Wednesday , May , 24 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

The NBA’s Final Four

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – One thing is certain: there will be a new
NBA champion. Dallas made sure of that after disposing of San Antonio in a
classic seventh game. The Mavericks controlled play for most of the contest,
but then found out how hard it is to put away a defending champ.

The Spurs fought back from a 14-point halftime deficit to grab their first
lead of the game with only 22 seconds left. Manu Ginobili nailed the three
that put San Antonio ahead, 104-101. However, Dirk Nowitzki followed up with
three points the old-fashioned way, the basket and foul shot, sending the game
into overtime. It was all Dallas in the extra session as Avery Johnson’s team
scored 15 points in the five minutes to win Game 7, 119-111.

The Suns clobbered the Clippers, 127-107, in Game 7 of their series, setting
up a rematch of last year’s conference semifinals. The Suns rolled the Mavs in
six games, including two wins in Dallas, but this year the result could be
different. World Sports Exchange, www.WSEX.com, thinks so, installing the
Mavericks as 3.6-1 favorites as of Tuesday evening.

In last year’s series, the Suns were a team without a bench following Joe
Johnson’s injury in Game 2. The only reserve that received any decent playing
time was Leandro Barbosa. More importantly, three starters, Amare Stoudemire,
Quentin Richardson and Jim Jackson are not with the team this postseason. Tim
Thomas, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell replaced them and helped Steve Nash and Shawn
Marion reach the conference finals for the second straight season.

The Mavericks, at 9-5 odds, are the second choice behind the Pistons to win
the title. (Odds courtesy of www.WSEX.com.) Compared to the Suns, they have
virtually the same squad as last year’s team, minus Michael Finley.
Physically, the Mavs are the same as in 2004-05, but mentally, they’re a
different team. The fact they were finally able to defeat the Spurs should do
wonders for their overall psyche, but will it carry over deep into the next
round?

It’s true both Phoenix and Dallas were extended to seven games, but it’s also
true the Mavericks had the more physically grueling series. Three of the games
versus the Spurs were decided by two points or less, and Game 7 went into
overtime.

Meanwhile, the final game in the Suns/Clippers series was over in the third
quarter. Plus, Phoenix had three days of rest between Game 6 and the series
finale. Don’t be surprised if the Suns come into Dallas and steal Game 1 as
the Mavs are still riding high from stopping the Spurs. By the way, Phoenix,
at 8-1, is the fourth choice of the remaining teams to win it all. (Odds
courtesy of www.WSEX.com.) It’s a tough task, especially since defense wins
championships, but the Suns have shown tons of heart winning two series that
should have gone the other way.

The Mavs and Suns split the four games played this season and had very similar
shooting percentages with Dallas connecting on 47% from the field and Phoenix
hitting at 48%. Phoenix nailed 26-of-46 three-pointers in its two wins, but
only 13-of-42 in the two losses. Mike D’Antoni’s club attempted 123 treys in
its last four games for an average of 31 per game, while hitting 40%. If the
Suns match that output, they have a decent shot at upsetting the Mavericks and
are worth a few pesos at the current price of +270.

This year’s Eastern Conference finals is a rematch of last year’s, but this
time it’s the Pistons with home-court advantage. According to www.WSEX.com,
one would have to lay $270 on the Pistons to win $100 in the money line. If
you like the Heat, all it takes is $100 to win $210, pretty much doubling your
money.

Is it worth it at 2.7-1 odds to go with Detroit, especially after being taken
to the limit by Cleveland? The answer is an emphatic YES! The Pistons, 10-11
favorites to win the NBA Championship, will prevail in five or six games. The
Heat, 5-1 third choice to win it all, will not know what hit them defensively
in the series, particularly after facing high-flying teams such as New Jersey
and Chicago. (All odds courtesy of www.WSEX.com.)

Let’s look into the OVER/UNDER to see if it’s possible to make some more dough
on this series. Detroit’s defense held Cleveland to 39% field-goal shooting
the final four games and 31% in the finale. Combine that with Detroit’s own
inability to shoot (41% in its last six), and that’s how the final five games
of that series went UNDER the total.

Why such a turnaround from earlier in the playoffs when Detroit’s previous six
games went OVER? It all goes back to shooting percentage, more importantly
from beyond the arc. In the Pistons’ last five games, they attempted 70 shots
from downtown, making 22 of them for a low percentage of 31%. In the six
contests they went OVER, they nailed 64-of-134 for an incredible 48%.

So why did the final five games in this series go under the number? That can
be explained by one simple statistic: Cleveland shot only 39% the final four
games. The Pistons allowed their opponents to shoot 49% in the previous six
games and five of those contests went OVER.

Detroit began its run of UNDERS a bit earlier than expected, and with Miami
its next challenger, the low-point totals should continue. Five of the last
seven regular season meetings between these two teams went UNDER the number.
Also, only four of the last 14 games (2005 playoff series included) went OVER.

The Pistons defeated the Heat in three of the four games this season. The only
contest Miami won was all due to Dwyane Wade. The guard reeled off the final
17 Heat points in a two-point win back in February. Detroit should have won
that game as well, leading by 13 after three-quarters, and still had a seven-
point lead with only 4 1/2 minutes left.

The Heat added some offensively gifted players this past offseason in Antoine
Walker, Gary Payton and Jason Williams. However, they would have been better
off with the talents of these individuals from five years ago. Detroit’s
defense will shut down these past-their-prime players and do just enough to
control Shaq and Wade to win the series in five.

This postseason has been the NBA’s best in a very long time with three of the
four conference semifinals going seven games. Can the two conference finals
match up? The Western Conference series will, but in the East, the Heat do not
have what it takes to bring down the Pistons. In the end, the two favorites
should meet in the Finals, but watch out for the Suns. Of the two underdogs,
they have the best chance for an upset.