Now that the first round of the NBA playoffs is over, let's look at the conference semifinals. Let the stars shine as we move one step closer to the excitement of the NBA Finals, baby!
WESTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
The Los Angeles Lakers-San Antonio Spurs series may be the most interesting one. San Antonio dominated the regular-season series, winning all four meetings. Forget about those games. In fact, it will psychologically motivate the Lakers.
Spurs center Tim Duncan has won back-to-back MVP awards, but he hasn't received the headlines like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Shaquille O'Neal this season. Duncan has been steady and consistent, and the NBA people in the know have recognized him.
I'll tell you this -- Mr. Duncan has to bring his "A" game when facing the Lakers.
Zen master Phil Jackson will have his Lakers physically and mentally prepared for this challenge. The Lakers know they went 0-4 against San Antonio during the regular season. Los Angeles fought through a tough series against a talented Minnesota Timberwolves club, prevailing in six games.That was good preparation for this series.
San Antonio didn't have an easy time getting past Stephon Marbury and the Phoenix Suns in six games.
The bottom line is that Kobe and Shaq find ways to win. The loss of Rick Fox is a blow, but Jackson and company love challenges.
Prediction: Lakers in six.
The Dallas Mavericks were fortunate to get past the Portland Trail Blazers. The Mavs faced a potential disaster in Game 7 against the Blazers. After holding a 3-0 lead in the series, coach Don Nelson's team lost three straight and had a Maalox Masher in Game 7. With the score tied late at 92, the Mavericks pulled away and advanced to play the Sacramento Kings.
Sacramento dominated when these teams met in the playoffs last year. Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki must be at his best against the Kings. Mavs guard Nick Van Exel did a super job in Game 7 against Portland, and he'll be pushed by the NBA's premier sixth man, Kings guard Bobby Jackson.
Sacramento's combination of Chris Webber and Mike Bibby figures to give Dallas trouble. Look for Sacramento to really run up and down the court. This should be a fun series.
Prediction: Kings in seven.
EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS
This is another rematch from last season's playoffs. The New Jersey Nets prevailed in last year's showdown, but it wasn't easy.
The Boston Celtics have the 1-2 scoring punch of Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. Can they lead Boston to another series upset? Boston dominated by double figures in three of its four victories over Indiana in the first round.
Coach Byron Scott's Nets have lots of firepower in point guard Jason Kidd, big man Kenyon Martin and rising star Richard Jefferson. New Jersey struggled on the road in the regular season but got the job done in its series against Milwaukee, winning twice at Bradley Center. This will be a physical series.
Prediction: Nets in six.
What a great comeback by the Detroit Pistons. After falling behind 3-1 in their first-round series with Orlando Magic, coach Rick Carlisle's team raised its defensive intensity up a notch and got big-time scoring from Chauncey Billups in the last two victories (he totaled 77 points). Detroit shut down superstar Tracy McGrady in Game 7.
Any time you talk about the Philadelphia 76ers, you start with Allen Iverson, who poured in 45 big points to close out the Hornets. Detroit's forte is defense, and it will be a real challenge to slow down Iverson.
After stopping McGrady, Detroit can step up with Billups, Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace's shot-blocking presence. Keep an eye on Tayshaun Prince, who scored 20 points in Game 7 against Orlando as a factor off the bench.
Prediction: In a tough call, Pistons in seven.