Beasts of the East looking tame
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

As the regular season races toward the wire, one of the most startling developments has been the recent and collective collapse of Detroit, Indiana and New Jersey, the Eastern Conference's top three teams. The Pacers have lost seven of their last eight and have defaulted into the No. 1 seed only because the Nets have lost five of six. Even worse are the Pistons -- before trouncing Houston at home Tuesday night, Detroit had lost seven straight.

What's going on? And what do these dismal performances (a combined 3-19!!) signal for the home stretch?

Let's evaluate each of these three individually.

Kidd is not all right

There are several reasons why the Nets' running game has stumbled, the most important being the awful burden borne by Jason Kidd from tip-to-buzzer and baseline-to-baseline. Except for his propensity to jack up errant jumpers, Kidd is indeed the Nets' master of all trades. Unfortunately, his teammates aren't bearing their fair share of the load, especially on offense.

Kidd's backcourt mate is Kerry Kittles, who runs like a greyhound and is similarly light-boned and powerless. Whenever he stops running, Kittles is liable to be smacked and banged to the detriment of all his body parts -- the miracle is that he has only been IL'd for 15 games.

Aside from hitting an occasional jump shot and flawlessly executing the Nets' quick-hitting offense, center Jason Collins has minimal court-presence. Collins remains a long-term project, whose intelligence and admirable hustle are undercut by his physical limitations -- i.e., lack of power, speed and the ability to score.

Richard Jefferson has beaucoup talent but also lacks muscle. After playing a little more than 24 minutes per game in his rookie season, Jefferson is playing more than 35 minutes this year. That's why all of his numbers are up -- scoring, rebounding, assists and shooting percentages. At the same time, when compared to last season's MPG, Jefferson has already played the equivalent of 26 more games. The difference is evident in his general lack of consistency and the dulling of the aggressive edge with which he once played defense.

Kenyon Martin
After last season's suspensions, Kenyon Martin has lost is toughness on D.
The power in the starting frontcourt is provided by Kenyon Martin, who is becoming a bona fide go-to player on offense. But Martin's problem is at the other end of the court. Last season, the volatile power forward earned a reputation for being a bully -- his penchant for committing flagrant fouls endangered the careers of several players and resulted in a pair of league-mandated suspensions. Through it all, Martin complained that the refs were "looking" for him, and brazenly refused to alter his aggressive style of play. It's clear, however, that so far this season Martin has indeed been intimidated by the refs and has softened his headstrong approach to defense.

By the numbers, the Nets' overall defense is more stingy this year, yet their interior defense has become more porous as of late. The remedy is more double-teaming, which has the negative side-effect of permitting more open perimeter shots.

What else has gone wrong with the Nets? Rodney Rogers continues to stink up the court. And even Lucious Harris is mired in a prolonged shooting slump. With Rogers and Harris firing blanks, New Jersey's bench has been routinely outplayed by the opponents' subs. This will be less of a problem in the playoffs, where starters usually play extended minutes.

So what's a coach to do? Byron Scott has to somehow find a way to ease the load on Kidd, rest Jefferson, re-stoke Martin's passion for defense, increase Collins' involvement in the offense by creating more makeable shots for him, hope that Rogers shows up for the stretch run, and pray that Harris can find his lost jumper.

After their current Western trip, most of the Nets road games are imminently winnable -- Cleveland, New York, Toronto, Atlanta and Chicago. Games at Boston, New Orleans and Indiana will most likely determine New Jersey's position in the final standings. Fortunately, there's time enough for most of the Nets' problems to be satisfactorily resolved.

Pistons misfiring

It's a long, long season. Maybe too long for the Detroit Pistons. Their signature game plan is to play with all their might at both ends of the court. Yet this gut-and-buckets approach does have a cost: At a mere 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Ben Wallace has been battling the NBA's behemoth centers for more than four months. No wonder there's less umph in his confrontations in the paint, and a bit less sprong in his spring.

Ben Wallace
Like most of the Pistons, Ben Wallace is running on fumes.
Even though Wallace still leads the NBA in rebounding with 14.6 per game (down by almost two in the past several weeks), no other Piston has garnered as much as five per game (Corliss Williamson is second best with 4.7). And if Wallace strays from his own defensive assignment to try to block a shot, there's nobody behind him to provide protection.

The Pistons' other big man is so worn out that he's practically playing on memory alone. Cliff Robinson is a turnaround- and fadeaway-type scorer, who at 6-10, 225 pounds, is highly vulnerable to being bogarted. Indeed, since the turning of the new year, Robinson has been uncharacteristically impotent on offense. His current field goal percentage of 40.2 is far below his lifetime mark of 44.7 percent. With the 36-year-old Robinson suddenly showing alarming signs of decrepitude, the Pistons offense is inadequate.

The only dependable scorer in the starting lineup is Richard Hamilton, a blossoming superstar who's crafty enough to create his own shots. Chauncey Billups is a hot-and-cold shooter whose .406 shooting percentage indicates that his pipes are frozen. Chucky Atkins, supposed to be instant points off the bench, is even worse, shooting a frigid .353. (Maybe his current stint on the IL will warm up his game.) John Barry can shoot but only attempts five shots (in 18 minutes) per game.

Can the Pistons simply play harder and shoot better for the rest of the season? Since their remaining schedule is chock full of patsies, the answer just might be "yes."

Immature in Indy

For the Pacers, the long season might not be long enough. Unless Isiah Thomas has a bag full of maturity pills to dispense to his players, Indiana's postseason adventure might be a brief one.

Ron Artest
Ron Artest's immaturity, not toughness, has defined the Pacers.
Ron Artest's tantrums on the court and outside the locker room have been well-documented. And if his adolescent impulsiveness isn't enough to disrupt the Pacers' generic game plan, the fact that Artest can't even shoot himself in the foot certainly hampers their offense.

Who else tends to be too young and foolish when the lights are turned on? How about Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O'Neal? Since O'Neal is the hub of the Pacers offense, his penchant for short-arming clutch shots is especially devastating.

On the other hand, young players are also capable of playing with a great deal of energy and passion. So it's quite possible that, as the season rushes to a climax, the Pacers' hooplings will compensate for their inexperience by playing with an irresistible frenzy.

One way or another, the final weeks of the Eastern Conference race promises to be a fascinating ride for basketball fans of every persuasion.

These three clubs are so close in talent level that whichever team gains the homecourt advantage will be the odds-on favorite to survive the postseason and represent the East in the NBA Finals.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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