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NBA playoffs, where stars shine brightly

It must be killing NHL fans, waiting until Wednesday for this epic Stanley Cup final to begin. Kings and Devils, a No. 8 seed versus a No. 6, a clash with all the star power of a cooking show. How about a pool to predict which obscure skater does the best job of dropping heroically to block pucks with his face?

Give me the NBA playoffs. Say what you will, but the games are decided by the stars. In the big moments, the guys with the biggest reputations have the ball and the game in their hands. The teams play good defense, don't kid yourselves. But when LeBron James goes up for the big shot, he's not hoping it'll bounce in off someone's leg.

The NBA conference finals got under way Sunday. All four teams got there on the backs of their stars. When Miami fell behind the Pacers in their series, James and Dwyane Wade took over, combining for 197 points in three straight wins. Kevin Durant made all the big shots in winning time for the Thunder. Tim Duncan had two assists and a block in the last two minutes of the Spurs' clincher.

On Saturday night, the Celtics moved on to the East finals when their dynamic point guard, Rajon Rondo, took the game over. After Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 left, the Celts were reeling. But Rondo scored nine points in a row. He hit two long jumpers (hardly his forte), with the clock ticking to zero. He had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his ninth playoff triple-double.

Rondo had wandered through much of the game, in typical fashion. His coaches and teammates exhorted him to be more assertive. That's Rondo. You just never know. But when he finds his rhythm and confidence, he's an unstoppable force, a unique player who can change the course of a game, or a series.

That's why Heat-Celtics is such a great matchup. No offense to Indiana, but the Pacers were a bland alternative. This sets up two similar and compelling story lines in the conference finals: Teams with aging stars (Boston, San Antonio) standing in the way of a Heat-Thunder final, which would feature the game's MVP (James) against his presumed successor (Durant).

Boston is a clear underdog. People figured the Big Four (Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce) was finished two years ago. But they're ready for a last title shot. Allen and Garnett are 36. Pierce is 35. They had trouble keeping up with the Heat in last year's Eastern semis. Pierce, a great playoff player, has been hobbled by a knee sprain. Allen hasn't shot well because of a bad ankle. Avery Bradley, their defensive stopper, is through after undergoing shoulder surgery. Boston isn't deep, which means old legs will log big minutes.

Still, the Heat will likely be without Chris Bosh. And the Celtics have Rondo, the sort of weapon the Pacers desperately lacked -- a slashing guard who can attack the rim and create scoring opportunities for teammates. If he's on, the Celts can be effective against a Miami defense that has stifled its playoff opponents.

Keep in mind, Rondo wasn't healthy when the Heat beat the Celts last year. He dislocated his elbow in Game Three, then came back to lead the Celts to victory. He wasn't himself the rest of the series, however. But he has a way of rising up against LeBron. Rondo had 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists against James and the Cavs in a series-turning win in the '08 Eastern semis.

Considering the stakes, and Rondo's combustible nature, it should be a physical and emotionally volatile series.

Rondo was suspended for a game in the Atlanta series for bumping an official. Earlier this season, he went out for two games after tossing a ball at a referee. You never know what to expect from the guy. But it's the NBA playoffs, so you can count on the ball being in the star's hands.