http://www.nba.com/playoffs2004/top10_storylines.html


By Rob Peterson

April 15 -- With the seeds set, the playoff decals freshly applied to hardwood floors in 16 cities and the coaches going through mountains of tape to prepare for their first-round opponents, NBA Playoffs 2004 is set to begin.

But before we get started on Saturday with four fabulous matchups (it all starts at 2 p.m. ET when the Pacers visit the Celtics on ESPN), we have some important questions we would like to ask about some of the teams, players and coaches in the Playoffs. And while we've answered these questions to the best of our abilities, the final answers will be provided over the next eight weeks as the playoff teams have one, and only one, destination: The Finals.

But without further ado, here are the 10 top questions for this year's playoffs:

1. Which of the "Big Six" -- Indiana, Detroit, Minnesota, Sacramento, San Antonio and L.A. Lakers -- has the best chance of winning the 2004 NBA title?

This is the most wide open race in years for the Larry O'Brien trophy.

You could give the Pacers the edge because they have home-court advantage throughout the Finals, if they advance that far. (See No. 5.)

You could tab the Pistons as the favorite b
ecause they've had the most stifling defense in the league since adding Rasheed Wallace at the trading deadline. And defense wins championships, right?

As the West's top seed, you could claim the Timberwolves have the inside track to the title. But then again, they must make their way through the minefield that is the Western Conference.

Some may even be tempted to claim the tempestuous Lakers or the wildly inconsistent Kings as the teams to beat. But with injuries to Karl Malone and Shaquille O'Neal -- and then there's the whole Kobe Bryant situation -- the only member of the Fab Four that's been there the whole time is Gary Payton. Meaning they haven't had enough time to really put it together.

As for the Kings, they've been hampered instead of helped by Chris Webber's return. (See No. 2.)

That leaves the defending-champion Spurs. With six new players, the Spurs won three fewer games this season (57) than last season, but they have reeled off 11 consecutive wins heading into their first-round matchup with the neophyte Grizzlies (Game 1, Saturday, 7 p.m ET, ESPN). They have two-time Finals MVP Tim Duncan, who is as unflappable as they come, and as tough as the situations he faces.

That, and since they're still the champs, the Spurs are the team to beat.

2. Given their late-season inconsistency, could the Kings actually be better off without Chris Webber?

The numbers give any seasoned NBA observer pause. The Kings without Chris Webber: 44-15. The Kings with Webber: 11-12.

Without Webber, the Kings, led by Peja Stojakovic's sweet shooting, and deft passing from post players Vlade Divac and Brad Miller, were a fluid offensive machine. With Webber, who missed the first 58 games of the season because of a knee injury and an eight-game suspension, the Kings' offense has looked as stiff as Webber's surgically repaired knee.

But better off without Webber? One Sacramento Bee reporter thinks the Kings would be better served bringing Webber off the bench. His teammates are singing a different tune.

"(Webber) is invaluable for the different things he brings to our team," guard Doug Christie told the Sacramento Bee on March 12. "Whether his shot is going or not, we are going to stick with him through the good and the bad times."

It looks as if Webber and his teammates are in it together, no matter how long (or short) their stay may be.

3. Is the matchup between Shaquille O'Neal and Yao Ming the best of the first round?
At a combined 14' 6" and 650 pounds, the Shaq-Yao first-round matchup is certainly the biggest. And it's one of the more intriguing. But the best?

The numbers don't bode well for Yao and the seventh-seeded Rockets. True, Yao and the Rockets have a 3-3 record when they have faced Shaq and the Lakers in the last two regular seasons. But this is the postseason, and Shaq is a different, and better, man when the chips are down.

Shaq has 136 playoff games under his belt. In those games, he's poured in 28.1 points per game and grabbed 12.9 rebounds per game. He's won three titles and three Finals MVP trophies.

Yao has none of that, as this will be his first postseason appearance.

In addition to experience, Shaq also has a better supporting cast than Yao. So expect Shaq and the Lakers to advance past the relatively inexperienced Rockets. But that doesn't mean that the matchup won't be fun to watch. The eventual successor to Shaq's super-sized throne starts his playoff education Saturday (April 17, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

4. Who is the Timberwolves' go-to guy in crunch time?

Some may think this answer is easy, considering Kevin Garnett is the odds-on favorite to be named the 2003-04 MVP. But the Wolves now have Sam Cassell, a point guard with two NBA championship rings who likes to take shots in the crunch. Some would say Cassell shoots too much, but he welcomes the playoff pressure. Considering that Cassell shot .486 from the field and .847 from the line, it may not be a bad idea to put the ball in his sure hands.

Cassell will be important to the Wolves in the postseason, as last year's playoff stud, Troy Hudson, who averaged 23.5 points in the Wolves' seven-game loss to the Lakers, is nursing two tender ankles.

"Right now, I don't know what it is," Hudson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "But I'm just not feeling the same out there. It seems like I can't do the things I need to ... Some nights it has felt OK, but recently every possession was a struggle. When it gets to that point, defensively as well as offensively, that's when you maybe have to take a step back."

The Wolves don't want to take a step back. It's imperative that this best-team-never-to-get-past-the-first-round gets to the Western semis. And the Wolves guards need to step up.

Still, with Garnett on the floor, he'll get most of the important touches down the stretch, with Cassell being a great complement.


5. The Pacers are the first Eastern Conference team since the '97 Bulls to have the league's best record and get home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Will this help them make the Finals and is this 60-win team being overlooked?

Here's an interesting stat: Six of the last eight teams to have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs have made the Finals, and five of those have won. So, the stats bode well for the Pacers, who won a franchise-record 61 games.

Seemingly no one (see No. 1) is giving the Pacers their props. Is it because of the perceived weakness of the Eastern Conference? Is it because the Pacers haven't made it out of the first round of the playoffs the last three years? Is it because no one expected the Pacers to be 61-wins-good this season? All of those factors may come into play when it comes to assessing Indy's chances to hold the Larry O'Brien trophy this season. Yet, one Pacer has already had a chance to hold said trophy ... during the filming of a commercial.

"That's the first time I've ever touched it and it does feel good to hold it," Jermaine O'Neal told the Indianapolis Star as he walked back to the locker room after his commercial work was done. "It's something you've got to have. Hopefully, it's something we'll be able to bring back to the city this year."

Because if NBA history is any indication, the Pacers have a good chance to do just that.

6. Will the Grizzlies shorten their 10-man rotation for the playoffs?

'Tis the (post)season most coaches count on their best seven or eight guys and ride them until they're eliminated or until they have rings.

Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown has had a 10-man rotation most of this season. That philosophy has guided the Grizzlies to 50 wins and the first postseason in franchise history. So, why should Brown change his ways now? Brown expects all 10 of his guys to toughen up for the long haul that is the NBA Playoffs.

"At playoff time, our guys have got to get into the paint to make things happen," Brown told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "And our big people have got to have game in the paint while they're being semi-mugged. That's been a part of the playoffs from Day One. These are things we'll lay out and things we've tried to do to prepare them."

Sounds like Brown will need all the bodies he can get. Don't expect him to change his egalitarian strategy.

7. Which of the No. 8 seeds, Denver or Boston, has a better chance of pulling a first-round upset?

Who can forget the image of then-Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo on the floor, joyfully clutching the basketball with a huge smile on his face after the Nuggets defeated the SuperSonics in 1994 to become the first-ever No. 8 seed ever to defeat a No. 1 seed?

"We went into Denver thinking that it was going to be easy after winning the first two games," former Sonics coach George Karl admitted recently to the Rocky Mountain News.

Three games later, the Sonics were toast.

Can the Nuggets do that again, this time against the Timberwolves? Can the 36-46 Celtics defeat the Pacers, the team with a league-high 61 wins, a team Boston upset in last year's playoffs?

When the Nuggets pulled their shocker 10 years ago, the first round was five games. With the first round now seven games, the possibility of a Nuggets or Celtics upset is slim. Conventional wisdom says the better team always wins a seven-game series.

Since it would be wise for us not to count anyone out in the playoffs, the Nuggets, with at least two games in Denver's mile-high air and the huge monkey that Minnesota will play with on its back, have the slightly better chance of the two No. 8 seeds of pulling off a shocker.

That being said, don't bet the farm on it.

8. Which of the first-time playoff coaches is best prepared for the pressure of the postseason?

Of the 16 teams in the playoffs, six teams -- Boston, Denver, Miami, Milwaukee, New Jersey and New Orleans -- will have coaches making their first-ever playoff appearances. All bring varying degrees of experience with them.

New Orleans' head coach Tim Floyd has never been to the playoffs in the NBA as a coach. Boston's John Carroll was an assistant on two Celtics playoffs teams before being named interim head coach on Jan. 27. Milwaukee head coach Terry Porter made the playoffs 16 times as a player.

As far as playoff coaching experience, three coaches stand out.

Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy brings nine years of experience as Pat Riley's assistant in Miami. For the first seven seasons, the Heat made the playoffs, advancing as far as the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997. Van Gundy will have his work cut out for him with a team whose average age is 26.6.

In six seasons as an assistant to Riley in Miami, Denver's Jeff Bzdelik went to the playoffs all six seasons. He did a masterful job of getting the Nuggets, who won 17 games last season, into the postseason. Bzdelik will also need to guide a relatively young team (average age, 26.3) against the West's top seed, Minnesota.

But the one coach who is best prepared to handle the playoff pressure is the youngest coach of the lot. Nets coach Lawrence Frank is just 33 years old, yet as an assistant with New Jersey, he's been to two consecutive NBA Finals. In addition to the experience, he has the best team of the six first-time playoff coaches. The Nets core -- Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson -- have appeared in 40 playoff games in the last two seasons. That will help a lot.

9. Does the New Jersey-New York first-round matchup hold any interest outside of the New York metropolitan area?

We'd like to think so. You have the defending Eastern Conference champion Nets beginning their quest for a third consecutive Finals appearance. You have Madison Square Garden open for the postseason for the first time since 2001. The point guard matchup -- Jason Kidd vs. Stephon Marbury -- is one of the best matchups of the first round. New Orleans Hornets guard Baron Davis knows what he'll be doing on off days after battling the Heat.

"There's always a comparison there because of the trade," Davis told the New York Post. "That's one of the playoff series I'm looking forward to watching. I know both players -- inside -- are looking forward to that matchup and that battle."

So, yes, there are plenty of intriguing subplots to Nets-Knicks (Saturday, April 17, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Not to mention these teams don't particularly like each other. They've been making noise all season.

"They have been asking for us," Kenyon Martin told the New York Daily News on April 3. "The guys proved that we are still the No. 1 team in the area."

Now, however, the stakes are much higher than No. 1 team in the New York metropolitan area, which means the action should be even more intense than normal.

10. Will Kobe Bryant play ball?

After his April 11 "performance" against the Kings in Sacramento, people were asking, and some none too kindly, as to where Kobe Bryant had his head.

"I can't tell you what he was thinking," Gary Payton told the Los Angeles Times.

But have you seen Bryant in his last two games? On Monday, he poured in 45 against the Warriors. And in the double-OT season finale against the Blazers on Wednesday, Bryant may have had his finest moment this season, and possibly his career.

Standing 25 feet from the hoop and with Ruben Patterson on his left hip, Bryant made an improbable three to send the game into the first overtime. Then, with one second remaining in the second OT, Bryant drained a fade-away 3-pointer over a hard-charging Theo Ratliff to give the Lakers the win.

Will Kobe play ball? Five days ago, that was a good question. After Wednesday, that question seemingly has been answered.