The 1986 NBA playoffs began with high expectations and anticipation of some dream matchups, among them the Los Angeles Lakers and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar versus the Houston Rockets and Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, then, ultimately -- seemingly unavoidably -- the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers for the title.
In one 24-hour period, though, reality intruded like so many Dominique Wilkins slam dunks or Mark Aguirre and Alex English jump shots. Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks, led by Wilkins, staved off elimination in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Celtics. Even more shockingly, the Lakers and Rockets -- overwhelming favorites to meet for the Western Conference championship -- found themselves in dogfights in their semifinal series after losing to Dallas and Denver, respectively.
Tuesday, all three series will resume, with the Hawks facing the most difficult task -- trying to become the first team to win in Boston Garden since Dec. 8. Since then the Celtics -- who lead the best-of-seven series, 3-1 -- have won 35 straight games, and they are 44-1 there for the season.
After having tied their respective series at two games each, Denver and Dallas also are hoping to overcome major obstacles: the Nuggets haven't won in the Summit in Houston since the 1983-84 season, and the Mavericks never have won a playoff game at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Still, both teams have mounting expectations.
"It would be a big disappointment if we don't win the series ," said Dallas guard Rolando Blackman following the Mavericks' 120-118 Game 4 victory.
Added Coach Dick Motta: "We should be ahead three games to one."
Said Denver forward English, who scored 28 points in the Nuggets' 114-111 overtime win Sunday, "I think sometimes people don't realize how good this team can be."
The Rockets used a late-season surge to pass Denver and win the Midwest Division this year. The playoff series between the teams wasn't expected to be so close because of injuries to Denver center Wayne Cooper and guard/forward Bill Hanzlik.
"That would have made it very lopsided," said Milwaukee Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "I don't know how Denver would have gotten through a game without them."
But both have participated in the semifinals, with Hanzlik playing a major role in Sunday's game with effective defensive work against Houston's Ralph Sampson, who, at 7-4, stands nine inches taller. "He was magnificent," Denver Coach Doug Moe said of Hanzlik.
Nelson described Sunday's action as "great basketball," but it did little to change his thinking about the best in the league.
"Boston is still the most dominating team," he said. "Dallas won one game on a fluke but they've taken two close ones. You're playing the better teams now so that could happen to anybody. I don't think a 2-2 series is a big, big shock. The Lakers aren't the defensive team that Boston is; occasionally they'll let someone outscore them."
Although not professing shock, Lakers Coach Pat Riley said he was more than a bit annoyed at the prospect of being extended to at least two more games by the Mavericks and at his team's failure to pull out the close ones.
"We're a veteran club and should be putting teams away," he said.
Given the results so far, who's to argue that the NBA is on the verge of joining the National Hockey League in an upset-filled postseason? At least, that's the argument emanating from Dallas.
"I expect us to go to L.A. and play even better," said guard Derek Harper, who has made seven of 10 three-point field goal attempts in the series.
Added Motta: "The Lakers probably aren't going to win the world championship. Somebody is going to beat them along the way . . . so it might as well be us."