The National Basketball Association playoffs start today. Thirty thousand dollars glitter at the end of the road. Each player doesn't just want a chunk of it; he wants it all. Eight teams are fighting for the prize.
Of those squads, the Milwaukee Bucks have the best won-lost season record. The Celtics are a perennial threat, and the defending champion New York Knicks can't be counted out.
Tom "Satch" Sanders offers a prediction that no one will find surprising: "I think the Celtics ought to win the whole thing this year. I think the Celtics have had the best team in the league for the past two or three years. After the emergence of Dave Cowens as the best center in the game on a seasonal basis, I thought they should have won it last year and the year before that for that matter."
Personal preferences don't make accurate predictions, however. A host of factors contribute of playoff success.
Last year, the Celts looked insurmountable going into the playoffs. They had the best won-lost record during the regular season. Dave Cowens's wanton pillage of opposing teams earned him Most Valuable Player honors. Paul Silas ripped down rebounds at will. Satch Sanders, Don Chaney and Jo Jo White all had good years. And John Havlicek was his usual unbelievable self.
So what happened? They lost to the Knicks in the semifinal round in seven games. Terrible officiating in the fourth game at New York, Phil Jackson's incredible shooting--7 for 7 one game and 5 for 6 the next, and John Havlicek's crucial injury, were all factors.
A key difference was that after the Celtics forged past the Atlanta Hawks in the quarter finals, they were simply too worn out to run full speed against the Knicks. And running is their game.
Coach Tom Heinsohn rarely substituted during the regular season. When the playoffs came, the starters were exhausted and the bench-warmers were either inexperienced or not in shape.
"There are differences in coaching philosophy," Sanders said. "Some excellent coaches believe that the best way to keep your horses sharp is not to let them lay off. The more playing time they have, the sharper they are going to be."
"He [the coach] feels that he should be able to ride the same horses he's ridden on all season long straight through the playoffs," Sanders added, "Sometimes this philosophy works; sometimes it doesn't. Seemingly, it didn't work last year."
This year, though, Heinsohn has changed his coaching tactics. For the last month, he has freely substituted, especially with Paul Westphal.
Forward Don Nelson thinks the change in philosophy will help: "I think we'll be better off because Heinsohn is playing the subs and resting the regulars, which he didn't do last year. I was playing only 10-12 minutes a game down the stretch and when I had to play 53 against the Knicks, I wasn't in top shape," Nelson said Tuesday.
Great players shine in the playoffs; good players are eclipsed. Getting psyched up isn't enough. In the short, best-of-seven series, the players face each other night after night. They know what to expect from each other. Familiarity breeds defense so that only the great players who can alter their game each night will dominate.