Former Beasts Among Least Of East
Nov. 27, 2006
We all will, certainly, huddle in front of our televisions tonight so that we may witness this epic early season clash between the Beast of the East and the Best in the West.
Seems the network types somehow weren't able to foresee Orlando at Utah as must-see TV and so it isn't on anybody's national schedule. Not even NBA TV. Go figure.
Very little, it seems, has gone according to plan in the East this season. The defending conference champs are 5-8 and riding so low, Miami's entourage is actually pointing to a victory over Charlotte as a possible turning point. The Nets have lost five straight and are 5-8, although that's good enough to be tied for first in the Atlantic Division. And the Bulls, allegedly The Team To Watch this year because of the acquisition of free agent Ben Wallace, are limping along at 4-9 and arguing about such minutiae as headbands.
Here's a little perspective: the Pacers, hardly happy about their 7-7 start, are nonetheless sitting fourth in the conference standings.
So what's going on?
Miami would expect to struggle because of the absence of injured center Shaquille O'Neal, but the team suddenly looks old, soft and – aside from Dwyane Wade – largely unmotivated. Pat Riley opted to stand pat with his NBA championship roster, a huge risk because of the age and reputations of some of the key veterans. Guys like Antoine Walker and Gary Payton were willing to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to get their rings. Now that they have them, there's no carrot. Shaq probably will be back in January, which should give the Heat plenty of time to put together a surge into the postseason. But this team already has raised serious doubts about its ability to regain a playoff edge.
Chicago is beginning to wonder if its investment in Wallace was wise because he has yet to play with the same ferocity that marked his days in Detroit. Because this is otherwise a perimeter-based team with few other options inside, Wallace's performance is critical. Because they've played 10 of their first 13 on the road, the Bulls have something of an excuse but it appears management already is taking a hard look at the possibility of major changes if the team doesn't start winning – and soon.
The Nets also have been slowed by the road, losing four in a row out West. Losing Cliff Robinson for an extended period due to knee surgery further weakens an already dangerously thin bench, but Richard Jefferson has returned, although he's still shaking off some rust. They may also just be a slow-starting team; they began 9-12 last season but finished 40-21 to win the division.
The struggles of so many elite contenders should have profound meaning for the Pacers. Though expectations entering this season were modest, there clearly is a real opportunity waiting to be seized for a team that can gather itself and make an early move.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Though Stephen Jackson not only accepted his demotion to the second unit but turned in his best basketball of the season after being removed from the starting lineup, this week's unofficial honor goes to point guard Jamaal Tinsley. In four games last week, Tinsley racked up averages of 17.5 points, 6.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting .489 from the field and .615 (8-of-13) from the 3-point line.
GAME OF THE WEEK
The Pacers turned in their best half of the season, and one of the most impressive in recent memory, in wiping out a 12-point halftime deficit to beat Cleveland 97-87 Friday in Conseco Fieldhouse. Runs of 19-3 in the third period and 12-2 in the fourth rallied the Pacers, who limited the Cavs to 31 points and 7-of-32 shooting after intermission. Jermaine O'Neal and Sarunas Jasikevicius combined to score 44 points in the game, including 21 in those two decisive runs.
STAT OF THE WEEK
The Pacers did not play at home on Thanksgiving for just the second time in 13 seasons (the only other occasion was 1998, when there were no games played because of the NBA lockout). They did play at home on the day after Thanksgiving for the 12th time in 13 years and the victory over Cleveland improved their record in those games to 9-3. They were 8-3 in their previous 11 Thanksgiving home games.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
After the Pacers put together another split-personality game against Cleveland, falling behind 26-10 in the first quarter and trailing after one for the 10th time in 13 games before rallying, Coach Rick Carlisle offered words that proved prescient: "If I’m Toronto, I’d be excited. If you can’t sell tickets knowing you’re going to get a 10-15 point lead in the first half … " As it turned out, the Raptors rolled up a 27-point first-half lead on their way to a 92-83 victory Sunday.