LOS ANGELES -- It's time for one of your favorite segments: Fearless Prediction Time.
Fearless Prediction No. 1: The Lakers will win Game 6 on Monday night and remain the only team in these playoffs that hasn't lost a home game. ("I hope you didn't just jinx us," Karl Malone says.)
Fearless Prediction No. 2: The Pistons will win their Game 6 on Tuesday night and uphold the belief that they are the East team most equipped to play the West champs somewhat evenly in the Finals.
Fearless Prediction No. 3: The stars will be Americans even if the unmissable predictions above are somehow spoiled by supernatural forces.
These aren't the happiest times for Yankee basketball, given all the problems the league is having filling out its Olympic roster for Athens. There is this, though: The rise to prominence of the NBA's foreign-born stars hasn't transferred to this spring's conference finals, where the Yanks are dominating.
Canada's Rick Fox and the Ukraine's Slava Medvedenko are fringe contributors with the Lakers. Michael Olowokandi, who sports ties to England and Nigeria, is likewise on the periphery for Minnesota. In the East, Turkey's Memhet Okur has been marginalized in Detroit by the arrival of Rasheed Wallace, and we all know how much Darko Milicic has done. And Indiana, representing the country's heartland, has exactly zero foreigners on its 12-man playoff roster.
If you're hoping your team has a shot at wooing Marcus Camby away from Denver, better cool those hopes. Sources say the Nuggets and Camby essentially have the framework of a new contract in place, to be formalized in July, that will keep Camby in the Rocky Mountains and still enable Denver to be among the most active bidders on this summer's market.
If the Nuggets elect to retain Jeff Bzdelik -- and they're still deliberating -- he's going to need a monster season to last beyond next year. Making the playoffs guaranteed Bzdelik's $1.5 million salary for 2004-05, but chances are he won't receive an extension even if Denver decides against a coaching change. That means Bzdelik would be coaching on a one-year deal if he's back.
Dallas' Steve Nash is among the free agents Denver will be pursuing, but the team with the best (albeit slim) chance of wooing Nash away from virtual blood brothers Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley is Phoenix. Nash never sold the house he bought as a Phoenix youngster -- his family still uses it -- and the early word is the Suns will make Nash their No. 1 free-agent target. Not Kobe Bryant, since the Suns see actually landing Bryant as a long-shot fantasy.
To convince Mark Cuban not to make a coaching change, Don Nelson promised his boss in a recent sitdown that he will emphasize defense as vigorously as he did in his Milwaukee days. Mavericks players have complained privately that they didn't practice defense as much as they should have last season, giving Dallas no shot at making the improvements it so badly needs. To ensure a fresh defensive message from the coaching staff, Dallas also still hopes it can beat out its considerable competition for Avery Johnson to re-sign the Lil' General as a player-coach. Avery's return would give Cuban two intermediaries on the coaching staff -- along with assistant coach and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson -- to offset his chilly relationship with Nellie.
We said Friday that we didn't have even one good name to throw out as a down-the-road successor to Phil Jackson with the Lakers now that Scott has joined the Hornets.
Well, we've got one now.
How about Rudy Tomjanovich?
Rudy T says he wants to sit out at least one more season after his rough fight against bladder cancer, but you'd struggle to find another coach more universally loved by players than Tomjanovich.
Don't forget, furthermore, that Tomjanovich is one of only five coaches -- Phil, Gregg Popovich, Chuck Daly and Pat Riley are the others -- to win a championship since 1987. That's almost 20 years, people.
Rudy T, on smelling the roses post-cancer: "I got into gardening. But it's manly gardening. I don't use gloves when I grab my roses. I just grab 'em."
Eerie: Shaquille O'Neal appeared in his 150th playoff game last week and has almost identical numbers to those Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had through his first 150 playoff games.
O'Neal's averages: 27.3 points and 13.0 rebounds in compiling a 93-57 record with three titles.
Kareem's averages: 27.9 points and 13.0 rebounds in compiling (no joke) a 93-57 record with three titles -- two with the Lakers and one with Milwaukee.
The Lakers are only intermittent with their playoff intensity because they know they can get away with it. When they make good on Fearless Prediction No. 1 and finish off the Wolves, they will have improved to 5-1 under Jackson in playoff series without home-court advantage. It'll be the third time in three tries they've won a conference finals as the lower seed.
Male of the Week
George Shinn. New Orleans' oft-bashed owner vowed to spend on a coach for a change and -- surprise! -- lived up to his word. Byron Scott's annual salary of more than $3 million is more than double what Paul Silas and Tim Floyd earned as the previously highest-paid coaches in Hornets' history. Scott also received a three-year guaranteed contract with a team option for a fourth season.
E-Mail of the Week
The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh? I think you answered your own (recent) question about why Slap Shot jerseys are being sold ad infinitum as opposed to Fish memorabilia. No one cares about The Fish -- the movie was awful! If even you noticed the bad editing and dialogue, how much awful stuff do you think went into that film that you didn't notice? Slap Shot was a funny, ironic and well-acted hockey movie that had all the great stuff about the game mixed in with the nasty side. The Fish? I don't know anybody except you that even saw the damn thing. One thing I have noticed about reading many columns on ESPN.com: You under-40 guys always allude to films and TV shows that some of us "older" readers never saw, enjoyed or cared about.
North Woodmere, N.Y.
STEIN: You won't find anyone who loves Slap Shot more than me, Irv. I've watched it a zillion times and quote it routinely in normal conversation. But this is the NBA arm of ESPN.com, and if you think Fish doesn't have its own (albeit smaller) cult following among basketball fans -- and, more importantly, among NBA players who will never forget Jamaal Truth, Jackhammer Washington, Set Shot, Driftwood and Bullet Bullet Bullet -- a generation gap isn't our only obstacle.
Speak of the Week
"No not yet. Sorry."
— Lakers coach Phil Jackson, when asked if he has a clearer sense yet whether winning a championship would make him more or less likely to return to the bench next season.
Stat of the Week
Phil Jackson insists the media was off-base after Game 5 for blaming the Lakers' loss on a lack of touches for Shaquille O'Neal, but Shaq is averaging only 11.4 field-goal attempts per game against Minnesota. The numbers are skewed somewhat by O'Neal's many free-throw attempts and the additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, but that's the lowest-ever shot average for Shaq in any playoff series. The three rounds of this spring's playoffs, in fact, add up to make it a trend:
Stat of the Weak
That's how many fans the Blazers attracted to a lottery party at the Rose Garden its first-ever lottery party. Since the lottery's inception in 1985, Portland and Utah had never participated until last week's edition. Of course, it should be pointed out that the Blazers only had a 6-in-1,000 chance to land the No. 1 overall pick.