A few days before the two-time defending champion Pistons began their first-round playoff series against the Hawks, Detroit forward Dennis Rodman selected the postseason message he wanted to have shaved into his scalp. The word TRILOGY, the Worm decided, should be written in script above the Roman numeral III. (Remember when you told the barber to "take a little off the top," and that was that?) After the Pistons and Hawks split Games 1 and 2 at The Palace of Auburn Hills, however, the more ambivalent message that Rodman had worn earlier in the season seemed apropos: Between the years '89 on one side of his scalp and '90 on the other was '91 and the notation HMMM.
Hmmm, indeed. The Pistons called on their trump card, stingy defense, to gut out a 101-88 win in Game 2, but that came on the heels of a 103-98 loss in Game 1, during which the defending champs looked vulnerable. In the opener, Detroit even got the worst of the physical confrontations, including one early in the fourth period in which Piston center Bill Laimbeer was ejected for taking a swing at his Hawk counterpart, Moses Malone. Composure, Bill, composure—there's a long way to go.
Then again, it was a hmmm kind of weekend for other leading title contenders as well. The Trail Blazers looked solid but not devastating in winning Games 1 (110-102) and 2 (115-106) at home against the SuperSonics, while the Spurs, Suns and Celtics managed only splits in their own arenas. Hmmm, hmmm and hmmm. All things considered, the Bulls and Lakers should feel pleased after having controlled two games at home against, respectively, the mostly pathetic Knicks and the suddenly-out-of-fuel Rockets.
Herewith is a look at some of the early postseason winners and losers, and some themes that may continue throughout the playoffs and into next season.
May 5, 1991
Referee Fortitude—This has been a season of controversy for NBA officials, what with reports of internal bickering and dissatisfaction among coaches with supervisor of officials Darell Garretson (SI, April 1). And the decision by veteran ref Jack Madden to allow himself to be overruled on a key shot-clock decision in Game 1 of the Laker-Rocket series at The Forum made matters only worse.
Madden was not only the so-called lead ref in the game but also was in perfect position to rule that the jumper by L.A.'s Byron Scott with seconds remaining did not beat the 24-second clock. Yet, after first waving off the shot—and seeing the Lakers go bananas—Madden conferred with colleagues Dick Bavetta and Bruce Alexander and reversed himself at their urging. Never mind that the TV replays appeared to show that Madden's original call was correct or that he was the only official with both Scott and the 24-second clock in his line of vision. He should have stuck to his guns in any case. His officiating instincts did not betray him. His nerve did.
What shouldn't be overlooked is that the Lakers would have led 91-90 even if the shot had not counted. Houston then would have had 3.5 seconds to go the length of the floor and get off a potential game-winning shot. As it was, Los Angeles won 94-92.
Larry Bird's Back—Both Bird and the Celtics brass were still waffling at week's end about confirming published reports that he will undergo back surgery in the off-season. Don't listen to them—Bird will have an operation, and he hopes to recover in time for training camp beginning in October.
Meanwhile, his aching back got precious little rest at Boston Garden against the surprisingly gritty Pacers. Bird played 41 grueling minutes (21 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) in the Celtics' 127-120 victory in Game 1, and 40 minutes (18 points, 6 rebounds, 10 assists) in their 130-118 loss in Game 2. Bird was double-and sometimes triple-teamed, and, worse, he occasionally had to guard such potent offensive players as Chuck Person and Detlef Schrempf. Bird's effort was such that by the midway point of the second period of Game 2, he had swept the Garden's hallowed parquet with his rear end four times. Not enough Celtics followed his example, however.
Solar Heat Deficiency—The Suns rebounded from a hellish 129-90 home-court defeat by the Jazz in Game 1 with a strong 102-92 win in Game 2. But something about that first game sticks in the craw. A team as good as Phoenix simply should not come out as flat as it did against a worthy opponent like Utah. The Suns have struggled all season with a mild chemical imbalance, primarily because multitalented point guard Kevin Johnson has trouble deciding which high-scoring forward, Tom Chambers or Xavier McDaniel, to get the ball to, or whether he should take the shot himself. Judging from the first two games, in which KJ made just 6 of 22 shots and scored only 22 points, that could be working on his mind.
Teagle's Terrible Temper—Perhaps it's because he was not accustomed to postseason pressure, having played in only 18 playoff games in a nine-year pro career. Or perhaps he was just tired of coach Mike Dunleavy being perceived as the toughest guy on the Lakers. Whatever, one has to wonder how Terry Teagle, having given new meaning to the term swingman, will be affected by the bizarre explosion that led to his ejection from L.A.'s opening game with the Rockets. Teagle and Houston guard Dave Jamerson were engaged in some light jostling under the basket in the second period when the normally even-tempered Teagle suddenly turned and aimed a wild right and then a wild left at Jamerson's head. He even continued to try to get at Jamerson for another minute or so before allowing himself to be escorted to the dressing room by security men. The NBA fined Teagle $7,500 and suspended him for Game 2, which the Lakers won 109-98.
Patrick Ewing—After a horrific 126-85 Game 1 loss in Chicago, the Knicks gained some measure of respect by losing only 89-79 in Game 2. The bottom line, however, was that, as they returned to New York for Tuesday's Game 3, the Knicks were only one defeat from elimination and perhaps a significant personnel renovation—players as well as coaching staff. The biggest decision will be whether to keep Ewing, a five-time All-Star, and his weighty, problematic contract. Though one playoff series should not a decision make, Ewing did little to distinguish himself at Chicago Stadium. He worked himself free for only seven shots (and six points) in Game 1 and, after scoring 14 of his 24 points in the first period of Sunday's game, converted only 1 of 11 shots the rest of the way.
David Robinson's Composure—The Warriors showed up for Games 1 and 2 in San Antonio wearing black sneakers to effect what frontcourtman Jim Petersen called a "Raider-like appearance." Like true Raiders, both Petersen and Alton Lister tried to goad Spur center Robinson into early physical confrontations in Game 1. Their amateurish efforts were to no avail as Robinson scored 30 points and got 13 rebounds to lead San Antonio to a 130-121 victory. "I guess they hadn't read anything much about me," said Robinson afterward.
Don Nelson's Juggling Act—At some point in the postseason all the balls that Warrior coach Nelson keeps in the air will come down on his head, and Golden State will be exposed for what it is: Run TMC (the nickname for the high-scoring trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) and the other guys. But the matchup miseries confronting the Spurs after the Warriors' 111-98 win in Game 2 are very real and reminiscent of the beguiling strategies employed by Nelson in a first-round upset of the Jazz two years ago. For example, during a 17-0 run that bridged the second and third periods of Game 2 against San Antonio, Nelson combined the 6-foot Hardaway, the 6'5" Richmond and the 6'7" Mullin with 6'5" Mario Elie and 6'9" Tyrone Hill. Later, Nelson replaced Elie with another 6'5" player, Sarunas Marciulionis. In the playoffs, preparation becomes more important, and no coach can befoul an opposing team's preparation as Nelson can.
The Pacers' Future—Whether or not Indiana uses Sunday afternoon's series-tying victory as a stepping stone toward eliminating the Celtics, the cumulative effect of its performance at Boston Garden bodes well for this perennial Central Division also-ran. Yes, yes, the word promising has been affixed to the Pacers for a while, but never have they delivered the way they did last week. Indiana is still one or two players away from being a true contender, but it has strong personnel and it is being coached by the right man, Bob Hill. The play of Person was noteworthy. He traded woofs with Bird in a memorable Game 1 drama and quieted a hostile crowd in Game 2 with 39 points, including a playoff-record seven three-pointers. Said Person afterward, "I love it. National TV. Parquet floor.——banners. All trying to stop me. But no one can."
Ennis Whatley—The former Alabama star, who was a first-round pick of the Bulls in 1983, was named MVP of the CBA championship series. Whatley played for five other NBA teams (the Cavs, Bullets, Spurs, Hawks and Clippers) between '83 and '89 but never lived up to his promise. Off the court, he battled drugs and alcohol for two years before becoming one of the most dependable point guards in the CBA. Last Saturday night was Whatley's proudest moment. He scored 29 points to lead Wichita Falls to a 102-90 victory over visiting Quad City in Game 7.