What one must understand about the National Basketball Association playoffs is that the games are usually nothing like those contested during the regular season.
The difference is in how much more intensity the players bring to their work; how much more physical everyone gets on defense; and how much more teams pay for their mistakes. Tempers are often short, with fights a not-infrequent result.
However, there are those who do not think this year's playoffs are worth all the bother. Mostly these people are from Philadelphia, where for a while it looked as though the powerful 76ers might finish the regular season with a record 70 victories.
Well, chiefly because of injuries to several key players, Philadelphia had to settle for a mere 65 wins. But there is no reason, barring the unforeseen, why the 76ers shouldn't whip through the playoffs the way the Boston Celtics did in the days of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and John Havlicek.
On defense, no team is close to Philadelphia in the late stages of a game when Moses Malone is blocking shots and controlling both backboards. On offense, the 76ers provide opponents with the most difficult problem in that area known as matchups: the balancing of personnel between teams.
There is really no one around who can handle Malone, forward Julius Erving, or guard Andrew Toney for an entire series. Philadelphia also has the perfect playmaker for that group in Maurice Cheeks, plus the self-sacrificing Bobby Jones to do the pick-and-shovel work on defense.
Last Sunday Malone, Erving, and Toney combined for 60 points as the 76ers beat the New York Knicks easily in the opening game of their best-of-seven semifinal Eastern Conference series.
Of course Boston, because it also has a dominant player in forward Larry Bird and a multi-talented center in Robert Parrish, is always a threat. In fact, Bird can sometimes carry a team for short periods all by himself. But the Celtics' backcourt any time Nate Archibald isn't able to turn the clock back to 1980-81 (the last time Boston won a title) is often quite ordinary.
The Celtics, after eliminating Atlanta in the first round, begin a best-of-seven series this week against Milwaukee, with whom they split six games during the regular season. While the Bucks can be awfully tough, they don't have the depth or rebounding strength that Boston has behind Parrish in Kevin McHale and Rick Robey.
In the NBA's Western Conference, injuries to two members of the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers (rookie James Worthy and Bob McAdoo) will make their job harder but not impossible.
Although LA currently leads Portland 1-0 in their best-of-seven series, its real test is expected to come later against San Antonio, which won four of five games from the Lakers during the regular season.
But if Kareem Abdul-Jabbar decides he wants to play hard against the Spurs' Artis Gilmore (whose physical style has always given Kareem trouble in the past) , then Magic Johnson & Co. should be able to run with their usual success. Anyway, you can assume that George Gervin of the Spurs and Jamaal Wilkes of the Lakers will get their points no matter what happens.
A Los Angeles-San Antonio confrontation, however, can come about only if the Spurs eliminate Denver and the Lakers oust the Trailblazers.
Even though Denver's opening-round victory over Phoenix seemed to surprise some people, there is no reason why it should have, since the Nuggets had a 4-1 record against the Suns during the regular season. But while Denver's front line of NBA scoring champion Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Dan Issel is able to run up high scores against any team, the squad may not have enough overall depth or defensive savvy to handle San Antonio. The Nuggets, who have made a habit of playing defense on the installment plan, always seem to be behind in their payments!
As for the LA-Portland series, the Trailblazers play one of the best trap-zone defenses in the league, but they just don't have anyone on their roster who can contain Abdul-Jabbar or Magic Johnson.