They have no enemies left to confront except one another. Among the four of them, they have committed every transgression imaginable. They have inflamed opposing fans on the road, insulted their own supporters at home, tripped some opponents and taunted others, exasperated their coaches, clashed with their teammates, been tossed by referees and vilified by the media. They are four of the toughest, most combative guards in the league, and if you also want to call them four of the dirtiest, go right ahead. In a few weeks, you will have to call one of them a champion.
It is no coincidence that each of the four teams still alive in the NBA playoffs has at least one player in its backcourt who should be marked DANGER: HIGHLY FLAMMABLE. Butting heads—perhaps quite literally before they're through—in the Eastern Conference finals are the New York Knicks' John Starks and the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller. Starks and Miller are two of the league's looser cannons, and their rivalry already has a bitter history. In the Western Conference finals, which opened on Monday night with a 100-88 Houston victory over Utah in the Summit, unpredictable Vernon Maxwell of the Rockets and the increasingly volatile John Stockton of the Jazz are getting to know each other much better.
Once, conventional NBA wisdom held that a poised, clearheaded backcourt was a key to winning a championship. But that was before the playoffs turned into snarling, mean-spirited tournaments in which the body slam is as much a part of the action as the slam dunk. It seems now that heat is preferable to cool, that having a guard who can ignite his team, even if he steps over the line and loses control from time to time, is at least as important as having one who can calm his club down. Even Stockton, the most levelheaded of this bunch, has been in the middle of his share of dustups during the postseason.
All four guards are as important to their teams emotionally as they are strategically. Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon is the NBA's best player and the main reason the Rockets entered the conference finals favored to emerge as the champions, but without Maxwell to rev them up and keep defenses honest with his jump shot, the burden becomes too heavy for even the broad-shouldered Olajuwon to bear. In a 91-81 Game 7 win over scrappy Denver in the Western Conference semifinals, Utah forward Karl Malone was as brilliant (31 points, 14 rebounds) as he has been throughout the playoffs, but without Stockton the Jazz would have only half a heart. For New York, center Patrick Ewing is the franchise, but Starks, who hurriedly returned from surgery on his left knee in time for the playoffs, breathes life into the Knicks when he is on the floor. And 7'4" Indiana center Rik Smits's inside scoring is crucial to the Pacers, but Smits gets turned on—and gets more room to maneuver—when Miller's outside shooting energizes the team.
"It's all about intensity," says Doc Rivers, the Knicks' injured point guard. "If you lose it, even just for a while, in the playoffs, you're in trouble. You need guys who somehow transfer their energy to the rest of the team. Starks is one of the guys who does that for us. Sometimes he gets out of control, but if he loses it five or six times a year out of 82 games, we'll take it."
Starks lost it at least that many times in the Knicks' wearying Eastern semifinal series against the Chicago Bulls, which New York finally cinched on Sunday with an inspired 87-77 win in Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. "You know Wild Thing, that guy [played by Charlie Sheen] in the movie Major League?" asks Knick guard Rolando Blackman. "That's John." During the Chicago series Starks tripped Bull forward Scottie Pippen twice and kicked at guard B.J. Armstrong but didn't make contact. There will be players in next month's World Cup who won't use their feet as well as Starks did against the Bulls. "He's a smaller Dennis Rodman," says Chicago guard Pete Myers, referring to the San Antonio Spur forward who is the NBA's reigning bad boy.
But Starks considers his actions to be within the bounds of normal competitiveness. "Yeah, I intentionally tripped Scottie to stop a fast break," he says. "I saved two points by doing it. I wasn't trying to hurt anyone. I was trying to win, and I'll do whatever it takes. When you're in a war, you don't cry that the other side isn't playing fair."
Sometimes Starks aggravates even his own side. When he risked a technical foul in Game 6 against the Bulls by leaving the bench to run onto the court and congratulate backcourtmate and fellow provocateur Greg Anthony after Anthony hit a three-pointer and was fouled, the look on coach Pat Riley's face as he chased Starks back to the bench was a mix of rage and disbelief. And during the series it wasn't unusual to see Starks in heated on-court discussions with Anthony and forward Charles Oakley. But the Knicks realize that Starks's unpredictability comes from a desire to succeed that sometimes overwhelms him, and they do their best to help him lighten up. When Starks sat morosely in the locker room after being held to one point in the first half of Game 7 against the Bulls, guard Derek Harper took an empty bottle of Evian water and threw it at him. "Smile," Harper said. Starks loosened up enough to hit two key three-pointers and three free throws in the second half to help the Knicks end the Bulls' valiant run at a fourth consecutive championship.
That cleared the way for a rematch with Indiana's Miller, upon whom Starks bestowed an often-replayed head butt in a first-round playoff series last year. One of the few film clips trotted out nearly as often as that one is the image of Miller bowing deeply to the crowd at Chicago Stadium after hitting a critical jumper against the Bulls this season. Acts like that have made Miller a favorite target of fans' wrath on the road, which, as something of a hot dog, he relishes. It was no surprise that Knick fans, having seen their team vanquish the Bulls, warmed up for the next round by chanting "Reggie sucks!" as they departed the Garden on Sunday.
Miller is also a major trash-talker (then again, in today's NBA, who isn't?). But he can walk the walk: In the first two rounds of the playoffs, against the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged a team-leading 22.0 points per game, with 22 three-pointers in nine games. And he was conspicuously the best behaved of the four bad-guy guards who have made it into the conference finals. The closest Miller has come to providing bulletin-board material was when he said he would rather play the Knicks than the Bulls in the next round. "He wanted us, he's got us," says Starks. "Glad we could give him his wish." But look for New York to pay as much attention to point guard Haywoode Workman, a playoff rookie, as they do to Miller. The Knicks love to turn their defense loose on inexperienced point guards, and if they can rattle Workman, they will have gone a long way toward neutralizing Miller and Smits.