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East Still Least? Small Wonder

March 02, 2003|MARK HEISLER

The small, the mediocre, the East (cont.): Yes, we're still waiting for that turnaround that David Stern assures us should be along any day.

Stern, the traditionalist with the bad ratings, still pooh-poohs suggestions that he seed the final four teams. However, it's interesting he just added two more games to the first round, perhaps to make up for the two he has lost in the Finals.

You remember the NBA Finals? They used to be best-of-seven series but nowadays, it doesn't come to that. Now we think of it as a series in which the over/under is five games.

Since the Bulls' run ended in 1998, the West has won all four, 4-1, 4-2, 4-1 and 4-0, with TV ratings just above what they'd get for a test pattern.

Back in Smallville, they don't like hearing what smurfs they are. Indiana President Donnie Walsh insists it isn't really a mismatch, it's just that nobody could match up to the Lakers and Shaquille O'Neal.

Of course, that may not be the East's problem this spring.

Things started to look exciting this season when the East jumped to a fast start. Three weeks in, the Junior Circuit was 10 games over .500, which was fairly startling, since it was 54 under last season.

Of course, form and the West began reasserting themselves and there went the excitement.

The Little People started this weekend 49 games under. Before Friday's games, the best record any East team had against the West was New Jersey's 12-9. Meanwhile, Dallas was 21-4 against the East, Sacramento 15-6, San Antonio 15-5 and Portland 17-6.

But perhaps this is a statistical anomaly. Let's see where all the best big players are.

Oh, the West?

One conference has Shaq, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, Rasheed Wallace, Yao Ming, Elton Brand, Michael Olowokandi, David Robinson, Vlade Divac and Amare Stoudemire.

The other started Ben Wallace, who has to comb his hair out and put a headband around it to reach his listed 6-9, at center in the All-Star game.

Before 1996, O'Neal was back there and East general managers made it their business to stock big guys. The Pacers started a front line of 7-4 Rik Smits, 6-11 Dale Davis and 6-10 Derrick McKey, backed by 6-9 Antonio Davis and 6-9 Sam Perkins.

Then Shaq signed with the Lakers, the Wizards gave away Wallace and Webber, Alonzo Mourning got sick, Patrick Ewing got old and before the East knew it, it had Instant Miniature Conference and was starting Walter McCarty, Shawn Kemp, Derrick Coleman, Jelani McCoy, Dan Gadzuric and Jason Collins at center.

Under current rules, one of these teams must get to the Finals. Let's see if we can figure out which of them is dead meat, er, which it will be:

Detroit -- The Pistons are gritty, but when your front line is Wallace, Cliff Robinson, who's 36, and Mike Curry, who's 6-5, gritty isn't always good enough. On the plus side, they can get better with $5 million in cap space and the Grizzlies' No. 1 pick, unless it's No. 1 overall. On the minus side, the Pistons will have to use their current roster this spring, when they play the Finals.

Indiana -- The Pacers actually have talented big guys (6-11 Jermaine O'Neal, 6-11 Brad Miller, 6-11 Jon Bender, 6-8 Al Harrington), but they're young and wacky. It's hard enough to grow young players if they don't have any issues, aside from being young. The Pacers have an attitude, with opponents accusing them of being the reincarnated Bad Boys, which trips them out, leading to more accusations and complaints about the conspiracy arrayed against them.

Ron Artest has slumped since returning from his latest league suspension. The Pacers just lost six in a row and no longer defend him as being misunderstood. After he smashed his picture on the dressing room wall last week, the team suspended him.

Said Walsh, "It's got to end."

As Miller noted, "It's not going to be peaches and gravy all the time."

Nor, obviously, will be it be peaches and cream.

New Jersey -- The Nets aren't bad, but they're even smaller than last spring, when they splattered against the Laker windshield. They tried adding Dikembe Mutombo but struggled (10-6) before he was hurt. They run a fluid motion offense. Mutombo has bad hands and takes three seconds to figure out what to do with the ball, if he does catch it.

Could be they're not perfect for each other.

Philadelphia -- Larry Brown has tossed out the first hint he has had enough, they lost Todd MacCulloch and just won eight in a row. It would take an even greater miracle -- say, on the order of the loaves and fishes -- to get back to the Finals.

Boston -- It's hard to shoot your way to the Finals from the three-point line. The Celtics try an incredible 27 three-pointers a game, seven more than the next-closest team, Dallas.

New Orleans -- After dumping Elden Campbell and Lee Nailon, the Hornets don't look as deep and powerful on paper. They never did look that powerful on the floor.

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