back to the Black Table

The usual refrain from the casual fan these days when they hear that the NBA playoffs are starting? "Is it the baseball all-star break already?" Suffice to say, however, that the 2004-2005 NBA season will at least be among the more memorable ones of late, even if only due to the spectacle of grown millionaires bounding into the stands to beat the snot out of someone who pays their salary.

Nevertheless, basketball, as we know, is in the midst of needing another Renaissance soon, or it's going to fade into the 1970s oblivion that nobody really wants to remember. Yes, now there's LeBron James, of course, but his team ended up missing the damned playoffs this year, and so trying to revitalize the league on the back of a guy who is now furiously catching up on "House, M.D." isn't much of a strategy. Oh well -- at least there's steroids.

It's a happy thing to at least be able to say that this year's NBA preview didn't contain any whoppers like predicting the Magic to go to the Finals, as the 2003 debacle of a forecast did; I got six of eight playoff teams correct in the east and five of eight in the west, although my ability to foretell what was going to happen there was severely limited, for sure. Nonetheless, they have to finish this damned thing sometime, and as a result, we've got some playoff matches to look at.



The Eastern Conference Playoffs



The hand is on the other foot now, isn't it? With Shaquille O'Neal coming eastside and Kobe Bryant missing the playoffs (and the rest of us missing those Denver-area press conferences), suddenly those West Coasters can't be quite as confident anymore. Well, probably they can, except for Miami -- everyone else is a lost cause, one would think.

#1 Miami Heat vs. #8 New Jersey Nets


This is one of those "scare me" series, the kind of thing where you blink at the wrong moment and Jason Kidd's pushing the ball, his team leading by three with 14 seconds left and the series tied in New Jersey, and suddenly you're on the brink. Having a 350-pound-center who threatened to walk around South Beach naked does, however, mitigate a lot of those worries. It's not the normal mashing that the No. 8 seed usually gets in the NBA playoffs (see: Chicago Bulls 1991-1998, first round record of 24-1), but it's not going to be some inspiring, Deke Mutombo-on-the-floor-screaming upset either. That is, the Nets aren't going to win; if Deke Mutombo wants to show up, lie on the court and freak out, well, we're always for that.

Miami in six.



#2 Detroit Pistons vs. #7 Philadelphia 76ers


After all the action we've seen at the Palace of Auburn Hills this year, bringing in Allen Iverson to get taunted by the fans doesn't exactly strike a person as the smartest kind of planning. Unless, of course, that's exactly what Commissioner David Stern wants. Yes, that's it -- come to think of it, have Stern and WWE head Vince McMahon ever been seen together? Are they brothers? Because the diabolical nature of this suggests advanced planning on the parts of those who pull the strings. Stern is becoming more and more like John Houseman's character in the original <EM>Rollerball</EM>; if Iverson would just strap on the skates, and Detroit would sign James Caan, then we'd have ourselves a series. This series might only be slightly less painful to watch.

Detroit in five.



#3 Boston Celtics vs. #6 Indiana Pacers


Creating a six-division format has already turned the NBA East into the National Football League's American League Central division from the 1980s -- you just wish someone would blow it all up so we could start over again. Hence, the Celtics, who have a worse record than the next two teams sliding in behind them (who are rewarded for this by having to play each other) get to go up against a somewhat hobbled Pacers squad, although by now, one assumes they've gotten used to playing without Ron Artest. This is the last hurrah for Reggie Miller, and as sweet as that sounds, it doesn't mean they're going to go all that deep into the playoffs. One round is enough, however.

Indiana in seven.



#4 Chicago Bulls vs. #5 Washington Wizards


It feels like a misprint, seeing the Wizards in the playoffs. And that's because it has been eight seasons since they actually got into the big dance, only to end up with Jordan's footprints all over their back. The team even had a different name then, if you remember; that's how long it's been since they managed a trip into the postseason, and in the NBA, some teams get in just on looks alone. Maybe that's the most impressive aspect of all of this. Or, it's the idea that this matchup has an actual revenge angle to it, or it would if Jordan hadn't been hell-bent on running the Wizards into the ground in the last couple of years, if only to prove he could suck at something. The only revenge would be is if the Bulls re-signed Jordan for this series, and the Wizards kicked his sorry shoe-selling ass all over the floor.

Washington in seven.




The Western Conference Playoffs


They're letting a new team take the reins as top squad in the regular season every year around here; Spurs, Timberwolves (and who thought they'd be sitting at home?), Lakers and now the Suns. There are, as usual, a couple of teams on the outside who could mop up most of the East, but it's their fault for choosing smaller media markets to play in, isn't it? Well, if that's what they want, they get it. And I don't like it any more than you men.

#1 Phoenix Suns vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies


Not the way I saw things working out, but hell, nobody's perfect. The comedy factor of having former Hubie Brown disciple Mike Fratello take over for Hubie when things got too rough can't be understated. Of course, in Memphis, having a team named after a bear that resides mostly in the Canadian Northwest is funny on its face, especially when there's ample opportunity to change said name. The sentimental nod in this year's MVP race is Steve Nash; the statistics would seem to point to the big dude in Miami who could polish off the Big Steak Ranch's 72-ouncer without blinking, but there you go. While not really what you think of in a traditional top seed, there's plenty of firepower to go around, and in this matchup, it's not with the team on the east side of the Mississippi River.

Phoenix in five.



#2 San Antonio Spurs vs. #7 Denver Nuggets


A rough start kept the Nuggets from living up to lofty expectations, but that doesn't mean there still isn't enough leaping ability to make this an interesting enough series. Still, the Spurs are built to withstand such shocks, and as a result the up-tempo style of play favored by the Nuggets will eventually be downshifted into third gear or so, no matter what George Karl says. Nearly unbeatable at home, the Spurs have a lackluster 21-19 road record, but that works out to one out of two; they only need to win one out of two.

San Antonio in six.



#3 Seattle Supersonics vs. #6 Sacramento Kings


Another team of gunners versus a team who had an overpaid star, Chris Webber, incurring the ire of sportswriters, who prevailed upon the Kings to get rid of him -- despite that 34-20 record. Since then they've been mediocre, showing that sports columnists don't know a damn about anything. Getting rid of the big doofus might have been a good idea -- he'd slowed a bit -- but it doesn't get them much closer to the title they'd dreamed about, not when they imported Greg Ostertag to play center for them. The Sonics, meanwhile, ran out of gas in mid-March and have been staggering along on fumes ever since. A good knockout punch would probably take care of them. (As an aside, Shaquille O'Neal must be dying for the Kings to get to the finals -- he might kill both Ostertag and Brad Miller in the same series.) Whatever. History says it's the Sonics, but I think the Kings stagger through, even with Peja Stojakovic at somewhat less than 100 percent.

Sacramento in seven.



#4 Dallas Mavericks vs. #5 Houston Rockets


It's a mean German vs. a mild-mannered Chinese man! Is this Age of Empires? It doesn't appear that there's much chance in the way of Yao Ming developing what Burgess Meredith in Rocky II called the "snarl" when you go at someone, but somehow Dirk Nowitzki managed to find his inner tough guy. Having cleared out the clutter from the roster and paring it down to a leaner operation, the Mavs look rejuvenated. Hell, I'd be their wingman any day. What was said earlier about the Eastern Conference catching up? Forget it: The West still carries the day right now; they could secede, of course, but then we'd have another big mess on our hands. And do you want that? Do you?

Mavs in seven.



The Rest of It

Leaving us with two upsets like this, we still end up with a Heat-Wizards tilt that ends badly for Washington in five games. The Pistons should take care of the Pacers in short order; also five games. And Miami gets to the conference finals with a seven-game victory over the defending champs, after which Larry Brown announces he's going to coach in Sai-Pan.

Pulling the upset is Dallas over Phoenix in a hard-fought seven games, and that leaves us with the Spurs to beat down Sacramento like they deserve in six games. After the Spurs advance, the Duncan-Shaq matchup ends with Shaq victorious one last time, Miami in seven games.

Can you dig it?


David A. Gaffen has been living in New York for nine years and in that time, has never lost an argument with his television.