NBA Finals NBA Finals

  Posted: Friday April 19, 2002 2:51 PM

NBA Playoffs Breakdowns: Western Conference
SI's Marty Burns previews each of the opening round series and makes his picks. Click here to see the Eastern Conference breakdowns.

1 Kings (61-21) vs. Jazz (44-38)
The Kings hold the series edge 4-0.
It doesn't bode well for the Jazz that they weren't able to beat the Kings during the regular season.
Complete Head-to-Head Stats

On paper this looks like a cakewalk for the Kings. Sacramento was the NBA’s best team during the regular season, having posted a franchise-best 61 wins. Utah lost five of seven down the stretch and barely made the playoffs. Moreover, the Kings swept the Jazz during the season by a combined 91 points. However, Utah is a hard-nosed team built for the playoffs. John Stockton and Karl Malone don’t figure to go down easily, and Utah’s lack of depth shouldn’t be as big a factor.

The Kings will win if...
Point guard Mike Bibby, who’s making his first playoff appearance, can avoid the jitters and provide his usual steady play-making. The Kings have plenty of firepower in Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, but they must remember to hit the boards and push the tempo or else Utah will slow the game to a crawl. By hitting the defensive boards, Sacramento also can prevent Utah from getting the second-chance points it needs to stay in the game.

The Jazz will win if...
The Kings miss a lot of shots, and Utah gets enough rebounds to turn the game into a half-court grind-it-out affair. The Jazz cannot afford to let the Kings get out in the open court, as they found out in losing to Sacramento this season by margins of 33, 26 and 24 points. Malone also must outplay his counterpart Webber. The Mailman delivered just 14, 17 and 11 points in his three games against the Kings, far below his season average of 22.4 points, and he enters the playoffs battling a sore knee.

Key Stats
Peja Stojakovic averaged 22.0 points (51.0%) and 5.0 rebounds in the season series; Donyell Marshall led the Jazz by averaging 19.5 points, but only played in two of the games.

Did you know?
Utah is making its 19th straight playoff appearance but the Jazz finished with their worst regular-season record since 1986-87.

Prediction: Sacramento in 3

2 Spurs (58-24) vs. Sonics (45-37)
The series was split 2-2.
The last two games these teams played were decided by a total of five points.
Complete Head-to-Head Stats

With Tim Duncan leading the way, the Spurs are once again a top title contender. San Antonio enters the playoffs riding a nine-game win streak, and was 22-3 down the stretch. However, one of those defeats came in Seattle. The Sonics were one of the big surprises this season, but they were extremely inconsistent. After winning 18 of 24 to get in the playoff race, they dropped six of their final eight. Still, with veteran Gary Payton leading the way, they can’t be counted out.

The Spurs will win if...
Rookie point guard Tony Parker can stay poised against his counterpart, the usually talkative Payton. If he can, San Antonio should be able to dominate inside with Duncan and David Robinson against a weak Sonics interior of Jerome James and Vin Baker. Also, veterans Steve Smith and Bruce Bowen also will need to stay out on Seattle’s three-point shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor.

The Sonics will win if...
Payton can hound the untested Parker into mental mistakes, and sharpshooters Brent Barry and Rashard Lewis knock down a whole bunch of treys. The Sonics move the ball extremely well, and were among the top-shooting teams in the NBA, so a hail of points from outside is not out of the question. However, it’s going to be tough for them to do that three times in five games.

Key Stats
Duncan averaged 26.8 points (on 51.3% shooting) and 15.0 rebounds in the season series; Payton averaged 21.3 points (on 47.4% shooting), 5.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists.

Did you know?
The Sonics and Spurs have not met in the playoffs since the ’82 Western Conference semifinals, which San Antonio won in five games.

Prediction: San Antonio in 5

3 Lakers (58-24) vs. Blazers (49-33)
The Sixers hold the series edge 3-1.
The Blazers say they're not afraid of the Lakers, but history says they should be.
Complete Head-to-Head Stats

These two Pacific Division rivals don’t like each other. The Lakers have eliminated the Blazers in four of the past five years, including last year’s first-round sweep. After a slow start under rookie coach Maurice Cheeks, Portland won 30 of 38 games to get back in the West race. However, six losses in their last 12 games, some on-court blowups involving stars Scottie Pippen and Rasheed Wallace, and a drug investigation involving guard Damon Stoudamire have brought back old storm clouds.

The Lakers will win if...
Shaquille O’Neal’s sore big toe doesn’t take a turn for the worse, and they remember not to overlook the Blazers. Shaq has actually looked pretty fit of late, scoring 32 or more points in four of his last six games. Kobe Bryant, too, has been playing his usual superb all-around game. L.A.’s Samaki Walker, Rick Fox and Robert Horry must concentrate on keeping Portland, a good rebounding team, off the backboards. With 15 straight wins at Staples Center, the Lakers should enjoy a clear home-court edge.

The Blazers will win if...
Their undersized center tandem of Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp can somehow find a way to contain Shaq. Wallace gives the Blazers a huge edge at power forward, but he won’t be as effective if he gets in foul trouble while trying to help defend Shaq. Also, Scottie Pippen and Bonzi Wells must shoot the ball effectively from downtown to help spread the court and open lanes for Stoudamire to take advantage of his quickness off the dribble. It’s time for Ruben Patterson, a self-proclaimed "Kobe Stopper," to back up those words.

Key Stats
Shaquille O’Neal averaged 33.0 points (52.9% shooting), 14.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in three games versus the Blazers; Bonzi Wells averaged 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in four games.

Did you know?
Portland is making its 20th consecutive appearance in the NBA playoffs, the second-longest streak in league history.

Prediction: Lakers in 3

4 Mavericks (57-25) vs. Timberwolves (50-32)
The series was split 2-2
The T'wolves are still looking to shake that first-round monkey off their backs.
Complete Head-to-Head Stats

The Mavericks set a franchise record for wins, and now they hope to build on last year’s surprising run to the Western semis. The blockbuster midseason trade that brought Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz from the Nuggets has only added to their firepower. Minnesota was riding high until losing point guard Terrell Brandon to injury in midseason. After that, the T’Wolves lost seven in a row in early March before righting the ship just before the end of the season. Still, the slump cost them home-court advantage in the first round.

The Mavericks will win if...
They play just a little defense, and they don’t let Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett take over with his indomitable will. Otherwise, the Mavs probably have too many weapons. Steve Nash should control the flow against Minnesota’s Chauncey Billups. Meanwhile, in Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas boasts two stars to offset the production of Minnesota’s Big Two of Wally Szczerbiak and Garnett. Dallas led the NBA in scoring, and has the marksmen to shoot over Minnesota’s vaunted zone defense.

The T'Wolves will win if...
They can find a reliable third scorer to go with Garnett and Szczerbiak. The T’Wolves boast capable supporting players in Billups, Joe Smith and Marc Jackson, but all three will need to be on fire against the high-octane Mavs. After five straight first-round playoff exits, Garnett & Co. will be highly motivated. Coach Flip Saunders will have them prepared, so Dallas could be vulnerable if it looks ahead.

Key Stats
Dallas led the NBA in all three shooting percentage categories: field goal (46.2), free throw (80.6) and three-point shooting (37.8); Minnesota’s Wally Szczerbiak led the T’Wolves in scoring (24.3 points, on a sizzling 62.5% shooting) during the season series.

Did you know?
Minnesota has been eliminated in the first round five straight years by four different teams (Houston, Seattle, Portland, San Antonio).

Prediction: Dallas in 5.