-- As we inch closer to The NBA Finals, talk around the water cooler is heating up. Four teams are still alive in the 2005 Playoffs but only two can advance for a chance to play for a title. Here's a look at each series, and what the players -- and columnists -- are saying:
Western Conference Finals
The fairy tale season of the Phoenix Suns concluded Wednesday night at America West Arena, with the San Antonio Spurs winning Game 5, 101-95, to advance to the NBA Finals.
Stoudemire earned Duncan's respect in the West Finals; Duncan earned a trip to The Finals
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
The Suns completed the third best turnaround in NBA history this season, going from 29 wins to a league leading 62. Steve Nash, arguably their best player, won MVP, their coach Mike D'Antoni earned Coach of the Year and their general manager Bryan Colangelo took Sporting News Executive of the Year laurels.
Why do we say arguably? Because of Amare Stoudemire's 37.0 point per game scoring average. Not only did he do it in the Conference Finals , but he did it against the league leaders in points allowed from the regular season while being guarded by Tim Duncan, one of the top defensive stoppers in the NBA.
With his postseason performance, Stoudemire silenced critics who claimed his spectacular regular season was merely a product of Nash's passing wizardry.
"Duncan watched Stoudemire plow through the mighty Spurs for another 42 points and 16 boards and quickly realized he might have a bigger problem than free throws in his future," wrote Marc Stein on ESPN.com after Game 5.
"'I have no doubt that we'll do this again, [that] we'll be back in this situation in years to come,' Duncan said, revealing what he told his Olympic teammate in their lengthy postgame embrace.
"You can say that the Spurs have officially eliminated the Suns, twice in four victories holding them under 100 points," Stein continued. "You can say they've repelled the 77th comeback attempt from 3-0 down (out of 77) in playoff history. You can say they've advanced to the NBA Finals for the third time in seven seasons with what the record books will show to be a fairly routine 4-1 series triumph. What you can't say is that the Spurs put the Suns away.
"'And just think – the guy is 22 years old,'" said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.
"Just think II: Stoudemire has been playing through a hyperextended elbow for most of the series."
Yet even with Stoudemire posting 37, 41, 34, 31 and 42 points against the Spurs, San Antonio won in four of five of those showings.
"Though Phoenix used its frenetic, let-it-fly style to race to 62 victories and the NBA's best record, the Spurs proved they also could play at such a pace," wrote Johnny Ludden in the San Antonio Express News. "They topped 100 points in each of the series' five games, the first time they had done so since losing to Portland in the 1990 conference semifinals."
"If you would have told me that at the start of the season," Robert Horry said in the paper, "I would have thought you were smoking something."
Duncan accounted for 27.4 of San Antonio's 110 point per game average against Phoenix. Though he had a poor Game 4, missing 9-of-12 free throws in San Antonio's lone loss -- he bounced back with 31 points and 15 rebounds Wednesday night.
"Tim Duncan was a possessed individual," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said in the Los Angeles Times. "You would never know it from looking at his face or talking to him. I haven't talked to him for two days. I just leave him alone when he has a game like he did the other night. And he doesn't need anybody to talk to him, especially a coach."
"I knew I had to put together a better performance than I did the last game, whether it be lack of focus the last game or just a bad night," said Duncan in the Arizona Republic. "I came in here just to rectify that."
Rectify he did. Game 1 of The Finals is scheduled for Tuesday, June 9 on the Spurs' home floor.
Eastern Conference Finals
Like Duncan, Miami center Shaquille O'Neal is coming off a poor performance in which he tallied just 12 points and five rebounds in a foul-plagued 25 minutes in the Detroit's 106-96 win in Game 4.
O'Neal needs to rebound from a quiet Game 4.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
"That O'Neal, 33, is averaging only 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds in the playoffs is a testament to his problem," wrote Eddie Sefko in the Dallas Morning News. "O'Neal is the self-proclaimed 'Most Dominant Ever.' Unless he's trying to do his best Erick Dampier impersonation, this is not his best time.
"Big men can be effective in the NBA into their late 30s. But like every athlete, they experience a decline, sometimes painfully rapid, when they pass their prime. Shelf life of even the greatest players has its limits."
If the Heat are going to advance to The Finals, they'll need O'Neal to rediscover his old self Thursday night, when the Miami takes on Detroit in Game 5. In the previous 126 times a best-of-seven series has been tied 2-2, the Game 5 winner has gone on to close out the series 106 times, a .841 winning percentage.
"Game 7 gets all the glory," wrote Ethan J. Skolnick in the South Florida Sun Sentinel . It's do-or-die. Win-or-go-home. Now-or-never. Truth being told. Yeah, we get it.
"But to get to Game 7, a series first must get through Game 5. Game 5 is the guts of a close seven-game series, the tiebreaker, the turning point, and it has given us as many memorable moments, seconds and even split-seconds as its more celebrated sibling."
"It is the biggest game of the series, now it's a three-game series," Detroit guard Chauncey Billups said during Wednesday's session with the media. "We are going to have to win on the road to win the series, it's a great opportunity for us. We have a little momentum going in right now and we felt like we played pretty well on their court so we are looking forward to it."
"With the minutes that we play, especially the starting five, who are averaging probably 40 minutes in the Playoffs, you definitely have to take it personal as far as trying to get this team over the hump," added Tayshaun Prince. "At this point in time, it is just a matter of us going out there and being focused.
"Last night, we were focused. Game 1, we were focused; Game 2, we were focused partially; and Game 3, we were not really focused at all. Last night, with the situation we were in, we had our backs against the wall and we had to be focused."
"To watch them defend the Heat on Tuesday night in Auburn Hills, stifling Dwyane Wade with different looks, turning Miami's supporting cast back into nothing after a great Game 3, was to see what they did in their run to the championship a season ago," wrote Doug Smith in the Toronto Star. "They knew they had to win and they did."
"It is the knowledge of the Detroit Pistons that is to be feared in the next few days, their experience, their cockiness, the edge they developed under the most pressure-packed moments of an NBA post-season," he continued. "They have shown in the past they are best when the stakes are greatest, they came from 2-1 down to beat Indiana in the last series, they were down 3-2 to New Jersey a year ago and won two straight. They have that background, that knowledge, that innate sense of when to seize the moment that sets them apart."