Suddenly, Sixers hardly a lock for spot in NBA Finals

ON THE NBA

April 08, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Two weeks ago, the Eastern Conference playoff race looked pretty cut and dried, with a seeming coronation in line for the Philadelphia 76ers. But with 10 days left in the regular season, neither the conference crown nor that ticket to the NBA Finals looks automatic for the Sixers, with the gap between them and at least six other teams having narrowed.

To be sure, Philadelphia will have the best record in the conference and home-court advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs. But the Sixers have hit a decided dry spell, losing six of 11 and appearing fallible.

Injuries opened the chink in Philadelphia's armor. Three Sixers, including do-it-all guard Allen Iverson, missed the 90-84 win over Detroit on Wednesday, and power forward Tyrone Hill and backup guard Aaron McKie will have to be healthy for Philadelphia to make the NBA Finals for the first time since 1982-83.

But the Sixers' offense has gone largely stagnant since the trade-deadline deal that brought Dikembe Mutombo from Atlanta and shipped away Toni Kukoc and Theo Ratliff. Mutombo is a marvelous defender, but his offensive skills are limited, at best. The playoffs are a time when defense is at a premium, but scoring is critical, too, and except for Iverson, Philadelphia has no one who makes defenders shiver.

On the other hand, Milwaukee, the Central Division leader, can score in bunches and has surged to the conference's second seed. With a big win in Sacramento this week, the Bucks, the league's best jump-shooting team, are serving notice that they could topple the Sixers.

Things get muddled in the middle, with no more than four games separating New York, Miami, Charlotte, Toronto, and Orlando. The top two get home court for the first round.

The smart money might go on the Heat, the preseason pick to win the East before a kidney ailment forced center Alonzo Mourning out. If Mourning, who looked well on the way to shaking off rust Wednesday in Washington, can give Miami a portion of what he has in the past, the Heat upstaging the Sixers wouldn't be a shocker.

Indiana and Boston are battling for the right to get bounced out by Philadelphia in the first round as the eighth seed, with a showdown in Indianapolis on Friday.

Quiz

Utah has clinched its 18th straight playoff appearance, with Portland soon to nail down a 19th consecutive postseason trip.

But those are only good for third and fourth best all-time in the league. Can you name the franchise with the longest string of consecutive playoff appearances? (Hint: The franchise now plays in the Atlantic Division.)

Grumpy old man

Perhaps it's time someone replaces Charles Oakley's regular coffee with decaf, after the Toronto Raptors forward fired a basketball at Philadelphia's Tyrone Hill during a shoot-around last week. This, after Oakley smacked around Jeff McInnis of the Clippers during a shoot-around earlier this season.

It must be proof that Oakley is not one of the 60 percent of NBA players that he charged enjoyed recreational use of marijuana, since it supposedly has a mellowing effect.

Cutting losses

It has become sport to ridicule the Wizards/Bullets franchise for a series of indefensible moves, but management should, in retrospect, be praised for moving Rasheed Wallace to Portland, where he has become the Trail Blazers' migraine.

Wallace was the fourth player chosen in the 1995 draft by Washington, where he played one season before being dealt to Portland with Mitchell Butler for Harvey Grant and Rod Strickland.

He may possess the best pure basketball skills of any NBA player not named Bryant or Garnett. And yet, for all those gifts, Wallace has a startling propensity for losing his cool, witness more than 70 technicals over the past two seasons, a figure that would have been undoubtedly higher were he with a bad team, like Washington.

The Blazers, who have covered repeatedly for Wallace's eccentricities, finally reached their limit and suspended him for a game last week after he was tossed from a contest, though they'll need him back with Friday's word that Shawn Kemp will miss the rest of the season on rehabilitation.

The Wizards have nothing tangible to show for the Wallace trade but their collective team dignity and the assurance of knowing that for once, they did something right.

Van Gundy speaks out

It apparently wouldn't be a good idea to ask Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy to lock arms with his players or opposition and sing a couple of verses of "Kumbayah" - at least not before or after a game.

Van Gundy told New York magazine he is troubled that the team's minister has unfettered access to players before a game and that players from both teams pray together after the final horn.

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