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NBA PLAYOFFS / 1998 PREVIEW SECTION

Western Conference Preview Capsules

April 23, 1998|Mark Heisler

NO. 1 CHICAGO (62-20

VS.

NO. 8 NEW JERSEY (43-39)

* Season series: Bulls, 4-0.

* Playoff schedule: Friday at Chicago, 5 p.m.; Sunday at Chicago, 2:30 p.m.; Wednesday at New Jersey, 4 p.m.; May 1 at New Jersey, TBA; May 3 at Chicago, TBA.

* Records since All-Star break: Bulls 28-5, Nets 16-18.

* Offense: Bulls 96.7 (9), Nets 99.6 (5).

* Defense: Bulls 89.8 (3), Nets 98.1 (21).

* Key stat: Since 1990, the Bulls are 21-1 in first-round series.

* Keys: The Bulls don't like to dawdle in the first round, not with starters who are 36, 35, 34, and 33. They have lost one game in opening rounds since 1990, in 1995 when Jordan came back from retirement and they had to open on the road against a 50-victory Hornet team and lost Game 2 in Charlotte.

The Nets lost centers Jayson Williams, Rony Seikaly and Michael Cage, down the stretch and had to listen to way too much screaming by Coach John Calipari. Williams is back so they will at least hold their own in interviews. As improbable as it seems, the Nets have young legs and firepower so if they let fly with a nothing-to-lose attitude, they could do some damage.

* Prediction: Nets, 3-2. Just kidding. Bulls, 3-0.

NO. 2 MIAMI (55-27)

VS.

NO. 7 NEW YORK (43-39)

* Season series: 2-2.

* Playoff schedule: Friday at Miami, 4 p.m.; Sunday at Miami, 9:30 a.m.; Tuesday at New York, 4 p.m.; April 30 at New York, TBA; May 3 at Miami, TBA.

* Records since All-Star break: Heat 25-10, Knicks 18-18.

* Offense: Heat 95.0 (16), Knicks 91.6 (25).

* Defense: Heat 90.8 (6), Knicks 89.1 (2).

* Key stat: Without Patrick Ewing, the Knicks start the league's smallest, lowest-jumping front line at 6-9, 6-7 and 6-5.

* Keys: One thing may save Riley from the Opening Round from Hell--Ewing, sidelined since Dec. 20 because of a broken right wrist, couldn't make it back for the first round. The Knicks ran down without Ewing, finishing 9-16, but Riley's old team matches up well with his new one. They are two tough, physical, defense-oriented, no-quarter-asked-none-given squads. The Heat finished 3-7, but Riley has a firepower edge. Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway might not scare Jordan and Pippen, but should out-gun Allan Houston and the artist once known as Larry Johnson.

* Prediction: Riley is an ace at leaving teams to stew in their misery until they're thankful just to find someone they can take it out on. Miami, 3-0.

NO. 3 INDIANA (58-24)

VS.

NO. 6 CLEVELAND (47-35)

* Season series: 2-2.

* Playoff schedule: Tonight at Indiana, 5 p.m.; Saturday at Indiana, 10 a.m.; Monday at Cleveland, 4 p.m.; April 30 at Cleveland, TBA; May 3 at Indiana, TBA.

* Records since All-Star break: Pacers 25-11, Cavaliers 20-15.

* Offense: Pacers 96.0 (12), Cavaliers 92.5 (24).

* Defense: Pacers 89.9 (5), Cavaliers 89.8 (4).

* Key stat: Shawn Kemp and Wesley Person have all the Cavalier starters' playoff experience, 74 games, whereas the five Pacers have been in 244.

* Keys: In three surprise playoff appearances under Coach Mike Fratello, the Cavaliers went quietly, 3-0, 3-0 and 3-1. This team, with four rookies and a second-year player in the rotation, would seem to be up past its bedtime against the veteran Pacers, who finished 9-2 and moved ahead of the Heat.

But the Cavaliers fought the Pacers on even terms all season and Pacer officials, noting Fratello's thorny double-teaming-and-rotating defenses, expect a struggle. Everyone else expects a relatively short one.

* Prediction: The Cavaliers go quietly again as Kemp fouls out in two of the four games. Pacers, 3-1.

NO. 4 CHARLOTTE (51-31)

VS.

NO. 5 ATLANTA (50-32)

* Season series: Hawks, 4-0.

* Playoff schedule: Tonight at Charlotte, 4 p.m.; Saturday at Charlotte, 5 p.m.; Tuesday at Atlanta, 5 p.m.; May 1 at Atlanta, TBA; May 3 at Charlotte, TBA.

* Records since All-Star break: Hornets 22-13, Hawks 21-12.

* Offense: Hornets 96.8 (10), Hawks 95.9 (15).

* Defense: Hornets 96.6 (14), Hawks 92.3 (8).

* Key stat: The Hawks finished on an uptick (8-3), the Hornets on a downturn (6-7), with two losses to the Hawks.

* Keys: The Hornets are usually on a roll, in one direction or another. After a 15-1 run, they cooled down amid much pointing of fingers by forwards Anthony "Gimme the Ball" Mason and Glen "Give Him the Ball So He Can Pass it Out to Me" Rice.

The Hawks had a little downer after their 11-0 start--it lasted most of the season--but revived when Mookie Blaylock, who started April shooting 39%, warmed up. In the manner of low-key Lenny Wilkens, the Hawks just show up and play. Meanwhile, Mason was off telling the Hawks they're "heartless," in the third game of the regular-season four-game Atlanta sweep.

* Prediction: Hawks in a donnybrook, 3-2.

NO. 1 UTAH (62-20)

VS.

NO. 8 HOUSTON (41-41)

* Season series: Jazz, 4-0.

* Playoff schedule: Tonight at Utah, 6:30 p.m.; Saturday at Utah, 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday at Houston, 6:30 p.m.; May 1 at Houston, TBA; May 3 at Utah, TBA.

* Records since All-Star break: Jazz 31-5; Rockets 19-17.

* Offenses: Jazz 101.0 (3), Rockets 98.8 (7).

* Defenses: Jazz 94.4 (13), Rockets 99.5 (24).

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