Step inside the Mavs' torture chamber
Thursday, Feb. 27
They don't lose often. The Dallas Mavericks lose less than anybody in the NBA.
When they do lose, though, you sure remember it.
When the Mavericks lose a game, at least this season, they manage to lose in the most painful, unforgettable manner.
Dallas' five worst defeats were so tortuous, including Thursday's fall-from-ahead heartbreak against Sacramento, that losing at the buzzer on a Wally Szczerbiak jumper at Minnesota on Feb. 11 doesn't even make the list.
The Top 5 -- or is that Bottom 5? -- reads as follows:
No. 1: Sacramento 126, Dallas 124 (OT) on Feb. 27 at American Airlines Center
Lowlights: After Dallas squanders a late seven-point lead & after Bobby Jackson forces overtime with a banked three-pointer & after Chris Webber and Vlade Divac had fouled out & Keon Clark wins the game with another rebound basket in the final minute, boxed out by no one once again.
No. 2: LA Lakers 105, Dallas 103 on Dec. 6 at Staples Center
Lowlights: Dallas zooms to a 30-point lead and carries a 27-point cushion into the fourth quarter, only to surrender 44 points in the final period and lose by a deuce for their 24th consecutive loss to the Lakers in LA. It ranks as the second-biggest blown fourth-quarter lead in NBA history.
No. 3: Sacramento 123, Dallas 94 on Jan. 15 at Arco Arena
Lowlights: With Dallas at a gaudy 31-5, Sacramento storms to a 39-point first quarter and rolls to a rout. After looking flat and meek, in the teams' first meeting since the Kings won their second-round series in five games, the shaken Mavericks lose their next two in Phoenix and Seattle.
No. 4: Sacramento 110, Dallas 109 on Feb. 4 at American Airlines Center
Lowlights: With Webber out injured, Clark's uncontested rebound dunk off a missed three-pointer with 16.5 seconds to go stands as the winning basket. Dallas' only solace is that Dirk Nowitzki gets a decent look at a potential game-winning shot but misses a 10-footer over Peja Stojakovic.
No. 5: Milwaukee 110, Dallas 107 on Dec. 30 at American Airlines Center
Lowlights: The Mavericks blow a five-point lead with 1:09 to play to suffer just their second home defeat of the season and waste Nowitzki's career-high-tying 40 points. After the game, coach Don Nelson publicly tears into Raef LaFrentz, saying: "What performance? He didn't perform tonight."
East favorites for No. 1 seed? Schedule says Pistons
Tuesday, Feb. 25
Sacramento on Tuesday night. Lakers on Thursday night. Portland on Sunday night.
Not the most appetizing portion of the Detroit Pistons' schedule. Not with the Pistons sporting a 1-5 record against the West's top five teams. Especially not after the Pistons started with a loss at Seattle on Monday night in the friendliest stop on the trip.
Imagine, though, if the Pistons survive that three-course intake. If, say, they can emerge from this five-game trip -- there's a Golden State stop Saturday as well -- at 2-3.
Actually, even an 0-for-5 might not be fatal. Detroit has the most favorable schedule in the East after this excursion, with just seven more road games over the next seven weeks.
That means 15 of the Pistons' final 22 games are at home. All seven road games are against conference foes, and the Pistons rank as the East's best road team at 17-13, 11-8 against fellow Easterners on the road. Ten of their first 12 games after the trip are at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and only five of them are against teams that current rank in the East's top eight.
The Nets and Pacers, meanwhile, face some challenging March travel leading up to the final night of the regular season when they face each other in Jersey. Those teams, you've surely noticed, have also lost a combined eight straight games in the conference suddenly no one wants to win.
Add it all up and the Pistons -- in a season that began with talk of slippage -- have a fine opportunity to go into the playoffs as the East's top seed, no matter what hapens out West. Next thing you know we'll have to start paying attention to the offensively challenged team that thinks no one's watching.
Week in preview
Monday, Feb. 24
Washington at Indiana means one last dose of Michael Jordan vs. Reggie Miller ... unless these teams meet in the playoffs. Detroit at Sacramento gives the Pistons a chance to be the first East team to conquer Arco Arena; they figure to have a decent shot with the East's best road record (17-12). All five of the Kings' home defeats were administered by West powers.
One of the most intriguing matchups of the week pits Utah's 3-0 lead in the season series against Minnesota's unbeaten run in Target Center. It's a proverbial something-has-to-give game, and ESPN has it. Indiana at Boston ain't bad, either, with the Pacers completing a tough back-to-back on the road and potentially without the ailing Ron Artest (elbow).
Sacramento returns to Dallas, this time with a healthy Chris Webber, seeking a 3-0 edge in the season series. No guarantee, though, you can call that showdown Game O' The Night. Houston at Washington brings together two worldwide heavyweights (Yao Ming and MJ) and Detroit at L.A. Lakers is a nationally televised opportunity for the Pistons to seize some of spotlight they've been craving.
Is it just me or do Milwaukee games suddenly carry some cachet? Anyway, it's Bucks at Pacers -- the team that acquired GP and the team that lusted after him. Payton, incidentally, scored 40 points (for Seattle) last time he saw the Pacers. Utah at Philadelphia should be a good test for the new Sixers, who have quietly rejoined the race for No. 4 in the East. The ESPN doubleheader serves up Magic at Knicks on Patrick Ewing Night, and Clippers at Blazers.
ESPN's Saturday bonus coverage is indeed something extra: Sacramento at San Antonio. The best Sunday: Utah at New Jersey and San Antonio at Houston.
At Trimester No. 2, Kobe leads MVP chase
Sunday, Feb. 23
Toronto visits Chicago on Wednesday night, but we can't wait that long.
That game will be the Raptors' 54th of the season, which will make them the last team to reach the two-thirds pole.
Instead we grandfather the Raps in and trot out our last latest Trimester Report Card, with only one-third of the season left.
West MVP, Two Trimesters In: Commence hatred, friends. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant has my vote at the two-thirds juncture, just ahead of San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Minnesota's Kevin Garnett. To quote the venerable Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times, Kobe has "dialed it up from MVP Level to Unreal."
East MVP, Two Trimesters In: Orlando's Tracy McGrady is the most singularly dominant player in the conference, and doing it with less around him than KG, but Jason Kidd has kept New Jersey at or near the top of the East with the Nets perpetually shorthanded. Detroit and Indiana, like Dallas and Portland in the West, don't have an obvious MVP candidate because they all win with variety and depth.
West Coach of the First Two Trimesters: There are arguably eight coaches who can make an argument out West -- outsiders include Utah's Jerry Sloan and Golden State's Eric Musselman -- but Minnesota's Flip Saunders is our guy entering the final trimester. Saunders has nosed past Dallas' Don Nelson and Sacramento's Rick Adelman by teaming with Garnett to keep this season's Wolves (thinner than last season's) surging instead of fading.
East Coach of the First Two Trimesters: Isiah Thomas and Rick Carlisle, linked ever since Thomas beat out Carlisle to succeed Larry Bird with the Pacers, are intertwined again. Isiah's season in Indiana has been undeniably special -- he installed a new offense, coached the East All-Stars and didn't experience a blip until the past week, when Indy dropped four straight. Carlisle, meanwhile, has guided the starless Pistons past the Pacers and into the Central lead. Looks like the outcome of the division race will decide this one.
West surprise, good: Portland was 10-11 when it started winning and hasn't stopped, at least when the Trail Blazers are on the road. Home games continue to be a problem -- 3-3 in their last six -- but the Blazers are bidding for a top-four slot after their horrific start.
West surprise, bad: It's not really "bad" but it's an undeniable heartbreaker for Sonics fans, whose beloved Gary Payton was traded Thursday. Even though Payton's name has been in midseason and summertime trade rumors for the past couple years, this was still an epic stunner. On Thursday morning, even the Bucks awoke with little hope that they could actually pull this deal off.
East surprise, good: There are three worthy contenders for the conference title, lifting the odds that one of them can give us a competitive Finals. Go Pistons, Nets, Pacers!
East surprise, bad: The injury news just keeps getting worse. Grant Hill is suddenly facing his last chance at a comeback in Orlando, New York's Antonio McDyess has shelved talk about a late-season test drive and now New Orleans' Baron Davis has knee issues again (as in college) to go with his recent back woes. No indication yet, furthermore, whether Alonzo Mourning will ever be able to come back from kidney disease for Miami or anyone else. Only Toronto's Vince Carter seems to be making progress.
Rookie of the First Two Trimesters: The Rockets' Yao Ming still has the lead here, closely followed by the Suns' Amare Stoudemire, because the transition from China strikes us as even tougher than the transition from high school.
Looking ahead to Trimester 3, we wonder: Where will the Lakers wind up in the West seedings? Where will Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal be physically by mid-April? Will teams secretly be trying to drop a few games on purpose at the end to avoid the three-time champs in Round 1? Will anyone treat the Mavericks like a No. 1 seed in mid-April? Who's the unlucky club that finishes third in the East, which means a tough matchup in the second round as well as the conference finals? Who's the team that gets left out of the playoffs in each conference: Orlando or Washington; Houston or Phoenix? Can any contender make an impact signing before the March 1 cutoff? Can Tyrone Hill broker his release from Cleveland to be that guy? Which of these two wins the scoring title: T-Mac or Kobe? Which of these two, if not both, can keep his scoring average over 30 points per game all the way to the finish line?
West swings risky trade from afar
Thursday, Feb. 20
Jerry West assured his colleagues from rival teams that he could swing a trade from Europe if he had to. West proved it Wednesday night, all the way from his curiously timed scouting tour of Yugoslavia, when he completed the shipment of Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek to Orlando for Mike Miller.
The new challenge, then, is convincing everyone that it was the right trade.
Trading Gooden after just 51 games is an unspoken admission from the legendary West that drafting him No. 4 overall last June was a mistake. As covered here last month, West made a very un-West-like decision in his first Grizzlies draft by going safe and taking Gooden -- coached by West's pal Roy Williams in college -- instead of making a more West-like bold grab of Amare Stoudemire or Nene Hilario.
Thing is, trading Gooden so soon puts West at risk for another mistake. Namely, parting with a developing big man without allotting sufficient time for his development. Or at least the presentation of a better deal.
Gooden was moved mainly because he plays the same position as Pau Gasol and couldn't make the transition to small forward. The Grizz, however, have a new positional logjam even without Gooden, because Miller is joining a swing rotation that already includes Shane Battier, Wesley Person and Michael Dickerson.
The Magic, by contrast, came away from the exchange about as healthy as they possibly could, given the possibility that Grant Hill might never play again. If not quite the bruising big man they need, the undersized Gooden will be given every chance to play power forward in Orlando and live up to his draft position. Gordan Giricek, meanwhile, is a promising shooter to help fill the Miller void, and the first-round pick the Magic sacrificed is actually Sacramento's pick, meaning that it will be a pick in the low 20s as opposed to a lottery selection.
The biggest drawback for the Magic is that Miller is Tracy McGrady's best friend, so there will be some hurt feelings to soothe before Orlando can mount its bid to snare No. 8 in the East without Hill.
Yet there's far more at stake here for West. The Logo inherited control of a franchise that had been mismanaged for years, with an unbelievably bloated payroll to handcuff any free-agency notions, and proceeds now with his own tale of draft woe to add to the Grizzlies' brief but painful history. Antonio Daniels ... Steve Francis ... Drew Gooden.
Don't forget, too, that Memphis' next lottery pick goes to Detroit in June unless it's the No. 1 overall pick thanks to a previous regime's blunder. In other words, the Pistons get any Memphis lottery pick that falls between Nos. 2 through 13 when the Ping Pong balls bounce in May.
So, yeah. For West's sake, Miller has to deliver.
A secret weapon from the Europe trip wouldn't hurt, either.
Sprewell talk and other trade chatter
Wednesday, Feb. 19
As the trading deadline approaches, the warnings come from almost every team.
Don't expect much of anything actually happening, they say, because no team in these luxury-tax times wants to take on salary.
Sorry. Can't help it.
As eternal optimists here in Dimedom, we continue to expect that a trade or three will be consummated before Thursday's 3 p.m. buzzer. Instead, we draw hope from the Western Conference executive who just told us: "Tomorrow's when it gets serious." Meaning Wednesday.
This is what was out there as of Tuesday night, culled from discussions with front-office folk from around the league:
The Knicks and Scott Layden are known for making long-shot proposals in an eternal swing for the fences. The latest: New York has apparently called Washington, more than once, with this, uh, ambitious idea -- Latrell Sprewell and Othella Harrington for Jerry Stackhouse, Christian Laettner ... and Kwame Brown. If you're thinking that's a lot to ask for, you're right.
The more realistic Sprewell deal continues to be the oft-mentioned Philadelphia trade, now expanded to send Spree and Harrington to the Sixers for Keith Van Horn and Greg Buckner. The push here, though, is coming more from the Sixers than the Knicks, with Larry Brown absolutely committed to moving Van Horn. Immediately. "They're calling everyone in the league," said one East rival. Of course, given that Van Horn's deal runs one year longer than Spree's, not quite sure why the Knicks would accept when they're supposed to be moving away from long and outrageously expensive contracts. But we'll see.
Golden State has replaced Atlanta as the co-leader in phone calls made alongside Philadelphia. Adonal Foyle continues to be linked with the Sixers in an exchange for Derrick Coleman (DC is in the last year of his contract) as the Warriors strain to create the salary-cap room that will enable them to re-sign Gilbert Arenas this summer. Danny Fortson and Bob Sura are most frequently mentioned as the options to be packaged with Foyle.
To the surprise of many colleagues, Memphis president Jerry West is in Europe on a scouting trip. Yes, even with the deadline mere hours away. Peers insist, however, that he's quite reachable by phone ... and that he's not trading Pau Gasol anyway, so why call?
Vladimir Radmanovic, not Gary Payton, is said to be the Seattle SuperSonic up for grabs, in the unlikely event you'd also be willing to take on two of the following three contracts: Calvin Booth, Jerome James and Vitaly Potapenko.
Orlando would prefer to move Andrew DeClercq rather than Mike Miller and has had discussions with Golden State about swapping DeClercq and more contract filler for Fortson. Problem is, Fortson has four years left on his deal at nearly $18 million and Orlando can't afford to take on that sort of long-term financial commitment for uncertain short-term benefit.
San Antonio is still peddling Steve Smith and will undoubtedly look to revive Elden Campbell discussions with New Orleans. The exchange works for both sides because both players are out of favor with their current clubs and in the last year of their contracts. The obstacle hasn't changed, though: Hornets would have to add a player to make the trade math work and that player (Tractor Traylor, or whoever) would cut into San Antonio's salary-cap room next summer. Which is the last thing the Spurs want to do, with Jason Kidd on their radar.
Dallas will have a decision to make if talks with Miami progress. The Heat can send Brian Grant and Travis Best to the Mavericks for Nick Van Exel and cap filler. The odds favor Dallas declining such a swap, though, because Grant has four years left on his contract after this season -- at a whopping $55 million. Not even Mark Cuban will take on those kind of dollars unless Grant is an instant playoff difference-maker. In the West, for all Grant's rebounding prowess and tenacity, he probably isn't.
Week in Preview
Monday, Feb. 17
Letdown alert: San Antonio's first home game since Jan. 25 brings a visit from lowly Denver. Spurs should be ready, though, having somehow lost once already to the Nuggets. Houston at Lakers is a biggie whether or not Shaquille O'Neal plays, with the Rockets clinging to a one-game lead over L.A. for No. 8 in the West. In an interesting interconference contrast, sure to be filled with 3-pointers, Milwaukee visits Sacramento.
Because of Monday's snow-out, Michael Jordan's first game as a 40-year-old is in New Orleans: Wizards at Hornets. In an ESPN2 offering from Chicago, the Bulls play host to the 76ers, who will undoubtedly have one eye on Thursday's 3 p.m. trading deadline.
As if the deadline isn't enough to get folks buzzing, three absolute doozies follow. Or at least two doozies and another good East vs. West contrast: Indiana at New Jersey, San Antonio at Dallas and Boston at Sacramento. Pay particular attention to the Spurs and Mavericks, because this is the first of three games left between the teams, meaning that Dallas' four-game lead atop the Midwest Division suddenly isn't so safe.
ESPN serves up a Friday doubleheader of Mavs at Rockets and Bucks at Sonics, but there are two more meaty battles. Pistons at Timberwolves should be good, the way Minny is playing, and Portland visits the Lakers in L.A.'s latest gut-check.
Fresh off facing the Nets in Jersey, and then traveling, the Pacers arrive in San Antonio for a Saturday showdown with the Spurs. On Sunday, Stephon Marbury and Amare Stoudemire lead Phoenix into Kevin Garnett's Target Center in Minnesota and ABC carries Mavericks at Wizards.
Kidd assisting in the hunt for KG
Thursday, Feb. 13
All-Star Weekend is usually a time and place where All-Stars lobby other All-Stars to come join their team in free agency.
Last weekend, in Atlanta, the prize of this summer's free-agent crop was doing a different kind of pitching.
New Jersey's Jason Kidd -- when he wasn't being courted by Tim Duncan -- continued his ongoing full-court press to get Kevin Garnett to reconsider his plans for the next two summers. Garnett has been openly uncertain about commiting to Team USA for Olympic qualifying this summer and then the 2004 Games in Athens, given that he already made a two-summer commitment to the program in 1999 and 2000 for the team that eventually won gold in Sydney.
Kidd's prodding is apparently helping, though. Wolves insiders report that Kidd's appeals carry extra weight with Garnett, who is positively giddy since taking home that shiny All-Star MVP trophy. Garnett is said to be giving an Olympic return strong consideration now, whereas friends were doubting before the break that he'd be willing to rejoin the national team.
Put Kidd in charge of Kobe Bryant's recruitment and who knows? USAB could be looking at the foundation of its best squad since the Barcelona crew of 1992.
Injury bug taking big bite out of Raptors
Tuesday, Feb. 11
Vince Carter sympathizers, and we've been assured that there still are a few left, probably have an inkling about what we'll now share.
Consider this the statistical confirmation of the Toronto Raptors' pain and suffering.
Hall of Fame historian and stat-meister Harvey Pollack has issued his semi-annual Injury and Illness report, updated through the All-Star break, and it reveals that the Raps lead the league in man-games lost to injury with 323. They even have a comfortable cushion on the Sacramento Kings, whose own steady stream of health setbacks totals 221 man-games lost.
Carter has contributed 33 of Toronto's absences, helping the Raps surpass last season's Injury and Illness champions just over halfway through the schedule. Atlanta led the league last season with 319 man-games lost to injury.
Pollack started the survey in the 1986-87 and Boston set the league record with 480 man-games lost in 1996-97. The current numbers, entering Tuesday's play, as dispatched from Philadelphia by Harvey:
Team Players Games Lost
Toronto 14 323
Sacramento 13 221
Memphis 10 188
Philadelphia 12 182
Dallas 11 181
LA Clippers 13 168
Atlanta 13 168
Miami 10 168
Denver 11 159
New York 9 159
New Jersey 10 158
Chicago 10 156
Portland 8 154
Washington 8 150
Minnesota 6 148
Houston 10 147
New Orleans 7 142
Utah 6 132
Phoenix 7 126
Milwaukee 10 118
Indiana 11 115
Detroit 5 107
Orlando 7 103
Cleveland 6 97
San Antonio 5 86
Seattle 7 81
LA Lakers 9 78
Golden State 3 52
Boston 7 24
League total 258 4091
Editors note: The list doesn't include games lost to suspension.
Week in preview
Monday, Feb. 10
Tuesday: Vin Baker returns to the Celtics' lineup to try again against his old team as Boston faces Seattle. Ron Artest returns from his four-game suspension when the Pacers host Cleveland. Dallas returns to the site of its sweep-completing victory in the first round of the playoffs for Mavericks at Timberwolves, a matchup also known as Dirk Nowitzki vs. Kevin Garnett. The marquee matchup, meanwhile, is San Antonio at Portland, with the Spurs coming off five straight road wins and the Blazers up 2-0 in the season series.
Wednesday: Dallas completes a challenging back-to-back on ESPN and in Milwaukee, where the Bucks -- who beat the Mavs at their place in December -- work on sprucing up their 14-11 home record. The Rockets and Jazz meet for the second successive night, this time in Utah, in the teams' shared struggle to preserve their playoff cushion over the onrushing Lakers.
Thursday: Orlando goes to Detroit for the latest dose of Ben Wallace-induced remorse/torture. Just like when the Magic plays San Antonio (Tim Duncan) or the Lakers (Shaquille O'Neal).
Friday: The other North Carolina comparison -- Vince Carter vs. Antawn Jamison -- is served up in Warriors at Raptors. ESPN offers up a doubleheader: Orlando at Philadelphia on the clubs-in-crisis undercard, followed by the enticing Spurs-at-Lakers offering. Good opportunity to assess whether the All-Star break diffused L.A.'s momentum.
Weekend: Saturday's limited schedule (four games) does offer the Pacific Northwest derby: Seattle at Portland. Sunday sends us to ABC with Philadelphia at New Jersey and San Antonio at Sacramento to end a killer week for the Spurs.
Here's an idea: Lengthen the All-Star break
Thursday, Feb. 6
Friday comes a comprehensive rollout of ESPN.com's suggestions for injecting the NBA's All-Star Weekend with some life.
Here's an idea to tip off the brainstorming:
Make the All-Star break a shade longer, for starters.
It's common knowledge that many of the All-Star participants, whatever their event, show up grumpy and stay that way throughout the three-day circus. Surely, you've heard the cynical adage: Everyone wants to get picked for the All-Star Game ... and no one wants to actually go. That's because they get no time off -- and triple the usual diet of obligations -- while all of their teammates are recharging.
Spoiled? To some, complaining about an All-Star Weekend amounts to little more than the latest indictment of the modern athlete.
It's not a sentiment exclusive to basketball, though. All-Stars in all sorts of sports feel this way, so let's change with the times.
Make the break longer and suddenly the All-Stars and dunkers and 3-point hoisters get a little break, too. Add at least one more day off before and after All-Star Weekend. Put the participants in a better mood and it increases the odds that some of them might actually enjoy being there. Which is the first step for us being entertained, too.
Mavs have little choice but to root for Lakers
Wednesday, Feb. 5
They have been beaten by a big-name rival. Again.
They were likewise reminded -- again -- that the lack of a dependable interior presence can lead to an over-reliance on 3-pointers and fatal vulnerability on defense.
Even reading the standings offered scant comfort for the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday morning, after a 110-109 loss to Sacramento, even though they were the last team on the NBA map to lose 10 games. The sidebar issue to the aforementioned problems is the Mavericks' healthy lead over the Kings for homecourt advantage throughout the West playoffs ... and the onrushing Lakers' proximity to the No. 8 seed.
In spite of Tuesday's heartbreaker, Dallas still has a five-game cushion on the Kings. That's twice the cushion Houston has on the Lakers for the eighth slot.
The Mavericks are thus faced with the unsavory prospect of privately rooting for the Lakers. Rooting that L.A. manages to rise to No. 7 in the West, at the very least. That's because, for all its shortcomings, Dallas remains on a 65-win pace. Barring more significant injuries of their own, after overcoming early absences by Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel, the Mavs are unlikely to be overtaken by a Kings team still missing their two first-half MVPs: Chris Webber and Bobby Jackson.
The onus, then, is on the Lakers to keep winning to avoid a 1 vs. 8 showdown with the Mavs in the best-of-five first round. That's also assuming the Lakers want to avoid it. It wasn't long ago that Dennis Scott, one of Shaquille O'Neal's best friends, told ESPN.com that "Shaq says he would love to see Dallas as the No. 1 seed and then sneak in at No. 8."
"He thinks they still have Dallas' number psychologically," DScott reports, "whereas Sacramento has finally grown up."
Questions about the Mavs' psyche and toughness will persist until they toughen up and get late stops, which is mandatory in the playoffs. Tuesday's discouraging ending was eerily reminiscent of last spring's second round for Dallas, with Sacramento's Keon Clark scoring the winning basket on an uncontested rebound jam. It was the sort of basket that absolutely floors you in the last minute of a big game, same as we said back in May when Mike Bibby forced overtime in Game 4 and then won it in OT with two uncontested layups.
The variables pretty much canceled themselves out, to deny the Mavs their alibi. Dallas was playing the second night of a tough back-to-back, having returned home from a nailbiter in Utah, but Sacramento was playing seriously short-handed. Which is why Dallas simply had to concede that its improved defense -- 11th in the league in points-per-game allowed (92.9) and seventh in opponent field-goal percentage (.429) -- had failed them on the big stage.
Week In Preview
Monday, Feb. 3
MONDAY: Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, Oakland's favorite sons and point guards, hook up in New Jersey to trade trash talk and free-agency tips in Sonics at Nets. The Mavericks make their first Utah visit of the season, always a contentious prospect, in the first half of a tough back-to-back. Boston visits New Orleans actually looking for Bourbon Street distractions, anything to forget Friday night's 52-point humbling by Detroit.
TUESDAY: The Lakers attempt to continue their first tangible surge of the season at Indy, where Ron Artest and coach Isiah Thomas will be barred from Conseco Fieldhouse on suspension. The short-handed Kings are in Dallas for the second half of the Mavericks' aforementioned back-to-back, and Sacramento -- with Chris Webber, Bobby Jackson and Scot Pollard out -- happily claimed the extra night's rest. In the sidebar-story category, Ricky Davis and Michael Jordan square off in Cavaliers at Wizards. Perhaps MJ can explain to young Ricky Ricky that you don't go sitting in the stands during a game, no matter what.
WEDNESDAY: ESPN2 carries New Jersey at Philadelphia to compare and contrast the up (Nets) and down (Sixers) fortunes of the East's past two Finals representatives. Cleveland at Houston offers an unlikely All-Star preview in the pivot: Lithuania's Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. China's Yao Ming. Portland is where it wants to be -- still on the road -- with a game in Miami after Tuesday's visit to Orlando. Sacramento, meanwhile, completes a three-game swing through Texas and neighboring territories in New Orleans against the Hornets. Oh, yeah: Almost forgot the Vin Baker reunion game, Sonics at Celtics. Maybe this, at last, will rouse the Vin Man. Running out of ideas, Boston can only hope.
THURSDAY: Lakers at Knicks is L.A.'s chance to finish over. 500 entering the All-Star break ... provided Shaquille O'Neal and the getting-stronger Kobe Bryant have already won at Indy. Seattle at Milwaukee provides more of a conflict (Payton and Nate McMillan vs. Furious George Karl) and San Antonio at Denver gives the Spurs a chance to avenge one of their most unsightly losses of the season. The Spurs actually have two such chances this week; Wednesday's visit to Golden State is another rematch of an earlier road setback for Tim Duncan and Co.
FRIDAY-SATURDAY-SUNDAY: Let's hope All-Star Weekend, particularly the game itself, follows the NHL's lead from last weekend and lives up to that standard. Let's hope even more strongly that somehow, some way, someday the dunk contest is restored to its proper glory. All-Star Weekend wouldn't be the same without it.