THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Ratings Are Off, and Everybody Knows the Answer

The Ice Age cometh.

NBA basketball, it's . . . disappearing.

If these games slow down any more, everybody will be running backward. Scoring has fallen to 95 points a game in postseason play and is dropping every round. The relatively freewheeling Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz averaged 90. The Neanderthal New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers are at 86.

Of course, it's easy to fix. How about a shot clock?

Oh, they already have a shot clock?

A league weakened by the departure of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird is now trying to survive the Knicks and Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals, a series also known to lovers of the game as DOB: Death of Basketball.

Knick Coach Pat Riley calls it "a game of force." It looks more like a game of mud wrestling."

The game of force is apparently made up of missed shots, turnovers, holding, elbowing, bumping, taunting, fouls, double fouls, technical fouls, double technical fouls, flagrant fouls and the occasional near riot.

Or not, depending on your perspective.

"I find myself cringing a lot lately," said Dave Checketts, Knick president. "It's as if there are people who consider themselves keepers of the gate.

"But I ask, 'What is the gate?'

"This style, this trend, has caught on from the start of the season. I remember a preseason meeting of owners and general managers when we all said, 'This is the year when some games will be played in the 60s.' . . .

"These guys (the Knicks) are in the Eastern Conference finals and somehow that's not enough. Somehow, they want a more elegantly fashioned team and they cannot appreciate a group with great heart and desire. . . . It's just not enough for some people."

Evidently it isn't. NBC's playoff ratings are off 30%.

"I'll tell you how bad it was," said the Washington Post's Mike Wilbon, reporting in from Games 3 and 4 on the Eastern front. "The Indianapolis 500 was the highlight of my weekend."

Everyone knows the answer--a closer three-point line to unclog the lane--but the league is adopting the "What, me worry?" defense: It's normal, it's the new defensive fad, it's a cycle, etc.

Of course, scoring dropped 5% this season and is down 9% since 1980, so we are looking at a long cycle.

Privately, the NBA brass is as bored as everyone else.

"What does David Stern think of this?" someone asked a league official last week.

"He encourages it," said the official. "He's an insomniac."

DON'T YOU HAVE A MOVIE TO SHOOT?

After years trying to civilize the Knick players, was Riley undone by the antics of a Knick fan?

Reggie Miller, looking for provocation, found a beauty, scoring 25 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 while carrying on a running conversation with filmmaker Spike Lee, even giving him the two-hands-around-the-neck choke sign.

Lee, who likes to participate in his spectator sports, also provoked Scottie Pippen in the last series, after Pippen had dunked over Patrick Ewing and then stepped over him.

Lee wore a John Starks uniform top that night, a Brooklyn Dodger baseball jersey last week.

In honor of his big moment, Lee was saluted by his hometown papers.

"Thanks a Lot, Spike," said a New York Daily News headline.

"Spike This," said the New York Post.

The Madison Square Garden crowd also chanted "Cher-yl" at Miller, who has heard that one since he was at Riverside Poly.

In fact, Reggie's famous sister called him after his mild performances in Games 1 and 2 and told him to drop the Mr. Nice Guy act.

"It was short and sweet," Cheryl Miller said. "I said, 'Reggie, you know and I know that's not your style. You're not a white-hat guy. You're not the Lone Ranger. You're Black Bart.'

"I told him to take off the cape and get off the white horse. Everyone was talking about the John Starks thing last year and expecting 'Head Butt 2, The Sequel.' Reggie didn't want that. But the way he was playing didn't look like my brother. I felt compelled to call."

THE FLIGHT OF THE CHUCKWAGON

Can this be the end of Charles Barkley?

When the Rockets couldn't sell out the opening game of their second-round series, Phoenix Sun President Jerry Colangelo bought 300 tickets for Game 2, raffled them off to fans back in Phoenix and flew them in on a chartered jet nicknamed "the Chuckwagon."

The Suns came from 20 behind in the fourth quarter, with Barkley getting every loose ball and rebound down the stretch. Hakeem Olajuwon might as well have been in the stands watching him.

By Games 6 and 7, Barkley needed shots of painkillers for a pulled groin. He also took anti-inflammation injections for his back, although he said that was OK. He had 42 points and 30 rebounds in the two games, but he was still a shadow of himself.

He now insists he will go through with his promise to retire unless a doctor can do something, other than surgery, for his back.

"Everyone says I'm not serious, that I joke around a lot," Barkley said. "But those people have good backs."

Whether Barkley leaves or not, the Suns, with six players over 30, face an overhaul.

They think they have tried to make Dan Majerle into something he is not--a shooting guard--and want to put the thunder back in Thunder Dan. Last season his game deteriorated into three-pointers or nothing. Once a good defender, he couldn't guard quicker guards as well as he did stronger forwards.

A.C. Green, who has a one-year termination clause, says he will go back on the market.

Sun insiders suspect Barkley is looking for a reason to leave, and here's one: The long knives are out for Matt Guokas at NBC. Barkley, of course, would add comic and terror dimensions they have never dreamed of.

Barkley is still making the rounds of the doctors. Phoenix is holding its breath.

FACES AND FIGURES

How cold is it? The record for fewest points in a playoff game has been broken twice (68 by the Knicks, 69 by the Pacers), plus playoff records for lowest scoring half (68 by the Knicks and Nets) and the quarter (23 by the Rockets and Jazz). . . . Another blast of Arctic air: NBA officials and the players' union have met twice, accomplished nothing and adjourned quickly. Stern says he's even willing to abandon the sacred salary cap--if the players will agree to some other deal that contains costs.

Prognosis: There is every chance there will be no new contract by next season's start. After that, owners would have to decide if they want to lock the players out. They probably won't. If the season starts and an impasse continues, the players could strike the All-Star game or the playoffs. In other words, it's like the current baseball season. . . . For the record: Last week it was reported here that Olajuwon is married. He isn't.

Let the bidding begin: Agent Ron Grinker says Danny Manning is "the Hawks' to lose" and is eager "to hear how the Hawks are going to look to improve their team." However, Grinker has told three other teams--Phoenix, Orlando and Charlotte--they are in the running. . . . Indiana's Byron Scott: "Six months ago I was looking for a job. People in L.A. said I was finished. Winning another one would be very sweet. I want this one as badly as the first one."

Seemingly intent on scattering that old gang of theirs, the Bulls fired assistant coach John Bach, architect of their widely admired defense. Coach Phil Jackson made no comment but two days later General Manager Jerry Krause announced: "It was Phil's decision and I concurred." Bull insiders say it was Krause's decision and Jackson concurred because he could no longer keep them from one another's throats. Said Horace Grant: "They showed no class. If they treat assistant coaches like that, just think how they treat their players. I will never forget what they've done. If I have anything to do with it, (Bach) will be in the city that I play in. This is going to change the team in a very big way."

Riley said he decided at the last minute to reactivate Anthony Mason, whom he had suspended for the last three games of the regular season, $42,242 worth. Actually, the Knicks and Mason's agent agreed on a $13,414 payroll deduction and Mason didn't file the grievance he surely would have won. "As far as I'm concerned, that's still too much," said Charles Grantham, head of the players' association. . . . All depends who you are: Mason was fined for complaining about playing time but Charles Oakley, one of Riley's most productive and favorite players, continues to complain about his contract. "I didn't let them down," Oakley said. "I think they let me down."

Last word on the Utah clock operator's 10-second daydream, from an NBA official: "You guys didn't know when we set the clock up for 10ths of seconds, we put in a snooze alarm."

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