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NBA'S REVIVAL IS WORTH TUNING IN TO

I'm sure this puts me in a distinct minority in an NFL town, but late April has always been my favorite time of the year in sports.

Baseball and golf are in full swing. The hockey and basketball playoffs are normally under way. And the NFL draft has reached a merciful conclusion.

I won't be phony about it. I miss the NHL playoffs. Downtown is a different place when the Sabres are in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Even when they weren't involved, you could usually flip on the TV and get caught up in a gripping overtime battle.

But if there's a benefit to no hockey, it's that marginal fans might give the NBA playoffs a chance. I know the ratings are miserable here, and that Buffalo TV viewers would rather sit through an "Iron Chef" cook-off than Sacramento-Seattle.

Granted, the NBA has its problems. The players aren't as fundamentally sound as they used to be. The Indiana-Detroit brawl reinforced the stereotype that the players are a bunch of thugs. Too many people buy the silly notion that allowing teenagers in the league is the downfall of Western society.

Still, I've never understood fans who embrace college basketball but shun the pro game. Basketball is the one sport where this phenomenon prevails. How can hoop fans get excited about watching Carmelo Anthony and Kirk Hinrich in the NCAA title game, then ignore them when they turn pro?

There was a point, a few years ago, when a lot of NBA games were becoming unwatchable. But it's getting better. They've modified the rules to increase ball movement and scoring. A lot of young players are coming of age and lifting franchises to renewed prominence.

Two years after leading Syracuse to an NCAA title, Anthony is the spark behind a Nuggets team that is the talk of the league. Denver has been the NBA's hottest team since George Karl took over as coach at midseason. Karl is proving that coaching still matters, and that today's young players (i.e., Anthony) are still eager for direction and driven to win.

Hinrich, who starred on the Kansas team that lost to 'Cuse in the 2003 title game, is one of several young players who have led the Bulls to their first playoff berth since the days of Michael Jordan. Rookie Ben Gordon, who played for UConn's national title team a year ago, has been so good in late-game situations he is drawing favorable comparisons to Jordan.

But if you watch nothing else, check out the Phoenix Suns. They're the most exciting team to come along since Magic Johnson and the Showtime Lakers were battling Larry Bird's Celtics for supremacy in the NBA's golden age, the 1980s.

Phoenix averages 110 points a game, more typical of the Bird-Johnson era than today's defense-oriented NBA. With point guard Steve Nash setting the tone, the Suns ran at every opportunity this season and set a record for made three-pointers (796).

The question is, can a team win a title playing that way today? Conventional thinking says you have to excel in the half-court game to win in June. Detroit won it all last year with stifling defense and a plodding offense.

Hoop fans should be rooting for the Suns. They're a delight to watch, and if their style prevails more teams will copy them. It'll be fun if they run into Houston, which has taken a surprising 2-0 series lead against Dallas behind the hot young duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.

No doubt, the league would love to see the high-flying Suns play Miami and Shaquille O'Neal in the Finals. I don't imagine they're too thrilled about the prospect of a Detroit-San Antonio final.

Well, we have two months to sort it all out. As good as it is right now, I can't wait until the later rounds, when the NBA playoffs really get cooking.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com