Tuesday, June 17, 2003

NBA West should be best next year, too


East drought hits six seasons

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

SAN ANTONIO - The NBA's summer may now begin. You can tell by all the usual rituals. Parade in the West. Sweep up the wreckage in the East.

There may be confusion in other places on the sports page. Tiger Woods finished in a tie for 20th in a major. The Cubs are in first place in June.

But the NBA Finals have come and gone - as most of you watched another channel, the ratings suggest - with their feet firmly planted between the status and the quo.

The re-crowning of the San Antonio Spurs meant it will soon be six years since the East won a title, back in the last days of the Jordanian Dynasty.

Six years since the West has lost more than two games in the NBA Finals.

Six years since the East has truly had a chance.

The survivor in the West, bruised by the first three rounds, does not loiter long in the Finals. It might blink, but soon, it is answering whatever the East throws up - any style, any strategy. It is making the plays the other conference only dreams about.

"If they have to get through the West," David Robinson was saying, "they have to be able to execute."

"We felt we could compete no matter who came out of the West," New Jersey's Jason Kidd said Sunday. "Unfortunately, we couldn't make shots, and they could."

Happens a lot. Which is why the champions of the East are 6-20 in the Finals since Michael Jordan left Chicago. As the Spurs began to take inevitable control, the question was posed, what leads most to this annual whacking - the Western champions being toughened by the brutal path they have to take, or the Eastern victims just being easier to beat.

Trio reload in West

Stung by early eviction, the Los Angeles Lakers are said to be newly motivated. Shaquille O'Neal has hired an ex-Marine to whip him into shape.

The Dallas Mavericks need only a tad more defense, Sacramento better health. Yao will be another year older in Houston. There may be no end in sight. The Western contenders for the NBA championship are lined up like jets on a runway, awaiting takeoff.

Oh, and the Spurs still have Duncan. But not Robinson, leaving a hole in the San Antonio skyline, not to mention the defense. You don't have to slow down much in the West to get run over. No wonder coach Gregg Popovich nearly had to be yanked off the press conference podium with a hook late Sunday night.

"More questions," he pleaded. "How many times is this going to happen? Do I look like Phil Jackson?"

Nets bridesmaids again

The East has no clear challenger ready to change the world.

New Jersey might lose Jason Kidd to free agency. Indiana's a head case. Detroit is lacking something, and Larry Brown has been hired to find it. LeBron James will be drafted by Cleveland next week, but are things so bad, the East must count on a high school kid for revival?

The championship round has wilted on this unbalanced diet. The Nets should have been a classic opponent, after winning 10 straight playoff games in the East. But they were considered something of a successful surprise because they were at least able to make it go six games. It is a low bar.

Waiting for a winner in the NBA Finals has become like waiting for high tide. You can just about pick the minute.

"Hopefully," said Kidd, who might be headed West himself, "the bridesmaid thing will come to an end."




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