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Fan-tastic 2006.

If it’s late April, it must be time for the NBA playoffs. And, while the Knicks’ sheer terribleness made it especially hard for me to evaluate the rest of the league this year (since all the halfway-decent teams generally just ran right over ’em), a tradition is a tradition. [2000|2001|2002|2003|2004|2005] So, without further ado:

The East

Detroit Pistons (1) v. Milwaukee Bucks (8): Ok, they didn’t crack 70 wins — Still, with four All-Stars on hand (Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince), championship experience, the best team mentality in pro basketball right now, and an unsatisfied hunger after the Game 7 Finals loss last year, this Pistons squad has the look of a Team of Destiny. I actually watched Milwaukee completely dismantle the Knickerbockers from near-courtside at the Garden last Friday (Thanks, Gill and Ethan), and they definitely have some weapons — Michael Redd from behind the arc, TJ Ford in the open floor. Still, they’re overmatched against Detroit. Pistons in 4.

Miami Heat (2) v. Chicago Bulls (7): Scott Skiles seems to be a great coach, and Chicago is an exciting young team. Plus, they’re bound to get even better next year, since (grumble, grumble) they’re getting a Top-5 pick from the Knicks. But the Heat is home to two superheroes in Superman and Flash (who get along better these days than do Supes and Batman [via DYFL]), and Alonzo Mourning (albeit hurt) is no slouch either. Provided the Glove doesn’t revert to his terrible-LA days, and ‘Toine or White Chocolate don’t shoot ’em out of it, the Heat should get through the first round with little trouble. Heat in Five.

New Jersey Nets (3) v. Indiana Pacers (6): I still haven’t forgiven Vince Carter for his folding on Toronto a few years back — Still with he and Richard Jefferson on the wings and the inimitable Jason Kidd manning the point, New Jersey look to be a frightening playoff team, and I doubt they’ll have much trouble moving past Indiana, a squad who, post-Reggie and post-Artest, seems as if their time has passed. (That being said, I haven’t seen all that much of the Peja Pacers.) Nets in Six.

Cleveland Cavaliers (4) v. Washington Wizards (5): Will the District’s ballers manage to topple King James,or will LeBron make the Wiz look like the Washington Generals? Gilbert Arenas‘ big-game tendencies notwithstanding, I tend to favor the Cavs here. LeBron has already shown he can pretty much do it all, at least during the regular season. And while he alone probably isn’t enough (yet) to get this somewhat second-rate squad past the second round, I expect he should be able to carry Cleveland past the lowly Wiz. Cavs in 7.

The West

San Antonio Spurs (1) v. Sacramento Kings (8): Like Indiana, their partner in the Peja-Artest trade, the Kings feel like a team whose time has come and gone. Sure, Mike Bibby is a playoff performer, but the Kings just don’t have enough weapons to get past the returning champions, even with Duncan and Ginobli slightly gimpy these days. Spurs in Five.

Phoenix Suns (2) v. Los Angeles Lakers (7): The fast-break-happy Phoenix Suns are easily the most watchable team in the NBA, but let’s face it — I’m really just looking forward to rooting against Kobe. Is there a pro athlete less likable this side of Barry Bonds? Particularly given that Phoenix tends not to play D (and are missing their strongest defender with Kurt Thomas out), Kobe will undoubtedly find a way –remorseless gunning, perhaps? — to score his points. Still, I expect even the Amare-less Suns can carry the day against this iteration of the Lake Show. (Yes, LA beat Phoenix by 20 last week, but Steve Nash sat out that game.) Suns in Six.

Denver Nuggets (3) v. Los Angeles Clippers (6): Here’s where the West gets screwy. Not only are the Clippers — the Clips! — actually in the NBA playoffs, but they also have home court over the higher-seeded Denver Nuggets. This one’s really a toss-up. On one hand, Denver has proven playoff performers in K-Mart and Marcus Camby and the NBA’s best clutch shooter in Carmelo Anthony. On the other, the Clippers have Sam Cassell at the point, who — like Robert Horry and Nick Van Exel — is one of those take-no-prisoners fourth-quarter guys who can pretty much singlehandedly will a team to victory. And all that being said, it may ultimately come down to who’s a bigger playoff choke artist — Nuggets coach George Karl or the entire Clipper franchise. My money’s on Karl. Clippers in Seven.

Dallas Mavericks (4) v. Memphis Grizzlies (5): The other strange seeding in the West — by records alone Dallas should be the #2 seed — the Mavs probably won’t be challenged very much by Memphis, although Nowitzki versus Gasol should be a fun matchup. Dallas still doesn’t buckle down on D, but they should have enough O to tame the Grizzlies. San Antonio, however, is another story… Dallas in Five.

The Rest

Detroit Pistons (1) v. Cleveland Cavaliers (4): The bottom five teams in the Eastern bracket can’t really hold a candle to New Jersey, Miami, and especially Detroit, and it’ll show in this series. I expect a variation on Detroit’s old Jordan Rules will more than suffice in keeping Lebron in check. Pistons in Four.

Miami Heat (2) v. New Jersey Nets (3): This should be a fascinating series. Still, if Shaq is close to playoff form, I think Miami should pull through…While Flash should be able to run with Jefferson and Carter, the Nets don’t really have anyone who can match up with the big fella in the paint. Heat in Seven.

San Antonio Spurs (1) v. Dallas Mavericks (2): The Western Finals may seem like they’re coming early this year…still, we’ve been here before. If it’s San Antonio’s defense versus the Mav’s offense, advantage San Antonio. Spurs in Six.

Phoenix Suns (2) v. Los Angeles Clippers (6): Sorry, Clips fans. You got to the second round for the first time since 1976. But, even with Sam Cassell, that’s all you get. Suns in Six.

EAST FINALS: Detroit Pistons (1) v. Miami Heat (2): As with the second round, if Shaq’s feeling it and the Heat start clicking, Detroit could be in serious trouble. But all-in-all, I’d say the Pistons are too deep, too experienced, and too hungry. Pistons in Seven.

WEST FINALS: San Antonio Spurs (1) v. Phoenix Suns (2): If Amare and Kurt were healthy, this could be a contentious series…but I just can’t really see Phoenix knocking off San Antonio without better interior defense. Spurs in Six.

FINALS: Detroit Pistons (1) v. San Antonio Spurs (1): Wow, two #1 seeds — looks like I’m going out on a limb again. At any rate, this match-up has been in the cards ever since last season’s seven-game Finals, in which the home team won every game. And given that this year Detroit has home-court advantage and Duncan’s playing through serious pain…well, you do the math. Detroit in Six.

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