That long marathon that is the NBA regular season is ending, and the second season, the playoffs, begin Saturday.
As we go to press, the 16 teams that will participate in the championship run have been determined, but first-round seedings remain uncertain pending the results of the games to be played this week.
Many of the teams are tightly bunched, and only the one vs. eight match-ups in each conference have been determined. In the Eastern Conference, No. 1 seed Philadelphia will face Indiana, while in the Western Conference, top-seeded San Antonio faces Minnesota.
Here are team capsule previews as each team’s chances to advance in the playoffs are assessed. Keep in mind that the opening round is best-of-five and the remaining rounds are best-of-seven.
Philadelphia rates the favorite in the East and had the conference’s best record all season since opening with 10 straight wins. Likely MVP Allen Iverson is the key to the offense. The mid-season trade that brought over Dikembe Mutombo helped fortify the frontcourt once Theo Ratliff was lost for the season and Mutombo’s shot-blocking ability keys an all around strong defensive team. The 76ers should have little trouble getting by Indiana in the opening round with coach Larry Brown rating a huge edge over his counterpart Isiah Thomas.
Milwaukee showed signs in last season’s playoffs that it would be a contender when taking top-seeded Indiana to five games in the opening round. The trio of Ray Allen, Glen Robinson and Sam Cassell give the Bucks enough options to keep most foes off balance. If coach George Karl can coax any defense from his troops, Milwaukee could make it to the NBA Finals. Milwaukee had an outstanding record vs. the top teams from the Western Conference. The Bucks should win their opening series in four.
Miami is the unknown factor with the return from injury that sidelined Alonzo Mourning for most of the season. Eddie Jones has also returned from an injury that sidelined him for a couple of months. Miami’s talent and new-found depth make it a realistic threat to Philadelphia, especially since Riley will devise a defense to frustrate Iverson and force Philly to find other scoring options. Miami should win their opening-round series in no more than four games if it doesn’t have to face Charlotte.
New York is an experienced post-season team with a pair of trips to the NBA Finals in the past decade and will be making their 14th straight playoff appearance. The Knicks have the talent in Alan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson and Marcus Camby, but the bully tactics of coach Jeff Van Gundy don’t seem to be as effective as they have been in the past. New York is bothered by nagging injuries and is the most likely Eastern Conference upset victim in the opening round especially if it faces a team other than Toronto.
Toronto is currently seeded fifth and seek to improve upon last season’s first playoff appearance when it was swept by New York. A rematch in the opening round is quite likely, and the Raptors will have the most dominant player on the court, Vince Carter. But the supporting cast does not match up well against the Knicks, and regardless of what team they face, Toronto’s lack of options will be a problem. Expect Toronto to lose in the opening round, but should get the franchise’s first playoff win.
Charlotte is the team in the lowest half of the bracket most likely to pull an upset in the opening round against any of the higher seeded teams. The backcourt of Baron Davis and David Wesley matches up well against the rest of the conference and a frontcourt led by Jamal Mashburn provides additional scoring punch, especially if Derrick Coleman is interested. Elden Campbell is more than capable in the post, and P.J. Brown will crash the boards. Watch for Charlotte to win its opening-round series.
Orlando followed up last season’s retooling by making the Playoffs in coach Doc Rivers’ second season as coach. Grant Hill missed all but four games this season, and that allowed Tracy McGrady to emerge as a star in his own right. The Magic will be a fashionable choice to win the conference next season. Unfortunately, their lack of experience will hurt them in these Playoffs and while Orlando might be able to win a home game in the opening series, they should be eliminated in no more than four games.
Indiana made a late-season surge to claim the final East spot from Boston, and actually has a chance to end the season with a winning record, something that looked unlikely just a couple of weeks ago. Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose give the Pacers some scoring punch. The inconsistent play and an inability to play well in the final two minutes of close games plagued the Pacers all season. This suggest that Isiah Thomas’ first Playoff appearance as a coach will last no more than four games.
San Antonio played the most consistent ball all season and, as the Western Conference’s top seed, rates the role of favorite to advance to the NBA Finals. The tandem of Tim Duncan and David Robinson are an intimidating defensive presence, and their shot blocking abilities key many fast breaks. The Spurs’ overall team defense should be the difference in getting by the first round. But don’t be surprised if the Spurs need five games to get by Minnesota.
The Los Angeles Lakers are playing their best basketball of the season and seek to defend their title. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal seem to have put their differences aside for the moment (amazing how winning can do that) and coach Phil Jackson did not express alarm during the regular season when those differences were in the headlines on almost a daily basis. Shaq is the league’s most physically dominating player, so expect the Lakers to win their opening series in at most four games with a sweep quite possible.
Sacramento is making their third straight playoff appearance as they’ve continued to improve each season and may end up with the most wins in franchise history. Chris Webber has played like an MVP. The defense is questionable and could ultimately be the reason why they get eliminated in the next round of the Playoffs. But the Kings should make it past the first round since they were based in Kansas City 20 years ago.
Utah just rolls along with Karl Malone and John Stockton leading the way. The Jazz are in the Playoffs for the 18th straight season. The addition of Donyell Marshall has given Utah another option and the fundamentally sound Jazz rarely beat itself. Utah often goes nine or 10 deep in allocating playing time in an attempt to keep the starters fresh. Utah’s most difficult first round foe would be Dallas, but should it face Portland or Phoenix, look for the Jazz to win in four games.
Dallas is the up-and-coming team in the West and the mid-season addition of Juwan Howard gives Dallas that key third scoring threat in addition to Michael Finely and Dirk Nowitzki. There are questions on defense that could prove troublesome in succeeding rounds, but look for the Mavericks to get past the first round. If the Mavs face the Kings, Dallas has a good chance to pull the upset.
Phoenix is a team with a pair of talented players, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, and a sound supporting cast that includes veteran Cliff Robinson. But the Suns continue to be plagued by a void in the middle, which puts them at a disadvantage. Kidd might be the difference in a series against Sacramento or Utah, although the Suns would be underdogs against either team. Expect Phoenix to be ousted in four games.
Portland has never recovered from blowing that double-digit fourth quarter lead in Game seven of the Western Finals against the Lakers last year. Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire headline an All-Star cast that seems to be incapable of overcoming adversity. Portland could be three and done in the opening round, but the talent suggests at least one win.
Minnesota is a dangerous team with Kevin Garnett currently among the top five players in the league.The lack of sufficient depth likely prevents the Timberwolves from upsetting San Antonio.
Summary: Season-long form would project Philadelphia against the Spurs in the NBA Finals in June. And both top seeds should make it to their conference finals. But if you are looking for a pair of capable teams to pull the upsets and give the Finals a different look, how about the Lakers defending their title against former coach Pat Riley and the Miami Heat.