EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- I positioned myself at the end of the exit tunnel near the visiting bench at the Meadowlands to watch Scott Skiles exit the playing area, half-expecting him to kick a chair, punch a cinder block wall or head-butt a security guard.
Raging Bull? Pretty calm, really
Skiles always has struck me as someone who keeps too much intensity bottled up inside, and if ever there was moment when he was going to blow, this might have been it, because instead of having a relatively easy path through the playoffs, the Chicago Bulls now will have to go through the defending champion Miami Heat and (in all likelihood the Detroit Pistons) just to get to the conference finals.
That path could have been avoided with a victory over the Nets, but Chicago came out uncommonly flat and put together just one intense stretch in dropping a 106-97 decision Wednesday night that dropped them into the No. 5 seed and gave Cleveland the No. 2 seed.
But much to my dismay, Skiles walked off the floor with his head only slightly bowed, and he didn't even give the doorknob an angry twist as he let himself in to the coaches' room.
"I can't fly off the handle or anything off of one game," Skiles said. "I wanted them to perform well in this environment so they could take that momentum into the playoffs, but right almost from the jump ball we had busted coverage defensively, and things we would never normally do we started doing tonight. So we have to somehow shake this off."
Was it difficult, I asked Skiles, not to fly off the handle given the lost opportunity?
"No, I mean that's not productive, and I only do that once every couple seasons anyway. That doesn't serve any purpose right now, and the guys inside feel bad, I'm absolutely certain of that because I know them well. There were just some things out there you just can't do if you're going to win a high-level basketball game."
It was the Nets who were doing those things, getting another huge contribution from Mikki Moore (22 points, nine rebounds) to back another productive night from Vince Carter (24 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) and Jason Kidd (11 assists, 11 rebounds), sending New Jersey into a much more compelling first-round series than what would have awaited them had they lost. Fittingly, much of the focus will be on Carter's return to Toronto to play the team that traded him (or should we say gave him away?), and the hostility rating from our normally friendly northern neighbors should be off the charts.
"The good outweighs the bad," Carter said of his six years in Toronto, correcting a questioner who mistakenly referred to his tenure there as lasting five years.
I asked Carter if he thinks the folks in Toronto and across Canada are any closer to getting over his departure.
"They should be. They're the division champs, and they should feel good about that."
We'll see what else Carter has to say in the days ahead about the fans who used to worship him and now revile him. They're going to get personal with him up there, and it's going to spice up the first round of the playoffs, and that's a good thing -- especially after Skiles failed to spice up the final night of the regular season by busting a gasket.
Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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Golden State Warriors' Stephen Jackson, left, and Mickael Pietrus,celebrate after the Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers 120-98, clinching an NBA basketball playoff berth for the first time since 1994. Jackson led the Warriors with 31 points.
I went over my choices with Ben Wallace of the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night in the visitors' locker room at the Meadowlands, and he pretty much agreed with all my choices except for Shawn Marion for Defensive Player of the Year.
Big Ben didn't vehemently disagree, mind you, saying his choice was Marcus Camby, and he commented that it was unusual for me to cite the defensive strengths of a player on such an offensively oriented team. I responded by relating to Ben something Mike D'Antoni told me on the phone last week: The Suns have been in the top third of the league when you look at points allowed per possession, something that gets overlooked because their opponents have more possessions than other teams' due to the pace of the game the Suns play. D'Antoni also noted that Marion was the only Defensive Player of the Year candidate who has guarded players at all positions from point guard to center.
John Hollinger's Most Improved Player: Toronto guard Jose Calderon
Since I was the only person among ESPN.com's experts to vote Calderon, and since he hasn't been heavily promoted for the award, I suppose I have some explaining to do. Here's where I'll start: Remember when I said there was another sixth man who'd been better than Barbosa and Stackhouse? Yep, it's Calderon.
Warriors earn playoff date with No. 1 Mavs
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Mikki Moore and Bostjan Nachbar, once afterthoughts in New Jersey but now mainstays, celebrate after Nachbar hit a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter of the Nets' 106-97 win over Chicago.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
First team and Defensive Player of the Year:
But defensively? O'Neal was a monster.
For starters, only Duncan, Bowen and Battier had more points saved on the season. Moreover, the bad backup effect was actually working against him most of the time -- Jeff Foster is no slouch himself. Statistically, O'Neal blocked nearly 2.6 shots a game and usually defended the opponents' top post scorer. Most amazingly, he did this while limping around on a bad wheel during the second half of the season, putting an exclamation point on his considerable determination to right the Pacers' sinking ship. Unfortunately, he couldn't save them, but his efforts should be recognized.
LeBron James led the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East with 24 points and nine assists in a 109-96 win over Milwaukee. But with the nine assists, King James nudged his season average to 6.03 assists per game -- and he qualified for yet another distinction. It was the third straight season in which James has averaged at least 27 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. The only other player in NBA history who has done that is Oscar Robertson -- but The Big O did it in each of his first eight seasons as a pro!
Your comment that it was a good idea for Dallas to sit its starters against Golden State is bogus. If that were the case, then there would have been no reason to play the starters for the full game two days before against San Antonio.
Rather, it should be seen for it really was -- an old player (Avery) giving a gift to his old coach (Nelson). It is a sad reflection on the integrity of the game, and is no different than tanking games last year for playoff seeding, where the NBA changed the rule this year. Dallas and Avery Johnson should be fined by the league for this blatant demonstration of favoritism.
-- Matt (Manhattan Beach)