(1, West) San Antonio vs. (2, East) New Jersey
Let's cut right to the chase. There are two reasons to think this will be a nailbiter and two to think that San Antonio will win in a walk.
Let's start with the reasons to think it will be close. The Nets are playing their best basketball of the season, riding a 10-game winning streak into the Finals. Everyone on the team is healthy (even Dikembe Mutombo, should they choose to use him) and their four-game dismantling of Detroit was accomplished with impressive ease.
The second reason to like New Jersey is that the difference in won-loss record isn't what it seems. The Nets won only 49 games while the Spurs won 60, but if you look at their point differential, they're nearly identical. The Nets outscored their opponents by 4.3 points per game, while the Spurs outscored them by 4.4. Based on that, one would have expected the teams to end up with nearly identical records, and as I wrote previously, this difference is a result of luck, not skill.
So the Nets played about as well as the Spurs did over the course of the regular season, and they are on a roll heading into the Finals. But there are a couple of major strikes against them.
The first is Tim Duncan. The team with the best player has an advantage in a short playoff series, because the player's minutes can increase from the 36-40 he played in the regular season to 45 or more. Jason Kidd's great, but Duncan is easily the best player on the floor, and those extra minutes he'll get work to San Antonio's advantage.
Second, appropriately enough, is the second half. The Spurs started the year 20-13 and finished it 40-9, while the Nets did about the opposite, starting the year 26-9 before stumbling to a 23-24 finish. In the second half of the season, the Spurs outscored their opponents by over 250 points. The Nets barely outscored their opponents and completed a rare triple by losing to the Bulls, Hawks and Cadavers in the season's final month.
In other words, while I said above that the Nets were about as good over the whole season, there were two halves. The Nets were a much better team than San Antonio in November and December, but San Antonio's been much better ever since.
That makes it two advantages a piece. So what it comes down to, for me, is looking a bit closer at their playoff performances. The Nets won 10 straight games, but six of those were against two teams (Boston and Milwaukee) that would have trouble winning the Big 10. Despite the Spurs' six playoff losses, they actually outscored their opponents in the playoffs by nearly as much as the Nets -- +87 to +102. And they did it against far more daunting competition, including six games against the three-time champion Lakers.
So while the Nets' 82-game season was nearly as impressive as San Antonio's, recent history suggests that the Spurs have the edge. San Antonio played superior basketball in the season's second half, and despite New Jersey's 10-game winning streak, the Spurs even played better in the postseason. New Jersey is too good to get swept again -- thanks to Jason Kidd's offensive improvement, this team is better than last year's -- but San Antonio pretty clearly has the upper hand.
The Pick: Spurs 4, Nets 2
Why not? They've done it every other round.