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  SAC-TOWN TAKES THE NBA CROWN: OUR NBA EXPERT WEIGHS IN ON THE PLAYOFFS.  
   
   
 

"Expertise" is not necessarily an acutely positive attribute. I am an NBA expert. That sounds good, right? But the excessive amount of time I spend watching and studying the NBA would be considered exorbitant by any rational definition. I have long ago overcome the obstacle of forced justification for my indulgences. This is simply who I am.

Professionally, I covered the NBA for 4 1/2 years for The Sporting News until December 2001. Feel free to check out my outdated ramblings here.

Sometimes you just need to go with the flow. If it feels good, then do it. Indulge your sprit. Simple enough. I have always been fulfilled by nights offering a dozen NBA games at my disposal, so I absorb as much action as attainable. It's a lifelong addiction.

My personal sports odyssey was pushed into overdrive through an exceedingly cumbersome old-school satellite dish that my father set up in our farmhouse yard in rural Iowa in 1983. I was nine years old and overwhelmed at how my viewing options jumped from four channels (on clear days) to seemingly limitless opportunities. Transponders, coordinates, satellites, broadcasting legalities, all it meant to me was that I could glimpse into numerous sports realities at any moment.

In the 80s, satellite feeds were not regulated and every sporting event was available via "wild" feeds through our satellite dish. You just had to look around for specific games. My addiction was thus firmly established. Now, I am amply pleased to enjoy a late night Warriors or Clippers game.

So I have 20 years as a diehard NBA fan to draw knowledge from. With my slick DirecTV/TiVo setup combined with the NBA League Pass, I have been able to watch ridiculous amounts of NBA this season. Sometimes I forget what the sun looks like. I go to absurd lengths to cram three games into 150 minutes of late-night viewing time. Not to mention trying to polish off a six-pack in the same time frame while selecting the proper Grateful Dead show to play over certain play-by-play announcers that are overly abrasive (but never, ever over Bill Walton).

And now … the playoffs. Though it pains every living cell in my body that Michael Jordan cannot be part of this postseason -- not to mention thirteen-inch tall Earl Boykins and the thrill-a-minute Warriors -- it is the dawn of a new era in the NBA when Jordan and the Lakers might each be left out of any championship celebrations.

If Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant can will a fourth straight title out of the Lakers, it will not only be the most impressive championship of their collective careers, but will further the impression that the NBA regular season means about as much as the NHL season. The three-time defending champion Lakers were awful for the first half of the season, but seem to be near their peak. But the Mavericks, Spurs and Kings have each taken turns proving this could be their time to snatch the spotlight. It is unlikely that the Eastern Conference will producer a legitimate contender, but also consider just how battered and fatigued the Western Conference champion will be after 20 grueling playoff games.

And now, previews and predictions.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

 

 
 

Orlando v. Detroit

Tracy McGrady is arguably the league's toughest player to defend. His 32.1 points per game is the league's best average since MJ averaged 32.6 for Chicago in 1992-93. He is a great ballhandler, passer, 3-point shooter and post player - and he can beat anyone off the dribble.

But the hard-nosed Pistons are the league's

 
 

best defensive team, and they have the league's best defender in Ben Wallace, who is expected to wear a special brace to protect an injured left knee that kept him out of action in the regular season's final weeks. The Pistons are the epitome of a team-oriented offense, and they are back to playing a bruising style that wears opponents down (recall Laimbeer, Mahorn, Dumars etc.). McGrady is good enough to get the Magic a win or two, but he will reach new heights of exhaustion in doing so. Grant Hill is injured, and Pat Garrity, Gordan Giricek, Drew Gooden, Darrell Armstrong and Shawn Kemp are just not good enough for Orlando to win this series.

Prediction: Detroit will take the series in six games -- unless Wallace is injured worse than has been reported.

 

 
 

Nets v. Bucks

No matter how one views this series, the spotlight is on the point guard matchup. Milwaukee's Gary Payton is in the final third of his Hall of Fame career and is one of the few guards who can neutralize New Jersey's Jason Kidd. Payton is a better shooter (20 ppg, 7 apg) and slightly better scorer, but Kidd (18.8 ppg, 9 apg) can control games down the stretch. Payton

 
 

has the luxury of sharing guard responsibilities with proven performer Sam Cassell (19.7 ppg), and veteran forward Toni Kukoc is currently playing his best basketball in years. New Jersey played in the NBA Finals last season and has two secondary stars in Richard Jefferson (15.6) and Kenyon Martin (16.7, 8.4).

Prediction: If Nets center Dikembe Mutombo can play 25 effective minutes a night, and New Jersey can contain the potent Bucks' offense, the Nets will prevail easily. New Jersey in six.

 

 
 

Celtics v. Pacers

This has an old school feel, though Chuck Person and Larry Bird are long gone. Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker have carried Boston all season, but Walker is hurt and in a shooting slump. He normally only shoots 39 percent anyway, though he fires 3-pointers at will. They do not have a strong frontcourt, and the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal (21 points, 10 rebounds per game) and Brad Miller (13 ppg) will take advantage.

 
 

Plus, Reggie Miller's poise and presence will be a major variable. Look for Indiana forward Ron Artest to frustrate Pierce with his physical, overbearing play. And maybe eat the basketball.

Prediction: Indiana has more balance and more talent. Boston relies on 3-point shooting way too much to be effective against a physical team in the playoffs. Pacers in five.

 

 
 

Hornets v. 76ers

New Orleans point guard Baron Davis is trying to play with an injured knee, and his success will determine if the Hornets have a chance. When healthy, Davis is the main catalyst for New Orleans -- a 20-point, 10-assist player. But Jamal Mashburn (21.6 ppg) will be the Hornets' featured player. Fun fact: Old timers Stacy Augmon and Kenny Anderson are not only still alive, they even grace the Hornets' roster.

 
 

 

Philly will just let Allen Iverson (27.6) create scoring opportunities and try to outrebound. New Orleans leads the league in forced turnovers, so Iverson must take care of the ball. The 76ers' secondary scorers are Keith Van Horn (16 ppg), Kenny Thomas (13) and Eric Snow (10). Their most criticized player is beer-guzzling Derrick Coleman, who remains a good player capable of double-doubles.

Prediction: Toughest series to call in the East. The Hornets carry a five-game winning streak into the series, but the 76ers were the East's hottest team over the last two months. Each team has experience. Iverson's ability to draw fouls, get timely steals and control tempo is the X-factor. 76ers in seven.

 

 
 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

 

 
 

Suns v. Spurs

The Spurs are a great team, though not exhilarating to watch by any stretch. Their methodical approach consists of rebounding, tough defense and good passing. Tim Duncan (23 points, 12 rebounds per game) is this season's likely MVP, and his style of play represents San Antonio perfectly: sturdy, intense, reliable, efficient and effective. (And boring.)

 
 

Phoenix rookie sensation Amare Stoudamire and the Suns' frontcourt will be hard-pressed to control Duncan. Their best bet is to hope Duncan gets into foul trouble. Spurs point guard Tony Parker is vastly improved this season, but Suns point guard Stephon Marbury is one of the league's hottest players and a legitimate star.

The Suns are good and will surprise many. Remember Penny Hardaway? He is now healthy and playing great team basketball. He could be the difference in this series. If Suns forward Shawn Marion plays well, Stoudamire holds his own inside and Marbury outplays Parker, this could be a six or seven-gamer. With Marbury a proven clutch performer and with San Antonio legendary center David Robinson limping to the end of his career, Spurs coach Greg Popovich faces an immediate huge challenge.

Prediction: Suns in six.The Spurs thought they would be playing the Lakers. This might result in a slight drop in preparation. Phoenix won three of four in the regular season and seem to be peaking. So why the hell not? As one crude co-worker use to say … "Doolittle showin' some sack!"

 

 
 

Jazz v. Kings

These teams have had some legendary encounters in recent playoffs series and this should be another classic if Utah can win a game or two early. The Kings' core remains unchanged, with Chris Webber (and his annoyingly snarling, scowling glances) leading the way. Ancient pest Vlade Divac will no doubt get into a shoving match with Greg Ostertag, which will prove

 
 

to be highly entertaining. (Like watching rhinos mate)

Even if Webber struggles, Sacramento can go to point guard Mike Bibby (16 ppg), high-scoring guard Bobby Jackson (15) or All-Star forward Peja Stojakovich (19). With each team playing in very intense home environments and given how these teams generate abundant tension, this could be fun to watch.

Prediction: In what is expected to be the final postseason for John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz must defeat the NBA's best team to move on. Not happening. Bye guys. Kings in five.

 

 
 

Lakers v. Timberwolves

After losing in the first round of the playoffs for six straight seasons, Minnesota finally earned homecourt advantage in Round One. Congrats, guys. Oh … you're playing the champs.

Still, Minnesota is a very good team. They shoot well (.466, second in the NBA), takecare of the ball and pass well. They play with intensity. They have Wally

 
 

Szczerbiak (17.6 ppg). They have MVP candidate Kevin Garnett (23 points, 13 rebounds), who fills a box score like no other NBA player. But it just will not be enough.

Prediction: LA has won 11 of 13, games and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are healthy and playing at their typically high level. That is all the Lakers need. Garnett will stun folks with his skill and will ensure Minnesota one win with his dominance. Lakers in five.

 

 
 

Blazers v. Mavericks

There is a mind-boggling amount of talent on these two teams. Dallas features hipster point guard Steve Nash (19 ppg, 7 assists per game) and Dirk Nowitzki (25 ppg, 10 rpg) (perhaps the coolest thing to come from Germany since those German mini-kegs began appearing in U.S. grocery stores several years ago). But their third star, Michael Finley (19 ppg), must be able

 
 

to play 40-plus minutes a game. Finley missed 13 of the Mavs' last 15 games with a pulled hamstring. Factoring in Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz, Dallas is loaded. They just need to remember to play defense and to rebound.

Portland is a perpetual enigma. But they are capable. Rasheed Wallace (18 ppg) needs to stay away from the perimeter and attack the basket more often. Damon Stoudamire needs to stay away from the weed (at least during the regular season) and make an impact and Scottie Pippen must stay healthy and play 30 minutes a game. Bonzi Wells (15 ppg) and Derek Anderson (14) are consistent enough, and the Blazers have a slew of bench players to turn to: Zach Randolph, Ruben Patterson, Dale Davis and Arvydas Sabonis (yes, the big scary guy with the large head).

Prediction: Mavericks in six. This series will be a thrill to watch and could feature games in the 120s. But Dallas is just more consistent.

 

 
 

Eastern Conference Semifinals
76ers at Pistons: 76ers in 6
Pacers at Nets: Nets in 7

Western Conference Semifinals
Suns at Lakers: Lakers in 5.
Mavericks at Kings: Kings in 6.

Eastern Conference Finals
76ers at Nets: 76ers in 6

Western Conference Finals
Lakers at Kings: Kings in 5.

NBA Finals
The Sacremento Kings over the Philadelphia 76ers in 5.

 

*BT*

Brian Doolittle is a former editor at The Sporting News, and now listens to the Grateful Dead and dreams of blocking Bill Walton's shot.