YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Top-Seeded Teams Not Always Clear Favorites


Never before have the top seeds in the NBA and NHL had more reason to fear for their playoff lives from the very first night of the postseason.

The best team in the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings, which is a squad loaded with at least a half-dozen future Hall of Famers, is already down two games to the eighth-seeded Vancouver Canucks.

Just days into the Stanley Cup playoffs, perhaps it's best to dismiss the notion that there's a favorite.

Likewise, in the NBA the Sacramento Kings may be the No. 1 seed, but they've drawn the toughest out imaginable in the Utah Jazz.

Whatever the playoffs lack in greatness, they should more than make up for in suspense. It's as easy to make a case for the No. 6 seed in the NHL's Eastern Conference--New Jersey--as it is for No. 1-seeded Boston.

If Allen Iverson returns, it's as easy to make a case for the No. 6 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference--Philly--as it is for No. 1 seed New Jersey, most of whose players have little if any playoff experience.

Who in his right mind can actually pick a favorite in the NBA's Eastern Conference with any confidence?

You want to pick the Nets? Based on what, one impressive regular season? Based on Jason Kidd, who's won exactly one playoff series in seven NBA seasons?

New Jersey's first-round opponent, Indiana, made the playoffs only because the Milwaukee Bucks played like mutts over the last month, but the Pacers could certainly win this series. The Pacers have the proven playoff star (Reggie Miller) the Nets don't have, and what appears to be an advantage in the frontcourt (Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Jeff Foster). Just when it looked as if the Pacers were going to finish the regular season as the most disappointing team in the league, they won five consecutive and are starting to look like the team I picked two months ago to win the Eastern Conference.

Even though Detroit won its division and is the No. 2 seed, do we really think a playoff-tested team such as Toronto, having won 12 of 14, is incapable of beating the Pistons, who have about as many playoff-tested players as New Jersey? Any and every team in the East could go to the Finals, including Charlotte, and wouldn't that be a great story line considering the NBA could announce any day now that the Hornets will be moving to New Orleans.

The Celtics could be back in the Finals for all we know. Every game should be dramatic because every team legitimately thinks it can win the conference.

Since not a single one of the NBA's Eastern Conference teams could crack the top six out West, let's immediately move to the West. First postseason declaration: The Spurs, though they won the Midwest Division, will struggle with a young, athletic, go-for-broke Seattle team. It's never good for a rookie (in this case Tony Parker) to be matched up with crafty, cantankerous Gary Payton.

The only disappointing thing about the West is the way the seeds played out. Wouldn't you love to see Dallas against the Lakers in the second round so we could see Don Nelson employ his run-and-gun strategy against Shaq?

It's possible that Nellie's attempt to score 120 points a game against L.A. is both seriously flawed and totally brilliant. Nobody's going to beat the Lakers the straight-up, traditional, half-court way so why not do something radical? Instead, though, we'll probably get Sacramento vs. Dallas in the second round and the Lakers licking their lips for another shot at San Antonio.

If we really want to see the Lakers tested, the toughest road would have them going through Portland, Dallas and then Sacramento, which now cannot happen. But presuming the top four seeds advance in the West, we at least will be treated eventually to Lakers vs. Kings or Lakers vs. Dallas in the Western Conference finals, the de facto NBA championship.

What can derail the Lakers in their attempt to threepeat? Injuries. L.A. will have suffered a major blow if Robert Horry--he saves his best for the playoffs every year--has to miss any time because of an abdominal injury he suffered Wednesday night.

The Lakers of Shaq and Kobe ought not be mentioned with the Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen because the Lakers spent so much time laboring through the regular season, as if it were a necessary evil. Even so, the Lakers should be safe as long as Shaq and Kobe remain healthy. Opening against Sacramento or San Antonio on the road would mean little in the way of a disadvantage. "I just found out today we finished two games better than we did last year," Shaq said Wednesday night. "The only teams we had problems with were the lesser teams, who aren't in the playoffs. It's party time now."

Los Angeles Times Articles