Saturday, May 21, 2005


NBA Conference Finals

Wow. What a choke job by the Dallas Mavericks. Down three games to two to the Phoenix Suns and with their backs against the wall, they came through with their best effort of the series and forced a seventh game. Well, that's what should have happened. Instead, with four minutes to go and nursing a 16-point lead, Dallas suddenly decided to stop playing as a team, and the result was a total collapse and subsequent overtime loss. Great job, Mavericks! Special congratulations to Erick Dampier, the self-proclaimed best center in the West. News flash, Erick: you're not even the best center on your own team. Hopefully, Mavericks management has enough sense to boot you out of town before the start of next season.

With Phoenix's win, both conference finals are now set. In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons will battle for a shot at the title, while the Suns will take on the San Antonio Spurs for the Western Conference crown. Here's my take on each series:


It was obvious throughout the entire season that Miami and Detroit would be playing for Eastern Conference supremacy. Having won each of their first eight playoff games and boasting the inside-out combo of Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, the Heat is the obvious chic pick. However, Shaq, who missed the final two games of Miami's sweep of the Washington Wizards, is clearly not at full health, and the Pistons have been no slouches either so far this postseason. After going down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers, Detroit won the next three games in convincing fashion, showing why they are the defending NBA champions. The stifling defense they used to win those three games will be key against the Heat.

In my opinion, Detroit's backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard "Rip" Hamilton is the best in the league. Throw in swingman Tayshaun Prince, arguably the best defender in the NBA, and you have a formidable trio. On the other hand, Miami's backcourt basically consists of one player: Wade. Although he has held a coming-out party so far during the playoffs, he can't do it all himself, and I have no faith that Damon Jones and Keyon Dooling can be effective on either end of the court against the Pistons' superior guards. Inside, it is no different; Detroit's two Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed, will make it tough on any Miami player not named Shaquille O'Neal. Even the big fellow might encounter problems; at less than 100% health, it will be hard for him to execute offensively against defensive stalwart Ben Wallace.

The coaching comparison is even more lopsided; although Stan Van Gundy has done a good job with the Heat this year, the Pistons' Larry Brown is a Hall of Famer. One area where Miami does have an advantage is off the bench; the Heat is fairly deep, while Lindsey Hunter and Antonio McDyess are the only Detroit reserves who ever see the light of day. The series, however, will likely come down to one thing: Shaq's health. If the Big Aristotle plays like he did for most of the regular season, Miami cannot be beat. I don't see that happening, though, especially not against the Pistons' excellent frontcourt.

THE PICK: Pistons in 6


The Western Conference matchup is no surprise either, and it should be a good one: Phoenix's relentless run-and-gun style against San Antonio's impervious defense. Many doubt the ability of a running team like the Suns to win a championship; I am not one of those people. I do, however, doubt their ability to beat the Spurs, whom I picked to win the title before the season started and have stood by ever since.

The Suns' perimeter trio of MVP Steve Nash and sharpshooters Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson would present problems for the Spurs if only they were all healthy. Alas, they are not; Johnson went down in the Dallas series, forcing the insertion of Jim Jackson into the starting lineup. It is still an excellent backcourt; how could it not be if it includes Nash, who validated his selection as MVP with stellar performances in each of the Suns' last three games against the Mavericks, including a 48-point game and a triple-double. However, without Johnson, the edge shifts to San Antonio's group of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Bruce Bowen. With two of the three, you know what you're getting: offense from Ginobili and defense from Bowen. Parker, on the other hand, is erratic; at times, he dominates, but otherwise appears to have his mind on his girlfriend, Desperate Housewife Eva Longoria, rather than the game. In my opinion, his play is the key to the series.

Inside, it is a tough call. Phoenix's Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire have the edge as far as pure athleticism, but are undersized compared to the Spurs' Tim Duncan and Nazr Mohamed. I'll give the advantage to San Antonio because of Duncan, the league's most fundamentally sound player and a two-time MVP. The Spurs have a clearer advantage on the sidelines, thanks to coach Gregg Popovich and a deep cast of reserves. As I said before, though, I believe the outcome of the series depends on Tony Parker. His play will determine whether Phoenix or San Antonio comes out of the West alive.

THE PICK: Spurs in 6
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