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NEW YORK -- Were it not for shame, and the New Jersey Nets' passion for avoiding said shame, the Eastern Conference playoff race might not be as tight as it is entering Tuesday's games.
Because it was shame -- or better yet, the avoidance of shame -- that fueled the Nets' 106-91 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday night as New Jersey moved a half-game closer to the idle Atlanta Hawks in the race for the eighth playoff spot in the East.
A loss would have made the Nets 0-4 against the Knicks this season, meaning New Jersey would have been accountable for 20 percent of the paltry sum of victories that has managed to keep Isiah Thomas gainfully employed.
"You never want to get swept, especially by a team that's supposed to be your rival, but really, the main issue for us now is making the playoffs," Nets forward Josh Boone said.
With 11 games remaining, the Nets have a tougher schedule than the team immediately in front of them (Atlanta) and the one right behind them (the Indiana Pacers), which made it all the more important to polish off one of the three remaining cupcakes on their schedule (the next two won't be on the menu until the final week of the season, when the Nets close with games against the Milwaukee Bucks and the Charlotte Bobcats, followed by one against the Boston Celtics, who figure to be resting their regulars by then).
New Jersey owns the tiebreaker over Atlanta, and the Nets will have the tiebreaker over Indiana, too, on conference record if they manage to split their next two games, both of which are against the Pacers.
"I do believe we're gelling as a team, and hopefully we still have enough time to pull it together," said Richard Jefferson, who carried the Nets by scoring 21 of his 26 points in the first half.
Nenad Krstic and Vince Carter had strong third quarters, coming downcourt on six straight possessions. Once they figured out which one of them would be guarded by Zach Randolph, the other scored with ease as New Jersey built its lead as high as 26 before coasting the rest of the way.
"I wanted to run that play as many times as I could because I wanted to build up my assists," Carter joked afterward. "It was a building-block game, and I'm hoping we can continue it."
Despite the noncompetitive nature of the game, it was not a non-compelling night because of who was hosting the game. That was the kings of dysfunction, the Knicks, and their embattled coach and president, Isiah Thomas.
Earlier in the day, Donnie Walsh stepped down after 23 years with Indiana, adding to the intrigue surrounding Thomas' reign as coach and president.
The two worked together -- and got along well -- for three years in Indiana, and sources told ESPN on Monday night that Walsh has agreed to join the Knicks' front office after the season. What remains up in the air is whether Thomas will stick around. It is worth noting that Knicks owner James Dolan could be looking for a candidate not to replace Thomas but to work with him. After all, it would make too much sense for Dolan to simply cut the cord with Thomas. In a world where illogic trumps logic every time Dolan needs to make a decision, it would make perfect sense -- in a Dolanian way -- for Walsh and Thomas to be reunited in New York and to pledge to work together.
"He's had a great career; he's one of the best who's ever done it," Thomas said. "I wish him great success, and he's someone that I respect tremendously. He gave me my first coaching job, I truly like him as a person and he's done a lot for the game."
Think Thomas would be speaking that way if he felt threatened by Walsh? Probably not.
So maybe that Cheshire Cat grin Thomas sported as he spoke was the most telling sign of the night. Because there certainly is no telling what's going to become of the inconsistent Nets by the time the end of the regular season arrives.
For a night, though, they could walk away satisfied that they had won a game they truly needed to win while also avoiding a dubious distinction -- getting swept by the Knicks in the season series -- that no serious playoff team would want on its resume.
Of course, the Nets aren't a serious playoff team yet. But they're one win closer, and it was one win they really needed -- both for their pride and because of their schedule the rest of the way.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and has done extensive international basketball reporting. To e-mail Chris, click here.
Zach (Los Angeles): Who do you see as the top 4 seeds out West, and who will get the No. 1 seed?
John Hollinger: Lakers will get the top seed because their remaining schedule is so soft. Jazz will get No. 4 because they'll be NW division champs, and could move up to No. 3 depending on how things go over the final two weeks. OK, now for the hard part. I'll take Houston to win the Southwest and the No. 2 seed, and San Antonio to finish behind them and take the No. 3. That would leave New Orleans and Phoenix as Nos. 5 and 6, Golden State at 7, and Denver/Dallas at 8. Of course, ask me tomorrow and you might get something completely different.
Yes, that box score line is correct: J.R. Smith scored 27 points in only 21 minutes of action in the Nuggets' 120-106 triumph in Memphis. No other player in the NBA this season has scored as many as 27 points in 21 minutes or less. And only one other player in the Nuggets' 32-year NBA history has scored so many points in so little time: Alex English scored 28 points in 21 minutes in a blowout win over the Mavericks in 1984.
On Monday, Heat forward Shawn Marion received the results of his MRI, which showed he just has back spasms. He's considered day-to-day. He has missed six of the past seven games.
• Kings point guard Beno Udrih, who missed the previous three games with a back strain, played 10 minutes in the first half, then sat out the rest of the night. Reggie Theus said Udrih aggravated the injury and now is day-to-day.
• Celtics forward James Posey missed the game with the 76ers to attend to a family matter, but he is expected to be back for Wednesday's game against Phoenix.
Lamar Odom, Lakers forward: Before Derek Fisher's pull-down chicanery, Odom put up 23 points, 21 rebounds, five blocks and five assists in the Lakers' 123-119 OT win over the Warriors.
Darko Milicic, Grizzlies center: He had 19 points and 10 rebounds Saturday against the Kings. Against the Nuggets, he missed all four of his shots.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"I would have liked to see some consistency in the calls. [The Pistons] had help, there's no two ways about it."
-- Suns center Shaquille O'Neal, lamenting an overtime loss to the Pistons. • See Monday's daily leaders • See the current playoff matchups
-- Andrew Ayres
Nathaniel S. Butler
Pistons forward Rasheed Wallace (23 points) finds some close defense by the Suns' Amare Stoudemire. The Pistons won 110-105, snapping the Suns' seven-game winning streak.
The bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, the seeds 5 through 8, presents a daily scrum of mediocrity.
It looks especially middling when one considers the excellence of the West contenders.
However, the Philadelphia 76ers (36-35) are moving on up, hitting the East's No. 6 spot after their impressive 95-90 win in Boston. If they keep up these winning ways, they just might move up to the No. 5 spot. And that could be a good thing, because they might match up better with the likely No. 4 Cavaliers than the No. 3 Magic.
So far this season, the Sixers are 1-0 against the Cavs, courtesy of a 92-86 win Dec. 15 over a struggling Cleveland team. The two teams have two meetings left, Sunday and April 14. Those games could bring more clarity to how Andre Miller's latest defensive dissection works against the new-look Cavs, who, at 40-31, would be hopelessly out of the chase if they played in the West.
Against the Magic, the Sixers dropped the season series 3-1, with all games played after Feb. 1.