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NBA Playoffs / 1998 Preview Section

Can Anyone Stop Bulls?

Veteran Jazz and SuperSonics, Young Lakers at the Top of Short List of Championship Contenders

April 23, 1998|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In which the posse catches up . . .

Like Butch Cassidy, Michael Jordan looks back over his shoulder at the pursuing riders, turns to his Sundance Kid, Scottie Pippen, and asks, "Who are those guys?"

Those guys have been a long time coming. In five title runs, the Bulls have dominated, posting a 75-19 postseason record (47-6 at home). They've been pushed to Game 7 once--by the Knicks in the '92 Eastern Conference semifinals--and to Game 6 six times, mopping everyone else up in five 3-0 sweeps, three 4-0 sweeps and five 4-1 rollovers.

In those five seasons, not a single Eastern team has been good enough to face the Bulls twice in the Eastern finals, nor has any Western team been to two NBA finals.

That's likely to change, since there is now such a large array of finalists out there the Bulls have already trod on.

Some actual competition would be a nice counterpoint to this spring's updates on Bulls' futures (consumer guide: keep your remote handy; don't read any story with a headline that starts "Jordan Hints He May . . . ")

Time will tell if this will be different but there are some clubs that must be taken seriously:

* Utah Jazz--They would have the home-court advantage, they swept the Bulls this season, 2-0, and gave them all they could handle without home-court advantage in last spring's finals.

* Lakers--Young and still restless, they looked like a breakfast of champions as recently as early March, when reports circulated that Del Harris was in trouble. Then they went 22-3, reminding everyone of just how much talent they're sitting on. Now comes the test of everything else.

* Seattle SuperSonics--They led everyone at 37-10 at the All-Star break but went only 24-11 afterward. Nevertheless, they've been there and done that, almost.

* Indiana Pacers--Despite an impressive start under Larry Bird, they looked out of their depth against the Bulls, who beat them twice after Pippen's return following foot surgery. But Bird kept them driving late and found something when reserve Antonio Davis averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds, starting in place of injured Rik Smits. Included was an eye-opening upset of the Bulls at the United Center.

* Miami Heat--Since they're 5-14 against the Bulls--1-7 in two playoffs--in Pat Riley's three seasons, and since they faded late and don't figure to have home-court advantage after the first round, they aren't this spring's hot prospect. But Riley's teams are respected, feared and/or loathed for their manly tenacity and commitment. If they're playing the Bulls in some fortnight when Jordan turns mortal, they could bag the elephant too.

Of course, we have four rounds to separate pretenders from contenders. . . .

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