Please hum something appropriately mournful as we call the roll
of familiar playoff figures who have already met an unusually
early demise this postseason. There will be no more of Reggie
Miller and his three-point daggers, no more of the pick-and-roll
ballet of John Stockton and Karl Malone. We won't see Portland
Trail Blazers forward Rasheed Wallace hectoring referees or New
York Knicks fan Spike Lee heckling opponents. The exquisite
agony etched in Miami coach Pat Riley's face following every
Heat loss and the haggard countenance of Knicks coach Jeff Van
Gundy have both made their final appearances of the spring.
You may take a moment of silence in memory of those customary
characters, but only a moment, because the playoffs are galloping
along quite nicely without them. The postseason moved into the
second round last weekend, invigorated by a group of new teams
and burgeoning stars who have given the conference semifinals an
appealingly unfamiliar look and a refreshingly accelerated pace.
Several members of the old elite--the Blazers, Heat, Knicks,
Indiana Pacers and Utah Jazz--were sent home to their La-Z-Boys
and big screens after the first round. In their place are the
Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Sacramento
Kings and Toronto Raptors, only one of whom (the Hornets, in '98)
has advanced this far since 1990. Toss in the perennially
contending San Antonio Spurs, who fell to the Phoenix Suns in the
first round last season with Tim Duncan sidelined, and six of the
final eight teams are different from the ones in Round 2 a year
ago, making this the greatest influx of new faces since 1966-67,
when the playoffs expanded to eight teams.
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't technically a part of that turnover
because they have reached the second round each of the last two
years, but they're a part of the playoffs' new wave nonetheless.
They reached the Eastern semifinals as the conference favorites,
a status they haven't even approached since their current star,
shooting guard Allen Iverson, was learning his multiplication
tables. The Sixers' second-round series against Toronto is
emblematic of the new playoff era because it matches MVP favorite
Iverson and Raptors swingman Vince Carter, ensuring that one of
these new leading men will make his first trip to the conference
All these breakthrough teams may not signal a complete changing
of the guard, of course. Not when the two most recent champions,
the Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, remain the favorites to win
the title. However, for a league that was getting stale, they do
provide new blood and much-needed buzz. Younger stars such as
Iverson, 25, and Carter, 24, are making their postseason bones,
as are Kings small forward Peja Stojakovic, 23; Bucks shooting
guard Ray Allen, 25; Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, 22; and
Hornets point guard Baron Davis, 22.
"A year or two ago," says Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens, "when
people were talking about how some of the young players in the
league hadn't won anything yet, I said, 'Give them time. Let them
mature and you'll see them start to accomplish some things.' It
doesn't happen overnight, especially with players spending less
and less time in college. Now, a few years later, you're seeing
the emergence of some mature players, guys who are capable of
leading their teams in the postseason."
That's exactly what most people have been waiting for. Fans have
been slow to embrace the new stars in part because, with the
exception of Duncan, 25, and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, 22, they
haven't seen them win anything that mattered. The league will
benefit more from these players' exposure to--and exposure
from--the postseason than from any dunk contest or ad campaign.
The new generation has always had style to spare. This postseason
is giving it substance, as well as a stage on which to display
it. The Bucks, Hornets and Mavericks, in particular, have been
both underrated and overlooked. The three teams combined for a
total of one appearance on NBC during the regular season.
The gifted Carter appeared on the network far more often than
that, but without a single win in postseason play, he epitomized
the style-over-substance image of the Gen-X stars. Castigated a
year ago for passing up a potential game-winning shot in a
playoff loss to the Knicks, he proved that he's ready for crunch
time by taking over down the stretch of Toronto's 93-89 Game 5
victory in New York last Friday night. He continued his late-game
heroics in Game 1 of the Raptors' second-round series against the
76ers on Sunday. Trying to hold off a Sixers rally in the final
minutes, the Raptors simply put the ball--and the game--in Carter's
hands. He not only took the big shot but also tipped in his own
miss to give Toronto a 94-90 lead with 12.8 seconds left, then
made two free throws to seal the 96-93 win.
After a couple of desultory games early in the Knicks series,
Carter's veteran teammate Charles Oakley and TNT analyst Charles
Barkley both publicly urged him to start accepting the
responsibility that comes with being his team's marquee player.
Carter's star turn suggested that he took their words to heart.
Off the court, though, he still appears to be a reluctant
leading man. "I understand that everyone wants to see the
superstar player, but I rely on my teammates to help me out," he
said after Game 5 in New York.
When he said the word superstar he made quotation marks in the
air with his fingers, as if he didn't think the term really
applied to him. Following his 35-point performance in Game 1 at
Philadelphia, Carter started to answer a reporter's question,
then stopped when he realized his interviewer hadn't finished
talking. "You're the man, you finish," the reporter said. "No,"
Carter said. "I'm not the man."
Somehow, these young stars are expected to be egotistical
without being arrogant--a delicate balance that Michael, Magic
and Larry seemed to achieve--and that may be asking for too much
too soon. For all their development, some of the second-round
newcomers aren't sure how to carry themselves. Sometimes their
naivete is harmless, as in the Kings' giddy celebration after
their first-round clincher against the Suns, when they hugged
and bumped chests on the court.
At other times it's not so benign, as in Juwan Howard's flagrant
foul of Spurs guard Derek Anderson in Game 1 of the Dallas-San
Antonio series. That play resulted in Howard's ejection and a
separated right shoulder for Anderson that will sideline him for
three to six weeks and seriously damage San Antonio's title
hopes. Howard's clubbing of the high-flying Anderson didn't look
so much like an act of malice as a clumsy attempt by someone
relatively new to the playoffs (Howard was playing in only the
ninth postseason game of his seven-year career) to prove he's
The ugliness of the Anderson incident notwithstanding, the new
second-round teams have clearly improved the postseason
aesthetics and provided a refreshing replacement for some acts
that had worn thin. Not many fans will miss the overpaid and
underachieving Blazers, perhaps not even their own. Portland,
which was swept by the Lakers in Round 1, is such a thin-skinned
franchise that during its playoff finale, the club ejected two
spectators--one of them an eight-year-old boy--who would not stop
displaying a sign that said TRADE WHITSITT, a dig at the
questionable roster moves made by Trail Blazers general manager
Bob Whitsitt. In a fitting end to a season of incompetence, the
Blazers couldn't even make amends properly. A package of
souvenirs and a letter of apology sent to the two spectators
arrived with $5.38 postage due.
The demise of the Knicks and the Heat, with their stodgy,
unimaginative styles, won't be widely mourned, either. The Bucks,
Kings and Mavericks are the three most offensively creative teams
in the league, and the image of the Hornets' Davis blowing past
Tim Hardaway, Miami's hobbled, 34-year-old point guard, in the
first round was representative of the league's change in
direction. It was also ironic. Davis's strength and speed are
reminiscent of...a young Tim Hardaway.
Unless they make significant changes in personnel and philosophy,
some of the longtime contenders are going to have as hard a time
keeping up with the breakthrough teams as Hardaway had with
Davis, and they recognize that. After the humbling sweep at the
hands of the Hornets, Riley spoke of how he will have to come up
with a new approach for the Heat. Keeping the score in the 80s
and praying that Hardaway and center Alonzo Mourning will be
healthy come playoff time won't be enough (not that it ever was).
Miami's rivals, the Knicks, are in similar need of an overhaul.
In the wake of the loss to the Raptors, New York swingman Latrell
Sprewell pointed out the obvious--that the Knicks are poorly
constructed: overstocked with shooting guards and small forwards,
and lacking in size and strength on the front line. Without
straining, one could read between the lines of Sprewell's remarks
and discern that he wanted All-Star guard Allan Houston out. He
also made it perfectly clear that he wanted his good friend Chris
Webber, a free-agent-to-be, in.
The Jazz is just as ill-equipped as Miami and New York to deal
with the emergence of strong new competition, but Utah is less
willing to do something about it, because owner Larry Miller
hasn't wavered in his desire to have Stockton, 39, and Malone,
37, retire as members of the team. As long as those two aging
stars are eating up a sizable chunk of the salary cap, Utah will
be limited to tinkering with its supporting cast, which won't be
enough to keep the Jazz from losing ground to Western Conference
teams like the Mavericks and the Kings, not to mention the Lakers
and the Spurs. Malone and Stockton, remarkable physical specimens
that they are, might be able to lead the Jazz to the playoffs for
a few more years, but they seem doomed to relearn the same lesson
once they get there--that they have passed the point at which
their experience and wisdom can overcome the youth and
athleticism of their opponents.
The Pacers are the only team among the recently ousted elite
that seems safe from being washed away by the changing playoff
tide. They have the kind of young talent in center Jermaine
O'Neal, 22, and forwards Jonathan Bender, 20, and Al Harrington,
21, to hope for the kind of returns that teams such as the
Bucks, Kings, Mavericks and Sixers are now enjoying. Indiana
will have some ground to make up, however, because those teams
are gaining more playoff experience every day. With all due
respect to the old guard, if some of the once-elite teams have
trouble keeping pace, so be it. The latter stages of the
playoffs were beginning to feel awfully stuffy. The fresh air
should do everyone good.
the playoffs," says Wilkens.
giving it substance.