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Original Issue

A May to Remember

Frantic finishes, a new emphasis on small ball and compelling new rivalries have combined to give the postseason a needed jolt

A SIDE FROM theCavaliers' predictable Game 7 collapse on Sunday, which spelled an end to theplayoff miracles of LeBron James, the 2005-06 postseason has so far fulfilledthe NBA marketing mavens' grandest fantasies. At week's end an NBA-record ninegames had gone into overtime, eight had been decided by one point, and dramaticshots had become an almost nightly occurrence. Not to mention these otherintoxicating developments.

•A terrific firstround (only the Dallas Mavericks and the Detroit Pistons came through withease) was followed by an even more scintillating second. The Miami Heat,perhaps the most maligned quarterfinalist, was the only team to close out itsseries in fewer than seven games, turning back the New Jersey Nets in five.

•The Los AngelesClippers, a perennial equivalent to an NCAA 11th seed, supplied the GeorgeMason Factor by extending the Phoenix Suns to seven games. The Clips have atalented nucleus that even parsimonious owner Donald Sterling will want to keeptogether (provided it doesn't cost too much).

•In addition toDetroit versus the new James Gang, compelling new rivalries emerged. The Sunsand the Lakers went at each other like barroom brawlers in the first round,assuring that the chief individual combatants, Phoenix's Raja Bell and L.A.'sKobe Bryant, each will be greeted with maximum antipathy in the other's gym.(Well, Kobe is accustomed to that.)

Also in the West,the Mavericks-Spurs rivalry officially became Texas-sized long before Dallasheld off San Antonio 119-111 in Monday night's Game 7 in Alamo Town. Leave itto Mavs owner Mark Cuban to get a bit carried away-"This is a series thatwill be talked about like the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the '80s," hecrowed-but he was spot-on in pointing out, "The NBA desperately needsrivalries. It's what feeds the game." Cuban stoked the fires of this one,calling San Antonio "a dump" and offering a bizarre conspiracy theoryto justify why his guy, Jason Terry, punched their guy, Michael Finley, in thefamily jewels during a Game 5 scrum, earning Terry a Game 6 suspension.

The series, whichincluded two overtimes and five games decided by five points or fewer, even hada little bit of ... David Hasselhoff? Yes, Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki confessedthat to ease tension at the free throw line, he sometimes hums Hasselhoff'simmortal Looking for Freedom, a hit in Germany when Nowitzki was a youth. Let'sbe grateful it wasn't Wayne Newton's Danke Schoen.

•An enticing brandof small ball became the rage, raising the level of unpredictability in manygames. "When in trouble, go small," says Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni,"and when in big trouble, go smaller."

D'Antoni did justthat by frequently bringing 6'3" Leandro Barbosa off the bench to joinfellow guards Bell and Steve Nash against the bigger Clippers. The new rulesthat limit hand checking on the perimeter have made it possible for smaller,quicker players to move around more freely, as well as negated the strength ofbig men when they're forced into pick-and-roll switches.

The Mavericks, byusing two point guards (the 6'2" Terry and 6'3" Devin Harris) alongwith swingmen like Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Marquis Daniels, forcedthe Spurs to downsize their rotation. Centers Nazr Mohammed and RashoNesterovic played only a combined 198 minutes in seven games (a plus on theaesthetic side, incidentally), and even 6'10" Robert Horry, Big Shot Rob inplayoffs past, spent extensive time on the bench, feeling, as he put it,"like a damn dinosaur." Said San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich beforeGame 6, "I'd rather play big, but this is a way of life, and we'll livewith it."

Alas, the Spurs'hopes for a repeat would die by it on Monday night. Still, for all of that, thelast four teams standing include one chalk pick from the preseason (Detroit)and the biggest of the big men (Miami's Shaquille O'Neal). But now that Cubanhas an extra two weeks in the spotlight, May Madness is sure to extend intoJune.




In an epic Game 7, the Spurs couldn't slow Nowitzki (37 points, 15boards).