Originally created 04/22/98

NBA playoffs: Teams ready for post season



One team starts three 7-footers, the other is more likely to play three point guards at a time.

When the San Antonio Spurs meet the Phoenix Suns in one of four playoff openers Thursday night, something has to give.

The Suns' version of Smallball won three of four regular-season games against the Spurs' Tallball, giving Phoenix the home-court edge in the series. But Suns coach Danny Ainge says the playoffs start with a clean slate.

"I think the series we had with them during the regular season you pretty much throw out the window, because I don't think they're the same team and I don't think we're the same team," Ainge said.

Phoenix will start two point guards -- Jason Kidd and Steve Nash -- along with George McCloud, Antonio McDyess and Cliff Robinson. Ainge will bring point guard Kevin Johnson and sharpshooter Rex Chapman off the bench, creating even more matchup problems for the Spurs.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich says his team can't overlook Phoenix's front line.

"The Suns are a real good basketball team that I think has been underrated all year," he said. "They're really well-rounded. They're not just a bunch of guys who can shoot it and handle it and pass it. They've got a great inside game."

Popovich will counter with 7-footers David Robinson, Will Perdue and Tim Duncan, along with Jaren Jackson and Avery Johnson.

"When you think about different front lines in the NBA, there's so many talented front lines, but they're definitely in the top five," Robinson said.

San Antonio's front line dominated the last meeting, won by the Spurs 93-83. Robinson, Duncan and Perdue outscored Phoenix's starting frontcourt of McDyess, Robinson and John Williams 57-24 and outrebounded them 42-13.

"You've got two post-up guys, you've got two shot-blockers in there," Ainge said. "If one gets in foul trouble, they still have a dominant low-post player in there at all times. They played a lot better down the stretch than they did early in the season."

In other series beginning Thursday, it is Houston at Utah, Atlanta at Charlotte and Cleveland at Indiana.

On Friday, it is New Jersey at Chicago, New York at Miami, Minnesota at Seattle and Portland at the Los Angeles Lakers.

Injuries will play a key role in the Suns-Spurs series. Phoenix sixth man Danny Manning is out for the season with an injured knee and Chapman is slowed by a sore hamstring.

San Antonio is without swingman Sean Elliott, guard Vinny Del Negro is battling an upper respiratory infection and point guard Avery Johnson is playing with an injured hip.

"I'd have to say we're probably healthier now than we have been in a while," Popovich said. "I'm most worried about Avery. That's something that has given him problems off and on."

Rockets-Jazz

Utah, looking to become the first team since the 1989 Detroit Pistons to return to the finals the year after losing, is matched up with the only team besides the Bulls to win a title this decade.

The Jazz have won six straight against the Rockets, including the final two games of last year's Western Conference finals. Houston still has three of the NBA's greatest 50 players -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and Clyde Drexler -- and the titles Utah seeks.

"They were the champions just a couple of seasons ago, and that (aura) isn't something that you lose," Utah guard Jeff Hornacek said.

Hawks-Hornets

Charlotte has the homecourt advantage, but Atlanta comes in with the confidence edge, winning all four regular-season games against the Hornets by an average of nearly 17 points.

"We've lulled them to sleep. They've got to be overconfident," Charlotte coach Dave Cowens joked. "We've got them right where we want them."

Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens knows that regular-season success will not translate into an automatic ticket into the second round.

"You make everyone aware that nothing should be taken for granted, and there are lots of examples we can point to and that you have to make your players aware of," Wilkens said.

Cavaliers-Pacers

While Cleveland and Indiana both missed the playoffs last year, the postseason is nothing new for most of the Pacers.

Indiana has the same nucleus from the team that went to the Eastern Conference finals in 1994 and 1995. Cleveland, which plays four rookies, will rely heavily on Shawn Kemp, who led Seattle to the finals two years ago.

"Shawn has been the guy who came in and has been through a number of the battles along the way and has been all the way to the NBA Finals, so he understands how things change and get magnified once you get into the playoff spotlight," coach Mike Fratello said.