Parity, not Portland, rules playoff picture


Before they start planning the parade route in Portland, there are a few questions to be answered.

Like: Are the Rockets for real? What's Nellie up to? Is there any Magic left? Is it time for the Jazz to rock and roll? Can the Admiral take command? Don't you have to change a Piston after so many miles? And is this a Bull market?

"Parity is here," Phoenix Suns president Jerry Colangelo said.

And it's come to the NBA playoffs.

"Never have so many teams had a chance to win the title," said Detroit's Chuck Daly, whose team is shooting for its third straight.

By most estimates, the Pistons are not about to get it, having surrendered the Central Division title and the best record in the Eastern Conference to the Chicago Bulls. And they'll enter the playoffs with star guard Isiah Thomas trying to overcome a wrist surgery and a lineup with savvy veterans who now are beginning to just look old. Yet, the Bulls are not necessarily overconfident.

"They're still the team to beat," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "They're the defending champions and they're going to be heard from before this thing is over."

Meanwhile, out West is where the playoffs could get wild and woolly.

Six Western Conference teams -- compared with three in the East -- won at least 50 games this season and they'll be going at one another.

Portland, with a franchise-record 63 victories (most in the league this season), just came off a 16-game winning streak. The Trail Blazers will open against Seattle, which should be a short series. Then they meet the winner of the Phoenix-Utah series, a repeat of last year's opening-round matchup.

"[Phoenix-Utah] was the best series of the playoffs last season," said Jackson.

Phoenix won in five in the last seconds of the game, and then probably should have defeated Portland. But the Suns committed several late mistakes and were pushed around a bit.

"That's why we added 'X' [Xavier McDaniel]," Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said. "We wanted to add a little toughness to our team."

And the other bracket in the West offers terrific matchups. With Golden State and San Antonio, it's more than the players. Warriors coach Don Nelson has been angry with the Spurs' Larry Brown this season for what Nelson viewed as Brown's attempts to prevent Nelson from coaching the Olympic basketball team. And given a short series, Nelson's coaching can be enough to offset considerable talent, as he did against Utah a few years ago.

And even though the Lakers took three of four from the Rockets this season, the Rockets won the last one in Los Angeles after Hakeem Olajuwon returned from an eye injury. And the Rockets have been among the league's best down the stretch, while the Lakers have been consistently outrebounded.

"At one time," Lakers general manager Jerry West admitted about his team's domination of the conference, "it was like the cat playing with the mouse. The cat might play around, but when it needed to win, it would attack. It's not that way anymore."

Which makes the case for the Trail Blazers, who finally dethroned the Lakers in the Pacific Division, reached the finals last season and appear ready to make that final jump.

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