Not feeling Lakers-Celtics in Finals

NBA playoffs are wide open so let's try to rank the eight title contenders

The end of the wildest and best NBA regular season that I can remember feels like a poker game.

Everyone’s bluffing.

The San Antonio Spurs visited the Staples Center on Tuesday night, declined to dress Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and strapped Tony Parker to the bench.

Gregg Popovich would like us to believe he’s unconcerned with home-court advantage in the Finals. If the Bulls want it, Pop is content to let them grab it.

Meanwhile, the defending-champion Lakers must be trying to convince the rest of the league they’re no real threat to three-peat. How else can you explain their five-game losing streak heading into Tuesday’s regular-season penultimate contest?

Looking east, the Shaq-less Celtics conceded the two seed to Miami and have appeared rather helpless for three weeks. And the Heat? Well, they’re once again looking like tough guys intent on living up to the hype of the Big Three.

The playoffs, which start this weekend, might as well be the NCAA tournament. Even in a seven-game series, absolutely anything can happen this year.

With that in mind, I’m going to rank my title contenders from one to eight.

1. Chicago: Why doubt the Bulls? You can argue they won’t have enough offense, but I contend no team can match their drive, focus and determination. Derrick Rose’s squad has simply displayed more want-to than the rest of the league. While the Heat, Lakers, Spurs, Mavericks and Celtics have displayed troubling bouts of inconsistency, Chicago has never lost more than two games in a row this season. From Day 1, the Bulls have wanted to be the best. Rose and Joakim Noah had the courage to dislike LeBron James before it was cool. They’d love nothing more than to ruin the season of the Big Three.

2. Oklahoma City: The Thunder are my “sexy” pick. They remind me of what we thought the Celtics were — only much younger. The Kendrick Perkins acquisition makes OKC potentially the best defensive team in the postseason. The Thunder are long, strong and athletic. Kevin Durant can score enough to compensate for the loss of Jeff Green. Russell Westbrook is my only real concern. His decision-making can still be very suspect. I think he matures during these playoffs and makes just enough smart plays to get OKC to the finals.

3. Miami: Best-kept secret this season Dwyane Wade has been every bit as good as LeBron. That is in no way a knock on James. Wade has been spectacular. He’s shooting a career-best 50 percent from the field. He gets to the cup in the halfcourt offense better than any player in the league. My MVP ballot: 1. Rose; 2. James; 3. Wade. The Heat have two of the three best players in the league this season. That gives them a great chance to win it all this season. I just don’t see them getting past Chicago. Miami’s role players disappear too often.

4. Dallas: I’m the only idiot left who still believes in the Mavericks. I love Tyson Chandler. Put Chandler on the Heat and Miami wins it all. Chandler rebounds, dunks and defends. That’s what I want from my big man. Dirk Nowitzki can still score in the fourth quarter. Jason Terry is clutch. Early in the year, Dallas was my pick to win the whole thing. Like every team except Chicago, the Mavericks went through a lull. Maybe Dallas will get hot again.

5. Boston: The whole second half of the season, I’ve believed Shaquille O’Neal was sandbagging. When Danny Ainge traded Kendrick Perkins, I assumed Doc Rivers was resting Shaq until the playoffs. I no longer believe that. The Diesel’s body is apparently out of gas. He’s filled up his tank with too many Wendy’s triple cheeseburgers over the years. He didn’t take care of himself. Shaq is no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq gave the Celtics a swagger. He was good for only 20 minutes, but his six fouls took a toll on the opposition, and he could occasionally put up 15 points and 10 boards. You can’t win a championship with Nenad Krstic and Jermaine O’Neal, can you?

6. Los Angeles: This is the second time this season I’ve written off Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. I called Kobe “thirsty” after the All-Star Game and swore he was done. The Lake Show ripped off 17 victories in 18 games. What to believe? Andrew Bynum hyperextended his knee in Tuesday’s game. I believe the Lakers are too old to get through what will be a very difficult Western Conference playoffs. No way.

7. San Antonio: I’m going to regret doubting the Spurs. I’m going to look really stupid. I just don’t see the necessary size to get past any of the Western Conference contenders. The Spurs are the pretenders some people think the Bulls are.

8. Denver: The Nuggets, the five seed in the West, are going to make life miserable for some unlucky team in the first round. I hope OKC avoids the four slot. If Denver gets out of the opening round and puts on a Cinderella slipper, George Karl’s bunch might ride the wave all the way to the Finals.

Yep, I don’t see the Orlando Magic as a title threat. Dwight Howard is still immature. Stan Van Gundy is still a suspect coach. And I’m still pissed Jameer Nelson was inserted into the lineup during the 2009 NBA Finals.

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