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Original Issue


Houston Rockets forward Kevin Willis caught a long pass and was
headed for a breakaway basket last Saturday when Minnesota
Timberwolves forward Sam Mitchell caught up with him and clubbed
Willis across the face with a forearm, preventing the bucket and
sending Willis sprawling. The predictable melee ensued, with
Mitchell and Willis at the center, taunting and threatening each
other. The enraged fans at the Summit jeered Mitchell and called
for him to be ejected, which he was. (Mitchell later was fined
$10,000 and Willis $7,500.) In the midst of this madness, during
Game 2 of an NBA playoff series, 34-year-old Minnesota guard
Terry Porter, a veteran of 10 postseasons with the Portland
Trail Blazers, strolled over to the scorer's table, smiled
broadly at the chaos and said, "Oh, yeah, now I remember. That's
what the playoffs are all about."

That kind of incident may not be all that the playoffs are
about, but it did help remind everyone that the NBA postseason
resembles the regular season about as much as Muggsy Bogues
looks like Gheorghe Muresan. The first few games of the eight
best-of-five opening-round series last week established those
differences: a more aggressive style of play, more thorough
preparation, imaginative motivational schemes and new on-court
wrinkles to befuddle foes. "If you don't go into the playoffs
knowing that they're nothing like the regular season, it's
already too late," says New York Knicks guard John Starks, a
veteran of seven postseasons. "By the time you figure it out,
you'll already be on the plane ride home." The Charlotte
Hornets, who won three of their four regular-season games
against the Knicks, obviously didn't figure it out, as New York
completed its sweep of the Hornets with a 104-95 win on Monday

Here's a rundown of the elements of playoff basketball that made
their annual reappearance last week.

Emotion. The 82-game regular season is so long that repeated
motivational ploys and inspirational speeches would lose their
effectiveness before February's All-Star break. But to gain a
psychological edge in a short playoff series, coaches and team
executives don't hesitate to shift into the Knute Rockne mode.
Before his team's series with the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks
vice president and general manager Pete Babcock gave each Hawks
player a photo of an NBA championship ring with the player's
name inscribed on it. Printed underneath the rings was PRICE:
COMMITMENT. (The Hawks split the first two games at the Omni.)

As the Knicks prepared for the Hornets, they adopted the motto,
Make 'em feel ya, a reminder to be physical and aggressive on
defense. Each player was given a T-shirt with the phrase printed
on the back. Several Knicks also shaved their heads as a sign of
unity (making New York's clippers far more effective than
L.A.'s, who lost the first two games of their series against the
Utah Jazz). Some of New York's key players, including Starks,
center Patrick Ewing and forward Buck Williams, weren't willing
to sacrifice their hair for the sake of the team, but teammates
were especially understanding of Williams's decision. "Buck's
head is so square," said point guard Chris Childs, "that if he
shaved it, he'd look like a toaster."

Leading up to their series against the Washington Bullets, the
Chicago Bulls returned to their annual practice of talking
sparingly to the media during the postseason, a result of
Michael Jordan's and coach Phil Jackson's belief that the
unofficial gag order helps the team concentrate. That silence
extended to the 90-minute weightlifting sessions that Jordan and
teammates Ron Harper and Scottie Pippen go through regularly at
the gym in Jordan's home. The trio has been meeting for the
workouts all season, but unlike the rest of the year, according
to Harper, not a word was spoken at last week's sessions, a sign
that the three were getting their playoff game faces on.

Preparation. The preplayoff minicamp has caught on in the last
several years as a way for teams to hone their game and dissect
the opposition. Among the teams that went on retreat for a few
days were the Bullets, who gathered in Shepherdstown, W.Va.; the
Knicks, who repaired to Charleston, S.C.; the Rockets, who
headed for Galveston, Texas; and the Miami Heat, who went to
Boca Raton, Fla. Miami coach Pat Riley put his team through
double-session workouts during the first two days of the
three-day camp, intense preparation that seemed to pay off in
the Heat's demolition of the Orlando Magic, 99-64 and 104-87, in
the first two games of their series.

"Take the amount of preparation you do for a team in the regular
season and multiply it by about five or 10," Atlanta coach Lenny
Wilkens says of time spent in minicamp. For example, using
edited videotapes, Minnesota coach Flip Saunders was able to
tell his starting center, Dean Garrett, everything Garrett
needed to know about Houston center Hakeem Olajuwon. "We scouted
37 Rockets games," says Saunders. "In those games Hakeem touched
the ball 480 times when he wasn't double-teamed and then shot
the ball 460 times. There were about 375 times when Olajuwon was
double-teamed, and then he only shot the ball 128 times." That
information helped the Timberwolves, making their first
postseason appearance, hold Olajuwon to 18 points in each game,
but even that wasn't enough to keep the Rockets from taking a
2-0 series lead.

Strategy. Because they can concentrate on one opponent during
each playoff round, teams can add wrinkles specifically designed
to derail that foe. The teams that changed their regular-season
approach in subtle but significant ways had more success last
week than the teams that played a pat hand. The Knicks, who
during the regular season had been unable to contain Hornets
high-scoring swingman Glen Rice, changed their approach to
guarding him. When he was on the perimeter, the Knicks ran a
second defender at him. When he was in the low post, they denied
him the ball by placing a defender in front of him and putting
heavy pressure on the player with the ball. The strategy worked:
Rice, who averaged a league-best 29.1 points after the All-Star
break, scored 22 in Game 1, but several came after New York was
well on its way to a 109-99 win. Charlotte made an adjustment in
Game 2, with Rice often driving to the basket in an effort to
draw fouls. He scored 15 of his 39 points from the line, but he
was quiet in the crucial fourth quarter, scoring only six points
as the Knicks pulled away for a 100-93 victory.

Chicago added a twist to its defensive plan against Washington,
matching Jordan against Bullets point guard Rod Strickland. The
Bulls, concerned about conserving the 34-year-old Jordan's
energy, used him to defend against point guards only
occasionally during the regular season, but Strickland is so
essential to the Bullets' offense that Jackson felt the move was
necessary this early in the playoffs. In Game 1, a 98-86 Chicago
victory, Strickland did score 19 points; however, 10 of them
came in the first quarter. "Strickland is a tough point guard,
but I think he got a little tired in the second half," Jordan
said after the game. That was particularly true late in the
fourth quarter, when a fatigued Strickland allowed Bulls guard
Steve Kerr to beat him down the floor for a pair of critical

The Heat employed a similar tactic against the Magic in their
series opener. For the first time this season Miami used 6'8"
forward Jamal Mashburn, rather than 6-foot point guard Tim
Hardaway (page 28), as the primary defender against 6'7" Orlando
point guard Penny Hardaway. The move not only frustrated
Orlando's Hardaway, who finished with just 13 points on 6-for-16
shooting, but also seemed to throw the entire Magic offense out
of sync.

Two teams that chose to stand pat tactically paid for it.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers the Trail Blazers won three of
four regular-season games while allowing their big men, Arvydas
Sabonis and Chris Dudley, to defend Shaquille O'Neal one-on-one
most of the time. The Blazers stuck to that approach in Game 1
of their playoff series last Friday, and O'Neal scorched them
for 46 points in a 95-77 Lakers victory. Portland double-teamed
him a bit more often in Game 2, but not enough to keep O'Neal
from scoring 30 points in the Lakers' 107-93 win.

The Seattle SuperSonics refused to modify their signature
trapping, rotating defense against the Phoenix Suns even though
Phoenix, with its helter-skelter four-guard offense, seemed
uniquely equipped to handle the Sonics' pressure. In Game 1, the
Suns simply moved the ball more quickly than the Sonics could
rotate and found the open man, who was usually guard Rex
Chapman. The 6'4" Chapman set a playoff record by making nine
three-pointers (in 17 attempts) and scoring 42 points in a
106-101 Phoenix win. "Don't rotate?" said Seattle forward Sam
Perkins after Game 1. "We've rotated all year. We can't change
up because of one game." The Sonics' faith in their defensive
philosophy was rewarded in Game 2, when the Suns didn't shoot
nearly as well from the perimeter. Seattle easily won that game
122-78, but the Sonics headed to Phoenix needing a win on the
road to avoid being upset in the first round for the third time
in four years.

Role Players. Starks and teammate Charles Oakley, a forward, are
examples of complementary players who step into the spotlight
during the postseason. In the opener against Charlotte, Starks
scored 19 points and had seven assists in only 27 minutes, while
the rugged Oakley made a team-high three steals. In the Game 2
win, Oakley led New York with 10 rebounds.

However, the unofficial president of the elite role-players'
club is Houston guard-forward Mario Elie. One of the most
memorable shots in Rockets' history was the three-pointer he hit
to seal a playoff-series win in Phoenix in 1995, a trey that
Elie punctuated by blowing the Suns a goodbye kiss. He has been
a postseason terror ever since, probably because he always seems
to be preparing for the playoffs. This year he bought a
satellite dish for his house so he could scout potential
opponents. "I consider this my time of year," Elie says. "I'm up
all night watching games like a basketball junkie and wondering
who we might play next and how I might guard someone." He
apparently did his homework on 6'10" Minnesota forward Tom
Gugliotta, the Wolves' leading scorer in the regular season
(20.6 average). Despite giving up five inches to Gugliotta, Elie
held him to 11 points in the Rockets' 112-95 win in Game 1.
"Mario has been our MVP this year," says Houston forward Charles

It is hard to think of MVPs without Jordan coming to mind. He
capped the first weekend of the postseason with one of his
virtuoso performances, a 55-point effort that rescued the Bulls
in their 109-104 win over the Bullets in Game 2 on Sunday. That
proves there is at least one thing that does not vary from
regular season to postseason: Jordan's greatness.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Portland's Kenny Anderson (7) grasped the physical nature of the playoffs as he tried to keep up with L.A.'s Nick Van Exel.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN New York altered its coverage of Rice (41) and held the high-scoring Hornet to 22 points in the opener. [Buck Williams, Anthony Mason, Glen Rice, Allan Houston, John Starks and Matt Geiger in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Aided by Clyde Drexler, the unsung Elie (left) again showed his playoff mettle by bottling up Gugliotta. [Mario Elie, Tom Gugliotta and Clyde Drexler in game]