There's no place like home when it comes to the NBA playoffs. A year ago, all 15 series were claimed by the team holding home-court advantage.

Will the trend continue?If so, the Utah Jazz can go ahead and order their championship rings.

Not so fast, says Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. First things, as in the first round, first. The postseason begins today.

"If we're fortunate enough to beat Houston, then we'll go from there," Sloan said. "There's no guarantees of anything. I've seen this happen so many times. I know that it's impossible to predict and that's why we don't try to do it."

A look at the first-round matchups:


Bulls coach Phil Jackson insists his two-time defending NBA champions aren't looking out West, just yet.

"We'll decide our neighborhood rivalry out here in the East and hopefully get on with the championship round," Jackson said.

Indiana and Miami are considered the top threats to keep Chicago from earning yet another trip to the NBA Finals.

No. 1 Chicago Bulls (62-20) vs. No. 8 New Jersey Nets (43-39)

Jackson claims the Bulls have respect for the energy and enthusiasm the Nets display on the floor. Unfortunately for New Jersey, additional kindness isn't on the agenda. Rookie Keith Van Horn and Jayson Williams, who has a broken thumb, don't have enough help to withstand the final running of da Bulls. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen are men on a mission.

Prediction: Bulls, 3-0.

No. 4 Charlotte Hornets (51-31) vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks (50-32)

This story of the birds and bees is one-sided. The Hawks won all four regular-season meetings with the Hornets this season. The average margin of victory was 17 points. "We need to turn tables around a little bit," Charlotte coach Dave Cowens understated.

Unfortunately, confidence is king in the postseason and the table is set for the Hawks to fly into the next round.

Prediction: Hawks, 3-1

No. 2 Miami Heat (55-27) vs. No. 7 New York Knicks (43-39)

In the words of Pat Riley, the coach familiar with both teams: "This is simply a series where there are two teams that have a geniune respectful dislike for one another and I think that raises the ante somewhat."

Though the Heat and Knicks split four games during the regular season and the average margin of victory was 3.25 points, this series could produce wider margins because of New York's on-going battle with injuries.

Prediction: Heat, 3-1.

No. 3 Indiana Pacers (58-24) vs. No. 6 Cleveland Cavaliers (47-35)

Rookie coach Larry Bird probably wishes he could suit up and play in this one, although experience hasn't seemed to help his Pacers against the youthful Cavaliers this season. The teams have split four games this season with Indiana holding a slight 340-339 scoring advantage.

If playoff experience means anything, however, Indy holds the edge - 455 games to 154.

Prediction: Pacers, 3-1.


Three teams with at least 61 wins (Utah, Seattle and the Los Angeles Lakers) headline the cast of contenders looking to dethrone Chicago as NBA champion.

"There are also two 56-win teams right behind us in Phoenix and San Antonio," Sonics coach George Karl said. "I really think that there are five teams that can come out of the West."

Armed with home-court advantage, Karl acknowledged defending champion Utah is top dog out West.

No. 1 Utah Jazz (62-20) vs. No. 8 Houston Rockets (41-41)

Less than a year after a spirited six-game series in the Western Conference finals, Utah and Houston have gone different directions. The Jazz moved up to claim home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, while the injury riddled Rockets only made the playoffs because Sacramento didn't want to. Get the brooms out. Utah has found a fountain of youth. Houston, in a word, hasn't.

Prediction: Jazz, 3-0.

No. 4 Phoenix Suns (56-26) vs. No. 5 San Antonio Spurs (56-26)

Two distinct styles collide in a series billed as "Small ball" vs. "Tall ball."

The Suns are counting on the quickness and outside shooting of gunslingers like Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson and Rex Chapman, while the Spurs counter with their tri-Tower attack. Look for David Robinson, Rookie of the Year Tim Duncan and Will Perdue to rise above the challenge. San Antonio isn't the league's top defensive team by accident.

Prediction: Spurs, 3-1.

No. 2 Seattle SuperSonics (61-21) vs. No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves (45-37)

The Pacific Division champion Sonics have owned the Timberwolves over the years. Seattle leads the all-time series 32-4 and held a 26-game winning streak over Minnesota until Dec. 23 when Stephon Marbury's 35 points led the Wolves to a 113-102 win at Key Arena. The Sonics, behind all-stars Gary Payton and Vin Baker, have since started a new run over the Timberpups - two wins and counting.

Prediction: Sonics, 3-0.

No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers (61-21) vs. No. 6 Portland Trail Blazers (46-36)

A vision of the league's future? In this corner, Shaq the slap artist and the cockiness that is Showtime '98. In the other corner, the Jail Blazers. L.A. eliminated Portland in the first round last season and a repeat performance is expected. The Lakers seem to be peaking at the right time. Del Harris and O'Neal were recently named NBA coach and player of the month for April. Portland, meanwhile, has been treading water down the stretch.

Prediction: Lakers, 3-0.