Changing of the guards

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 19, 2006

More than ever the NBA playoffs this season have represented a changing of the guard. A few years ago the NBA was dominated by the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons; teams that played the game &8220;the right

way.&8221;

What has been so interesting about this postseason is the way other teams are establishing themselves, and playing the right way as well. Yes the

Spurs and Pistons are still alive in the conference semis, but they are no longer a lock to meet in the NBA Finals.

The Spurs were embroiled in a dogfight with the Kings in the first round, while the Pistons got by the Bucks in five but neither was a walk in the park. True, the Lakers were the underdog and went seven games against the Suns, would anyone really have been surprised to see the Lake-show win that series?

In the conference semis, the Spurs were supposed to have showed the Dallas Mavericks who the real toast of Texas was by out-hustling and out-muscling a team that has long been known for flash in the regular season but incapable of scrapping against a playoff savvy team like the Spurs.

Apparently nobody told the Mavs that. Relying on young players like Devin Harris, and Josh Howard (Makes me ill to type that. Are you sure Kevin McHale, are you sure you want to roll the dice on Ndudi Ebi when a four-year college player is still on the board? How’d that work out again?) The Mavs are getting to every loose ball, chasing down rebounds, hounding the veteran Spurs on defense and generally making life miserable for Greg Popovich.

In the eastern conference semis, the Pistons were supposed to have dispatched the up-start Cavs in five games at the most. But again the Cavs didn’t get the memo. LeBron James, after being shut down in the first seven quarters of the series, got rolling and has taken the team on his young, but very capable shoulders. It is amazing to watch how this 21-year-old kid is

inspiring some of the vets on his team to run the floor, play defense and make the extra pass.

What do both the Mavs and Cavs have in common, other than almost same name? They seem to be playing a &8220;college&8221; style of basketball. Getting to loose balls, running, pressing and having fun. Coach of the Year Avery Johnson has instilled a defensive intensity into Dallas, and thanks to Harris and Howard it has been as contagious as a head cold at an elementary school.

The Cavs have LeBron. The amount of pressure on LeBron is incredible; he came into the league with more hype than anyone, has been touted as the savior of the league, not to mention the Cavs, and anointed the next Jordan. And he has lived up to every bit of it. I believe that has an effect on the rest of his team. If LeBron can really do everything people claim he can and more, why can’t this band of misfits upset the Pistons? He makes them believe and he makes the rest of us &8220;Witnesses&8221; as the marketing campaign says.

Is this the year that the Cavs or Mavs win the finals? No, but they have both made great strides and turned two series that looked like blowouts into very competitive, intense and fun series, and have gone a long way towards putting the NBA playoffs back on the casual sports fans map.