The first round best-of-five series are wrapping up this week and as we go to press only the Lakers and Charlotte have advanced into the Conference semifinals round.
Charlotte was impressive in destroying Miami in three games - winning by an average of 22 points per game. Miami was a fashionable pick to advance to at least the Eastern Conference finals although it was acknowledged that the Hornets could be a tough foe because of the backcourt featuring Baron Davis and David Wesley, both of whom were the key.
The Lakers put an end to Portland’s misery by sweeping the Trail Blazers in three, winning each game by at least 13 points and controlling the game in the crucial fourth quarter. Recall that three quarters of the way through the season Portland had the best record in the West at 42-18, and it was the Lakers who were the team surrounded by controversy. Yet the trio of coach Phil Jackson, stars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant either resolved or set aside their differences to display their best of the season in the closing weeks of the regular campaign.
As the week begins, the other six opening round series each have the higher seeded team holding a 2-1 series edge and looking to wrap things up in game fours on the road. The Lakers await the winner of the Sacramento-Phoenix series and will have the home-court edge over either while Charlotte will open their next series on the road at Milwaukee or will host Orlando, should the Magic defeat the Bucks in the final two games of that series.
Thursday and Friday have been set aside for a fifth and deciding game in the six remaining series with the conference semifinals scheduled to begin Saturday and Sunday. Let’s take a look at what may happen as the remaining first round series conclude and the second round match-ups become finalized.
New York may actually play better against Toronto without Marcus Camby since it forces the Knicks to concentrate more on offense and take advantage of the skills of Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and Glen Rice. The winner of their series will face the winner of the Philadelphia-Indiana series in which the 76ers hold a 2-1 edge. Philadelphia should be a solid favorite over either New York or Toronto and it has shown an ability to get off to quick starts in the first three games against the Pacers. Indiana would be an attractive series underdog against New York and would rate a significant edge over Toronto, despite being the lower seeded team in either series.
Charlotte will face either Milwaukee or Orlando and although it would be a solid favorite against Orlando, a Charlotte-Milwaukee series would be much more competitively priced. Both teams have outstanding backcourts with Milwaukee’s tandem of Ray Allen and Sam Cassell a bit more experienced than Charlotte’s Davis and Wesley. Charlotte has been the better defensive team and, if priced as a series underdog of at least +125, would be worth considering. We should get that price since Milwaukee would have the home-court edge for the best-of-seven series.
The Lakers will face the winner of the Sacramento-Phoenix series and will be solid favorites to defeat either team. Los Angeles’ opening round sweep of Portland extended its overall winning streak to 11. The return of Derek Fisher to the lineup has added some backcourt stability that has complemented the play of Bryant and O’Neal and even the supporting cast of Robert Horry and Rick Fox have contributed. Former Laker Vlade Divac and Chris Webber lead Sacramento and Jason Williams, when playing under control, can spearhead a quick scoring spree against any foe. But too often Williams tries to take over games and that leads to turnovers. Phoenix is led by Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, with capable support from Cliff Robinson, Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk. Kidd plays well under control and Marion has been on the verge of being a star for many years, but neither can offset Bryant or O’Neal. The Lakers probably won’t sweep Phoenix or Sacramento but should win in no more than six games. The Kings and Suns might be able to get a win at home and even might be worth playing as an underdog in a fifth game at Los Angeles, but playing against Los Angeles to advance would be risky.
San Antonio and Utah lead Minnesota and Dallas respectively 2-1 in their series as the week began. The home team has won each of the six games played thus far in the two series. Top-seeded San Antonio was favored to eliminate Minnesota on the road in Game 4 and, should it have lost, would be heavily favored to win Game 5. The Spurs’ duo of Tim Duncan and David Robinson rate a solid edge over the frontcourts of Utah and Dallas and Derek Anderson provides backcourt balance. The Spurs would be favored over either Utah or Dallas. Utah’s experience, especially that of Karl Malone and John Stockton, make the Jazz a more dangerous threat than Dallas. The Mavericks have three solid options in Michael Finley, Dirk Nowitzki and Juwan Howard and should they face the Spurs, it would mean that Dallas had won three straight over Utah including a Game 5 win on the road. San Antonio’s experience should be decisive against Dallas but Utah would be attractive as an underdog to win the series against the Spurs. If San Antonio is priced higher than 5-2 against Utah, the Jazz would be worth a play. San Antonio should defeat Dallas in probably five games whereas a Spurs-Jazz series should go the full seven. Should Minnesota rally and eliminate San Antonio in five games, the Timberwolves would be heavy underdogs against either Dallas or Utah. Minnesota would probably fall to either foe in at most six games with Utah likely having the easier time than Dallas against a Minnesota team that has All-Star quality players in Kevin Garnett and Terrell Brandon, although Brandon has been plagued by injuries in the series against San Antonio.