NBA wraps hoopla around today's games

Pacers-Pistons, Heat-Lakers rate as feuds, not competition

December 25, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

When today's nationally televised NBA doubleheader was put together last summer, the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons figured to be the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, while the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers had just been involved in a blockbuster trade.

After what has transpired the past few months, the two games have become hyped as if they were the seventh game of the NBA Finals. But how much will today's matchups be about brawls and bravado, and how much will be about basketball?

While the NBA couldn't have picked two better contests to help jump-start its ratings, Indiana and Detroit have been subpar since their infamous malice at The Palace last month, while Miami vs. Los Angeles is more about the soap opera feud of its respective superstars.

One thing is certain: The games are long on story lines, but they seem awfully thin on storied teams.

At least that's the way Pistons coach Larry Brown is looking at it.

"To have the league showcase that game with both teams [Detroit and Indiana] 12-11 [now 12-12], after what happened, really makes me sick," Brown said earlier this week on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. "I can see [showing] Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] playing against each other because that is news, two of the greatest players to play in our sport.

"But for our game to be shown on TV and to have people wondering what's going to happen bothers me a little bit. I'm hopeful that the players and coaches will act the right way, and the fans will conduct themselves like they're supposed to and it will be a showcase in that regard."

Of the four, a red-hot Heat team that takes a 10-game winning streak into the Staples Center looks as if it could be the only one capable of winning a championship. Still, high-octane hoops aside, the subplots of these two games are as tasty as a Christmas dinner.

The meeting of the Pacers and the Pistons in Indianapolis is the first since Nov. 19, when an imminent blowout victory by visiting Indiana over the defending NBA champions turned into a melee that resulted in suspensions totaling 143 games and criminal charges brought against five players and seven fans.

Ron Artest, who was suspended for the season by NBA commissioner David Stern, and Stephen Jackson, who was banished for 30 games, will be nowhere near Conseco Field House. But Jermaine O'Neal is expected to be in uniform for the first time since the incident after having his 25-game sentence cut to 15 by an arbitrator in New York on Wednesday.

Miami will be playing Los Angeles for the first time since O'Neal was traded by the Lakers last summer amid rumors that Bryant, his teammate for eight years, orchestrated the dismantling of a team that had won three straight championships (2000-2002) and had gone to the NBA Finals last season.

Even Al Michaels, whose broadcasting career includes the historic and hysterical victory by the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic Games, seems to be caught up in the hype.

"I can't think of a more anticipated regular-season game than this. Most of the tremendously anticipated games are in the World Series, the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals," Michaels said. "Yet from the moment the trade was made and the NBA announced the schedule, everybody looked at this and went, `Wow' "

The Heat has lived up to the hoopla, maybe even surpassing expectations with its 21-7 start because of the emergence of second-year guard Dwyane Wade as the perfect complement to O'Neal. The Lakers have struggled, recently losing back-to-back home games to the Memphis Grizzlies and Washington Wizards, and at 14-11, are seventh overall in the West.

Bryant's image, already tarnished by last year's rape charge in Colorado that was later dropped, has taken some more nasty hits, most recently when he accused likely Hall of Famer Karl Malone of making advances on Bryant's wife. Bryant also has been criticized for thinking he is running the team.

"The thing is out of control here," a longtime Lakers official told The New York Times recently. "It's a disaster."

Bryant acknowledged in ESPN interviews last week that he wished he could have handled the fallout with O'Neal and former coach Phil Jackson better. (Jackson's contract wasn't renewed after last season, and it was disclosed that Jackson had tried last season to get the Lakers to trade Bryant.)

"I can't sit up here and say I'm not at fault at all for anything that took place," Bryant said. "I mean, if I could go back and do some things differently, I would. The Shaq thing, the Phil thing, and all of that.

"But there's nothing I can do about it now. I can only learn what took place in the past and just try to move on and just try to do the best job I can and just try and help us win ballgames. ... I've seen a lot of dark days."

In another interview, Bryant said: "I didn't chase anybody out. Off the court, I have nothing against him [O'Neal]. I'd definitely love to sit down and talk with him. I don't know - maybe that will happen."

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