The Sonics overcame their deficiency well enough to win 61 games and the Pacific Division title in the regular season, so why should they be concerned now? Because playoff basketball is different from the regular-season game. The pace tends to slow down in the postseason and teams are more careful with the ball, which means Seattle may not be able to compensate for its feeble rebounding by creating as many turnovers as in the regular season. In a half-court, methodical game the ability to control the defensive boards is crucial; if the Sonics can't do that against the more physical front lines of the Lakers and the Jazz (whom they would meet in the later rounds), they will be in deep trouble. It would help a lot if forward Vin Baker, who led Seattle with a relatively paltry 8.0 rebounds per game, bumped that number up to double figures.
3. WHO'S THIS YEAR'S BRYON RUSSELL?
Russell, the Jazz's small forward, was one of the surprises of last year's playoffs because of his sharp outside shooting and his tough defense against Jordan, among others. Some of the role players with the best chance of duplicating Russell's emergence:
•Scott Burrell, Bulls. It took him about half a season to get used to Chicago's system, but recently Burrell has been making big contributions off the bench. At 6'7" he can spell either Jordan or forward Scottie Pippen, and he gives the Bulls yet another defensive stopper.
•Alan Henderson, Hawks. Henderson, a third-year forward, has turned into more than a role player. He has earned his way into the starting lineup, supplanting Christian Laettner, and he seems ready for a breakthrough to stardom.
•Jalen Rose, Pacers. The 6'8" Rose has blossomed under coach Larry Bird. In his fourth season he has gone from a player with no position to a versatile substitute who can perform at any of the three perimeter spots. With his height, he presents opponents with a difficult matchup.
•Mark Strickland, Heat. Strickland, a 6'10" third-year center who's active on the boards, is another little-known player who has thrived under coach Pat Riley. If Strickland continues to play well, Miami might not feel the absence of backup center Isaac Austin, who was traded to the Clippers in midseason.
4. WHO CAN EXPLOIT—OR AVOID—POTENTIALLY DEADLY MATCHUPS?
There are several of these. The most intriguing:
•The Heat's Alonzo Mourning vs. the Bulls' Dennis Rodman. The always irritating Rodman took Mourning out of his game in last year's Eastern Conference finals, and he would love the chance to do it again should there be a rematch this year in the same round. You can almost see the steam fogging up the 6'10" Mourning's mask (which he's wearing to protect a broken cheekbone) when he faces the 6'8" Rodman. "Dennis is like a little brother," says Barkley. "If you let him see that he's bothering you, it just encourages him. You have to ignore him, and maybe he'll go away." Mourning, who has tried to be less outwardly emotional this season, will have his new demeanor put to the test by Rodman.