Daily Dime archive for January 2003
Read the reports of ESPN.com's senior NBA writer from the month of January in 2003.
LeBron still eligible to lap up NBA's drool
Friday, Jan. 31
First, a confession.
Filling Dimedom's pocket of cyberspace today could not be possible without capitalizing on the fame of LeBron James. We're guilty, too.
Now, a few reactions.
*If you're wondering how the latest circus act affects LeBron's NBA status, you can stop. He will be drafted No. 1 overall on June 26 whether or not he ever picks up a ball between now and then. Let's be honest here: James received lots of free stuff before the jerseys and that doesn't defame his character in NBA terms one whit. In numerous conversations with GMs and personnel directors about LeBron, I've never heard any concern raised about his character. To the contrary, the typical reaction from front-office types is admiration for James' ability to handle an unprecedented amount of attention for a high schooler. And even if there were sudden concerns, that still wouldn't stop James from going No. 1. James would have gone no lower than No. 2 in the last draft - as a high school junior - and some teams would have taken him over Yao Ming. That's how treasured his offensive skills are already, as a 6-8 swingman with a man's body and court vision. Early indications are that the only team that will even bother to request a predraft workout/interview session with James is the team that wins the lottery. No. 2 has no shot.
*If you feel for anyone in this circus, the overwhelming sympathy is obviously reserved for LeBron's teammates. Unless he can win an appeal to restore his eligibility, James' season is done with the playoffs and the state tournament to go. That would bring an abrupt and sad halt to the once-in-a-lifetime joy ride for every other kid you've never heard of on this team. And if you don't think that means something to LeBron, consider that he could have skipped his senior season to save his body and still gone No. 1 overall in the next draft. But he didn't, because he wants to win a state title as much for his pals as himself. The way LeBron plays team ball is another reason he's so coveted by the pros.
*I'm definitely in the camp that believes the tricked-out Hummer should have waited until April, when the high school season was over. King James willingly invited the scrutiny of a nation when he took the keys to that baby. What I won't do is soap-box you on a couple of throwback jerseys, one of the greatest sports-apparel inventions in history. LeBron just turned 18. What kid wouldn't be tempted by the offer of those sweet Bullets stripes in exchange for snagging his picture? I'm not ashamed to say, at 33, that I recently felt helpless against the urge to pay out $300 on a Buffalo Braves powder-blue special - the one with MCADOO 11 on the back. Did he break a rule, taking freebies? Should LeBron have known better, especially so soon after the Hummer investigation? Yes on all counts. But kids are kids and they make errors in judgment. You can forgive them a lot easier when there's nothing sinister about the mistakes.
More weird stuff than rough stuff
Thursday, Jan. 30
A rougher NBA? Not exactly, and not at all compared to eras past.
A wilder NBA? That's a better description.
It has simply been a bizarre season in the behavior standings and the first hint came way back in October, when Rick Fox and Doug Christie went toe-to-toe and then under the stands after their ejections ... in an exhibition game. That was the bizarre part.
Since that episode, almost a week before the season started for real, here's what we've seen:
If it wasn't a full-blown trend, the past week clinched it. Monday it was Artest, again, taunting the Heat's Pat Riley twice and saluting the Miami crowd with one raised finger on each hand while backpeddling to midcourt. Tuesday it was Utah's Jerry Sloan shoving referee Courtney Kirkland, earning a suspension precisely in line with the seven-gamer Wallace got and Nick Van Exel's seven-game ban in 1996 for shoving referee Ronnie Garretson onto the scorer's table with his forearm.
An explanation? The solution? The NBA, undeniably alarmed by the trend, doesn't have them. All it can promise is that the suspensions will only keep getting longer, as the league office grasps for deterrants.
If you're scoring at home, after the Artest and Sloan penalties, the pure numbers now reveal eight suspensions for what the league deems inappropriate conduct -- for a total of 27 games. There have only been seven suspensions under the heading of on-court violence, for a total of 15 games.
Makes you wonder what awaits us in the second half, as the playoffs draw nearer, when the games really get testy.
Wilder and rougher?
The week in preview
Monday, Jan. 27
Andre Miller makes his return to Cleveland and lone visit of the season in Clippers at Cavaliers. All-Star frontcourt mates Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett square off when San Antonio visits Minnesota.
The Celtics and Pistons engage in a playoff rematch at Detroit, albeit without Antoine Walker to help Paul Pierce. The Sixers and Bucks, two teams scuffling at the lower reaches of the East's playoff table, meet in Milwaukee. In Sacramento, it's another clash of frontcourt heavies in Jazz at Kings: Karl Malone vs. Chris Webber.
The second of nine -- yes, nine -- straight games on the road takes San Antonio to Indianapolis for a marquee interconference matchup. ESPN offers Yao Ming's third meeting with Shawn Bradley in Dallas at Houston. Portland plays its last game without Rasheed Wallace as Blazers visit Jazz. And the Lakers, after four days off to reflect on their 42 games of underachievement, go to Phoenix to start the tough finish to their month -- at Suns, then at Kings.
The Wolves and Mavs hook up, at Dallas, for the first time since Minnesota and Garnett were swept out of the playoffs for its sixth straight first-round exit. Sacramento goes to Seattle in search of a much-needed road win and figure to get it since the game's on national TV.
Indiana at Toronto means Vince Carter's limbs will be exposed to Ron Artest. Pistons at Celtics should be better in Boston with Walker expected to make his return. The evening's focus, though, is the ESPN doubleheader: San Antonio at Orlando, in Tim Duncan's annual what-could-have-been tour through Central Florida & and then Lakers at Kings, in a game that needs no explanation.
The East's top four pair up for Celtics at Pacers and Nets at Pistons. The Lakers, meanwhile, start February with an unwelcome visit from the Jazz after the trip to Sacramento.
West also stung by success of Stoudemire
Friday, Jan. 24
It's not just the Knicks, Warriors and Clippers. The list of teams that have to live with missing out on Amare Stoudemire doesn't even end with Orlando, which actually had possession of the No. 9 pick that became true Amare but -- gulp -- traded it back to Phoenix months before the draft.
Amid all that remorse, there's another team that can't stop the self-loathing.
That would be Memphis, where the newest source of torture for the legendary Jerry West is the lost opportunity to give Pau Gasol a bruising (i.e., perfect) sidekick.
Because West joined the Grizzlies just six weeks before draft, after two years away from full-time scouting, the game's most renowned talent evaluator had to rely on the eyes of others more than ever. According to league colleagues, West is incensed with his scouting department -- run at the time by Tony Barone, who has since moved onto Hubie Brown's bench -- that more data on Stoudemire wasn't catalogued.
West needed more background because he didn't get the chance to work out Stoudemire before the draft first-hand. And private workouts, however mundane they seem, are actually regarded as clinchers for two of Stoudemire's famous predecessors. It was the one-on-one access back in 1995 that convinced Kevin McHale to draft Kevin Garnett & and also what had West working feverishly to move up in the 1996 draft minutes after getting his first up-close glimpse of Kobe Bryant.
The problem: Stoudemire suffered a shoulder injury early in his workout tour and only wound up auditioning for Orlando, Houston and Phoenix. Going with what he had, then, West made a very un-West-like pick. Mr. Clutch, always a Mr. Bold as a GM, went safe and took Kansas' Drew Gooden at No. 4 overall.
A month into the season, when Stoudemire was still coming off the Suns' bench, West proclaimed Gooden to be the clear-cut Rookie of the Year. It should come as little surprise that no one has said that lately, with Stoudemire and Yao Ming dueling and Denver's Nene Hilario developing nicely as well.
Expect instead to hear the Grizzlies mentioned often in trade speculation as the Feb. 20 deadline approaches -- and beyond. To Stromile Swift, add Gordan Giricek and even Gooden to the list of availables now that Gasol, who plays the same position as Gooden, is blossoming anew.
Memphis, remember, only gets to keep its top pick in the next draft if it wins the lottery. Anything lower than the No. 1 pick goes to Detroit. Expect West to do whatever he can to make sure he has a lottery pick in June, to do the draft his way -- all the way -- this time.
Dime's worth of opinions, starting with MJ
Thursday, Jan. 23
No Olympics for Shaq, but maybe for Vlade
Tuesday, Jan. 21
A formal announcement is expected any day to confirm the core of the next Team USA: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady and Ray Allen.
In Yugoslavia, home of the reigning world champions, they don't bother with formal announcements. In Vlade Divac's case especially, there's no point.
Sacramento's Divac announced his retirement from international basketball once, in 1999, only to be hounded by his countrymen last summer until he agreed to unretire and play in the World Championships in Indianapolis. Divac wound up helping the Yugos to the gold, and also helped the Yanks finish a humbling sixth.
He didn't even bother with the retirement proclamation this time. Ask about his national-team status, with the 2004 Olympics in mind, and he starts laughing and (pretend) coughing. "I thought I was retired two years ago," Divac said, "but the Olympics are a big challenge.
"Of course I would love to be a part of it, but my body says no," Divac continued. "I don't think it's realistic, really. It's down the road two years. I might be retired (from the NBA) in two years. But who knows? Nothing's for sure in life."
Divac won't totally rule it out because it still rankles him to hear anyone suggest that Yugoslavia only won the Worlds because the United States didn't send its best players.
"If we beat them next time, they'll say Shaq wasn't there," Divac said. "It's always something."
All that's still far off, though, and the champs -- unlike USA Basketball and its selection of Larry Brown -- haven't even named their next coach yet. Divac feels a little more secure saying that he won't be taking that job even if his international playing career really is over.
"If I was the coach," Divac said, "there would be no training camp and no practices. Just show up."
The week in preview
Monday, Jan. 20
Hopefully you indulged in Monday's hoop feast. Rest of the week ain't bad, either.
Keith Smart's coaching debut in Cleveland pits Magic at Cavs. The Rockets, meanwhile, return home from San Antonio to face Texas' other team to complete an intrastate back-to-back. Yao Ming, remember, had 30 points and 16 boards in Dallas the first time the teams met. Best of all: New Jersey goes to Sacramento for a rematch of the Kings' rout in the swamps on Jan. 9. Both teams figure to be weary after playing roadies the night before.
Milwaukee visits Boston to tempt potential Bucks buyers Larry Bird and Steve Belkin. Denver visits New York to give MSG its first glimpse of Nene Hilario, the kid traded away to land Antonio McDyess. The ESPN offering is Washington at New Orleans, two teams suddenly jockeying for playoff position in the East's 5-through-8 region.
It's a thin menu here. Dallas at Philadelphia, Sacramento at Memphis, New Jersey at Golden State.
This is more like it. ESPN carries Dallas seeking its first win in New York since 1990, with the Knicks bidding for unlikely sweep of victories against all four division leaders. Phoenix goes to Orlando to torture the Magic and its fans with the only regular-season visit of Orlando's own Amare Stoudemire. Seattle travels to Indiana to whip up the Gary Payton trade speculation. Michael Jordan makes his latest last-ever Chicago appearance in Wizards at Bulls. San Antonio at Utah is always a testy Midwest matchup. And, as if all that isn't enough, Nets at Lakers on ESPN2 is an NBA Finals rematch. Quite a night.
Saturday's best is Detroit at San Antonio, another chance for the Pistons to add more shine to their 8-4 record against West. Sunday's best is an ESPN afternoon bonus: Portland at Dallas, two teams that always wind up in a messy tangle.
Hill's ankle becoming sore subject
Thursday, Jan. 16
WASHINGTON -- The sweat suit was gray and the color was quite fitting, since this night was even gloomier than usual for Grant Hill.
It ended late Thursday with Hill, in his somber sweats, limping to the team bus without a word, his future with the Orlando Magic more uncertain than ever.
It was even more downbeat at halftime, where Hill was said to be choking back tears inside the visitors' locker room at MCI Center while coaches and teammates tried to console him.
It could get worse as soon as Friday, after Magic coach Doc Rivers and general manager John Gabriel and Hill huddle yet again to plot the next "recovery" step on a very stubborn left ankle.
After Thursday's 108-93 loss to the Washington Wizards, which saw Michael Jordan torture a gimpy Hill for the first several buckets in a 28-point opening half, Rivers wondered aloud if it's time to shelve Hill for an extended period of time.
Definition of extended? From now until the playoffs, if necessary.
"We might have to try that," Rivers said. "At some point for Grant, this gets to not be fun."
Rivers believes that the Magic, now 20-21, can handle the uncertainty of Hill's in-and-out lineup status, since it has been that way in Orlando since Hill arrived for the 2000-01 season. He also believes the Magic can reach the playoffs again without Hill, if necessary. The coach is worried more about the psychological effect the day-to-day uncertainty has on Hill, who was clearly crestfallen when forced to shut it down at the half after speaking so optimistically before the game.
A hopeful Hill modeled his new left shoe in a pregame press briefing, happily pointing out the extra strip of rubber reinforcement designed to ease the tendinitis in his ankle that still strikes him down after three surgeries. Hill also said beforehand that he was prepared to play only 24 minutes a game -- with no practicing -- because "big picture-wise I understand that's probably the right thing to do.''
Instead Hill managed only 12 minutes here, recording an incomplete game for the sixth time this season to go with his 12 full-fledged DNPs. "You could see in the first minute," Rivers said, "that he wasn't moving well."
Problem is, you can also see that the Magic aren't blessed with lots of options. Hill's contract is immovable and Orlando has little to offer in trades -- to get a big man or any other man -- even when Hill is playing. Thus the Magic are left to hope that Hill, at 30, still has time to make a lasting comeback ... or that he'll eventually agree to a buyout that creates some down-the-road cap relief.
Rivers said: "I told Grant at halftime, you don't worry about anything but getting healthy. You're not letting your team down. You're not letting yourself down. Your job is to get healthy, and you're doing a great job doing that. If you don't play until we make the playoffs -- if we make the playoffs -- you don't play again. That's fine with us.''
Translation: If someone would guarantee right now that Rivers could have Hill for the playoffs, even if that meant Hill missing the final 41 games on the schedule, the coach would surely shake on it.
"But then you say, what would T-Mac have left?" Rivers said. "If we were to do that (and hold Hill out), Tracy would have to expend a ton of energy just to get us to the playoffs."
See? There have been a lot of gray days for Hill and the Magic, but this, no matter how they looked at it, was one of the gloomiest.
Mavs aren't always in the zone
Wednesday, Jan. 15
Zones are vulnerable to good shooters. To good ball movement. To drive-and-kick penetration, too.
The solace for Dallas: Without stopping to announce it or anything, the Mavericks have actually been playing more more-to-man than zone lately. According to one scouting estimate, they've played man-to-man at least two-thirds of the time during their current six-game win streak.
It's a big jump from the start of the season, when Dallas opened with a 14-0 march relying heavily on zones. Coach Don Nelson insisted all along that he merely wanted to develop myriad zone looks as change-up pitches, hoping to build early confidence on defense that would eventually lead to better man-to-man. Which is what's happening. Besides ranking third in the league in field-goal defense at .418, the Mavericks are a healthy 10th in overall defense at 91.1 points per game allowed.
Sacramento's real edge, then, is its interior options. Chris Webber is one of the league's top 10 (or so) players and Vlade Divac is still one of the best centers around. Watch the Bradley-Divac matchup closely -- Vlade's guile has always given Big Shawn trouble -- and take note of the reawakening Raef LaFrentz as well.
This past week is the first time since last February's big trade that Nelson has all three of his 7-footers -- Bradley, LaFrentz and Dirk Nowitzki -- playing well at the same time. He'll undoubtedly be eager to see if they can play well together in the NBA's loudest building and if any of them can protect the rim this time. In the playoffs, remember, none of the Mavericks guarded it.
The week in preview
Monday, Jan. 13
Detroit goes to Orlando in a matchup that had Ben Wallace and Grant Hill return despite recent ankle injuries. Boston visits Houston on the last stop of the dreaded Texas Triangle, where the Rockets and Mavericks and Spurs are a combined 44-10.
Glenn Robinson's sore elbow would definitely drain the tension out of Hawks at Bucks if he can't go, in what is scheduled to be Big Dog's first appearance in Milwaukee since his summer trade to Atlanta -- but there's still Terry Stotts vs. George Karl for the first time as head coaches since their not-so-amicable parting. Amare Stoudemire's ongoing education against the West's best power forwards continues with Tim Duncan hosting Suns at Spurs.
The Lakers open a brief two-game trip with a visit to New Orleans; Baron Davis' availability TBA. Game of the night, of course, is Game of the Month: Dallas at Sacramento. Or at least it's Game of the Month until the Lakers and Kings reunite at Arco on Jan. 31.
Seattle started 8-2. Utah started 3-7. The roles, going into Sonics at Jazz, have obviously been reversed. Orlando at Washington is another potential role reversal, if the Wiz can keep climbing in the standings, potentially past the Magic.
ESPN2 caries Bucks at Sixers, two recent former Eastern Conference finalists trying to restore even a hint of that level. Also of interest: Cleveland at Denver in a first-to-80 points battle, and Dallas at Phoenix in a test for both sides. But ESPN carries the biggie: Lakers at Rockets and the first-ever round of Shaquille O'Neal vs. Yao Ming. No hyperbole necessary.
Detroit visits Indiana in the first leg of a home-and-home with the Pacers that might swing the race for East All-Star coach. New Jersey's Byron Scott is ineliglible after coaching last year's squad, so it's either the Pistons' Rick Carlisle or the Pacers' Isiah Thomas.
New kings of the big game?
Friday, Jan. 10
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The deepest team in the NBA has reached down twice now and discovered something else, something new, in its reserves.
The Sacramento Kings, suddenly, are a ruthless big-game team, too.
Only two of the 36 games they've played so far could really be likened to playoff conditions, from a hoopla standpoint, and the Kings have merely responded with their two most focused showings off the season. First it was the Christmas Day cruise past the Lakers in the second half, on the Lakers' floor. Then it was Thursday night's dismantling of the New Jersey Nets, who couldn't stay competitive for more than seven minutes.
The Kings tripled the Nets' fast-break production and shredded New Jersey in the halfcourt as well. Almost no one noticed, but the Kings also threatened to hold a fourth straight opponent under 80 points with their defense. Sacramento got back in transition, moved the ball freely at the other end and watched happily as Peja Stojakovic rediscovered his stroke ... all without the injured Bobby Jackson, the Kings' glue for the first two months.
Just to make sure, Mike Bibby and Chris Webber tortured the Nets with their signature pick-and-rolls at the elbow. So, yeah, the Dallas Mavericks better be ready when they get to Fortress Arco on Wednesday for the next Big Occasion of the regular season.
"The concentration level was really high," Kings coach Rick Adelman said. "Our team has matured a lot, because we've been through a lot of things in the past year. But I told the team, when you put yourself in a position like we have and the Nets have, this kind of game is fun to play in the regular season. It's a big game, but we didn't get overly jacked up about it."
That was evident beforehand, when several Kings -- about an hour before the opening tip -- munched on chicken strips and fries from the arena snack line. So you could say it's a relaxed crew. Of course, there shouldn't have been any doubt about that after the Holiday Bowl, where the Kings let the Lakers feel good about themselves for two quarters before pulling away and flaunting their depth.
"It reminds me of how they handled us the first two, three years," Kings center Vlade Divac said of Kings' Christmas victory at Staples Center. "Play, play, play and just turn it on at the end. I thought the same thing about us. When we realized we could take over the game, we just turned it up a notch and it was over."
If there's a concern, it's the 30-odd games left on the schedule that aren't so big. The Kings haven't played Dallas yet, and there's another game against the Nets in 12 days. They play Portland once more, San Antonio twice more and still have three showdowns left with the Lakers. The challenge is maintaining that laser concentration for everything else.
"It always is the challenge," said Adelman, already wary about Friday's trip to Minnesota, where Sacramento generally struggles.
Webber, though, disputes the suggestion that the Kings -- like the old, good Lakers -- might start getting bored with the regular season unless they're playing teams like the Nets.
"All I have to do is say Game 7 and guys want to fight each other in the locker room," Webber said, hearkening back to a big game that couldn't have been more of a nightmare.
3-D vision: Scott analyzes Kobe, Shaq
Thursday, Jan. 9
Dennis Scott always figured someone would zone out behind the line, as he likes to say, and hit more than 11 triples in an NBA game.
Had his body held up, Scott is sure it would have happened for him in Los Angeles. He went to training camp with the Lakers last season, as a 33-year-old long shot hoping to reconnect with the same crucial elements that helped 3-D set the NBA's single-game record for 3-pointers in 1996.
Shaw and Shaq were teammates with Scott in Orlando on the night he sank those 11 threes against Atlanta. Now they're Kobe Bryant's teammates, which is why Scott couldn't be too surprised or disappointed to see Kobe trump with him 12 threes Tuesday night against Seattle.
"Kobe had the formula," Scott said.
"I had mixed feelings watching it, because no one wants to lose their record. The only small sad part is that he's not a pure, bonafide 3-point shooter. But being around Kobe for that month and a half (in camp), I saw how hard he works. When he first came into the league, he couldn't really shoot at all. Now he's actually a pretty good shooter. Out of all the young stars in the league, he works the hardest of any of them. By far."
"Don't forget about the big fella," Scott continued. "If you watch, out of the 12 that Kobe made, big fella gave him seven of them. Back in my day, I had two guys (opening up the floor). I had Shaq and I had Penny."
O'Neal and Bryant could certainly use a consistent third threat now. Yet Scott - who still knows Shaq as well as anyone, serving as an usher in his recent wedding - contends that the big fella isn't "real worried" about the Lakers' 15-20 plight.
"He's just starting to get motivated," said Scott, working now as a TV analyst in Atlanta while trying to complete his degree at Georgia Tech. "He's starting to get back in shape.
"He's settling down. He's going to be 31 on his next birthday. He's married. He's got five kids now. I'd give Shaq two or three more years -- three tops -- but he's really going to max out during that time. The game is going to be important to him one more time and he's going to go out with a bang, then walk away."
Shooter in, Cinderella out for Mavs
Wednesday, Jan. 8
The Mavericks were not going to sign a thirty-something Frenchman without floating the idea past their German and their Canadian, and not because they had to ask Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash for a scouting report.
It's because the forthcoming addition of France legend Antoine Rigaudeau meant the Mavericks would have to abandon one of the season's Cinderella stories. Rookie guard Adam Harrington, Nash and Nowitzki's little buddy, was waived Tuesday to make roster room for Dallas' new signing.
Harrington logged only 37 minutes in his three-month fantasy stint, but that's 37 more than he or anyone else had reason to expect. The 6-5 guard declared for the draft after averaging just 10.1 points as an Auburn junior and seemingly had zero chance of sticking in Dallas past training camp.
Instead, Harrington somehow managed to hang on into the new year and emerge as a crowd favorite and cherished teammate.
"He's the greatest," Nowitzki said. "We hung out a lot, so it's sad to see him go."
Nowitzki nonetheless didn't hesitate to endorse the switch, as did Nash. Both have faced Rigaudeau in international competition and know, at this stage of the season, that Dallas couldn't have made a much more promising free-agent signing. There will be questions about Rigaudeau's ability to cope with the speed of the NBA game and simply fitting in to a new culture, but he's a 6-7 swingman who can shoot and handle. Those sort of players do well in Don Nelson's system, and the Mavs -- in spite of a sparkling 29-5 start -- have been desperate for more bench scoring.
Nash remembers Rigaudeau especially well. France ended Canada's own Cinderella run in the Sydney Olympics in the quarterfinals, leaving Nash and his countrymen one win shy of the medal round.
"He was their best player on the court," Nash said.
As for Harrington, Nash added: "It wasn't just me and Dirk, we all loved him. But we all understand, too. Adam is a guy we were trying to develop for the future, and this team is totally about the now."
Rigaudeau has resisted the NBA until now because of his star status overseas. It's a stance maintained to this day by Yugoslavia's Dejan Bodiroga, who was drafted by Sacramento even before they had Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu. Rigaudeau and Bodiroga have earned many more tax-free millions there than they could have here as role players.
The Mavericks, though, offer a shot at a championship at the highest club level in the world and an atmosphere friendly to foreigners. Rigaudeau couldn't resist.
Which means Dallas is adding a shooter after Sacramento tacked on an extra scorer (Jim Jackson) last month. After the way Jackson played against Kobe Bryant on Christmas Day, we're guessing the stand-pat Lakers wouldn't have minded seeing Harrington stick.
So far, Suns show no sign of another fade
Tuesday, Jan. 7
The Phoenix Suns went to Portland to visit the only team in the West more scorching and forgot, once again, that they aren't supposed to be doing this.
Especially when their most physically dominant specimen since one Chuckster Barkley plays zero minutes in the fourth quarter.
Yet that's precisely what happened in the Rose Garden on Tuesday night, in the Blazers' return from a road-heavy holiday stretch that U-turned their own season. In the first home game back from a 4-1 trip, the Blazers seized a 13-point lead & only for the Suns, with Amare Stoudemire watching Jake Voskuhl at the finish, strip it all away and claim a 88-81 victory.
There's a risk, of course, in overblowing any regular-season game, but this was a biggie for the Suns. It'll help them with what they're really trying to forget, as in last season.
Almost no one remembers it, but those Suns opened at 18-13, not far off their current 22-13. Those Suns, though, didn't play defense like they do now, or have the cooperation between Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway seen today, or dress a fearless and manly rookie like Amare. Without all that, those Suns spiraled to an 18-33 finish.
Missing from the fine start this season, until the triumph Tuesday: Road success within the conference. Losing to the Lakers on Sunday night dropped the Suns to 2-10 in away games against fellow Westerners.
Overturning the Blazers, then, was a handy way to respond to the L.A. setback, because the Suns have nine more road games left this month.
There will inevitably be worries about Amare hitting the mythical rookie wall, which would be doubly devastating because the Suns are that rare squad where the vets have been sustaining themselves on the kid's energy. Phil Jackson didn't hesitate to suggest over the weekend that Stoudemire will gradually find it tougher to be a darling as the season progresses because he's suddenly a known quantity & and because he goes right too much.
It should thus only boost the Suns' self-belief to beat a hot team on its home floor on an evening when Amare's ferocity was hushed by the physical Blazers.
"Can we maintain this pace and win 50 games?" Marbury said recently, repeating the inquisitor's question. "We just have to grind out the season. I don't think thinking about the future is going to help our cause. All I know is we're playing hard, we're playing smart and we're playing together."
The week in preview
Monday, Jan. 6
Portland's Trail Blazers return home from a great trip, soiled only by a loss at Chicago, to play host to a team from Phoenix that's almost as hot. After putting 38 and 14 on Kevin Garnett and the Wolves, Amare Stoudemire squares up against Rasheed Wallace.
Amare and the Suns go from Portland to Utah, where Karl Malone awaits. In the ESPN offering, two slumping East contenders (we think) meet in New Orleans for Celtics at Hornets. Indiana gets a chance to avenge Friday's narrow loss at New York by playing host to the Knicks.
Remember Lakers at Nets about a week before Christmas? A more realistic NBA Finals preview is this New Jersey home game: Kings at Nets. We'll see if Chris Webber's knee can weather a matchup of Princeton offenses and two teams who have excelled at playing through injuries. Oh, yeah: San Antonio at Portland ain't bad, either.
Houston goes to Atlanta to see if Yao Ming, perhaps, can sell tickets at Philips Arena. The Kings proceed from Jersey to Minny to set up Webber, if available, for a showdown with Garnett. ESPN2 carries the 3-point shootout from Dallas (Celtics at Mavericks) and ESPN offers two desperate Western Conference clubs in Seattle (Clippers at Sonics).
Nuggets and Rockets meet Saturday, in Houston, for the first time since James Posey and Kenny Thomas swapped jerseys. Michael Jordan makes the first of his two final visits to the "mecca of basketball" in Wizards at Knicks.
Jason Williams, a top-fiver these days in assist-to-turnover ratio, visits his old friends for Grizzlies at Kings. One guess: JThrill would still rather be in Sac.
Predictions from another crystal roundball
Thursday, Jan. 2
The late tabloid psychic Jeane Dixon and her New Year's forecasts -- "Jeane Dixon Predicts!" -- last graced supermarket checkout lines in 1997.
Juan Dixon, the Wizards' guard, is on the injured list and he's a rookie anyway.
Guess that leaves the crystal roundball with us.
We know, we know. Two of Dimedom's heroes/mentors have already lodged their 2003 predictions here at ESPN.com. Peter May's were serious, Sam Smith's humorous.
Surely, though, room remains for a few more prognostications. Which is probably preferable to combing through the obvious New Year's resolutions, such as: Lose 10 pounds & and play more pick-up ball & and drop the Lakers in the Power Rankings, already.
In honor of the more famed Dixon and the four Star issues every year that carried her visions of the future, here are a few more projections to cover the rest of the regular season:
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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