NBA finals down to
‘magnificent seven’

May 18, 2004 6:53 AM

The week begins with seven teams still battling for the NBA title.

Defending champ San Antonio was shockingly eliminated in six games by the Los Angeles Lakers. The departure of the Spurs was stunning in that San Antonio looked very strong in winning the first two games of the series by 10 points apiece before being swept in the next four.

The Game 5 finish was one for the ages as San Antonio’s Tim Duncan and Los Angeles’ Derek Fisher traded improbable baskets in the closing tenths of seconds in the Lakers’ 74-73 road win that gave them a 3-2 edge before clinching the series last Saturday.

The Lakers await the winner of the Sacramento/Minnesota series tied 3-3. Minnesota opened as a five-point home favorite for Wednesday’s Game 7. Home teams win about five of six times in Game 7 matchups but Sacramento was a preseason pick to challenge for the title. The Kings still have the chance to win it all.

Minnesota owns a 6-4 edge over the Kings this year, with seven games decided by eight points or less and three needing OT. Our pick: SACRAMENTO plus the points and eventually winning the West.

Also going to a seventh game is the series between the Eastern Conference’s two and three seeds, Detroit and New Jersey. Detroit hosts the Nets on Thursday with the winner advancing to the Conference Finals against the Miami/Indiana winner. New Jersey had a chance to win in six games but was unable to finish the job at home.

The Nets were the preseason pick to win it all in their third straight trip to the NBA Finals and still have a shot. Detroit opened as a five-point choice in Game 7 and has been bet up a half point. NEW JERSEY plus the points is the play with its experience and Jason Kidd as the difference maker.

Indiana and Miami have traded home wins through the first five games. The Heat hosting Indiana on Tuesday seeking to extend their home winning streak to 19 in a row in order to force a decisive Game 7. Miami is a 4 ½-point home underdog. All five games have had results in the narrow range of 7 to 13 points with the home team taking control of the game in the second half.

Miami is clearly a better team than most observers believed at the start of the playoffs and much more formidable than even they expected. Still, Indiana is the better all around team with more ways to win despite Miami’s lengthy home win streak. INDIANA is the preferred play in Game 6. Should Miami win and force a Game 7 the Pacers are the one team most likely to win in a blowout as Game 7 hosts.

The Conference finals are scheduled to begin this weekend. We can project the possible matchups and offer some early thoughts.

Lakers vs T’wolves or Kings: Los Angeles will be favored over either side and has the talent edge. The Lakers are likely to be more severely tested by Sacramento.

There is a strong recent history between the teams and the Kings believe they are poised to overtake the Lakers and have come close in recent seasons. Sacramento clearly misses the spark provided by the injured Bobby Jackson and his return during the playoffs is iffy at best.

The enthusiasm for Sacramento to represent the West has diminished over the past two months. The Kings are just 10-10 straight up in the last 20 games. But their home court advantage is strong. Should the Kings win one of the first two games in Los Angeles they have an excellent chance to pull the upset. They would have to do it in six games, however. Sacramento was 3-1 against the Lakers during the regular season.

The Lakers should get by Minnesota in at most five games. Los Angeles is quite capable of winning at least one of the first two games on the road. Minnesota won three of four in the regular season, with each game decided by at least 10 points. Minnesota does have three solid scoring options but the Lakers have four. With the most dominant player in the game (Shaquille O’Neal) the Lakers have an accumulation of edges.

Their experience this deep in the playoffs also cannot be discounted. Minnesota is a team on the rise and its success in the playoffs makes the Wolves the favorites next season.

In the East, Indiana is the favorite but there really is little difference amongst the top three teams which include Detroit and New Jersey. Should Miami upset Indiana in the final two games of their series they would be justifiable longshots against either New Jersey or Detroit. The Nets or Pistons should have little trouble winning in five games.

Indiana took three of four regular season games against both New Jersey and Detroit and will be favored over each. The series between New Jersey and Indiana was competitive with all four games decided by 6 to 10 points. Two of the games between Detroit and Indiana were decided by 12 and 18 with the home team winning each.

Indiana won 14 more regular season games than New Jersey and seven more than Detroit. Clearly the Pacers are the best team in the East. Detroit beefed up in mid season by acquiring Rasheed Wallace and are coached by one of the best in the game, Larry Brown.

New Jersey has the experience of having won the last two Eastern Conference titles and the key players from those teams are still there. The projection here is for Indiana to be upset by either Detroit or New Jersey. The Nets are more capable team of winning a Game 7 on the road. Both series should go 6.