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With no clear favorite, several teams will have a good shot at Finals

It's a wide-open race, sports fans. The NBA's 2005 playoffs feature a handful of teams with very, very legitimate title aspirations - and not one of them is the Lakers. Oh yeah, they didn't make it. What's up with that?

For the first time since 1997, we have no Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett in the postseason. Then again, until last year, Garnett wasn't around all that long. LeBron James is now 0 for 2 in even getting to the playoffs, and while Michael Jordan needed a while to win, he always got there. (By the way, Wednesday was the 19th anniversary of MJ's 63-point game against the Celtics.) Shareef Abdur-Rahim can do what he always does: book the last week of April for some personal time.

The team with the best record, the Phoenix Suns, is predicted by many not to even get to the NBA Finals out of the brutal West. The San Antonio Spurs - the team many think will get there, and maybe even win it all - have a ridiculously tough first-round series against white-hot Denver. Other than Denver, the team on a roll out West is Dallas. We might have to bear Mark Cuban longer than we'd like this spring.

The East is generally conceded to be a two-team race between the defending NBA champion Pistons and the Shaquille O'Neal-led Miami Heat. How hurt is Shaq, who missed the last two games of the season? And Miami would be wise not to look past the Nets, who are playing quite well and could have Richard Jefferson on call for the playoffs.

When the dust settles, I like a very predictable Finals matchup: Detroit vs. San Antonio. And I like the Pistons to repeat, if for no other reason than the Spurs will have had to go through you-know-what just to get there.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:
1. Miami Heat vs. 8. New Jersey Nets
Regular-season records
: Miami 59-23; New Jersey 42-40.
Season series: Miami, 3-0.
Skinny: On the surface, this looks like your generic 1-8 matchup. A 17-game spread between the teams. A sweep of the regular-season series. And while a Miami loss would be a veritable shockeroo, don't underestimate the Nets. Jefferson could be back and while he hasn't played in four months, you have to pay attention to him. Vince Carter has been otherworldly since leaving Canada and Jason Kidd is Jason Kidd. The Nets won 10 of 12 to make it. The Heat have Shaq and that alone makes them a threat. If he's the Playoff Shaq of yore, it won't matter who plays for the Nets. And don't forget Shaq's many helpers, from the celestial Dwyane Wade to overlooked guys such as Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem, to an undeniable advantage at home with one of the NBA's truly hideous public address announcers.
Prediction: Miami in six.

2. Detroit Pistons vs. 7. Philadelphia 76ers
Regular-season records:
Detroit 54-28; Philadelphia 43-39.
Season series: Detroit, 3-1.
Skinny: No team has more wins (40) since Jan. 1 than the Pistons. They finished the season on a 12-1 clip, losing only the meaningless season finale. Sure, there are distractions that weren't there last year, from Larry Brown's iffy status to a suspect bench to the burden of repeating. But the Pistons' veteran starters also know how to get it done and have the able bodies to make it happen. Plus, with Carlos Arroyo and Antonio McDyess, their bench looks more than serviceable. The Sixers played well in April to make it, riding Allen Iverson, who is having an MVP season. Jim O'Brien totally outcoached Brown the last time these two went at it in the playoffs (2002, first round), and you can be sure he'll try everything, including trying to unleash Chris Webber. But he doesn't have enough.
Prediction: Detroit in five.

3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. Indiana Pacers
Regular-season records:
Boston 45-37; Indiana 44-38.
Season series: Indiana, 2-1.
Skinny: Up until the last week of the season, the Pacers were the proverbial Team No One Wants To Play and the Celtics were simply trying to get in. But Indy's final-week slide - capped by a not-so-impressive win over Chicago - makes one wonder. Is Jermaine O'Neal OK? Can Anthony Johnson lead the team? How much does Reggie Miller have left? These teams met in each of the last two years, with the Celtics upsetting Indy in 2003 and then getting swept in 2004. Boston has lost its last eight playoff games; its last playoff win came against the Pacers. On paper, the Celtics have the advantage at most positions, but, beyond Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, the bench is very, very raw. And the Celtics' defense has been laughingly inconsistent. These teams haven't played since January. Indy has since added Dale Davis. Boston got Antoine Walker and kept Gary Payton.
Prediction: Boston in seven.

4. Chicago Bulls vs. 5. Washington Wizards
Regular-season records:
Chicago 47-35; Washington 45-37.
Season series: Washington, 2-1.
Skinny: Only in the new NBA landscape could a team with 47 wins be a lower seed than a team with 45 wins. (Same is true in the West.) The Bulls are one of the best stories anywhere, but they will be hard pressed to go anywhere without Eddy Curry and Luol Deng, two key contributors. Curry was merely the leading scorer. But adversity is nothing new to Scott Skiles's charges; they almost beat Indy the other night with Jannero Pargo and Lawrence Funderburke leading the way. The Wizards are a lot like the Celtics - they can score but they don't defend. They also have not won a best-of-seven playoff series since 1979. Can Brendan Haywood or Kwame Brown do anything inside with Curry out? The Bulls' defense was the key to its turnaround after an 0-9 start and, as we know, that's what usually prevails this time of year.
Prediction: Chicago in six.

WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. Phoenix Suns vs. 8. Memphis Grizzlies
Regular-season records:
Phoenix 62-20; Memphis 45-37.
Season series: 2-2.
Skinny: The Suns have shown to be the real deal all season, provided MVP candidate Steve Nash is healthy. He is, so Phoenix should be able to survive a first round against a deep and defensive-oriented Memphis team. The Suns won more games on the road (31) than they won all of last season. They've got outside shooting with all their 3-point specialists (don't forget Waltah) and inside power with Amare Stoudemire and their starters have missed only 12 games this season. Mike Fratello turned things around in Memphis and, in the West, 45 wins gets you a date with a top seed, not the No. 3 seed. The Grizzlies have had health concerns all season and still managed to keep it together. (``They're like Noah's Ark,'' said Jersey assistant Tom Barrise. ``They have two of everything.'') But Phoenix is a very tall order for anyone.
Prediction: Suns in six.

2. San Antonio Spurs vs. 7. Denver Nuggets
Regular-season records:
San Antonio 59-23; Denver 49-33.
Season series: 2-2.
Skinny: We can cut right to the chase: If Tim Duncan's ankle is anything less than OK, the Spurs could be gone in Round 1. Duncan spent most of April resting the ankle, then returned for the last few games. He hasn't led the team in scoring and rebounding since a 25/14 submission March 16. If his ankle is OK, then that changes things. The Spurs are deeper this year with Brent Barry and the recently arrived Glenn Robinson (don't laugh). But the Spurs also have not won a title without David Robinson. Denver is really the team no one wants to see. The Nuggets are 31-7 since George Karl took over, setting the bar impossibly high for future in-season replacements. They're 24-4 since the All-Star break, with three losses to Phoenix and two wins over San Antonio. The Nuggets appear to be healthy and peaking. They should have angled for the No. 6 spot.
Prediction: San Antonio in six.

3. Seattle Sonics vs. No. 6 Sacramento Kings
Regular-season records:
Seattle 52-30; Sacramento 50-32.
Season series: Seattle, 3-1.
Skinny: One word - injuries. Both teams have them and it's still unclear how much, if anything, the Kings will get from Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic, and Bobby Jackson, while Vladimir Radmanovic and Rashard Lewis are question marks for Seattle. The Sonics had a great season, much better than most envisioned. But Seattle also lost twice to the pre-Toine Celtics and neither game was close. And no one would have picked the Sonics to beat Houston or Denver because they have no inside game and rely on their shooting. The Kings, however, might be the only team Seattle has a chance to beat because it, too, lacks a decent post game. But if Jackson is back (he looked terrific Wednesday night) and Miller can give them anything (a possibility), then the Kings, who last were a first-round casualty in 2000, have what's needed to make it to the next round.
Prediction: Sacramento in six.

4. Dallas Mavericks vs. 5. Houston Rockets
Regular-season records:
Dallas 58-24; Houston 51-31.
Season series: 2-2
Skinny: What were the Rockets thinking getting to the fifth spot and a date with the ultra-warm Mavericks? Houston has been on a roll in 2005 (35-16 since Jan. 1) as everyone seems to have bought into Jeff Van Gundy's system. But, with Juwan Howard out, the Rockets will be lacking inside and have no one to match up against the great Dirk Nowitzki. Houston has a ton of oldies but goodies, which does come in handy about this time. But the Rockets are running into a team that is on a roll, having won nine straight and 16 of 18. Avery Johnson was on a George Karl pace and the Rockets never played the Mavericks after AJ took over from Don Nelson and finished 16-2. The Mavericks were 25-6 in the games he coached when Nelson was away or resigned. Dallas has Erick Dampier and Jerry Stackhouse back. Keith Van Horn is a weapon. Michael Finley is still around and Dirk has been a solid MVP player all season. Plus, it won 29 times on the road.
Prediction: Dallas in six.

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