ACHING FOR AN NBA TITLE Who's hurt may decide who wins in NBA


Do the subdued Detroit Pistons have the passion to three-peat as National Basketball Association champions?

Can gang-of-one Michael Jordan carry the Chicago Bulls to their first title?

Are the Boston Celtics destined for their third straight first-round elimination with a hobbled Larry Bird?

Is Vlade Divac good enough to challenge the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson to revive the Los Angeles Angeles Lakers' title hopes?

These are some of the questions being asked with the start of the NBA playoffs, which open tonight.

Handicapping the 16 teams in the field has proved difficult because of injuries to key performers. Boston's Bird and Philadelphia's Charles Barkley are expected to play, but their fragile status makes their teams vulnerable in the best-of-five first round.

Pistons coach Chuck Daly, who only this month welcomed back team leader Isiah Thomas, shelved for half the season with a fractured wrist, said, "Eight or nine teams can win this thing this year. The key is going to be injuries, injuries, injuries. Survival and roster depth are the keys now. You have to have replacable parts."

But do the Celtics, paired against the Indiana Pacers in the opening round, really have a suitable replacement for Bird, still troubled by back spasms?

Without Bird, they proved ordinary, posting a 10-12 record. As of yesterday, Bird who missed practice the last three days, was listed as questionable. "Larry feels a little better, but he's still day-to-day," Celtics coach Chris Ford said yesterday. "When he's ready, he'll play. We haven't been that successful without him, but our offense has been well distributed. We had six guys score over 1,000 points."

Added Celtics forward Reggie Lewis, the Baltimorean who averaged 18.8 points, "We're used to playing without Larry the past two seasons. It's a discomfort playing without him, but we can't wait around for him to get better, because it might not happen."

Bird, scheduled for postseason back surgery, said: "The back bothers me most on defense and rebounding. I'm trying not to jump as much, but this week, it's improved."

The playing condition of Barkley, Philadelphia's scoring and rebounding leader, remains the critical issue for the 76ers, who open in Milwaukee tonight.

"I'm not 100 percent," said Barkley, who missed seven of the last 10 games with a strained knee ligament. "But that doesn't matter. My knee will hurt the rest of the year. I've just got to give what I've got."

Even without shooting guard Dale Ellis, one of the NBA's premier three-point shooters, questionable with a herniated disk, the Bucks have the depth and experience to provide problems for the bench-poor 76ers, who have been without point guard Johnny Dawkins since November.

"We've got a lot of big guys who can play," said Bucks coach Del Harris, citing Danny Schayes, Frank Brickowski, Brad Lohaus and Jack Sikma. "We don't have any projects on this team."

The main project for the New York Knicks is to keep Jordan from running wild. And the job goes to Trent Tucker.

"No one man is going to stop Jordan," said Tucker. "No team is going to stop him. You've got to contain him and try to limit his shots and free throws."

The more intriguing first-round match-ups will occur in the Western Conference, which took over the balance of power this season. Possible early upsets could occur in the pairings pitting the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, both of whom won more than 50 games, and the Lakers vs. the Houston Rockets, who won 31 of their last 41 games, including a 28-5 spree minus All-Star center Olajuwon, who was sidelined with a fractured eye socket.

But the Lakers say the key matchup will be between Olajuwon and Divac, the Yugoslav import who replaced Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center.

"This is the biggest challenge for me," Divac said. "If I do a good job against Hakeem, winning a championship will be a lot easier. If I can't do it, it means I'm not a player for big games."

Odds to win the NBA title

TEAM.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..ODDS

Chicago.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 5-2

Portland.. .. .. .. .. .. ..5-2

L.A. Lakers.. .. .. .. .. ..4-1

Boston.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .5-1

Detroit.. .. .. .. .. .. .. 8-1

San Antonio.. .. .. .. .. ..8-1

Phoenix.. .. .. .. .. .. ..10-1

Utah.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..12-1

Houston.. .. .. .. .. .. ..15-1

Milwaukee.. .. .. .. .. .. 50-1

Philadelphia.. .. .. .. .. 50-1

Atlanta.. .. .. .. .. .. ..75-1

Golden State .. .. .. .. .150-1

Indiana.. .. .. .. .. .. .200-1

New York.. .. .. .. .. .. 200-1

Seattle.. .. .. .. .. .. .200-1

Source: Glantz-Culver

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