The 82-game grind that is the NBA season is over and 16 teams are left with dreams of a championship. One thing is certain – whichever team wins its all will have a fearless performer that it can turn to at crunch time to deliver a win.

Michael Jordan embraced the spotlight and redefined the word clutch. Karl Malone shied up to the big moments as though afraid that they would punch him in the nose if he looked at them wrong.

So, which team has the player who can step up and lead his team to the title? Well, you can’t just pull names out of a hat to predict who will win a 16-team playoff, so here is a little playoff primer with an unusual prediction.

Eastern Conference

New Jersey vs. Indiana

This series features two of the biggest questions from the season. First, how did the Nets win the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference? Second, how did the Pacers almost miss the playoffs?

New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd is that rare player who makes everybody around him better. Isaiah Thomas is that rare coach who makes everybody on his team worse. Okay, maybe those are both exaggerations, but not by much.

Unless New Jersey’s Kenyon Martin gets suspended after the first game of the series, Indiana doesn’t have much of a chance and will probably be hitting the golf course after three games.

Detroit vs. Toronto

Detroit’s Ben Wallace pulled off a rare triple this season ? best defender, best rebounder and best hair. The 6-9 forward is the main reason the Pistons were able to win the Central Division and claim the No. 2 seed.

Detroit won three of its four meetings with Toronto this season, but the two teams haven’t met since the Raptors realized that they can win without Vince Carter.

Antonio Davis, Mo Peterson and Keon Clark are not household names, but they led Toronto to wins in 12 of the last 14 games.

Still, Detroit has more weapons than Toronto and should win a very close, five-game series over the Raptors.

Boston vs. Philadelphia

This series features two of the top three players in points per game in the NBA. However, Boston’s Paul Pierce played all 82 games and led the league in scoring, while Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson missed 22 games, including the last 14, and scored “only” 1,883 points.

In fact, Iverson’s last game was a 96-91 win over Boston on March 22. The Celtics led 50-45 at halftime in that game, and put it on cruise control when Iverson left with a broken bone in his left hand. They will not be so relaxed in this playoff series.

Iverson will not be at full strength, if he even plays at all, and the Celtics will cruise in four games.

Charlotte vs. Orlando

Orlando’s Tracy McGrady may be the most talented player in the NBA, as he can take over a game seemingly at will. However, he doesn’t always seem willing, and his cranky back is a constant source of concern.

The Hornets earned home-field advantage on the last day of the season, but that doesn’t necessarily help them. Charlotte is the only team in the NBA that had a better record on the road (23-18) than at home (21-20).

Charlotte’s Baron Davis is probably one of the most unknown great players in the NBA, and his ability to get everybody on his team involved will lead the Hornets past the Magic.

Second round

New Jersey and Charlotte both have great point guards, but the Nets have a better supporting cast and the better playmaker, although it’s close.

The big question mark in this series will be Martin. If he can keep his temper under control and avoid more flagrant fouls and suspensions, New Jersey should win. If he implodes, so will the Nets.

Defense could be the key to the Detroit/Boston series. The Celtics lead the NBA in steals and the Pistons top the league in blocks.

The teams split their season series, but Boston is a much better team now that it’s supporting cast has taken some of the pressure to score off of Pierce and Antoine Walker. If Pierce can avoid stupid fouls, the Celtics will win in six games.

Eastern finals

New Jersey won its first meeting against the Celtics this season, way back on Halloween. Since then, Boston has beaten the Nets three straight times.

The key for New Jersey will be stopping Pierce, who averaged 37 points in the four games against the Nets this season. If they can’t stop him or get him into foul trouble, the Celtics will run away with the series.

Even if New Jersey can slow Pierce down, Walker and the rest of the Celtics should be able to pull out the series and land another Boston team in the title round.

Western Conference

Sacramento vs. Utah

What do the numbers 451 and 360 mean to you? If you said the point totals for the Kings and Jazz, respectively, in their season series, then you’re ready for the NBA playoffs.

Sacramento won all four games against the Jazz this year, and none of them were even close. Utah’s best effort, a 117-109 loss on April 5, was actually without Karl Malone.

Malone and Stockton have been amazing this year, and for the past 73 or however many years they’ve been playing together, but the Kings are just too good for them. If Sacramento doesn’t sweep Utah, it may be the shock of the playoffs.

San Antonio vs. Seattle

Want to know why Tim Duncan is the MVP of the NBA this season? Quick, name somebody else on the Spurs who averaged more than 13 points or 30 minutes per game. That’s right, you can’t because there wasn’t anybody.

Duncan led his team in points, rebounds and blocks and was second in assists. He is the only reason San Antonio won the Midwest Division and he is the only reason the Spurs will beat Seattle.

Gary Payton is a great player, but the Sonics don’t have anybody who can go toe-to-toe with Duncan, so they can’t beat the Spurs in a series.

LA Lakers vs. Portland

Don’t let Portland’s two wins over the Lakers this year fool you ? if Shaquille O’Neal is healthy, Los Angeles is far better than the TrailBlazers.

Even without O’Neal, the Lakers could probably top Portland in a five-game series. Not only does O’Neal appear to be healthy, but in his last nine games he is shooting 71-percent from the free throw line.

Rasheed Wallace’s transformation from out-of-control, overemotional point scorer to controlled team leader is wonderful, but Portland does not have what it takes to defeat the Lakers three times in five games.

Dallas vs. Minnesota

Kevin Garnett is great, but is he good enough to lead Minnesota past the offensive machine from Dallas? Yes, as long as he steps up and makes this series a physical, inside battle.

The Mavericks like to run and gun, but Raef LaFrentz is their only legitimate inside presence. There is also some question as to whether or not Dirk Nowitzki will be able to play in every game of the series.

Nowitzka leads the Mavericks in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game and they will be hard-pressed to win if he is not at full strength. Even if he is at full strength, I think the Timberwolves can pull out the victory.

Second round

A matchup between the high-scoring teams from Sacramento and Dallas would be more fun, but Minnesota should give the Kings a good fight.

However, the T’Wolves will ultimately fall short unless Garnett posts 30 points and 20 rebounds each game. The Kings just have too much firepower, and Mike Bibby knows how to get everybody involved.

After getting swept out of the playoffs by the Lakers last year, San Antonio probably wanted better than a 1-3 showing against Los Angeles in the regular season this year.

Duncan is as good as ever against the Lakers, but David Robinson and Steve Smith disappear when facing O’Neal and Bryant, respectively.

As long as O’Neal is healthy, the Lakers will win in five or six games.

Western finals

In four games this season, the Lakers held the Kings to over 11 points under their season a

verage and won three games. O’Neal allows the Lakers to control the pace of the game without slowing down their own offense.

If Sacramento does manage to play Los Angeles close, there is another problem. O’Neal and Bryant are both the kind of clutch performers who can lead their team to tough win after tough win.

Chris Webber and Predrag Stojakovic are not. The Kings do not have that go-to-guy who can pick them up and deliver a win all by himself in the final minutes of a close game.

So, whether it’s a sweep or a close seven-game series, the Lakers are going back to the NBA Finals.

NBA Finals

The Celtics don’t really have a chance against the Lakers, do they? Well, the Patriots didn’t really have a chance against the Rams either.

Take a closer look and you’ll see that although Boston is 2-6 against the top four Western teams, both of those wins came against the Lakers. But the Lakers didn’t have O’Neal for either of those games, you say.

Consider that the Lakers will have just survived three tough series against teams who will be pounding O’Neal for all he’s worth, and they may not have the big man for this series either, at least not at full strength.

It’s true that the Celtics don’t have a viable inside game, but they made the second-most 3-pointers in NBA history this year. If they can stretch the court, O’Neal becomes less of a factor.

You heard it here first, Boston will win the NBA Finals in six games.

Jacobs can be reached at

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