Almost every year, it seems, some team the experts didn't take seriously stirs things up in the National Basketball Association playoffs -- sometimes even going all the way to the finals.M Last year it was the Houston Rockets, who finished two games under .500 during the regular season, yet advanced to the league's championship series, where they lost to Boston. Currently auditioning for that role are the San Antonio Spurs, who have towroped the field in the Midwest Division while averaging almost 113 points per game.
Although San Antonio's won-loss record suggests that it deserves to be rated with such powers as Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee, there is still a certain reluctance to grant that status.
Teams like San Antonio that have a history of relying chiefly on one man (in this case George Gervin) for their scoring usually don't do well in the playoffs , where the level of defense rises sharply. The Spurs, however, are not so one-dimensional scoring-wise since they acquired forward Mike Mitchell partway into the season from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
''At one time we probably did go to Gervin too much for the key basket near the end of a close game,'' explained San Antonio Coach Stan Albeck. ''Opposing coaches would put their best defending player on George, or double-team him, or do anything they could to stop him.
''But I think we've overcome that problem by getting Mitchell, who is not only a great shooter, but is also someone who can get good position inside,'' Albeck continued. ''With Mike we have a lot more offensive balance, yet we haven't interfered with Gervin's scoring territory, which is outside.''
When the Spurs want to flex their muscles, they have the personnel to do so. Their aggressive and bulky frontcourt players are right off the face of Mt. Rushmore and are known as the Bruise Brothers.
The names you have to remember are George Johnson, who plays center, plus forwards Mark Olberding and Mitchell, who has been averaging close to 20 points a game. Getting a rebound from any of those three is like taking candy from a baby - a baby gorilla!
Gervin, who starts in the backcourt next to Johnny Moore and whose shooting range is about the length of an aircraft carrier, has been the NBA scoring champion three of the last four seasons. Moore earns his money by leading the team in assists and steals and playing big-league defense.
On the bench are Dave Corzine, Roger Phegley, Mike Bratz, and Paul Griffin, plus rookies Gene Banks and Ed Rains. Banks is a better-than-average first-year forward, who leads the team's reserves in minutes played.
But the man who makes it come out right is Albeck, whose 70-page playbook is not exactly what it seems to be and whose 1980-81 team (53-20) won the Midwest Division title by 12 games.
''Oh, there are numerous plays in that book all right, including what we want to do offensively and defensively,'' Stan said. ''But it is also intended to tell the goals of the Spurs' organization, my philosophy as a coach, and the role of each player. In fact I don't think any player could read it and not have a better understanding of what we're trying to accomplish.''
Offensively, Albeck says he is looking for 50 points and 46 rebounds a game from his front line. Broken down, he wants a total of 13 points and 30 rebounds from his two centers, Johnson and Corzine, with his forwards providing the remainder of those numbers.
Stan also wants 50 points from his backcourt, which sounds like a lot, but may not be when you consider that Gervin is averaging better than 32 per outing.
A hundred points are not enough to win most games, even with the improved defense San Antonio has played the last two years. But once you add in the 12 to 30 points the Spurs get regularly from their reserves, this becomes a team that should not be taken lightly in the playoffs.
''A lot of what happens in pro basketball goes in cycles,'' Albeck said. ''We've gone through stretches this season when we've been great and stretches when we've been flat, and I don't have a quick explanation for either. But anytime we've taken a lead into the fourth period, not many teams have been able to catch us.''