What would basketball be like with shorter playoffs, less muscle?

National Basketball Association officials may or may not perceive a need to shorten the playoffs and lessen mayhem in the lane area, but both seem desirable goals.

At times, the unchecked struggles that occur near the basket, especially in the playoffs, resemble Greco-Roman wrestling or "gorilla basketball."

The "let 'em play" attitude has some merit, since no fan pays to see a succession of foul shots. But too much of a laissez faire approach by the officials can alter the game's very nature -- from one of skill to one of brute force. And, ironically, the tremendous skill of NBA players has always been among the league's chief selling points.

Basketball is a contact sport. Why else would Houston center Moses Malone wear a mouthpiece? Still, there's no reason to let play become too physical. Maybe the NBA should reinstate a third official to patrol the lane. His assignment would be to determine who's initiating the contact inside, thereby nipping potential shoving matches in the bud.

Shortening the playoffs, the NBA's so-called "second season," could make for a more compelling product. As it is, the playoffs meander on for weeks (they began March 31, ending when Boston clinched the championship on May 14). Sometimes not even local fans can sustain their interest, a fact underlined by the half-empty Philadelphia Spectrum for the 76ers' seventh game with Milwaukee.

A single-elimination format, as used at the college level, is unrealistic, since club owners want the revenue from additional games. Yet a compromise seems in order. Under the present setup, the champions must win at least three best-of-seven series, and sometimes have to survive a best-of-three preliminary round as well.

At the very least, the quarterfinals and semifinals should be cut back to a maximum of five games, and maybe three. Fewer games would mean less in gate receipts, but perhaps more prime-time exposure and TV money. Furthermore, a shorter playoff might prevent some superior teams from losing out in a war of attrition.

Football, remember, uses a one-game playoff format up to and including the Super Bowl, while baseball has only a single best-of-five playoff in each league , followed by the World Series.

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