The teams to beat are still the defending champion Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers. Can anybody knock them off?
In the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia would seem to have the best shot of upending Detroit, having defeated the Pistons in three of four meetings this season, including a brawl-marred game last week (page 34). But the Sixers won't get the chance. After dispatching Cleveland in the first round, Philly will have its surprisingly successful season halted by Michael Jordan and the Bulls (who will have glided by their first-round foe, Milwaukee). The 76ers just don't have the one-on-one defender or the strong team defense needed to stop Jordan.
Meanwhile, Detroit will take care of Indiana and then Boston, although the latter series should more closely resemble their bruising playoff battles of 1987 and '88 than the Pistons' first-round sweep of the Celtics last season. Boston won't have quite enough left after nipping the Knicks in an excellent first-round matchup.
As for the Eastern final, it's clear that the Bulls are a better team than in years past, and Jordan, frighteningly, a better player. But with time to prepare, Detroit coach Chuck Daly and his gang of voracious defenders will hold off Chicago's charge one more time.
In the tougher Western Conference, Portland presents the most formidable challenge to the Lakers, whose 63-19 record was the NBA's best this season. The Trail Blazers will oust Dallas in the first round and San Antonio (which will have gotten past Denver) in the second, to move into the Western final for the first time since the 1976-77 season.
The Lakers will be waiting for them there. Los Angeles will have its hands full in Round 1 with the Rockets, who split four games with the Lakers this season, but Akeem Olajuwon doesn't have enough help to pull off an upset. In the second round, the Laker defense will take care of Phoenix, which will be exhausted from turning back Utah in another outstanding first-round series.
That brings us to Pistons-Lakers III. Never before have the same teams met in the NBA Finals three years in a row. The Lakers are a little better than most of us expected, and the Pistons are just another Joe Dumars injury away from big trouble. But Detroit is more balanced than L.A. and every bit as battle-tough. The pick here is the same as it was at the beginning of the season: Detroit.