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 favorite.
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 East."
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 Lakers.
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 team.
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 LA 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 anyway."