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Basketball Notes

Look East for the favorite

Celtics-Pistons victor will be set up for title

JASON KIDD Slow start in Dallas JASON KIDD Slow start in Dallas
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

Over the last many years, or basically since Michael Jordan officially hung up his Chicago uniform, it has almost been an article of faith that the Western Conference finals were the real NBA Finals. The actual NBA Finals were more or less a 7-to-10 coronation party for the Spurs or Lakers. Only the Pistons and Heat served as spoilers, and both were surprise winners.

That has all changed. After watching the Celtics roll over Texas, I think it's time to state that, this year, the Eastern Conference finals are going to be the real NBA Finals. (This was written before last night's Boston-New Orleans game, but the outcome would not alter my opinion, unless Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce collided and knocked each other out for the season.)

Yes, the Western is the stronger conference. One through 10 - and we're including Portland because the Blazers did win 13 straight once upon a time - it is deeper than the Eastern Conference. But if the NBA Finals opened today (which would be a real story), the Celtics or Pistons, the presumptive Eastern Conference finalists, would hold home-court advantage because they are Nos. 1 and 2 in the NBA in terms of record.

The Celtics already have established themselves, passing every test along the way, culminating with their macho performance in the Lone Star State. They rallied from two significant holes in San Antonio, the 22-pointer in the first quarter and, even bigger in my mind, the 9-pointer in the fourth. How many of us figured they'd expended everything to get back into the game by rallying from the 22-point deficit? I did.

The next night they played a Houston team riding a 22-game winning streak and blew it out of the Toyota Center in an overpowering second half. The Rockets' streak was a terrific story, but the Celtics were not going to be victim No. 23. After the game, Tracy McGrady said he hadn't seen that good a defense in his NBA career, which dates back to 1997. Houston then went out and got drubbed the next night by the Hornets. Can anyone say "market correction"?

Boston then outlasted the Mavericks in a game that could have gone either way. Yes, that was Garnett's hand on Dirk Nowitzki's back on that late drive by the Dallas forward that produced no basket - and no call. But both Nowitzki (smothered by KG) and Jason Kidd (backboard-shattering bricks) went scoreless in the fourth quarter, which is when they are supposed to be at their best. Dallas fell to 0-7 against winning teams since acquiring Kidd.

The Celtics improved to an astonishing 23-4 against the West after their win over the Mavericks. They have two games remaining against Western teams - Phoenix (Wednesday) and New Orleans (Friday) at TD Banknorth Garden. They seriously could run the table after that, unless Doc Rivers decides to give the guys a breather or complacency sets in as the team awaits the playoffs with no position to fight for.

The Pistons, meanwhile, are a pretty imposing 19-8 against the Western Conference and have had the second-best record in the league all season. Among their recent victories are an 84-80 win over the Spurs, a 105-84 thumping of the Hornets, and a 136-120 romp over the Nuggets. Their remaining three games against the West are a home game with the Suns and home-and-homers with those never-say-die Timberwolves.

But whoever emerges from the brutal West, is that team going to be seen as the putative favorite over the Celtics? Or the Pistons? (If neither of those teams makes it, all bets are off, along with the very premise of this column opener.)

I can't see it, at least not now. There's still a ways to go, of course, and there are a few important unknowns, such as if/when Andrew Bynum makes it back. The Spurs should be helped by Brent Barry's return, and the Lakers might even get a boost from an unlikely source, Ira Newble. The Mavericks (Kidd) and the Suns (Shaq) are still getting accustomed to their significant newbies.

The Celtics are set. The Pistons are set. They are on a collision course for late May, a series both sides have eagerly awaited since, oh, November. In my mind, the NBA champion comes out of that series.

The West may be best, but the real beast lies in the East.

Endangered Bird in Indiana?

Jermaine O'Neal has not played since Jan. 16. Jamaal Tinsley has not played since Feb. 5. Neither is likely to play again in the near future, although O'Neal (knee) is doing some light practices.

The Pacers, predictably, are struggling. So, we're shocked - shocked - to hear that a housecleaning may be in the offing, and it may include one Larry Joe Bird.

Here's what team owner Herb Simon told the Indianapolis Star last week: "I'm interested in how our team performs, how we relate to the community, and that we should all be proud of the product. Winning is important, but also how we present ourselves to the community. In that case, we've all done a horrible job, apparently.

"To have one incident after another happen, it's almost like we're snakebit. We can almost pinpoint when things changed with this franchise. Ever since Detroit, we seem to have one problem after another."

That would be the ugly night at The Palace of Auburn Hills, and that was back in 2004. Bird said the following spring that he didn't know how long, or if, the franchise could recover from that incident. Now, team president Donnie Walsh is leaving (of his own volition), and Bird didn't exactly get a rousing vote of confidence. Asked about possible changes, Simon said, "Everything but the owner right now."

Bird is hoping to see the thing through to the other side. Given sole responsibility for basketball operations, he brought in Jim O'Brien to coach. The Pacers, even without two of their best players, are still not out of the playoff picture. But attendance is down dramatically (last in the NBA at only 12,067 a game), which prompted Simon to say, "It's a shock and it's something we never thought would happen to us. And we've got to correct it."

Still to be determined: Whether Simon has the you-know-what to jettison Indiana icon Bird. We know this much. If he wants Walsh to do the deed for him on his way out the door, he can forget about it.

Davis living up to can't-miss projections

Before the start of training camp last fall, Golden State's Baron Davis stopped by Reebok headquarters in Canton and said he had never felt better in his career.

"I'm slimmed down," he said proudly. "It's the lightest I've ever been, under 213 [pounds]. I ain't been like that since my rookie year. I'm feeling good."

Davis is having his healthiest year since he was with the Hornets in Charlotte in 2001-02; he has not missed a game all season. And he is doing this while averaging 39.2 minutes a game for the Warriors, who are clinging to the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference.

Health and Davis have not always been mutually inclusive. In the previous five years, he missed a total of 130 games, including 19 last season when the Warriors ended their long playoff drought and stunned Dallas in the first round. He is the only Warrior to have played in every game this season.

"I've thought on maybe three or four occasions this year that he'd take a game off, but he's played," marveled coach Don Nelson to the San Francisco Chronicle. "I think he and [Stephen Jackson] have just decided as many games as they can possibly play this year, they're going to play, play hurt, to have a special year."

Jackson has missed nine games, the first seven of which came at the start of the season courtesy of the heavy hand of David Stern. Golden State lost its first six. Since then, the Warriors' record of 42-20 represents the fourth best in the NBA behind the Celtics, Pistons, and Lakers.

Golden State's playoff hopes will get tested this week with back-to-backers against the Lakers today and tomorrow, a Thursday game with Portland, and a weekend set at Denver (currently chasing the Warriors) and at home against the Mavericks.

Etc.

Kicking and receiving
You can count Ray Allen as one player who wasn't surprised to see Bruce Bowen suspended for kicking at Chris Paul. "I've been on the other side of some of those kicks," he said. Come again? "Sometimes when he kicked me, it was almost like I was the one that did it, especially playing in [San Antonio's AT&T Center]," said Allen. "Like I made him kick me, so I get booed because I get kicked. I did get a chuckle out of it." Asked if he thought Bowen crosses the line, Allen said, "I definitely think so. Sometimes when you're frustrated you do something over the top, or you just make a tough defensive play hoping you get away with it, wanting to get a win for your team. It's borderline trying to hurt somebody. When I'm out here on the floor, yeah, there's a couple of players in the league I might not care for, but I'm not going to try to hurt them."

Perfect record, imperfect strategy
The Celtics not only went 3-0 in Texas, they also went 3-0 in Boston against the three Texas teams, making them the first team since the 1999-2000 Bucks (with Ray Allen and Sam Cassell) to have a perfect record against the three teams. They might not have done that had Bowen or Robert Horry bothered to call a timeout after Bowen intercepted Kevin Garnett's inbounds late in last Monday's game. Then again, had Garnett called time, the ball would have been inbounded farther up the floor. That's how the Celtics won their first game in Charlotte this season, when the Bobcats didn't call time before inbounding the ball, lost it, and Allen hit a game-winner. It was almost deja vu in San Antonio, but Horry didn't have the look or space that Allen had - he missed.

Chairman of the boards
With the Suns in town this week, it'll be our first look at the Big Saguaro in orange and blue. It's a crucial trip for Phoenix: roadies in Detroit, Philly, and New Jersey as well. The Suns took a six-game win streak into last night, and one big area where Shaquille O'Neal has made a difference is the boards. In the 14 games prior to last night, the Suns had outrebounded opponents in 12. In the previous 51, without Shaq, the Suns had outrebounded opponents in 12. Shaq is trying to morph into the early '70s Wilt Chamberlain, who, at roughly the same age, concentrated on rebounding and passing and left the scoring to others.

Devalued Bucks
It's pretty much a truism that the biggest draft mistakes are made because of an infatuation with height. Hence, Andrew Bogut over Paul and Deron Williams. The man who made the Bogut pick, which was not controversial at the time, got his walking papers last week. Larry Harris, the Bucks' general manager, is out of a job, but a closer look at the roster shows that it's a lot more than Bogut. How about the money being paid to Dan Gadzuric (an average of $6.75 million over the next three years) or Charlie Bell (an average of $3.7 million over the next four), or, gulp, Bobby Simmons (an average of $10.1 million over the next two) or, gulp, gulp, Mo Williams (an average of $8.7 million over the next four)? And good guy Michael Redd is down to pocket around $51 million over the next three. Other than Redd, who has one All-Star appearance in eight years, are any of those players remotely worth what they're getting? Is Redd? In the end, Harris signed them, but owner Herb Kohl signed off on them.

The best of times
A personal note: While doing a couple of books on the Celtics of the 1980s, I discovered one thing common to all the players. Their sweetest memory was winning their high school state tournament. And many remembered how painful it was to lose. Larry Bird still recalls a teammate missing a pair of free throws that cost his team the championship. Kevin McHale still sees a winning opponent named Steve Lingenfelter in his nightmares; McHale never did win a state title. So, young women of Wellesley High School, enjoy your state championship. Lindsay, Chelsea, Eleni, Mary Louise, Sarah, Blake, Jesse, Corley, Ann, Lanaeya, Katie, Annie, Amber, and their managers, Libby and my daughter, Katie, take it from the pros: It doesn't get much better than this.

Peter May can be reached at pmay@globe.com.

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