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West teams tilt the field

As playoffs open today, the stronger conference has seven 50-game winners.

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


If we were to eliminate geography, the Portland Trail Blazers would be sitting pretty. They would have a high seed, home court and a far-from-imposing first-round opponent.

But the Blazers are in the Western Conference, not the East, where their 50-32 record would make them the third seed and put them against 46-36 Charlotte. In the West, Portland is the seventh seed and opens the playoffs on the road against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers.

Like they say, location is everything.

Portland's situation illustrates that the West is far deeper than the East heading into the post-season. While many figure on three contenders in the East (Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Miami), virtually every West team is thought to have a decent shot at making the finals. And almost everyone is picking a West team to win the title.

Seven of the West's eight playoff teams won 50 or more (only three East playoff teams won as many). At 53-29, Dallas is fifth in the West but has a better record than every East team except Philadelphia (56-26).

"Everyone in the Western Conference will have a tough time in the first round," Kings coach Rick Aldelman said. "There is no guarantee, no matter who you play."

San Antonio, Los Angeles, Utah and Sacramento held the conference's best record at various times until the Spurs grabbed it down the stretch.

The Lakers' prospects are more tenuous than last season. The Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant rift seems history but there are those who wonder if it will resurface amid the pressure of the playoffs. Plus, the Lakers aren't as good defensively.

But the Lakers have won eight straight and have just about everyone healthy.

Stamina figures to be key. Despite being the second seed, Los Angeles could have a tough road to the Finals. Portland is 11-9 against the Lakers since Bryant and O'Neal joined them. Then, third seed Sacramento looms in the second round.

"We don't worry about any of that stuff," Bryant said. "We're playing great right now. We've got a great rhythm going."

Another favorite is the Spurs. Forward Derek Anderson has given the team a lift. They are, according to CNN's Kevin Loughery, an even "better team this year than the year (1998-99) they won the championship."

"We've laid the foundation, and we've proved that night in and night out we can stay focused and win games," Spurs veteran David Robinson said. "We've played better than everybody else for a long stretch of time."

For the Kings, power forward Chris Webber is having a MVP season (27.1 ppg, 11 rpg, 4.2 apg) and small forward Predrag Stojakovic (20.4 ppg, 40 percent from three-point range) has emerged as a dangerous scorer.

The Jazz remains an aging team, but is still among the elite. The extra time off between playoff games should give the rest it needs.

After the Spurs, Lakers, Kings and Jazz, there isn't much drop-off to the Mavs, Suns and Blazers. Portland has the talent and experience to go a long way. The Mavs are one of the league's highest scoring teams. And the Suns have beaten all the higher-seeded West teams during the season.

"Anybody can win," Magic coach Doc Rivers said of the West. "You've got two favorites, the Spurs and the Lakers. But you've got Portland and you've got Sacramento. I mean, it's going to be a great playoffs."

Around the NBA

KNICKS: In this weekend's New York Times magazine, guard Charlie Ward said Jews are "stubborn" and persecute members of their faith who become Christians. "The writer took it out of context," said the former Florida State star, who has been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League. "I didn't mean to offend any one group because that's not what I'm about."

LAKERS: Kobe Bryant married Vanessa Laine in a private ceremony Wednesday before about a dozen people. He told his teammates Thursday.

MAGIC: Coach Doc Rivers signed a contract extension through 2004-05 season. He succeeded Chuck Daly in 1999 and is 84-80 in two season.

DRAFT: Two-time All-American Troy Murphy of Notre Dame said he will turn pro. ... Clemson guard Will Solomon will skip his final college season.

WNBA draft

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Seattle took 19-year-old Australian Olympian Lauren Jackson with the top pick. Next, Charlotte chose guard Kelly Miller of Georgia, followed by two-time national player of the year Tamika Catchings (Indiana), NCAA women's career scoring leader Jackie Stiles (Portland) and Naismith Award winner Ruth Riley (Miami).

At No. 26 overall (second round) the Miracle took Brooke Wyckoff, the highest-drafted player ever from Florida State. Tombi Bell (25th, Washington) and Tamara Stocks (39th, Minnesota) were picked from Florida.

- Staff writer Roger Mills and Times wires contributed to this report.

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Philadelphia (56-26) vs. No. 8 Indiana (41-41)

SERIES: 76ers lead 3-0.

KEY PLAYERS: 76ers -- Allen Iverson, G (31.1 ppg); Dikembe Mutombo, C (11.7 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 2.54 bpg); Eric Snow, PG (9.8 ppg, 7.4 apg). Pacers -- Reggie Miller, F (18.9 ppg); Jalen Rose, G (20.5 ppg, 6 apg); Travis Best, PG (11.9 ppg, 6.1 apg).

LAST TIME: 76ers won 111-105 in overtime April17 at Indiana.

SOMETHING TO CONSIDER: The 76ers typically have done a number on Pacers star Reggie Miller. He averaged 13 points against Philadelphia during the regular season.

BEST GUESS: 76ers in three.

* * *

No. 3 Miami (50-32) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (46-36)

SERIES: Tied at 2.

KEY PLAYERS: Heat -- Eddie Jones, G (17.4 ppg); Brian Grant, F (15.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg); Alonzo Mourning, C (13.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Hornets -- Baron Davis, G (13.8 ppg, 7.3 apg); Jamal Mashburn, F (20.1 ppg); David Wesley, G (17.2 ppg).

LAST TIME: Heat won 81-76 April6 in Miami.

SOMETHING TO CONSIDER: Miami needs veteran point guard Tim Hardaway to play a big role. But Hardaway, who might not be 100 percent, struggled against the Hornets during the regular season, shooting 13 of 46 from the field.

BEST GUESS: Heat in four.

Western Conference

No. 1 San Antonio (58-24) vs. No. 8 Minn. (47-35)

SERIES: Spurs lead 3-1.

KEY PLAYERS: Spurs -- Tim Duncan, F (22.2 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 2.3 bpg); Derek Anderson, F (15.5 ppg); David Robinson, C (14.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.5 bpg). Timberwolves -- Kevin Garnett, F (22 ppg, 11.4 rpg); Terrell Brandon, PG (16 ppg, 7.5 apg); Wally Szczerbiak, F (14 ppg).

LAST TIME: Spurs won 106-100 in overtime March14 in San Antonio.

SOMETHING TO CONSIDER: Minnesota's only shot might be stealing a game at the Alamodome because the Spurs have won 11 of their last 14 road games.

BEST GUESS: Spurs in three.

* * *

No. 4 Utah (53-29) vs. No. 5 Dallas (53-29)

SERIES: Tied at 2.

KEY PLAYERS: Jazz -- Karl Malone, F (23.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg); Donyell Marshall, F (13.6 ppg); John Stockton, PG (11.5 ppg, 8.7 apg). Mavs -- Michael Finley, F (21.5 ppg); Dirk Nowitzki, F (21.8 ppg); Juwan Howard, C (17.8 ppg).

LAST TIME: Jazz won 116-103 April 7 in Dallas.

SOMETHING TO CONSIDER: The Mavs need to play a little defense to advance. The Jazz averaged a dazzling 104 points against Dallas during the season; 114 in two games at Dallas.

BEST GUESS: Mavs in five. -- Compiled by Darrell Fry.

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