NBA playoff predictions 

Can you feel the excitement? No

Steve Hammer The NBA'
Can you feel the excitement? No Steve Hammer The NBA’s second season — its real season, some would say — started over the weekend and for every question answered by the first few playoff games, many others remain. With the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons projected to meet in the NBA Finals in June, the playoffs may seem like a tune-up for those powerhouse squads. But an examination of the 16 teams who made it this far shows that the title is still up for grabs, despite what the media has been saying. Here’s a look at some of the key playoff matchups, starting close to home. Peja Strojakovic (6) Indiana vs. (3) New Jersey Pacers lead 1-0 The Indiana Pacers are a mystery wrapped inside an enigma and converted to a Rubik’s Cube. Anyone who thinks they can predict what will happen next to this most bizarre of teams is deluding himself. The Pacers are as schizophrenic as Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted but not nearly as pretty. One never knows exactly which team will show up. Will it be the Jermaine O’Neal offensive domination, where the big man camps in the low post and scores at will? Will it be the Peja show, where threes rain down from the sky? Or will it be the battle of the scrubs, where players such as Anthony Johnson and Sarunas Jasikevicius take the leading role? In Saturday’s shocking game one, it proved to be the latter choice. Driving to the basket with time running out, Johnson was the recipient of a generous foul call. He sank two free throws with 0.9 seconds left, giving the Pacers a stolen game. The phantom foul and subsequent Indiana victory overshadowed what was a wildly inconsistent Pacers offensive attack. The Pacers were helped by the fact that Vince Carter had one of his worst games as an NBA player. Assuming that the Nets recovered in Tuesday’s game two, sending the series back to Indiana, what can the Pacers do to advance to the next round? The team needs to find some scoring from people not named O’Neal or Stojakovic. Jeff Foster needs to return to last year’s playoff form, where he inhaled rebounds at will. Stephen Jackson needs to take smart shots, as he did in game one. Those are some pretty big assumptions, but if the Pacers can stay focused, they can be competitive and maybe even steal the series. They’ll have to play perfectly in order to do so. Prediction: New Jersey in seven games. (8) Milwaukee vs. (1) Detroit Pistons lead 1-0 For the Milwaukee Bucks to unseat the Pistons, several things have to happen. Water must start running uphill. Dropped toast must land buttered side up. And hell will have to develop a coat of ice. The Bucks, who finished 40-42, limped into the playoffs and showed no life in game one of their series. The Pistons, who need no coach, have something to prove to themselves. They were a few minutes away from winning two NBA championships. Having tasted victory in 2004 and a narrow defeat last year, they’re hungrier than ever. This is the best Pistons team in recent memory, deficient only at backup point guard. Chauncey Billups may well be the league’s most valuable player. Ben Wallace is playing at a career-best pace. Richard Hamilton is having a career year. The bench, featuring Tony Delk, Dale Davis and Carlos Delfino, could probably make the playoffs by themselves. The Pistons’ momentum may yet be stopped, but it’s not the Bucks who are going to do it. Prediction: Detroit in five games. Shaquille O'Neal (7) Chicago vs. (2) Miami Miami leads 2-0 Shaq is back. So is D-Wade. Even Antoine Walker is getting into the action as the second-seeded Heat are beating up on the struggling Bulls. Miami’s long-term viability is very much in doubt. One sprained ankle could ruin the season for them. But they don’t have much to worry about from the Bulls, who look like they’ve run out of gas. Any structural flaws with Miami’s game will go unnoticed this round. Once they make it past Chicago, they’ll have to expend real effort and then the team’s true nature will be exposed. Prediction: Miami in four games. (8) Sacramento vs. (1) San Antonio Spurs lead 1-0 The Sacramento media is still in love with Ron Artest, giving his every utterance heavy play, not realizing that the Tru Warier will say whatever he thinks will get the most attention. Before the series began, Artest confidently predicted a Kings win in the series and a championship ring. Then he went out and stunk up the place in game one, as the Spurs humiliated the Kings. Artest threw his mouthpiece at an official and was banned from Tuesday’s game two. Artest may yet get a championship ring, but if he wants one this year, he’ll have to steal it from Ben Wallace or Manu Ginobili. The Kings had a nice run after Ron-Ron joined. They should be happy with that. Prediction: Spurs in five games. (7) L.A. Lakers vs. (2) Phoenix Phoenix leads 1-0 Kobe Bryant had his best individual season but his Lakers still only managed to make it to seventh place. The Suns are playing their best basketball of late, behind the beautiful generalship of Steve Nash. The Lakers have two legitimate scoring threats, Bryant and Lamar Odom. Either can score in the low post. But their perimeter shooting is suspect, their defense porous and their coach oddly detached from the action, as if someone else was getting paid $10 million-plus per year to sit there. Meanwhile, the Suns are already looking ahead to either Dallas or San Antonio. Prediction: Suns in five games.

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