A perennial postseason power quickly dismissed by a No. 6 seed. A seventh-seeded, .500 team forcing the defending champions to a seventh game.

Neither was surprising.

Not this year, when the way some teams finished the regular season made it easy to predict how they would start the playoffs.

Detroit and New Orleans were going home quickly. Dallas and Chicago weren’t – and the Mavericks, coming off their stomping of San Antonio, think they might around for a while.

“We’re still peaking,” sixth man Jason Terry said. “We’re still on the upward peak with our team. We’re just now coming together. We’ve gotten healthier and that’s a big key for us.”

Penciling LeBron James and Kobe Bryant through to round 2 was obvious. Cleveland and the Los Angeles Lakers had the NBA’s top two records and were among the hottest teams down the stretch, with the Cavaliers’ 14-3 finish the league’s best over the last month.

Denver (12-3) and the Lakers (13-4) also were among the league’s five best finishers starting March 15, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and both breezed through the opening round. So were the Celtics (12-4).

Guess who else won 12 of their last 16 games?

The Bulls, sparked by a February deal with Sacramento that brought John Salmons and Brad Miller to a sputtering team, were just as good as the Celtics toward the end. They surged from a 29-37 mark on March 13 to a 41-41 finish.

“We knew they were talented,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “Since the trade, they’re not a seventh seed. We know that.”

They should have. Long before the Bulls won Game 1 in Boston, they showed they’d be a nightmare matchup when the rang up 127 points against the Celtics in a six-point victory on March 17 behind 38 points from Salmons and 14 rebounds from Miller.

The Bulls are healthier than the Celtics, who’ve had to go without Kevin Garnett and then lost Leon Powe. And injuries made a big difference in the Dallas-San Antonio series, as the Mavericks had Josh Howard back and the Spurs were forced to play without Manu Ginobili.

“Just being healthy, I think, gave us a huge lift at the end,” Mavs All-Star Dirk Nowitzki said. “From that standpoint, it was a tough up-and-down season. We never really knew who could dress or who was out there. (Terry) broke his hand, stuff happened with Josh obviously.”

Once back at full strength, the Mavs went 6-2 in April, going from in jeopardy of missing the playoffs to the No. 6 spot.

“Dallas in April is playing the best basketball they’ve played all year. Rick Carlisle has done a great job of bringing that team along,” former NBA coach and TNT analyst P.J. Carlesimo said. “Obviously, George Karl’s group is playing very well as the No. 2 seed in the West. That could be a very entertaining series.”

One that wasn’t hard to forecast.

LONG AND LOPSIDED: ABC hoped to be showing LeBron James in a second-round game during its Sunday afternoon coverage. Instead, it had to settle for Game 7 between Atlanta and Miami, who are proving that a long series isn’t always a good one.

The seven-game series between Boston and Chicago was considered a first-round classic. Nobody was saying anything close about the Hawks-Heat matchup.

“If Boston Celtics-Chicago Bulls is one of the all-time greats, this is one of the all-time worst. It really is,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said during Game 6. “It’s just blowout after blowout, teams not playing well.”

None of the first six games was decided by single digits. The Heat’s lopsided wins came by 15, 29 and 26 points.

Meanwhile, five of the first six games between Boston and Chicago were decided by three or fewer points, the first time that happened since Indiana beat New York in seven games in 1995, according to Elias.

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AP Sports Writers Jaime Aron in Dallas and Howard Ulman in Boston contributed to this report.

AP-ES-05-02-09 1919EDT


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