Four -- or is it 8? -- teams vie for the NBA title

Often the National Basketball Association playoffs produce orderly results, such as last year when the finalists were again the Seattle SuperSonics and the Washington Bullets, with the Sonics winning.

But the chances of that happening this year are about the same as a reduction in gasoline prices. There are four teams that should win it (obviously only one can) and four teams that could win it.

The four that look like championship material are Seattle, the Boston Celtics , the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Philadelphia 76ers. And the four with a license to play Cinderella are the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Kansas City Kings.

Although no NBA team has won back- to-back titles since Boston in 1968 and ' 69, Seattle is such a well-balanced team and plays such tough defense that it is difficult for anyone to pick against them.

"The difference between the playoffs and the regular season is that playoff teams get a chance to study their opponents between games and get ready for them ," explained Sonics Coach Lenny Wilkens. "This is something we've done very well in the past, and in the playoffs experience can often be a determining factor, especially in road games."

Still there are those who prefer Los Angeles because of MVP candidate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers' three-guard speed force of Norman Nixon, Magic Johnson , and Mike Cooper, plus the second-best offense in the league. The only place LA has shown any weakness is in road games against Western Conference opponents.

There has also been a great attitude change in Abdul-Jabbar (credited to new enthusiasm instilled by rookie Magic Johnson) that has once again made Kareem the No. 1 center in pro basketball. Where a year ago Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't take an elbow in the chest to score a basket, he is now playing like a man who wants a championship.

The Celtics, a team of role players like the Sonics, have won even when center Dave Cowens was injured. However, Boston's catalyst has been rookie forward Larry Bird, whose rebounding has been almost as important to the Celtics' success as his passing and scoring.

A lot of people (and I suspect Boston Coach Bill Fitch may be one of them) aren't sure that the Celtics have been together long enough to win the playoffs. A lot may depend on how hard or how easy things go for Boston in the team's first round.

Those who like the chances of the Philadelphia 76ers obviously prefer power basketball, which finds the stronger team dominating both backboards and getting 10 to 15 more shots per game than its opponent.

The 76ers have upgraded their defense this season, gotten superb years out of Julius Erving and center Darryl Dawkins, and improved their guard situation by obtaining Lionel Hollins from the Portland Trail Blazers.

While few experts feel that Phoenix, Atlanta, Milwaukee, or Kansas City is strong enough to go all the way in the playoffs, there almost has to be at least one spoiler in that group.

The Suns, by picking up center Rich Kelley just prior to the Feb. 15 trading deadline, have added rebounding and taken a lot of board pressure off Alvan Adams and Truck Robinson.

While the Hawks continue to maintain a low profile in the star department, they play great team basketball, make few mistakes, and are as hungry as the US hockey team that beat the Soviets in the Olympics.

Milwaukee, strong to begin with, recently added center Bob Lanier to a team that already has people like Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, and Brian Winters. "I know we're good," said Coach Don Nelson, "because we win on the road."

Kansas City is included in this final four because of its firepower and the fact that it has a clever coach in Cotton Fitzsimmons. The problem is at center , where Sam Lacey gets little in the way of backup help.

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