Los Angeles — As the 1984 National Basketball Association playoffs shrunk to four teams (Los Angeles vs. Phoenix in the West; Boston vs. Milwaukee in the East), the thing you had to marvel about were the super defenses that all four finalists played to get there.
''The best way to generate a strong offense is off your defense,'' explained L.A. Coach Pat Riley, who probably has the No. 1 fast-break team in the NBA. ''When you've got players who will work hard on defense, you can still win even on nights when you're not shooting very well as a team. It may be an old story, but it's also a true story. Force other teams into mistakes that result in them turning the ball over and invariably you wind up with a basket at the other end of the court.''
While this may sound like a recording, coaches K. C. Jones of Boston, Don Nelson of Milwaukee, and John MacLeod of Phoenix confirmed this opinion during the playoffs with similar statements of their own. In fact, the Celtics denied the ball so effectively to New York superstar Bernard King in their seventh game win over the Knicks that King returned to the dressing room at halftime with only seven points. Although Bernard would regain his normal shooting touch in the third and fourth periods to finish with 24 points, by then Boston had established a lead that was simply too big to erase.
The chief reason the Knicks never caught up was Larry Bird, who turned in a spectacular all-around game that had the Boston crowd chanting ''M-V-P,'' indicating its preference for Bird over King as the league's Most Valuable Player. Larry scored 39 points, a personal playoff high, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out 10 assists in the 121-104 victory.
Looking at the four remaining teams, Boston and Los Angeles are the favorites to reach the finals. However, there is more time to concentrate and prepare for an opponent in the playoffs, and that could make a difference. Remember, in upsetting the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in first-round play, the New Jersey Nets won three games on the 76ers' floor.
Although Milwaukee whipped Boston four straight in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics reversed that domination this year during the regular season by winning five of their six games with the Bucks. Boston also traded during the off-season for an experienced guard, Dennis Johnson, whose tight defense should make Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief work for his points - something he didn't have to do a year ago.
The Bucks are a well-balanced team that caught the Nets when they were sky-high emotionally, yet still beat them.
While Boston is expected to win its series against Milwaukee because of players like Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Johnson, and Kevin McHale, the Celtics do not come with any guarantees in their backcourt, except for Johnson.
While Los Angeles and Phoenix split six games during the regular season, the Lakers were subpar physically in at least two of those games and already hold a 1-0 lead against the Suns in the Western Conference finals. Phoenix also has no one coming off its bench with the consistent scoring power of Laker forwards James Worthy and Bob McAdoo, although Alvan Adams has occasionally been known to have a hot hand for the Suns.
Asked what the playoffs are really like from an emotional and a physical standpoint, the Lakers' Magic Johnson replied: ''What it's all about is the intensity level. You can't believe the intensity level in the playoffs unless you've been through it. It can destroy you if you let it, because everything you do is magnified so many times compared to what happens during the regular season.
''Me, I play better when the pressure is on,'' Johnson continued. ''It's just my makeup, I guess, and I don't really know why, except that I love basketball. As soon as one playoff game is over, I can't wait for the next one to begin. The juices flow and you know you have to establish something positive right away or it's a short series. You never even think about being tired because you know your emotions will carry you.''
Asked how, with so many variables, he can be so sure that the Lakers will perform up to their capabilities, Magic said: ''It's because of the groove, man. You have to find the groove as a team and we're in it. People say: 'What about this matchup, and what about that matchup?' I tell 'em that a lot of NBA teams match up well against each other, only that ain't what wins it. The groove is what wins it. You get everybody groovin' together, the way we did when we won the championship two years ago, and you know you're ready.''
Johnson, of course, is not alone in his opinion that the right groove is worth a truckload of strategy.
Asked during an early playoff round if he ever watched films, Doug Moe of the Denver Nuggets replied: ''Of course I do. I love that guy Tarzan!''