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Has East grown up yet?

ISRAEL GUTIERREZ

igutierrez@herald.com


Who has the goods now?

With a little more than a quarter of the season remaining, the unofficial Dark Era is over in the Eastern Conference. There likely won't be anymore coaching changes, there definitely won't be anymore trades no matter which players and coaches aren't getting along, and one team can officially begin an Eastern Conference renaissance by somehow winning four out of seven games against a Western foe in the NBA Finals.

Now that all the dust has settled, who has the best chance to do that? There are a handful of contenders.

DETROIT PISTONS

With Rasheed Wallace now in the fold, the Pistons seem to have the best combination of talent to match up with a Western Conference powerhouse.

At the very least, adding Wallace says they're trying to match a team out West and not just contend for an Eastern Conference crown.

''What this does, you can best believe when our players walk on the court, they are going to know we are serious about winning,'' said Joe Dumars, Pistons president of basketball operations. ``It sends a message that, yeah, we are Central Division champ and we've got the second-best record in the conference, but the status quo isn't good enough. We are trying to get better.''

Have they gotten good enough to beat a team led by Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, or Peja Stojakovic and Chris Webber, or Kevin Garnett and Sam Cassell, or Tim Duncan and Tony Parker?

An examination of the roster says yes. With the combination of Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Mehmet Okur, the interior defense would be effective against any of the Western giants.

The scoring, meanwhile, can come from either Chauncey Billups (the player who most resembles Tim Hardaway when he played in Miami), Richard Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace or Tayshaun Prince.

Toss in Corliss Williamson and Mike James, and the Pistons have one of the best eight-man rotations in the league.

The last time Rasheed Wallace was on a team this good, it (Portland) was one fourth-quarter collapse away from beating the Lakers in 2000 and delaying Los Angeles' rise to dynasty status.

NEW JERSEY NETS

The Nets aren't playing as well as they played the past two seasons, when they reached the Finals twice. They're playing even better.

Under Lawrence Frank, who replaced Byron Scott last month, the Nets are clobbering everyone and playing with a sense of purpose they've lacked for some time.

Frank, at 33, is already being celebrated for his motivational techniques. He's a head-in-an-ice-bucket away from being the next Pat Riley.

Take his speech prior to the Nets' game against the Hawks, who had just added four new players. The diminutive coach came into the locker room with a stool and explained how a lion tamer uses the piece of furniture to distract the beast.

'He was like, `What does a lion tamer bring into the cage with him? center Jason Collins said. ``A whip, a chair and a tranquilizer gun. He was like, `Why the chair?' And he said when you hold up the chair, the lion focuses on the four legs, and that paralyzes the lion because he can't focus.''

The lesson: ''Don't be the lion,'' Collins said. ``Don't get distracted by the legs of the chair. Don't get distracted by what we did last week or by the next opponent or by what's going to happen next week. Focus on one thing -- tonight's opponent, the Atlanta Hawks. Go out and get the win. Don't be the lion.''

While it might not make all the sense in the world, Frank's antics are effective.

And it's not much of a stretch to say that had Scott not been the Nets' coach last season, they, not the Spurs, would be defending champions. New Jersey took two games from the Spurs in last year's Finals, and that was despite the fact players were annoyed with Scott's game plan in the series.

This year, preparation won't be a problem.

INDIANA PACERS

Before the Pacers can be a factor in the playoffs, they have to be able to avoid a collapse in the regular season. With Ron Artest likely out until the last two weeks of the season, the Pacers will need to regain their midseason form very quickly to be a factor in the postseason.

''What makes it so serious is we've got only 28 games left in the regular season,'' Reggie Miller said of the Artest injury. ``And when he does come back, is that going to be enough time for him to come back and get his rhythm and groove back?''

Even when he does return, the Pacers still don't have enough to compete with the Kings, Lakers or Timberwolves when healthy. Jermaine O'Neal is not enough. If a Garnett or Webber can keep O'Neal under control, the Pacers have no perimeter players who can create for themselves or their teammates on a consistent basis.

Artest can handle that responsibility on occasion, but he'll have trouble if guarded by a Bruce Bowen, Bryant or Doug Christie. Indiana's still a player away.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

NEW YORK KNICKS

The Hornets have the size up front with P.J. Brown and Jamaal Magloire to at least bother the top frontcourt players out West. And they have the ability to score with anyone when Jamal Mashburn, Baron Davis and David Wesley are at their best.

But depth will be the Hornets' problem. Robert Traylor, Darrell Armstrong, George Lynch and Stacey Augmon aren't enough to keep up.

Plus, there's the Mashburn factor and how he'll respond under the ultimate pressure History says he'll abandon the Hornets when they need him most.

The Knicks have nice parts but a bad sum. Stephon Marbury can penetrate and kick to Allan Houston and Tim Thomas, run a pick-and-roll with Kurt Thomas and pull up for three-pointers all he wants, but jump-shooting isn't going to beat any of the top Western contenders this year. The Knicks' only hope is that Dikembe Mutombo and Nazr Mohammed prove to be a daunting defensive tandem inside, keeping scores relatively low. No chance.