Middle Men

For winners as well as losers, center proved to be a pivotal position
May 16, 1993

It's time to play pick your pivotman, and you've got a large selection from which to choose. There are the sleek, polished athletic machines. Step forward, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and, yes, you, young Alonzo Mourning. Then there are the gladiators, all shoulders, chest and knees. That's you, Patrick Ewing, and you, Brad Daugherty. Do you like them laconic and sleepy-eyed? Then Sam Perkins is your man. Finally there is the poor man's pivot, the guy who looks as if he doesn't belong, the fat kid, the plodder. It's time to take your place on stage, Oliver Miller—the basketball world is watching.

It wasn't long ago that many observers were talking about the death of the NBA center. But suddenly, as the 1992-93 postseason has demonstrated so far, no position in the game is more vital. Sure, the two-time defending-champion Chicago Bulls—the only team to sweep its first-round series—do not depend heavily on a big man, employing, instead, the unlikely and sometimes cumbersome quartet of Bill Cartwright, Scott Williams, Will Perdue and Stacey King. Elsewhere, though, centers appear to be the key to postseason survival.

Even those who play for teams that failed to advance beyond the opening round left their mark. The war of words between New York Knick guard John Starks (page 23) and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller commanded much of the attention in that series, which was won by the Knicks three games to one, but the first-rate performance of Indiana center Rik Smits, who averaged 22.5 points and eight rebounds, primarily against Ewing, was worth a footnote. The Pacers hope that their 7'4" Dutch Boy will sustain those numbers next season, because they recently offered him a five-year, $17.5 million contract extension.

Another surprise was the New Jersey Nets' Dwayne Schintzius, who has been with three teams in his three years in the NBA. Known mainly for having a bad haircut and a worse attitude, Schintzius took care of the former by lopping off his rattail in October partly because—as he said after the Nets stunned the Cleveland Cavaliers 96-79 last Friday in Game 4 of their series at the Meadowlands—"it wasn't suited to my aerodynamics." It's unclear whether Schintzius's bad 'tude is really a thing of the past, but after getting his chance to play because of injuries to starter Sam Bowie and backup Chris Dudley, he performed reasonably well against Cleveland.

Ultimately, though, Daugherty, a five-time All-Star, ate Dwayne's lunch in Cleveland's 99-89 Game 5 victory on Sunday afternoon at Richfield Coliseum, finishing with 24 points, 20 rebounds and eight assists. And isn't that what it's all about, really? Aren't the playoffs when the premier players are supposed to take over? No fakes. No Stanley Robertses, no Duane Causwells and no Luc Longleys. All right, put an asterisk by Chicago, but elsewhere championship hopes just may live or die on the performance of the big guys in the middle.

Wait a minute—live or die with Oliver Miller? Until his nationally televised heroics in the Phoenix Suns' 112-104 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 5 on Sunday, Miller might as well have been some CPA whose name had slipped your mind. However, as the series wore on, Sun coach Paul Westphal found that he desperately needed Miller, the 22nd pick in last year's draft and the NBA's new Big O. Westphal hardly used Miller in Games 1 and 2 (14 total minutes) because, as Westphal said on Sunday, "I was stupid."

He looked a lot smarter during the final three games, in which Miller's minutes (31, 29 and 35, respectively), points (11, 16 and 17) and rebounds (eight, eight and 14) climbed significantly. And he looked positively brilliant during Sunday's overtime, when Miller scored nine of Phoenix's 17 points and grabbed five rebounds. He also finished with seven blocked shots, an astounding total for a 6'9" widebody who looks as though he would have trouble generating enough lift to touch the rim.

As late as the midseason it appeared that the Suns had erred in drafting Miller, who on Jan. 29 weighed 323 pounds. About two weeks later he checked into Humana Hospital in Phoenix "to see if I had a thyroid problem or something," says Miller, and decided to stay after losing 10 pounds in three days. When he emerged in mid-March, he was much less the man he had been. His weight is now listed at 285 pounds, and he moves well—vertically as well as up and down the court. Does it really matter that he still looks a bit pudgy?

"Look, if you can play, you can play," says one of Miller's teammates, veteran guard Danny Ainge. "I wouldn't call Oliver a great athlete, but what he is, is a guy who really knows the game. He's a center with a point-guard mentality, and that's pretty rare."

Rare, too, is the opportunity to go from obscurity to a position on the playoff hot seat. A guy really has to make an impression to steal headlines from Charles Barkley, as Miller did in the series finale. His locker at the America West Arena is next to Barkley's, and both hear far too many conversations about calories and corpulent nicknames, such as the Round Mound of Rebound, Barkley's unwanted sobriquet as a rookie. Does Miller remind Charles of himself?

"No," says Barkley, "I was never that ugly."

Miller wants to take no chances that he'll be called anything but Big O, so he had it tattooed on the back of his right shoulder. Seems that Sun fans, however, call him Ollie. Is this guy a folk hero in the making, or what?

Of course, having your way against the aging Lakers and their enigmatic center, Vlade Divac, and making an impact against Robinson in a best-of-seven series are—as the Big O will undoubtedly discover in Round 2 (if he already hasn't)—two completely different things. After the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers with a 100-97 overtime win in Game 4 last Friday, Robinson proclaimed guard Willie Anderson "the key to the series." Nice gesture, wrong analysis. Robinson, who averaged 19.3 points and a whopping 15 rebounds against Portland, is the absolute key to everything in San Antonio, including visiting hours at the Alamo.

Olajuwon, of the Houston Rockets, and Perkins, of the Seattle SuperSonics, best symbolize the diversity of the pivot-men remaining in the playoffs. Olajuwon—who thumped the Los Angeles Clippers and their portly pivotman, Stanley Roberts, for 31 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocked shots in Houston's 84-80 victory in Game 5 last Saturday—is basically a post player who likes to set up on the blocks. But he also has a wide assortment of moves he can use to extricate himself from double and sometimes triple teams, which he faced all season and will certainly face as long as the Rockets remain alive.

The long-armed Perkins, by contrast, is likely to end up anywhere on the floor: in the paint, in the corner or far out on the perimeter, where he shoots with the accuracy of a guard. Indeed, 12 of Perkins's 20 points in Seattle's 100-92 Game 5 victory over the Utah Jazz on Saturday came on three-point shots that he released in near isolation because his cement-footed counterpart, Mark Eaton, couldn't lumber out to guard him.

For an elemental, mono a mono struggle in the pivot, the Ewing-Mourning matchup in the Eastern Conference semifinals should be the best around. It's strength against strength, iron will against iron will, dunk against dunk, jump shot against jump shot, Hoya against Hoya. Ewing came out on top (just barely) in Game 1 on Sunday, when the Knicks beat Zo's Charlotte Hornets 111-95. Ewing wound up with 33 points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots, while Mourning had 27 points (but only six in the second half), 13 boards and four blocks.

If Mourning continues to improve, perhaps he, not Rookie of the Year Shaquille O'Neal, will be the man who carries the banner of the NBA pivotman into the 21st century. O'Neal needs to develop an outside shot—something Mourning already possesses—to go with his extraordinary athleticism. Finally, a word to 7'6" Shawn Bradley, who almost certainly will be one of the top two or three selections in next month's draft: You'd better bring a game, son. The big guys are waiting.

PHOTOMANNY MILLANWhile Ewing (in white, opposite) versus Mourning is a match made in Hoya heaven, Olajuwon faces defense by committee. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN BIEVERRobinson showed the way in San Antonio's unexpected trampling of the Trail Blazers. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHThe Big 0 (25) turned in a weighty performance on Sunday that included seven blocked shots.