Thursday , Apr , 20 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

NBA playoff marathon set to begin on Saturday

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – As the old adage goes, it’s a marathon
not a race. The NBA playoffs showcase not only teams with superior talent, but
raw determination and excellent conditioning over a grueling two-month
stretch.

The 16-team marathon tournament is now set, as several teams solidified their
playoff seeding on Wednesday night. The NBA playoffs will now start in earnest
on Saturday with a great mix of individual talent — such as Los Angeles
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash — tenacious
defense led by Detroit’s Ben Wallace and the game’s most marketable player,
LeBron James, on full display.

The pieces of the Eastern Conference playoff puzzle were finally put together
Wednesday, as the Washington Wizards defeated undermanned Detroit to capture
the fifth seed. Washington took out Chicago in six games during the first
round last season before being swept by Miami in the conference semifinals.

The Wizards will square off against the fourth-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in a
series that will showcase a pair of high-scoring guards in James and
Washington’s Gilbert Arenas, who averaged 29.3 points per game this season.
Cleveland last made the playoffs in 1998, but expectations have risen since
the arrival of James. The do-everything guard averaged 31.4 points, seven
rebounds and 6.6 assists this season. The first game of the best-of-seven
series will take place on Saturday in Cleveland.

Indiana’s victory over Orlando on Wednesday locked it into the sixth seed, and
the Pacers will square off against New Jersey in the first round. Indiana
defeated Boston in seven games during the first round last season, but fell in
six games to the Pistons in the East semifinals. The Pacers have overcome the
early-season distraction and eventual trade of disgruntled forward Ron Artest
and numerous injuries to capture the sixth seed.

New Jersey was a quick exit in the playoffs last season, falling in four
consecutive games to the Miami Heat in the first round. The third-seeded Nets
will go as far as their big three take them. New Jersey loves to get out in
transition, where Jason Kidd can feed the ball on the wings to high-flyers
Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson. Game One at Continental Airlines Arena is
set for Sunday.

Chicago also was victorious on Wednesday, pushing the Bulls into the seventh
spot and setting up a first-round date with Miami. The Bulls are led by clutch
performer Ben Gordon and scrappy forward Andres Nocioni. Chicago last defeated
the Heat, 117-93, on April 16th.

Meanwhile, second-seeded Miami is led by the duo of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille
O’Neal. Wade is one of the most electrifying players in the league, posting
27.2 points per game during the regular season. O’Neal, despite battling
various physical ailments throughout the season, averaged 20 points and 9.2
rebounds per game. The Heat swept New Jersey and Washington last season,
winning their first eight playoff contests before bowing to Detroit in seven
hotly-contested games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“They’re all athletic and young,” Miami guard Gary Payton said of the Bulls.
“They’re playing really loose. It’s going to be a good challenge.”

Game One of the best-of-seven series is slated for Saturday in Miami.

The top-seeded Pistons will face No. 8 Milwaukee to round out the Eastern
Conference playoff slate. The Pistons are the reigning conference champions
and will take their successful team-first approach into Game One on Sunday at
the Palace of Auburn Hills. The Bucks last made the playoffs during the
2003-04 season, losing in five games to these same Pistons in the first round.
The Bucks’ hopes lie on the left hand of Michael Redd, who scored 25.2 points
per game during the regular season and made 39.7 percent from beyond the arc.

“This is where we want to be, we’ve been looking forward to the second season
all through the season,” said Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace. “It doesn’t
matter who we play. We’re ready.”

The Western Conference playoffs are highlighted by defending NBA champion San
Antonio, which will square off against the Sacramento Kings in the first
round. The Spurs finished 63-19 this season, including a 34-7 mark at home.
However, the Kings will be no pushover. Sacramento has posted a 26-14 mark
since acquiring Artest from Indiana. Game One of the best-of-seven series will
tip-off on Saturday in San Antonio.

The Kings remained in the eighth spot because the Lakers took care of business
versus New Orleans/Oklahoma City on Wednesday night. Los Angeles and Bryant
will begin their trek toward the title against the second-seeded Phoenix Suns
in round one. The Lakers will be making their first postseason appearance
since the 2003-04 season, when the club lost in the NBA Finals to Detroit.

“We’re playing good basketball, but the playoffs are all about
preparation,” said Bryant. “We’re just going to go out there and play.”

Phoenix and Nash have had to adapt without star forward Amare Stoudemire for
basically the entire campaign. The stellar play of swingman Shawn Marion and
breakout performances of Eddie House and Boris Diaw have made up for
Stoudemire’s absence. The Suns lost in five games to San Antonio in the
Western Conference Finals last season. The first game of the playoff series
will take place on Sunday.

In an odd twist of fate, Memphis and the Los Angeles Clippers played a game on
Tuesday night that both teams wanted to lose. Memphis ended up winning the
contest, locking it into the fifth playoff position and sending it to Dallas
for the first game of their playoff series on Sunday. The Grizzlies hope their
playoff stay is longer this time around, as they were ousted in four straight
games by Phoenix in the first round last season. Dallas, with the second best
record in the Western Conference, is led by sweet-stroking forward Dirk
Nowitzki, who averaged 26.6 points and nine boards per contest this season.

However, with the Clippers taking the sixth spot, they received homecourt
advantage for the first round of the playoffs against the third-seeded Denver
Nuggets because of a better overall record. The Clippers have not won a
playoff series since moving to Los Angeles, last advancing in the playoffs
during the 1975-76 season when the franchise was in Buffalo. Carmelo Anthony
and the Nuggets lost in five games to the Spurs in the first round last
season.

The first game of the series will take place in Los Angeles on Saturday.