LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The Bulls will become the first team to win three straight titles since the '65-66 Celtics eight-peated.
The Suns will win the West, and Barkley will be the reason why.
Those words were written by this observer during the preseason (SI, Nov. 9), back before Shaquille O'Neal had two backboards in his trophy room, before the Lakers had become a sub-.500 team, before Greg Anthony had an enemy in Phoenix. Am I sticking by these predictions? Not entirely. I like the Suns to come out of the West, but I see the Bulls going down to the Knicks in the East. And the winner is? See below.
Western Conference, first round
•Suns over the Lakers. Bye-bye, coach Randy Pfund. Bye-bye, veteran guard Byron Scott. Bye-bye (maybe), James Worthy and Vlade Divac. Bye-bye, Lakers.
•Trail Blazers over the Spurs. Celtic veteran Kevin McHale (page 56) has always had a logical explanation for a team or a player that starts out hot only to cool off later: "Water seeks its own level." The once sizzling, now fizzling Spurs—a team that is little more than a center (David Robinson), a versatile swingman (Sean Elliott) and a throaty voice on the sideline (John Lucas)—will find their own level, which is that of a loser in this toughest first-round showdown.
•Rockets over the Clippers. Houston has roughed up the Clips in all four of their meetings this season, and there's no reason to think the trend will be reversed now. Then the questions about the Clippers will begin: Will coach Larry Brown be around next season? Will Danny Manning be around next season?
•SuperSonics over the Jazz. Utah finished 47-35, the team's 10th consecutive winning season. Congratulations, Utah. But it's time to land a big man in the middle, fellas, while Karl Malone and John Stockton are still upright. The supporting cast—Jeff Malone, Ty Corbin, Jay Humphries, Larry Krystkowiak, David Benoit—is good, but not good enough to make the Jazz a contender.
West, second round