Western Conference

April 22, 2000|By Philadelphia Inquirer

Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs

Records: Suns, 53-29; Spurs, 53-29.

Outlook: The Spurs' fortunes have ebbed and flowed all season. G Avery Johnson hasn't played up to his capabilities, F Tim Duncan has a suspect knee and the difficulty of defending an NBA crown has been quite obvious. The Spurs' struggles allowed Utah to capture the Midwest Division title, so they are seeded only fourth in the West. Still, they will have home-court advantage in this series.

The Suns are not a threat because they are not healthy. F Tom Gugliotta is out for the season with a knee injury. G Jason Kidd has missed the last month with a broken ankle and is highly questionable for the playoffs. The last thing the Suns needed was to face a team like the Spurs, one with size and something to prove. With C David Robinson having averaged 22 points and shot 50 percent in the Spurs' four games against Phoenix this season, it's apparent that C Luc Longley is not about to stop them.

Pick: Spurs in four.

Sacramento Kings vs. L.A. Lakers

Records: Kings, 44-38; Lakers, 67-15.

Outlook: The Kings had a chance to avoid the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs but let Seattle beat them out for the seventh seeding in the Western Conference. Now ,they will get what they had said they wanted -- a crack at the Lakers.

The Lakers captured three of their four games against the Kings in the regular season. C Shaquille O'Neal should be the NBA's consensus Most Valuable Player. G Kobe Bryant is a candidate for defensive player of the year and Rice is playing for a new contract. Phil Jackson should receive coach-of-the-year honors. The Lakers are one of the game's premier defensive teams, and everyone else in the West seems to have conceded that they are the game's most dominant team.

Pick: Lakers in four.

Seattle SuperSonics vs. Utah Jazz

Records: SuperSonics, 45-37; Jazz, 55-27.

Outlook: The teams split four meetings in the regular season, but the favorite here is clear. Unlike the Sonics, who have been mired in controversy involving coach Paul Westphal's relationships with F Vin Baker and G Gary Payton, the Jazz has been a model of consistency. Few expected Utah to capture the Midwest Division title this season after losing G Shandon Anderson to Houston as a free agent. Yet it hasn't missed a beat. F Karl Malone (25.6 points, 9.5 rebounds) had another stellar season. G John Stockton, another ancient warrior, averaged 8.6 assists.

With C Olden Polynice and Greg Ostertag, his backup, in the middle and Malone still flexing his muscle for Utah, the Sonics are simply no match. Payton will make things interesting all by himself. But it won't be enough.

Pick: Jazz in three.

Minnesota Timberwolves

ka-10 vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Records: Timberwolves, 50-32; Trail Blazers, 59-23.

Outlook: Despite ending the season with the second-most victories in the league, the Blazers finished in disappointing fashion, going into a tailspin after a home loss to the Lakers. They finished eight games behind the Lakers for the Pacific Division title. They split four games with the Timberwolves in the regular season, which could hint at some problems in this series.

No one in the league matches up better with F Kevin Garnett than the Blazers' Rasheed Wallace, although Garnett averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds against the Blazers this season. Portland coach Mike Dunleavy's job could very well be on the line. And Blazers owner Paul Allen didn't dole out $73.9 million in salaries for this season to lose in the first round. The Timberwolves don't have a bona fide big man to fend off Wallace, C Arvydas Sabonis and F Brian Grant.

Pick: Blazers in four. But all the games will be tough.

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