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TALENTED SONICS LOOKING SUPER THIS YEAR

TEN YEARS ago, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers met in the NBA Finals for the first time in the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson era. It was a long-awaited series, a clash of great teams and young superstars that helped launch the league to its current position of glamour and national prominence. That was also the year when I first covered the NBA. I have fond memories of the 1984 championship series and of those two extraordinarily talented teams. Ever since, those Celtic and Laker teams have been the measure for all the contending teams that have come after them.

The problem is, today's teams can only suffer by comparison. After all, one team had Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. The other had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy and Bob McAdoo. You just don't see that kind of talent on the same team anymore.

So when it comes time to handicap the NBA playoffs, which get under way tonight, I'm far too critical. Give me a few minutes, and I can find reasons not to like any team. This team doesn't have a good enough point guard, that one doesn't have a shot blocker, that one can't shoot well enough from the outside. Few teams are deep enough.

But things have changed in a decade. The NBA is a much more balanced league today. Expansion, the salary cap and wiser overall management have spread the talent more evenly through the league. Hall of Fame rosters like the '84 Celts and Lakers simply can't happen anymore.

"The league is clearly diluted," said Dick Versace, the former Indiana coach who is now an announcer for TBS. "People say the quality of play is down. That may be true to some degree. But I don't think the quality of competition is down. The intensity is still at a very high level. This year, we're looking at the most interesting playoff scenario in years."

There are more teams than ever with a legitimate shot at making the finals. Sure, all of them seem to possess some fatal flaw, some reason to believe they'll get bumped off early. None of this year's teams could beat the great Celtics or Lakers teams, or even the back-to-back Detroit champions of 1989-90.

It's doubtful any of them could have beaten the three-time Bulls champions of the past three years. Of course, those Chicago teams had Michael Jordan. It's his early retirement that put us in this mess -- searching madly for a favorite.

I liked Seattle six months ago and I'll stick with the SuperSonics now. In a era of flawed teams, the Sonics (who finished 63-19) have more to recommend them than any other contender. They have depth; they have offensive balance; and they the most vital element for success in today's NBA: A ferocious, flexible defense that can match up in any situation.

After Seattle, though, it becomes difficult to separate the teams. Nine finished with between 50 and 58 victories during the regular season. It's hard to tell the true contenders from the frauds, especially in the East, where no team has the aura of a true NBA champ.

The East was down this year. The Knicks and Atlanta each won 57 games, but either might have finished sixth in the West. The Bulls have been canonized for winning 55 games without Jordan, but people forget the opposition was weakened this year.

"The East had two major deaths (Reggie Lewis, Drazen Petrovic) and a major retirement (Jordan)," Versace said. "Then you had some teams that were just devastated with injuries, like Charlotte losing Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. What I'm saying is, the Bulls had success because they weren't competing against the high-level teams Michael was competing against."

OK, which unremarkable Eastern team will reach the finals? With customary reluctance, I'll take the Knicks. Yes, they're unsightly in the half-court offense. They bludgeon teams to death. Pat Riley gets harder to stomach every season. I'm not sure they could beat the 1984 Knicks in a seven-game series. But times have changed, and it's their time.

They lost in the conference semifinals two years ago, the conference finals last season. This year, the Knicks will complete the progression and lose in the NBA Finals. To Seattle. Here's a capsule look at the eight first-round best-of-five series:

EAST

Atlanta-Miami: Lenny Wilkens went to Atlanta this year and transformed one of the league's most selfish, disoriented teams into a cohesive unit that plays tremendous defense. The Hawks' three-man guard rotation of Mookie Blaylock, Stacey Augmon and Craig Ehlo will make it hard for any opponent to run its offense. The big question, though, is whether Danny Manning can be the go-to guy in a big NBA series, as he was in college. He won't have to be in the first round.

Pick: Hawks in three.

New York-New Jersey: The Nets won four of five in the regular season, so people are convinced this will be an even series. They're wrong. The Knicks struggled down the stretch after winning 15 straight, but it's hard to sustain their relentless style for a full season. They'll be refreshed for the playoffs. After serving a suspension for insubordination, reserve forward Anthony Mason will be a hostile presence. Keep in mind, New Jersey won't have an edge at home because half the fans in Jersey will be rooting for the Knicks.

Pick: Knicks in four.

Chicago-Cleveland: Revisionist thinkers want to believe Jordan wasn't that valuable to the Bulls. We'll find out when the clock is winding down to zero in a big playoff game against a strong defense. The Bulls still must prove they can make those big shots in critical playoff moments. Of course, there might not be any such moments against the Cavs. Larry Nance is out with a knee injury. Brad Daugherty is doubtful with a bad back. As usual, Mark Price will be asked to do too much and wind up doing too little.

Pick: Bulls in three.

Orlando-Indiana: The Pacers haven't won a playoff series since joining the NBA in 1976. They're 0 for 6, including the last four years. But they won a franchise-record 47 games this year, finishing with an eight-game winning streak. Indiana is a tempting pick but something tells me the officials will do everything in their power to ensure that America's new media icon, Shaquille O'Neal, doesn't go out in the first round.

Pick: Magic in five.

WEST

Seattle-Denver: The SuperSonics don't feel they've gotten enough respect (gee, there's an original complaint), but it's hard to understand why they wouldn't. They're deep and talented and play terrific defense. Shawn Kemp gets up so high, he should be declared the 10th planet. They're knocked for lacking a reliable outside scorer, but Ricky Pierce is one of the best clutch shooters in the game. The Sonics will breeze.

Pick: Sonics in three.

Houston-Portland: The Trail Blazers aren't the team they were a few years back, but their playoff experience will cause problems for the Rockets. Clyde Drexler showed flashes of his former brilliance late in the season and center Chris Dudley is back from injury. If Buffalo's Clifford Robinson performs at a high level, Portland could pull off the upset. But Hakeem Olajuwon, my choice for league MVP, is too good to let it happen.

Pick: Rockets in five.

Phoenix-Golden State: The defending Western champs appear to be peaking at the right time. They got Charles Barkley back, won their last seven games, and should be headed for another showdown with Seattle in the conference final. The Suns' defense is a bit shabby and they rely too much on Dan Majerle's three-point shooting, but they have superior talent. Don Nelson's teams are always dangerous in the playoffs, but they're a year away.

Pick: Suns in four.

San Antonio-Utah: Everything points to a Jazz upset, though it would qualify as mild at best. Utah went 5-0 against the Spurs in the regular season, mainly because San Antonio couldn't match up with Utah's superstars -- point guard John Stockton and power forward Karl Malone. David Robinson will get his numbers. Dennis Rodman will get his rebounds. But they're soft in the backcourt and on the bench.

Pick: Utah in five.

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