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Road to glory

The 82-game schedules are over, the lottery teams exit the picture until draft day while the 16 qualifying clubs brace themselves for the next level. Superstars get to shine brighter, reserves dream of becoming unsung heroes.

It’s time to wipe the slate clean as the greatest drama in basketball unfolds with the NBA Playoffs.

In a season full of surprises, disappointments and controversy, the league has definitely seen better days. With the emergence of "specialists" like Ben Wallace being considered as marquee hoopsmen, there is now an obvious lack of complete, all-around players in the game. Gone are the days of such classic battles like the Celtics and Lakers, the Pacers and the Knicks or the Bulls and Pistons–not to mention the memorable head-to-head duels between (Larry) Bird and Magic (Johnson) and Michael (Jordan) and Isaiah (Thomas).

Fans, however, won’t consider the present NBA a watered-down league, because for the first time in a long, long while, there is no clear favorite for the crown. Anything can happen as the road to glory just got a lot bumpier. And that’s exactly what should make this year’s playoffs more exciting than ever.

The East

(1) Miami Heat vs.

(8) New Jersey Nets

With the Lakers’ basketball woes and the Heat’s splendid mark in mind, Shaquille O’neal has proven to everyone (particularly Kobe Bryant) that he remains the league‘s most dominating player. Sure his numbers may have slipped a bit, but his nightly mark of 20-plus points and 10 boards per outing is still something to cheer about.

Along with the gutsy Dwyane Wade, Shaq has guided Miami to one of its best regular season records in franchise history–good enough to be seeded first in the East.

If they can get consistent outside jumpers from swingman Eddie Jones and a more solid contribution from Alonzo Mourning, the Heat will likely cruise to the conference finals.

As for the Nets, although they were able to pull some last minute heroics to sneak into the playoffs (so much for Cavs star Lebron James), an early first round exit is expected. Jason Kidd and Vince Carter are an exciting duo to watch, but they’ll need more than windmill jams and no-look passes to cool the powerful Heat.

(2) Detroit Pistons vs.

(7) Philadelphia 76ers

While Chris Webber has struggled immensely in Philly, fans are hoping that the pressure is totally off the Sixers now that they’ve made the playoffs; especially since they’re facing a strong title contender instead of the Celtics, which would have given the Sixers a more reasonable shot to advance. Experts say that in this no-win situation, "Webber can relax more and try to finally find a groove alongside Allen Iverson, as opposed to being blamed for the Sixers’ demise... which is surely what awaited him had the 76ers failed to qualify."

The way Allen Iverson has been dominating lately (en route to his fourth scoring crown), he definitely gives the Pistons a scare.

Detroit ended the season with an 11-1 spurt and a 16-2 record over the past two Aprils. The defending champs, therefore, move from an uneven regular season into the playoffs, making you wonder if they knew exactly what they were doing all along.

The Pistons, however, will have to win some big games on the road to repeat, but it’s doubtful they’re worried at all. No team can top the Pistons’ 39 wins since January and not even the issue surrounding Larry Brown’s exit next season has bothered their play as of late. Expect to see Detroit in the Finals come June.

(3) Boston Celtics vs.

Indiana Pacers (6)

According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, the Celtics have intrigued fans all season, without any hard prodding from Bill Simmons "and even before the reacquisition of Antoine Walker. No one else in the 16-team field can offer a similar array of big-name vets with fiery personalities (Paul Pierce, Ricky Davis and Gary Payton) flanked by a clutch of promising youngsters (Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Delonte West). The encouraging comeback of Raef LaFrentz is another boost, providing the Celts with some size.

Inspite of all that, though, it’s a wonder how long these guys can hang around." Boston was a popular pick all along to win the Atlantic (again, before Walker’s return) but fans don’t like their chances in the first round, especially now that the Celts are facing the Pacers.

Indiana has survived all the suspensions and injuries, and they’ve welcomed back Jermaine O’Neal and Dale Davis to join the retiring Reggie Miller for one last playoff run. They didn’t end the season as well as they would like, but this is still a team none of the top seeds want to face.

Even without forward Ron Artest, the Pacers are expected to beat the Celtics and take the Pistons to the limit in the next round.

(4) Chicago Bulls vs.

(5) Washington Wizards

For just the 10th time in NBA history, a ballclub is going to the playoffs without its leading scorer. And eight of those 10 teams were eliminated in the opening round.

But Stein believes the Bulls aren’t too worried because of two reasons. "Reason No. 1: Eddie Curry is indeed Chicago’s top scorer at 16.1 ppg, but the Bulls’ go-to guy is the very available Ben Gordon, who’s bidding to become the first rookie ever to win the Sixth Man Award. Reason No. 2: They maintained a decent mark despite the loss of Curry and a brutal schedule in February and March.

The Washington Wizards, on the other hand, is a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff series since 1982, and only the LA Clippers (stretching to their Buffalo Braves days in 1976) have a longer drought.

To end their own dry spell and score an upset, the Wizards must get all the firepower they can from the NBA’s highest-scoring trio of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison.

The West

(1) Phoenix Suns vs.

(8) Memphis Grizzlies

One of the most ill-conceived comparisons (according to the Hoops analyst) "is the notion that the Steve Nash-era Suns play the same game seen from the Steve Nash-era Mavericks. Not so. Nash’s Suns have more 3-point shooters than his Mavs did and an even bigger difference: Amare Stoudemire. The Mavs have never had a power player in the class of Stoudemire, who makes the defense protect the rim and thereby opens up the floor" for long-range bombers.

This is mainly why Phoenix has a good chance of beating Dallas if ever they should meet in the second round. And it’s a likely scenario, too, since the Suns’ opening round nemesis, the Memphis Grizzlies, have a very slim chance of beating them.

While the Grizzlies have the goods to rough up Nash and dictate the game’s tempo, their downfall could be their offense. After a gutsy 15-8 run to solidify a playoff spot (with star forward Pau Gasol out), Memphis has had major problems in their transition back to Gasol when he returned.

The Grizzlies, however, no longer exude over-confidence following their success during the regular season. Winning three of the four meetings with San Antonio last year and then being swept by the Spurs in the first round, they’ve hopefully learned their lesson.

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs.

(7) Denver Nuggets

ESPN reports that Spurs management is understandably nervous about Tim Duncan’s tentative movement after three ankle sprains and the lingering discomfort in Manu Ginobili’s groin. But this group is still as dangerous as any team they’ve ever had in San Antonio, including the two that won championships.

With Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker constantly progressing and with two dependable shooters off the bench (Glenn Robinson and Brent Barry), the new Spurs are equipped to win with both offense and defense.

This spells trouble for the Denver Nuggets.

"So who are these guys? The Nuggets who went 17-25 before George Karl’s arrival? The Nuggets who went 24-2 from Feb. 23 to April 15? The Nuggets who got waxed at Houston and Phoenix in the last week of the season after the nationwide buzz started getting really loud?

It’s safe to say the Nuggets would have been widely favored to upset Seattle in the first round if they hadn’t fallen short of the sixth slot, but since they have it’s very tough to see the Nuggets winning a Spurs series.

(3) Seattle Supersonics vs.

(6) Sacramento Kings

Beset by key injuries, it’s only natural for NBA observers to rule out the Supersonics in the first round–even with their initial homecourt advantage. The Kings, however, are in worse shape physically than the Sonics, which gives Ray Allen and Co. hope that they can shame anyone who picks Sacramento.

Since the nucleus of Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac and Doug Christie has broken up, the Kings don’t have much reason to hope for a great playoff run. Guard Mike Bibby remains one of the better shooters in the league, but Bibby alone can never fill the void left by the aforementioned quartet.

(4) Dallas Mavericks vs.

(5) Houston Rockets

Marc Stein asks: So how do you recover from the loss of the NBA’s MVP? Or, at the very least, the NBA’s MVP runner-up?

All Dallas did to soften the blow of Steve Nash’s departure is splash out millions on its first productive center (Erick Dampier) since James Donaldson... replace the Sixth Man Award winner (Jamison) with a sixth man (Jerry Stackhouse) who’s even more aggressive and effective... and take on a huge contract (Keith Van Horn) so that it has a seventh man more dangerous than most teams’ top reserve. And they’re pretty confident headed against the Rockets.

If the Mavericks consistently hold teams under 93 points in the playoffs, they really are the title contenders the locals in Dallas believe they are.

The Rockets, however, are no slouches themselves. They have a blossoming one-two punch in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and they figure to have an edge at point guard in their intrastate clash with the Mavericks by sending Bobby Sura and Mike James against Jason Terry and rookie Devin Harris.

What they won’t have in these playoffs is the know-how of the injured Juwan Howard, a former Mav who was the only player in their roster who had a remote chance of shadowing Dirk Nowitzki. Houston has been almost as hot as Dallas lately, but the Mavericks are the deepest team in the league and have finally found health at a time when so many other clubs haven’t. These developments will likely make the difference.

These are the 16 teams slugging it out in the NBA playoffs. Perhaps the current matchups–however competitive–still can’t equal to the legendary rivalries of yore, and it’ll still be a couple more months before we can finally see this year’s champion being crowned (along with its ticker tape parade).

But that’s what it’s all about. The inevitable comebacks, the ensuing blowouts, the continuing thrills and spills and all the other exciting hardcourt action are what makes the game whole. And it‘s definitely worth the wait.

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