The NBA playoffs take off Saturday, and the action is at its highest level for the next two months. Players perform at new heights with so much on the line. They take their game to a different level, and the emotion and excitement is unique and special.
It's also great because it's on ESPN and ABC. I'm excited for some of my favorite broadcasters, like Brad Nessler, Bill Walton, Tom Tolbert, Mike Tirico, John Saunders, Sean Elliott and Greg Anthony. ESPN's Kevin Frazier and Stuart Scott will be working hard in the studio and enjoying the action.
I'm not involved as a broadcaster, but I'm a big-time fan. I follow all kinds of hoops, baby! I just went to dinner with former Connecticut men's coach Dee Rowe, and we talked about coach Geno Auriemma's championship women's team at UConn.
Here are my predictions for the first round of the NBA playoffs:
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota has been dynamite at home. Is this the year coach Flip Saunders' team breaks through after going 0-6 in first-round series? Kevin Garnett has had an MVP-type season. Can the T-Wolves get to the second round?
Good luck after drawing the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant will put up an incredible fight. Garnett's game is at a different level now, but the 1-2 combination of Kobe and Shaq plus Phil Jackson's ability to handle the pressure will be the difference.
Prediction: Lakers in seven in a sensational series.
San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns
When talking about the NBA player of the year, Tim Duncan is so steady, getting it done it in every facet of the game, night in and night out. That's why he'd get my vote for MVP!
Duncan stayed four years at Wake Forest and matured. Now he's one of the best in the game. He should post double-doubles against the Suns, but this series won't be easy. Stephon Marbury has posted impressive numbers against coach Gregg Popovich's Spurs this season. Rookie Amare Stoudemire has been a real surprise all season long. But the bottom line is that Phoenix doesn't have enough weapons to win.
Prediction: Spurs in five tough games.
Sacramento Kings vs. Utah Jazz
Utah has the combination that executes the screen and roll better than anyone to ever play the game. Can Karl Malone and John Stockton score a playoff upset? What a duet, but they don't have enough talent around them to get it done against the Kings.
Chris Webber can dominate inside for Sacramento, while Mike Bibby is solid and steady on the perimeter. Webber's superb passing ability, rebounding and shot-blocking talent are a big asset on the interior.
Prediction: Kings in five.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Dallas Mavericks
This will be an incredible Maalox Masher. The Jail Blazers -- I mean the Trail Blazers -- have so many problems off the court, but they also have talent. Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, Scottie Pippen and Damon Stoudamire can play. This is not an easy series for Dallas.
In the end, after a major struggle, I see Dallas 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki having a big series. The return of Michael Finley from injury will help. Steve Nash has to recharge his batteries for the playoffs. Coach Don Nelson will have his team primed, and the Mavs will put too many points on the board.
Prediction: Mavs in seven.
Detroit Pistons vs. Orlando Magic
When you talk about defense, coach Rick Carlisle's Pistons do a super job. The Pistons have great shot selection, play tenacious defense and show discipline. When Detroit traded Jerry Stackhouse, there were questions about scoring. Richard Hamilton has helped answer those questions. Chauncey Billups has been explosive, and with a healthy Ben Wallace on the glass and blocking shots, watch out. Wallace is needed big-time!
Stopping Tracy McGrady is obviously a key. Even if he gets his 25 or 30, Orlando doesn't have enough. What could have been if Grant Hill were healthy! That combination would have been special. Hill would have distributed the rock and given up something on the scoring end to make the team succeed.
Doc Rivers, a player's coach, is one of the brilliant minds in the game today. His Magic will come up just short.
Prediction: Pistons in 6.
Indianapolis Pacers vs. Boston Celtics
Coach Jim O'Brien's Celtics have gone through an up-and-down season. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker provide one of the top 1-2 tandems, but Boston doesn't have enough to offset the young, talented yet wild Pacers. Indiana is such a competitive team, and that fire will come out here.
Ron Artest is the new troublemaker on the block. He creates his own problems, and some of his actions have been second grade at best, but he is a big-time defender who makes things happen. Jermaine O'Neal has all sorts of talent inside and he had success vs. Boston this season. Reggie Miller is Reggie Miller, stroking the J, especially at crunch time in the postseason. Can Indiana point guard Jamaal Tinsley come through?
Pacers coach Isiah Thomas is a fierce competitor who was one of the best pound-for-pound ever to play the game (along with Bob Cousy).
Prediction: Indiana in 6.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. New Jersey Nets
New Jersey hit a few bumps in the road during the second half of the season. The Nets get Dikembe Mutombo back to block shots in the lane, and this team was built for his presence. Jason Kidd loves the spotlight, loves it when the pressure is on. He can penetrate and create, with great passing ability and vision. Kidd has also improved his shooting range.
Gary Payton is Milwaukee's kind of player. Coach George Karl is happy to have him after the deal for Ray Allen. But coach Byron Scott and company will march on.
Prediction: New Jersey in 6.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans was rocking and rolling during the Final Four as Syracuse cut down the nets. Now the NBA playoffs will create more excitement. I really enjoyed walking down Bourbon Street, baby!
Sixers coach Larry Brown and company will be ready. Allen Iverson loves this time of year, and having Keith Van Horn helping out is a positive. New Orleans will be all jazzed up, but Baron Davis has been bothered by injuries all season long. Jamal Mashburn is a superstar who doesn't always get his due.
Iverson will lead the way in a hard-fought series. There are times he will baffle you, and other times he will flat-out dazzle you.
Prediction: Sixers in 6.