LET THE GAMES BEGIN

The Bulls will become the first team to win three straight titles since the '65-66 Celtics eight-peated.

The Suns will win the West, and Barkley will be the reason why.

Those words were written by this observer during the preseason (SI, Nov. 9), back before Shaquille O'Neal had two backboards in his trophy room, before the Lakers had become a sub-.500 team, before Greg Anthony had an enemy in Phoenix. Am I sticking by these predictions? Not entirely. I like the Suns to come out of the West, but I see the Bulls going down to the Knicks in the East. And the winner is? See below.

Western Conference, first round

•Suns over the Lakers. Bye-bye, coach Randy Pfund. Bye-bye, veteran guard Byron Scott. Bye-bye (maybe), James Worthy and Vlade Divac. Bye-bye, Lakers.

•Trail Blazers over the Spurs. Celtic veteran Kevin McHale (page 56) has always had a logical explanation for a team or a player that starts out hot only to cool off later: "Water seeks its own level." The once sizzling, now fizzling Spurs—a team that is little more than a center (David Robinson), a versatile swingman (Sean Elliott) and a throaty voice on the sideline (John Lucas)—will find their own level, which is that of a loser in this toughest first-round showdown.

•Rockets over the Clippers. Houston has roughed up the Clips in all four of their meetings this season, and there's no reason to think the trend will be reversed now. Then the questions about the Clippers will begin: Will coach Larry Brown be around next season? Will Danny Manning be around next season?

•SuperSonics over the Jazz. Utah finished 47-35, the team's 10th consecutive winning season. Congratulations, Utah. But it's time to land a big man in the middle, fellas, while Karl Malone and John Stockton are still upright. The supporting cast—Jeff Malone, Ty Corbin, Jay Humphries, Larry Krystkowiak, David Benoit—is good, but not good enough to make the Jazz a contender.

West, second round

•Suns over the Blazers. Without a healthy Clyde Drexler—perhaps even with a healthy Clyde Drexler—this was not destined to be Portland's year. The Blazers will play with determination and pride, but they don't have enough to stop Phoenix.

•Sonics over the Rockets. Seattle has beaten Houston in six of their last seven meetings, primarily because its aggressive backcourt dominates the Rocket guards. What's more, Houston shooting guard Vernon Maxwell, who broke his left wrist last week, will not be at full strength. Finally, the Sonics have enough defenders—Michael Cage, Shawn Kemp, Sam Perkins—to throw at Hakeem Olajuwon to keep him (relatively) under control.

West finals
•Suns over the Sonics. There will certainly be some fireworks when Charles Barkley (page 78) confronts the lippy Sonics. But Seattle doesn't have a consistent enough offense to back up the talk. Phoenix, primarily because of Barkley, does.

Eastern Conference, first round

•Knicks over the Pacers. It took the Pacers until their 82nd and final game of the season to clinch a playoff spot they should have solidified a month ago. They'll need a heart transplant to give fired-up New York a battle.

•Hornets over the Celtics. Hey, there'll be at least one first-round upset, right?

•Cavaliers over the Nets. New Jersey would feel better about this series if Kenny Anderson were in uniform. But he's not (Anderson is sidelined with a broken left wrist), and without him the Nets don't have the savvy and poise to stay with Cleveland. Even when the Nets were running red-hot earlier in the season, coach Chuck Daly told everybody, "We're not yet ready for prime time." He was right then, and he still is.

•Bulls over the Hawks. It was a fine season in Atlanta for Dominique Wilkins and for Mookie Blaylock. But the Hawks will have a tough decision to make after this series: To become contenders, do they have to trade the 33-year-old Wilkins while he still has value?

East, second round

•Knicks over the Hornets. One of New York's four home losses this season came at the hands of the young and scrappy Hornets. Charlotte doesn't have enough talent to stay with the Knicks in a best-of-seven-games series, but if guard Kendall Gill and coach Allan Bristow resolve their differences during the summer, watch out for the Hornets next season.

•Bulls over the Cavs. Cleveland does all the right things. It led the NBA in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and assists while committing the fewest turnovers. Still, the Cavs won't beat Chicago; Michael Jordan will see to that.

East finals

•Knicks over the Bulls. Chicago coach Phil Jackson remembers with fondness a player named Penny Elliot, whom he coached in the CBA. Whenever his team went on the road, Elliot would say, "We're gonna come in and eat your cheese." Well, the last two Chicago teams have been tough enough to eat cheese in Madison Square Garden, but when this season's Bulls squandered their chance at home court advantage by losing last Friday night in Charlotte, they sealed their postseason fate. Their reserve strength ("Paging Rodney McCray, please, Rodney McCray") cannot match the Knicks' (even if Pat Riley doesn't play Tony Campbell and Hubert Davis, and we don't know why he doesn't), and that will be the key factor in what is sure to be an enervating showdown.

Riley and Jackson will conjure up ways to dis each other diplomatically off the court, while musclemen from both sides (Patrick Ewing, Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley for the Knicks; Bill Cartwright and Scott Williams for the Bulls) will beat up one another undiplomatically on it. And is there any chance that Chicago's Darrell Walker will not have a fight with Anthony or John Starks or Doc Rivers or somebody in the New York backcourt? Each NBA official assigned to this one will carry a whip in one hand, a chair in the other and a book of fines tucked in his breast pocket. In the end the Knicks will prevail because of their toughness.

NBA Finals

•Suns over the Knicks. There are lots of reasons to pick New York to go all the way. They have the coach, in Riley. They have the requisite superstar, in Ewing. They have the heart, the desire and the tenacious defense. Ultimately, though, they don't have the offense. To compare these blue-collar Gothamites with the Pistons and the Bulls, the NBA's most recent champions, is ludicrous. Both Detroit and Chicago were far superior offensively, particularly from the perimeter.

Phoenix, on the other hand, is a throwback (a throwback to the early '80s, anyway), a team that can actually run the opposition out of the gym—like the Magic Johnson-led Lakers that won championships in 1980, '82 and '85—provided point guard Kevin Johnson recovers from the sprained left knee that will probably force him to sit out at least the first round of the playoffs. Says Barkley, "My advice to anyone who thinks we have defensive problems is this: You better be ready to outscore us. And that ain't easy."

The Suns, don't forget, will be anything but wide-eyed novices in championship play. In fact, they've been closer to a title than the Knicks have in recent years. Phoenix has averaged 56 wins over the last five seasons, lacking only a true meanie in their quest to go all the way. Barkley, the new Sun god, is that player.

This is a franchise with pride and tradition. CEO Jerry Colangelo has set up an "alumni room" right next to the team's locker room in the America West Arena, and five former Suns still work for the club (Alvan Adams, Connie Hawkins, Dick Van Arsdale, Neal Walk and, of course, coach Paul Westphal). This season will supply the one missing piece in the Phoenix basketball puzzle—a championship banner.

ENVELOPE, PLEASE

The postseason ballot I sent to the NBA looked like a doctor's prescription written in Sanskrit. Olajuwon or Barkley for MVP? I wrote down Barkley, crossed out his name and put Olajuwon's, crossed that out and put Barkley's, crossed that out and.... Then there was the question of Mark Price or Joe Dumars for first-team guard. Changed my mind on that one a half dozen times. Up front, after first-teamers Barkley and Wilkins, who would be your next two forwards? Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen? Detlef Schrempf and Larry Johnson? Derrick Coleman and Danny Manning? What about Larry Nance? Does guard Drazen Petrovic's scoring (22.3 per game) put him ahead of Dan Majerle's all-around play? I erased each of their names a few times. At any rate, here are my choices.

MVP: 1) Olajuwon, 2) Barkley, 3) Ewing, 4) Jordan, 5) Wilkins.

The criteria for MVP (in any sport) remain as elusive as Stacey King's defense. Four key ones for me: stats, of course; how well the player's team has performed, both overall and when measured against preseason expectations; how sizable the gap is between the MVP candidate and the second-best player on his team; and some sort of lifetime-achievement factor. I like Olajuwon on all those counts. He had a career season (he averaged 26.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 4.17 blocks, 1.83 steals), his Rockets finished far above preseason expectations (remember that the Suns were an elite franchise even before Charles arrived), he carries his team night after night (Barkley has KJ and Majerle; Jordan has Pippen), and he has never come close to winning the award despite a brilliant career.

That last factor is also true for both Barkley and Ewing, but I believe that Olajuwon had the best, most consistent season of any player in the NBA. What of Jordan, winner of the last two MVP awards? A few weeks ago he said that he probably would not win this season because he is a victim of the high standards he has set for himself. He is 100% correct. Nevertheless, if any of those four players wins the award, I'll have no complaints.

All-NBA First Team: Barkley and Wilkins, forwards; Olajuwon, center; Price and Jordan, guards.

All-NBA Second Team: Larry Johnson and Karl Malone, forwards; Ewing, center; Dumars and Stockton, guards.

All-NBA Third Team: Pippen and Coleman, forwards; Robinson, center; Majerle and Tim Hardaway, guards.

Price over Dumars is a hairsplitter. I solicited the opinions of 10 players, and six picked the Cavs' point guard, four the Pistons' shooting guard. I finally went with Price because his shooting percentage (49.6% to 46.6%), three-point percentage (41.6% to 37.5%) and free throw percentage (league-leading 94.8% to 86.4%) are superior to those of Dumars. The other four picks for first team? I don't want to hear any arguments.

As for the second team, Stockton did not have his usual superlative season, but for the sixth straight year he led the league in assists. Malone and LJ make the second squad because they were more consistent than Pippen or Coleman. Hardaway was also not up to par this season, but the injury-riddled Warriors might have been down in Maverick Land without him. Majerle is a scorer, a three-point shooter, a rebounder and a defender; Petrovic falls short of Majerle in the last two categories. Robinson barely edged O'Neal for the third-team spot.

Defensive Player of the Year: Olajuwon, with a league-leading 4.17 blocked shots per game.

Most-Improved Player: Chris Jackson of the Nuggets. The third pick in the 1990 draft, Jackson looked like a giant mistake after two years. But he got into shape and averaged 19.2 points this season. He's definitely a keeper.

Best Sixth Man: Danny Ainge of the Suns. Why not Cliff Robinson of the Trail Blazers? For the same reason that I never voted for Schrempf when he was coming off the Pacer bench: He's too good. To me, a sixth man is a player with a specific role (Ainge's is three-point shooting and ball handling in the clutch) who makes a significant contribution even though he is not quite good enough (or, in the case of Ainge, young enough) to be a starter. Only Terry Porter played more minutes for Portland than did Robinson, who, when Drexler wasn't available, was clearly the Blazers' best player.

Coach of the Year: Rudy Tomjanovich of the Rockets. Riley did a terrific job, but no one did more to change his team's personality than Rudy T did. He took over a team rife with turmoil and nurtured it to the fourth-best record in the league.

Here are a few other awards not officially sanctioned by the NBA.

The What's in a Name Award: The 76ers, who have a Jordan (Thomas, a free-agent acquisition from Spain) and a Shack (the somnolent Charles Shackle-ford), but still finished with the fifth-worst record in the league (26-56).

The This Is Not a Rookie League Award: To O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning of the Hornets, Christian Laettner of the Timberwolves, LaPhonso Ellis of the Nuggets, Tom Gugliotta of the Bullets, Clarence Weatherspoon of the 76ers, Robert Horry of the Rockets, Latrell Sprewell of the Warriors, Anthony Avent of the Bucks and Sean Rooks of the Mavericks. All of them started for much of the season, and many started from day one. The list could also have included Richard Dumas, who would have started most of the Suns' games if not for a midseason injury, and Walt Williams, probably the second-best player (behind Mitch Richmond) on the Kings, though Sacramento preferred to use him as a sixth man.

The You Thought It Would Be Mark Price Award: Amid the anonymity of a Timberwolf-Jazz game on Sunday, the final day of the regular season, Minnesota guard Micheal Williams accomplished a feat that eluded Price just last month. With 11:17 left in the third period in Minneapolis, Williams converted his 79th straight free throw to break the mark set by former Houston guard Calvin Murphy in 1981. Price made 77 consecutive shots from the line before gagging the potential record-tying shot on April 2. Williams, a .907 free throw shooter, finished the game—a 113-111 Timberwolf win—with his streak intact at 84, to be continued in 1993-94. "I want to get to 100," Williams said.

PHOTO PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHFinals Forecast: Majerle's Suns will outshine Starks's Knicks in the championship series. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHOlajuwon's surpassing season makes him the top choice for MVP. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHJordan's three-peat will be Knicksed.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)