Six teams in the Western Conference won 50 or more games this season. The best team in the league – the Indiana Pacers – is in the East, not the powerful West. In fact, Indiana won 61 games, but I'm not even sure they're the favourite in their conference given the emergence of the Pistons since the trade deadline.
A championship case can be made for at least three or four Western Conference teams, including Minnesota – a team that has never won a first-round series. And they're the West's number-one seed!
This is shaping up to be a fantastic NBA postseason. Let's take a look.
According to Eric Smith, nobody on the Nuggets can deal with Kevin Garnett.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1) vs. Denver Nuggets (8)
The X-Factor: Kevin Garnett. How could the soon-to-be MVP not be the X-Factor in this series? He's the go-to guy. The star of the show. And the fact is nobody on the Nuggets can deal with KG. Marcus Camby may be the most viable option for Denver and due respect to Camby – he's had a good year – but he'll be overmatched in a battle against Garnett. KG is a legit triple-double threat throughout this first-rounder.
The Winner: Wolves in 5.
Los Angeles Lakers (2) vs. Houston Rockets (7)
The X-Factor: Yao Ming. If his teammates buy into the system that Jeff Van Gundy has been preaching all season, they'll get Yao the ball and run the offence through him almost every time down the floor. They'll get him at least 20 attempts per game. They'll rely on Yao's relative success against Shaq during the regular season. But if Houston stays away from Yao and plays a selfish brand of ball, the Lakers will run away with the series and hold Francis in check.
The Winner: Lakers in 5.
San Antonio Spurs (3) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (6)
The X-Factor: Rasho Nesterovic. I'm serious. During a couple of stretches this season Tim Duncan was sidelined from the Spurs lineup and each time, Rasho stepped up. In fact, Nesterovic seems to play better when Duncan's not around. While Memphis will focus so much of their time and energy trying to contain or at least slow down Duncan, Rasho has the chance to run roughshod through the Grizz.
The Winner: Spurs in 5.
Sacramento Kings (4) vs. Dallas Mavericks (5)
The X-Factor: Steve Nash. The backup PG has been an issue for the Mavs for most of the season. How badly would Mark Cuban want Nick Van Exel back now? (Well, maybe not, 'cause then he wouldn't have Sixth Man of the Year candidate Antawn Jamison.) Nash will have to log heavy minutes against Bibby and (if healthy) Bobby Jackson. And Captain Canada's decision-making skills will determine how controlled and effective Dallas' high-octane offence will run.
The Winner: Mavs in 7.
Indiana Pacers (1) vs. Boston Celtics (8)
The X-Factor: Al Harrington. The Celtics probably can't hold their own against the Pacers' starting five. But if they manage to keep things close, it will be the second unit that makes the biggest difference. Nobody on Boston's bench can slow down Harrington. And if the Celts try to keep Pierce on the floor against Big Al, Artest will go off.
The Winner: Pacers in 5.
New Jersey Nets (2) vs. New York Knicks (7)
In Rasheed Wallace, says Smith, Detroit possesses an athletic big man that can play inside or out on both ends of the floor.
Terrence P. Vaccaro
Jason Kidd. He's clearly not playing at 100 per cent, but exactly how badly he is hurt is another story. Some say J-Kidd can play through the pain. Others say he's one tweak away from going under the knife. With the lack of depth at PG for the Nets, if Kidd can't log 35+ minutes each game, New Jersey will lose to the Knicks.
Knicks in 6.
Detroit Pistons (3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (6)
The X-Factor: Rasheed Wallace. The Pistons would have been bad enough for the Bucks to deal with before the 'Sheed deal. Ben Wallace, Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur would have given Skinner and Smith fits up front. But with Rasheed in the mix, Detroit possesses an athletic big man that can play inside or out on both ends of the floor. Milwaukee's only answer may be Toni Kukoc, and he'll get eaten alive if that's the case.
The Winner: Pistons in 4.
Miami Heat (4) vs. New Orleans Hornets (5)
The X-Factor: Tim Floyd. It seems the Hornets all but quit on their coach during the second half of this season. Granted, Jamal Mashburn got hurt again and has been shelved for the season. And New Orleans had to deal with injuries to Baron Davis and (to a lesser extent) P.J. Brown. But Floyd may be coaching his final days with the Bugs. To rally the troops now would be a near-impossible task.
The Winner: Heat in 7.
Veteran radio personality Eric Smith hosts a variety of hoops programming on THE FAN 590, the radio home of the Toronto Raptors, including live Raptors pregame, halftime and postgame shows, as well as magazine show Hoops.