- The Washington Times - Friday, April 21, 2000

Hello, Shaq.

Goodbye, CWebb.

The Zen-Zoo playoff series should not last beyond three games, four at the most.

Shaquille O'Neal is everyone's MVP, Kobe Bryant is the former next Michael Jordan and the Zen master has introduced the Lakers to Cochise.

The Kings have no answers for the Lakers, only a carnival show, led by turnover-happy Jason Williams.

The Kings try too hard to be noticed. Even Scot Pollard tries too hard. Who does his facial hair anyway?

Chris Webber has spent the last two seasons reinventing himself in Sacramento after leaving the Wizards on unpleasant terms.

Despite the increasingly favorable reviews, Webber goes into the postseason with a 2-9 career playoff record. That modest winning percentage could look almost good after the Lakers complete their assignment.

At least four Western Conference teams are stronger than what passes for excellence in the Eastern Conference.

That means the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Jazz and Spurs. The Suns would be in the group, too, if Jason Kidd were not sidelined with an injury.

The Trail Blazers, however formidable, are missing a leader, if not a late-game finisher. Their team chemistry could be better, too.

Continuity is one of the casualties of a deep lineup. Rasheed Wallace remains just a casualty of himself. He led the NBA with a record-setting 37 technical fouls this season. Who said Dennis Rodman was in a league by himself?

Scottie Pippen has been incidental to the cause, unable to establish a meaningful identity. He is, it seems, forever Jordan's caddy.

The Jazz, as always, are too old to be taken too seriously. Of course, they were too old when they advanced to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998. It only seems as if John Stockton and Karl Malone have been around since the days of Bob Cousy and Bill Russell.

The Spurs are hoping Tim Duncan heals quickly. If not, the Spurs are no certainty to slip past the Suns. As Kidd's replacement, Kevin Johnson is not bad, all two years in retirement considered.

The Pacers wound up with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Yet their position in the postseason is highly negotiable.

Jalen Rose has emerged as Reggie Miller's equal, hitting big shots in the fourth quarter. Austin Croshere has become a nice role player. Dale Davis, Sam Perkins and Chris Mullin are still around.

But Rik Smits remains the softest 7-foot-4 player in the NBA, point guard Mark Jackson gets slower by the hour, and the Pacers are as shaky on the road as they are impregnable at home.

Coach Pat Riley is running out of time and patience with his core group in Miami. Allan Houston's game-winning shot in the first round of the playoffs last season still stings the Heat and could end up being the defining moment for the present cast.

Other than Alonzo Mourning, who endeavors to suppress his demons, the Heat are being held together by tape and string. Tim Hardaway is breaking down, Dan Majerle is not what he used to be, and Jamal Mashburn is a benign scorer.

This could be Patrick Ewing's last real hurrah, and that is only if the Knicks are able to resurrect the magic that carried them to the NBA Finals last season. They displayed an equal amount of resolve and indifference during the regular season.

It is Allen Iverson against the world again, despite the addition of triple-double threat Toni Kukoc. Matt Geiger persists in being a conscientious objector at center, and the rest of the 76ers are merely props on Iverson's stage.

Otherwise, the most compelling matchup in the playoffs is O'Neal vs. the free throw line.

If O'Neal is able to convert about two-thirds of his free throw attempts in the playoffs, the opposition will be down to only a prayer.

O'Neal is a career .516 percent free throw shooter in the playoffs. In past postseasons, he has been a liability in the last four minutes of a tight game. Perhaps because of the Zen master's incense, O'Neal has shown signs of progress since the midway point in the season.

He still will be required to show it in the playoffs.

If O'Neal meets the test, the Lakers will coast to the NBA championship.

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