Three times in the first period of a midseason game at Los Angeles last year, Jerry West dribbled quickly to his favorite spot to the right of the key, delivered that special, hard bounce of the ball he uses to launch his classic jumper, then leaped, shot and scored. Moments later he was wheeling back into the same spot. But now the bigger man guarding him, Chicago's Jerry Sloan, lunged up and jostled West in midflight, inadvertently slamming him to the floor. West made the shot and he also was awarded a foul shot, but Sloan had made a point all his own: in the next three periods West did not again try successive shots from the same area of the floor—and the moral was there for all the stands to see. Exactly. In no other team sport are the confrontations between individual players as obvious as they are in professional basketball. Today's sophisticated fan now comes equipped with a sort of split-level vision, looking inside the bigger battles between teams to follow the key match-ups, the man-to-man skirmishes that are as exciting as the outside game itself. Pictured at right, and on the pages that follow, are three of today's most interesting match-ups, three games within games to watch in the season ahead. At guard, the quick-shooting West is beautifully offset by Sloan, whose match-up strategy is simple enough—wear the man down. It often works, since Sloan is the best rebounding guard in the league and boxing him out is an exhausting task that West rarely faces against other backcourt men. But an even better battle is produced by New York's Dave DeBusschere and Baltimore's Gus Johnson (see cover and overleaf), a muscular confrontation that experts call "the classic match-up." Johnson himself says simply, "It's war, man." No two NBA players are more closely paired: they are the league's best defensive forwards; both are exceptional rebounders and shooters and, deep within each Knicks-Bullets game, they duel strength to strength, grinding at each other for leverage, each expecting only a momentary flash opening. At center, meanwhile, Milwaukee's sinewy Kareem Jabbar is a towering offensive power, usually unstoppable. But the Warriors' Nate Thurmond is an equally agile defensive specialist, and when the two meet, the earth shakes. "Nate is the only good center who doesn't try to rough me up," says Jabbar. "It is strictly my talent against his." Result: the rare sight of two big men in fierce balance. And best of all for the fans, while these interior dramas are being played, the outside games swirl on. For a preview of both, read on to the assessment of the season ahead and scouting reports by Peter Carry and Jerry Kirshenbaum, followed by Frank Deford's inside look at basketball's Little Big Man.

TWO PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR.Hotly pursued by Sloan, West brakes, fires over the top. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.In the best match-up, DeBusschere's shoulder spears Johnson. PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.Matched at center, Thurmond and Jabbar dominate a game.