Some of the NBA's familiar numbers changed during the regular
season. Instead of 82 there were 50, and 23 was no more. But in
the playoffs, the key digits remain the same: best-of-five,
best-of-seven, 16 teams trying to win 15 games. The postseason is
a grueling process of elimination, so to speed it up, we decided
to disregard the seven teams with virtually no chance of winning
the NBA title and rank the remaining nine contenders in ascending
order. Here are the 1999 playoffs by the numbers, a countdown to
9: The career high in points of the Atlanta Hawks' Chris
Crawford entering the season. Crawford is a promising
second-year forward who starts in place of the injured LaPhonso
Ellis, but the playoffs are not the place for promise. Still,
the Hawks have little choice but to rely on the 6'9" Crawford
because their bench is thinner than that bony index finger that
center Dikembe Mutombo wags when he swats a shot. Lack of depth
has been a chronic problem for Atlanta through the years, and it
will prove to be their Achilles' heel once again.
8: The uniform number of Orlando Magic center Ike Austin, one of
the biggest free-agent busts of the season. Through Sunday the
6'10", 270-pound Austin had reached double figures in rebounds
only once this year, and he was averaging 9.8 points and 4.8
rebounds, remarkably paltry numbers for a supposed monster in
the middle earning $5.2 million a year. Between Austin's
softness and the squabbling of Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway
over who should start at shooting guard, Orlando's superb
regular season will be undone by a fast playoff exit.
7: What erstwhile Los Angeles Lakers forward Dennis Rodman is
probably trying to roll at some Las Vegas craps table now. The
Lakers cut their losses and waived Rodman in April, but without
him their rebounding and interior defense are as weak as a
jack-high poker hand. J.R. Reid and Robert Horry don't figure to
pose much of an obstacle to power forwards like Charles Barkley,
Tim Duncan and Karl Malone, at least one of whom Los Angeles
will have to deal with to extend its stay in the playoffs. Even
with Shaquille O'Neal at center, the Lakers lack inside muscle,
partly because the acquisition of Rodman helped persuade them to
send forward-center Elden Campbell to the Charlotte Hornets in
the deal to obtain Glen Rice. Gamble on Rodman, L.A. now knows,
and you lose big.
May 9, 1999
6: The number of times, through Sunday, Scottie Pippen had
scored in single digits since April 1 for the Houston Rockets.
Points aren't the only indicator of effectiveness, especially
for a player as versatile as Pippen, but they do illustrate the
difficulty Pippen has had in adapting to the Houston offense.
Stationing him on the perimeter while Barkley and Hakeem
Olajuwon post up isn't the way to get the most out of a slasher
like Pippen, which is why on some nights he has looked as if
he's dreaming about the old days in Chicago. Coach Rudy
Tomjanovich has urged Pippen to take the outside shots that the
double-teaming of Barkley and Olajuwon creates, and Pippen has
tried to do that. Still, he says the Rockets "aren't going to
win a championship with me shooting three-pointers." He's right.
5: The number of championship rings first-year San Antonio Spurs
Mario Elie and Steve Kerr have between them. Elie won two titles
with the Rockets and Kerr three with the Bulls, and they'll be
expected to show their perpetually underachieving teammates
exactly how they got all that jewelry. Elie in particular was
acquired to give San Antonio some edge, and he has been putting
the verbal spurs to his teammates, especially big men Duncan and
David Robinson, all season. "They know I speak the truth," Elie
says. "Most of these guys remember me beating them two straight
years on the way to the championship." Five golden rings may put
most people in mind of the Christmas season, but not even Elie
can make the nice Spurs naughty enough to reach the Finals.
4: As in Game 4, which is when Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning
committed the blunder that effectively ended the season for Miami
in its first-round series against the New York Knicks last year.
Mourning was suspended for brawling with Larry Johnson and could
only watch as the Knicks won Game 5 and the series. That episode
wasn't the first in which the tightly wound Mourning let his
intensity get the best of him, and his ability to keep his cool
will be tested again by physical teams like New York and the
Indiana Pacers, who know how to bait him. That will put too much
pressure on point guard Tim Hardaway, who not only has to make
sure his loose cannon of a center doesn't go off when it matters
but also has to deliver rainbow three-pointers when the Heat's
mediocre half-court offense breaks down.
3: The brief roll call of Portland Trail Blazers--point guards
Greg Anthony and John Crotty and forward Stacey Augmon--who have
advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. None of them did
it with Portland, which isn't surprising because the Blazers in
the postseason are like nerds at the prom: They go home early.
Portland has reached the playoffs for 16 straight years but has
been a first-round loser in each of the last six seasons. The
Blazers should survive longer this time, but their lack of
playoff experience suggests that they won't be around at the end.
In the 1990s the only team to reach the Finals with a roster that
had won so few playoff series was Orlando in '95.
2: A telling margin for the Indiana Pacers, who through Sunday
were only 5-7 in games decided by a deuce or less. That was a
low total for a team with perhaps the top clutch shooter in the
league, Reggie Miller, but Miller hasn't been particularly
heroic this year. As a result Indiana, considered by many
preseason prognosticators to be the title favorite, has failed
to live up to its billing. The Pacers have suspended their
choreographed routines during pregame introductions because they
felt it was inappropriate to do them until they began playing
better. Miller, who lives for the postseason, should pick up his
game enough to allow Indiana to boogie past the rest of the
East, but then the dancing will stop.
1: The number of achievements missing from the resumes of the
Utah Jazz's two stars, Malone and John Stockton. A championship
would make their careers complete, and they have never been in
better position to win the title. Stockton, 37, should be
particularly fresh because, through Sunday, he had averaged fewer
minutes, 28.3, in this short season than he had since 1986-87.
Malone, 35, has shown no signs of slippage. He may be on his way
to a second MVP award. The Jazz is deep and tempered by the fire
of playoffs past. Utah is the best team in the league during the
last two minutes of a close game. What's more, it doesn't have to
worry about a certain bald-headed predator in red and black once
again. Try to list the championship ingredients the Jazz lacks,
and you get one last number: zero.