Point - Counterpoint: Spurs-Lakers matchup headlines NBA's second round
Throughout the regular season, off-court problems highlighted by Kobe Bryant's impending rape trial and on-court questions of team unity plagued the Lakers. Despite these issues, the team easily disposed of the Rockets in five games in the first round of the playoffs. As a result, they face the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, who recently completed a four- game sweep of the upstart Memphis Grizzlies.
Last season, San Antonio beat the Lakers in the conference championship en route to the finals through consistently strong play by point guard Tony Parker and all-world power forward Tim Duncan. This year, the Lakers added future hall of famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone -- each in search of his first championship -- to add depth and skill to their starting five.
In the series, look for Payton to use his superior size to neutralize Parker's quickness and Malone to take the pressure off of center Shaquille O'Neal in defending Duncan in the low post. By establishing Shaq's offensive presence early in games and with Kobe's recent offensive outburst, the Lakers will have the skill and game plan to complement Payton and Malone's desire to win. These intangibles give the Lakers the edge in an epic, seven-game series.
In the other Western Conference semifinal, the top-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves will oppose the Sacramento Kings. The T'Wolves, led by MVP candidate Kevin Garnett, completed a five-game defeat of the Denver Nuggets, thereby finally advancing beyond the first round for the first time in franchise history.
With that pressure mollified, Minnesota's big three -- Garnett with all star point guard Sam Cassell and small forward Latrell Sprewell -- face the Sacramento Kings. The Kings, who recently reversed a late-season slump by defeating the Dallas Mavericks in five games, will attempt to use their speed, quickness and playoff experience to undermine the strength of Minnesota's big three. However, unlike past years, the Kings lack the depth that once separated them from most other teams, turning the focus of this series onto the starting five and away from the up-tempo style which Sacramento prefers.
If the Kings' power forward Chris Webber were completely healthy, he could neutralize Garnett's effectiveness on both ends of the court. However, Webber's chronic injuries -- this year, a knee problem -- give the edge to Garnett. In addition to the inability to contain Garnett, Minnesota's other two stars, Cassell and Sprewell have a decided advantage in talent over their counterparts, Mike Bibby and Doug Christie. Minnesota's superior talent and the King's inability to curtail Garnett's effectiveness -- offensively and defensively -- give them the ultimate edge in the series. T'Wolves in six.
The Pacers, after easily eliminating the Celtics in four games, face either Miami or New Orleans in the second round. The Pacers' depth, experience, and superior talent give them the edge in a series that will be over before the Black Eyed Peas have a chance to sell out again. Pacers in four.
In the series between the Detroit Pistons and the New Jersey Nets, the Pistons will attempt to use their superior front line size, highlighted by the combination of Ben and Rasheed Wallace, to counteract the Nets' up-tempo, fast break style of play. Though the Nets stumbled into the postseason, the team experienced an all-around resurgence in its first-round sweep of the cross-town rival New York Knicks.
Led by point guard Jason Kidd and power forward Kenyon Martin -- both returning from recent injuries to perform well against the Knicks -- the Nets will try to use their advantage in speed to control the tempo of the game in their favor. With both teams thus vying to control the pace of the game, the team who can better coalesce to their opponent's style of play should come out victorious. With the emergence of swingman Richard Jefferson as a viable scoring threat in the half court offense, Jason Kidd's leadership and collective playoff experience, the Nets are better suited to play a slowed, half court game than the Pistons are in an up-tempo match. Nets in seven.