Houston Rockets forward Kevin Willis caught a long pass and was headed for a breakaway basket last Saturday when Minnesota Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell caught up with him and clubbed Willis across the face with a forearm, preventing the bucket and sending Willis sprawling. The predictable melee ensued, with Mitchell and Willis at the center, taunting and threatening each other. The enraged fans at the Summit jeered Mitchell and called for him to be ejected, which he was. (Mitchell later was fined $10,000 and Willis $7,500.) In the midst of this madness, during Game 2 of an NBA playoff series, 34-year-old Minnesota guard Terry Porter, a veteran of 10 postseasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, strolled over to the scorer's table, smiled broadly at the chaos and said, "Oh, yeah, now I remember. That's what the playoffs are all about."
That kind of incident may not be all that the playoffs are about, but it did help remind everyone that the NBA postseason resembles the regular season about as much as Muggsy Bogues looks like Gheorghe Muresan. The first few games of the eight best-of-five opening-round series last week established those differences: a more aggressive style of play, more thorough preparation, imaginative motivational schemes and new on-court wrinkles to befuddle foes. "If you don't go into the playoffs knowing that they're nothing like the regular season, it's already too late," says New York Knicks guard John Starks, a veteran of seven postseasons. "By the time you figure it out, you'll already be on the plane ride home." The Charlotte Hornets, who won three of their four regular-season games against the Knicks, obviously didn't figure it out, as New York completed its sweep of the Hornets with a 104-95 win on Monday night.
Here's a rundown of the elements of playoff basketball that made their annual reappearance last week.
Emotion. The 82-game regular season is so long that repeated motivational ploys and inspirational speeches would lose their effectiveness before February's All-Star break. But to gain a psychological edge in a short playoff series, coaches and team executives don't hesitate to shift into the Knute Rockne mode. Before his team's series with the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks vice president and general manager Pete Babcock gave each Hawks player a photo of an NBA championship ring with the player's name inscribed on it. Printed underneath the rings was PRICE: COMMITMENT. (The Hawks split the first two games at the Omni.)
As the Knicks prepared for the Hornets, they adopted the motto, Make 'em feel ya, a reminder to be physical and aggressive on defense. Each player was given a T-shirt with the phrase printed on the back. Several Knicks also shaved their heads as a sign of unity (making New York's clippers far more effective than L.A.'s, who lost the first two games of their series against the Utah Jazz). Some of New York's key players, including Starks, center Patrick Ewing and forward Buck Williams, weren't willing to sacrifice their hair for the sake of the team, but teammates were especially understanding of Williams's decision. "Buck's head is so square," said point guard Chris Childs, "that if he shaved it, he'd look like a toaster."
Leading up to their series against the Washington Bullets, the Chicago Bulls returned to their annual practice of talking sparingly to the media during the postseason, a result of Michael Jordan's and coach Phil Jackson's belief that the unofficial gag order helps the team concentrate. That silence extended to the 90-minute weightlifting sessions that Jordan and teammates Ron Harper and Scottie Pippen go through regularly at the gym in Jordan's home. The trio has been meeting for the workouts all season, but unlike the rest of the year, according to Harper, not a word was spoken at last week's sessions, a sign that the three were getting their playoff game faces on.
Preparation. The preplayoff minicamp has caught on in the last several years as a way for teams to hone their game and dissect the opposition. Among the teams that went on retreat for a few days were the Bullets, who gathered in Shepherdstown, W.Va.; the Knicks, who repaired to Charleston, S.C.; the Rockets, who headed for Galveston, Texas; and the Miami Heat, who went to Boca Raton, Fla. Miami coach Pat Riley put his team through double-session workouts during the first two days of the three-day camp, intense preparation that seemed to pay off in the Heat's demolition of the Orlando Magic, 99-64 and 104-87, in the first two games of their series.
"Take the amount of preparation you do for a team in the regular season and multiply it by about live or 10," Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens says of time spent in minicamp. For example, using edited videotapes, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders was able to tell his starting center, Dean Garrett, everything Garrett needed to know about Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon. "We scouted 37 Rockets games," says Saunders. "In those games Hakeem touched the ball 480 times when he wasn't double-teamed and then shot the ball 460 times. There were about 375 times when Olajuwon was double-teamed, and then he only shot the ball 128 times." That information helped the Timberwolves, making their first postseason appearance, hold Olajuwon to 18 points in each game, but even that wasn't enough to keep the Rockets from taking a 2-0 series lead.
Strategy. Because they can concentrate on one opponent during each playoff round, teams can add wrinkles specifically designed to derail that foe. The teams that changed their regular-season approach in subtle but significant ways had more success last week than the teams that played a pat hand. The Knicks, who during the regular season had been unable to contain Hornets high-scoring swingman Glen Rice, changed their approach to guarding him. When he was on the perimeter, the Knicks ran a second defender at him. When he was in the low post, they denied him the ball by placing a defender in front of him and putting heavy pressure on the player with the ball. The strategy worked: Rice, who averaged a league-best 29.1 points after the All-Star break, scored 22 in Game 1, but several came after New York was well on its way to a 109-99 win. Charlotte made an adjustment in Game 2, with Rice often driving to the basket in an effort to draw fouls. He scored 15 of his 39 points from the line, but he was quiet in the crucial fourth quarter, scoring only six points as the Knicks pulled away for a 100-93 victory.
Chicago added a twist to its defensive plan against Washington, matching Jordan against Bullets point guard Rod Strickland. The Bulls, concerned about conserving the 34-year-old Jordan's energy, used him to defend against point guards only occasionally during the regular season, but Strickland is so essential to the Bullets' offense that Jackson fell the move was necessary this early in the playoffs. In Game 1, a 98-86 Chicago victory, Strickland did score 19 points; however, 10 of them came in the first quarter. "Strickland is a tough point guard, but I think he got a little tired in the second half," Jordan said after the game. That was particularly true late in the fourth quarter, when a fatigued Strickland allowed Bulls guard Steve Kerr to beat him down the floor for a pair of critical three-pointers.