There was a celebration going on in the Chicago Bulls locker room last week when the team won its 70th game, earning its place in the NBA record books. But even through the backslaps, hugs, high-fives and smoking of 16-inch cigars, guard Michael Jordan didn't want anyone to misinterpret the scene.
"It was mostly a sign of relief. . . . It's been a long time coming," Jordan said. "But I've said many times that we did not start the season looking to win 70 games. We set out to win a championship, and that's our focus now."
Whether the Bulls can achieve that goal is a question that will begin to be answered tonight, when the NBA playoffs begin.
The Bulls have the best player in the game in Jordan. By finishing the regular season with a 72-10 record, they broke the record for most wins in a season with room to spare. But to go down in history as one of the greatest teams, the Bulls will have to win 15 games over the next two months. Of the past six teams to finish the regular season with the best record in the NBA, only the 1991-92 Bulls went on to win the NBA title -- an indication that the road to the championship won't be as smooth as the regular season.
Here's a look at the opening-round matchups (seeds are in parentheses):
Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Miami Heat (8): The Bulls might be the best team in basketball, but this won't be a pushover opening-round series. In Alonzo Mourning, the Heat has one of the top centers in basketball, and the February trades that netted Tim Hardaway and Walt Williams probably salvaged the season. It was Miami that handed the Bulls their worst loss of the season, 113-104, on a night when the Heat dressed only eight players.
A subplot is the coaches, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, whose dislike for each other goes back to the physical Chicago-New York Knicks playoff series of the early 1990s. Only this time, Riley doesn't have the horses, as he did with the Knicks. And the Bulls have Jordan, who has a sense of unfinished business.
Chicago in three.
Orlando Magic (2) vs. Detroit Pistons (7): The Magic won the season series, 3-1. With Detroit 'Neal having no real answer in the middle to stop Shaquille O'Neal (26.6-point average vs. the Pistons), this series shouldn't be close.
Orlando in four.
Indiana Pacers (3) vs. Atlanta Hawks (6): Entering the playoffs without Reggie Miller (surgery on his eye socket), the Pacers are vulnerable. But if Rik Smits plays well, Indiana will be good enough to get past a team it defeated in the season series, 3-1.
Indiana in four.
Cleveland Cavaliers (4) vs. New York Knicks (5): With Riley gone, this aging Knicks team hardly resembles the tough-minded defensive unit that was feared in years past. The Cavaliers win by dictating the tempo of the game, and their slowdown tactics were successful in winning the season series, 3-1, including two games at Madison Square Garden. Home-court advantage helps the Cavaliers.
Cleveland in five.
Seattle SuperSonics (1) vs. Sacramento Kings (8): Seattle is best known for its first-round playoff exits, but the best team in the West will have little trouble (even without Shawn Kemp, who was suspended for the first game) against a Sacramento team making its first playoff appearance since 1986.
Seattle in three.
San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Phoenix Suns (7): David Robinson had an even better season this year than last, when he was the league's MVP. Phoenix always has had trouble against teams with dominating centers, which is why the Suns will face their earliest playoff exit since 1991.
San Antonio in four.
Utah Jazz (3) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (6): Utah won the season series, 3-1, but before its three-game winning streak to end the season it had lost seven of its previous nine.
Portland, behind guard Rod Strickland and Lithuanian center Arvydas Sabonis, won 18 of its last 22 and extended the league's longest current streak of reaching the postseason to 14 years. If Sabonis dominates, the Blazers advance.
Portland in four.
Los Angeles Lakers (4) vs. Houston Rockets (5): This is clearly the best series in the opening round. The Lakers, with the addition of Magic Johnson, could be a championship contender. Because of injuries, the Rockets, at times, had seven former CBA players on their roster -- normally a sign of trouble.
But in winning two straight titles, the Rockets were hardly dominant during the regular season and always played their best when backed into a corner. It doesn't hurt to have the best center in the game, Hakeem Olajuwon.
Los Angeles in five.
Pub Date: 4/25/96