Sixers Say They Won't Take This No. 8 Seed Lightly

INDIANAPOLIS, April 19 - Since the NBA expanded the playoffs to include 16 teams in 1984, there have been 34 series pitting No. 1 seeds against No. 8 seeds in each conference.

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The No. 8 seed has won just two series and 27 games (against 100 defeats).

A statistic such as that might tend to give the top seed a sense of overconfidence, a feeling not entirely without merit.

In this instance, however, there is absolutely, positively, no chance the Philadelphia 76ers will overlook the Indiana Pacers. The teams will meet for the third postseason in a row when they open a first-round series this weekend in Philadelphia, and the 76ers need no reminders about how their previous two matchups went. The Pacers won both, sweeping the first and taking the second in six games.

''If our perspective was any different than respecting them, I'd be disappointed,'' said coach Larry Brown. ''The first year, they handled us. The second year, they handled us. We have a lot of respect for their team. You put Reggie (Miller) on any team and the way Jalen (Rose) has evolved, you've got to have the utmost respect for them, and then you have a defender in Travis (Best) who is as good at his position as anybody.

''We have the utmost respect for them. The way they're playing at the end of the season is tremendous. This is the time when you should be playing your best. Our players respect them a lot. We're not looking to hand-pick an opponent. We're just thankful to be in the playoffs and we want to play our best.''

For those scoring along at home, Brown used the word respect, in some form, five times in two paragraphs.

It is a common theme among the Sixers. Though both teams have made substantial changes and the Pacers struggled to remain in playoff contention before a late-season surge secured the final berth in the East, Philadelphia's players are anxious to lay their tormentors to rest. They regard the Pacers much the same as Indiana's players viewed the Knicks in previous years - regardless of the circumstances, a worthy adversary. In fact, after the Pacers knocked off Philadelphia in '99, they wound up losing to the eighth-seeded Knicks in the conference finals as New York became the first team from the bottom of the bracket to advance to the championship round.

''Those guys are capable on any given night,'' said Aaron McKie. ''They struggled most of the season but now they're playing their best basketball, they're starting to peak and that's the scary thing because this is the time of year when you want to be playing your best basketball and they're one of the better teams right now.

''They're a dangerous team. They've got some guys that can put the ball in the hole and they've got some young guys that are willing to go out there and do all the dirty work. When you've got a combination like that, it's dangerous. Those guys are just playing well right now and you have to be aware - not that we would take anybody lightly.''

If they needed any more reference points, the Sixers have another valuable one in the form of center Dikembe Mutombo. While with Denver in 1994, Mutombo was part of the first eighth seed ever to win a series, upsetting Seattle in five games. So he knows it can happen, and has been passing along that knowledge to his teammates.

''I've been talking to a few of them,'' Mutombo said. ''When you win so many games in the conference, that does not mean you go into the first round and relax, otherwise you're going to get knocked out. I'm trying to show a little bit of my experience.

''You have to stay on top of your game and be focused on what you're trying to accomplish. I think we're going to be ready.''

Having established themselves as the best team in the East during the regular season, and one of the best in the league, the Sixers now harbor realistic championship expectations. They have one of the league's most dynamic offensive forces in Allen Iverson, one of the most dominant defensive players in Mutombo, and a head coach who has been through it all before.

''We have a goal,'' McKie said. ''Our incentive is trying to win a championship, whether we're playing the Pacers, whether we're playing the Knicks, whether we're playing Miami, whoever it is. Our incentive is trying to win a championship and in order to do that we're going to have to go through these different teams.''

Mutombo concurred.

''I think we're all on the same page,'' he said. ''On our mind is to go out and win everything.''

Contact Conrad Brunner at Cbrunner@pacers.com