FROM MY SEAT: The Final Four - Pro Edition 

Some random -- though quite deep -- thoughts on the NBA playoffs:

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The NBA's powers-that-be are thrilled with the playoffs to this point. For the first time since 1994 (a postseason without Michael Jordan, remember), three conference semifinal series went to a decisive seventh game. Furthermore, the 2006 playoffs have already featured more overtime games than ever before.

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The Eastern Conference finals between Detroit and Miami has become some kind of showcase for SEC basketball. Jason Williams and Udonis Haslem went to Florida, Antoine Walker, Tayshaun Prince, Tony Delk, and Derek Anderson were Kentucky Wildcats, Shaquille O'Neal went to LSU, Antonio McDyess to Alabama, and Shandon Anderson to Georgia. That's nine of the 20 players who appeared in Game 1.

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Raise your hands, Grizzlies fans. How many of you are hoping to see J-Will and James Posey wrap their arms around the Larry O'Brien Trophy? I thought so.

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The Western Conference finals feature the last two winners of the NBA's Coach of the Year award (the Suns' Mike D'Antoni and this year's honoree, the Mavericks' Avery Johnson). It's the first time this has happened this late in the playoffs since Chicago's Phil Jackson faced Miami's Pat Riley in 1997.

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Unlike baseball or hockey, the NBA announces its Most Valuable Player winner well before the postseason ends. Makes sense on one level, as the honor is based solely on regular-season performance. But it can be awkward when someone other than the MVP raises his game to new heights in the trophy's shadow. Based on LeBron James' performance over two rounds -- he carried the Cavaliers on his 21-year-old back against Washington and the mighty Pistons -- Steve Nash is merely borrowing what will soon be annual hardware in the James living room. Remember how great Michael Jordan was in the 1986 playoffs (he topped 60 points in one game against Boston)? His Airness was 23 and couldn't get his Bulls beyond the first round. The "witness" ad campaign is beyond the boundaries of good taste, but make no mistake: The NBA's James Era has begun.

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James is the best player in the game, but not since Magic Johnson's prime has a single player elevated the performance of his teammates the way Nash does for Phoenix. Boris Diaw, Tim Thomas, and Raja Bell would have difficulty cracking the Mavericks' rotation, but for the Suns they play starring roles, all due to the wizardry of their All-Star point guard.

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Retroactive speculation is dangerous territory in journalism . . . but let's do some anyway. Memphis fans will be scratching their heads all summer, wondering what might have been had the Grizzlies "dropped" into the sixth seed of the Western Conference playoffs, and thus gained home-court advantage in the first round against Denver. As beatable as both the Nuggets and Suns looked against the Clippers, the Grizzlies would certainly have ended their playoff drought (now at 12 games after the sweep by Dallas), and may well have been threatening Phoenix for a spot in the conference finals. It's nice that the NBA is taking steps to clean up this mess of a format . . . but a year too late for Memphis fans.

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There needs to be a constitutional law against teammates giving the glad-hand to a player who has missed a free throw. (When I'm king, the law will apply for made free throws, too. These shots are SUPPOSED to be made, fellas.) An NBA game could be cut by at least 15 minutes if players shot their free throws in the 20 seconds they're allotted by rule, as opposed to the 90 seconds (minimum) it takes for all the hand-slapping and ritual dribbling. Gilbert Arenas simply looks ridiculous when he wraps the ball around his waist before shooting. Just how exactly does that help a player's rhythm?

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It's been eight years since a team other than the Lakers or Spurs has represented the Western Conference in the Finals (Utah fell to Chicago in 1998). Phoenix rode Charles Barkley's heroics the last time they reached the Finals (1993) and Dallas has never appeared in the league's championship series since joining the NBA in 1980. Should make for a refreshing title tilt, regardless of who comes out of the east. Three of the four remaining teams have never been crowned champion, a confluence that hasn't taken place since 1995.


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