New beasts in the East

Updated: January 20, 2004, 1:05 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

THE WEEK IN PREVIEW
MONDAY
Lots of good Martin Luther King Day options. Toronto at New York gives new Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens a quick look at his most recent employer, albeit with no promise of facing Vince Carter. TNT offers up a second straight Monday doubleheader with Houston at Memphis in the opener and Utah at Golden State in Part II. Hornets at Wolves is a rematch of last week's nailbiter in New Orleans, and the marquee matchup sends San Antonio to Detroit to tip off a rather challenging week for the Pistons.
TUESDAY
How challenging? Detroit completes a rugged back-to-back with a visit to Indiana, as the East's two hottest teams square off. New Jersey at Dallas, meanwhile, provides the Nets with their own challenge, given what awaits them Wednesday as well. As for Seattle at Cleveland, it's a safe bet Calvin Booth won't block 10 more shots against the Cavs. Agreed?
WEDNESDAY
Jason Kidd returns to San Antonio for the first time since his brief free-agent courtship by Team Duncan in Nets at Spurs. ESPN2 provides another good one from Texas, where New York visits Houston in a Wilkens vs. Jeff Van Gundy (and Patrick Ewing) encounter.
THURSDAY
Sacramento -- gasp -- plays its second road game in the space of four days and this one's on national TV: Kings at Cavaliers in the first half of TNT's standard Thursday doubleheader. The nightcap is Lakers at Dallas, or what passes for the Lakers these days with Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone sidelined.
FRIDAY
ESPN's doubleheader opens with Houston at Indiana, followed by San Antonio at Phoenix. Detroit completes its aforementioned trifecta of difficult games in Pistons at Timberwolves, and the Kings play -- gasp -- another road game: Sacramento at Memphis.
WEEKEND
Karl Malone will be forced to sit out what would have been his first game at the Delta Center in enemy colors when the Lakers visit Utah on Saturday. That probably leaves Hornets at Spurs as the evening's best offering. Sunday's ABC game, by contrast, is a potential doozy: Kings at Mavericks, in a rematch of the Christmas Day game Dallas won with a second-half comeback.
Ben Wallace and Jermaine O'Neal
Ben Wallace's Pistons and Jermaine O'Neal's Pacers are battling for East supremacy.

This is not the way Byron Scott drew it up.

On Dec. 26, New Jersey went to Detroit and defeated the Pistons. The next night, New Jersey went to Indiana and left the Pacers with a loss of their own ... and their first Rick Carlisle-Ron Artest blowup.

Since then?

The Pacers and Pistons have combined to lose, uh, once. Which sets up a nice little Central Division showdown Tuesday at Conseco Fieldhouse.

You do not know how much pain these factoids caused our ace researcher Sanford Appell, a diehard Nets fan, when Sanford had to circulate them to various NBA types in the office. But you had to know that Le Committee (of one) was not going to ignore the collaborative 22-1 response from the Nets' rivals, as the latest ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings confirm.

Yep. Pacers up to No. 1. Pistons up to No. 4. We've pretty much reached the 41-game midpoint of the season, which made this a fine time to recognize Indy and Detroit for making at least the very top of the East interesting.

What we won't do, though, is blame Lord Byron. He gets the blame for everything that happens to the Nets, but don't even dare suggest he had something to do with these freakish coincidences. Who would have thought that beating both of its foremost East foes, in a 48-hour span, could work out so badly for New Jersey?

Suspecting the inevitable protests about an Eastern Conference resident topping our power poll, we nonetheless had you join us for our weekly NBA chat to discuss the rankings and plenty of other pertinent topics.

Team of the Week

Dallas Mavericks. Completed a stretch of five games in seven days -- in four different time zones -- with a run of four straight wins. Three of those wins were long-awaited roadies (New York, Denver and Portland) and the last two came without injured point guard Steve Nash. All four, meanwhile, were recorded amid loud speculation about Don Nelson's job security and a possible Rasheed Wallace trade swirling as potential distractions.

Male of the Week

Yao Ming
Yao
Yao Ming. Lots of centers around the league wish they could be as un-dominant as Yao was last week, when he averaged 21.3 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in three straight Houston victories.

E-Mail of the Week

    In your Jan. 2 column you state: "Which is why I resolve, as the calendar flips to '04, to never write the Jazz off ever again." In your Jan. 5 Power Rankings you write: "This just in: As good as Sloan is, Jazz ain't gonna win without Mailman and Stockton and Harpring, who's now ailing." Then the Jazz pummel Dallas the same day. Will you guys ever learn?
    Ranko Bijelonic
    New York

STEIN: Did that as a test to see how closely Jazz folk were reading. Sadly, I failed to slip that one past you.

Al Harrington
Harrington
Speak of the Week

"We for real, baby."
Indiana's Al Harrington, doing his best to back up the Pacers' promotion in the Power Rankings.


Line of the Week

Friday, Jan. 16, Seattle at New York
Player Min FGM-A 3PM-A FTM-A Off Reb Ast Stl Blk TO PF Pts
Stephon Marbury 34 2-6 0-1 4-4 2 3 17 2 0 2 1 8
If Lenny Wilkens can get Stephon Marbury to play this unselfishly every night, he'll be getting an apology from us. OK, wait. The Knicks probably need Steph taking more than six shots, but the uniqueness of this line stood out as much as the 10 blocks recorded Tuesday against Cleveland by Seattle's Calvin Booth. Yet it should be pointed out that Marbury actually has five double-digit assist games already since joining the Knicks, who had only four all season before Steph arrived.

Stat of the Week

1
With a league-best road record of 15-7, Indiana needs only one more road win to match its total from last season, when the Pacers were 16-25 in away games. One is also the number of 30-win teams in the NBA today: Indy was the first team to get there and no one else has more than 28.

Stat of the Weak

13
That's how many points it took for Gary Payton and Brian Cook to share honors as the Lakers' leading scorer in last Monday's victory over Cleveland. It was the third-lowest point total for a top scorer in Lakers history.

    11	Glen Rice (11/12/99)
    12	Dick Schnittker (11/11/55)
    13	*Payton/Cook (1/12/04)
    13	Baylor/Leonard/Garmaker (10/29/58)
    *Lakers won game
    

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