'Tis a barren and lonely landscape indeed that an old fan gazes out upon. It wasn't long ago that this room was the scene of annual quests for a grail as holy as any Lancelot and his worthy Knights endeavored to uncover. For the past 10 springs this room bore witness to a long, mostly successful crusade. On occasion the room felt the soft droplet of the odd tear. More often it shook with the passionate roar of triumph.
But now, at spawning time, though noise still emanates from the television set -- whistles still blow, Kenny Smith still mumbles, and Fords are still Texas tough -- though all this is still the same, it's all wrong. The lucky boxers slumber in the grass; the logoed sweatshirts sit lonely and unused, deep in a closet. A rancid odor of decay swells from within the periwinkle blue walls. The large TV picture the old fan was so proud of now seems lurid and grotesque: a mockery of what once was. A grim reminder of reality '99.
Such is the professional basketball landscape as seen through the eyes of a loyal, wizened Bulls fan. Still, he has a job to do. Yes, much of the passion's gone, but the quasi-educated opinions remain, along with the abundant crackpot theories.
The fan, not as patient as in days of yore, wants to cut quickly to the chase. In the East (so very far from Eden!), where three teams tied for the best record and only eight games separated the #1 seed from #8, the veteran teams in Miami and Indiana will prevail. The fan's vitriol for the Heat's Pat Riley is well-known. If many teams adopted Slick Patty's mug 'em and leave 'em for dead philosophy, soccer would become a real option. The Heat win by holding opponents to the fewest points, baskets, lowest field-goal percentage, are "best" at holding teams -- quite literally -- under 100 points and inducing deadly insomnia. The reason the Riley-created Knicks give them such trouble is in New York they face a distorted mirror image. If the Heat can get past New York, they'll ugly their way to the finals, to face the oddly maligned Indiana Pacers, who are victims to the media expectations once reserved for Chicago. A .660 winning percentage isn't so bad, is it? Larry Bird's team is a group of hard professionals who know how close they came to beating the Bulls last year. They're also a more versatile team than Miami.
In any case, however, the championship trophy will move this year over to the West, which owns all the home court advantage scenarios. You could make a case for the Lakers. O'Neal is undeniably an unstoppable force; young Kobe remains, at any moment, capable of -- for good or ill -- Kobiesque feats. Glen Rice is 40 points waiting to explode every night. But I won't. The desperate gamble for Rodman vividly revealed a desperate Laker problem: no inside game. This and spotty guard play will be L.A.'s undoing, probably by Houston.
You could make a case for the Rockets, too. Pound-for-pound, Charles Barkley may be the most remarkable athlete of our time. Hakeem's still capable of big nights. Pippen's a triple-double threat every night. And those wild rookies -- love that Rockets front office! The two mid-decade championship teams looked a little like this, but so many things went just so for the Rockets those years. A puny game differential of three points doesn't look so hot either. So I won't.
Portland has been, hands down, the surprise team of the year. Mike Dunleavy's skilled, diplomatic handling of a deep, talented roster had the Blazers as the top club in the league for much of the short season. They finished badly, however (8-9), and the unselfish attitude of big egos gettingfewer minutes for the "good of the team" seems to be wearing thin. Isaiah Rider, a sweet talent, is a point-scoring Rodman with brown hair. I don't believe in Portland.
This leaves only two: implacable old foes, San Antonio and Utah. Everybody loves Utah and justly so. In fact, if you've read this far, there's little about the pre-season favorite you don't know. Malone, Stockton, and Hornacek are givens. It's the great improvement in Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley, and indeed, The White Tornado, Greg Ostertag, that makes Utah so tough. If being the Bulls' girlfriend for the past two years entitled them to a free game, I'd like 'em too -- but it doesn't, so I like San Antonio to knock them off in seven games.
The average margin of victory -- point differential -- is a reliable barometer for success. The Spurs, to my surprise, killed the rest of the league in this area, winning games by an average of eight points a night, almost two points better than the number-two team, which happens to be Utah. The Spurs, always known for a Boy Scout team mentality, seem like they've spent the winter in a big, happy treehouse. They have home-court advantage over any team they play.
It will take a run to the finals to get the citizens of San Antonio to vote the Spurs out of the Alamodome -- the worst stadium in the league. That alone is reason enough to give them the nod.
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