Ring in the New
Three gentlemen with more than a passing knowledge of NBA championship pressure suggest that even in this season of many supposed contenders, in reality only a precious few teams need to be fretting about ring sizes. "I just don't think you can win a championship until you lose one," says NBC commentator Pat Riley, who, as coach of the Lakers, won four NBA Finals and lost three.
Riley's erstwhile trump card Magic Johnson agrees. "You have to want it so bad that you would do anything to get there," says Magic. "And if you haven't done it before, you're not going to know how."
Adds Sonics coach K.C. Jones, who has been involved in 13 title series as a player and coach, "[After] you get to the Finals once, it makes believers out of you."
Now, does that mean all of those Western Conference wannabes, like Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix and even surprising Houston, should pack it in and leave the Western fight to the two teams that made the Finals in recent years: the Trail Blazers and the Lakers? Yes, it does. I picked Portland to go all the way in the preseason (SI, Nov. 5), and nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.
The East seems to have only three contenders—the Bulls, the Pistons and the Celtics. That's one strong and healthy team, and two older ones with injuries. In spite of what the aforementioned Western seers say, I am passing up the two-time defending champion Pistons and the Celtics, who last won a league crown in 1986. Give me young, strong and healthy. Give me Chicago. In the Finals, I think the Trail Blazers—last season's horror of losing three straight championship-series games at home to Detroit fresh in their minds—will prevail in seven games.
So here's how this not yet bleary-eyed prognosticator sees the playoffs shaping up (conference seedings are listed in parentheses for the first round), followed by some postseason food for thought:
First round—Bulls (1) over Knicks (8); 76ers (5) over Bucks (4); Celtics (2) over Pacers (7); Pistons (3) over Hawks (6).
Second round-Bulls over 76ers; Pistons over Celtics.
Title—Bulls over Pistons.
First round—Trail Blazers (1) over Sonics (8); Jazz (5) over Suns (4); Spurs (2) over Warriors (7); Lakers (3) over Rockets (6).
Second round—Trail Blazers over Jazz; Lakers over Spurs.
Title—Trail Blazers over Lakers.
NBA Finals—Trail Blazers over Bulls.
The Great Question
Any coach or player will tell you that the playoffs become a half-court game. But why? Here are a few answers.
1) Added stakes increase intensity, and intensity increases the will to get back on defense and prevent transition baskets.
2) Added intensity turns the play more physical, leading to a slug-it-out mentality that slows down offenses.
3) With more time between games, teams can better prepare for opponents, so offenses have to probe more to score.
4) Aware that each playoff loss brings them one step closer to walking the plank, coaches overemphasize the value of every possession, even as they tell their point guards to "get out and run."
Adjusting to Pressure
"It's going to be toughest on my dog," says Don Casey, a first-year Celtic assistant coach who in five previous seasons as an NBA assistant and one as the Clippers' head coach never went to the playoffs. "He's going to be there at the top of the stairs, waiting for me and wondering, Where the heck is he? It's the last week of April. He should be home."
The Trail Blazers, who finished with the league's best record (63-19), got as much out of Danny Ainge (11.1 points per game, 102 three-pointers) as they could have expected. And remember that they traded for him in the off-season primarily with an eye to the playoffs. Ditto for January arrival Walter Davis, who throughout his 14-year career has been an outstanding playoff performer. Lately coach Rick Adelman has even used Ainge and Davis together from time to time, moving Clyde Drexler to small forward. Doesn't a back-court rotation of Drexler, quarterback Terry Porter, Ainge, Davis and defensive specialist Danny Young sound at least as strong as Detroit's winning combination last season of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson? Nod your head yes.
Who are the players most inclined to be up-and-down, but who are desperately needed by their teams to be up during the postseason?
1) Guard Rod Strickland, who averaged about four turnovers a game in San Antonio's final 12 games. That's too many. Strickland says the turnovers have nothing to do with the broken bone he suffered in a fight outside a San Antonio nightclub on Feb. 2.
2) Center Vlade Divac, who, according to his Laker teammates, decides before games to hit either the offensive boards or the defensive boards but not both. L.A. can't afford such selectivity during the playoffs.
3) Forward Thurl Bailey, who is capable of giving Utah a possible fourth 20-point scorer (Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Malone are the others). On those days when he is off target, Big T also is extremely capable of shooting the Jazz right into one of those dreaded early vacations.
4) Guard Brian Shaw, who shot just .354 from the floor in the Celtics' final nine games and did a below-average job of handling trapping pressure.
5) Guard Alvin Robertson, who, after signing a five-year contract extension with Milwaukee on New Year's Day, has not been the night-in, night-out defensive demon that he was the first two months of the season.
And Five to Ponder
These aren't the players you think of first on their respective teams, but they are counted on during the playoffs.
1) Center Mark Eaton, a prototypical half-court player who will have to be quite intimidating if Utah is to avoid a third consecutive first-round elimination.
2) Forward Buck Williams, who, because he really doesn't excel in the defensive categories that appear on stat sheets (blocked shots and steals), is often overlooked as a one-on-one defender. But Portland will need him to shut down the opposition's toughest scorer.
3) Guard John Paxson, who with his best career shooting percentage (.548), has given Chicago a reliable outside alternative to Michael Jordan.
4) Forward Dennis Rodman, whom the Pistons will ask to guard the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins (first round), the Celtics' Larry Bird (second) and you-know-who in the conference final.
5) Forward Chuck Person. O.K., Rifleman. Want a chance to upset Boston? Can you get it into your head to take it to the hoop once in a while? After all, teammate Reggie Miller—not the greatest physical specimen—shot about 350 more free throws than you did this season.
At week's end, a number of key players on a number of teams were struggling with various injuries and maladies. Match them up. (Answers, below right)
1) Right hamstring A) Kevin McHale
2) Right wrist B) Fred Roberts
3) Creaky back C) Kevin Johnson
4) Left knee D) Charles Barkley
5) Broken ribs E) Larry Bird
6) Leg numbness F) Isiah Thomas
7) Left ankle G) Tom Chambers
8) Bad haircut H) Dan Majerle
The Great Conundrum
If it's true—as so many of the NBA coaches and broadcast commentators love to say—that players must step up a level in the playoffs, can they do that and also stay within themselves? I've been wondering a lot about this.
For SI's final coach-general manager poll of the season, we asked the question: What dark horse has the best chance of showing well in the playoffs? We didn't define the words dark horse, but, holding to at least minimal standards, we withdrew from consideration the replies of the two coaches who voted for the Suns and the Lakers. Those teams, however loose the definition, have not been dark horses at any time this season. We did permit the inclusion of the Pistons, because three coaches and one executive insisted on voting for them, noting that the club has injury questions—the most notable being the tender condition of Isiah Thomas's right wrist.
The top dark horse vote-getter was surprising Houston (52-30) with 10 votes, followed by Seattle with five. There's no denying that the SuperSonics are true underdogs, having finished eighth in the West at 41-41. Atlanta received two votes, and New York, Golden State and Boston (another pretty questionable choice) got one apiece.
1-C. 2-F. 3-E. 4-D. 5-No one (Just wanted to see how hip you were). 6—H. 7-A. 8-B.