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A COMING-OUT PARTY
WITH SOME BIG NAMES WATCHING ON TV, THE PLAYOFFS WILL SHOWCASE SOARING UP-AND-COMERS

Kobe Bryant is home for the summer, as are Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. High-level players are generally the norm this time of year when the NBA playoffs begin, but the league isn't necessarily distressed. The public will just have to settle for a different sampling of stars.

Fans will become more familiar with other players such as Miami's Dwyane Wade, Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire and Chicago's Ben Gordon. Ray Allen and Tracy McGrady are returning to the postseason, as are the Chicago Bulls for the first time in the post-Jordan era.

While league Commissioner David Stern admits life is always easier -- and television ratings higher -- when the Los Angeles Lakers are in the playoff mix, there's no need to shut down operations while Kobe and Co. figure out their next move.

"There are some interesting and exciting teams that are generating coverage, and a lot of young players and player combinations that people are talking about," Stern said this week. "So we anticipate a very lively playoffs with fans very much interested and engaged."

The story lines in the first round alone are endless, and as many as matchups are potential seven-game series. Is Shaquille O'Neal healthy enough to lead the Miami Heat? Are Denver and New Jersey merely late-season wonders? Can Phoenix play half-court basketball? Has anyone seen Chris Webber? Can the Detroit Pistons repeat?

Here are the first-round matchups (seed in parentheses):

Eastern Conference

(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) New Jersey Nets

O'Neal has a thigh bruise that has caused some swelling and is questionable for Game One. If he's out, the Nets are capable of stealing one from the Heat. New Jersey is dangerous with Jason Kidd leading the break, Richard Jefferson (who has been cleared to play after a wrist injury) and the rejuvenated Vince Carter on the wings. It's hard to find too many guards in the league better than Dwyane Wade, but everything offensively runs through O'Neal. If Shaq's not available, then New Jersey can spring an upset. If he is, can you imagine the likes of Nenad Krstic and Jason Collins trying to stop him? Prediction: Heat in six.

(2) Detroit Pistons vs. (7) Philadelphia 76ers

This is like if Duke played Alcorn State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Pistons have been locked into playoff mode for the last month of the season following a slow start. An offensive balance starts with Rip Hamilton and Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace prowl the lane, and the underrated Tayshaun Prince playing the new millennium's version of Michael Cooper. All Philly has is Allen Iverson, who is playing the best basketball of his career but who knows how to defend him better than Larry Brown? Seriously, any word on the whereabouts of Webber? Prediction: Pistons in four.

(3) Boston Celtics vs. (6) Indiana Pacers

The Pacers have several things working against them. Jermaine O'Neal's return from injury would appear to give the team a boost, but it hurt the team's chemistry on offense. Also, Jamaal Tinsley (ankle) is out, which means Fred Jones has to play point guard. And Jones is not a point guard. It seems like old times again in Boston with the offense running through Antoine Walker and Paul Pierce slashing for easy baskets and dunks. The Pacers would love to send Reggie Miller off into retirement as a champion, but without Ron Artest to deal with Walker and Pierce, the Celtics have too many weapons to lose this series. Prediction: Celtics in seven.

(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

This will turn out to be a what-if series for the Baby Bulls. Like what if Eddy Curry and Luol Deng were healthy and Tyson Chandler wasn't hobbling? That leaves Chicago starting the likes of Andres Nocioni, Antonio Davis and Chris Duhon, and none of the three averaged more than 8.3 points. Ben Gordon has to carry the majority of the scoring load, which is fine by him, but can you name a defensive backcourt better than Washington's Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas? This is easy money for the Wizards. Prediction: Wizards in five.

Western Conference

(1) Phoenix Suns vs. (8) Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies beat the Suns twice in the regular season and their 10-man rotation is the NBA's deepest. But the Suns are riding such a wave at the moment that would it be foolish to pick against them. Steve Nash is the league's MVP while Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion are right behind. While Quentin Richardson is prone to shooting slumps, Joe Johnson and Jim Jackson are more reliable from long range. Critics insist Phoenix doesn't have a low-post presence. Clearly they haven't seen Stoudemire much. Prediction: Suns in four.

(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Denver Nuggets

This should end up being the best matchup in the first round. You have the perennial favorite in the Spurs, who have all the tools to win it all, and the league's hottest team since the All-Star break in the Nuggets. Still, this is a tough draw for Denver. The Spurs are good at forcing opponents to play at their tempo, which is half-court basketball with center Tim Duncan. They won't play to Denver's strength and get involved in run-and-shoot affairs. Over the course of a seven-game series, the Nuggets' inability to play half-court basketball will be exposed. Prediction: Spurs in seven.

(3) Seattle SuperSonics vs. (6) Sacramento Kings

Seattle was inundated by injuries in April to Rashard Lewis and Vladimir Radmanovic and while Lewis is expected to play, Radmanovic (foot) is out. But the Kings, a team still trying to find its identity following the Webber trade, know a little something about injuries. Peja Stojakovic (groin) and Brad Miller (leg) are questionable, although the return of Bobby Jackson will provide a spark. The problem for the Kings is they don't have enough inside to handle Danny Fortson and Reggie Evans, nor enough outside to deal with Lewis and Ray Allen. Prediction: Sonics in six.

(4) Dallas Mavericks vs. (5) Houston Rockets

Now that Juwan Howard is out for the playoffs, who's going to guard Dirk Nowitzki? The All-Star forward averaged nearly 35 points a game against the Rockets with Howard in the lineup, so let's bump him up to an even 40 a game in this series. There are other reasons to like Dallas: The bench play of Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Van Horn for starters and the fact that Avery Johnson has them thinking more about (gasp!) defense. The Rockets play defense well enough to take away options like Michael Finley, and Tracy McGrady will score right along with Nowitzki (if he's not hindered by back spasms). Jeff Van Gundy will coax a win out of this group but nothing more. Prediction: Mavericks in five.

MCKISSIC'S SLANT
Rodney McKissic's first-round analysis

Eastern Conference

(1) Miami vs. (8) New Jersey: Nets will make this competitive.

(2) Detroit vs. (7) Philadelphia: Pistons finished the season 11-1.

(3) Celtics vs. (6) Pacers: Boston has been a force since Antoine Walker trade.

(4) Bulls vs. (5) Wizards: Washington a nice sleeper pick.

Western Conference

(1) Suns vs. (8) Grizzlies: Phoenix will rise, and sweep.

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Nuggets: A seven-game classic.

(3) Sonics vs. (6) Kings: Sacto's banged up, what else is new?

(4) Mavericks vs. (5) Rockets: Watch Dirk and McGrady score.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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