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A SIDE FROM the Cavaliers' predictable Game 7 collapse on Sunday, which spelled an end to the playoff miracles of LeBron James, the 2005-06 postseason has so far fulfilled the NBA marketing mavens' grandest fantasies. At week's end an NBA-record nine games had gone into overtime, eight had been decided by one point, and dramatic shots had become an almost nightly occurrence. Not to mention these other intoxicating developments.
?A terrific first round (only the Dallas Mavericks and the Detroit Pistons came through with ease) was followed by an even more scintillating second. The Miami Heat, perhaps the most maligned quarterfinalist, was the only team to close out its series in fewer than seven games, turning back the New Jersey Nets in five.
?The Los Angeles Clippers, a perennial equivalent to an NCAA 11th seed, supplied the George Mason Factor by extending the Phoenix Suns to seven games. The Clips have a talented nucleus that even parsimonious owner Donald Sterling will want to keep together (provided it doesn't cost too much).
?In addition to Detroit versus the new James Gang, compelling new rivalries emerged. The Suns and the Lakers went at each other like barroom brawlers in the first round, assuring that the chief individual combatants, Phoenix's Raja Bell and L.A.'s Kobe Bryant, each will be greeted with maximum antipathy in the other's gym. (Well, Kobe is accustomed to that.)
Also in the West, the Mavericks-Spurs rivalry officially became Texas-sized long before Dallas held off San Antonio 119-111 in Monday night's Game 7 in Alamo Town. Leave it to Mavs owner Mark Cuban to get a bit carried away-"This is a series that will be talked about like the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the '80s," he crowed-but he was spot-on in pointing out, "The NBA desperately needs rivalries. It's what feeds the game." Cuban stoked the fires of this one, calling San Antonio "a dump" and offering a bizarre conspiracy theory to justify why his guy, Jason Terry, punched their guy, Michael Finley, in the family jewels during a Game 5 scrum, earning Terry a Game 6 suspension.
The series, which included two overtimes and five games decided by five points or fewer, even had a little bit of ... David Hasselhoff? Yes, Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki confessed that to ease tension at the free throw line, he sometimes hums Hasselhoff's immortal Looking for Freedom, a hit in Germany when Nowitzki was a youth. Let's be grateful it wasn't Wayne Newton's Danke Schoen.
?An enticing brand of small ball became the rage, raising the level of unpredictability in many games. "When in trouble, go small," says Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni, "and when in big trouble, go smaller."
D'Antoni did just that by frequently bringing 6'3" Leandro Barbosa off the bench to join fellow guards Bell and Steve Nash against the bigger Clippers. The new rules that limit hand checking on the perimeter have made it possible for smaller, quicker players to move around more freely, as well as negated the strength of big men when they're forced into pick-and-roll switches.
The Mavericks, by using two point guards (the 6'2" Terry and 6'3" Devin Harris) along with swingmen like Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Marquis Daniels, forced the Spurs to downsize their rotation. Centers Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic played only a combined 198 minutes in seven games (a plus on the aesthetic side, incidentally), and even 6'10" Robert Horry, Big Shot Rob in playoffs past, spent extensive time on the bench, feeling, as he put it, "like a damn dinosaur." Said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich before Game 6, "I'd rather play big, but this is a way of life, and we'll live with it."
Alas, the Spurs' hopes for a repeat would die by it on Monday night. Still, for all of that, the last four teams standing include one chalk pick from the preseason ( Detroit) and the biggest of the big men ( Miami's Shaquille O'Neal). But now that Cuban has an extra two weeks in the spotlight, May Madness is sure to extend into June.