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And the winner is ...

Time to make a few predictions on the NBA playoffs

Posted: Thursday April 21, 2005 3:17PM; Updated: Thursday April 21, 2005 3:21PM
Shaq may have trouble against Ben Wallace and the Pistons.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The NBA poobahs will spend the next couple of months devising a way to get a Lakers logo on every ping-pong ball in the lottery bin. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson is concocting rationalizations for his return as L.A.'s coach, even if his presence contradicts practically every word he wrote in his book.

But the big story is the start of post-season play. The good news? The league has concluded that teams no longer need five days between first-round games. The bad news? The Pistons have vowed to keep their games in the 60s, even if it means playing without a ball on the offensive end. No word from the league on coach Larry Brown's plans to experiment with the neutral-zone trap during Detroit's series with the Sixers.

There's little info on LeBron James' plans for the future, either. He certainly wasn't happy this season. Hey, LeBron, only one more year 'til restricted free agency.

While James dreams of fleeing Cleveland, a pretty entertaining playoff tournament shapes up -- provided no one watches the Pistons. And those of you expecting a Miami-Phoenix finale should realize it's no sure thing -- the last time the top seeds from each conference met was 2000.

So look deeper into the brackets. The Sixers won't be tangling with the Grizz for the Larry O'Brien trophy, but the Heat and the Suns won't be playing for the title, either.

Most Entertaining First-Round Series: Dallas and Houston. What's this? The Mavericks are playing defense? More incredibly, Dirk Nowitzki's playing defense. New coach Avery Johnson has convinced the Grand Teuton that "Dallas" is actually Texas twang for "Deutschland," because Dirk is playing every game like he's wearing the German national team jersey. He's been a monster. In a wide-open West, the Mavs have a legitimate shot at the whole thing. Meanwhile, Me-Mac McGrady is just hoping to win a playoff series, any playoff series. It could happen, but not this year. Mavs in six.

Runners-up: San Antonio-Denver, Washington-Chicago.

Diesel Fumes: Uh-oh, Shaquille O'Neal's hurt. After an MVP-worthy regular season, Shaq came up lame late with a thigh injury. He'll return for the postseason, but trouble looms if he isn't 100 percent -- although not in the first round against New Jersey, since there are WNBA teams with front lines more imposing. Wait until the Pistons start sending the Wallace Brothers -- Big Ben and Cut The Check -- at Shaq in a seven-game series. That will be trouble for the Big Exhausted, who was held down during last year's finals by Detroit. And if Shaq misses any appreciable time due to his injury, teammates Udonis Haslem, Michael Doleac and Christian Laettner will return to their former inadequate selves. Miami doesn't reach the Finals.

No Offense: Or should this be Too Much Offense? No one enjoys watching the Suns play ABA ball more than El Hombre, who wishes the whole team would sport monster Afros and pull their socks up high. But the playoffs are all about defense, and no team that allows 103 points a game wins big in the playoffs. If Dallas doesn't smack Phoenix in the Western semis, San Antonio sets the Suns in the conference finals.