And the winners will be . . . Spurs, Pacers


When the regular season began, there were a lot of basketball experts predicting an Orlando Magic-Phoenix Suns final.

And why not? The Magic acquired Horace Grant to play alongside Shaquille O'Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. And the Suns picked up Danny Manning in the off-season, an addition that had Kevin Johnson describing his team as one of the "scariest" in basketball.

That pick may hold true. But there's a good chance Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller and David Robinson might have something to say about it.

Welcome to the NBA playoffs. Here is one man's playoff predictions for the best-of-five first round:

Eastern Conference

* No. 1 Orlando Magic (57-25) vs. No. 8 Boston Celtics (35-47) -- The Magic didn't exactly close out the season in a flourish, winning just four of their final 10. In fact, after dominating most of the regular season, the Magic looked like a tired team by season's end.

So what. The Celtics are the only team to enter this year's playoffs with a losing record.

Orlando won three of five games against the Celtics this season, and Shaquille O'Neal would like nothing better than to abuse Eric Montross after the two had a little skirmish earlier this season that led to O'Neal's ejection. The Magic will win this series in four games.

* No. 2 Indiana Pacers (52-30) vs. No. 7 Atlanta Hawks (42-40) -- The Pacers hope the playoffs will be the wake-up call for Reggie Miller, who shot poorly toward the end of the season and never asserted himself offensively this year. The Pacers have too much size up front with Rik Smits, Antonio Davis, Dale Davis and Derrick McKey in the rotation. The Hawks will be lucky to avoid getting swept.

* No. 3 New York Knicks (55-27) vs. No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers (43-39) -- The networks won't break any ratings record with this series. Cleveland allowed the fewest points per game (89.8) and scored the fewest (90.5). New York's field goal percentage-allowed was the best in the league (43.7 percent).

The teams split four games this season, but this series won't be close. Patrick Ewing will have a field day in a series that will last four games.

* No. 4 Charlotte Hornets (50-32) vs. No. 5 Chicago Bulls (47-35) -- Old school vs. new school in the best opening-round series in the East. Michael Jordan is back and, despite shooting just 41.1 percent since his return, will be the difference. With Scott Burrell out, the job of containing Jordan goes to Hersey Hawkins. That's no contest.

The Bulls ended the season strong, and seemed to adapt to playing with Jordan -- instead of simply watching him. Chicago wins in five games.

Western Conference

* No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Denver Nuggets (41-41) -- Robinson will rule the West, and lead the Spurs to the NBA Finals. But first San Antonio will have to make it through a difficult first round against a Nuggets team that had to go down to the final game of the regular season just to make the playoffs.

LaPhonso Ellis returns to the lineup after preseason knee surgery, and Denver, which stunned Seattle last season, is capable of a second straight first-round upset as an eighth seed. It won't happen. San Antonio in four games.

* No. 2 Phoenix Suns (59-23) vs. No. 7 Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) -- The difference between the Suns this year and last year is that Charles Barkley is healthy. And a healthy Barkley makes the Suns a serious threat, despite the loss of Manning midway through the season.

The question for Phoenix is whether Dan Majerle and Johnson will revert to all-star form. Phoenix won't face much of a test against Portland, a team ripped by dissension.

* No. 3 Utah Jazz (60-22) vs. No. 6 Houston Rockets (47-35) -- For the sixth time in seven years the Jazz has won more than 50 games. During that span, it has never reached the Western Conference finals. The combination of Karl Malone and John Stockton gives Utah the best one-two punch in basketball.

They'll have to start their run against the defending NBA champions, who have no power at the power forward spot since trading Otis Thorpe. The Jazz advances.

* No. 4 Seattle SuperSonics (57-25) vs. No. 5 Los Angeles Lakers (48-34) -- Seattle got last year's "We hardly knew you" award after taking the league's best record into the playoffs, only to lose to the Nuggets in the first round. This year, they fail to get out of the first round again. The Lakers won four of five games against Seattle this season and will advance.

My picks for the NBA Finals: San Antonio vs. Indiana, with the Spurs winning it all. My credentials for making such picks -- well, I correctly picked six of the eight first-round matchups last year. Which makes me . . . yeah, lucky. And glad that it's playoff time, after watching a team that lost 61 games this season.

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