There are some postseasons when everybody is playing for second place and the whole NBA knows it.
But this isn't one of them.
There's no team that resembles Jordan's Bulls or Shaq and Kobe's Lakers or even the Bad Boy Pistons. Half the playoff teams in the Western Conference think, with good reason, they can beat the Dallas Mavericks. And at least that many in the Eastern Conference think they can take defending NBA champ Miami, including the Chicago Bulls, who have gotten right in Shaquille O'Neal's grille on the eve of their first-round best-of-seven series that begins here Saturday afternoon.
The lower-seeded teams are strong enough to push the serious contenders, and the higher-seeded teams are good enough to not topple, which should make the NBA postseason ripe for several long and melodramatic series.
Who's the favorite? Well, Dallas is a slight betting favorite in Las Vegas, narrowly, over Phoenix. But as Basketball Hall of Fame member and superstar-turned-TV-analyst Charles Barkley said, "There are probably five or six teams who have a real shot at it."
We have to start with the Mavericks, winners of a league-high 67 games and the dominant team in the regular season. Dallas has, in my book, this season's MVP in Dirk Nowitzki, the coach of the year in Avery Johnson and a team that can play fast, slow it down and play big, and also go deep down the bench. So why isn't Dallas a prohibitive favorite?
Nobody, least of all the Mavericks, has forgotten that they blew that 13-point lead (and with it a 3-0 series lead) with 6 1/2 minutes to play in Game 3 of the 2006 Finals, allowing Miami back in the series. There are those, particularly in the Miami and Phoenix locker rooms, who believe Dallas is the NBA's version of the Buffalo Bills, a team that got to the championship four straight years without winning.
Miami's Dwyane Wade reminded the Mavericks of that in some scorching on-the-record comments a few months ago, and Steve Nash and the Suns recently reminded Dallas of that on the court twice within 2 1/2 weeks. The Mavericks have to prove to themselves and the rest of the playoff teams that they can finish. Golden State could be a problem for Dallas right off the bat, but not a big problem. More of a nuisance.
Starting with Dallas, everybody's got a "but."
Besides the Mavericks, the Spurs, Suns and Rockets all feel they can win the West.
The Suns know they can beat Dallas, and they play the most beautiful team basketball since the Sacramento Kings of 2001-02. But Phoenix may not have the inside toughness to duke it out in a second-round series with the Spurs.
Tim Duncan has three championship rings. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have two apiece. But if they have to grind their way through a second-round series with the Suns, the depth-challenged Spurs, who might have a long series against Denver in the first round, couldn't possibly have enough left to beat Dallas.
And as formidable as Houston is with its one-two punch of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, it's a stretch to presume both of them will get through the playoffs healthy after shuttling in and out of the lineup all season. Still, a Dallas-Houston second-round series, with Shane Battier chasing Nowitzki, also could wear out the Mavericks.
In the Eastern Conference, Miami, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto and even sixth-seeded New Jersey all feel they have a chance to win. But . . .
Toronto has zero playoff experience. LeBron James doesn't have enough help in Cleveland and still is trying to figure out whether he should be the playmaker or scorer in tight games. The Bulls have too hard a road to travel from the fifth seed, don't have an experienced and true point guard to close games, and as a result make killer turnovers. Miami is dead if Wade's shoulder doesn't hold up, and Gary Payton's absence from the lineup robs Miami of a closer at point guard. And Detroit, which is much more efficient on offense having essentially traded Ben Wallace for Chris Webber, isn't imposing in the way it was when it won it all in 2004; that kind of physical defense has been ushered out of the league. They're all good enough to look like champions for a while, yet flawed enough to struggle with lesser opponents.
If you're looking for the best first-round series, try Bulls-Heat and Nets-Raptors in the East, and Spurs-Nuggets in the West. Denver can't beat San Antonio but could hurt the Spurs' chances of winning by forcing a six- or seven-game series in the first round.
Worst first-round series: Wizards vs. Cavaliers. This would be must-watch basketball with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler playing. Without them, it's hard to imagine the Cavaliers dropping a game.
Best possible second-round series: Spurs-Suns in the West, Pistons-Heat in the East.
Lowest seed with a chance to get to the Finals? New Jersey (No. 6). Jason Kidd still is the best playmaker in the East, and with Vince Carter playing for a new contract somewhere and Richard Jefferson coming back from injury, the Nets could beat Toronto in the first round, Cleveland in the second round and scare the life out of the Detroit-Miami winner in the conference finals.
Best series we'll probably never see: Mavericks vs. Suns. It's the most artistic competition professional basketball has to offer. But the Spurs probably will be party poopers.
Finals we'd like to see: Suns vs. Heat, boxer against slugger.
Finals we will see: Detroit ultimately will escape in the Eastern Conference, the Mavericks in the Western Conference. The Mavericks will finish what they started last year and emerge from a most entertaining and uncertain postseason scrum.