In wild, wild East, the lowly have risen

NBA: The Nets, Celtics and Pistons, teams that did not make the postseason last year, are the top seeds with young stars in a wide-open Eastern Conference.

April 20, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

There are those hard-core conspiracy theorists who believe that commissioner David Stern works the NBA like a puppeteer, allegedly manipulating results to the league's best interests. Even if that's true, not even the late Jim Henson could have worked things this well to get this wacky a result heading into the NBA playoffs, which open today.

Handicapping the field in the Eastern Conference alone, where none of the top three seeds - the New Jersey Nets, Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics - were even in the playoffs last year, will require a divine skill.

"If you had gone to sleep at the end of last year's playoffs and you woke up today you would think, at least in the East, that somebody transposed the standings with respect to New Jersey, Detroit and Boston - non-playoff teams leading the East with a terrific resurgence and exciting players like [New Jersey's] Kenyon Martin or [Detroit's] Ben Wallace or [Boston's Paul] Pierce and [Antoine] Walker," said Stern recently.

The Pistons and Celtics made startling turnarounds to claim the Central Division crown and second place in the Atlantic Division, respectively.

But most of the fascination in the East centers around the Nets, who went from a miserable 26-56 in 2000-2001 to a 52-30 this year, to mark the franchise's first 50-win season and division crown in 25 NBA seasons.

With Most Valuable Player candidate Jason Kidd running a high-powered offense and dishing out assists to Martin, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn and a talented young bench, the Nets took the conference by storm.

However, as orthodoxy holds that running games grind to a halt come playoff time, the Nets, who meet eighth seed Indiana in the first round, are a shaky pick to get out of the East.

"I know we'll defend. If we defend and rebound like we've been doing pretty much all season long, we'll run," said New Jersey coach Byron Scott. "The key to doing that is defending. If a team is making shots, it's hard to run. But if we defend and we get teams to shoot pretty much what they did all season against us, 42 percent, we're going to run."

Meanwhile, the defending conference champions, the Philadelphia 76ers, stumbled through an injury-plagued season and landed the sixth seed, but are thought by many to be lying in the weeds, waiting to pounce.

Allen Iverson, last season's MVP, missed the last three weeks of the regular season with a broken left hand, and forward Derrick Coleman has been dragging a bad left leg for most of the season. In addition, key reserve Aaron McKie has been hurt as well. All are expected to play in the opening series against the Celtics.

"Iverson being out has been a blessing, because he's gone into the playoffs the last few years with so many bumps and bruises, so he should be fresh," said Turner NBA analyst Danny Ainge. "A broken little finger on his left hand is not going to be that damaging, and I think that Allen may be a little rusty in the first half of Game 1, but I would hate playing them. And it can only help that Coleman had the week off. He's been playing on one leg the whole year and I don't think he'll be all that healthy during the playoffs, but Aaron McKie is starting to get healthier. They may be the sleeper in the East."

Meanwhile, the dominant question in the West is the same as it's been the past two seasons: Who can stop the Los Angeles Lakers?

The two-time defending champions eliminated most of the discord between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant that marked their run to last year's title, but added a chronic sore big toe on O'Neal's foot and occasional indifferent play on the way to a No. 3 seed in the West, behind the Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs.

Still, even with O'Neal's foot, and a stomach ailment that is plaguing key reserve Robert Horry, few believe that any team can beat Los Angeles three or four times in a series.

"The NBA is about stars," said Washington coach Doug Collins. "That's the beauty of the NBA and that's why people watch, [to see] great players do supernatural things. That's where Michael [Jordan] made his name, and Isiah [Thomas] and [Larry] Bird and Magic [Johnson] and [Hakeem] Olajuwon and all the great players before. Come playoff time, when you see a team in the playoffs that's winning, normally they have two stars who are leading the way."

Said NBC analyst Steve Jones: "The difference between the Lakers and everybody else is that they believe that in a big game, `We can win at our place, we can win at your place,' and you can't do that against them. We saw a couple of occasions this year - San Antonio came in and should have won that game and let it get away. The Lakers went up to Sacramento, pulled that one out by one. These are the teams they are playing to get back to the championship round and they all know that if the game is close, they have to be really good with their execution. They've got to be really good defensively, because if they aren't, the game is going to go the way of Kobe and Shaq and I think that's the ace in the hole the Lakers are carrying."

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