Last call

Apr 13, 2004 6:07 AM

The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend with San Antonio seeking to defend its title against 15 challengers.

The playoff field is nearly set with only the eighth seed in the Western Conference yet to be determined entering Monday’s action.

Any of the four top teams capable of being seeded first through fourth in the West depending on what happens over the regular season’s final three nights. Minnesota enters the week with a one game lead over San Antonio for the Midwest Division title. The Timberwolves also own a one game lead over Sacramento for the top overall seed in the conference. The Kings lead the Pacific Division by a game over the Los Angeles Lakers. All four teams have two games left.

Things are somewhat more sorted out in the East where Indiana, New Jersey and Detroit have secured the top three seeds respectively for several weeks. Over the weekend Boston claimed the eighth and final seed and cannot improve its position. The battle for the fourth seed and final home court advantage in the opening round is still to be determined.

With two games remaining Milwaukee has a one game edge over both Miami and New Orleans. Of the three, Miami has been playing the best basketball over the past month. The Heat could overcome their 0-7 start to the season and finish with a winning record with victories in the final two games.

All four rounds of the playoffs are best of seven series. Incredibly, the only established opening round playoff series pits top seeded Indiana against Boston. After dropping the first meeting this season back in November, the Pacers have won the last three meetings against Boston with both home wins coming by double digits.

It’s hard to make a case for the underdog Celtics in this series and the expectation is that Indiana will advance in no more than six games, most likely in five. The best situation for making a play on Boston would be in Game 3 if the Pacers hold serve and win the first two games on their home court.

The remaining forecasts are all speculative. Hence our comments will be necessarily brief with more extensive predictions appearing next week once the first games of the opening series have been played and each team’s road to the NBA Finals has been determined by the seedings.

Both Detroit and New Jersey will be favored to advance in the East as the second and third seeds. New Jersey appears vulnerable to upset due to health concerns. Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin have returned to the lineup but both continue to be plagued by nagging injuries. If either or both miss games the Nets could be an early casualty.

New Orleans and Miami would be the most likely of the lower seeded teams to oust the Nets. In fact, both the Hornets and Heat are capable of pulling first round upsets against any of the higher seeded teams. Miami is playing the best basketball of the teams seeded four through eight while New Orleans has perhaps the best talent of that group.

Interestingly New Orleans won three of four meetings this season against Detroit so if the Pistons are to fall, a first round matchup against the Hornets (3 versus 6) would present the most likely scenario. Detroit took all four meetings with Miami this season and three of four from Milwaukee.

New York is likely to be the seventh seed. That would pair the Knicks against New Jersey. The Nets won three of four meetings this season although the teams did split their most recent two games which were played within the last month and each decided by double digits.

In other possible opening round matchups, Milwaukee won two of three games against Miami with the home team winning each game. Miami won three of four games against New Orleans and the Hornets won three of four from Milwaukee. With two of these three teams assured of meeting in the 4 versus 5 matchup, the value will clearly lie with the underdog both in the series and in individual games.

The East was the ”˜easy’ conference. The Lakers and San Antonio have a huge experience edge over the rest of the Western teams with the two teams winning the past five NBA titles. Minnesota may be the most complete team in the West but the Wolves have yet to record a single playoff series win in the history of their franchise. Minnesota is in the playoffs for the eighth straight season. Sacramento has still to prove it can close out teams. The big test is likely to come when and if the Lakers are the opponent.

Dallas and Memphis are battling for the fifth and sixth seeds. Dallas has a very solid team and recent playoff success. Much like Sacramento, the Mavericks have their problems with the Lakers. The Mavs also are the weakest defensive team in the Western field. The half court game and defense are usually the factors that determine games and series in the playoffs.

Memphis is making its first playoff appearance ever but despite winning at least 50 games inexperience should be the undoing in the opening round. However, coach Hubie Brown has plenty of postseason experience from earlier in his career and Memphis split its four-game series with both the Lakers and Sacramento and took three of four from San Antonio. Memphis did lose two of three against Minnesota.

Houston is likely to finish with the seventh seed and will be hoping to face either the Lakers or Minnesota in the opening round. The Rockets lost all eight games against both San Antonio and Sacramento this season but did defeat Minnesota in three of four meetings. Houston did split four games with the Lakers although Los Angeles won the last two.

Of the three West teams contending for the final berth, Denver has easily the best record against conference teams. Portland has a losing record while Utah is at .500 in the conference with two games remaining. But over the last half of the season Denver has the poorest overall record of the three. Whichever team does secure that final berth is likely to be eliminated in no more than six games by a team that will have won more than a dozen additional games over the season.

Minnesota and San Antonio have been the hottest teams over the past two weeks winning seven and nine games in a row.

Dallas is the most likely of the lower seeded teams to pull an upset in the opening round. The Mavericks split their four game season series with both Minnesota and the Lakers. Dallas did win three of four against Sacramento but lost three of four against San Antonio. If Dallas is made at least a 2-1 underdog in its opening series, the Mavs are worth a close look at pulling the upset.

Back in October our projection was for New Jersey to defeat Sacramento in the NBA Finals. New Jersey has been beset by key injuries all season yet by winning the final two games against Atlanta and Miami would equal the Nets win total of last season. Detroit had a better record than the Nets last season and will again this season.

If healthy the Nets still rate the experience edge over the Pistons and Pacers. If Kidd or Martin are forced to miss games or limited in their effectiveness, Detroit or Indiana will win the East. Any of those three teams have at least a reasonable shot at defeating the Western representative although the Eastern team will still be a decided underdog in the Finals.

Sacramento still is a legitimate contender to win it all. Consider that the Kings, Spurs, Lakers and T’wolves will each finish within a couple of games of one another.

This is truly a wide open playoffs season. The top six teams in the West are likely to be separated by just six or seven games. We’ll have a much clearer focus of how things are likely to unfold next week.