Who'll Take The Heat?
Despite Philly's superior record, our panel picks Miami to face
San Antonio in the Finals
Ever since their 10-0 start the 76ers seemed destined to advance
to the Finals--until March 27, that is, the night of Alonzo
Mourning's dramatic return. Now four of five scouts contacted by
SI to analyze the upcoming playoffs believe that Mourning and the
Heat have replaced Philadelphia as the Eastern Conference
Mourning continues to take medication for focal
glomerulosclerosis, a serious kidney disease. At week's end he
had played only 11 games, 10 off the bench, but the experts had
seen enough. "I sure don't have any questions about him," says
an Eastern scout whose team may have to face Miami in the
postseason. "He made big shots to help beat Charlotte [on April
6] and New York [on April 8], and then he had 21 in the win
against Boston [on April 11]. He has changed everything in the
Here's how our experts see the playoffs playing out.
Dark horse: The Raptors. Since its midseason trades for Keon
Clark, Chris Childs and Jerome Williams, Toronto has improved
significantly in blocked shots and scoring defense. The question
mark is Vince Carter, who is sure to be hammered repeatedly.
"He's not a guy who loves contact," says a scout who nonetheless
believes the Raptors could reach the Finals. "Every time he goes
to the basket, he seems to come up lame. I promise you his
opponents will be physical with him."
The wild cards: The Trail Blazers, Jazz and Bucks. Portland could
instantly get its act together and run the table despite being a
low seed. "But I'll be surprised if the Blazers do, because
they've shown they can't withstand adversity--when teams make a
run on them, they fold," says one scout, who believes Portland
still hasn't recovered from its Game 7 collapse in the conference
finals last year, when it blew a 15-point, fourth-quarter lead to
The Jazz needs forward Donyell Marshall to help reverse its
recent slump. "These are going to be his first playoffs," one of
the scouts says ominously. Only one panelist believes Milwaukee
can reach the Finals, and he predicts that the Bucks will be able
to force an up-tempo pace because of their wealth of scorers.
The outsiders: The Kings and the Knicks. Opinion was split on
these teams. Two scouts believe Sacramento can't survive a
seven-game series because it lacks defensive toughness and
playoff experience. Others believe that the Kings' deafening home
court advantage through the first round or two will galvanize the
As for the Knicks, one scout from the East thinks they have a
chance. "New York is like Miami and Philadelphia," he says. "That
group plays harder defense than any team in the West." A Western
scout disagrees. "The Knicks are already playing at their highest
level," he says. "I don't think they can turn it up."
Conference runners-up: The Lakers and the Sixers. None of the
scouts would be surprised if these teams met in the Finals, but
Los Angeles lacks chemistry and Philly needs scoring. In the last
month L.A. has ratcheted up its intensity despite the absence of
Kobe Bryant, who missed nine games with a sore left ankle, and
Ron Harper, who had surgery on his left knee on March 21 and is
likely to miss the first round of the playoffs. "It's too late
for the Lakers to get back to the way they were playing last
year," says a scout. "But they're so talented they can win it
Philadelphia acquired Dikembe Mutombo to contend with the West's
topflight centers in the Finals, but the Sixers may not get that
far now that Mourning is back. "Miami has too many big guys for
them," says one scout. Knowing that Mourning is covering for them
in the paint, the Heat's perimeter defenders can be even more
aggressive against Allen Iverson's Philly teammates, who were a
combined 17 for 50 in a telling 83-81 loss at Miami on April 10.
The Finals: The Spurs beat the Heat. All five scouts believe the
Spurs' combination of depth, balance and home court advantage
will carry them to the Western title. Not only do the Spurs
possess the league's best one-two inside punch in Tim Duncan and
David Robinson, but they also had made 41.1% of their threes
through Sunday--not to mention what they don't have: the
selfishness that has disrupted the Lakers and the Blazers. The
Spurs were holding opponents to an NBA-low 41.7% shooting at
week's end. "To beat them you've got to attack their perimeter
guys on the dribble and score from outside," says an Eastern
Miami's chances may hinge on point guard Tim Hardaway's bruised
left foot, which he will rest the last three games of the season,
and on the left shoulder of Eddie Jones, which was dislocated on
March 5. In his return last week Jones was far from being the
effective perimeter scorer and defender that the Heat would need
to upend San Antonio.
MVP? It's Not Allen Iverson
The suspense is over: It's time to announce SI's annual awards.
The envelopes, please.
MVP: Tim Duncan, Spurs. The 24-year-old Big Fundamental sets the
standard for all young players at both ends of the court:
averages of 22.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.38 blocks, along
with a league-leading 66 double doubles at week's end for a team
favored to win its second title in three years. Much has been
made of Allen Iverson's value to the 76ers--and with good
reason--but recall what happened to San Antonio last year when
Duncan was injured: The Suns eliminated the Spurs in four games
in the first round.
Rookie of the Year: Kenyon Martin, Nets. Three-point specialist
Mike Miller (11.8 points per game through Sunday) has heated up
for the Magic in recent months, but Martin's across-the-board
productivity--12.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.66 blocks per
game--before he broke his right leg on March 22 was better. The
6'9" Martin had also established himself as one of the East's top
Coach of the Year: Larry Brown, 76ers. The league's Obi-Wan
Kenobi helped turn the once derelict Iverson into a full-fledged
Jedi warrior. Brown's bunch epitomizes the selflessness that
marks the best of the NBA.
Sixth Man Award: Aaron McKie, 76ers. Pacers point guard Travis
Best deserves consideration, but his team's record was far
weaker. The 6'5" McKie handled both guard spots and provided
Most Improved Player: Tracy McGrady, Magic. When Grant Hill
failed to recover from ankle surgery, the 21-year-old McGrady was
asked to make that rarest of leaps: from complementary player to
superstar who carries a team. At week's end he was seventh in the
league in scoring, with 27.1 points per game.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves. When
the 6'11" Garnett isn't carrying the offensive load, he's
shutting down everyone from centers to point guards. He makes
defense look like fun--unless you're the one trying to cope with
his long arms, quick feet and fierce attitude.
Executive of the Year: Don Nelson, Mavericks. Whoa, Nellie! You
were right about Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Juwan Howard--and
Wang Zhizhi looks as if he might have a future, too.
Best Acquisition: Derek Anderson, Spurs. The free-agent shooting
guard from the Clippers invigorated San Antonio, supplying the
outside scoring and athleticism the team lacked.
Worst Acquisition: Shawn Kemp, Trail Blazers. Enough said.
Most Unfairly Vilified Player: Kobe Bryant, Lakers. Coach Phil
Jackson has taken a lot of credit for his teams' successes over
the years. If L.A. fails to successfully defend its title because
Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal aren't on the same page, Jackson
should take the blame. Entirely.
Best Prospect: Darius Miles, Clippers. Five years from now the
6'9" Miles will have emerged as the best player from the 2000
draft and one of the most gifted in the game.
Best Moment: Return of Alonzo Mourning. If he leads Miami to the
Finals, he'll be the NBA's answer to Lance Armstrong.
Worst Moment: The day Nuggets coach Dan Issel stood in an empty
gym because Denver players making $52 million refused to practice
Most Overdue Moment: The Blazers' decision to suspend Rasheed
Wallace. They waited until a month before the playoffs, after he
had been whistled for a league-record 40th technical foul.
Most Underrated Player: Shawn Marion, Suns. The 6'7" small
forward is becoming a Rodmanesque rebounder (10.8 per game
through Sunday) and an explosive scorer (17.4 points).
Most Overrated Player: Joe Smith, Pistons. Even after the fallout
from his under-the-table contract almost ruined the Timberwolves,
Minnesota wanted to keep him, and a recruiting war ensued for his
services. Smith then barely averaged 12 points for offensively
challenged Detroit. Consider him Exhibit A of the dilution of
talent in the league.
The Education of Rudy T
In Charge but Not Obsessed
A long season ended on April 10 for coach Rudy Tomjanovich when
his overachieving Rockets were eliminated from playoff
contention. Tomjanovich took over the U.S. Olympic team last
August; the same day he returned from Australia, he was opening
preseason camp with Houston. Exhaustion forced Tomjanovich to
take a break in 1999, but he says he has never felt close to a
relapse over the past eight months. "I hit rock bottom two
summers ago," says Tomjanovich, 52. "That changed the way I look
at things. I don't focus 24 hours a day on basketball anymore,
and the paradox is that I think it works better this way than if
I were obsessing all the time."
Tomjanovich is not the only recovering workaholic coaching in
the NBA. The Heat's Pat Riley has spoken of the need for balance
in his life, and the 76ers' Larry Brown--an assistant to
Tomjanovich at the Olympics--took time off during the season to
deal with fatigue and illness. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy
would appear to be on a path toward exhaustion as well, but at
39 he is young enough to dismiss suggestions that he should
follow Tomjanovich's example and change his single-minded
approach. "Every coach deals with those questions every year,"
says Van Gundy, "and you have to make the decision."
In any case, adds Van Gundy, the workload decreases during the
postseason because coaches prepare for the same opponent over a
number of games. But by looking at the dark circles under his
eyes, you won't be able to tell his job is any easier.
Outside the Box Score
Six-Inch Gap Costs the Spurs
When Sacramento visited San Antonio last Thursday in a meeting of
the West's leading teams, the Kings gave a stunning demonstration
of the offensive pressure they can exert--even without Chris
Webber, who fouled out near the end of regulation.
With the scored tied and 12.3 seconds left in overtime,
Sacramento put center Vlade Divac and four shooters onto the
floor. Respecting that group's range, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich
countered with a quick but small unit. That meant David Robinson
was on the bench when 6'9" Peja Stojakovic drove baseline and
lofted a runner over 6'7" Malik Rose, sealing a 107-105 victory
that helped the Kings hold on to their Pacific Division lead. "I
expected help," said Derek Anderson, who was guarding Stojakovic.
"Malik got there, but I guess that's the difference between Dave,
who's 7'1", and Malik."
For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to
Around The Rim
For the first time since 1947-48 only one center will finish
among the NBA's top 20 scorers. Shaquille O'Neal was third with
28.7 points per game at week's end. The next-most-productive
center was Brian Grant, the Heat's converted power forward, whose
average of 15.4 points ranked 49th.... The fact that tall players
are no longer being developed as traditional post-up centers a la
Shaq, but as Kevin Garnett-type forwards who can handle the ball
and have far more shooting range, contributed to the decision
last week to abolish the illegal-defense rules and allow zones
next season. The rampant use of isolation plays, which rely
heavily on post-ups and cut down on ball movement, was not
allowing these big men to show their talents....
Many coaches, including Pat Riley and Rudy Tomjanovich, predict
that permitting zones will be a disaster, but the committee that
put together the package of rules changes expects few teams to
use a zone for most of the game. "You don't see Duke and the
other top teams in college playing a lot of zone," says one
Grizzlies president Dick Versace believes the new rules will
halt the trend of recently retired players quickly becoming head
coaches. "With the rules now, you can put in guys who don't know
how to coach at all, and some of them have been pretty
successful," says Versace, "but I don't think hiring those guys
will work if they have to know how to attack a variety of
The Hawks' Theo Ratliff and the Warriors' Marc Jackson might
have welcomed another 50-game lockout season. Ratliff was
certain to be named Defensive Player of the Year until he was
sidelined with a broken right wrist after 50 games. Jackson was
the likely Rookie of the Year when a groin injury ended his
season after 48 games.
SI's All-NBA Team
F--Tim Duncan, Spurs
F--Chris Webber, Kings
C--Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers
G--Allen Iverson, 76ers
G--Jason Kidd, Suns
F--Tracy McGrady, Magic
F--Kevin Garnett, T-Wolves
F/C--Rasheed Wallace, Blazers
G--Kobe Bryant, Lakers
G--John Stockton, Jazz
F--Michael Finley, Mavericks
F--Karl Malone, Jazz
F/C--Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
G--Vince Carter, Raptors
G--Gary Payton, Sonics