Fighting chances still exist
By Peter May | December 19, 2004
Today marks the one-month anniversary of The Brawl. Amazingly, life has gone on.
There doesn't appear to be any major fallout in terms of fan neglect; the product was doing a good enough job of that as it was. But there's no denying the Detroit-Indiana melee and resulting suspensions impacted the teams involved, one of which, the Pacers, is still trying to recover from having its roster gutted by commissioner David Stern.
Here's a brief look at what has happened to the teams in the last month. They will meet again Christmas Day in Indiana.
Detroit: The defending NBA champion lost Big Ben Wallace for six games and has, at times, looked like your classic victim of Post Championship Stress Disorder.
Heading into the weekend, the Pistons were a ho-hum 12-10, which qualified for fifth best in the Eastern Conference. They've been playing dangerously close to the edge -- just good enough to win -- and in some cases, not even that good. They got crushed at home by Atlanta, after all.
You need not look too far to get a read on the Pistons' early struggles. They're missing some key reserves from last year's team (Corliss Williamson, Mike James, Mehmet Okur) and the coaching staff turned over (with the exception of Larry Brown, who also missed time with a hip replacement).
Then there's the Detroit defense. We sure saw it in the second half against Cleveland Thursday night (6 points for the Cavs in the third quarter) but it hasn't been nearly what it was last year. And last year it was the Pistons' raison d'etre.
In 2003-04, the Pistons ranked first, along with San Antonio, in points allowed, surrendering 84.3 a game. This year, after 22 games, they were third, but were allowing almost 5 more points a game. Last year, the Pistons held opponents to 41.3 percent shooting, third best in the league behind the Spurs and Rockets. This year, they were sixth, allowing teams to shoot 43.1 percent. Last year, they were the best defensive team in the league against the 3-point shot. This year, they were 21st.
The Pistons had a rocky start last season as well. There was a six-game losing streak in February before and after the All-Star Game. Then Rasheed Wallace came aboard and the Pistons finished 21-6 and won the title. There's still lots of time. Indiana: I said it two weeks ago. I'll say it again. Rick Carlisle is the only choice for Coach of the Month for December. What he has had to endure and deal with on a daily basis borders on the ridiculous. As team president Donnie Walsh said, "It's not that we're just missing the three guys [Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson] but he has had games where he's only had six players." Continued...
The Pacers have put together a patchwork team on the fly. They signed New Orleans Hornets rejects. They brought in old paint Michael Curry. Last week, Jackson and O'Neal got some practice time in. If nothing happens on the legal front, they'll be back in a month or so.
As for Artest, the league at first told Indiana that it would not allow Artest to practice. The Pacers thought that overly harsh and asked the league to reconsider. It did. Artest has been given the OK to practice and Walsh said he expects the future Berry Gordy Jr. to be at practice this week.
The Pacers hit the skids after a brief honeymoon following the suspensions. But they've since gotten back Reggie Miller and Jeff Foster, although other rotation guys (Austin Croshere, Jamaal Tinsley) have been in and out. The Pacers are 0-5 when Tinsley doesn't play.
Carlisle has kept Indiana focused on the short term and, incredibly, they are still very much in the hunt in the Central Division, trailing leader Cleveland by only 1 1/2 games. They would be the sixth seed had the playoffs started yesterday.
Walsh is hopeful.
"Before all this happened, we were playing really well and we were kicking their [rear ends] the night it happened," he said, speaking of the Pacers' convincing win at Detroit Nov. 19. "I thought then that we had as good a chance as anyone to win it all."
And they still might. We still don't know what the arbitrator is going to say concerning the severity of the suspensions and if they are appealable to someone other than Stern. There remains the possibility that Artest's suspension might be reduced. But even with O'Neal and Jackson coming back, the Pacers will be in the hunt in the East.
Rising Suns take shine to defense
What does it say that one of the biggest games of the young season took place Friday between teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs last year?
The Suns and the Sonics went into the game at Seattle holding the best records in the league. It's hard to take Seattle seriously; the Sonics did lose twice to the Celtics and neither game was close. Then again, TNT bumped Memphis and Detroit off its Jan. 6 telecast in favor of a Seattle-Washington matchup at the MCI Center.
Phoenix looks to be the real deal in part because it has one of the league's best distributors (Steve Nash) on a roster loaded with finishers. The Suns also are paying more than just lip service to defense, even as they search for that elusive big man ("That's a 30-year quest, by the way," CEO Jerry Colangelo said recently). Continued...
We have a lot of talent," said third-year Sun Casey Jacobsen, who is almost the senior Sun (Shawn Marion has that distinction) on a dramatically retooled roster. "But what I've discovered is that all teams have talent. The trick is to get that talent to play together and, so far, we've figured out how to play unselfishly and how to play defensively."
The Suns are fun to watch. They are the runaway league leaders in points. They also lead in field goal shooting and are second in 3-point shooting.
But here's what you might now know: They're doing a decent job at the other end. The Suns lead the league in shot blocking and were holding teams to the fourth-lowest shooting percentage and second-lowest 3-point shooting percentage heading into the weekend.
And to make things even more bizarre, they're the youngest team (average age: 24.3 years with eight players born in the 1980s) in a league known for eating its young. Concludes Jacobsen, "It's all pretty amazing."
Celtics need wins to inspire comebacks
If the FleetCenter was able to identify the fans who left Wednesday's game with 2:46 remaining and the Celtics down by 5, those individuals should be banned from pro basketball for life.
But given the way the Celtics are drawing, they need every fan they can get, even if it's a witless one.
There's been a downward trend in attendance over the last three years at Celtics games. In 2002-03, the team averaged a reasonably healthy 17,294 at home, helped by the unexpected run to the conference finals the year before. The team sold out 19 of its 41 games and had only three crowds of fewer than 14,000.
Last year, attendance dropped, by more than 1,000 per game to 16,201, as did the number of sellouts, from 19 to 11. In addition, there were eight games of fewer than 14,000 and two of those were games in which fewer than 13,000 attended.
This year, there already have been three crowds of fewer than 14,000 and only two sellouts, opening night against the Sixers and the night after Thanksgiving against the Cavaliers. The average home attendance is 15,323.
What will bring the fans back? More gimmicks? More and louder noise prompts? Cheerleaders? A bigger Jumbotron? Fireworks? "Winning," says coach Doc Rivers. "I know the fans are out there. We have to win to get them back." He's right.
Coach's decision: Snow removal
Cleveland coach Paul Silas went ballistic during Thursday night's loss to the Pistons. His target: backup point guard Eric Snow. Silas put Snow into the game, then yanked him a minute later when the Cavaliers turned the ball over on an eight-second violation. The two snapped at each other and Silas got so livid he ordered Snow off the bench and back to the locker room. (Snow did return and sat on the bench in the second half.) No one addressed the issue afterward. Said Silas, "I don't want to hear his name." Continued...
Fox laughs off return rumor
We noted that Indiana has looked under rocks and turned over manhole covers in its search for players to fill out its roster until everyone (or almost everyone) comes back. There was a rumor that one of those who volunteered for emergency Pacers service was old friend Rick Fox, now retired. Was it true? "No," said Fox via e-mail. "I had a friend who is still dying to see me return to basketball who knows Larry [Bird] and said he was going to call. The only way I come back is if Karl [Malone] signs with the Lakers." He was kidding. He's also getting a chuckle at the unending soap opera that still evolves around his former team. "And we all thought I was at the core of the issues with the Lakers," he joked.
Fit to beat Kings
Speaking of the Lakers, they went into Sacramento Thursday night and vaporized the Kings, handing them their worst home loss in six years. It marked the first time this season that the Lakers had beaten any of the top four teams in the Western Conference. While Kobe Bryant continues his assault on the league scoring title, the Lakers, through 22 games, were 9-9 in games in which he led them in points. They were 4-0 in the others, including one in LA against Orlando in which Chris Mihm and Jumaine Jones each dropped 25 on the Magic. Mihm also had 14 rebounds. Why can't we, oh, never mind.
It's about time: Houston wants more
Allan Houston is back with the Knicks, who are easing him into games. In his first four outings, Houston, who had been recovering from knee woes, played no more than 21 minutes. But in Game 4, when he logged those 21, he also scored 17 points in a 1-point loss last week to the Pistons. Now, he wants more time. Friday night, he played 27 minutes and scored 15 points, including a 3-pointer that forced overtime in a victory over Philadelphia. The Knicks may decide to move him to small forward so as not to break up the starting backcourt of Stephon Marbury and Jamal Crawford. Meanwhile, Vin Baker has disappeared from the rotation, which says a lot given the state of the Knicks' front line. Baker logged DNPs against the Nuggets, Knicks, and Pistons, which prompted the obligatory cries of outrage from his agent, Aaron Goodwin. He played two minutes Friday.
Williams's return a short story
Is there anyone in the NBA family unhappier now than Eric Williams? (OK, maybe Alonzo Mourning.) Williams, the ex-Celtic, was feeling at home with the Nets, finally back in his native sod, and then he got traded to Toronto in the Vince Carter deal Friday. Mourning was in the deal as well. Earlier this season, Williams talked about how much fun it was finally being back home again. "The phone is ringing all the time," he said. "It's weird, but it's fun. I haven't been back here since high school and I'm trying to get readjusted. But it's cool." Williams leaves the Nets having played a role in one of the more memorable meltdowns ever. His 3-pointer with 6:04 remaining in the third quarter of last week's game against the Knicks gave New Jersey a 62-58 lead. The next New Jersey basket came on a Jason Kidd hoop with 3:01 left in the game. You are reading this correctly. The Nets went more than 15 minutes without a basket. In that stretch, they went 0 for 17 from the field and added 13 turnovers to boot. They did make five free throws, however . . . Still exhausted from their double-overtime loss to the Celtics last Monday, the Clippers had to play in Utah the next night. Predictably, the Jazz won. The Clippers are 1-30 in their last 31 visits to Salt Lake City. Dennis Rodman had more luck there.