More predictions: Pistons, Spurs to meet in finals

    Remember when Vince Carter hit that game-winner to send the Raptors to the finals? Remember when the Blazers crushed the Lakers in the seventh game and went on to bring the first championship to Portland since the days of Bill Walton? Remember when… none of that happened? Carter missed his attempt at the buzzer during game seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, as Allen Iverson’s 76ers advanced. The Blazers couldn’t hold off a furious Lakers comeback the year before that, so instead of the beginning of a Trailblazer dynasty, we got the first of three Laker titles. Since then, the Raptors, now Carter-less, have gone through coaches quicker than Wilmer Valderrama goes through hot women, and the Trailblazers have resembled Vinnie Barbarino and the Sweathogs — without the ability to be controlled by the Kotter-esque Mo Cheeks.

    This year, two of the remaining four teams will advance to the NBA Finals and the other two teams will simply be afterthoughts. So, which teams are going to rise to the occasion and which should start putting together crazy promotional gimmicks to fill the seats? Well, if you really want to know …

    WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

    PHOENIX SUNS VS. SAN ANTONIO SPURS

    They might not be the defending champs, or even the defending Western Conference Champions, but with the reality show that took place in LakerLand, head coach Gregg Popovich and his International All-Stars are the closest thing the West has to a championship pedigree. The Suns are the number-one seed. They’re fast, exciting and, with the return of forward/guard Joe Johnson, have at least six players who could explode for big games. Point guard Steve Nash has been better in the playoffs than he was during the regular season, and he was the MVP of the regular season. He has been increasing career highs during the entire postseason, and has helped those around him do the same. This looks like an offense vs. defense battle on paper, but the San Antonio Spurs, while superior in the half-court to every other team in the league, have the ability to keep up with the Suns and might even be able to out-run a run-down squad. The Spurs will turn on the defensive intensity when it’s needed, but there’s no way to really force the Suns to set. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em … and then beat ’em too.

    EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

    MIAMI HEAT VS.

    DETROIT PISTONS

    Did either of these teams even have to play any other series? Did this not become a preordained matchup the instant Shaq traded Hollywood bling for a Miami g-string?

    No, not really. Even those who say they saw this coming all along are probably full of it. Nobody could have known at the start of the season just how complete a team Miami would really be. Nobody would have said that while Kobe Bryant couldn’t even make the playoffs without Shaq, Heat guard Dwayne Wade would be able to sweep a series without him. The truth, cliched as it is, is that Shaq changes the game, especially in the playoffs. Unfortunately, so far we have not seen Shaq in this year’s playoffs. With Shaq, the Heat can dominate completely and play with anybody. Without Shaq, they’ve still shown that they are an elite and competitive force, even in playoff basketball. Sure, the Pistons had a scare last round, falling behind 2-1 to the depleted Indiana Pacers, but any weaknesses shown in that series will be hard to exploit again, especially without at least 90 percent of Big Daddy Diesel standing tall in the center. However, this is the playoffs, this is where it counts, and as Shaq has constantly reminded everyone, he always comes through when it counts. It counts now, Shaq, and Miami’s Flash can’t beat Detroit’s Bash without you.

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