Ring in the New
Three gentlemen with more than a passing knowledge of NBA championship pressure suggest that even in this season of many supposed contenders, in reality only a precious few teams need to be fretting about ring sizes. "I just don't think you can win a championship until you lose one," says NBC commentator Pat Riley, who, as coach of the Lakers, won four NBA Finals and lost three.
Riley's erstwhile trump card Magic Johnson agrees. "You have to want it so bad that you would do anything to get there," says Magic. "And if you haven't done it before, you're not going to know how."
Adds Sonics coach K.C. Jones, who has been involved in 13 title series as a player and coach, "[After] you get to the Finals once, it makes believers out of you."
Now, does that mean all of those Western Conference wannabes, like Utah, San Antonio, Phoenix and even surprising Houston, should pack it in and leave the Western fight to the two teams that made the Finals in recent years: the Trail Blazers and the Lakers? Yes, it does. I picked Portland to go all the way in the preseason (SI, Nov. 5), and nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.
The East seems to have only three contenders—the Bulls, the Pistons and the Celtics. That's one strong and healthy team, and two older ones with injuries. In spite of what the aforementioned Western seers say, I am passing up the two-time defending champion Pistons and the Celtics, who last won a league crown in 1986. Give me young, strong and healthy. Give me Chicago. In the Finals, I think the Trail Blazers—last season's horror of losing three straight championship-series games at home to Detroit fresh in their minds—will prevail in seven games.
So here's how this not yet bleary-eyed prognosticator sees the playoffs shaping up (conference seedings are listed in parentheses for the first round), followed by some postseason food for thought:
First round—Bulls (1) over Knicks (8); 76ers (5) over Bucks (4); Celtics (2) over Pacers (7); Pistons (3) over Hawks (6).
Second round-Bulls over 76ers; Pistons over Celtics.