Without Jordan, title up for grabs

After subpar season, NBA playoffs offer intriguing matchups

May 08, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

It was an NBA season that featured games that were downright hideous at times. It was so bad that last year's best team, the Chicago Bulls, finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, and in one repulsive outing scored an NBA record-low 49 points in a game.

Fortunately, it's not a sign of what's to come in the postseason, which begins this afternoon. In fact with all the riffraff cast aside (could the public really stomach another Washington Wizards-New Jersey Nets game?), the NBA playoffs offer intriguing first-round matchups in what figures to be the most competitive postseason in years.

Can the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat get through a five-game series without a punch thrown or a body slammed? Will Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill win his first playoff series? Is there enough life in the aging legs of the Houston Rockets' three Dream Teamers to overcome the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA version of the "Family Feud"?

What's certain this season is that Michael Jordan isn't standing in anyone's way, leaving each of the 16 playoff teams to think they have a legitimate shot (well, maybe seven have a legitimate shot) of being the last team to win an NBA title this century.

"In the East, it's very equal and a lot of parity from teams one through eight," said Miami Heat coach Pat Riley. "I think anybody can beat anybody, if you're not on top of your game."

Riley should know. The Heat finished the regular season in a three-way tie for the best record in the Eastern Conference (Miami, Orlando and Indiana all finished 33-17), and have the top seed because of tiebreakers. As a reward, Miami opens the playoffs today with a first-round matchup against its biggest rival, the Knicks.

The history between the teams is well-documented: Miami forward P. J. Brown winning the Charlie Ward toss of 1997; New York forward Larry Johnson squaring off with Alonzo Mourning in last year's Game 4 of the opening round, an incident that also featured Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy portraying a dust mop while attached to Mourning's leg.

The players don't like each other. The coaches -- who were once good friends and colleagues -- don't like each other. The Heat won in 1997, the Knicks won last year. The third time around is so hot, Don King probably wouldn't mind getting in on the promotion.

"This series is beyond everybody's control," Riley said. "This is preordained. This is something the gods wanted. It's the rubber match -- and here we go."

With all that has happened the past two seasons, no one expects any more incidents. Then again, no one expected Mourning and Johnson to square off last year -- an incident that got both players suspended, and likely cost Miami the series.

"It's intense and so the emotion is going to be high, and it should be high -- I'd be disappointed if it wasn't," Riley said. He added, however, that "both teams have matured, hopefully, out of past transgressions."

The other captivating first-round matchup features the third-seeded Orlando Magic and sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. Philadelphia won the season series, 2-1, and Orlando coach Chuck Daly might have to reach into his "Jordan Rules" bag to find a way to stop Sixers shooting guard and the league's top scorer, Allen Iverson.

"This is a team that we haven't really been able to beat all season," Daly said of the Sixers, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 1991. "We've got to play somebody, so away we go."

The preseason favorite in the East, Indiana, is hoping its postseason yields better results than a regular season that had coach Larry Bird upset with his team's lackluster play. The Pacers, who extended Chicago to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference finals, get Milwaukee in the first round, but are not assured of home-court advantage beyond that (Orlando would get home-court advantage in the second round if both teams advance).

"It was one of our goals to win the division, but it was also one of our goals to win the Eastern Conference and we didn't do that," Bird said. "It's very important to have home-court advantage in the playoffs, but it looks like we're just going to have it in the first round. I've even heard from these guys that it doesn't bother them to go on the road in the playoffs and win a game. We'll see."

In the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs locked up the league's best record -- and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs -- by winning 31 of their last 36 games, including a season-ending five straight.

The key for San Antonio has been the play of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, both among eight players who finished the regular season averaging double figures in points and rebounds. The two are also among the top 10 in blocked shots, and played with a toughness and enthusiasm down the stretch that is a rarity for two perceived "softies."

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