This remarkable regular-season race in the NBA has finally come to an end, with it requiring the last night of the season to fill out six of the seeds in the Western Conference.To be sure, the Boston Celtics ran away from the pack from opening night and cruised in with the best record of all, but it was an unexpectedly superb season from the Los Angeles Lakers benefiting from a great mid-season trade that gave them the top seed in the West and set up the possibility of rekindling the oldest and most significant Finals rivalry.
As usual, the Detroit Pistons were always in the ballpark in the East race to retain the No. 2 seed, with the Orlando Magic stepping up significantly on the way to a surprisingly easy Southeast Division title. The defending East champion Cleveland Cavaliers never really did get untracked this season, relying even more on LeBron James than previously, and limped in with the fourth seed and requiring a controversial call at the end of their 81st game to do it. Meanwhile the Washington Wizards got healthier the past few weeks and locked up the fifth seed, just ahead of the Toronto Raptors. The Philadelphia 76ers were another surprise team on the strength of a great second-half finish to wrap up No. 7 and the Atlanta Hawks burst into the eighth spot for their first postseason appearance in nine years.
Things were never so clear cut in the West ... all the way up to Wednesday night. Even though the Lakers did earn the top spot Monday, there were only 2.5 games separating them from the three-way tie for fourth between Utah, Houston and Phoenix. But entering Wednesday night, the only other seed that was decided was No. 2 (the upstart New Orleans Hornets). Finally, the Spurs, Jazz, Rockets and Suns ended up 3 through 6, with Dallas edging out Denver for the seventh spot.
Nevertheless, everybody is 0-0 going into these best-of-seven series, with the higher seed getting games 5 and 7 at home if the series goes the distance in the first round.
So it's time to move on to the real season ... that still has two months to go, and we'll go through the matchups. Is it possible that the Lakers and Celtics will meet for the first time in 21 years?
Yes, in fact, they are indeed the favorites.
No. 1 Celtics vs. No. 8 Hawks
The Celtics swept the regular-season series 3-0. They had the best record in the NBA all season as the team with the best defensive statistics in points allowed, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The off-season acquisitions of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen partnered with Paul Pierce jump-started their offense as well. Rajon Rondo blossomed at point guard for coach Doc Rivers as the Celtics had the greatest improvement in wins from 24 to 66 in NBA history. The Hawks are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. They are led by a very young cast of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, rookie Al Horford and mid-season addition Mike Bibby at point guard. As any young team, they have blown hot and cold, but their talent is unmistakable. They in no way appear capable of seriously challenging the Celtics in this series, but this will be a learning experience for this young group as they try to run against the best defense in the NBA. Let's be benevolent and give them a win to grow on.
Pick: Celtics in 5
No. 2 Hornets vs. No. 7 Mavericks
Everyone expected the Hornets to compete for a playoff spot, but nobody anticipated them winning the Southwest Division and nearly the top seed. Point guard Chris Paul has evolved into a superstar and forward David West an All-Star, with Byron Scott another candidate for best coach. Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson add long-range shooting from the wings, while Tyson Chandler has become a force on the boards and in the post at center. But for them to succeed, they'll need some consistent productivity from Bonzi Wells and Jannero Pargo from the bench. The Mavericks are an interesting team right now, struggling all season after fashioning the league's best record a year ago. A mid-season trade for Jason Kidd shook things up, and then Dirk Nowitzki went down with a knee and ankle injury. But the injury seemed to galvanize the team, setting off Josh Howard and Jason Terry on scoring binges, and Nowitzki has returned with both barrels loaded. Jerry Stackhouse has been out with a groin injury, but is expected to play, and Erick Dampier must be solid rebounding and blocking shots. This is a big test for the fledgling Hornets, who split the regular-season series but lost their 11th in a row in Dallas Wednesday night.
Pick: Mavs in 7
No. 3 Spurs vs. No. 6 Suns
The Suns won the season series 3-1, and this figures to be a great one on the heels of last season's controversial Spurs' six-game win in the conference semifinals. The big change, of course is the Suns now have Shaquille O'Neal to man the middle, freeing Amare Stoudemire from guarding Tim Duncan while having a lot more room to roam on offense. Superb point guard Steve Nash now also has Grant Hill as a running mate in the backcourt, with Leandro Barbosa, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw filling crucial roles as well. The defending champion Spurs are still built around their terrific trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker, with Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen as consistent as ever in their roles on the wings, and Fabricio Oberto in the post next to Duncan. They've added Ime Udoka and Kurt Thomas for depth up front, and Ginobili has been troubled by a strained groin lately, but they are for the most part healthy. The Spurs also have Matt Bonner for depth off the bench, with aging Robert Horry not healthy, and Jacque Vaughn and Damon Stoudemire behind Parker. The Spurs have homecourt, but the Suns are on a mission. I see it going the distance.
Pick: Spurs in 7
No. 4 Jazz vs. No. 5 Rockets
The Jazz won the season series 2-1 and have the confidence of having come back from down 3-2 to knock out the Rockets last year in the first round. Besides, the Rockets don't have center Yao Ming, out with a fractured foot, and have been leaning on ageless Dikembe Mutombo and forwards Luis Scola and Carl Landry for minutes in the middle. Shane Battier is a superb defensive small forward and clutch 3-point shooter, but the key is their backcourt, with Rafer Alston having a career year at the point, and the great scoring explosiveness of Tracy McGrady. But Alston has been out with a hamstring strain and he won't start the playoffs, so veteran Bobby Jackson will start in his place. And with the Jazz 37-4 at home this season, it will be a tall order for the Rockets, despite their record-setting 22-game winning streak. The combination of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer is one of the best in the game, plus Andrei Kirilenko is back playing at a high level, with Ronnie Brewer vastly improved and Mehmet Okur a dangerous shooter. Even more to the point is the Jazz depth, including not only Matt Harpring, but tough Paul Millsap for help up front, plus the key acquisition of sharp-shooter Kyle Korver. It's hard to figure why the Jazz have been 17-24 on the road, nonetheless, they are the better team.
Pick: Jazz in 6