Last year, the Suns and the Spurs faced off in an epic second-round battle.
Even as it happened, many theorized that whichever team won that series would win the NBA title.
In the end, the Spurs won that six-game, injury and suspension-marred slugfest. Then San Antonio only lost one more game the rest of the way, dispatching with the Jazz and the Cavaliers, and taking the title easily.
It's not hard to make the case that the Phoenix vs. San Antonio series was when the NBA Championship was determined, making it the "real" NBA Finals.
So, as the second round gets cranked up around the League, do we have such a series this year? Is there a particular pairing out there right now from which the champion is sure to emerge?
You can look at that question a lot of different ways.
For one thing, 'tis the season of the West. David Stern is telling anyone who will listen that this year featured, probably, the most competitive playoff race in the history of the Western Conference.
Lakers vs. Jazz
By some sophisticated statistical measures, the two best teams in the West were the Jazz and the Lakers, who are facing each other right now. The Jazz were fresh-faced Western Conference Finalists from last year, and now they're only more mature and poised.
The Lakers are the top seed in the whole conference, and a popular pick to win the whole enchilada.
So, that series is one candidate.
Hornets vs. Spurs
I could talk at length about how the Hornets have been the lifeblood of these playoffs. But I'll spare you that and simply say that this series features both the reigning champions (who easily brushed off the Suns in the opening roung) and the team that just beat them by nearly twenty points in Game 1.
That's another candidate.
Celtics vs. Cavaliers
For all the talk about the West, the best team of the regular season was easily the Celtics -- who for a while there threatened to have the best record of any NBA team ever. They are the odds-on favorites to win this year's NBA title. At the moment, they are matched up with the team that won the East last year. So if you want to see the next NBA champions, you can't exactly ignore this series.
Pistons vs. Magic
OK, I'll say it: I don't think the Orlando Magic will win the NBA title this year. But I can't be so sure about the Pistons. When I talk to smart NBA people, people with insider knowledge, I like to ask them who is going to win the title this year. Over the last week, more than a few have brushed off the hot Laker and Celtic picks to name the Pistons, who have been impeccable for the last three and a half games -- since halfway through the first round. This team has veteran poise, muscle galore, height, shooting, defense ... and now, clearly, focus.
So, is the NBA Finals hiding as a second-round series this year?
Not that I can see.
Ask yourself this: if the Hornets cruise past the Spurs, with the Lakers/Jazz and then Celtics/Pistons left to beat ... are they home free? No, my friend, they are not.
How about if the Celtics crush the Cavaliers? Are they on easy street? I don't think so. I suspect the Pistons, or the West champs, would have a shot at doing what the Atlanta Hawks almost did.
Any way you imagine the scenarios, no team can expect to have any easy time in the Conference Finals nor the NBA Finals.
Which makes this that delightful rarity: a season when the real NBA Finals will be ... the real NBA Finals.