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No. 1 Utah (64-18) vs. No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers (36-46)

Season series: Utah, 3-1 (Utah, 95-90, on Nov. 2; Utah, 111-94, on Nov. 29; Los Angeles, 115-101, on Dec. 30; Utah, 107-94, on March 22).

Last playoff appearance: Utah reached the conference finals last year, where it lost to Seattle, 4-3. The Clippers' last appearance was in 1993, when they lost in the first round to the Houston Rockets, 3-2.

Key players: Utah -- Karl Malone (27.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 4.5 apg), John Stockton (14.4 ppg, 10.5 apg), Jeff Hornacek (14.5 ppg). Los Angeles -- Loy Vaught (14.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg), Rodney Rogers (13.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Darrick Martin (10.9 ppg, 4.1 apg).

Key matchups: Stockton against Martin, who scored 38 points in the Clippers' one series victory; also, Malone against Vaught, two workmanlike players.

What Utah has to do to win: Do basically what it has done for ages -- allow Malone and Stockton to dominate the game.

What Los Angeles has to do to win: Play the perfect series, with Martin duplicating his 38-point game several times. Anything less than a perfect outing results in an early exit.

Intangibles: In 97 playoff games, Malone has shot 47.4 percent (below his career regular-season percentage of 52.5). Stockton's shooting also has slipped, from 51.7 in the regular season to 46.9 in the postseason. The Jazz has never swept a playoff opponent but, by closing the season with 19 wins in its last 20 games, a sweep is a possibility.

Prediction: Utah in three.

No. 2 Seattle (57-25) vs. No. 7 Phoenix (40-42)

Season series: Tied at 2 (Seattle, 103-98, on Nov. 7; Seattle, 105-92, on Nov. 29; Phoenix, 109-107, on March 26; Phoenix, 107-106, on March 30).

Last playoff appearance: Seattle reached the NBA Finals last season, losing to Chicago, 4-2. Phoenix lost in the first round last season to San Antonio, 3-1.

Key players: Seattle -- Gary Payton (21.8 ppg, 7.1 apg), Shawn Kemp (18.7 ppg, 10.0 rpg), Detlef Schrempf (16.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Phoenix -- Kevin Johnson (20.1 ppg, 9.3 apg), Jason Kidd (10.9 ppg, 9.0 apg), Cedric Ceballos (14.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg).

Key matchups: Payton vs. Kidd or Johnson, the two point guards in the four-guard Phoenix offense.

What Seattle has to do to win: Get the ball inside. If Phoenix plays an extended period with its four-guard offense, the Sonics have to make the Suns pay.

What Phoenix has to do to win: Get perimeter scoring from Rex Chapman and Wesley Person. If those two extend the defense, Johnson and Kidd could get to the basket for easy scores against a Seattle team that has no real center.

Intangibles: Playing well in four of the team's last five games is a sign Kemp is ready to play. His team won despite his season-long slump. Kemp played well in last season's finals, and he'll have to duplicate that effort if the Sonics are to reach that level again.

Prediction: Phoenix in four.

No. 3 Houston (57-25) vs. No. 6 Minnesota (40-42)

Season series: Houston, 4-0 (Houston, 122-93, on Nov. 9; 96-94 on Dec. 10; 104-95, on Jan. 7; 112-103 on March 25).

Last playoff appearance: Houston was swept, 4-0, last season by Seattle in the conference semifinals. Minnesota is making its first postseason appearance.

Key players: Houston -- Hakeem Olajuwon (23.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Charles Barkley (19.2 ppg, 13.5 rpg), Clyde Drexler (18.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.7 apg). Minnesota -- Tom Gugliotta (20.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Kevin Garnett (17.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg), Stephon Marbury (15.8 ppg, 7.8 apg).

Key matchups: Barkley vs. Gugliotta, in a battle of All-Star forwards, and Drexler against Garnett, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league.

What Houston has to do to win: Get the ball to Olajuwon in the post and watch him work. There isn't a player on the Minnesota roster that can stop him.

What Minnesota has to do to win: Get a good game from Marbury, a Rookie of the Year candidate who shot 33.3 percent against the Rockets. In addition, the Timberwolves have to have Garnett and Gugliotta at the top of their games, and even that won't guarantee a win.

Intangibles: With the franchise making its first trip to the playoffs, the young Timberwolves might have that happy-to-be-here mentality. If that's the case -- and if Houston is healthy -- the series won't even be close.

Prediction: Houston in three.

No. 4 Los Angeles Lakers (56-26) vs. No. 5 Portland (49-33)

Season series: Portland, 3-1 (Los Angeles, 120-119, on Dec. 13; Portland, 88-84, on Jan. 6; Portland, 102-98, on Jan. 16; Portland, 100-96, on April 20).

Last playoff appearance: The Lakers were eliminated in the first round last season, 3-1, by Houston. Portland was eliminated last season in the first round by Utah, 3-2.

Key players: Los Angeles -- Shaquille O'Neal (26.2 ppg, 12.5 rpg), Nick Van Exel (15.3 ppg, 8.5 apg), Eddie Jones (17.2 ppg). Portland -- Kenny Anderson (17.5 ppg, 7.1 apg), Isaiah Rider (16.1 ppg), Arvydas Sabonis (13.4 ppg, 7.9 rpg).

Key matchups: O'Neal against Sabonis, a player who can match his strength, and Van Exel against Anderson, a battle of quick point guards.

What Los Angeles has to do to win: Blow the Blazers out. In a close game O'Neal is going to be fouled, and he has yet to prove he can hit clutch free throws -- or any free throws (.484).

What Portland has to do to win: Get front-line production from Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace, which could offset the dominating front line of O'Neal and Elden Campbell; also get a good effort from Rider, who shot 50.0 percent against the Lakers this season.

Intangibles: This is the most intriguing of all the first-round series. Portland is a team that everyone in the West fears.

Prediction: Portland in four.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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