NBA mix: multiple shots

Heat, 76ers, Lakers, Spurs can lay claims as playoffs tip off

April 21, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Here's how you know that Alonzo Mourning is back and ready to kick butt: The Armanis are gone and the scowl is back.

Until his March 27 return to the pivot for the Miami Heat after being diagnosed last October with collapsing focal glomerulosclerosis, a severe kidney ailment, Mourning had been seen smiling and wearing a well-tailored suit during his rare public appearances.

For a guy like Mourning who personifies the blue-collar, lunch-pail work ethic, sitting around wearing nice duds and putting on a happy face was considerably out of character.

"Yeah, it's good to be back out there, playing and practicing and contributing, but there's still a ways to go," the 6-foot-10 Mourning said before a game in Washington earlier this month.

Mourning's return to the resurgent Heat, a preseason pick by many to win the Eastern Conference title before he was diagnosed in October, is one of the wild cards being thrown into the mix as the NBA playoffs begin today and tomorrow with series openers in eight cities.

If nothing else, Mourning, who is averaging 13.6 points in his 13-game comeback, gives third-seeded Miami a chance to get to the NBA championship series, a place many thought it would reach before last October.

"If Alonzo had been healthy, I'm quite sure they would have picked Miami to finish in the top two in the East. He can't do anything but add to the team," Milwaukee forward Glenn Robinson said after Mourning's return last month.

After Mourning's 16-point, eight-rebound performance in 23 minutes off the bench in an 86-84 win over the Wizards on April 4, Washington's Jahidi White, like Mourning a Georgetown graduate, said: "It felt like old times. It seems like he's in great shape. If he's playing this good now, he should be awesome by the time the playoffs come around."

Mourning has been pretty good since his return, particularly down the stretch, scoring 25 points and pulling down 16 rebounds in Tuesday's 91-89 win over Milwaukee that clinched the third seed, with a buzzer-beating dunk providing the victory margin.

But Mourning, who takes 14 pills a day and has his blood tested weekly, has been understandably wary about proclaiming a triumphant comeback, especially considering that he is venturing into such unknown territory.

"All of this is new to me, so I can't even give you an honest answer [about how he feels]," Mourning said. "All I know is I have to take things one day at a time and continue to listen to my doctors. When I'm in the game, I have to help the team try to elevate its level of play."

If Mourning can do that, then the Heat, which meets sixth-seeded Charlotte in a first-round opener tonight, should be in good shape to battle Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the top two seeds in the East.

The 76ers, who snatched the Atlantic Division title away from Miami, have the East's best record and the presumed Most Valuable Player favorite, guard Allen Iverson, but hardly an air of invincibility.

Philadelphia lost three of its last five - albeit with Iverson resting for the last two - and has looked less than towering since getting center Dikembe Mutombo in a trade-deadline deal with Atlanta in late February. The Sixers' already plodding offense got even slower with Mutombo in the middle.

Meanwhile, the freewheeling Bucks, with Robinson and guards Ray Allen and Sam Cassell (Dunbar), were second in the league in scoring behind Sacramento and fifth in three-point shooting, meaning they should be able to score in half-court sets as the game predictably slows down in the postseason.

Most of the attention, meanwhile, is being focused on the Western Conference, where the eighth seed, Minnesota, won 47 games, a mark that would have gotten the Timberwolves the fifth seed in the East.

Any of five Western teams - San Antonio, the defending champion Lakers, Sacramento, Utah and Dallas - has a legitimate claim at not only the conference title, but the league championship as well.

The Spurs, who finished with the best record in the NBA, look poised to reclaim their 1999 title, what with Tim Duncan and David Robinson inside and Derek Anderson, an off-season free-agent acquisition from the Clippers, on the perimeter.

The Lakers, who have waded through the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant soap opera, hit the postseason on a serious roll, having won eight straight, as they head to their first-round meeting with Portland, a bunch even more dysfunctional than the Lakers have been.

Sacramento, which learned to play defense to go along with its flashy offense, battled the Lakers all season in the Pacific. Forward Chris Webber, a leading MVP candidate, could take the Kings deep into the playoffs before he tests the free-agent market this summer.

The Utah-Dallas series, perhaps the most intriguing first-round matchup, pits the aging, experienced Jazz against the young, upstart Mavericks.

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