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East 2nd go 'round to be more heated


Should we be surprised that the opening round of the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs - save for Game5 between the Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks - was virtually devoid of any of the drama that was dripping out West? Should we surmise that the conference semifinals will be similarly one-sided?

In each case, the answer is no.

But that doesn't mean things will get any more interesting in the East.

Start with the New York Knicks and Miami Heat. This rivalry has generated much passion within their respective cities, yet what might work on Broadway and in South Beach doesn't have terrific national appeal. For the basketball purist, it's closer to the World Wrestling Federation or Jerry Springer.

This is the fourth straight year that Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy and his estranged mentor, Miami's Pat Riley, will go head-to-head or, in the case of Van Gundy and Heat center Alonzo Mourning, nose-to-ankle. Don't look for anything to change, especially in the results from the past two years.

What the Knicks did to the top-seeded Heat in last year's opening round as the eighth seed, as well as in the opening round two years ago, should happen again. The series will be as grueling to watch as to play and could go seven games, but don't be shocked if New York wins in five.

The Knicks are simply too athletic on the perimeter for the aging Heat - the matchup between shooting guardsAllan Houston versus Dan Majerle in particular - and the resurgence of Patrick Ewing during the second half of the season has given New York an inside presence to counter Mourning.

Though Miami wonthree of the four regular-season meetings - including an85-76 win on Feb.28in which Mourning didn't play - the Heat could be in huge trouble with point guard Tim Hardaway hobbled by another injury, a sprained left foot.

Hardaway said he plans to start tomorrow in Miami, and the Knicks aren't exactly dangerous at the point with Chris Childs and Charlie Ward. But as much as the Heat's clutch-and-grab style of defense is what usually wins in the playoffs, it doesn't against the Knicks. New York just does it better.

The key matchup in this series will not necessarily be between the coaches or between another teacher and pupil, fellow Georgetown alums Ewing and Mourning. It could be Houston or Majerle. More likely it will be Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell or Heat small forward Jamal Mashburn.

To give Miami any chance of winning, Mashburn, a habitual no-show in this long-running postseason soap opera, has to play Sprewell to a draw, if not better. Mashburn has averaged 8.4points and 34percent shooting against the Knicks in 17playoff game.

"He's healthy and performing," Riley told reporters after a practice earlier this week, alluding to Mashburn's sensational effort in Miami's three-game sweep over the Detroit Pistons and their own gimpy star, Grant Hill. "He's never been ready before."

Sprewell did a pretty good shutting down Vince Carter in New York's sweep of the Toronto Raptors, particularly at the end of games1 and 3. This after Carter and the Raptors dominated the Knicks during the regular season withthree victories infour games.

The undercard in the East is the series between the Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. These two teams played as recently as April17, and Indiana left a little message with a come-from-behind two-pointroad victory despite not using Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson. The teams split their four regular-season meetings.

If the 76ers are to advance, they will need to have used the time off after a four-game opening series victory over the Charlotte Hornets to heal some injuries, in particular to Allen Iverson (various body parts) and point guard Eric Snow (chipped bone in his ankle).

While backup Aaron McKie did a terrific job, with Eric Snow sidelined, in the Game4 clincher against the Hornets - scoring 25points and handing out11assists - Philadelphia will need every available body to stop the deepest back court left in the playoffs.

Though Jackson has not played well against the 76ers this year - continually getting scorched by Iverson and having to give way to quicker Travis Best - Philadelphia hasn't had an answer for Miller, who had28 and32points in the team's first two games and will be coming off aplayoff-high41 Thursday night.

Indiana struggled with a smaller, quicker Milwaukee team before winning in five games, and Iverson and Toni Kukoc are even tougher to stop than Sam Cassell and Tim Thomas. The 76ers don't have a lot of bulk with Theo Ratliff and Tyrone Hill inside, but they shouldn't have any problems with immobile Rik Smits. Dale Davis will have to play up to his status as an All-Star for Indiana to win.

The X-factor for Philadelphia in this or any series will be Kukoc. Since acquiring the versatile forward from the Bulls, the 76ers have gone22-10. The only problem has been finding minutes for both Kukoc and defensive stopper George Lynch at small forward. Larry Brown will have an interesting quandary in figuring who will play fourth-quarter minutes against Indiana's Jalen Rose.

Even without home-court advantage, the 76ers should win. If Iverson can stay on the court despite his injuries, which include a chip fracture in his right ankle and an inflamed right elbow, Philadelphia will move on to its first conference finals since1985. If anything, their loss to the Pacers in the regular-season finale was a pretty good wakeup call.

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