The “real” NBA season begins on Saturday when the playoffs open with the Western Conference looking less wide open than it was a few weeks ago and the East more competitive.
“It’s a whole new season now,” said Tim Duncan, who led the San Antonio Spurs to the best record in the NBA at 58-24. “It’s about keeping our focus and pushing our way through.”
The Spurs finished the regular season looking deeper than their 1999 championship squad.
Injuries helped to knock them out last year but this time they have proved to be the best team in a Western Conference which for a while had seen near parity among the top eight.
“I’m excited about it,” said David Robinson, Duncan’s ‘Twin Tower’. “We’re feeling good. We’re pretty healthy as a team.”
In the best of-five games first round, San Antonio hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves, who were led by Kevin Garnett to the most wins ever by an eighth seed (47).
The second-seeded Los Angeles Lakers had looked vulnerable in defense of their 2000 crown because of a rift between superstars Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but they patched things up just in time.
The Lakers finished the regular season with eight straight wins — the best closing kick in franchise history. “Everything is as right as it can be right now,” Bryant said.
Feuding Wallace Opposing them are the Portland Trail Blazers who, despite an NBA-high US$90 million payroll, have never found happiness especially since their best player — Rasheed Wallace — is always feuding with referees.
The Blazers collapsed in the fourth quarter of the seventh game of the conference finals against L.A. last year, and still have not proven they can handle pressure.
By contrast, O’Neal, whose poor foul shooting has drawn the infamous ‘Hack-A-Shaq’ endgame strategy, converted 13-of-13 free throws in his regular-season finale.
In other Western matchups, the exciting Sacramento Kings host the sixth-seeded Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, seeded fourth, will pit the vast experience of Karl Malone and John Stockton against the rising young Dallas Mavericks.
Sacramento lost three of its last four games, fumbling its challenge to the Lakers in the Pacific Division.
In the East, the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers (56-26) fell a little closer to the pack as guard Allen Iverson, usually the smallest man on the court, got banged up.
Iverson led the league in scoring, with just over 31 points a game, as well as steals (2.5) and minutes (42.0). Dikembe Mutombo, acquired from Atlanta on trading deadline, won the rebounding race with 13.5 per game.
But against the Indiana Pacers, the Sixers face a hot team who have knocked them out of the playoffs for the past two years.
Indiana, who reached last year’s Finals against the Lakers, won nine of its last 10 games with 23-year-old center Jermaine O’Neal showing flashes of brilliance.
“Our goal this year was to develop young players and make it to the playoffs,” first-year coach Isiah Thomas said. “We did all that and also we were a .500 team. The longer we stay in the playoffs, the better we become.”
The Milwaukee Bucks cruised in second spot in the East for most of the season, and appear to have more talent than the Orlando Magic, Tracy McGrady notwithstanding.
The third-seeded Miami Heat gathered momentum with the unexpected return of center Alonzo Mourning, who missed 69 games with a kidney disorder. But point guard Tim Hardaway has a foot injury and backup Anthony Carter a twisted ankle.
The matchup with the Charlotte Hornets could get personal as each team features several refugees from the other — a familiarity also shared by the New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors.
In three close games last year, the Knicks swept Vince Carter’s Raptors out of their first playoffs.
Toronto won the regular-season series again this year and New York did not secure the fourth seed and homecourt advantage until the last day of the regular season.
But 1999 Finals runner-up New York, which expects starters Marcus Camby and Larry Johnson back from injury, is counting on its edge in playoff experience.
“It’s time now, so we’ve got to go to work,” said the Knicks’ Latrell Sprewell.