The Knicks, the Spurs and the Trail Blazers are all fine teams, all worthy conference finalists. There are intriguing story lines involving the revamped Knicks and their embattled coach, young Spurs phenom Tim Duncan showing the league what a polished and well-schooled player ought to look like, and a Portland team that has ascended quickly without having a single all-star. They're all nice teams, easy to root for, even the Knicks. But only one of the semifinalists stands out:
The Indiana Pacers.
They're a professional outfit from top to bottom and they're going to win the NBA title. They are 7-0 in the playoffs, having swept teams coached by two of the masters, George Karl and Larry Brown. They have the talent, size, depth, experience, smarts, guts, leadership and coach to win it all. They're the most worthy successor to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. "This is our opportunity," said Pacers Coach Larry Bird, who knows a thing or two about winning. "You can say, `Yeah, we can come back next year,' but just a couple of injuries can destroy everything. So we're here in the Eastern Conference finals. We got home-court advantage. . . . It's up to us to win and it's time for us to get over the hump."
Point guard Mark Jackson went even further when he said yesterday in Indianapolis, "We're looking forward to winning the whole thing. Anything else, we're not going to be satisfied. . . . This could be it. There's no Michael Jordan sitting in the wings. If we don't do it, it's our fault."
They have been in the conference finals four of the past six years. After Jordan and John Stockton, you can make the case that Reggie Miller has been the most clutch player in the postseason, jacking his career scoring average from 19.7 points to 23.7 per game in the playoffs, plus hitting game-winners again and again. Whatever fat had been in their game they have desperately sought to eliminate this postseason.
Forward Dale Davis told USA Today, "No showboating. No dancing. All that stopped. Everybody was focusing on Mark Jackson and the jiggle and Reggie and the dancing and all that. That's not basketball. You don't get to do those things unless you're the best."
This isn't to suggest it's going to be easy. To the contrary, the Knicks are soaring. Patrick Ewing is ailing, but his 7-foot-4 counterpart, Rik Smits, is hobbling with a broken toe. And, while the Pacers have one diversely talented young player to throw at New York (Jalen Rose), the Knicks can throw Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby at Indiana.
So what's the difference between the teams? Mark Jackson, for my money, is a lot better than Charlie Ward/Chris Childs. Hard as it might be to believe, Jackson is fifth all-time in career assists behind Stockton, Magic, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas. Another reason: Bird. He makes adjustments, from the obvious to the extremely subtle on the fly. Like putting Jackson back on the floor in the fourth quarter even though the unofficial coaching manual says to value defense (Travis Best) over offense. Don't expect the Sprewell-Camby combo to surprise Bird as it surprised Pat Riley and Lenny Wilkens. One more big reason the Pacers will beat the Knicks in six games: Reggie Miller. Like Jordan, playing in Madison Square Garden is a religious experience for him.
Of course, a 7-2 playoff record has the Knicks thinking it's their time. "They think it's their time right now to get over the hump, to get to the finals," Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "We feel it's our time."
The team that most resembles a young Indiana is Portland. Ten days ago, the Trail Blazers threw away Game 1 of the Utah series with some stupid mistakes that stamped "pretender" all over them. Since then, it's as if they have cornered the market on intelligent play. They, for the most part, took the best elbows Malone and Stockton could throw and kept trucking. (By the way, when did the phrase "window of opportunity" become exclusively associated with the Utah Jazz? Can they contend again next year? Yes, but only if management does something different and brings in a 7-footer who can score a dozen points or so a game and take the pressure off Malone, who wilted like a daisy in the desert in Game 6. Final five minutes of the game, no touches! Can you imagine Jordan having that sentence associated with his name? Barkley?)
In this post-Rodman era, if there's anybody you would want to go head-to-head with Tim Duncan right now, it's probably Brian Grant, who seems to understand perfectly what his team needs from him night to night, even if that changes radically.
The only reason I'm taking San Antonio over Portland in seven is that the Spurs are a veteran team with the most playoff-hardened veteran in this series: Mario Elie. And he'll be sticking to Isaiah Rider. Duncan is the best player in the league; Elie is the most important player in this series. That should narrowly overcome the slight edge Damon Stoudamire/Greg Anthony might have in tandem over Avery Johnson. David Robinson lost a big battle once before to Arvydas Sabonis (in the 1988 Seoul Olympics), but Robinson has been productive in his supporting role. Virtually everything about this series spells D-E-A-D E-V-E-N. What Portland needs is to stay on a roll and take Game 1, but I wonder how focused they'll be after that on-court striptease following the Game 6 victory over Utah. If you're that happy to get to the conference finals, does that mean you've already fulfilled all your goals for the season?
The best thing about the conference finals is that they simply have to be more competitive and more entertaining than the second-round series, which gave us some of the worst playoff basketball in 20 years. A fifth playoff series this decade between the Pacers and Knicks is bound to give us some drama; any series involving the Knicks these days has enough subplots to keep us on edge. San Antonio and Portland haven't been fixtures deep in the playoffs long enough to have us anticipate their every move and countermove.
Only one of the four semifinalists is that studied, that precise. And that's Indiana, which, while not a great team, could nonetheless continue to give these playoffs what they desperately need: great basketball.