Celtics, Pistons in the East, anybody's guess in the West Print
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Thursday, 17 April 2008 14:25
NBA Headline News

 Shaq and the Suns vs. the Spurs. Kobe Bryant head-to-head against Allen Iverson. The Dallas Mavericks' chance to go from favored flops to dangerous 'dogs.
And that's only the first round.
Coming off its tightest playoff race ever, the Western Conference is now set for a postseason that could be even better.
``It's going to be bananas, it's going to be crazy,'' Dallas guard Jason Terry said. ``It's going to be great for NBA fans all across the world.''
When it's finally over, whoever survives the wild West will probably find Boston or Detroit waiting for them.
The playoffs begin Saturday: Washington visits Cleveland for Round 3 of their postseason rivalry; Phoenix heads to San Antonio; the Hornets host Dallas in its first postseason game since returning to New Orleans; and Utah travels to Houston for another playoff rematch.
On Sunday, it's Toronto at Orlando; the Lakers taking on the Nuggets; Detroit entertaining Philadelphia; and Boston hosting Atlanta.
The Celtics or Pistons are heavy favorites to reach the NBA finals. Nothing is certain out West, where the top-seeded Lakers were only seven victories better than the No. 8 Nuggets, who finished 50-32.
The Spurs are the No. 3 seed, the same spot from where they started last year's title run. They went through the Suns, who provide a more sizable road block this time in the form of the 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal, who helped Phoenix win both meetings since arriving from Miami.
``The Phoenix-San Antonio matchup is going to be an absolute bloodbath,'' Houston's Shane Battier said. ``The Dallas-New Orleans series is going to be very, very competitive. Denver is athletic enough to match up with the Lakers; you never know what could happen in that series. And the 4-5 is always a good series. It's going to be a very good playoff race in the Western Conference this year.''
Perhaps it ends with the Celtics against the Lakers, the NBA's greatest rivalry renewed on its biggest stage. Or maybe it's Boston-San Antonio, the old dynasty vs. the new.
Or, it could be Pistons-Hornets, or Pistons-Jazz, or Celtics-Suns. The finals might start in Boston or Detroit, but there's no telling who shows up from the West.
``I think it's open a little bit,'' Utah's Carlos Boozer said. ``I think the championship still goes through the Spurs. I have a great deal of respect for them. There are definitely some talented teams out there, and I think everybody has a chance to get to the championship.''
The Lakers clinched the top seed with a strong finish, possibly winning Bryant his first MVP award in the process. But they get a dangerous No. 8 seed in the Nuggets, with Iverson and Carmelo Anthony ranking just behind Bryant in the league's scoring race.
The eighth seed pulled the stunner last year when Golden State knocked off a 67-win Dallas team. Now the Mavericks will try to see the upset from the other side against the Southwest Division champion Hornets, who are the No. 2 seed but have little postseason experience.
Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the rest of the Mavericks got a huge confidence boost in the season finale with a 111-98 victory over the Hornets - a huge turnaround from the beating the Hornets laid on them in February in Dallas' first game after acquiring Kidd.
``We've been through almost everything in 30 games - injuries, suspensions, different lineup changes. So I think we've seen it all,'' Kidd said. ``Playing very talented teams, playing bad teams. ... I think there's nothing we haven't seen as a team, from the first time we played New Orleans to now. So I think we're prepared and excited for this challenge.''
So are the Celtics, led by the trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to an NBA-best 66-16 record. Now they chase the storied franchise's first title since 1986.
``We expect to win this thing,'' Garnett said. ``Nothing less than that and that's the focus here, that's the mentality.''
The Celtics and Pistons are expected to cruise through their opening-round series against sub-.500 teams. That probably leaves the Cleveland-Washington series as the best of the first round in the East.
The Cavaliers knocked out the Wizards in each of the last two years, though Washington's players talk as if they've forgotten. Some have said they wanted to play LeBron James and the defending conference champs, and now they've got their chance.
Washington had no hope of winning last year, with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler out with injuries. Now it's the Cavs who have been dealing with late-season injuries, but they still have James, the NBA's scoring leader with 30 points per game.
``He's tremendous. He can win a series all by himself, and hopefully he doesn't have to do that,'' Cavs coach Mike Brown said. ``He doesn't have to do anything magical or anything like that. He just has to be himself and try to limit his mistakes, stay poised and continue to lead this team. That should get us where we need to go.''
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AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas, Chris Duncan in Houston and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.
 

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