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WITH APOLOGIES to John Lennon: Imagine there's no conference/It's easy if you try.... In such a world, NBA playoff teams would be seeded 1 through 16 without regard to conference affiliation, meaning that the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks could meet the 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 to concern 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 in a 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 the Finals besides the Detroit Pistons? (Quick answer: no.) Which is another way of asking, Can we discount the defending champion Miami Heat? (Yes.) Second, is the 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 as good as the 2006 postseason? (Yes.)
So can anyone beat the Pistons? Certainly not the Cleveland Cavaliers. It has become increasingly apparent that the Cavs are the closest thing the NBA has to a one-man team, and LeBron James is nowhere near the singular force Michael Jordan was in his early years. Probably not the Chicago Bulls, the conference's best team since the All-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 Indiana Pacers, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Charlotte Bobcats (twice). That does not suggest the pedigree of a playoff team, never mind an NBA champion.
In short, the Pistons will get back to the Finals, where they beat the Lakers in 2004 and lost to the Spurs in '05. They are grumpy and sometimes downright petulant, but they get stops, they execute their half-court offense when they need to, and they pulled off the deal of the year by plucking Chris Webber (above) from the unemployment line. Plus, they are in the East.
The best first-round matchup is between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets. The Rockets' Tracy McGrady will finally lead a team to the second round, where the Mavericks await. Houston will be a popular upset pick against Dallas, but it's not going to happen: The Mavs are too good defensively to let McGrady (right) and Yao Ming steal the series.
Ah, Suns-Spurs in the second round. One is tempted to say that it doesn't get any better for a conference semifinal, except that it will have to be good to top last season's San Antonio-- Dallas seven-gamer. Though the Suns will have home court advantage, Tim Duncan's interior defense on Amar� Stoudemire gives the Spurs a slight edge.
Which leaves the no-holds-barred Texas showdown that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been angling for. Dallas has been the league's best team all season, and the Mavs' depth will get them by the Spurs and into their second straight championship series.