Updated: April 16, 2:51 PM ET
New rivalry brewing between Nets, Pacers
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As Byron Scott climbs into his car for Continental Airlines Arena on Thursday, his heart beating fast, his mind racing in preparation for a game against the Pacers, the Nets coach will remember back to double overtime of Game 5 of last year's Eastern Conference playoffs, back to New Jersey-Indiana at the season's start with nine technical fouls, four flagrants and three ejections.
"Even though I can't do anything out there on the court, these are the nights I get excited," Scott said. "You've got gladiators going against gladiators. That court is our arena. You got both teams trying to kill each other.
"As a coach, you go in there," Scott says, rubbing his hands for effect, "and you're saying 'this is going to be good.' I wish I was in this game. I wish I could play in this game."
The Nets and Pacers need this night. They're struggling, losing games on the road they should be winning, and Scott is right: "This is the kind of game to cure all the ills." Just as badly, the NBA needs this night. Beyond the Lakers-Kings, there are far too few rivalries in the league. In the East, there's nothing. This is a neophyte conference, yesterday's bottom feeders rising to prominence, and there just isn't the modern playoff history to percolate the passion that turns to downright disdain.
Which is why the Nets and Pacers are the best chance for change, Jason Kidd and O'Neal, Richard Jefferson and Artest, Kenyon Martin and Al Harrington, Byron and Isiah. There is a dislike bordering on belligerence, an understanding. Scott says, "They're going to test you ... push your buttons ... They want the Eastern Conference championship, and the only way they can get it is through us."
"I never want my guys to back down. Never. It's five on five, but it's still man against man," Scott said. "If you back down, as the young guys said, you just punked out. I'm not saying I want my guys fighting, but you don't back down."
At the end of the epic Eastern Conference playoff series a season ago, Thomas wished Scott the best of luck, telling him to go all the way and soon the Pacers and Nets coaches started to leave the court. Yet, hold on. Isiah wasn't done. Thomas turned back and left Scott with these words to take with him the rest of the playoffs, the rest of the summer, all the way into this year.
"Next year, we won't put ourselves in this position," Thomas said.
The message was unmistakable: The Pacers planned to push for the Eastern Conference championship, for a chance at the NBA Finals, the way these Nets pushed for everything a year ago. Relentlessly.
"The hunger we had last year, I see in them this year," Scott confessed.
Thomas has reshaped these Pacers into the old Detroit Pistons' Bad Boys image, a wise plan considering that beyond the menacing Martin -- "They don't mess with me," K-Mart said of the Pacers -- the Nets are far from formidable physically. While the Pacers are still a long way from delivering the mental warfare of those old Pistons teams, Scott says, he considers this team "more talented" than the two-time NBA champions.
There promises to be tension and anxiety hanging in the air of Continental Arena, a basketball story too often untold in the Eastern Conference these days. Too often these are just strangers passing in the night, antiseptic arenas working as a cover for one more emotionless grind out of 82.
History tells Byron Scott this will be different Thursday night, and history tells him that it's a shame Isiah Thomas and he have to wear suits to the gymnasium. "It would be good if Isiah was playing the point, and I didn't have to guard him too much," Scott said laughing.
Scott's heart will be racing on the way to work, his drive to the Meadowlands tinged with thrill and regret. He will absolutely love his seat on the sidelines closest to the chaos on court, but he just wishes he could edge onto the floor and into the scrum of a night that comes too rarely in the NBA. Once more, the Nets and Pacers, all hell breaking loose in Jersey.
Adrian Wojnarowski, who's a columnist for The Record (N.J.), is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.