Eastern Conference


Philadelphia 76ers vs. Charlotte Hornets

Records: 76ers, 49-33; Hornets, 49-33.

Outlook: After finishing strong in the lockout-shortened season last year, the Hornets showed they were no flukes.

In midseason, F Bobby Phills died in a car accident. Then Anthony Mason was arrested as the result of a nightclub altercation. The Hornets overcame all of that. They won 13 of their last 15 games, ending the season with seven straight wins and snatching the home-court advantage in the first round from the Sixers.

Charlotte's front line of Elden Campbell, Anthony Mason and Derrick Coleman has 155 playoff games on its resume, and that means trouble for the Sixers.

Do-everything F Toni Kukoc is fitting in nicely with the Sixers. The bad news is that G Allen Iverson, suffering from multiple injuries, has struggled in fourth quarters recently and that the team has squandered huge leads. The Sixers won five of their last six regular-season games and eight of their last nine at the First Union Center. Both teams are hard to beat at home.

Pick: Hornets in five.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Indiana Pacers

Records: Bucks, 42-40; Pacers, 56-26.

Outlook: Four meetings in the regular season. Two victories apiece. But a year ago, the Bucks were swept by the Pacers in the first round. It was coach George Karl's first season in Milwaukee, and it was the first time the Bucks had visited the playoffs in years. Lack of experience doomed them.

Milwaukee won't suffer the jitters this year, plus the point-guard matchup of the Bucks' Sam Cassell and the Pacers' Mark Jackson could work to its advantage.

Cassell has two championship rings from his days in Houston, but Ray Allen's youth could hurt him against the Pacers' Reggie Miller. Jalen Rose will do some damage for the Pacers as well. Milwaukee's Glenn Robinson is a terrific offensive player.

Pick: Pacers in four.

Detroit Pistons vs. Miami Heat

Records: Pistons, 42-40; Heat, 52-30.

Outlook: The Pistons have made it to the playoffs three of the past four seasons, only to lose in the first round each time. And the chances for advancing further don't look so great this time. Not with Christian Laettner playing center. Not with the sharpshooting Terry Mills saddled with knee problems that keep him from playing any defense. And not with Grant Hill still ailing with ankle problems.

Despite injuries to G Tim Hardaway and G Voshon Lenard, coach Pat Riley still managed to guide this bunch to 52 wins, thanks in large part to C Alonzo Mourning, a strong Most Valuable Player candidate (21.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks). F Jamal Mashburn has chipped in with more than 17 points a game, but that was in the regular season. He has a history of not producing in the postseason.

The Heat lost to New York in the first round in each of the past two seasons. If Miami gets past the Pistons, it should put it in position to lose to the Knicks again, this time in Round 2.

Pick: Heat in four.

Toronto Raptors vs. New York Knicks

Records: Raptors, 45-37; Knicks, 50-32.

Outlook: F Vince Carter already has been ordained the "Air Apparent" to Michael Jordan. Butch Carter has established himself as a bona fide NBA coach. F Charles Oakley and F Antonio Davis have proven the value of veteran leadership. And the Raptors are visiting the playoffs for the first time.

The Knicks, by contrast, are entering their 13th consecutive postseason. C Pat Ewing has been around for all of them, and he has done enough after missing the first part of this season while recovering from an injured Achilles' tendon to merit team MVP honors. His on-court contributions and leadership will play a large role in determining whether the Knicks escape the first round.

Carter averaged 33 points in four games against the Knicks this season -- Toronto won the series, 3-1 -- but the playoffs are a different game. Toronto's athleticism may be huge, but so is Ewing's presence, and he could slow the high-flying Raptors to a crawl.

Pick: Knicks in five.

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