Dream matchups for the playoffs (cont.)
Trail Blazers vs. Lakers
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.
Spurs vs. any Eastern Conference champion
This is our sentimental selection, which probably will make Spurs coach Gregg Popovich 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.
Nuggets vs. Magic
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.
Jazz vs. Bulls
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 a Hall of Fame coach, faces the team that fired him sometime around the Paleozoic era.
Mavericks vs. Heat
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.
Hornets vs. Bulls
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.
Sixers vs. Rockets
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.
NBA Truth & Rumors