Going into the National Basketball Association playoffs last week, it hardly seemed necessary to remind anyone that no team had won back-to-back titles since the 1967-68, 1968-69 Boston Celtics.
Upsets? Oh, there is always the possibility of one or two in the later rounds, especially if a team gets hot in the shooting department. But in the best-of-three miniseries that got the playoffs under way, all four favorites looked reasonably safe.
The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers would certainly beat the Houston Rockets; the New York Knicks the Chicago Bulls; the Portland Trail Blazers the Kansas City Kings; and the Philadelphia 76ers the Indiana Pacers.
Well, only the 76ers came through as expected with a neat two-game sweep of the Pacers.
The Rockets, with Moses Malone playing like the best center in the league (which he is) put the Lakers in mothballs by beating them twice at L.A. Malone dominated the three games with 94 points and 53 rebounds, while the Rockets also got a lot of offense from 5 ft., 10 in. Calvin Murphy, who contributed 62 points.
The Knicks, who exited quickly, never seemed able to contain the Bulls' massive front line; while the Kings, who won only three of their last nine regular-season games, had too much firepower for the Blazers.
In a further oddity, the home team won only 2 of 10 games in that first round of the playoffs, something that isn't supposed to happen in the NBA.
Asked to explain what the playoffs are all about, Magic Johnson of the Lakers replied: "Man, you can't believe the intensity level, the way the pressure builds. It can destroy you if you let it, because everything means so much -- like, for every mistake you pay a higher price than you did for the previous one."
"Teams that don't go out and find their natural groove right away can get blown away in the playoffs, and that's what happened to us," Magic continued. "Physically you have to box out under the boards; you have to play the tough defense; and you can't give up the inside to a guy like Moses Malone and not get hurt. Maybe some of us didn't play as hard as we could."
In addition to getting a super effort by Malone, the Rockets played a brand of disciplined basketball that had everybody helping everyone else and clearly reflected the great preparation of coach Del Harris and his staff.
Now, in one of two Western Conference best-of-seven semifinals, it's Houston vs. San Antonio, two teams that split six games during the regular season. They also split the first two playoffs games in San Antonio, thus shifting the home court advantage to the Rockets. And if Malone keeps playing the way he has so far, there is no telling how far they might go. Obviously this is not the same Houston team that lost two more games than it won during the regular season.
In the other Western semifinal, Phoenix (the Pacific Division champion) plays Kansas City in what appears to be a cakewalk for the Suns. That is, until you check the records and discover that Kansas City won three of five games from Phoenix in regular-season play.
The Kings pulled a bit of a surprise early in the playoff series. too. After getting trounced by 22 points in the opener, they upset the Suns, 88 to 83, in Game 2 at Phoenix. The feeling here, though, is that the Suns' tough defense, plus the rebounding of Truck Robinson, will still be more than enough to pull them through.
In the Eastern Conference, the powerful Philadelphia 76ers and the rock-hard Milwaukee Bucks are staging a tremendous battle. The 76ers were all-out to win the opener at home, 125-122, then the Bucks upset the defending Eastern champions 109 to 99 in Game 2, also at the Spectrum, to wrest away the home court advantage as the series moved to Milwaukee.
Although neither of these teams deserves to be out of the finals after the won-lost records it had during the regular season, one of them obviously has to be.
There is always a breaking point somewhere in the playoffs, and that will probably be the key to this series. It may come if veteran Milwaukee center Bob Lanier runs out of gas; or it could come if Philadelphia center Daryl Dawkins should misplace his concentration, something that has happened in previous playoffs.
In the other Eastern Conference semifinal, the Boston Celtics, already up 2-0 after a pair of one-sided victories at home, probably have too much balance for the hardworking but less talented Chicago Bulls. Anything less than a great series from Chicago center Artis Gilmore and the Bulls get an early trip back to the barn.
Although Boston depends heavily on center Robert Parish to get it the ball and on forward Larry Bird and guard Nate Archibald to keep the offense flowing, the Celtics can also beat you with their bench. Not many NBA teams have the luxury of a 6-9 defensive intimidator like Kevin McHale waiting on the sidelines. There is more help available up front in Rick Robey, and in the backcourt from M. L. Carr.
Most "guesstimates" put Boston and Philadelphia in the Eastern finals, Phoenix and Houston in the West.