Thursday, April 17, 2003

Playoffs bring fearless predictions

By John Denton
Florida Today

March Madness? For my money, the NCAA Tournament is merely a month-long slow dance until the NBA postseason tango begins.

If you want pep bands, office pools, 60-point games, Dick Vitale and enough bricks to build an entire university campus, the college game is for you.

But give me the NBA. It's the best players in the world playing in the biggest games. Carmelo Anthony? He's truly a special player with tons of promise, but talents like him are everywhere in the NBA. Whom would you rather watch in a title game: Kirk Hinrich or Kobe Bryant?

Say what you will about the intensity of the NBA regular season, the playoffs are basketball at its purest form. All the cliches fit this time of year: Superstar players take their games to another level ... defense wins ... every possession counts ... the ring is the thing.

So with the best basketball in the world set to tip off this weekend, here are five postseason questions to ponder:

1. Can the Lakers win a fourth title?

Their approach to the regular season has been, at times, repulsive, but they seem to have it rolling again at the right time. But do the Lakers have enough left in the tank to get through the likes of Dallas, Sacramento and San Antonio out West? They won't have homecourt advantage, but they do have two of the best players in Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant. Will it be enough against deeper Sacramento or San Antonio? Not likely.

I'm sticking with my preseason prediction of Sacramento winning it all.

2. Can Kevin Garnett finally get out of the first round?

Six times before, Garnett has gotten the Timberwolves to this point only to lose. The difference this time is his team might be a first-round favorite.

Last season's first-round loss to Dallas seemed finally to be an eye-opener to K.G. Though he did have a good series, he wasn't great down the stretch. Garnett responded this year with his best season ever, but I don't see Minnesota winning a playoff series this year.

3. Is this the final dance for Karl Malone and John Stockton in Utah?

All signs seem to point to yes. About a month ago, Malone told me he was eager to become a free agent. As for Stockton, he is making it sound as if he has reached the end of the line. So savor this series against Sacramento, Jazz fans. It might be the last time we ever hear "Stockton-to-Malone."

4. Can George Karl redeem himself?

Karl's reputation as a top-tier coach has taken quite the tumble the past 12 months. His Bucks collapsed last season and missed the playoffs, then he led Team USA to an embarrassing sixth-place finish in the World Championships. It was Karl's Seattle SuperSonics who became the only NBA top seed to lose to a No. 8 seed back in 1994. But with the way his team can score, don't be surprised if the Bucks are first-round winners this time around.

5. No Michael Jordan, no Yao Ming in the playoffs?

Somewhere, David Stern is not happy about this. And neither are the conspiracy theorists out there who think the NBA is rigged.

Sacramento defeats New Orleans in the NBA Finals. Enjoy.

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