With NBA preliminaries out of way, it's time for stars to put on a show

April 24, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

NBA PLAYOFF Wish No. 1: Michael Jordan suits up for the Wizards and Bulls ... at the same time.

NBA Playoff Wish No. 2: The Celtics make it interesting by going all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, but lose before the Red Sox and Patriots Nations get too carried away with the lunatic notion of Boston/New England scoring sports' unprecedented championship trifecta.

A Super Bowl and World Series are plenty, folks.

NBA Playoff Wish No. 3: Jerry West's Grizzlies upset the Western Conference's top-seeded and free-wheeling Suns.

It has been a good year for West Virginia basketball, with the Mountaineers going deep into the NCAA tournament. Why not let it roll for West, the NBA logo model and former Mountaineer?

West has worked for years in Memphis to achieve a sliver of the success he brought to the Lakers before his draft jewel, Kobe Bryant, banished his favorite free agent, Shaquille O'Neal, to Miami.

By the way, where is Bryant these days? Where is Phil Jackson, Karl Malone, Jerry Sloan, Vlade Divac, Kevin Garnett, Jordan and the other usual suspects of NBA playoffs of recent past? Don't they know it's showtime?

Every year around this late April date, a wondrous surprise awaits basketball fans. The real season begins.

All hail Shaq, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Mike Bibby, Allen Iverson, Pau Gasol, Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller, Richard Hamilton, Gilbert Arenas and whoever it is who stars for the Baby Bulls.

One can make an art form out of ignoring the NBA's regular season. It's all about jockeying for position for the real season, anyway. That's why, come March, it's tempting to hail the NCAA tournament as the be-all of high-stakes hoops.

But it's no longer March. This we know for certain, since half the national champion Tar Heels have declared for the NBA draft, their ticket to David Stern's league of global domination.

Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Huggins, Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Gary Williams ... all these March Madness stars are great coaches who give good TV smirks and grimaces.

The student-athletes aren't too shabby, either. Sean May, Andrew Bogut, Deron Williams, Julius Hodge - terrific college players, some of whom are bound to be lottery picks in the draft.

This, after all, is the reason so many players go to college in the first place.

(See: 'Melo, whose greatness in leading Syracuse to the promised land could be easily supplanted by leading the Nuggets to an upset victory over the Spurs in that Western Conference series.)

NBA Playoff Prediction No. 1: George Karl and Anthony upset the Spurs in seven.

OK, maybe not. But if this were a five-game series, like back when Karl's No. 1 seed Sonics were upset by No. 8 seed Denver, then the Nuggets definitely would have a shot at dismissing the Spurs.

Some people love the one-and-done format of the NCAA tournament. It is a high-wire act - unless you've never watched Karl coach a playoff series. The ups and downs, the back and forth; there is a crescendo of drama that can escalate in a playoff series that surpasses the instant gratification of single elimination.

The NBA playoffs are so important, with so many subplots and so much cross-country flying, it takes two months to contest them. That's why true basketball legends are forged not in three weekends of March Madness, but over the long and winding period from mid-April to mid-June.

The only rule for the NBA Finals is they have to be over in time for the Fourth of July.

If there's any question about where true hoops genius is found, then how come Wes Unseld's 1978 Washington Bullets jersey has been the biggest selling retro uniform ever?

Nothing says "I Love This Game" more emphatically than the backboard-rattling grab of an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, like Unseld.

It has been 27 years since the Bullets/Wizards won that NBA title. It has been 17 years since they won a playoff game. In 1997, the last time the Bullets/Wizards made the playoffs, they were swept by Jordan and the Bulls.

So, of course, Gilbert Arenas and Co. get the Bulls in the first round. This time, the Bulls are merely predicted by most prognosticators to beat the Wizards in six or seven games.

No wonder Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said the next deal he wants to make "is trade for Shaq."

Grunfeld replaced Jordan (and Unseld) in the Wizards' front office. Two NBA Finals MVPs could not do for the Wizards what Grunfeld has done, which is restore order and hope to the long-suffering Washington club by way of Baltimore.

Jordan still presides over this first-round series, even without the cameras panning to his statue outside the United Center. And you know they will.

But then, it's always that way come NBA playoffs time. The legends rule. Cousy, Robertson, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Bird, Isiah, Hakeem.

That leads to 2005 NBA Finals Prediction, which centers on two centers with multiple rings already:

Duncan/Spurs over Shaq/Heat, 4-2.

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