When the Detroit Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers completed their championship series last June, the Pistons, who won in five games, were clearly the better team.
But the roles of last year's finalists have changed dramatically this season. The Blazers are off to a 21-2 start, while the slumping Pistons, who have lost six of their past seven, are beginning to express self-doubts.
"We learned something from last year's championship series," said Blazers coach Rick Adelman. "After we split the first two games in Detroit, we relaxed a little bit, and they jumped all over us."
The Blazers did not rest on their laurels after winning the Western Conference title. Already a formidable offensive team, they increased their firepower by acquiring Danny Ainge, one of the National Basketball Association's premier long-range shooters.
"Ainge makes the perimeter shots, and he brings a great attitude," said power forward Buck Williams. "The winning is inbred."
Said Adelman: "We felt if we could get off to a good start by taking advantage of a strong home schedule in November, it would carry over when we took the road in December. And that's what happened.
"This quiet confidence level we have when we step on the floor has never been this way before. This team now thinks it can win no matter where or who we're playing. There's not any talk about having to crank it up. They think they should win if they play their game."
That same positive attitude hardly pervades the Pistons, seeking a "three-peat" as NBA champions.
The Pistons offense has sputtered all season, and everyone seems to have a different explanation.
"Our offense has broken down," said point guard and team captain Isiah Thomas, the most valuable player in last season's finals. "We're not moving the ball, making the extra pass. Right now, we're caught in the eye of a hurricane. We're trying to hold on, but the wind is blowing real hard and the pole is swinging."
Mark Aguirre, the Pistons' sixth man, said the Pistons' problems are a result of failing to support their "Bad Boys" image.
"It's our intensity level that isn't the same as last season," he said. "We have to expect every team will come gunning for us 48 minutes a game. We've been too nice. We really need to get after people, foul them, whatever. We've got to start being mean again."
X-factor: Eyebrows were raised when the Phoenix Suns obtained forward Xavier McDaniel for reserve forward Eddie Johnson and a pair of future No. 1 draft picks. The skeptics wondered why the Suns wanted to reunite McDaniel and forward Tom Chambers, who reportedly were less than buddies as Sonics teammates.
Now, McDaniel and Chambers are trying to suggest that Sonics shooting guard Dale Ellis was the team's divisive force. "We all got along great," said McDaniel. "The only one who had problems was Dale."
Said a Suns official: "Tom knew we were making the deal and never tried to stop it. He said he'd enjoy playing with Xavier again."
Said McDaniel, who has fit in nicely with the Suns thus far: "I felt sure I was going to be traded. I've got a good reputation around the league, and the Sonics didn't have many marketable players. Ellis has some marketability, but with all his [off-court] problems [which included an accident in which he was charged with drunken driving], not a lot of teams are interested in him."
Wailing Wolves: There are hints of a player revolt in Minnesota, where several Timberwolves have begun voicing displeasure with coach Bill Musselman's dictatorial style.
Team scoring leader Tony Campbell reportedly has asked to be traded. Point guard Pooh Richardson also is complaining of being harassed.
"It's not just me," Richardson said. "The whole team nucleus should feel appreciated. But there is no communication between the coach and the players. Guys are afraid to talk. Our locker room is like a morgue."
Valentine's day: Although the injury-riddled Cleveland Cavaliers are in a skid, guard Darnell Valentine views Cleveland as paradise compared with his last stop in Tampico of the Mexican Basketball League.
Valentine, acquired last month to fill the roster spot vacated by playmaker Mark Price, who underwent knee surgery, recalls being pelted with firecrackers, pesos and vegetables during road games, trips when the team stayed at roach-infested hotels.
But Valentine, an eight-year NBA veteran, endured for an opportunity to return to the league.
"They said I was too old , can't shoot, every positive negative. I thought my basketball career was over even though I was certain I could still play in this league."
In his first four games with the Cavaliers, he averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 assists.
Held in reserve: Recently reduced to a reserve role, once-dominant Atlanta Hawks center Moses Malone failed to score in nine minutes against the New York Knicks Dec. 6. Researchers say it was the first time Malone had been held scoreless in 1,100 NBA games.
Dallas discord: Since power forward Roy Tarpley went down with a knee injury last month, the slumping Mavericks offense has been more guard-oriented than usual, with Derek Harper and Rolando Blackman accounting for more than half the team's points.
Said center James Donaldson, "This team lives and dies with the jump shot, and right now we're dying."