Playoff matchups

April 20, 2002|By Milton Kent

Eastern Conference

No. 1 New Jersey (52-30) vs. No. 8 Indiana (42-40)

Season series: New Jersey won, 3-1.

Outlook: The Nets, who had the best home record in the East, are the first team since the NBA expanded the playoff format to 16 teams in 1984 to go from out of the postseason one year to the top seed in a conference the next. New Jersey's vaunted transition game figures to be neutralized in the playoffs, so the outside shooting of Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn and Jason Kidd will be at a premium. Nearly left for dead two weeks ago, the Pacers enter the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Jermaine O'Neal figures to give New Jersey's Kenyon Martin fits in what should be a great power forward battle. However, Indiana's point guard tandem of Jamaal Tinsley and Kevin Ollie is no match for Kidd.

Prediction: New Jersey in four.

No. 4 Charlotte (44-38) vs. No. 5 Orlando (44-38)

Season series: Charlotte won, 3-1.

Outlook: In what could be their Charlotte finale before packing up for New Orleans, the Hornets pushed their way into the upper half of the East, despite the worst home record of the 16 playoff teams. Charlotte will look to exploit Orlando's interior softness with Elden Campbell, P.J. Brown and backup center Jamaal Magloire. The Magic has the best perimeter shooter in the playoffs in Tracy McGrady. But an inside tandem of Horace Grant and Patrick Ewing is overmatched against the younger, stronger Hornets.

Prediction: Charlotte in four.

No. 3 Boston (49-33) vs. No. 6 Philadelphia (43-39)

Season series: Philadelphia won, 3-1.

Outlook: Before the February trade with Phoenix, the Celtics could have been dismissed as little more than Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker. But the acquisition of Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk gives Boston needed playoff experience and depth, though center Vitaly Potapenko will miss the series with an ailing knee. Walker didn't score more than 18 points in any of the four games against Philadelphia. The Sixers bear little resemblance to the team that won the Eastern Conference last season, and if Allen Iverson can't come back from his broken left hand, Philadelphia won't be able to muster enough offense to stay with the Celtics. The oft-injured Derrick Coleman will have to provide some firepower.

Prediction: Boston in five.

No. 2 Detroit (50-32) vs. No. 7 Toronto (42-40)

Season series: Detroit won, 3-1.

Outlook: Despite being the worst rebounding team in the league, the Pistons play terrific defense led by Ben Wallace, the league leader in rebounding and blocked shots. Detroit also has a fine collection of outside shooters with Jerry Stackhouse and Jon Barry hitting big shots. The Raptors put on a miraculous burst down the stretch, winning 12 of their last 14 to qualify for the postseason - and all without Vince Carter. Morris Peterson and Antonio Davis have given Toronto a nice inside-outside combination in Carter's absence, but the Raptors have likely expended too much energy just to get to the playoffs.

Prediction: Detroit in three.

Western Conference

No. 1 Sacramento (61-21) vs. No. 8 Utah (44-38)

Season series: Sacramento won, 4-0.

Outlook: The Kings head into the playoffs with the league's best record and unusual swagger. Point guard Mike Bibby has settled the offense and Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic may be the best forward combination in the league. Sacramento has the best home record in the league as well, so winning in Arco Arena will be tough. The Jazz, which was merely old last season, has gotten older as John Stockton and Karl Malone aren't defying time as much as they used to. Utah is developing some nice young talent like DeShawn Stevenson and Andrei Kirilenko. But that won't be enough to stop or even slow down the Kings, who have beaten the Jazz six straight times and in seven of their past eight meetings.

Prediction: Sacramento in three.

No. 4 Dallas (57-25) vs. No. 5 Minnesota (50-32)

Season series: Teams tied, 2-2.

Outlook: No successful team tinkered more with their formula than the Mavericks and the results of their February deal with Denver to get Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz have so far been solid. Dallas can outscore any team in the league, but plays precious little defense. The Timberwolves are in the playoffs for a fifth straight year, but have never advanced past the first round. Minnesota lost three of its last five going into the playoffs. This should be the best of the eight first-round series. The two teams rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in field-goal percentage. The Mavericks have just enough offense to advance.

Prediction: Dallas in five.

No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers (58-24) vs. No. 6 Portland (49-33)

Season series: Teams tied, 2-2.

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