By Jeff Dengate
April 20, 2005 -- We now know who's in, who's out, who's playing who. What we don't know is who will win it all. So, let NBA Playoffs 2005 begin.
The action gets underway with four great matchups Saturday, beginning with Philadelphia traveling to Detroit at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN. But as we take a moment to collect our breath -- hey, we get winded just watching Phoenix run back and forth -- let's take a minute to answer some of the key questions about the action we'll witness over the next two months. While we're giving you our best guesses, the real answers will play themselves out on the court.
Now, here they are: The top 10 questions about this year's playoffs:
1. Which of the 50-plus-win teams -- Phoenix, San Antonio, Seattle, Dallas, Houston, Sacramento, Miami, Detroit -- has the best shot at winning the title?
Can O'Neal and Wade deliver a title to Miami?
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
The pursuit for this season's NBA Championship could be one of the most interesting in recent years as this year's race is wide open, with no clear cut favorites.
Starting in the East, can you honestly say you believe the Heat will make it past the Pistons to advance to the Finals? The defending champs have been fine-tuning for their playoff run and the biggest question in Motown now is "Will he or won't he?" No, not whether Larry Brown will return to the Pistons next fall, but rather will Darko Milicic be on the team's playoff roster?
The Heat, however, have a guy named Shaq, who knows a thing or two, or 158 and counting, about the playoffs. And don't forget Dwyane Wade, whose coming out party was staged during last year's playoffs.
Moving to the favorites in the Wild West, things get even less clear. You could say Phoenix is a front-runner because they've consistently been one of the NBA's top teams and have proven detractors wrong all season. They've been remarkably healthy all season and must remain so if they're to take a serious run at the franchise's first NBA title.
A triumvirate of Texas teams will provide the top competition to the Suns' title run. San Antonio has held fast at the top of the standings despite losing Tim Duncan for a stretch. The Spurs' key players all have considerable playoff experience which well help in their conquest. The Mavericks and Rockets have been blistering hot over the second half of the season and must not be overlooked. And don't count Seattle out. Although they stumbled down the stretch because of injuries, they could shoot their way to The Finals.
2. Which style of play will succeed in the playoffs? Can Phoenix win on the run? Can Seattle shoot its way out of the first or second round?
It's been said time and again, "Defense wins championships." The Pistons and Spurs drove home the point by locking down opponents on their way to winning the last two NBA championships. But the question remains, can teams with an uptempo offense win in the playoffs?
The Suns opened up the floor at the beginning of the season and America West Arena has been home to the track meet ever since. The Suns run at every opportunity, however, the argument, as it goes, is that the pace of the playoffs slows, scores drop and teams grind out postseason wins. Teams like Phoenix won't be able to operate in a half-court set. Or can they? Possibly, because the Suns have the ability to dump the ball in low to Amare Stoudemire while also beating you from the perimeter. The Suns shoot the three with the best of them, hoisting 24.7 per game and connecting on just under 40 percent of those tries.
The Sonics, while boasting capable shooters of their own in Ray Allen, Vlad Radmanovic and Rashard Lewis, also feature a tough defensive trio in Danny Fortson, Reggie Evans and Jerome James. If defense does indeed win, the Sonics may have the secret formula. Seattle, giving up 96.6 points per game, good for 12th in the NBA, is second-best defensively of the top 10 scoring teams (Miami gives up an average of 95.0 points at No. 8). The question is how Seattle has recovered from late season injuries that caused it to become the team everybody wants to face in the first round. If their sharpshooters are healthy and firing, they could make a serious run at The Finals.
On the other side of the ball, San Antonio and Detroit are sticking to time-tested methods of winning. In the last 16 years, only two teams -- the Lakers in 2001 and the Rockets in 1995 -- have won an NBA championship after failing to rank in the top 10 defensively in the league. That doesn't bode well for the Sonics (ranked 12th), Celtics (21st), Wizards (23rd) and Suns (30th).
What about Dallas? In recent years they've learned, no matter how hard they tried, they couldn't outrun opponents in the playoffs as they did during the regular season. Last season, for example, the Mavericks led the league at 105.2 points per game, which dropped to 99.6 in the playoffs. The Little General has instilled tough D in Big D since taking over the reigns 18 games ago. Dallas is 16-2 under Avery Johnson, scoring 103.2 while giving up a mere 92.3. Their opponents scoring average has steadily dropped from a season high of 98.1 before Don Nelson stepped down to its current 96.8 average.
3. Does Detroit have what it takes to repeat? Or is their bench that much weaker than last season?
Williamson is gone, but Campbell and Hunter still anchor Detroit's bench.
This season, the defending champs have been labeled as struggling and inconsistent, and they have been overlooked for those new darlings of the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat. Last year's team got hot in the second half of the season and went on two eight-game winning streaks to reach 54 wins for the season. This year's team made a remarkably similar run, collecting 11 straight victories before losing to Charlotte in the season finale, closing the 2004-05 campaign with 54 victories. So, can history repeat itself for the team from the Motor City?
The Pistons have the good fortune of returning all five starters from last year's championship squad. And, as an added bonus, all five appear healthy, with the exception of a sore right hamstring for Rasheed Wallace and a few stitches adorning the face of Richard Hamilton.
Larry Brown is back and healthy once again, as well. Brown returned to the bench on April 1 after missing 10 games with complications related to hip surgery. In his absence, the team struggled through late March, going 6-4 under the guidance of assistant Gar Heard. Sticking to his "play the right way" mantra, Brown has the Pistons looking like they've re-gained the focus necessary to repeat as NBA Champs.
One concern can be the often-criticized reserves. Gone are Mike James, Corliss Williamson and Mehmet Okur. Filling the roles are Carlos Arroyo and a healthy Antonio McDyess. Keep in mind during The Finals last year against the Lakers, of the departed trio, Williamson saw the most action at 10.4 minutes per game, while James averaged a mere 4.4 minutes. The bulk of the playing time, however, went to Elden Campbell and Lindsey Hunter, who averaged 13.6 and 13.0 minutes, respectively. Both are back this season with Campbell on the roster in anticipation of another meeting with Shaquille O'Neal in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Considering Detroit has one of the best starting fives in the league, and since they're still defending champs, the Pistons remain the team to beat.
4. Which of the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds have a legit shot at winning a first-round series?
Want to know what it's like for a No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 8? Ask George Karl. The new coach of the Nuggets was steering the ship for the Sonics in 1994 when Denver became the first team to pull off the league's biggest first-round upset.
Jump ahead a decade and Karl is again in the middle of the discussion as his No. 7 Denver Nuggets are the likeliest team to upend the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round -- the two split the season series at two games apiece.
It must be said, however, Denver doesn't seem a true seven-seed. At the All-Star break the underachieving team was a disappointing 24-29 with very little talk of making a serious playoff run. Rejuvenated, following an All-Star Game on their home turf which featured no hometown players, the Nuggets barnstormed to a 25-4 second-half record.
The questions in San Antonio surround one highly visible ankle. The Spurs are 1-3 since Duncan returned from a sprained ankle and if they are to avoid the first round upset, they need Timmy near 100 percent. The Spurs were routed on April 1 in Denver without Duncan, as the team gave up 46 points in the paint and were outscored 27-7 on the fast break.
With the first round now a best-of-seven format -- it was best-of-five the only two times a No. 8 seed defeated a No. 1 -- the Nuggets have a tough task in front of them. No disrespect to Memphis, New Jersey or Philadelphia, but the Nuggets look like the only No. 7 or 8 seed that has a shot at advancing past the first round.
5. Will a team emerge from the Texas triangle?
During the regular season, one of the worst road trips a team can make is through the Texas triangle. A team from the Lonestar State has routinely held court in the Southwest (prior to this season all three played in the Midwest Division). This year, the trouble for Western Conference hopefuls is three-fold.
Everybody knew San Antonio was going to be tough near the top in the league this year. They returned with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen and a cast of others, primed to make a run back to the Finals after a year away. Dallas has been a contender in the West for a number of years, but usually came up short on the defensive end (See No. 2). And Houston made a dramatic turnaround once the much-anticipated duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming learned to play together.
While three Texas powerhouses is bad news for Western Conference foes, there's good news for the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets: Phil Jackson is nowhere to be found. What's Jackson got to do with anything, you ask? Simple. Since 1991, Phil Jackson has been a coach in The Finals all but four years -- winning nine rings and losing to Detroit last season. Who won those other four titles? Houston in 1994 and 1995 and San Antonio in 1999 and 2003.
If you're a team from Texas, you have to like your chances.
6. Can Memphis get its first-ever playoff victory?
Coach Fratello will stress defense to slow Phoenix's high-octance offense in Round One.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Last year's Coach of the Year award winner, Hubie Brown, used his 10 man rotation to guide the Grizzlies to a 50-win season and a No. 6 seed in the playoffs. Unfortunatey the Grizzlies ended the season getting rolled, losing six-of-seven -- including four straight losses -- a trend that would carry over to their first-ever playoff experience.
In those playoffs, the Grizzlies nearly scored a win in Game 3 at home against the Spurs in their first-round matchup. The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, but Memphis could only muster three points in the final 3:22 and fell by two after a Mike Miller running three-point attempt found only rim at the buzzer. The Spurs went on to shoot 58.7 percent from the field in Game 4 -- including 64.7 percent from behind the arc -- to close out the series in sweeping fashion.
This year's Grizzlies were on the verge of clinching a playoff spot and returning to postseason action for a second straight year, but appeared like they might let Minnesota in the back door. Needing only one win to secure a playoff berth, the Grizzlies lost four straight games before Minnesota lost to eliminate themselves from playoff contention.
While it's unlikely the Grizzlies will score an upset and move on to the second round, look for this series to extend to at least five games. The heat will be on Phoenix to prove it can win with its wide-open style of play (See No. 2), something it has failed to do consistently against this Grizzlies team. Mike Fratello has found success against the Suns this season stressing defense to his squad in each meeting. The teams split the season series at two games apiece with the Grizzlies holding the Suns to a pedestrian 95.5 points per contest -- only Detroit held Phoenix to fewer points this season (90.0 PPG).
7. Can the Bulls really win a playoff series with rookies playing key roles?
The Bulls are back. The Windy City once again will host a playoff game -- the first since M.J. and Scottie hoisted a sixth Larry O'Brien trophy. While it's nice that this cast of rookies and journeymen put together a surprisingly strong season and secured home-court advantage in the first round, this team's work isn't done. The Bulls want to make it to the second round, and beyond. But can they?
The Bulls' formula for success this season included a heavy helping of rookie minutes -- four logged more than 23 per night. Add in Kirk Hinrich, a true leader on this team as a second-year player out of Kansas, who plays hard on both ends of the floor. Combine it all with the much improved play of both Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler, who both are only 22 years old. The result: A question mark.
No matter how well a rookie performs during the regular season, it's impossible to forecast what will happen when the real pressure is on in the playoffs. For motivation, the young Bulls can look to last year when Miami's Dwyane Wade showed the maturity in his years as he almost single-handedly lifted the Heat past the Hornets in the first round before taking the Pacers to six games.
The Bulls have had their share of tight games this season to get a feel for pressure. Ben Gordon has become clutch for the Bulls in the fourth quarter -- Gordon hit a last-second shot to defeat the Knicks, twice -- scoring 10-plus points in the final period 21 times.
Coach of the Year candidate Scott Skiles has excellently prepared his youthful squad for the rigors of an 82-game season. Despite losing Luol Deng and Eddy Curry for the remainder of the season, you can expect he will have his team ready to face the Washington Wizards in a best-of-seven series.
8. This is the third straight season Indiana and Boston will meet in the first round of the playoffs. Will the Celtics deny Reggie Miller one final playoff series win?
For the third consecutive year, the Celtics and Pacers are paired up in the opening round of the playoffs. Last year, the Pacers dispatched the Celtics with very little drama, sweeping the series in four straight games after winning a league-best 61 games.
For an indication of what to expect between the two clubs this season, take a look back to 2003 when the C's finished four games back of the Pacers in the regular season standings. The first-round was then a best-of-five format and Boston was able to steal home-court advantage when they rallied from 13 down in the final eight minutes to win Game 1 at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Celtics went on to upset the third-seeded Pacers and advance to the second round.
Regardless of whether Reggie Miller rides off in to the sunset with another playoff series victory to his credit, he's had a remarkable career.
9. Which first-time playoff coach is best prepared to deal with the pressures of the playoffs?
Of the 16 teams in the playoffs, three have coaches who took over in-season -- Dallas, Denver and Memphis -- while three coaches will be making their first-ever playoff appearances -- Mike D'Antoni, Avery Johnson, and Eddie Jordan. Each brings varying amounts of experience to his respective team in preparation for their first postseason test in the NBA.
D'Antoni honed his hoops skills as a player in the ABA and NBA before spending 13 seasons playing in Italy for Milan, where he became the club's all-time leading scorer. After his playing days ended, he remained in Italy and guided Philips Milan and Benetton Treviso of the Italian League and was twice named the league's Coach of the Year. As far as NBA playoff experience goes, D'Antoni is pretty green. He played in four games with the 1974-75 Kansas City/Omaha team which lost 4-2 to Chicago.
In 17 seasons as a player in the NBA, Avery Johnson has had his share of playoff experiences, including winning an NBA Championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. On the Mavericks roster as a player to open the 2004-05 season, Johnson traded in the jersey for a suit, being groomed as Don Nelson's successor. In the 18 games since Nelson stepped aside, Johnson has the team playing improved defense (See No. 2), ready to make their deepest run yet in the playoffs.
Eddie Jordan has been on the playing and coaching side of The Finals, which should help as his team tries to capture the battle of four and five seeds. Jordan won a championship ring as a player with the L.A. Lakers in 1982 and was an assistant coach to Byron Scott for the New Jersey Nets during their two Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003.
10. How will injuries affect this year's playoffs?
Ah, the dreaded injury bug. It can be devastating to a team hoping to make a run at an NBA championship. Witness Karl Malone last season. The future Hall of Famer was brought in by the Lakers to figure into the championship blueprint, but Malone was never able to fully recover from a sprained MCL suffered in December. Malone re-injured the knee in Game 2 of the 2004 NBA Finals and hobbled through Games 3 and 4, and was forced to watch from the sidelines as the Pistons captured the title in Game 5.
Will anybody suffer a similar fate this season? We can only hope not. Here's a look at a few key injuries that may or may not have an impact on playoff teams.
Tim Duncan has returned to the Spurs following a 12-game layoff because of a sprained right ankle. The Spurs are working Duncan back into the mix slowly, increasing his playing time from 20 minutes up to 28 against Memphis on Monday and 23 in the season finale against Minnesota. As much as everybody wants to see Duncan healthy, you can bet the Denver Nuggets are hoping the Big Fundamental isn't quite 100 percent ready to go.
The Big Diesel is a big concern. Shaq's bruised right thigh kept him out of the Heat's final two games, but the team expects he'll be ready when the Heat host the Nets in their first-round matchup. The Heat are a beatable 6-3 when O'Neal logs a DNP on the boxscore. O'Neal sat out three games earlier in April because of a stomach virus and by the time the Heat face the Nets in Game 1 of their first-round matchup Shaq will have only played in 85 minutes in nearly three weeks.
The injury-riddled Sonics' late-season slide nearly cost them the Northwest Division crown. Most everybody is back in the Sonics lineup but some are playing with bumps and bruises. Rashard Lewis is still recovering from a bone bruise in his right foot, an injury that caused him to miss eight games. Reserves Antonio Daniels and Vladimir Radmanovic finished the regular season on the injured list, but are expected to be activated and placed on the Sonics playoff roster. Radmanovic likely will not play early in the first-round series with Sacramento becuase of a right leg stress fracture.
Elsewhere, the Bulls are without Eddy Curry (irregular heartbeat) and Luol Deng (torn ligament in wrist) for the playoffs. The Pacers are trying to work Jermaine O'Neal back into the lineup after missing 22 games because of a shoulder separation on March 3. As if a bum knee wasn't enough to slow Chris Webber, he's finally back in action after suffering a sprained left shoulder in a loss at Phoenix on March 30. In New Jersey, the question is whether Richard Jefferson will return after surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist and how he'll play alongside new teammate Vince Carter.