Bulls set to turn down repeat road NBA playoffs

Michael Jordan clutched the Larry O'Brien trophy as if it were a baby, holding it gently as tears dripped onto the prize after the Chicago Bulls had won the NBA championship by defeating the Los Angeles Lakers last season.

Will the scene be repeated this season?


"There were a lot of expectations on this team coming into the season, and thus far we've surpassed those expectations," Jordan said.

"We've become a dominant team. A lot of people had some doubts we could do that. They thought we would get complacent with what we accomplished last year. Instead, we've improved. So in that respect, we're a better team."


The Bulls, who finished with the best record in the NBA (67-15) jTC and will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, open defense of their title tomorrow night against the Miami Heat, which is making its first playoff appearance since entering the league four years ago.

The Boston Celtics, who won 15 of their last 16 games to overtake the New York Knicks for the Atlantic Division title, are seeded second in the East behind the Bulls and open the playoffs against Indiana tonight. The Celtics needed five games to beat the Pacers in the first round last season.

The Portland Trail Blazers, who have posted the best record in the Western Conference the last two seasons, will try to make the NBA Finals for the second time in the last three seasons. They open against the Lakers tonight.

The Utah Jazz, who open the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow, are seeded second to Portland in the West.

Here's a look at the first-round series:

& WESTERN CONFERENCE * Seattle SuperSonics vs. Golden State Warriors: There's no love lost between these teams, who play tonight in Oakland, Calif.

Warriors guard Tim Hardaway and SuperSonics center Benoit Benjamin were ejected for fighting during a game in December.

Warriors guard Sarunas Marciulionis suffered a sprained neck when he was knocked down by Benjamin in February.


In March, Benjamin was called for a flagrant foul against Marciulionis. In April, Chris Mullin was injured in a collision with Seattle guard Gary Payton, who was ejected from the game.

Although the SuperSonics were 11-3 while Benjamin was sidelined because of a broken right hand, he has been activated for the playoffs, and coach George Karl probably will start him.

* San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Sun: The Spurs, who were ousted by the Warriors in the first round last season, don't figure to get past the first round this season because they are without David Robinson and Willie Anderson.

Suns forward Tom Chambers, who sat out the final week of the season with an ankle sprain, and Jeff Hornacek (strained knee) are expected to return for the series, which begins tomorrow in San Antonio, Texas.

* Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers: The Lakers needed a game-winning shot by Sedale Threatt in the final game of the season to keep their 18-year playoff streak intact. Without a healthy Sam Perkins and James Worthy, and minus Magic Johnson's direction, the Lakers can't match the Blazers' depth and firepower. Coach Mike Dunleavy will attempt to dictate the pace and pressure the Blazers guards into turnovers. But this is Clyde Drexler's year for redemption.

* Los Angeles Clippers vs. Utah Jazz: Coach Larry Brown has the Clippers believing in themselves, and an upset appears possible if the Clippers can win a game in Utah, where the Jazz finished 37-4. If Brown can find a way to neutralize Karl Malone or the penetrating skills of John Stockton, Utah will run out of options except for jump-shooting Jeff Malone.


EASTERN CONFERENCE * Miami Heat vs. Chicago Bulls: The Heat needed four seasons make the playoffs, but it will probably be gone in three games.

The Bulls were 4-0 against the Heat this season and has never lost to the Heat in 14 games.

* New York Knicks vs. Detroit Pistons: The Knicks, who had a five-game lead over Boston with eight games left, collapsed in the last month of the season.

Coach Pat Riley took the team to Charleston, S.C., for a mini-camp to prepare for the playoffs, which start tomorrow in New York.

"What's happened and how it was covered saps you, your spirit and your confidence," Riley said. "We have to be professional and stoic and get it done."

L The Pistons defeated the Knicks twice in the last two weeks.


* Boston Celtics vs. Indiana Pacers: Larry Bird, who sat out the last eight games of the season with a back injury, hopes to return.

"We're confident heading into the playoffs," Celtics forward Kevin Gamble said. "Playing without Larry had forced other people to step up, and that can only help you in the playoffs."

The Celtics might need Bird to defeat Indiana, which came within four points of eliminating the Celtics in the first round last season, losing the fifth game, 124-121, when Chuck Person missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

* Cleveland Cavaliers vs. New Jersey Nets: Bill Fitch, who was almost fired this season and later survived a mutiny by Derrick Coleman and Chris Morris, deserves consideration for Coach of the Year.

"This has been the biggest challenge I've ever faced," Fitch said. "There were times when I nearly threw in the towel and wondered if it was worth it. Right now, I just go day to day. I don't think about next year. I just figure I'll be coaching, if not here then somewhere else."

The Cavaliers haven't won a playoff series since 1976, and the Nets haven't won a playoff game since 1984. Game 1 is tonight in Richfield, Ohio.