If Rony Seikaly of the Miami Heat, Sam Bowie of the New Jersey Nets and Ken Norman of the Los Angeles Clippers are acting as carefree as kids on a weekend trip to Disneyland, it's understandable.
They will be making their first NBA playoff appearances with their current teams after seasons of turmoil, coaching changes and losing streaks.
The Clippers (50-1), Nets (100-1) and Heat (500-1) are strictly long shots to win the NBA title, but that has not dampened their enthusiasm.
"We had so many heartbreaking losses the past four years that it seemed you kept climbing this big mountain, never thinking you'd get to the top," said Seikaly, who will be joining the expansion Heat in its first playoff appearance, tomorrow night in Chicago against the defending champion Bulls. "That makes finally getting here all the sweeter."
It has been an arduous climb for Bowie and the Nets, who open at the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight. New Jersey last appeared in the playoffs in 1985.
"With all the controversy and sideshows we've experienced, for us to compete this year the way we have is amazing," said Bowie, the starting center, who two years ago played on a Nets team that won 17 games.
Referring to the controversy over top draft pick Kenny Anderson and the open rebellion by starters Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris against coach Bill Fitch, Bowie said: "We have to put all that behind us now. We have to come together as a family and realize we have a chance to accomplish something that hasn't been done by this team in a long time."
The Clippers have had the longest wait among this year's playoff teams. Their last postseason appearance was in 1976, when they were the Buffalo Braves.
Since then, the Clippers have gone through 10 coaches (Gene Shue twice) and enjoyed only one winning season until Larry Brown took command Feb. 6.
"Larry knows the game and how to relate to players," said Norman, the veteran Clippers forward.
"In respect to the other coaches I had here -- Shue, Don Casey and Mike Schuler -- they all worked hard to help us win, but nothing clicked. Now, with Larry, we feel everything's clicking."
Besides the Clippers, Heat, and Nets, the only other new playoff team this year is the Cavaliers, who missed last year because of crippling injuries to point guard Mark Price and forward John "Hot Rod" Williams. Now back at full strength, the Cavaliers won 57 games and are given the best chance of upsetting the Bulls in the Eastern Conference.
Here is a look at the first-round matchups:
* New York Knicks vs. Detroit Pistons: The Knicks, who suffered a tailspin the final two weeks to lose the Atlantic Division title to the Boston Celtics, will have the home-court advantage. But the Pistons, who won the last two games between the teams and limited the Knicks to a franchise-low 61 points April 12, might have the edge on the strength of their suffocating defense.
"The way we've been playing defense recently, we don't have to score many points," Detroit coach Chuck Daly said.
Pistons captain and playmaker Isiah Thomas compared the present team to the one that went to the 1988 finals: "I said three months ago that we could lose in the first round or go all the way, and not much has changed."
Thomas said the best way to shut down the Knicks is to concentrate on stopping All-Star center Patrick Ewing, who hit only 11 of 37 shots in their last two games.
"You want to force Gerald Wilkins, Mark Jackson and John Starks to beat you," Thomas said. "That means taking the ball out of Ewing's hands."
* New Jersey Nets vs. Cleveland Cavaliers: The Nets might face more problems internally than in matching up with the Cavaliers. Fitch has the inside muscle with Coleman, Bowie and Chris Dudley to rebound against Cleveland's powerful front line of Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Williams. Drazen Petrovic pro
vides instant offense for New Jersey, but the Nets have no one to match the leadership of Cavaliers playmaker Price.
* Indiana Pacers vs. Boston Celtics: The Pacers, led by Chuck Person, extended Boston to the five-game limit in last year's opening round. But the Celtics finished this season on a roll, winning without Larry Bird. Baltimorean Reggie Lewis has emerged as the go-to guy, and center Robert Parish and forward Kevin McHale have exhibited new bounce in their aging legs.
* Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls: It likely will be three and out for the Heat, which won only 10 road games. Miami's effective defensive traps should be negated by the ball-handling ability of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
* Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers: The Lakers needed a game-winning shot by Sedale Threatt in the final game of the season to keep their 18-year playoff streak intact. Without a healthy Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and minus Magic Johnson's direction, the Lakers can't match the Blazers' depth and firepower. Coach Mike Dunleavy will attempt to dictate the pace and pressure the Blazers guards into turnovers.