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O.K., you can squeeze out a couple of favorites if you try real hard, but three other teams have a shot at the NBA if they can handle their ifs

For the first time in the five years since Bill Russell took the fourth-place-in-the-East Celtics to the championship, there will be no clear favorite when the NBA playoffs begin this weekend. No team has ripped the league apart and perhaps the only sure thing is that anyone who lays a second mortgage on the split-level to make a bet is asking for trouble.

But at the same time it would be foolhardy to pick against the two elongated gents seen in superimposition to the left, Milwaukee Center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his Boston counterpart, Dave Cowens. They have led their teams to titles in their respective conferences and to the best records in the NBA. But both clubs have problems. At Christmastime, the Celtics had an .813 percentage; they have been playing almost 200 points below that ever since. John Havlicek, injured in the playoffs last spring, is healthy, but Cowens may not be. Indestructible in the past, he has looked tired during the second half of this season. Cowens must be his full, vigorous self if Boston is to sustain the nonstop running game that grinds other teams into the floor.

Similarly, Milwaukee won 24 of its first 28 games and then endured a letdown. Still, with Abdul-Jabbar performing well enough to win his third Most Valuable Player award, the Bucks might have been the clear favorites except for an incident that occurred in mid-March. Lucius Allen, their most important guard—good for 17.6 points a game, about six running strides on each fast break and most of their backcourt penetration—ripped a ligament in his knee when he skidded on a warmup jacket while chasing a loose ball out of bounds. After Allen's injury, the Bucks proved that they were not fatally stricken by defeating both the Bulls and the Warriors. But in the playoffs they will miss him sorely.

So the way is open for at least three teams with records less impressive than those of Boston or Milwaukee. New York, Chicago and vastly improved Detroit all have a realistic shot at the title. But they have their frailties, too, and their chances for the big money all start with big "ifs."

If no other team beats them, the Knickerbockers will win the championship again. That is not double-talk. That is precisely the way all the challengers see New York's chances in the playoffs. The Knicks' possible route to the title is formidably iffy, but it starts with the fact that of all the teams involved, the Knicks are least likely to bend under playoff pressures, to make mental or physical errors. It is not a team to beat itself. On the contrary, the Knicks seem to thrive in the playoffs. Their rivals are aware that to eliminate New York they must first of all avoid defeating themselves, which means that they must hold their poise in circumstances that will magnify their flaws and inexperience.

The Knicks are the most experienced—524 playoff games among them—of the strong title contenders, and the smartest as well. The effectiveness of New York's on-court intelligence and disciplined style is enhanced by the playoff format: two teams matched against each other in a series of games for which specific, thoughtful preparation can be made. And conditions that make for upsets during the regular season—exhausting travel schedules and inexplicable emotional letdowns on certain nights—are generally absent in the playoffs. So victories are rarely a matter of luck. To win, a team must be nimble enough to spot an opponent's weaknesses as they appear during games and to exploit them immediately. No other NBA club does this as incisively as New York.

Were the winner of the playoffs determined by written exam, the Knicks would have a mortal lock on the championship. However, their record this year was only the league's fifth best, and playoff games must be played out as well as thought out; intelligence alone cannot overcome serious deficiencies in physical talent. That is another "if" for the Knicks. If they are going to make it to the finals, they will have to extract the utmost from the best of their "physical" players, most importantly Forward Dave DeBusschere. "We could have five Albert Einsteins out on the floor and we still wouldn't win," says DeBusschere on the mind vs. matter question. The Knicks are taller, faster and better shooters than Einstein ever was, and their defense is good enough to defuse an atom bomb. But they are not going to win any Nobel Prizes for rebounding (their average of 44.7 per game is the NBA's second worst) or scoring. The Knicks' patient offense has never scored a lot of points, and this year their average of 101.2 a game is next to last in the league.

Center Willis Reed, whose tortuous recovery last year from left-knee surgery culminated in an MVP performance in the final playoff round, could markedly help New York if he were in shape. But Reed has missed most of the season recuperating from an operation on his right knee, and although he is embarked on a hasty and courageous comeback, his usefulness to the Knicks, particularly in the initial two rounds, is likely to be slim indeed. Repeated predictions that New York will go nowhere without Willis have led some of his teammates to refer to him behind his back as "The Savior." Although they agree that a healthy Reed would be a healthy bonus, the Knicks are equally agreed that they can win without him. Their possible playoff opponents, except for Chicago, seem to concur. The Bulls admit to fearing no team, but all the rest would just as soon New York were out of it.

DeBusschere has an extra incentive for the playoffs this year. He will retire when they are over and would like to get in one last hurrah. He has been his team's most consistent rebounder, and he has helped diminish the effects of Reed's absence by putting together the best shooting percentage (46%) and second-highest scoring average (18.1) of his 12 pro seasons. Ever since he arrived in New York 5½ seasons ago, DeBusschere has been the coach on the floor the Knicks need to set their cerebral style. He has also been the tough defender who has led them to the top in that department five of the last six seasons. DeBusschere will have to do more of the same and then some for the Knicks in the playoffs, particularly if they meet Boston in the Eastern Conference finals. The responsibility for preventing the Celtics from controlling the offensive backboard, as they often did in winning five of seven against New York this year, will fall largely on DeBusschere, although against Boston he has been well under his season's averages in rebounding and scoring. If the Knicks can get past the Celtics—the only possible playoff rival holding a winning record against them—they will have met their toughest challenge. An above-average series from DeBusschere would go a long way toward making that happen. And if it did happen, all the Knicks could be in for a loud last hurrah.

If the multitude of NBA players who have been provoked, bruised and otherwise abused by Bulls Captain Jerry Sloan were to visit his suburban house outside Chicago, they would be—to put it mildly—surprised. This abrasive man's living room is filled with his valuable collection of rare old pottery. A recent visitor found Sloan on the phone haggling with an antique dealer over the price of a 100-year-old piece of doll's furniture. This is the same Sloan who has left the impression around the NBA that his main interest is in mayhem. Some players regard Sloan as dirty, mean and perhaps a little manic. Everybody agrees that he is tough.

Those who cannot understand why Sloan is willing to make plays that endanger his and other players' well-paid careers might like to see him in a different setting. Sloan taking a charge, diving for loose balls, fighting through, under and over picks is one thing. Sloan gently handling a piece of his pottery is something else. Sloan can look at the minute symbols on the bottom of a vase and tell you when and where the piece was made, who the potter was and what artist painted it. He has attacked the subject of crockery with the same intensity with which he assaults the game of basketball. His main purpose is not to create scenes on the court; it is just that full throttle is the way he approaches everything.

As the emotional pacesetter for the NBA's most emotionally driven team, Sloan will be the key man for Chicago from the moment the playoffs begin. The Bulls will open against Detroit in the most strenuous of the first-round matches. From the start they will require the usual offensive punch from Forwards Bob Love (21.9) and Chet Walker (19.4) and better than usual performances from their trio of anonymous centers. But most of all they will have to ignite the kind of disruption on the floor that is often produced by the fiery play of Sloan and his backcourt mate, Norm Van Lier. ("Van Lier's not playing with a full deck either," said a rival player last week as he discussed the Chicago guards.) Chicago wide open can frustrate smoother teams and even set them to fighting the Bulls instead of playing them.

It is the fifth year in a row for the Bulls in the playoffs, and one thing they are determined to change is their record of always being eliminated in the first round. This time emotional factors beyond Sloan's intensity will be working for them. Chicago Stadium with a capacity crowd is an ear-splitting place. Charged up by Sloan and Van Lier, and by the Mighty Stadium Organ—reputedly the world's largest—Bulls fans have lungpower to make visitors wish they were playing in a nice, sedate place like Madison Square Garden. This year, for the first time, Chicago will enjoy that home-court advantage in the opening round. The crowds will fan the Chicago fire, particularly against the inexperienced Pistons.

Following last year's bruising battle with Los Angeles, the Bulls realized how close they came to the title. They had led one of the eventual finalists in the last minute of the seventh game before losing. Had they beaten the Lakers, they probably would have been favored over their next two opponents. "That finally convinced us that we're actually as good as our record the last few years has indicated," says Sloan. "Now for the first time we're going into the playoffs thinking not just about somehow getting through the first round, but feeling we can win the whole thing." And they can, but only if Sloan and his teammates hit their opponents with every bullyish trick they know—and maybe a few pieces of pottery as well.

If Ray Scott, who has pulled off the coaching job of this—and perhaps any other—season knew what he had done to turn the Pistons around, he would tell you. Scott is not an evasive man. He directed Detroit to its best record ever and into the playoffs for the first time in six years, but all he can say about his success is that he has used the ploys all coaches use. During his 1½ seasons in Detroit there have been benchings, fines, clubhouse meetings, a few pats on the back, tough practices, constant harping on defense and an openness to players' suggestions. This leaves unresolved the question why these tactics work for some coaches and fail for others. In the case of Scott, who enjoys discussing such vagaries, the answer seems even more elusive than usual, if for no other reason than that he has not relied too heavily on any one of those tactics.

Even Scott's players are puzzled by the nature of their coach's contribution. "I can't tell you what Ray's done, but I know it's worked," says Bob Lanier, who this season became a sure and powerful center at both ends of the floor, scoring 22.5 points a game and keying Detroit's previously inept defense as it moved up among the league's best.

The most likely explanation is that Scott has succeeded simply by force of personality. The man has undeniable presence. At 6'9" he is taller than all but two Pistons and he stands straighter than any of them. He talks concisely and with self-assurance, his syntax is sound and his large vocabulary is free of malapropisms. And he is a man who can project an aura of strength with the slightest variation of inflection. As reporters who ask dumb questions and Pistons who make dumb plays have found out, Scott can burn a man's ears without raising his voice or lowering the quality of his language.

Detroit has good enough personnel, particularly in Lanier and Guard Dave Bing, and the defense-oriented attitude necessary to win a championship. Indeed, the Pistons may have one clear advantage over other teams because of Scott's willingness to substitute. He used four forwards and four guards per game consistently during the regular season, a flexibility that could gain a big edge if lineups need to be shuffled because of injuries during the playoffs. Closest to being irreplaceable among the Pistons are Lanier, Bing and Don (Smart) Adams, the paunchy, balding cornerman who is the team's self-proclaimed intellectual and best defensive forward.

But if the Pistons have the horses to succeed, they may not have quite the horse sense. Their starters have a total of just 12 games of playoff experience. Veterans agree that the pressures of the playoffs are dramatically different from those of the season, and there is no substitute for having run the gauntlet before.

No one realizes this better than Scott, whose own 11-year pro career included 48 playoff games. Detroit's opening round against Chicago will be the test. Scott knows that the Bulls are unlikely to crack under pressure and that to beat them the Pistons must be prepared to go seven tough games. But if the Pistons lose their cool, they could give the Bulls a quick win. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, Scott had already begun working on the Pistons' patience, slowing down their offense during games and practices, trying to force-feed them the poise they will need in the days ahead.

"The playoffs are when the game goes back to the coaches," Scott says. "You have more control of the team because you're not always running around trying to catch airplanes. You have more time to apply your theories. You can scrutinize scouting reports more clearly and you can intensify your preparations because you are free to concentrate on one team. But that is before the game starts. Once the whistle blows, control reverts to the players. In our case that means we will have to grow up even before we really have had a chance to experience the playoffs. The players will have to force themselves to do things they do not necessarily believe in simply because I tell them they are the right things to do."

If Scott can come up with one more forceful blast of persuasiveness, Detroit has a chance for a championship.