First-round match-ups are like soap operas

Apr 24, 2001 7:56 AM

This week, the opening round of the NBA playoffs kicks into full gear, with games every night of the week. Unfortunately, the NBA has expanded the schedule during the first round, extending five game series to last and last and last.

It is possible that the first round could extend from this past Saturday all the way to Friday, May 4th. Last season was the first time the NBA went to this format, and, while the play didn’t necessarily suffer, a fan’s ability to enjoy any particular series did. For example, the Knicks and Raptors began play on Sunday, and won’t play Game Two of their series until Thursday, and that’s an awful long time between games, and the most time either team has had off since the All-Star break.

Still, there are a number of series that are compelling, and could last until early May. Here’s a closer look at four series, two in the East and two in the West, to watch.

The aforementioned New York-Toronto series should be a war. These teams met in the first round of the playoffs last season, and the Knicks won three close games to sweep the Raptors. In four regular season meetings this year, Toronto won three times, but the Knicks won the last game, 88-72, on March 15th.

These teams know each other well, especially since they swapped point guards in the middle of the season, with Marc Jackson heading to the Knicks and Chris Childs moving north of the border. Toronto will have the best player on the court, in Vince Carter, and they have a bunch of big strong bodies, which helped them be one of the top rebounding teams in the league during the regular season.

But the Knicks are experienced, deep and talented, and have Latrell Sprewell to try and defend Carter. The key for the Knicks will be the health of brittle Marcus Camby, who missed time late in the year, and may not be at full strength. The long layoff between games should certainly help him. Expect a low-scoring series, as the Knicks like to play at a slow pace, and they will do everything they can to keep the ball out of Carter’s hands and make the other Raptors beat them.

The Bucks won each of the regular season games they played against the Magic. Milwaukee has actually beaten the Magic in each of their last nine regular season meetings. The last time Orlando beat Milwaukee was way back on April 9th, 1999. And the two head coaches entered into a war of words before the series started, with Magic coach Doc Rivers firing the first shot when he said, "I’ve seen George (Karl)’s first round playoff history, and we kind of like his first round mishaps."

Rivers did praise the Bucks, saying they are capable of winning the Eastern Conference, though. Orlando is not a great team, but they have a great player in Tracy McGrady, and a number of solid role players. Milwaukee is loaded on the perimeter, but it doesn’t have a big man that can score consistently, and play sporadic defense. The Bucks have owned the Magic, but with the slower pace of playoff games, and the ability of McGrady give the Magic a chance in this series. The Bucks should move on, but look for Orlando to compete well.

The Mavericks and Jazz played against each other four times this season, and, surprisingly, the visitor won each time. Going back to last season, the visitor has won each of the last seven regular season games played between these teams, which is pretty incredible in a league that is so dominated by home teams.

Utah is still powered by Karl Malone and John Stockton, but with Donyell Marshall and Danny Manning, they are also more versatile and balanced than in past seasons The Jazz are a bit more physical, a bit deeper and certainly more experienced, as well as older, but Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Juwan Howard and Steve Nash, and plenty of confidence. Both teams have had success at the other’s arena, and they’ve played tight games against each other over the last couple of seasons.

The Kings are big favorites to beat the Suns, and, in many places, the trendy pick to win the West, but they may have some problems getting past the Suns in the opening round. Phoenix won the last game these teams played against each other during the regular season, 88-86, their only win over the Kings in four meetings this season.

The Kings are much stronger down low, and there is more overall talent on their roster, but the Suns are one of the best perimeter defense teams in the league, and with Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Tony Delk playing pressure defense, they may be able to force the Kings into turnovers. If so they could push Sacramento to the limit or out altogether.

The regular season is incredibly long, and when the playoffs finally get here, they should be savored and enjoyed, because these games actually mean something.