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Inside The NBA

Down to The Wire
In the wild Western Conference, there's playoff intensity in the
fight for playoff spots

Mavericks coach Don Nelson considers himself a victim of
geography. "If we were in the Eastern Conference, we'd win a
division," says Nelson, whose team would indeed have been atop
the soft Central Division at week's end with a 46-26 record.

Nelson, however, is stuck in the Western Conference, where the
nightly matchups resemble a WWF brawl. On March 26 the Mavericks
embarked on a five-game intraconference trip that could have
damaged their chances of making the playoffs for the first time
in 11 seasons. Instead Dallas gained ground with upsets at Utah,
at Portland and at Sacramento. Things became vicious when Karl
Malone bloodied Dirk Nowitzki's lip in the first half of Dallas's
98-90 come-from-behind win over the Jazz. "Mr. Referee," pleaded
Nowitzki, "did you see him hit me in the face with an elbow?"

"Dirk!" Nelson cried out for all to hear. "Pick your spot,
whenever you feel like it, and pop that sucker back!"

Nowitzki's retaliation was limited to his 27 points and 13
rebounds, but Nellie's combative stance was appropriate in the
wild West. The top 10 clubs in the conference have been playing
with an intensity unrivaled in recent times. "I've never seen so
many quality teams," says 76ers coach Larry Brown, who believes
the crucible of the tight playoff race only increases the
likelihood that a Western team will win the championship for the
third straight year.

It's as if the West has become a 14-team league unto itself, with
the East serving as a minor division. "If the Sixers were in the
West, they'd be fourth or fifth," says Nelson. Want to argue? Of
the nine winningest teams at week's end, only the 76ers and the
Bucks were from the East.

At this time last year the Lakers and the Trail Blazers had
distanced themselves from the pack in the West. Now those two
goliaths will meet in a first-round best-of-five series if their
conference standings--fourth and fifth, respectively--through
Sunday hold up. Portland coach Mike Dunleavy believes no seed is
safe. "A Number 1 could be beaten by a Number 8," he says. "You
look at us and the Lakers, and I don't know if either of us is
better than we were last year, but the other teams have gotten
better. Every team has guys who can get on a roll and go for 40
points on you."

The Lakers, Spurs, Blazers, Jazz and Kings are all contenders for
the championship, though Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson believes
that the Kings are probably a year away. "It's a stretch to think
that Sacramento can go from eighth place [last season] to
winning," says Jackson. San Antonio has established itself over
the last month as the team to beat, but rivals don't worry that
the Spurs will dominate the playoffs as they did two years ago.
At week's end they held a spare 2-game edge over the Jazz for the
top seed and home court advantage through at least the conference

Yet each challenger to San Antonio has its flaw. Utah has put
together its most talented group yet, but it was 9-14 through
Sunday against the likely postseason clubs in the West. The
chemistry-challenged Blazers--"the best team money can buy," as
Jackson puts it--plummeted from first to fifth in the conference
thanks to a five-game losing streak. The Lakers have yet to
behave cohesively on defense or in the locker room, where
Jackson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have squabbled. "I
still feel they're the team to beat," says Nelson, who suffered a
98-89 loss at L.A. last Friday night despite Bryant's absence
with a sprained left ankle.

Potent lower seeds such as the Mavericks, the Suns and the
Timberwolves will bring an anything's-possible feeling to the
playoffs. Phoenix won its seventh in a row last week to assume
apparent control of the No. 7 seed, while Minnesota struggled to
hold on to the final spot against the surging Sonics, who had won
10 of 11 through Sunday. The Rockets, whose 40-34 record would
put them in the playoffs in the East, appear doomed to the
lottery. "We're probably going to have 10 teams in our conference
that win 45 games," says Minnesota coach Flip Saunders, whose
team will play five of its last six games on the road. "If you
win 45, 46 games and you don't make the playoffs, you've got
nothing to be ashamed of."

Relocating the Grizzlies
New Home Won't End Woes

Don't blame Vancouver fans for the Grizzlies' imminent departure.
When the team returned to the General Motors Place last Thursday
after losing eight straight games on the road--during which owner
Michael Heisley applied to the league to relocate the franchise
to Memphis--the players were greeted warmly by a crowd of 15,949.
The ensuing 89-68 win over the Knicks was Vancouver's 99th
(against 353 losses) in six years of play, yet at week's end the
Grizzlies had averaged 13,757 fans this season, better than three
teams, including the Rockets.

"No one has said the problem is the fans," says a Vancouver team
official. "The problem is that the numbers don't add up."

Heisley, a Chicagoan who spent $160 million to buy the Grizzlies
last year, has estimated he will lose as much as $46 million this
season. But how much of the team's loss is the result of bad
management? This has been, after all, one of the most inept
franchises in any sport.

"I've played for five coaches and three owners and with
who-knows-how-many players," says fifth-year forward Shareef
Abdur-Rahim, who asked to be traded in midseason. A league source
says that early this season Grizzlies management, in an attempt
to persuade Abdur-Rahim and several other players to stick out
the year with the team, promised to move the franchise to a U.S.
city next season. Aaron Goodwin, who represents Abdur-Rahim, says
that he never heard such talk and that it wouldn't have mattered
anyway, because his client wanted to escape Vancouver's losing
team, not the city.

Changing venues will not change the Grizzlies' dysfunctional
nature. Rumors have reached coach Sidney Lowe that team president
Dick Versace--a former coach--wants to take his place. (Versace did
not return phone calls last week.) "[Dick] assured me he didn't
want to coach," Lowe says. "What I've heard is a different story,
but I have to go by what he said."

Lowe worries that his young players are growing accustomed to
losing. "You have to decide whether you think these guys will
ever get it, or whether they'll give into losing," Lowe says.
"It's hard to give up on young guys when you see the talent is
there, but sometimes you have to do it because of [their]

Point guard Mike Bibby says he was almost traded this season, but
he denies reports that he and Abdur-Rahim are at odds. So does
Abdur-Rahim. "I read somewhere that me and Reef are fighting all
the time, but it's not true," says Bibby. "I think everybody gets
along great."

That's part of the problem, says Lowe: A team that is losing so
prodigiously should not be so focused on getting along. "The
biggest mistake is to want to be friends first instead of being
[winners] first," Lowe says.

Proposed Rule Changes
Radical--Yet Welcome

Last week, in reaction to a growing sense that the game has
become stagnant, the NBA Committee on Playing Rules unanimously
approved the abolition of the illegal-defense rule, paving the
way for zone defenses for the first time in the league's 55
years. If the Board of Governors approves the committee's
recommendations before the June draft, coaches will be free to
implement any kind of D next season, though a defender will be
limited to three seconds in the lane unless he is within arm's
reach of an opposing player. The three-second rule prohibits shot
blockers from camping under the basket, a concern of many

Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who chaired the 11-member committee,
predicts that his fellow owners will approve the package of
changes, which also includes an eight-second time limit to get
the ball past midcourt, a more liberal definition of incidental
contact (to cut down on touch fouls) and the elimination of
offensive goaltending. "If [the owners] are looking to get
scoring up, that's not necessarily going to happen," says Magic
general manager John Gabriel, who initially was opposed to
legalizing the zone. "But what they've tried to do is to put
together changes that may improve the game over the long haul."

The NBA must speed up the pace of games to make them more
appealing to watch--and quickly. Over the next six months the
league will be negotiating TV contracts that will take effect in
the 2002-03 season; ABC and ESPN are expected to challenge the
current rights holders, NBC and Turner.

The rules are under scrutiny because too many teams walk the ball
upcourt and run mind-numbing isolation plays, which cut down on
passing and offensive rebounding. Even though no one knows what
impact zones will have, the NBA hopes that rules encouraging fast
breaks, ball movement and forays to the hoop will allow its
young, athletic players to showcase their talent. "Remember when
Julius Erving and Michael Jordan were the only guys who could
take off from the foul line and dunk?" says Pacers president
Donnie Walsh. "Now we have at least 20 guys who can do that."

Outside the Box Score
How Orlando Picked Off Philly

The Magic relied on an unusual play to pull off its 96-95 upset
at Philadelphia on March 28: the "inverted" pick-and-roll. Coach
Doc Rivers had 6'1" point guard Darrell Armstrong set screens for
6'8" Tracy McGrady. The resulting defensive switch created a
mismatch between Armstrong's defender, 6-foot Allen Iverson, and
McGrady, who poured in 44 points, tying his career high. Fearful
of losing the game on a pick-and-roll, 76ers coach Larry Brown
loaded up on perimeter defenders for the Magic's final play. With
center Dikembe Mutombo on the bench, McGrady drove the lane to
score the winning basket with 2.7 seconds remaining.

For scores, schedules and stats, plus the latest news and
analysis from Phil Taylor and Marty Burns, go to

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH O'Neal (center) and the Lakers face the prospect of battling Portland in the opening round.

COLOR PHOTO: JUAN O'CAMPO/NBA ENTERTAINMENT The Grizzlies' location--in the standings, not on the map--has Abdur-Rahim (3) wanting out.

Around The Rim

Two general managers say the league should revise its rules for
injury exceptions as a result of Alonzo Mourning's return on
March 27. The Heat received a $3.92 million exception (using it
to acquire Cedric Ceballos) by asserting that Mourning would be
sidelined for the season with a kidney ailment. "First we hear
it's life and death," says one G.M. "Now it turns out he's been
practicing for six weeks." The executives propose preventing the
injured player from returning during the season that his team
has claimed the exception....

In an apologetic letter to Bulls season-ticket holders, owner
Jerry Reinsdorf said ticket prices will remain the same for
2001-02 and guaranteed no price hike during the two seasons
after that for anyone who renews in spite of the Bulls' horrible
results the past three years....

Kevin Garnett's scoring, rebounding and assist numbers increased
after Feb. 23, when 6'7", 255-pound Reggie Slater, a 30-year-old
journeyman, took over for Rasho Nesterovic as the Timberwolves'
starting center. "Even though Reggie's not tall, bodies are
flying off him, he's taking up space, he's opening lanes for
KG," says Minnesota coach Flip Saunders....

At the start of the season forward Ruben Patterson objected to
coming off the bench. Now, having averaged 11.9 points and 4.7
rebounds through Sunday in 49 games as a substitute, he looks
forward to it--which is good news for the Sonics, who want to
keep him as their sixth man after he becomes a restricted free
agent this summer....

Reggie Miller on Wizards second-year shooting guard Richard
Hamilton: "He's wiry, he uses screens well and he probably has a
little better off-the-dribble game than I did at his age. I love
his athleticism, and he comes to play every night."

Scout's TAKE

On the up-and-down play of the Trail Blazers:

"Talent is their strength and their weakness. They were put
together with no regard for how the pieces fit, making a tough
job for their coaching staff. There are so many players who are
so versatile that it's hard for their roles to be defined. That's
why their poorest possessions are those 'in-between ones,' when
they don't get a quick basket in transition but they're not yet
into their sets. Now [coach] Mike Dunleavy is back to calling a
lot of the plays and trying to get them to play with more
structure. The biggest question is, which point guard are they
going to settle on: Damon Stoudamire or Rod Strickland. If you
asked me which one I would rather not play against, I would
say--you're not going to believe this--Strickland."