http://www.timesstar.com/Stories/0,1...080351,00.html

YEAR AFTER YEAR, one of the most fascinating segments of the NBA schedule is the final couple of days in the regular season.

David Stern and his officers of political correctness annually have studied these games with a microscope, looking for evidence of teams intentionally losing to gain some type of advantage.

Everyone knows this occurs at the bottom of the standings, where a 13-game losing streak through Sunday assured Orlando the favorite's role at the draft lottery next month.

But you might be surprised to hear this kind of thing actually occurs quite often among teams gearing up (or down) for the playoffs.

The Warriors were victims of the commissioner's scrutiny in 1992, when they entered the final day of the regular season locked into the No.3 playoff position. Still to be determined was their first-round playoff opponent: Seattle or San Antonio.



Clearly, Don Nelson had a preference. His guys matched up much better with the Spurs, whom they had upset the previous year in the playoffs, than the SuperSonics, an athletic squad that beat the Warriors with regularity in the Nelson era.

Lo and behold, the Warriors, by virtue of a final-day matchup with Seattle, had a chance to assure a first-round pairing with the Spurs. A Golden State loss would have pushed the Sonics into the No.5 playoff spot, one game ahead of San Antonio, which then would have headed to Oakland for the playoff opener.

But having been warned Stern's people would be watching, the Warriors went all-out to beat the SuperSonics in the home finale -- and did so, 108-106. However, in what was in essence a meaningless game, they suffered a huge loss when Chris Mullin was injured in the game.

The All-Star proceeded to struggle through the playoff series against Seattle, shooting 42.9 percent and scoring 17.8 points -- well off his regular-season numbers (52.4 and 25.6) -- and Nelson learned a valuable lesson. The hometown crowd should have seen a lot more of Tom Tolbert in that regular-season finale.

A dozen years later, Nelson's Mavericks are battling Memphis for the fifth playoff spot in the West. The winner of their head-to-head tonight in Dallas will clinch that No.5 spot and a matchup with the fourth-place finisher.

The Lakers currently hold down that No.4 spot, and don't think the Mavericks -- and Grizzlies as well -- haven't noticed.

If it were assured L.A. would finish fourth, you could rest assured neither Dallas nor Memphis would have much interest in winning tonight.

But the Lakers still have the potential to move up -- not that they necessarily want to.

Presuming Minnesota captures top seeding in the West, finishing fourth has its advantages. If everything went according to form in Round 1, the Lakers then would draw the history-challenged Timberwolves in the Western semifinals, while the powerful Kings would have to deal with the defending-champ Spurs.

The road to the Finals is a lot rockier from the No.3 hole, where the Lakers probably would have to eliminate both the Kings and Spurs, the latter after having had a war with the former in Round 2.

One other team Stern's crew could have been monitoring was Houston, especially after the 69-point egg it laid in Salt Lake City on Saturday night. The Rockets would have loved nothing better than to drop from the seventh spot in the West to No.8, thus drawing Minnesota in Round 1 rather than the Kings or Lakers.

But the Rockets rebounded with a win Monday at Seattle, clinching the seventh seed and a matchup with the top team in the Pacific Division.

In the East, the team to avoid is Detroit -- and three teams (the Bucks, Heat and Hornets) are very anxious to do just that. Only in this case, just the winners will be rewarded (with a 4 vs. 5 series), whereas the least of the trio will finish in the No.6 spot and have the unenviable task of squaring off with the Pistons in Round 1.

After Monday's games, only one first-round pairing -- Boston vs. Indiana -- was set, but that won't stop me from making predictions:

Round 1: No matter who they play, the Kings, Spurs and Lakers will roll through the first round, one of them eliminating the Mavericks and prompting Mark Cuban to fire Nelson. But look for Denver to upset Minnesota as it has the key ingredient to stopping the Timberwolves -- a defensive stopper (Andre Miller) who can match up with Sam Cassell.

The Pacers, Nets and Pistons might as well have byes in their Eastern openers. The 4 vs. 5 series is the NBA equivalent of the NCAA Tournament play-in game. It might be close, but who cares?

Conference semifinals: Those concerned about the current form of the Kings should be reminded a lot can change in two weeks. It'll be at least that long before Sacramento faces a quality second-round opponent, and probably will do so riding the momentum of an easy Round 1 waltz.

It would be a shame if the Kings and Lakers met in Round 2, so it says here it won't happen. The Kings will outlast the Spurs, with the Lakers easing past the Nuggets.

As in the West, the East's 2 vs. 3 matchup should be a doozy. You know the Pacers, sitting pretty atop the East, are hoping the Nets give the Pistons a fight, because the longer that series goes, the less chance the winner has of surviving the Eastern finals. I'm picking the Pistons.

Conference finals: It's the Kings-Lakers and Pacers-Pistons. That's like having the NCAA and NIT title games on the same night. Two great series, but in the end, two best-of-7's decided a week earlier when the Spurs and Nets did the Lakers and Pacers a huge favor by taking their opponent the limit.

I'll take the Lakers and Pacers on that alone, with each series going at least six games.

NBA Finals: Now I understand why Pacers coach Rick Carlisle has been resting Scot Pollard all season. He usually gets his money's worth when battling Shaq and those six fouls could be critical, especially if the big guy is having problems at the line.

The Ron Artest-Kobe Bryant duel would be tremendous, but the Lakers have far too many weapons -- as well as the biggest one. I'm picking L.A. in six only because the Lakers haven't been in a rush to do anything this season.



(of course this article is out of California so you have to expect them to pick the Lakers and frankly I cant argue the point too much. I think we might make a decent show against them but we just dont have anything to match up with Shaq)