The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks lead the Central and Atlantic divisions, respectively, and will be favored to advance to the conference finals. But the last thing on the minds of the Knicks is a playoff showdown with Michael Jordan and company.
New York has lost its past 13 meetings with Chicago, including the three-game sweep in last April's mini-playoff series. And the Bulls refreshed the Knicks' memories last week, breezing to a 106-85 victory in Madison Square Garden Thursday night and winning a 99-98 thriller at Chicago Stadium two nights later.
After being embarrassed at home, the Knicks, at least, went down fighting in the rematch.
Xavier McDaniel, who had been held to a total of 10 points in the first two games with Chicago this season, scored 20 in Chicago Saturday night. Said McDaniel: "When we're real physical, we're a tough team to play against. We have to let people know that we're not going to take any ----."
The Knicks have improved their defense significantly under new coach Pat Riley. But they have difficulty matching up with the Bulls, particularly Scottie Pippen, the explosive small forward who is considerably quicker than McDaniel.
Conversely, like most teams, the Bulls double-team Knicks All-Star center Patrick Ewing whenever the ball goes into the low post, coaxing him to find the open man and allowing the free-roaming Jordan to play the ball thief.
If Ewing challenges the double-team, Horace Grant, Pippen and Jordan, all excellent shot-blockers, can force him to alter his shot.
So Jordan put it mildly last week when he said, "I think we put some doubt in their [the Knicks] minds."
Revenge motive: One team itching for another crack at the Bulls is the Detroit Pistons, who were blitzed, 4-0, in last season's conference finals. They would not even honor the new champions with a handshake as they walked off the court.
Even though he had won consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and 1990, Pistons coach Chuck Daly decided his team needed a major overhaul this season. He unloaded center James Edwards, his only reliable post-up player, and key "sixth man" Vinnie Johnson.
Long favoring a guard-oriented offense, Daly now had to find time in the backcourt for newly acquired Darrell Walker, the former Bullets guard known for his defense and rebounding.
"It was not only confusing for me," Daly told the Philadelphia Inquirer, "but also my guards, Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. They had to learn to get the new people involved."
The Pistons were slow to adjust, starting the season 10-16, but now boast the conference's fifth best record (29-22).
"We had to push to stay together," said Thomas, the team captain and acknowledged leader. "There can be a tendency for others to quit, but you can't let them let down."
Daly has tried to take a practical view. "Let's be honest," he said. "We had a great five-year run, but inevitably you have letdowns, and now we have a different team.
"It's like that good-looking model, Cindy Crawford, who married the actor, Richard Gere. There are a lot of ex-models over 40 who are saying, 'She'll get old, too.' Right now, the Chicago Bulls look like Cindy Crawford. But things change. It happens to everyone."
Brown-ie points: The Los Angeles Clippers have won three straight since Larry Brown replaced Mike Schuler as head coach. Center Olden Polynice had pushed for assistant Mack Calvin to get the job, but has quickly become a Brown-backer.
Said Polynice: "He's very confident in himself and what he can do, and that's going to help us. The man has won everywhere he's been, pros and college. I've got a good feeling about what he can accomplish and what we can accomplish."