Let's face it, we all know how the NBA playoffs are going to
turn out: with Michael Jordan puffing on a stogie and clutching
his sixth championship trophy to his chest. It might seem hard
to get excited about the postseason when Jordan and the Bulls
are such prohibitive favorites, but if you think knowing the
ending spoils the entire story, why did you go see Titanic?
Consider for a moment some postseason imponderables. Will Jordan
be faced with the challenge of a seven-game series somewhere
along the way, one that softens up Chicago for its next foe? In
the Western Conference's first round, can the speed of the No.
4-seeded Suns overcome the size of the No. 5 Spurs? Among the
top Western contenders, what's the most valuable quality: the
savvy of the Jazz, the balance of the SuperSonics or the sheer
talent of the Lakers? Can the No. 2 Heat and the No. 7 Knicks
complete their first-round Eastern Conference series without a
fatality? In this season of injuries, which balky body part will
have the biggest impact on the proceedings--the hernia of
Rockets forward Charles Barkley, the right wrist of Knicks
center Patrick Ewing, the feet of Pacers center Rik Smits or the
right thumb of Nets center Jayson Williams?
What follows are keys to the playoffs. Remember, just because
the ship is headed for the same old destination doesn't mean
this can't be an entertaining trip.
1. WHO CAN SET THE TONE EARLY?
April 26, 1998
Sometimes the pattern for a team's postseason can be established
in the first quarter of the first game of the first round. With
that in mind, here are three recommendations:
--David Robinson should flatten someone. The Spurs have been
playoff softies in the past, and no one is more symbolic of that
failing than their graceful center, Robinson. We're not
suggesting he do anything dirty, but he needs to send the
message that neither he nor his teammates will be pushed around.
The best way to do that is by depositing squarely on his
backside the first opponent who attempts to drive the lane. If
San Antonio doesn't show it's ready to get physical, it won't
--The Heat should run a play in which Voshon Lenard shoots a
three-pointer. If he misses, Miami should run another, and, if
necessary, another. The Heat should go to Lenard, its shooting
guard, until he hits a trey. He needs early success from the
outside to bolster his confidence, because when he isn't
shooting well, the rest of his game tends to suffer. With two
other important gunners not in top form--forward Jamal Mashburn
is coming off a fractured right thumb, and guard Brent Barry is
riding the bench--Miami can't afford an off-target Lenard.
--Hakeem Olajuwon should dust off the Dream Shake. A bad left
knee has limited Olajuwon's effectiveness, but he's still
capable of taking over a series for the Rockets. He needs to
unveil a few vintage moves early against the Jazz (the West's
No. 1 seed) to establish that he can't be guarded one-on-one. If
he begins drawing frequent double teams, he will create openings
for other Rockets, and No. 8 Houston will have a better shot at
a first-round upset.
2. CAN THE SONICS DO BETTER ON THE BOARDS?
Seattle, which finished last in the NBA in rebounding (38.5 per
game), will be repeatedly reminded that only one team, the
1972-73 Knicks, has ever earned that dubious honor and gone on
to win the championship. The Sonics' weakness is the single most
glaring flaw in any of the title contenders. Not only does
Seattle lack a ferocious big man to clean the glass, but its
trapping, switching defense also leaves its players out of good
rebounding position. "There are times, because of our defense,
when I find myself on the perimeter when the ball is shot," says
6' 9 1/2" forward-center Sam Perkins. "If I'm out there
sometimes, then it stands to reason that some of our other big
men are out there."
The Sonics overcame their deficiency well enough to win 61 games
and the Pacific Division title in the regular season, so why
should they be concerned now? Because playoff basketball is
different from the regular-season game. The pace tends to slow
down in the postseason and teams are more careful with the ball,
which means Seattle may not be able to compensate for its feeble
rebounding by creating as many turnovers as in the regular
season. In a half-court, methodical game the ability to control
the defensive boards is crucial; if the Sonics can't do that
against the more physical front lines of the Lakers and the Jazz
(whom they would meet in the later rounds), they will be in deep
trouble. It would help a lot if forward Vin Baker, who led
Seattle with a relatively paltry 8.0 rebounds per game, bumped
that number up to double figures.
3. WHO'S THIS YEAR'S BRYON RUSSELL?
Russell, the Jazz's small forward, was one of the surprises of
last year's playoffs because of his sharp outside shooting and
his tough defense against Jordan, among others. Some of the role
players with the best chance of duplicating Russell's emergence:
--Scott Burrell, Bulls. It took him about half a season to get
used to Chicago's system, but recently Burrell has been making
big contributions off the bench. At 6'7" he can spell either
Jordan or forward Scottie Pippen, and he gives the Bulls yet
another defensive stopper.
--Alan Henderson, Hawks. Henderson, a third-year forward, has
turned into more than a role player. He has earned his way into
the starting lineup, supplanting Christian Laettner, and he
seems ready for a breakthrough to stardom.
--Jalen Rose, Pacers. The 6'8" Rose has blossomed under coach
Larry Bird. In his fourth season he has gone from a player with
no position to a versatile substitute who can perform at any of
the three perimeter spots. With his height, he presents
opponents with a difficult matchup.
--Mark Strickland, Heat. Strickland, a 6'10" third-year center
who's active on the boards, is another little-known player who
has thrived under coach Pat Riley. If Strickland continues to
play well, Miami might not feel the absence of backup center
Isaac Austin, who was traded to the Clippers in midseason.
4. WHO CAN EXPLOIT--OR AVOID--POTENTIALLY DEADLY MATCHUPS?
There are several of these. The most intriguing:
--The Heat's Alonzo Mourning vs. the Bulls' Dennis Rodman. The
always irritating Rodman took Mourning out of his game in last
year's Eastern Conference finals, and he would love the chance
to do it again should there be a rematch this year in the same
round. You can almost see the steam fogging up the 6'10"
Mourning's mask (which he's wearing to protect a broken
cheekbone) when he faces the 6'8" Rodman. "Dennis is like a
little brother," says Barkley. "If you let him see that he's
bothering you, it just encourages him. You have to ignore him,
and maybe he'll go away." Mourning, who has tried to be less
outwardly emotional this season, will have his new demeanor put
to the test by Rodman.
--The Jazz's Jeff Hornacek vs. the Lakers' Eddie Jones. The 6'4"
Hornacek is a smart, hardworking defender, but he's at an
extreme disadvantage against quick, athletic shooting guards
like the 6'6" Jones, whom he would meet in the Western finals.
Utah often goes to Russell or forward Shandon Anderson to guard
leapers like Jones, Jordan or the Trail Blazers' Isaiah Rider,
but then the Jazz loses Hornacek's outside shooting and court
--The Pacers' Chris Mullin vs. the Cavaliers' Cedric Henderson.
Henderson, a second-round draft choice, has had a surprisingly
good rookie season, but Mullin is a clever, 13-year veteran
forward who has waited four years since he was last in the
playoffs (with the Warriors). He could give Henderson an
education in the first round.
--Referees Bob Delaney, Hugh Evans and Leroy Richardson vs.
Madison Square Garden fans. The three refs erroneously ruled
that New York guard Allan Houston's last-second shot against
Miami on April 12 came after the final buzzer, costing the
Knicks a win. Think New York fans will forgive and forget?
5. WHO CAN KNOCK DOWN THE OUTSIDE SHOT?
The following shooters are like thermometers--if they're hot,
their teams will be too:
--Reggie Miller, Pacers. One of the few players capable of
taking over a game with his jump shot. Absolutely fearless, he
demands the ball with the game on the line. His playoff scoring
average of 24.7 points is five higher than his career
--Glen Rice, Hornets. He hasn't quite matched the phenomenal
season he had last year, and he doesn't have Miller's clutch
reputation, but he's still the first priority for opposing
defenses. An ominous note for Charlotte: Rice's three-point
shooting accuracy in the playoffs, 31.4%, is more than nine
points lower than his career regular-season percentage.
--Dale Ellis, SuperSonics. His three-point field goal accuracy
this season was a remarkable 46.4%, but he's battling an
abdominal strain that could turn out to be a large pain for
--John Starks, Knicks. Though mired in a horrendous shooting
slump toward the end of the regular season, he has been a
playoff spark plug more often than not.
--Isaiah Rider, Trail Blazers. His shot selection is awful, but
when he's hot, it doesn't matter.
--Jaren Jackson, Spurs. He's not a big name, but his two clutch
three-pointers helped San Antonio beat Seattle 89-87 last
Friday. When Jackson is hitting from the perimeter, he's a
perfect complement to the inside game of Robinson and forward
--The Lakers. When Kobe Bryant, Nick Van Exel and Co. make smart
shot selections, they're unbeatable. In the regular season they
were 33-0 in games in which they shot 50% or better from the
6. WHO SHOULD AVOID THE LINE?
The Lakers are the worst free throw shooting team in the
playoffs (67.9%% in the regular season), but the Spurs aren't
much better (68.8%). The Jazz (77.3%), the Knicks (77.2%) and
the Rockets (77.1%) are the three teams least likely to hurt
themselves at the foul line. Many terrible free throw shooters,
such as Indiana forward-center Dale Davis (46.5%), aren't likely
to have the ball near the end of a game. Here, however, are six
players (and their regular-season foul-shooting percentages) who
are the first or second offensive options for their teams and
who could be shaky if they are asked to make crucial foul shots
near a game's end:
Shaquille O'Neal, C, Lakers: 52.7%
Vin Baker, F, SuperSonics: 59.1%
Anthony Mason, F, Hornets: 64.9%
Tim Duncan, F, Spurs: 66.2%
Rasheed Wallace, F, Trail Blazers: 66.2%
Alonzo Mourning, C, Heat: 66.5%
7. WHO WILL GO OFF?
There are a few live hand grenades, players explosive enough to
single-handedly change the course of a series. The Magic's Penny
Hardaway proved to be one last season when he carried Orlando to
a near upset of Miami in the first round by scoring 42, 41 and
33 points in the last three games. Jordan and Miller, of course,
both have a history of playoff explosions. Other players who
--Tim Hardaway, Heat. Hardaway dominated Knicks point guards
Chris Childs and Charlie Ward in last year's Eastern finals,
especially in Game 7. New York's guards contained him better
this season, but Hardaway can take over a game with his
--Damon Stoudamire, Trail Blazers. He spent the first 2 1/2
years of his career toting the Raptors on his back--"He carried
everything but the luggage," says former teammate John
Salley--but Stoudamire, a 5'10" point guard, has spread the ball
around since being traded to Portland in February. In the
playoffs he may not be as deferential, which could benefit the
erratic Blazers in their first-round series against the Lakers.
--Sam Cassell, Nets. Occasionally he tries to carry New Jersey
when his club would be better off if he shared the load. But as
he proved with the Rockets during their 1994 and '95 title runs,
he lives for the big moment, and he was sensational during the
Nets' playoff drive. New Jersey's best chance in its first-round
series against Chicago is to turn Cassell loose and see if he
can bedevil the Bulls.
--Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury, Timberwolves. Minnesota's
flashy forward and point guard are listed as an entry because at
their best, with alley-oop passes flying and dunks crashing,
they energize the T-Wolves. Though they'll be facing the
powerful Sonics in the first round, Garnett and Marbury
shouldn't be awed, since they received their playoff baptism
last year. With their young legs, anything is possible.
--Allan Houston, Knicks. Since Ewing went down in December,
shooting guard Houston has become the focal point for New York's
sputtering offense. Houston may have to put up big numbers if
the Knicks are to beat the Heat, because his matchup against
Lenard is the only one in which New York has a clear advantage.