Point - Counterpoint: Spurs-Lakers matchup headlines NBA's second round
Many regard the San Antonio-L.A. series as the de facto NBA finals, and for good reason, as these squads have accounted for the last five league titles. This year, however, looks to be a repeat of last year's matchup when the Spurs dispatched the Lakers on their way to the finals.
The Spurs are the hottest team in the league, and have been combining suffocating defense with timely and consistent offensive production. The Lakers boast more big name talent -- led by the Big Four of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- but the Spurs have the more complete and cohesive team.
The Spurs' relentless defensive will wear down the Lakers' older players, and the quickness of Tony Parker will expose the fact that Gary Payton is not anywhere near the All-NBA status he enjoyed in Seattle. San Antonio is a team lacking the massive egos and infighting that has characterized the Lakers' season, and they will ride Tim Duncan, their tough team defense and their consistent effort on both ends of the floor to dispose of Los Angeles in five games.
The other Western Conference matchup pits top-seeded Minnesota against perennial bridesmaid Sacramento. The Timberwolves boast an excellent trio of young stars -- headed by their do-it-all standout, Kevin Garnett -- to counter the potent offensive attack of the Kings.
This series will come down to experience, specifically, Minnesota's lack of experience. The Kings sport a roster full of battle-tested competitors who are hungry to finally break through to the finals, while this Minnesota squad had never been past the first round prior to this season.
While the Kings struggled late in the year, and have suffered injuries to Chris Webber and Bobby Jackson, their performance against Dallas in the first round confirmed they have the ability to topple the Timberwolves. Mike Bibby has been peaking in recent games, and Peja Stojakovic has regained his shooting stroke in addition to playing surprisingly good defense as of late. The veteran Kings will overcome the unproven T'Wolves in six games.
In the East, the Indiana Pacers should not have much trouble in their second round encounter. The Pacers absolutely demolished the (admittedly terrible) Boston Celtics, and have been clicking on all cylinders offensively and defensively. Indiana can score from the inside with MVP candidate Jermaine O'Neal, from the outside with Reggie Miller, and from everywhere in between with Ron Artest and Al Harrington.
The key factor of the Pacers success as of late has been their bench production. Coach Rick Carlisle has seen his second unit -- featuring such talented players as Harrington, Jonathan Bender, Anthony Johnson and Fred Jones -- perform admirably against other teams' starters. The Pacers will win in five games.
The second Eastern Conference semifinal will feature a much more competitive series between Detroit and New Jersey. Detroit entered the postseason as many analysts' pick to win the East, but the Nets proved they are still a force to be reckoned with after dismantling the Knicks in four games in the opening round.
Both teams play a physical game with staunch defense and rebounding anchored by Detroit's Ben Wallace and New Jersey's Kenyon Martin. The key to the series, however, will be Nets point guard Jason Kidd. While Kidd has been able to push the Nets to two NBA finals appearances, the effects of his injured knee will hamper his team's chances, especially in facing a capable adversary in Detroit's Chauncey Billups.
With Kidd unable to work his usual magic, the Pistons vaunted defense will smother the Nets' fast break offense, while Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton will provide just enough offense to spur Detroit to victory. The Pistons' home-court advantage will also come into play in this tight series, as will the considerable coaching skill of Larry Brown, and Detroit will prevail in seven games.