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Basketball Notes

A wild West show looms

After No. 1, spots are up for grabs

By Marc J. Spears
March 8, 2009
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While the Lakers are driving smoothly out in front in the Western Conference, in their rear-view mirror are a lot of teams jockeying wildly for playoff position.

The Lakers entered last night's games with a commanding 8 1/2-game lead over the second-place Spurs. But only 4 1/2 games separated second-seeded San Antonio and eighth-seeded Dallas. The hot-and-cold Suns, who have lost Amar'e Stoudemire (eye) for the season, were in ninth but close enough to get back in the picture.

A year ago, only three games separated the top six teams in the West, while Dallas and Denver outlasted Golden State to get the last two spots.

"The seeding will come down like last year where it was like the last day of the season when it came down to it," Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki said.

After Friday night's win over Minnesota, the Lakers are 50-12 and have a 33-6 mark against the West. At this point, they are likely more worried about having a better record than East powers Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando to ensure home-court advantage if they make it to the Finals. That will keep them from coasting the rest of the regular season.

"They are playing great, plus they have the MVP in Kobe [Bryant] with a lot of shooters around him on the perimeter," Nowitzki said. "They look great.

"Outside of that, it's really wide open. Even the Hornets were really, really great last year and they've lost some games where you say, 'They wouldn't have lost that last year.' "

Unfortunately for Nowitzki and the West, the Hornets are buzzing again and finally beginning to live up to expectations. New Orleans entered last night's game against Oklahoma City with six straight wins and was on the heels of San Antonio and Denver in fifth place in the West. Expect San Antonio, New Orleans, and Houston to fight it out for the coveted high seed that comes with winning the Southwest Division. With Chris Paul leading the way, the Hornets have seemed rejuvenated since a trade of center Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City was rescinded because of a toe injury.

"We're definitely not peaking, but we're playing a lot better than we were," Paul said. "Ever since I got my big man back, we're 6-0, so I'm glad to have him back and we're doing a good job right now."

Said Hornets forward David West, "I just think we're clicking pretty well at this point. We talked about having a run where we can put together consecutive wins. We're just feeling good about what we're trying to do. I think this is a good time of the year to be doing that."

Another West team to keep an eye on is Utah.

The Jazz have been injury-riddled for most of the season and didn't practice with a full roster until late February. Moreover, starters Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, and Deron Williams didn't appear in a game together until Feb. 23.

But after Friday night's victory over Denver, the Jazz have won 10 straight and soon could overtake the Nuggets and Blazers and grab the lead in the Northwest Division. The Jazz, however, play seven of their next nine (five against the East) on the road; they also play four of their final six games of the season away from Utah against West playoff contenders.

"Every game right now is critical," Boozer said. "I think down the stretch we are trying to move up the ladder a little bit, but at the same time we want to get our team as right as possible so when we get to the playoffs we are hitting our stride, and playing the best basketball we can be playing."

A Maine connection in Celtics' future

The new D-League franchise in Portland, Maine, isn't officially affiliated with the Celtics. But considering that Celtics president Rick Gotham and the Celtics dancers showed up at the team's recent introductory press conference and that Ray Allen, Gabe Pruitt, and Bill Walker wished Portland good luck via video, it's just a matter of time. Portland's president-general manager is Jon Jennings, the former Celtics assistant, and K.C. Jones is a consultant.

The Celtics are currently affiliated with the D-League team in Utah, but an announcement on an affiliation with Portland is expected in the offseason.

"Hopefully, we will be affiliated with the Celtics," Jennings said. "I've had good conversations with Danny [ Ainge].

"Whoever we are connected to, I'm committed to run their offense, defense, and strength and conditioning programs. There is no sense in doing it unless it's seamless.

"We want to do it as efficient as possible for our principal affiliate. We will more than likely have two affiliates."

The D-League is expected to announce another Northeast addition in the near future, in either Hartford, Springfield, Mass., or New York City (Harlem), according to an NBA source. Even if Hartford or Springfield gets in, the source said, Portland would still be affiliated with the Celtics.

The Portland team will play in the 3,100-seat Portland Exposition Center. A $250,000 renovation is underway, which includes a new floor, courtside seating, scoreboards, and signage.

The team is already selling season tickets and has a website (nba.com/dleague/maine), with a team-naming contest that concludes March 31. "Red Claws" and "Beacons" are currently the most popular entries.

"We've had a remarkable response from people around Maine with a lot of passion around the naming contest," said Jennings. "We are incredibly thrilled with the response."

That's shoe biz
The affordable Steve & Barry's experiment is still alive for the Celtics' Stephon Marbury but dead for the Cavaliers' Ben Wallace. The casual clothing chain made headlines beginning in 2006 by offering an affordable basketball shoe and clothing line called the "Starbury Collection," which featured items under $14.98. Following a spate of nationwide violence over expensive basketball shoes, the hope was to sell cool basketball apparel under a star's name that would be affordable for kids and families. Footwear News named the Starbury Collection "2006 Footwear Launch of the Year," community leaders and national media embraced the idea, and some consumers were even moved to tears when they met Marbury during a national promotion tour. The Starbury line expanded from 50 products to 200. In 2007, Wallace joined in with his own line, called "Big Ben." Citing the economy and higher production costs, however, Steve & Barry's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last November and eventually closed all of its stores and liquidated its product. Marbury owned the trademark on his line, though, and was able to acquire the merchandise and keep the Starbury Collection alive. He sells it online on starbury.com and amazon.com. Marbury is wearing the Starbury 2 with the Celtics right now, has three shoe models under the brand, and expects the company to have "significant growth" this year. He is hoping the low prices will help people in these hard times and he also has been giving shoes to homeless shelters. "I would like to see other athletes, entertainers, and celebrities join the movement," said Marbury, who has a tattoo of the Starbury symbol on his head. "I understand that price and value is not the same thing. At Starbury, our motto is, 'Great value at an unbelievable price. You might be able to find a less expensive product, but you probably won't find a better value.' " The Big Ben line, however, is no more. Wallace, who now wears Nike, said, "It was a bad business plan. It was a great idea. But great ideas don't always work and don't always have the right people to make it happen. Just having an idea and a plan ain't good enough. You have to be able to go out there, sell it, and make it happen, and I don't think they did a good job of that."

Central focus
The Cavaliers are closing in on their first Central Division title in 33 years. Cleveland actually has as many NBA Finals appearances (one, 2007) as it does Central Division titles (one). "There is a lot of stuff that has happened this year that [hasn't] happened [since] before I was born," said LeBron James. "I think it's good. I've always been stating with all the records that have been broken with our team and our franchise that it's always great to be a part of history. If we can continue to win ballgames and win a division, it will be great for the franchise and great to be part of it. You cherish moments like that."

Free throws
Oklahoma City interim coach Scott Brooks has done a fantastic job in going 15-33 (entering last night) with the young team after replacing the fired P.J. Carlesimo. Brooks is expected to get strong consideration for the job full-time when the Thunder evaluate after the season . . . An NBA general manager said Celtics forward Glen Davis can probably command a salary starting in the $3 million-$5 million range when he becomes a free agent during the offseason and believes there will be interest from several teams . . . Magic senior vice president Pat Williams has a new book, "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inside Basketball," which includes 101 stories from players, coaches, and fans. In one such story, ex-Magic ball boy Bobby Williams writes about the surprising experience of being asked to play H-O-R-S-E by Larry Bird at the Orlando Arena hours before a game. "Larry said to me, 'Hey kid, can you shoot?' As my voice cracked, I bravely replied, 'Of course.' He said, 'Let's play H-O-R-S-E.' I was numb. It was one thing to rebound for Larry Bird. It's another to play H-O-R-S-E with him. Larry said, 'Are you good for five dollars?' 'Sure,' I said. To no one's surprise, he made his shots and I missed mine. Larry said, 'Pay up.' I grinned and shrugged, 'I don't have any money.' Larry gave me a stern look and then just smiled."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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