East's good day still not enough

Updated: February 16, 2004, 2:11 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- If you take every team in the Eastern Conference and condense it down into one team, you can honestly say what George Constanza once said so eloquently about his entire life being condensed down into one day.

It looks decent.

The punching bag known worldwide as the Leastern Conference actually looked better than decent Sunday night at Staples Center, for whatever it's worth. That's not much solace for what happens all season and in the playoffs, when the Least gets bullied all over the floor, but the underdogs should have won the NBA's 53rd All-Star Game and definitely staged the better show.

"Absolutely," Tracy McGrady said.

Shaquille O'Neal had a big third quarter and then a coast-to-coast rumble for a dunk that helped win him the game's Most Valuable Player trophy he wanted so badly. Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant was almost as good as Shaq and probably should have shared the hardware, if only so commissioner David Stern could have ordered them onto a podium afterward for a group hug to formally start the second half of the season.

Yet it was the East that truly entertained, serving up countless highlight-reel moments. Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson and McGrady -- to himself, as usual -- routinely used the backboard for passes to set up dunks that left mouths gaping. All of which, mind you, were overshadowed by one of the greatest alley-oops in game conditions that you could wish to see, not surprisingly a Kidd-to-Kenyon Martin connection.

That one had Kidd slyly advancing down the middle, giving no hint that he was monitoring Martin's movements, and lobbing the ball with his left hand -- underhanded -- for K-Mart to deliver his typically emphatic punctuation.

Yes. That's underhanded with his off-hand.

"Everyday thing for me and him," Martin insisted.

Wrong.

"J-Kidd wasn't even looking at him," McGrady said. "He amazes me every time he steps on the court."

The East, unfortunately, couldn't handle the routine on this night, and that cost the conference a victory its collective ego could have sorely used. Iverson and McGrady combined to miss five free throws in the fourth quarter, and three of those misses really changed the finish. Iverson's two clanks kept the East from taking a four-point lead into the final two minutes, and McGrady missed one of two with 35.8 seconds left that would have kept the East on course for overtime at least.

"You saw the game tonight," said Detroit's Ben Wallace. "The size didn't really matter. It's about making free throws and doing things down the stretch."

In this format, true. The East can overcome its size shortcomings with speed and athleticism because it's not as if an All-Star environment generates any defense or anything close to playoff intensity.

Now, though, Martin and Wallace and the rest of the East's interior operators have to go back to spending every day hearing how they'll have no shot at competing with any West team they see in the NBA Finals.

"We wanted to win this game for that reason," Martin conceded.

Said McGrady: "Man, it's the truth. It really is. You got guys that are very dominant on the post. To win in this game, you have to have a dominant big man. And they have a lot of them over there. That's just the facts."

At least there was a measure of enjoyment for the poor Leasterners, even in defeat. Even if it's only the condensed version of the conference that can play the mighty West on even terms.

"I needed this," McGrady said. "Especially with what I'm going through with the Magic, I definitely needed (an enjoyable game) like this."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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