Updated: March 13, 2006, 2:26 AM ET

Bracketing the NBA tournament

Put down that bracket, would you? Or click away from it. Your choice.

Course you won't. The college game's March Madness puts a firm grip on most everybody. However, we remind you that the NBA jumps right to its Sweet 16 in late April, and finishes in June. College mid-majors need not apply for these ultimate finals, the NBA's mid-June croon.

So why wait for bracket news from graduate school, also known as the NBA? In honor of the college game's shining season, here's ten points to ponder while the NBA seeds plant themselves -- no tournament committee wrangling needed -- in the coming weeks.

1. Which team on the bubble will not make it?
Everybody loves Chris Paul, but the Hornets are fading down the stretch in the face of more experienced teams.

2. Which team on the bubble will make it?
Sacramento in the West has moved over the .500 mark, pushing ahead of the Hornets for the West Region's No. 8 seed, and is finishing with all the aplomb of a Shaq slam at LSU. In the East, the Bucks, by the fingernails. Michael Redd's dead-eye shot, and a Friday win over surging Boston might end up being the difference in holding on to the East's eight seed.

3. First No. 1 seed to fall?
We've yet to see a first-round loss for a No. 1 seed in the college tournament (thanks to Miami backup Alonzo Mourning, in a Georgetown uniform swatting Princeton shots back in the Jurassic Age, er, 1989). Don't expect a one to go down in the NBA until the finals.

4. Most likely Cinderella story?
This belle wears baby blue unis. This is where the Nuggets come in. Put the shoe on, 'Melo, the man who led the 'Cuse to a title in his only college season.

5. Which bracket is shaping up as the toughest?
The West, in particular the teams coming from the 4-5 seeds. As it stands now, that would be the Mavs and Clippers. Winner gets 1-8 seeds Spurs-Kings for the right to play in the West finals against, in all likelihood, the Suns with Amare. That's like getting shipped the Boise Regional for a late game against the 'Zags. For 21 games. Whew.

6. Which 1-8 seed matchup is likely to produce the biggest upset? Belmont, Albany, Southern . . . meet the Bucks and Kings (as it stands now). These odds are longer than a football field. No chance the Pistons or the Spurs/Mavs deathmatch winner gets ousted here. Not happening.

7. Which 2-7 matchup is likely to produce the biggest upset?
Looks like Heat-Sixers, Suns-Lakers. Odds seem just as long as 1-8 matchup. In the college bracket, fifteen-seed Davidson probably has a better chance than those two underdogs.

8. Which would-be college senior (or upperclassman) will shine brightest in this year's NBA playoffs?
1. LeBron, a junior from Akron. 2. Amare Stoudemire, senior from Florida. 3. Carmelo Anthony, senior from Baltimore.

9. Which team is most likely to be Four and Done?
Forget the obvious fringe candidates. The Grizz don't like heights, and have never won in Denver.

10. Which team is most likely to run the table (without a loss) in the playoffs?
A Pistons team that returns to its earlier punishing mode could douse the Bucks, tame the Pacers-Cavs winner and then hand out the kind of beatdown to the Spurs it showed itself capable of back in February.

But very unlikely.

Finally, what's a tournament column without some Final Four picks?

Here they are: Spurs (Tim Duncan polished his game four years at Wake Forest), Pistons (Rip Hamilton put up his Duke(s) in title win for UConn), Suns (Steve Nash's No. 15 seed Santa Clara beat 'Zona) and the Heat (Dwyane Wade willed Marquette to the Final Four).

Your final: Pistons beat Spurs in six. A clash for the ages, and the not-quite aged. 'Sheed and Duncan go way back, battling each other over a decade ago in the ACC. They've been schooling opponents ever since.

Andrew Ayres is an NBA editor for ESPN.com

Talk back to the Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: March 1 | 2 | 3 | 4-5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-12

Winning With Ron-Ron
AP Photo/George Nikitin
Ron Artest challenges Mavs guard Jerry Stackhouse for the ball during Sacramento's 85-80 win. Artest had 15 points, joining the four other starters in double figures. The Kings are now 14-7 since Artest came to Sacramento from Indiana for Peja Stojakovic.

Dime Mailbag: Missing The Point

Readers react to a story on the Nash-less Suns:

Steve Nash for MVP: You say the game against the Spurs drove home the point? How so? The Suns were missing more than Nash, they were missing several others including Barbosa. In the previous two or three games, Barbosa outplayed Nash in leading the Suns back from deficits to wins. He is quicker and plays much better D. The Spurs scored 117 points. If Nash had played they may have scored 135 the way they were shooting.

If Marion was out and Nash was in the result would have been the same. This was the Spurs not Seattle. The same Spurs that beat the Suns with Nash 4-1 in last year's playoffs. I like Nash, and his is an obvious media darling, but you guys are going way overboard with the credit you give him. He is part of a well put together team. Give the coach his due. And if victories are your measuring stick, then Tony Parker should be ahead of Nash, the league leader in turnovers. Kobe is the obvious choice. Anything else is uncivilized.

-- Randall (Newark)

Yes the Suns lost to the Spurs badly Thursday night. Yes it is obvious that Nash is the engine driving this team and should be the leading canidate in the MVP race. But don't sell the Suns short they weren't just with out Nash. There bench consisted of Nash, Amare, Thomas, Grant, and Barbosa; not to mention a flu ridden Marion and Tim Thomas playing under the weather. So before everyone panics and knocks the Suns consider if the opposite where true in this came. Would San Antonio have competed with Duncan, Parker and a handful of supporting cast members on the bench? That's my point!
-- Chris (Scottsdale, Ariz.)

Gentlemen, what happened to all the talk about the Pistons being the best team ever and topping the Bulls' 73-win mark? You guys should know better. My guess is Rasheed and the Motor City Bad Boys' early season antics and big-mouthed bravado will come back to haunt them when the playoffs start. They peaked at the wrong time, fellas -- the Spurs and the Heat know that. Detroit will know it soon enough. And they'll get spanked.

-- Mark (Herndon, VA)

News And Notes

Ray Allen, in his 10th NBA season, became the 97th player in league history to reach the 15,000-point milestone. The game was the first of three straight for the Lakers against teams hovering around .500 or below. Los Angeles, which recently beat the Detroit Pistons and split games against San Antonio, is at Sacramento on Tuesday, then hosts Minnesota the following night. Since being traded from the Clippers to the Sonics, Chris Wilcox essentially has doubled his minutes to around 28 a game, and his scoring, up to some 12 points a game. ... Seattle, coming off a victory over Minnesota, had not won consecutive games since Jan. 22-25.

• Cavs F Donyell Marshall (finger sprain) and G Eric Snow (elbow) both played after undergoing MRIs in Miami on Saturday. Results were negative. ... The Heat improved to 7-6 at home when trailing at the start of the fourth quarter. The Cavs fell to 9-1 on the road when leading at the start of the fourth quarter. ... Cleveland's most recent win in Miami came in December 2001.

• The Spurs have beaten Houston 17 straight times at home. ... The Rockets' David Wesley did not play in the second half because of a rib injury. ... San Antonio played its fourth straight without Nick Van Exel (sore left elbow). ... The Rockets and Spurs play again Saturday and then in the season finale on April 19. Both of those games are in Houston.

-- The Associated Press

Motion: Spurs Slammin'
When Michael Finley jammed on a drive against Yao Ming, it pumped up his Spurs. The Rockets came up with their usual result in San Antonio.

Spurs Rule

Lost On The Oregon Trail

AP Photo/Don Ryan
Steve Nash had 16 assists in his second game back in the Suns' lineup, but Steve Blake and Portland earned the win, 111-101.

Extreme Behavior

Sunday's Best
Alonzo Mourning, Heat center: Shaq struggled, and LeBron was en route to 47. No matter. 'Zo to the rescue. The 36-year-old backup center finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and several shot-changing defensive plays in 23 minutes. Heat beat the Cavs, 98-92.


Sunday's Worst
The slumping Hornets: A return to Oklahoma City and the OK buzz would seem to have been what a team on a five-game skid needed. But Hornets lose to Nets. Accepting award on behalf of the team is Desmond (3-for-14 FG) Mason.


Quote of the Day
"When you got it going, you got it going. I just keep my focus down the stretch. That's when I want the ball. I'm just not afraid to fail."
-- Celtics forward Paul Pierce, after matching 'Melo's 36 points, including a clutch shot over Ruben "Kobestopper" Patterson, in a 106-101 win over the Nuggets.

-- Andrew Ayres

See how all 185 who played stacked up
The current NBA Playoff matchups

What's Driving Dallas?

Dave, Alaska: What did we learn from the Mavs' recent losses at San Antonio and Phoenix? Did Dallas just falter without the play of Josh Howard and KVH? Was Avery outcoached? What must Big D do to really compete with the other Western contenders?

Chris Sheridan: We learned that they'e going to lose sometimes, especially when they play other great teams. But so what? If the Mavs play the Suns or the Spurs in a seven-game series, don't you think they'll lose a couple? What they need to keep doing is cranking out wins against inferior competition and try to finish ahead of the Spurs. It's all about homecourt for Game 7 of the second round.

Christopher (Lansing, Michigan): Who do you think will shake out in the West? Houston and Sacramento are coming on strong, Utah is solid, the Hornets are sliding and the Lakers are staying at about .500. Who do you think will make it?

Chris Sheridan: You never know about Tracy McGrady's back, but with the with the way Yao has been playing and with McGrady available for 16-18 of their remaining 20 games, I think Houston will make the playoffs. I think the Hornets will drop out, and I think the Lakers and Kings will go down to the final game of the season for the No. 8 spot.

Read the full Chris Sheridan chat Insider

Elias Says

Elton Brand celebrated his 27th birthday with one of the best all-around games of the NBA season: He had 22 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six blocked shots in the Clippers' 106-98 victory at Milwaukee.

Get this: No NBA player has had 20 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six blocked shots in a regular-season game in nearly three years, since Tim Duncan had a 21-15-9-6 performance against the Jazz on April 14, 2003. Only one other player in Clippers franchise history has produced such a game: Lamar Odom (22-11-7-7) against Golden State in 1999.

• Elias Sports Bureau | More Elias Insider

Charlie Not So Sorry

Chris Paul's the top rookie. Chris Sheridan examines the rest of the field:

So who is No. 2?

Since moving into the starting lineup Feb. 3, Toronto's Charlie Villanueva has averaged 15.8 points and 7.9 rebounds in those 15 games. Few believed he would post such numbers when the Raptors made the University of Connecticut forward the seventh overall pick of last June's draft.

The pick was criticized widely since the Raptors already had a top-tier power forward in Chris Bosh, but Toronto has turned Villanueva into an oversized small forward whom they believe has the quickness and agility to defend opposing 3s.

Villanueva honed his shooting skills by putting up more than 1,000 3-pointers per day in the weeks leading up to the draft, a pace he hasn't been able to keep up due to the rigors of the NBA season, although he's trying. "A couple hundred a day," Villanueva said.

After attempting only a dozen 3-pointers (making six) during his final season at Connecticut, Villanueva is 48-for-141 (34 percent) through the Raptors' first 59 games.

Only five rookies -- all of them guards -- have made more 3s than Villanueva.

"When we brought Charlie in for his workouts, we knew he could shoot the basketball," Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. "I just laugh at people, because this kid would have been a late first-round pick out of high school, and for people to think he couldn't be a high first-round pick after going through a program like Connecticut, winning a national championship and playing under a coach like Jim Calhoun, maybe I'm just stupid, but I thought all those things were positives."

Read the full Chris Sheridan story Insider



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