Coach's Corner

Some think the NBA season began on November 6. This is nonsense. The season, in fact,commenced on March 19, TDMR (The Day Mike Returned). Jordan's return flipped the Eastern Conference, like a D-Con'd palmetto bug, right on its twitching back. It turned the Bulls, 13-4 since his return, from an average and, what's worse, an exceptionally boring team, a team whose chances of advancing one crummy round into the playoffs were way less than bad, into every other team's "I'm-never-gonna-wake-up" nightmare. It added (what an understatement!) excitement into the dullest time of a too-long season. It's an electronic wet dream for the networks. Ratings are way up. For myself - a Bulls fan - TDMR added a jib to my jibe, put a smile on my face, and added some exquisite ecstasy to the life of a sportsfan whose tank needed replenishment For the first time in 730 days, my darkened TV room - with a bigger and better set - reverberates with the guttural howls of a twisted but happy sportsfan, sending my cowardly curs scurrying in abject horror to the relative safety of their cages, as a suddenly much-quicker Tony Kukoc jams another one home.

The East: Orlando (57-25) vs. Boston (35-47). Magic has, on paper anyway, the best team in the East. They can beat you inside with Shaq or outside with Hardaway. Ho Grant has been the steady vet Orlando hoped he'd be. A stunning 38-2 home record is tops in league. Still, there are doubts. Magic, the only top team unable to win on the road. Well, that's the whole point of getting home court advantage, isn't it? You don't have to win on the road. They've struggled lately. Depth is very questionable as games against top competition pile up. Despite O'Neal's obvious greatness, he can't make a free throw. Celtics are lucky to back into the final Eastern spot. Something about Celtic rookie Eric Montross pisses the Shaq off. He's been kicked out of two games with Boston for fighting the big white kid. Magic lost three of four at Boston. It'll be closer than it should. Magic in five.

New York (55-27) vs. Cleveland (43-39). If you follow this space regularly, you know my feelings on New York. I'll give 'em this, they're a tough, nasty bunch of scum. I thought this year the wheels, held together by nothing but pride, fear, and simple orneriness, would pop off. Here's a scoop: I was mistaken. Cleveland's a team with loads of nothing. Coach Fratello overcame a lack of talent by frustrating other teams to death. They hold the ball for 23.999 seconds before shooting. The result: Cavs' last in league in scoring and first in defense. Unfortunately for the Cadavers, this is how the New Yawners like to play. Look for some scores in the 60s in an ugly, ugly matchup. Knicks have experienced a tumultuous, angst-filled year. They look - please, God! - like a house ready to collapse. A noted and fierce pessimist in most areas, I look for an early and shocking Knicks departure, maybe right here. Cleveland in four.

Indiana (52-30) vs. Atlanta (42-40). Pacers suffer from Jordan's return most of all. For this one- or two-year period - as Orlando pays the dues it must - Indiana had the best team in the East. Young, tough, and talented. Sorry, guys. Atlanta, a weird, flukey best in East last year, has fallen way off. Indiana in three.

Chicago (47-35) vs. Charlotte (50-32). Chicago, with Jordan, defies all NBA conventions. Can't win without a point guard? Three championship rings prove otherwise. Pippen, Jordan, Arm-strong, and even Ku-koc play this position with a playground "Let me take it this time" abandon. Can't win without rebounding? Houston proved that wrong last year. Bulls in the title years were not a good rebounding team, but adequate. Most overlooked point of Jordan's return is a quantum defense improvement. With Pippen league leader in steals, and M.J. pressuring the ball, Chicago will cause lots of problems. My column-long orgasm with Michael over, I'm lying here, sated but uncomfortable. Chronically nervous about commitment, I cast about frantically for the flaw. How can I gracefully pose this question? "It's probably just my imagination honey, but, uh, you look slower going to the hoop than you did two years ago. Guess I'll be going now. Work, ya know." Call me biased; I am. Chicago's the best team in the East since TDMR. Oh, yeah - they have to play Charlotte first. Bulls in 4.

A couple of years ago I had a girlfriend. We began seeing each other just as the playoffs began. It created great internal conflict. We (I) didn't talk about it, clearly an ominous harbinger of troubled times to come. A lasting image is me, alone, parked on the highest bluff I could find looking out over Davis Mountain State Park. The sky is clear, good for romantic star-gazing, but even better for radio reception: I am my father's son. I'm delicately tuning the radio - by now I'd given up any pretense - trying to pick up a broadcast, from anywhere, of the Bulls/ Knicks conference final. My new pal was thinking, god knows what, in the campsite far below. For a sportsfan, the NBA playoffs are as good as it gets.

Next week: the West....

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