A year ago, I wrote that the first round of the NBA playoffs was among the best in the league's history. This year's, um, is not. Unless you like boring wipeouts of clearly flawed teams.

There is one exception to the darkness.

What the Golden State Warriors are doing to the Dallas Mavericks - that would be the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks, and the eighth-seeded, up-till-now-mutt-ugly Warriors - defies prognostication, investigation and hallucination.

The Warriors, who qualified for the playoffs only on the final day of the regular season, are up by three games to one over the team that was clearly the league's best all season, with the likely league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. Golden State has a chance to complete the upset tonight in Dallas.

You wonder what Cubes is thinking this a.m.?

"I'm fine," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban e-mailed yesterday.

I'd still keep the sharp objects locked up in the kitchen for a while.

Golden State has dominated Dallas all season, but improbably has extended that dominance into the playoffs, when young, hot-headed teams usually get exposed by veteran, experienced ones. But this series has provided just the opposite, with Baron Davis and Jason Richardson and Steven Jackson outperforming Nowitzki and Jason Terry and Josh Howard.

That's like Hot Sauce and the And1 Mixtape team beating North Carolina to get to the Final Four.

Dallas is just the 12th team in NBA history to win 65 or more games in a regular season. Only one of the previous 11 teams to achieve the feat - the 68-14 Boston Celtics of 1972-73 - failed to win the championship. And only two of those 10 championship teams lost more than four games in the entire postseason.

Some may point to the Warriors' upset of the heavily favored Washington Bullets for the league title in 1975 as a bigger shocker. But that Golden State team 9a) had won the Pacific Division, and 9b) had a future Hall of Famer in Rick Barry - second in the league in scoring that season - on its roster. And that was, hello, the NBA Finals.

Others may say eighth-seeded Denver's upset of top seed Seattle in 1994 was bigger. But that Sonics team, despite its 63-19 record, had never reached the Finals, as Dallas did last year.

Don Nelson's Small Ball is going to conquer us all. He has played it for years, with next to nothing to show for it in the playoffs, but you can't argue with the results he's gotten thus far this season putting three or four guards out on the floor.

The preponderance of the evidence is now pointing Nellie's way. The combination of rules that discourage hand-to-hand combat from midcourt to the basket, along with a dearth of big men who want to play the way Shaq does, have made offense ascendant, with more good teams creating mismatches all over the floor.

Chicago blew Miami's doors off with interchangeable guards and forwards who were unstoppable on screen-rolls and could all fill it up. The Nets have crushed Toronto's spirit in four games, and thoroughly handled young stud forward Chris Bosh, without anyone resembling a top-20 frontcourt player. New Jersey's top guy up front at the moment is Mikki Moore, for Shavlik Randolph's sake!

The Jazz have played chest-to-chest with the Rockets (despite Houston's having a healthy, hungry and happy Yao Ming) with a center happy to fire from the three-point line. The Suns have toyed with the bigger, slower and less skilled Lakers.

Which means, again, that those of you who insist the Sixers can have a good draft in June only if they get Greg Oden or Kevin Durant are woefully mistaken.

Jack McCallum's book about last year's Suns is titled Seven Seconds or Less (the length of time Phoenix wants to use to take a shot), not Let's Go Inside to the Big Fella, and When the Double Comes, He Kicks It Out, and Then We Re-post. Rinse. Repeat.

There are still the Yaos and Duncans and Howards and Stoudemires, to be sure, and ultimately, you need someone who can guard the paint with authority if you're going to win a championship. But few of you care a whit about defense. The next person who writes, saying "I love Greg Oden and his 3.3 blocked shots per game" will be the first. (And besides, isn't that what Samuel Dalembert's getting $64 million to do?)

The Sixers need two impact players if they're going to get back in the playoffs any time soon. They have three first-round picks. Billy King doesn't need to find Oden or Durant; he needs to find Gilbert Arenas and Shawn Marion.

Three to make two, just like the old days.