First round is no automatic bye even for top teams


Sixteen NBA teams have survived the grueling 82-game schedule, played out over a long six months. Eleven teams -- RTC including 10 that were pretty pathetic -- have been weeded out in the process.

"It's money time now," said Patrick Ewing, center for the Atlantic champion New York Knicks. "The regular season is just a warm-up."

That warm-up has set the stage for one of the most wide-open opening rounds in recent playoff memory. For the first time since 1982-83 (the last before the playoffs were expanded from 12 to 16 teams), every playoff team will enter the postseason with a record better than .500.

With the opening round best-of-five series beginning Thursday, here are one man's playoff predictions.

Eastern Conference


* No. 1 Atlanta Hawks (57-25) vs. No. 8 Miami Heat (42-40)

In Lenny Wilkens' first season the Hawks matched their best win total and will enjoy home-court advantage throughout the playoffs as the East's top seed. The Hawks won three of four meetings with the Heat and should make easy work of a team that barely made the playoffs.

* No. 2 New York Knicks (57-25) vs. No. 7 New Jersey Nets (45-37)

Based on what happened this season, this should be the most interesting opening-round matchup. New Jersey won cross-river bragging rights by winning four of five games. All-Stars Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman have been difficult to contain, even by the top defensive team in the league.

But the stakes are big and New York, extended to five games in the opening round against Indiana last season, should prevail in four games. Guard John Starks will be activated by New York for the series, but shouldn't be much of a factor.

* No. 3 Chicago Bulls (55-27) vs. No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers (47-35)

As much as the Cavaliers struggled with injuries this season, they were able to win three of four games against the Bulls. Center Brad Daugherty was included on the playoff roster yesterday, but is not expected to play this weekend after missing the final 29 games (herniated lumbar disk). Cleveland won't have Michael Jordan as an obstacle, but its injuries should make for the same result: Chicago in four games.

* No. 4 Orlando Magic (50-32) vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers (47-35)

The Magic was impressive in its 50-win season and Shaquille O'Neal proved (even to me) that his offensive game goes beyond the dunk. But the Magic has the misfortune of opening against the hottest team in the league. The Pacers finished with a team-record eight-game winning streak and with Reggie Miller (19.9 ppg) playing some of the best ball of his career. Rik Smits will play a big role in the series, with Indiana advancing in five games.

Western Conference

* No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics (63-19) vs. No. 8 Denver Nuggets (42-40)

The Sonics finished with the best record in the league, but are matched against one of two Western Conference teams that they didn't win a season series against (Seattle split with the Nuggets and Houston). Seattle's depth will be the big factor in winning the series in four games.

* No. 2 Houston Rockets (58-24) vs. No. 7 Portland Trail Blazers (47-35)

Hakeem Olajuwon is the league's Most Valuable Player, and even Chris Dudley -- just off the injured list -- won't be able to stop him. Houston in a sweep.

* No. 3 Phoenix Suns (56-26) vs. No. 6 Golden State Warriors (50-32)

Just like a year ago when the Suns were on the verge of elimination vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix has its hands full. The Suns won the season series, 3-2, and have a relatively healthy Charles Barkley. Last year's opening-round series, in which Phoenix lost the first two at home, was a learning experience. There won't be a repeat, with the Suns taking their first two at home and winning the series in four.

* No. 4 San Antonio Spurs (55-27) vs. No. 5 Utah Jazz (53-29)

David Robinson's career year would be meaningless if the Spurs get bumped in the first round. And that's a possibility against a Jazz team that swept all five games. San Antonio is weak in the backcourt, and John Stockton took advantage of it. The playoffs will yield different results for Robinson, with the Spurs winning in five games.


How much weight should you put in these picks? Before the season I correctly picked the teams in order in the Midwest Division, the top four teams in order in the Atlantic Division, and the top four teams (not in order) in the Pacific Division.

At the same time I picked the Hawks to finish next to last in the Central, behind the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons and Charlotte Hornets. So you be the judge.

Hall of Fame/Shame endings

Two probable Hall of Fame centers ended their seasons -- and possibly their careers -- on Sunday afternoon in very different ways.

For Boston Celtics center Robert Parish, there was a standing ovation from the fans in Cleveland after he came out of the game in the final minutes on Sunday.

And Philadelphia 76ers center Moses Malone? He showed up at 12:37 for a 1 p.m. game on Sunday against Detroit. Coach Fred Carter was going to start the little-used Malone, the second-oldest player in the league behind Parish. But Malone, who had not started a game all year, would have nothing of it.

"I'm a better player than that. I've got pride," Malone said, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. "They must have been talking about Moses Malone Jr. [because] Big Mo's not going to stand for that ----."

What a classy ending.

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