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In the East, There’s No Guarantee of Offense

Meanwhile, back in Lilliput....

If you forget about the four teams that got into the playoffs without winning records in the Eastern Conference, this was actually looking like an OK season for the smurfs, at least until last week.

All it would take to rebalance this league is one East team that could compete on even terms in the NBA Finals, and this season it looked like it might have two -- the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons.

Both had size, as opposed to the little New Jersey Net teams that went to the last two NBA Finals. Indiana went 61-21, becoming the first East team to post the NBA’s best record since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1997. Detroit won 54 games, the East’s second-best total in three seasons, and finished 18-4 with Rasheed Wallace.

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Then, unfortunately, they began playing each other.

The result was an East finals that went past “low scoring” and “defensive struggle” and burrowed into “agonizing.” The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan summed up his feelings in a column headlined, “When you think it can’t be any worse, here’s a new low.”

Here’s how bad it was:

In Game 1 in Indianapolis, the Pacers shot 33.7% ... and won.

In Game 2, the Pacers lost, while shooting 27.5% as the Pistons blocked an incredible 24% of their shots, 19 of 80, and promptly dubbed the lane “the No-Fly Zone.”

In Game 3 in Auburn Hills, the Pistons had more turnovers (10) than points (nine) in the second period ... and still led, 36-30, at the half, en route to an 85-78 victory. The headline in the Detroit Free Press the next day was, “Good’n’ugly.”

Even before this farce, after five years of Western rule by a cumulative 20-6 in the Finals, the West was expected to make it six titles in a row. By Game 3, ESPN’s Jim Gray actually asked Laker scout Brian Shaw if they were “licking their chops” at the thought of playing the winner.

Shaw noted both teams could give the Lakers a tough series, which is true. On the other hand, the Lakers aren’t losing any sleep over playing them, either.

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Of course, this isn’t just happening in the East. The game is slowing down at an alarming rate and has been for 20 years. The Lakers are averaging a mighty 89 points in the postseason and they’re a win away from the Finals.

The difference is that the East finals match two great defensive coaches, and no great offensive players.

There aren’t any Kobe Bryants or Shaquille O’Neals or Tim Duncans or Kevin Garnetts to break down defenses or command double-teams. There are only a handful of great players in the East -- Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson -- and none in this series.

Indiana’s Rick Carlisle and Detroit’s Larry Brown are hard on you if you don’t have players they have to help out on. They’re death on you if you have players they don’t even have to guard, like Detroit’s Ben Wallace and Indiana’s Jeff Foster.

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The best player was supposed to be Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, whom Carlisle personally lobbied all spring for, trying to get him on the All-NBA first team over Duncan or Shaq, on the theory that Duncan is really a center.

This didn’t work and would have been a joke, since Jermaine is still no Duncan or Shaq. Jermaine isn’t a bust, averaging 18 points in the series, but he’s shooting only 38%. Worse, the Pistons can contain him with single coverage; they actually have two defenders, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace, who can play him.

Instead, the best player has been Detroit’s Richard Hamilton, a skinny, fifth-year guard with an old-school mid-range game, averaging 21 points, as opposed to 18 this season. This is nice, but we’re still not talking Bryant or McGrady.

More dismaying is what this says about the game’s direction. Brown, a proponent of the old, free-flowing North Carolina motion offense, once coached a Denver team that averaged 114 points.

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The best coaches now are all great defensive coaches, whether it’s Phil Jackson, who saved the Lakers’ hides with his adjustment in the San Antonio series, or Carlisle, or Brown, whose Pistons averaged 90 points this season.

“I look at hockey, where 1-0 games are sometimes great,” Brown said. “It’s how you look at it. I think teams are playing hard and trying to play the right way. If you look at our league, defense has seemed to be the rule of thumb recently. I don’t think that’s going to change a lot.”

There’s some good news for Commissioner David Stern.

Nor is personality likely to save this series. The leading figure has been Rasheed Wallace, who ended a years-long media boycott after going to Detroit and proceeded to demonstrate we were better off the old way.

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During the New Jersey series, an East Coast writer complained to the league that Rasheed refused to talk to him. In a scary suggestion of how the world looks to him, Wallace replied: “Haters everywhere. Haters, haters, haters, everywhere haters.”

After the Pistons lost the opener of this series, Rasheed, edgy as ever, guaranteed they’d win Game 2, announcing, “Put it wherever y’all want, on the front page, the back page, the middle page. They will not win Game 2.”

The Pacers took this for what it was worth: nothing.

“I guarantee that there’s going to be a Game 2 and that someone’s going to win it,” said Indiana’s Scot Pollard. “And I guarantee that Rasheed will probably be in the game and I won’t.”

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Pollard was right, although Rasheed outscored him only 10-0, while going four for 19 from the floor.

Of course, the days when Rasheed was good enough that anyone cared what he guaranteed are gone.

At 6 feet 11, his versatility makes him valuable, and it was his arrival that made the Pistons big enough to compete at the elite level. However, he’s averaging only 13 points in the playoffs. This is usually ascribed by TV commentators to a foot injury, although he averaged only 14 as a Piston this season.

The Pacers were on death’s door after Game 3, trailing, 2-1, with the next game in the Palace. Reggie Miller, once a marquee playoff performer who’d gotten off 24 shots all series, kicked the ball 30 yards into the seats and was fined $5,000.

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“I was just trying to give little Johnny a souvenir,” said Miller, who can afford the money but is running out of time.

Rolling the dice in Game 4, Carlisle benched the inoffensive Foster for Austin Croshere, who has been lost for three seasons since the Pacers gave him an $8-million-a-year deal but can still make three-point baskets.

On cue, Croshere went three for four from the arc and the floor opened up. Miller got off four three-pointers and made three. The Pacers shot 46% and recaptured their home-court advantage.

The all-important Game 5 is today. If you’re pressed for time, the first team to 50 has won the first four games. They used to say the first team to 100 wins, but times are (ugh) changing.

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Faces and Figures

Lottery fallout: The top of the draft is set: 1) Orlando, Emeka Okafor. 2) Clippers, or whoever trades up, Dwight Howard. 3) Chicago, Luol Deng....

Nor is McGrady, a year from free agency, excited about playing alongside Okafor. “From what I’m hearing, he’s really not 6-10 and he’s more like 6-8,” McGrady said. “Now, if he has the heart and determination like a Ben Wallace, it won’t matter how tall he is. I’m not questioning the guy’s ability, but there seems to be a lot of unknowns out there now.” ... The unknowns start with McGrady’s plans, which seem focused on getting out of there. He acknowledged giving the Magic a list of teams he’d accept a trade to, starting with the Houston Rockets and reportedly including Indiana and Detroit. Expect more teams than that to make offers, starting with the New York Knicks and, if they don’t get Bryant, the Clippers.... OK, how about the Clippers sending draft rights to Howard and another $7 million worth of players to balance the salaries out to Orlando for McGrady.

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Byron Scott’s hiring in New Orleans suggests nothing is as far along among the Lakers as speculation has had it. Insiders thought Bryant would demand that Scott, an old mentor, replace Jackson and that O’Neal be traded as his condition for staying. What Scott’s decision means is that his close friend, Laker co-owner Magic Johnson, told him he couldn’t promise him anything, or that Johnson told him nothing at all.

Breaking up that old gang of theirs? King co-owner Joe Maloof told the Sacramento Bee’s Mark Kreidler, “We’re going to be very, very careful. The ship’s not sinking. The ship is on a steady course. We’re not going to make emotional decisions.” Nevertheless, the Kings’ wonderful chemistry is gone. Clubhouse leader Vlade Divac is telling friends he’ll be a Laker or a Clipper next season. Teammates were upset at Bobby Jackson for sitting out the playoffs because of a stomach injury, Chris Webber, who had his own problems, added credence to reports of a Webber-Mike Bibby vs. Divac-Peja Stojakovic split, seeming to take a shot at Stojakovic, who has struggled in the postseason. “Always go with the ones who are the hardest workers and who, when your backs are down, they’re the ones who will step up,” Webber said. “Don’t go with the ones who just flow through it. Go with the ones that it hurts them to lose. Go with the ones like Doug Christie.”


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