Let's face it, we all know how the NBA playoffs are going to turn out: with Michael Jordan puffing on a stogie and clutching his sixth championship trophy to his chest. It might seem hard to get excited about the postseason when Jordan and the Bulls are such prohibitive favorites, but if you think knowing the ending spoils the entire story, why did you go see Titanic?
Consider for a moment some postseason imponderables. Will Jordan be faced with the challenge of a seven-game series somewhere along the way, one that softens up Chicago for its next foe? In the Western Conference's first round, can the speed of the No. 4-seeded Suns overcome the size of the No. 5 Spurs? Among the top Western contenders, what's the most valuable quality: the savvy of the Jazz, the balance of the SuperSonics or the sheer talent of the Lakers? Can the No. 2 Heat and the No. 7 Knicks complete their first-round Eastern Conference series without a fatality? In this season of injuries, which balky body part will have the biggest impact on the proceedings—the hernia of Rockets forward Charles Barkley, the right wrist of Knicks center Patrick Ewing, the feet of Pacers center Rik Smits or the right thumb of Nets center Jayson Williams?
What follows are keys to the playoffs. Remember, just because the ship is headed for the same old destination doesn't mean this can't be an entertaining trip.
1. WHO CAN SET THE TONE EARLY?
Sometimes the pattern for a team's postseason can be established in the first quarter of the first game of the first round. With that in mind, here are three recommendations:
•David Robinson should flatten someone. The Spurs have been playoff softies in the past, and no one is more symbolic of that failing than their graceful center, Robinson. We're not suggesting he do anything dirty, but he needs to send the message that neither he nor his teammates will be pushed around. The best way to do that is by depositing squarely on his backside the first opponent who attempts to drive the lane. If San Antonio doesn't show it's ready to get physical, it won't last long.
•The Heat should run a play in which Voshon Lenard shoots a three-pointer. If he misses, Miami should run another, and, if necessary, another. The Heat should go to Lenard, its shooting guard, until he hits a trey. He needs early success from the outside to bolster his confidence, because when he isn't shooting well, the rest of his game tends to suffer. With two other important gunners not in top form—forward Jamal Mashburn is coming off a fractured right thumb, and guard Brent Barry is riding the bench—Miami can't afford an off-target Lenard.
•Hakeem Olajuwon should dust off the Dream Shake. A bad left knee has limited Olajuwon's effectiveness, but he's still capable of taking over a series for the Rockets. He needs to unveil a few vintage moves early against the Jazz (the West's No. 1 seed) to establish that he can't be guarded one-on-one. If he begins drawing frequent double teams, he will create openings for other Rockets, and No. 8 Houston will have a better shot at a first-round upset.
2. CAN THE SONICS DO BETTER ON THE BOARDS?
Seattle, which finished last in the NBA in rebounding (38.5 per game), will be repeatedly reminded that only one team, the 1972-73 Knicks, has ever earned that dubious honor and gone on to win the championship. The Sonics' weakness is the single most glaring flaw in any of the title contenders. Not only does Seattle lack a ferocious big man to clean the glass, but its trapping, switching defense also leaves its players out of good rebounding position. "There are times, because of our defense, when I find myself on the perimeter when the ball is shot," says 6'9½" forward-center Sam Perkins. "If I'm out there sometimes, then it stands to reason mat some of our other big men are out there."