NBA playoff preview

I'm a big fan of both college and pro basketball, and there's no doubt the NBA really heats up in the postseason. It's similar to March Madness in college hoops.

In the playoffs, NBA stars play with more passion, trying to bring honor to the team name on the front of the jersey. Individual stats mean little now, and each team's intensity and emotion really pick up.

As fans, let's get ready to enjoy the best time of the NBA season. I don't want those football guys and baseball players and soccer stars and hockey standouts to get upset with me, but the world's greatest athletes on the highest level are in the NBA.

I love hoops at every level, and now we see the best against the best. Here's my look at the first round of the playoffs...

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Indiana Pacers vs. No. 8 Boston Celtics
Prediction -- Indiana in 5
What a magical season for Pacers coach Rick Carlisle! Indiana improved from 48 wins a year ago to the incredible 60-win plateau this season. Say what you want about Carlisle, but he has a way of understanding concepts and getting the most out of every player.

Jermaine O'Neal has enjoyed a terrific season. The big fella has been a dominant force deserving of some MVP consideration.

Boston has been up and down, especially since former coach Jim O'Brien left and John Carroll took over. GM Danny Ainge has to be happy to see his team making it to the postseason. The trade that brought in point guard Ricky Davis also sent a ripple throughout the Celtics organization. Now they're into the second season, and we will see if they can make this interesting.

Any time guard Paul Pierce is on the court, battling and scrapping, the Celtics can be competitive. But Indiana is too strong on both ends of the court. Pierce and Co. would have to play at a different level to pull off a surprise.

No. 2 New Jersey Nets vs. No. 7 New York Knicks
Prediction -- New Jersey in 6
Oh, New York, New York, what a job GM Isiah Thomas has done. He's made a number of moves -- including the trade for Stephon Marbury -- to put the Knicks into playoff position. They don't have the ammunition and personnel to make much noise, but they took step one, created some excitement and got on the back page of the New York Post and Daily News. The Knicks made positive strides ... now can they take it a step further?

Marbury is one of the best perimeter guys in all of basketball. The point guard deluxe not only creates opportunities for his teammates but also scores (big-time). Nets star point guard Jason Kidd, back from his knee problems, will need his A-game against Marbury. But the Knicks don't have enough weapons besides Marbury. Guard Allan Houston's injury woes (knee) might keep him from playing -- coach Lenny Wilkens said there's a 70 to 80 percent chance Houston won't play in this series.

The Nets know how to win in the postseason, having played in the past two NBA Finals, and power forward Kenyon Martin and small forward Richard Jefferson will step it up even more. Look at how they've responded before come playoff time. Diaper dandy coach Lawrence Frank will guide the Nets to the next round.

No. 3 Detroit Pistons vs. No. 6 Milwaukee Bucks
Prediction -- Detroit in 5
The Bucks should have won their last regular-season game and avoided a meeting with the red-hot Pistons. Milwaukee has a tough test against forward Rasheed Wallace, who has been a model citizen performing under another former Tar Heels star, Detroit head coach Larry Brown.

The Hall of Fame coach has guided this team brilliantly, and the Pistons' defense has been spectacular. Big man Ben Wallace is as good as it gets defensively. Milwaukee has the scoring ability of Michael Redd on the perimeter, but the Bucks don't have enough to offset the Pistons.

No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 New Orleans Hornets
Prediction -- New Orleans in 6
The Heat started the season 0-7, and it looked like it would be a long season for coach Stan Van Gundy in his rookie campaign. But Miami turned it around, with the development of rookie guard Dwyane Wade a major factor in Miami's success (remember, Wade led Marquette to the Final Four last year).

Second-year standout Caron Butler gives Miami a quality scorer, while forward Lamar Odom provides versatility and big man Brian Grant is a solid force on the glass. It's quite an achievement to be fourth in the conference after such a rough start.

Still, I see New Orleans prevailing, with guard Baron Davis and center Jamaal Magloire being the keys. After broadcasting many of Magloire's college games at Kentucky, I never thought I would see him become the scorer that he's been late this season. He posted double-doubles on a regular basis, and he gives the Hornets a major edge.

Western Conference
No. 1 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. No. 8 Denver Nuggets
Prediction -- Minnesota in 5
This will be the year Minnesota finally wins a playoff series! The Timberwolves won't be stopped by rookie Carmelo Anthony and Co., though it has been a terrific turnaround for the Nuggets. Anthony picked up with the Nuggets right where he left off as a diaper dandy at Syracuse last year, when he led the Orangemen to the NCAA championship.

Kevin Garnett, Minnesota's All-Star 7-footer, is the clear choice for MVP this season (in my book). And coach Flip Saunders has lots of other options. Point guard Sam Cassell is a star despite lacking the national PR he deserves. Guard/small forward Latrell Sprewell has fit in well after coming over from the Knicks in an offseason trade. Forward Wally Szczerbiak is back in the lineup and offers additional scoring punch.

No. 2 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 7 Houston Rockets
Prediction -- Lakers in 5
Wow, Shaquille O'Neal vs. Yao Ming in round one! Talk about a heavyweight matchup in the middle, baby!

This is the time of the year when the Lakers turn it on. It's Showtime! This is where the Lakers want to separate themselves from the pack, and they've focused so much on that gold trophy. They're capable of playing at another level in the postseason.

The Lakers' All-Star cast is too much for the Rockets. Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy will have his team prepared, so it won't be easy, but Shaq, Kobe Bryant and Co. will get it done.

No. 3 San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 6 Memphis Grizzlies
Prediction -- San Antonio in 6
Memphis' Hubie Brown is my choice for NBA coach of the year. The Grizzlies slipped a little bit at the end of the season, due in part to injuries affecting guard Bonzi Wells and forward Pau Gasol, though both should be in the lineup for this series.

Memphis played everyone in the West tough most of this season. The postseason is a different story, though -- especially against a hot Spurs team that closed the regular season with an 11-game winning streak.

Defending champ San Antonio is getting ready for its march to win back-to-back NBA titles. All-Star center Tim Duncan will be too tough and won't be denied. Guard Manu Ginobili, who might be the best sixth man in the league this season, also will be a factor. Memphis will play hard in what could be a physical series, but it won't be enough vs. the Spurs.

No. 4 Sacramento Kings vs. No. 5 Dallas Mavericks
Prediction -- Sacramento in 7
Wow, this is quite a matchup! It's an incredible showdown for the first round. I can't wait to see All-Star Dirk Nowitzki and Co. battle Chris Webber!

Get your calculators out, because this should be wild, up-and-down hoops! It'll be a great sideline battle between Sacramento's Rick Adelman and Dallas' Don Nelson. The Kings had to be disappointed with their season-ending loss to Golden State that put them in this bind. Adelman admitted his team wasn't focused in the finale.

Sacramento finished 4-8 in its final 12 regular-season games, but this is a second chance to return to earlier dominance. It will be intriguing since Dallas won the season series 3-1. The Mavs are a nightmare to face in Dallas. But Webber, point guard Mike Bibby and forward Peja Stojakovic will be too much in a tight series. In a way, it's a shame to see these two outstanding teams meeting so early.

NBA Finals: Spurs over Pistons
This should be a great postseason. A number of teams are capable of celebrating the NBA championship. In the end, my prediction is a final between San Antonio and Detroit.

San Antonio's Gregg Popovich has been a great money coach in the postseason. He has his team peaking at the right time, with a recent victory over the Lakers in L.A. There has been so much written and said about the Lakers, Kings and other worthy teams, but the quiet Spurs are so tough with savvy point guard Tony Parker complementing Tim Duncan, the league's reigning MVP.

Detroit is tough defensively, but Duncan and Co. have the heart of a champion. The Wallaces, Ben and Rasheed, will get to the championship round but fall short.

Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he's been an ESPN analyst ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.