Pistons, Hawks elbow way into pro basketball's power elite

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Two young camels have their heads in the tent of perennial powers Los Angeles and Boston as the National Basketball Association approaches the halfway mark of its 82-game regular season. The camels are the Atlanta Hawks and the Detroit Pistons. This isn't to say the NBA is going to have a new champion come June. The defending champion Lakers recently reeled off a dozen wins in a row, and the Celtics can still rise to the occasion. But the price of victory has gone up - and in the playoffs it can get even higher.

What sets Atlanta and Detroit apart from other young teams like Dallas, Portland, and Chicago is that the Hawks and the Pistons have learned to win on the road. They also have people who can get them the ball off the boards, play the tough defense, run the fast break, and make a significant contribution off the bench.

Atlanta's big offensive gun, as usual, is the spectacular Dominique Wilkins, who is scoring at a 26.5 points-per-game clip. Other players who have made major contributions to the Hawks' improvement this season are center-forward Kevin Willis, forward Cliff Levingston, and guards Glenn (Doc) Rivers and Randy Wittman.

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The Hawks also have a gifted young coach in Mike Fratello, who likes big people who can bang under the boards and nullify the kind of quickness found on teams like the Lakers.

Fratello believes that by being aggressive you can make a player like L.A.'s Magic Johnson or Boston's Larry Bird pay such a physical price that he'll ``disappear'' in the second half of the game.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Mike. However, in the past three seasons, Atlanta has gone from 34-48 to 50-32 to 57-25! And at this writing the 1987-88 Hawks are playing well over .700 basketball, with a record second only to that of the Lakers.

Power basketball has also become the trademark of the Pistons, who won 52 games last season and then upset Atlanta in the playoffs before losing a tough, seven-game series to Boston. Those who make it happen for the Pistons include center Bill Laimbeer, forwards Adrian Dantley and Rick Mahorn, and guards Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

Thomas is always All-Star material; Dantley can score against anybody; and Laimbeer has the kind of body that can knock down a rock house. Mahorn, like Laimbeer, is pretty good about throwing his weight around, too.

Even though coach Chuck Daly took the Pistons to a 52-30 record last season after identical 46-36 marks the previous two campaigns, rumors still persist that this is a split team inside the locker room. However, other teams with similar reputations have gone on to win championships.

Those who think the Lakers aren't quite as good as they once were (because they lost five games between Nov. 22 and Dec. 9) may actually be seeing boredom and not slippage.

While we may never know how good a strategist Pat Riley is until he has to handle a team like Phoenix, the L.A. coach may be the greatest juggler of egos since Red Auerbach and Alex Hannum. Most of the time he somehow keeps the troops happy but motivated.

Pat's biggest job this season will be to guide the Lakers through the playoffs with a 41-year-old center (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) who is going to have to rebound more than he does during the regular season.

Yet, come playoff time the Boston Celtics are probably going to be in a lot more trouble than L.A. Even though Bird, after lifting weights during the off-season, is probably in the best shape of his career, Larry can't do it alone.

He might come close, actually, if he were tall enough to play center, or if Bill Walton were still around to help Robert Parish in the middle. Neither of these conditions applies, though, and when the Celtics have to go to their bench, it shows.

One mark of a championship team is the ability to win on the road - something Boston teams used to do with regularity. But away from Boston Garden, the Celtics don't scare anyone anymore. Last season for the first time in eight years they had a losing record on the road, followed by seven straight road losses in the last three rounds of the playoffs.

Somewhere along the line, if Boston is to again reach the finals, it is probably going to have to win a best-of-seven series from either Atlanta or Detroit. The Celtics could possibly do it if Kevin McHale were to have a super series, or if they got some unexpected help from the bench. The former is highly possible, but the latter is one of coach K.C. Jones's tamest dreams.

Teams with the potential to play the role of spoilers include Portland, Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Chicago.

In fact Houston, if Akeem the Dream Olajuwon were suddenly to have an MVP season and Sleepy Floyd were to wake up for the rest of the year, might yet become the NBA's answer to baseball's Minnesota Twins.

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