Suddenly, all four finalists have title hopes

Editor's note: As part of "The Stein Line" every Monday during the playoffs, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein gives his take on things.

So, who's left?

Actually, it's the four teams that were supposed to get this far, assuming the regular season does mean something.

Apparently it does. To the Lakers' chagrin, 82-game karma did spill over into the playoffs. The four teams with the best records in their respective conferences are the four playing for two spots in the Finals: San Antonio vs. Dallas in the West; New Jersey vs. Detroit in the East.

In far less of a surprise, with the Lakers out suddenly, all four believe that a title is quite winnable now. Yes, even the Mavericks. Even the two East teams, too.

That's because, as hard as L.A. fell in Round 2 to San Antonio, Shaquille O'Neal has always been considered the biggest obstacle to a championship, largely based on what Shaq did in the last three Finals, averaging a tidy 36 and 15.

Now there's hope and mystery.

"It would have been good for basketball," Sacramento's Chris Webber said of a Lakers-Kings intrastate rematch in the conference finals, which gives way now to the Texas Open.

"But a new champion will be good for basketball, too."

  • While Nick Van Exel hoards the headlines, Steve Nash has quietly emerged as the Mavericks' fourth-quarter killer.

    In the 11 fourth quarters in which Nash has played in these playoffs -- blowouts caused him to sit out three -- Nash has totaled 76 points on 64.7-percent shooting (22-for-34). He's also shooting 64.3 percent on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter (9 for 14) and 95.5 percent on free throws in the fourth (21 for 22).

    More evidence? Nash has 27 assists to four turnovers in those 11 fourth quarters, and he's averaging 2.24 points for every shot he attempts.

    Now to see if Nash can continue the trend in this series with the Spurs, where his matchup with Tony Parker is critical.

  • No member of the Kings, it appeared, missed Webber in the last round more than Mike Bibby. At least that's what the Kings are obliged to believe, because Bibby was nowhere close in these playoffs to the Bibby who received an $80 million contract after last spring's playoffs. Asked if Van Exel was the X-factor in Dallas' 4-3 series triumph, Bibby said: "I think the biggest thing was me. In a lot of these games, I didn't show up." So make that three major issues facing the Kings all of a sudden: Webber's forthcoming knee surgery, Portland's serious interest in front-office mastermind Geoff Petrie and Bibby going into next season with more pressure than ever.

  • My picks?

    Back on April 18, when we had to put these predictions on paper, I actually had the Nets and Pistons reaching the East finals, with New Jersey winning in seven. So that's one pick that needs no updating.

    Lakers over Kings in six, however, is no long possible in the West. Hence the forthcoming fresh swipe at the Interstate 35 conference finals: San Antonio vs. Dallas.

    Having just watched the Spurs undress the three-time champs, something no one else has done this century, I find San Antonio almost irresistible. Almost.

    Problem is, Dallas has actually swarmed Duncan as well as anyone this season, and the Spurs are going to have to stop four big scorers in this series as opposed to just two. Dallas fatigue, San Antonio's ability to control tempo and the prospect of more Duncan domination, as seen in Game 6 at Staples Center, are three factors that can make me look bad (again).

    But ...

    Mavericks 4, Spurs 2.

    Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.