Some of the NBA's familiar numbers changed during the regular season. Instead of 82 there were 50, and 23 was no more. But in the playoffs, the key digits remain the same: best-of-five, best-of-seven, 16 teams trying to win 15 games. The postseason is a grueling process of elimination, so to speed it up, we decided to disregard the seven teams with virtually no chance of winning the NBA title and rank the remaining nine contenders in ascending order. Here are the 1999 playoffs by the numbers, a countdown to the championship.
9: The career high in points of the Atlanta Hawks' Chris Crawford entering the season. Crawford is a promising second-year forward who starts in place of the injured LaPhonso Ellis, but the playoffs are not the place for promise. Still, the Hawks have little choice but to rely on the 6'9" Crawford because their bench is thinner than that bony index finger that center Dikembe Mutombo wags when he swats a shot. Lack of depth has been a chronic problem for Atlanta through the years, and it will prove to be their Achilles' heel once again.
8: The uniform number of Orlando Magic center Ike Austin, one of the biggest free-agent busts of the season. Through Sunday the 6'10", 270-pound Austin had reached double figures in rebounds only once this year, and he was averaging 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, remarkably paltry numbers for a supposed monster in the middle earning $5.2 million a year. Between Austin's softness and the squabbling of Nick Anderson and Penny Hardaway over who should start at shooting guard, Orlando's superb regular season will be undone by a fast playoff exit.
7: What erstwhile Los Angeles Lakers forward Dennis Rodman is probably trying to roll at some Las Vegas craps table now. The Lakers cut their losses and waived Rodman in April, but without him their rebounding and interior defense are as weak as a jack-high poker hand. J.R. Reid and Robert Horry don't figure to pose much of an obstacle to power forwards like Charles Barkley, Tim Duncan and Karl Malone, at least one of whom Los Angeles will have to deal with to extend its stay in the playoffs. Even with Shaquille O'Neal at center, the Lakers lack inside muscle, partly because the acquisition of Rodman helped persuade them to send forward- center Elden Campbell to the Charlotte Hornets in the deal to obtain Glen Rice. Gamble on Rodman, L.A. now knows, and you lose big.
6: The number of times, through Sunday, Scottie Pippen had scored in single digits since April 1 for the Houston Rockets. Points aren't the only indicator of effectiveness, especially for a player as versatile as Pippen, but they do illustrate the difficulty Pippen has had in adapting to the Houston offense. Stationing him on the perimeter while Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon post up isn't the way to get the most out of a slasher like Pippen, which is why on some nights he has looked as if he's dreaming about the old days in Chicago. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich has urged Pippen to take the outside shots that the double-teaming of Barkley and Olajuwon creates, and Pippen has tried to do that. Still, he says the Rockets "aren't going to win a championship with me shooting three-pointers." He's right.
5: The number of championship rings first-year San Antonio Spurs Mario Elie and Steve Kerr have between them. Elie won two titles with the Rockets and Kerr three with the Bulls, and they'll be expected to show their perpetually underachieving teammates exactly how they got all that jewelry. Elie in particular was acquired to give San Antonio some edge, and he has been putting the verbal spurs to his teammates, especially big men Duncan and David Robinson, all season. "They know I speak the truth," Elie says. "Most of these guys remember me beating them two straight years on the way to the championship." Five golden rings may put most people in mind of the Christmas season, but not even Elie can make the nice Spurs naughty enough to reach the Finals.
4: As in Game 4, which is when Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning committed the blunder that effectively ended the season for Miami in its first-round series against the New York Knicks last year. Mourning was suspended for brawling with Larry Johnson and could only watch as the Knicks won Game 5 and the series. That episode wasn't the first in which the tightly wound Mourning let his intensity get the best of him, and his ability to keep his cool will be tested again by physical teams like New York and the Indiana Pacers, who know how to bait him. That will put too much pressure on point guard Tim Hardaway, who not only has to make sure his loose cannon of a center doesn't go off when it matters but also has to deliver rainbow three-pointers when the Heat's mediocre half-court offense breaks down.
3: The brief roll call of Portland Trail Blazers—point guards Greg Anthony and John Crotty and forward Stacey Augmon—who have advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. None of them did it with Portland, which isn't surprising because the Blazers in the postseason are like nerds at the prom: They go home early. Portland has reached the playoffs for 16 straight years but has been a first-round loser in each of the last six seasons. The Blazers should survive longer this time, but their lack of playoff experience suggests that they won't be around at the end. In the 1990s the only team to reach the Finals with a roster that had won so few playoff series was Orlando in '95.
2: A telling margin for the Indiana Pacers, who through Sunday were only 5-7 in games decided by a deuce or less. That was a low total for a team with perhaps the top clutch shooter in the league, Reggie Miller, but Miller hasn't been particularly heroic this year. As a result Indiana, considered by many preseason prognosticators to be the title favorite, has failed to live up to its billing. The Pacers have suspended their choreographed routines during pregame introductions because they felt it was inappropriate to do them until they began playing better. Miller, who lives for the postseason, should pick up his game enough to allow Indiana to boogie past the rest of the East, but then the dancing will stop.
1: The number of achievements missing from the r�sum�s of the Utah Jazz's two stars, Malone and John Stockton. A championship would make their careers complete, and they have never been in better position to win the title. Stockton, 37, should be particularly fresh because, through Sunday, he had averaged fewer minutes, 28.3, in this short season than he had since 1986-87 Malone, 35, has shown no signs of slippage. He may be on his way to a second MVP award. The Jazz is deep and tempered by the fire of playoffs past. Utah is the best team in the league during the last two minutes of a close game. What's more, it doesn't have to worry about a certain bald-headed predator in red and black once again. Try to list the championship ingredients the Jazz lacks, and you get one last number: zero.