NBA offers parity for playoffs


In terms of wins and losses, they were the NBA's best in the regular season, amassing 63 victories and recording the best finish -- 26-5 -- of any team. Yet, aside from the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle SuperSonics say, they haven't gotten their due this season.

"I really don't think we're the favorites because for most of the year nobody's given us any credit," Seattle forward Detlef Schrempf said. "Especially back East."

Back East is where the NBA championship trophy has settled the past five years, but during the regular season, one could argue that some of the best basketball in the NBA was played west of the Mississippi. Especially in Seattle, where the Sonics' road toward respect begins tonight, when they open the 1994 playoffs against the Denver Nuggets.

It figures to be one of the most hotly contested battles in recent years, marking the first time since the 1982-83 season (the last before the playoffs were expanded from 12 to 16 teams) each playoff team will enter the postseason with a record better than .500. Parity now rules in the NBA, where Michael Jordan is no longer around to step forward and claim the championship trophy.

"I think it will be one of the great playoff series ever," New York Knicks coach Pat Riley said. "I don't think there is a team in the Eastern Conference that doesn't think it can beat somebody else."

Just ask the New Jersey Nets, a team that hasn't advanced past the first round of the playoffs in a decade. Still, several members of the Nets -- who beat the Knicks four of five games this season -- have all but guaranteed advancing to the second round, a feat that means defeating the Atlantic Division champion Knicks in a series that begins tomorrow night.

"I know we're going to play hard, and we're going to win," said Nets forward Jayson Williams.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Clifford Robinson said of his matchup with Houston Rockets forward Robert Horry, in a first-round series that starts tomorrow night: "I would kill Horry. You can quote me on that."

Enough of trash-talking forwards -- this was the year when the big men earned the right to boast. The San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson averaged 29.8 points to win the scoring title, marking the first time in 18 years a center led the league. The top three scorers in the league were centers: Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic averaged 29.3, and Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston averaged 27.3.

Still, no center has led his team in scoring and to an NBA title since the 1984-85 season, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar averaged 22.0 for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Can one of the league's top three scorers do the same this season? Olajuwon probably has the best shot, helping the Rockets to the second-best record in the league. Robinson scored 71 on the final day of the regular season to win the scoring title, but San Antonio's weak back court will hurt if the Spurs get past the first round against the Utah Jazz, a team they have failed to defeat in five games this season.

In Orlando, O'Neal helped the Magic to 50 wins and the team's first playoff berth. Yet the playoff pressure may not get O'Neal and his teammates past the Indiana Pacers in the first round.

"They're very young and inexperienced, so, even with Shaquille inside, it will be tough [for Orlando]," Chicago forward Scottie Pippen said. Asked whether O'Neal could carry the Magic, Pippen said: "He's capable of [raising his game]. But now, I would say no. I don't think he's ready for that yet."

A big question is whether the Bulls can win the team's fourth straight NBA championship. Chicago hardly seemed to miss a beat during the regular season, when the Bulls won 55 games -- two shy of last season's win total under Jordan.

"The main thing is we've been there before, and we know what crunch time in the playoffs is all about," said Pippen, whose Bulls face the Cleveland Cavaliers -- eliminated by Chicago in four of the past six years -- in the first round. "Experience is the most important thing a team needs going into the playoffs."

Two teams that seemingly had enough experience going into the season -- the Phoenix Suns and the Knicks -- face tough first-round matchups. The Suns, who lost to the Bulls in last year's finals, figure to have a tough time against the Golden State Warriors, who were a surprise in winning 50 games.

The Knicks were everyone's pick to win the East in the preseason, and are -- at least according to the oddsmakers -- favorites to reach the finals. New York will benefit from the return of John Starks, who should provide a spark after missing the past 21 games because of knee surgery.

"It's been a remarkable year for us -- we lost three-fifths of our starting lineup," Riley said. "It's hurt the continuity of consistency with our team. I've never been around a team that's gone through this."

Now, the Knicks are hoping to reload and aiming to advance to the championship round for the first time since 1973.

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