New beasts in the East

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. 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.

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

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

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

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.