The popular notion that anything can happen in sports does not apply to the NBA playoffs. A lot of things don't happen, including a team coming out of the pack to win the championship. Forget about that. Recent history suggests that only two types of teams have a chance at the ring: an outstanding one that finished with the league's best regular-season record or a very good team that learned about playoff pressure in seasons past.
Only three times in the last nine seasons has the team with the best regular season record not gone all the way: the Celtics in 1985, the Lakers in '90 and the Trail Blazers last season. And the team that won in each of those years—the Lakers in '85, the Pistons in '90 and the Bulls in '91—hardly came out of the pack. All three had finished with the league's second-best regular-season record. What's more, both Los Angeles and Detroit had reached the league finals the previous season, while Chicago had endured three straight years of playoff frustration at the hands of the Pistons.
All that would seem to make the results of this year's playoffs painfully clear. With a 67-15 record, the Bulls were the league's best regular-season team. The second-best mark belonged to Portland, which is the only team in NBA history to win 179 games over three seasons and still develop an inferiority complex. The league—much of it, anyway—keeps saying that the Blazers are a dumb team. And the Blazers keep vehemently denying it. Then they go out and do dumb things like risking meal ticket Clyde Drexler in a relatively meaningless April 10 game against the SuperSonics, even though he had a sprained right knee.
Still, Portland was clearly the class of the Western Conference, which boasted nine teams with winning records. Does that make the Blazers the team most likely to keep the Bulls from repeating? Yes, says a plurality of coaches and general managers. In response to this week's poll question—which team, Eastern or Western Conference, is best equipped to beat Chicago in the playoffs?—11 of 21 respondents chose Portland, several of them as emphatically as Hawk coach Bob Weiss, who said, "There's nobody in the East that can touch the Bulls, and anybody besides Portland in the West is a reach."
The Cavaliers, the Celtics and the Pistons each got three votes, Cleveland for its balance, Boston for its strong finish (15 wins in its last 16 games) and Detroit for its defense. The Suns received one vote.
Six months ago we predicted that Chicago would meet—and beat—Portland for the championship. Assuming we are allowed to change our mind, do we hold to that preseason assessment? Herewith is our playoff preview.
First Round—Bulls (No. 1 seed) over the Heat (8). Congratulations, Heat, for being the first of the four most recent expansion teams to qualify for the playoffs. Now, fall ever so gently upon that sword.
Celtics (2) over the Pacers (7). Well, it's time for Indiana's Chuck Person to thump his chest and start exercising that larynx. The guess is that he will have Larry Bird to woof upon, although Bird missed Boston's last eight games with spasms in his troublesome back. However, unlike last year, the Celtics seem to have found a way to win without him, thanks in large part to the half-court offensive abilities of Reggie Lewis and Kevin McHale.