavaliers. If this group of Wizards is ever going to be taken seriously, it had better back up the talk and beat a Cleveland team that has been mediocre at best following its breakout postseason last spring.
That all means the second round will be Suns-Mavericks, Jazz-Lakers in the West; Celtics-Wizards, Pistons-Magic in the East. When the NBA marathon began in October, I said in this space that the Celtics would play the Suns for the championship. While a rekindling of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry would undoubtedly be great for the league (the two teams have played 10 times in the Finals, dating from 1959 when the Lakers were in Minneapolis), there's nothing going into these playoffs, not even a first-round match with the champs for Phoenix, that suggests there's any reason now to desert the Celtics and Suns.