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Feast of the East Offers Fairly Mundane Fare

“Thirty miles north of downtown Detroit, it’s the Palace of Auburn Hills!”

Not that ESPN is having trouble trying to promote the Eastern Conference finals, but as host Mike Tirico quivers with excitement, welcoming you to the telecast, they’re showing a shot of the parking lot.

Of course, the problem isn’t finding something picturesque in suburbia. You’ve got to feel for ESPN, the NBA’s junior broadcast partner, which was stuck with the East finals in its debut season, while Turner shows the West, cleans up in the ratings and laughs in ESPN’s face with Charles Barkley announcing he needs a raise to watch East games.

Even the local press had a hard time defending the local favorites.

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“It isn’t nightly,” wrote the Detroit Free Press’ Mitch Albom. “Sometimes there are day games.

“Other than that, it’s hard to argue. The West is fast. The West is sleek. The West actually makes baskets. The West is Pamela Anderson, the East is Bea Arthur....

“A friend of mine from out of town called me after Wednesday’s Pistons-76ers game. He said he watched the fourth quarter.

“ ‘What did you think?’ I asked.

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“ ‘I was waiting for the varsity to come out,’ ” he said.

What’s to argue?

The East is 4-16 in the last four NBA Finals and looked even weaker this season with a single 50-game winner, the fewest either conference has had since 1984.

Of the 25 All-NBA first-team picks the last five seasons, 19 were from the West. One East big man -- Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal -- was in the top 20 in scoring this season. He was No. 20.

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On the other hand, someone still has to come out of the East. That’s the league’s problem in a nutshell.

The gritty Pistons won the East with a 50-32 record that was beaten or tied by six West teams, despite tougher schedules. They played each other two-thirds of the time; the Pistons played two-thirds of their games against the East.

It shouldn’t have surprised the Pistons that no one was scared of them, although they didn’t take it well when Milwaukee’s George Karl said he’d prefer to play them.

“We’ve gotten no credit all year,” Chauncey Billups said. “Now we’ve finished No. 1 in the East and I’m sure people still aren’t jumping on the bandwagon.”

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Showing why people weren’t jumping on the bandwagon, the Pistons fell behind Orlando, 3-1, whereupon Detroit Free Press columnist Drew Sharp wrote Coach Rick Carlisle’s job was, and should be, on the line.

Carlisle took over a 32-50 team and went 100-64 in two seasons. Said TNT’s perceptive Jeff Van Gundy, an expert in making chicken salad without much chicken from his Knick days:

“I think there are certain teams that are constructed to win for the regular season and I think Detroit is a perfect example.... They have good quality depth, they can withstand injury and they can play well on back-to-back nights. But they don’t have that star quality player to get stuff done in the fourth quarter, where they can just throw him the ball like [Orlando] can with [Tracy] McGrady.”

Meanwhile, McGrady said he was thrilled to finally “experience the second round,” forgetting they weren’t there yet. Nor would they be. The Pistons rallied to win, whereupon Sharp suggested the heat on Carlisle was really from genial General Manager Joe Dumars.

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“I’m not going to put it all on Rick,” Dumars told Sharp, “but this was a test for everyone, not just him.”

The Pistons then ousted the 76ers in six games in which no one scored 100 points in regulation.

Philadelphia’s problem was unintentionally summed up by ESPN’s Sean Elliott, who asked, “How do you stop Allen Iverson when he’s got it going?”

As he spoke, Iverson threw up one of his trademark off-balance 20-foot shots, missing the rim, entirely.

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“By making him take shots like that, actually,” Elliott said.

Meanwhile, in the other bracket, the Nets were eliminating the Bucks and sweeping the Boston Celtics, who self-destructed in a barrage of three-point bricks.

Boston tends to devolve to a primitive level for the playoffs, but this time, happily, Bostonians harangued one another rather than Joumana Kidd.

There was a confrontation between a heckler and Antoine Walker that’s still being sorted out in court. If the Celtics are lucky, the court will exonerate the fan and order Walker into a program where he can detox from taking three-pointers.

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This produced the Pistons-Nets finals, which started with the Nets winning ugly -- 76-74 and 88-86 games -- in Auburn Hills.

Wrote the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence: “In the interest of helping the Eastern Conference finals keep its five remaining viewers, may we suggest the following three changes: Make it a best-of-five. Allow the Pistons to trade Ben Wallace to Dallas for Nick Van Exel. Count three points for every basket inside the arc, and four for those from outside it.”

With 10 playoff victories in a row, the Nets are being presented as a team of destiny, Eastern-style.

Like the Pistons, the Nets pay too heavy a price for being the best of a sad lot. They’re actually one of the most entertaining teams around, with Jason Kidd and the NBA’s Last Fast Break.

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On the other hand, they’re small, Kidd keeps backtracking on his pledges to stay, and across the river in Manhattan, no one seems to know they’re alive, or care.

With no plans for a Newark arena even on the board, the New York Times’ Harvey Araton recently suggested that the Nets move to Madison Square Garden, an idea so inspired, the rival New York Post followed it up, reporting the Garden wasn’t interested.

Of course, it would work, as the Clippers’ move to Staples showed. It would also reduce the Knicks to dog food on the Gotham scene for the foreseeable future.

Last week, Araton went looking for the actual town of East Rutherford, N.J., site of the Meadowlands complex, and found it had its own mayor, a tire salesman named Jim Casella, who gets $7,000 a year to oversee a modest schedule of civic affairs.

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“We believe we’re somewhere,” Hizzoner told Araton. “It’s not a swamp, per se.”

Maybe this is the year the East’s latest team of destiny makes a stand in this misunderstood swamp.

East team officials note there’s less of a difference with no Shaquille O’Neal, which is true. It’s just that there was a lot of difference with Shaq, so if the Nets are going to close that gap, they had better get an early start.

Faces and Figures

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Without the marquee Lakers and Sacramento Kings, the league must yearn for the good old days, like last spring, when it at least kept fans entertained through the conference finals. In the current Best of the Rest of the West Finals, Dallas put on a show in Game 1, then melted in its inimitable style. Highlights: Mavericks come from 18 points behind to win Game 1 with one of their patented fireworks shows....Game 2: Dallas Coach Don Nelson apparently decides he doesn’t need this one, leaving Dirk Nowitzki on the court after he picks up two fouls in the first 4:31, trying to guard Tim Duncan. Sure enough, Nowitzki gets No. 3 moments later, after which Nelson baits hair-trigger Joey Crawford into ejecting him. Mavericks cry piteously about the referees, distracting the press from asking Nelson why he left Nowitzki in....Game 3: San Antonio comes from 10 points behind at Dallas to win. After the issue is decided, Nowitzki leaves with a sprained knee. Of course, without injuries to Portland’s Scottie Pippen and Derek Anderson and Sacramento’s Chris Webber, the Mavericks wouldn’t be here in the first place. Said Van Exel: “I was thinking when it happened, it was our turn.” ... Meanwhile, it may have occurred to the fast-thinking Nelson, who’s under the gun with owner Mark Cuban refusing to assure him he’ll be back as coach, that an injury gives him a graceful exit. In any case, Nelson says he won’t play Nowitzki today unless he’s 100% and the team doctor is recommending 10-14 days off.

Insiders believe Detroit will use its No. 2 pick on 7-footer Darko Milicic, rather than Carmelo Anthony. Dumars saw Milicic work out before the Pistons got the pick and left raving. “When I saw that kid today, I just had to quit looking,” Dumars said. “I knew he was too good to be there when I was drafting and I didn’t want my heart broken.” ... Houston owner Les Alexander, who bought the team just before it won its 1994 and 1995 titles and has been congratulating himself ever since, pulled a stunner, forcing the resignation of Rudy Tomjanovich, who assembled and coached the championship teams. Rudy T was no X-and-O genius but after what he did for the franchise -- everything -- he deserved another season with the promising team he had built from the ashes of the old one....Insiders say the Rockets axed Tomjanovich so they could head off Van Gundy before he took the Cleveland job. The Cavaliers are thought to have Van Gundy first with Paul Silas second. Byron Scott’s Net assistant, Eddie Jordan, is considered the front-runner when Washington gets around to axing Doug Collins, who should be ESPN-bound.

Larry Brown, still close to Donald T. Sterling, gave him Alvin Gentry three years ago and is reportedly recommending John Calipari, now at Memphis. Meanwhile, if a good job comes up, Brown, who has hinted about leaving yet again, will actually do it -- with the 76ers’ blessing. “I think that if Larry Brown was enthusiastic about coaching next year, it’s critical,” Spectacor President Ed Snider told the Philadelphia Daily News, “But if he’s not, I think that we have to move on.”


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