NBA First Round Series Preview
Indiana Pacers (#1 seed) vs. Boston Celtics (#8)
Let the slaughtering commence. The Celtics will live or die on the exploits of Paul Pierce, and the Pacers just happen to have the league's best individual defender, Ron Artest, to stop him. Anything Boston can do, Indiana can do better. If the Celts bring Ricky Davis off the bench, the Pacers can counter with Al Harrington. Who's going to contain Jermaine O'Neal--Mark Blount? Chris Mihm? Brandon Hunter? The only possible matchup advantage the Celts have is at the point, with Chucky Atkins and Marcus Banks versus Jamaal Tinsley and Anthony Johnson--big whoop. The biggest challenge for Pacers coach Rick Carlisle will be keeping his team engaged for four straight games. Pacers in 4.
New Jersey Nets (#2) vs. New York Knicks (#7)
Injuries to Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin add a modicum of suspense to this series. Although both are expected to play, a banged-up Kidd facing Stephon Marbury in his beloved Madison Square Garden, playing as an underdog with nothing to lose, could be dicey if Marbury reprises last year's solid playoff performance. It will also be interesting to see if the Knicks can coax some quality minutes out of Dikembe Mutumbo, a proud man and still occasionally formidable paint patroller who was unceremoniously dropped by the Nets earlier this year. But the Knicks will miss Allen Houston to provide spacing for Marbury to operate, and the matchup between the ever-improving Richard Jefferson and the finger-pointing, overpaid Tim Thomas should enable the Nets to prevail even if Kidd and Martin aren't at full strength. Nets in 6.
Detroit Pistons (#3) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (#6)
Terry Porter has done a fabulous job using nearly his entire roster to get the Bucks into the postseason, but his club would be better served playing an up-and-down tempo team like the Nets rather than the grind-it-out Pistons. The Bucks' frontcourt-by-committee won't wear down the indefatigable Ben Wallace, and the Iverson-tested discipline and understanding of Pistons coach Larry Brown is apparently just what Rasheed Wallace needed to refocus his game inside the three-point arc. Michael Redd and Rip Hamilton will probably allow each other to score plenty of points, but Damon Jones is not a great answer for Detroit's Chauncey Billups at the point. This might be a sweep. Instead, out of respect for Porter, I'll call it Pistons in 5.
Miami Heat (#4) vs. New Orleans Hornets (#5)
Unless Jamaal Magloire comes up huge, I don't see the Hornets surmounting the loss of Jamal Mashburn and the enervation of coach Tim Floyd. The series will turn on the rebounding and interior beef of New Orleans (Magloire, P.J. Brown, and Robert Traylor) versus the perimeter athleticism of Miami (Dwyane Wade, Lamar Odom, Eddie Jones, Caron Butler). Normally, beef prevails in the playoffs, but Miami has been on a tear the past six weeks, Baron Davis has fallen off a little bit (partially due to injuries) from his stellar first-half performance, Brian Grant is an undersized warrior in the paint, and Tim Floyd is over his head as a would-be motivator and tactician in the NBA. Heat in 7.
Minnesota Timberwolves (#1) vs. Denver Nuggets (#8)
Wolves in 5. See yesterday's Hang Time for details.
Los Angeles Lakers (#2) vs. Houston Rockets (#7)
This first postseason matchup of Shaq and Yao will either quell the pro-Ming hype or set tongues wagging for the next six months. I don't think Yao can stop Shaq when it matters, but a more intriguing question is whether Yao can bury that mid-range J enough to force Shaq away from the basket, and further enable Houston's success on the pick-and-roll. On defense, I'd put Kobe on Steve Francis and slide Gary Payton over to Cuttino Mobley. On offense, the Lakers would have an easier time if they eased off Shaq-Kobe exclusivity and gave Karl Malone a few shots. The Mailman's on his last legs, which will only make him wilier and hungrier for that ring. Ultimately, this isn't about Houston, but how well the Lakers can play together. Lakers in 6.
San Antonio Spurs (#3) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (#6)
The Grizzlies mysteriously fell apart in the final 10 days of the season and meeting the Spurs in the playoffs is no way to get well. Bruce Bowen and James Posey will cancel each other out and Pau Gasol will have multiple moments of pouting, whining, and wincing matching up against the Big Fundamental. So where do Memphis's points come from? Bonzie Wells, maybe, although the Spurs have a better answer for energy off the bench with Manu Ginobelli. To me, the keys for Memphis are Jason Williams and Stromile Swift. Tony Parker still can't play D, and if Williams gets into a rhythm and Hubie Brown allows him to be a little selfish, the erstwhile White Chocolate could go off in a big way. (Of course the same could be said of Parker on the other end...) Swift is finally blossoming, adding a baby jumper to his extraordinary hops under the hoop. But he'll have to board as well as score, or the Spurs will pile up the second-chance points on offensive rebounds. Bottom line, this is the biggest lock of all the Western Conference series. Spurs in 5.
Sacramento Kings (#4) vs. Dallas Mavericks (#6)
There're many reasons why my heart says Sacramento. I don't like Don Nelson's coaching philosophy, which puts imaginative ego over structural integrity when it comes to building his teams. I love Brad Miller's toughness and desire and consider Antoine Walker to be one of the league's greatest wastes of talent. I've always had a soft spot for Vlade, don't begrudge Doug Christie his tattoos and marriage-on-his-sleeve missives to his wife so long as he plays that good D, and think Bobby Jackson is one of the league's most exciting players. Finally, I've pretty much gone with conventional wisdom on every other playoff pick, and the conventional wisdom has Dallas winning this series. Despite all that, something is broken on the Kings, and I don't think they can fix it, even against the sieve-like defense of the Mavs. Dallas has gotten great contributions from rookies Daniels and Howard, and Antawn Jamison is another force off the bench. For Sacramento to win, they pretty much have to hold serve at home, because Dallas is 36-5 in their own building thus far this season. I think the Mavs will steal one of the first two games while the Kings keep struggling for a Webber-infused identity. If it gets to a seventh game, the Kings will win. More likely, it will be the Mavericks in 6.
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