The most fun aspect of this season is that there's no clear favorite. At least two teams seem to have a good shot at upending the Lakers in the playoffs.
The Spurs swept the Lakers in the regular season for just the second time in 27 years, though coach Gregg Popovich — pointing out Shaquille O'Neal was absent twice — says, "I say we beat them twice. They’re still the best team on the planet until someone proves differently in the playoffs."
Even so, the Spurs seem to have the best team since their title season of 1999, maybe even better, thanks to the improvement of speedy point guard Tony Parker and the additions of Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili, athletic mid-sized players. Last year, the Spurs led in the fourth quarter off all five of their Round 2 games with the Lakers, but then the Lakers bottled up Tim Duncan and nobody else could hit a shot.
"At one time they were more predictable," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders said. “They had strictly David (Robinson) and Timmy up front and whether it was Terry Porter or Sean Elliott or Jaren Jackson or Danny Ferry they were pretty much catch-and-shoot type players. "You knew if you trapped in the post you were going to have to chase out and contest shots. Now it’s a little bit different. Now if you trap in the post, you can’t just chase shots because they’re going to break you down (driving to the hole). There’s no question, as a coach, they’re a much more difficult team to prepare for because of their versatility and athleticism on the perimeter."
The Kings have overcome major injuries and now are healthy and rounding into form.
What is striking is that they are the NBA's top defensive team, as measured by their opponents' field goal percentage of .420, even though they're infinitely better known for their offense.
“I listen to all the so-called experts on TV saying we don’t defend," coach Rick Adelman said. "San Antonio is a great defensive team, but we have been right there with them all year, so we must be doing something right.
"We are an offensive-minded team and we put a lot of stock into that. But we continue to make it difficult for teams to shoot well. I have always felt this team, especially in the playoffs, can lock in on what another team is doing and defend pretty well.”
Said the Kings' Chris Webber, "The rap on us is we don’t play defense. We laugh at that and just try to stay under the radar. But you can’t run if you don’t play defense, and you know we like to run."
You also can’t run if you can’t rebound and the Kings are only 28th in the league in that category.
“We know it’s a problem area,” Adelman said. “Having (reserve center) Scot Pollard back will help. He is very physical and takes up space in there."
Adds Webber, "We have added Keon (Clark), an athletic inside guy who can play three positions. Mike Bibby has grown in his second year with us. "Our personnel has matured. We trust each other. We have gone through.
"I like our chances.”
NEXT TIME, TRY BURGER KING
After practicing in San Francisco, the Rockets took a bus to Sacramento, stopping at an In-N-Out Burger in Pinole, Calif.
The customers and staff in the restaurant began chanting "Yao Ming, Yao Ming." The crowd stopped eating. The staff stopped working.
The team, and particularly Yao, was mobbed with autograph and photograph requests until Yao had to eat in the bus.
"It was nuts," Rockets trainer Keith Jones said. "We walked in. The place just went nuts. It got so bad, he had to go out to the bus. Colin (Pine, Yao's translator) had to bring him his food.
"They couldn't function. It was a pretty good Saturday afternoon crowd. But in five minutes, it turned into a Backstreet Boys concert, or something. Crazy."
The Rockets' three days in the Bay Area brought extra attention to Yao, though he rarely left the hotel and avoided Chinatown. But unusually large crowds waited outside the team hotel and the game against the Warriors drew the largest crowd to ever attend a game in The Arena in Oakland.
"I'm used to it," he said. "All I can say, is I'm pretty much used to all of it."
The Chinese center and his Rockets teammates got a first-class view of a major war protest in San Francisco. They watched from their hotel windows, positioned as if they were in stadium luxury boxes over the action (there were hundreds of arrests the first day they were there).
"It shows America is a very democratic society," Yao said. "They're expressing another voice. Not everybody supports war. I don't support war. I think war is always the last option. It is always best to avoid war.
"I don't have great understanding of politics. But I heard that the U.S. didn't go through the United Nations."
Yao's position — even with the disclaimer that he is a basketball player and not a politician — probably not coincidentally mirrors that of the Chinese government.
Ws, Ws, Ws
The Jazz's win over Boston on Monday gave them 41 wins, clinching their 20th straight .500-or-better season and breaking the Celtics' record of 19.
Their win over Portland on Wednesday gave them 42, clinching their 18th straight winning season, extending their own record (Lakers are second with 16 straight).
Here are the longest winning-season streaks in other sports:
MLB: New York Yankees, 39 years
NHL: Montreal Canadiens, 32 years
NFL Dallas Cowboys, 20 years
NBA Utah Jazz, 18 years.