|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2004||[Print without images]|
|San Antonio, led by coach Gregg Popovich, is the defending champ.|
As fans, let's get ready to enjoy the best time of the NBA season. I don't want those football guys and baseball players and soccer stars and hockey standouts to get upset with me, but the world's greatest athletes on the highest level are in the NBA.
I love hoops at every level, and now we see the best against the best. Here's my look at the first round of the playoffs...Eastern Conference
Jermaine O'Neal has enjoyed a terrific season. The big fella has been a dominant force deserving of some MVP consideration.
Boston has been up and down, especially since former coach Jim O'Brien left and John Carroll took over. GM Danny Ainge has to be happy to see his team making it to the postseason. The trade that brought in point guard Ricky Davis also sent a ripple throughout the Celtics organization. Now they're into the second season, and we will see if they can make this interesting.
Any time guard Paul Pierce is on the court, battling and scrapping, the Celtics can be competitive. But Indiana is too strong on both ends of the court. Pierce and Co. would have to play at a different level to pull off a surprise.No. 2 New Jersey Nets vs. No. 7 New York Knicks
Marbury is one of the best perimeter guys in all of basketball. The point guard deluxe not only creates opportunities for his teammates but also scores (big-time). Nets star point guard Jason Kidd, back from his knee problems, will need his A-game against Marbury. But the Knicks don't have enough weapons besides Marbury. Guard Allan Houston's injury woes (knee) might keep him from playing -- coach Lenny Wilkens said there's a 70 to 80 percent chance Houston won't play in this series.
The Nets know how to win in the postseason, having played in the past two NBA Finals, and power forward Kenyon Martin and small forward Richard Jefferson will step it up even more. Look at how they've responded before come playoff time. Diaper dandy coach Lawrence Frank will guide the Nets to the next round.No. 3 Detroit Pistons vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
The Hall of Fame coach has guided this team brilliantly, and the Pistons' defense has been spectacular. Big man Ben Wallace is as good as it gets defensively. Milwaukee has the scoring ability of Michael Redd on the perimeter, but the Bucks don't have enough to offset the Pistons.No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 New Orleans Hornets
Second-year standout Caron Butler gives Miami a quality scorer, while forward Lamar Odom provides versatility and big man Brian Grant is a solid force on the glass. It's quite an achievement to be fourth in the conference after such a rough start.
Still, I see New Orleans prevailing, with guard Baron Davis and center Jamaal Magloire being the keys. After broadcasting many of Magloire's college games at Kentucky, I never thought I would see him become the scorer that he's been late this season. He posted double-doubles on a regular basis, and he gives the Hornets a major edge.Western Conference
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota's All-Star 7-footer, is the clear choice for MVP this season (in my book). And coach Flip Saunders has lots of other options. Point guard Sam Cassell is a star despite lacking the national PR he deserves. Guard/small forward Latrell Sprewell has fit in well after coming over from the Knicks in an offseason trade. Forward Wally Szczerbiak is back in the lineup and offers additional scoring punch.
No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 Houston Rockets
This is the time of the year when the Lakers turn it on. It's Showtime! This is where the Lakers want to separate themselves from the pack, and they've focused so much on that gold trophy. They're capable of playing at another level in the postseason.
The Lakers' All-Star cast is too much for the Rockets. Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy will have his team prepared, so it won't be easy, but Shaq, Kobe Bryant and Co. will get it done.
No. 3 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 6 Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis played everyone in the West tough most of this season. The postseason is a different story, though -- especially against a hot Spurs team that closed the regular season with an 11-game winning streak.
Defending champ San Antonio is getting ready for its march to win back-to-back NBA titles. All-Star center Tim Duncan will be too tough and won't be denied. Guard Manu Ginobili, who might be the best sixth man in the league this season, also will be a factor. Memphis will play hard in what could be a physical series, but it won't be enough vs. the Spurs.
No. 4 Sacramento Kings vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks
Get your calculators out, because this should be wild, up-and-down hoops! It'll be a great sideline battle between Sacramento's Rick Adelman and Dallas' Don Nelson. The Kings had to be disappointed with their season-ending loss to Golden State that put them in this bind. Adelman admitted his team wasn't focused in the finale.
Sacramento finished 4-8 in its final 12 regular-season games, but this is a second chance to return to earlier dominance. It will be intriguing since Dallas won the season series 3-1. The Mavs are a nightmare to face in Dallas. But Webber, point guard Mike Bibby and forward Peja Stojakovic will be too much in a tight series. In a way, it's a shame to see these two outstanding teams meeting so early.
NBA Finals: Spurs over Pistons
San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has been a great money coach in the postseason. He has his team peaking at the right time, with a recent victory over the Lakers in L.A. There has been so much written and said about the Lakers, Kings and other worthy teams, but the quiet Spurs are so tough with savvy point guard Tony Parker complementing Tim Duncan, the league's reigning MVP.
Detroit is tough defensively, but Duncan and Co. have the heart of a champion. The Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed, will get to the championship round but fall short.
Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he's been an ESPN analyst ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.