LEAP YEAR FOR LAMAR
After a stellar season, Miami's Lamar Odom makes his playoff debut
Last week, after the Heat had locked up its first playoff berth
since getting swept in 2001, point guard Rafer Alston adopted a
mock news-anchor tone as he interviewed forward Lamar Odom for a
Miami TV station at the team's practice facility. "So, Lamar,
this is your first time in the playoffs, and it's my, what?"--at
this, the 27-year-old Alston pretended to have trouble counting
them all--"Oh, it's my third. Well, we're happy for you. This is
your fifth year in the league, and we didn't want to see you get
to your 11th year and still not be there."
The 6'10" Odom laughed and agreed heartily. And though he
downplayed his excitement over finally reaching the postseason,
Alston, who has known Odom since their playground days in New
York City, wasn't fooled. "He can't hide it from me," Alston
said, shaking his head. "And he deserves it. He's a guy who's
been injured so much, and he's on pace to play 80 games. He's put
up All-Star numbers and been our most consistent player."
Consistent is not a word often associated with Odom. Only 24,
he's already lived a full Behind the Music
destruction-to-redemption cycle in the NBA. During four years
with the Clippers, Odom served two suspensions for marijuana use,
sat out 85 games because of injuries and earned a rep for having
a bad attitude. But Heat president Pat Riley thought Odom merely
needed a more supportive environment. Riley signed him to a
six-year, $65 million deal last summer, then showed him a stack
of negative stories written about him for inspiration. Odom
responded by arriving at Miami's practice facility five days a
week throughout the summer. To help him keep up his weight and
muscle mass, he also hired Alonzo Mourning's chef and, during
longer breaks in the schedule, has flown in a personal trainer
from L.A. "Before, I'd drop to 210 by the end of the season,"
says Odom. "This year I'm at 225, which is what I weighed at the
start of the year."
At week's end Odom was the only player in the league other than
Kevin Garnett to average at least 17 points, nine rebounds and
four assists. His ability to be a perimeter playmaker or a
low-post threat--he prefers the former--will be especially
valuable in thwarting matchups during the playoffs. Miami coach
Stan Van Gundy likes to use Odom to draw attention inside, where
he can use his passing skills to find open men; that will come in
handy if the Heat has to face a half-court team like the Pistons
or Pacers. Against teams that prefer an open-floor game, Odom
will play more as a point forward. "He's so versatile that we
just try to put the ball in his hands a lot," says Van Gundy. As
for how Odom will respond to the pressure of his first playoffs,
the coach is not worried: "We've already been through so many
games that we're do-or-die this year, and that's about as much
prepping as you need."
Odom is similarly confident. "Our goal is to win the
championship," he says. When that elicits a surprised expression,
he explains. "You only need to win, what, three playoff series to
get to the Finals, right? And we can beat any team in the Eastern
Conference on any given night." He nods slowly. "I like our
FEAR THE HEAT?
Because of injuries, trades and slumps, a team's regular-season
record doesn't always indicate how well its starting five is
performing as the playoffs begin. Case in point: The Kings had
won only 11 of 21 games through Sunday since Chris Webber
rejoined the regular lineup of Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Vlade
Divac and Peja Stojakovic; Sacramento was 44-15 before then. On
the other hand the Heat's top unit, if intact, makes Miami a
contender. Here are the projected playoff starting lineups that,
at week's end, had produced the best records (minimum 10 games
started together). --David Sabino
TEAM SEASON PROJECTED PLAYOFF STARTING
RECORD STARTING FIVE FIVE'S RECORD
SPURS 55-25, .688 Tony Parker, Hedo Turkoglu, 26-6, .812
Bruce Bowen, Tim Duncan
PACERS 59-21, .738 Jamaal Tinsley, Reggie 25-6, .806
Miller, Jeff Foster,
Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal
LAKERS 54-26, .675 Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, 12-3, .800
Shaquille O'Neal, Rick Fox,
TIMBERWOLVES 56-24, .700 Sam Cassell, Trenton 35-10, .777
Hassell, Ervin Johnson,
Latrell Sprewell, Kevin
PISTONS 53-27, .663 Chauncey Billups, Richard 14-4, .777
Hamilton, Ben Wallace,
Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed
GRIZZLIES 50-30, .625 Jason Williams, Mike 16-7, .696
Miller, Lorenzen Wright,
James Posey, Pau Gasol
HEAT 40-40, .500 Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, 21-10, .677
Brian Grant, Caron Butler,
NETS 49-33, .588 Jason Kidd, Kerry Kittles, 34-17, .667
Jason Collins, Richard
Jefferson, Kenyon Martin
NO QUESTION ABOUT THESE ANSWERS
Who will keep the Nets out of their third straight Finals, and
which dark horse could run wild in the West?
1. Which teams have the best shot at winning the championship?
The Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Timberwolves and Pacers, in that
order. Count out the slumping Kings, because lousy defenders
don't win rings, and the Nets, who can't expect their hobbled
stars, Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, to excel through four
2. Who's the dark horse?
It's relentless Memphis, whose 10-deep rotation defies the NBA
custom of demanding extra minutes from starters in the
postseason. At week's end Hubie Brown's energetic attack had the
Grizzlies second in the league in opponents' turnovers (17.0 per
game), first in steals (9.6) and second in blocked shots (6.99).
A team without an All-Star, Memphis had won 35 of its last 46
games and enters the playoffs with the same hungry look that the
young Kings and Mavericks teams had in years past.
3. Are these shaping up to be the lamest playoffs in recent
Considering that Kobe Bryant's shoulder, Baron Davis's ankle,
T.J. Ford's neck and the lingering knee injuries of Kidd, Martin,
Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Jermaine O'Neal,
Jamal Mashburn and Karl Malone could all be factors in
determining which teams reach the Finals, the answer is yes.
4. What will it take to beat the favored Lakers?
Their vulnerabilities are age and health, so opponents are likely
to push the tempo and try to wear them down. Because their bench
is thin and opposing point guards can blow past 35-year-old Gary
Payton, Shaq will have a huge load to carry at both ends of the
floor; he'll need a lot of help from Karl Malone, especially if
L.A. faces San Antonio. Whoever wins the Eastern Conference
should pray that O'Neal will be exhausted by the Finals.
HUNGRY AS THE WOLVES
Nobody wants Minnesota to win more than a fan called Coach
No one relishes home court advantage in the playoffs like a
team's most ardent and visible fan. In Los Angeles it's the
beshaded Jack Nicholson; in Miami, the highly vocal Jimmy Buffet;
in New York, of course, the Reggie-baiting Spike Lee. None of
these celebrities, however, can match the fervor of Bill Beise,
the Timberwolves' natty, nutty courtside talisman, who is known
in Minnesota simply as Coach.
Look for Beise (pronounced BUY-see) in his usual seat, across
from the visiting team's bench. Or, to be exact, look for him in
front of his usual seat because that's where he perpetually
crouches, shouting encouragement, questioning calls and banging a
rolled-up Hoop magazine on the floor. Unfailingly dressed in a
suit, he looks for all the world like a crazed college
coach--think Rick Pitino on uppers. Beise's popularity in the
Twin Cities is such that the T-Wolves ordered 5,000 bobbleheads
in his likeness for last year's final home game.
In his day job Beise is a 49-year-old stockbroker who never
played organized basketball or coached any sport (though he was a
catcher in grade school, which may help explain why he can squat
for entire quarters). He's had Timberwolves season tickets since
the team began play, in 1989-90, though his seats were in the
second deck at the Metrodome that season. "I lasted all of one
quarter up there, and that was it," he recalls. "From then on I
bought scalped tickets to every game to get close to the court."
When the team moved to the Target Center the next year, he got
his current courtside seat. "That first game, I didn't even know
I was squatting," Beise says. "It certainly wasn't a conscious
decision. There must have been some passion deep inside of me
that was just waiting to come out."
If Minnesota finally advances past the first round, expect to see
Beise slapping five with Latrell Sprewell or chest-bumping Kevin
Garnett--no matter where the series ends. He plans to fly to
every Timberwolves road playoff game ("I hope I have to spend 50
grand on airline tickets!" he nearly shouts) and is positively
giddy about their title chances. "I can't even look at the
standings without my palms getting sweaty," he says. "I am so
HOT AND NOT
Here are a few key figures whose key figures were trending up or
down at the end of the regular season
MANU GINOBILI, Spurs A top contender for Sixth Man Award; through
Sunday had helped San Antonio win nine straight (by an average of
13.6 points), scoring 29 and 21 in two of those victories.
RICHARD JEFFERSON, Nets While Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin have
been hobbled by injuries, the 6'7" small forward has more than
answered the call; says guard Lucious Harris, "He's basically our
best offensive weapon."
JAMES POSEY, Grizzlies Acquired as a defensive stopper, he has
morphed into a scoring machine at small forward, dropping 38 on
the Hawks on March 29 and 35 against the Cavs on April 2.
RAFER ALSTON, Heat Backup point guard's assist-to-turnover ratio
keeps rising; made at least one three in a franchise-record 46
straight games through Sunday, the league's longest active
SAM CASSELL, Timberwolves His late-season fatigue has been
exacerbated by opponents' recent strategy of covering him with
bigger guards, such as the Spurs' Bruce Bowen and the Rockets'
KURT THOMAS, Knicks Mangled his right pinkie in January and had a
lousy March (8.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg); for New York to advance, has to
provide production worthy of the four-year, $30 million extension
he signed last month.
VLADE DIVAC, Kings Offense ran through him until Chris Webber's
return on March 2; at 36, no longer rebounds or defends well, and
seems demoralized by his diminished role.
DAVID WESLEY, Hornets Since coming back from a torn left toe
ligament on March 1, shooting guard had shot 33.8% through Sunday
as his scoring average dropped from 15.5 to 10.8. points. --C.B.
Five teams have rifts with refs that could cost them when it
In the playoffs, when the stakes are highest, a team hopes to
avoid referees with whom one of its players or coaches has a
running beef. As objective as NBA officials usually are, they do
have memories. Here are five matchups of refs and playoff
participants that might be a factor in the postseason.
Shaquille O'Neal vs. Bob Delaney
Since O'Neal's early days in Orlando, this relationship has been
acrimonious. Delaney hasn't hesitated to T up Shaq for arguing
calls (often vociferously), including once each in the 2000 and
'01 Western Conference finals. On March 8, Delaney popped O'Neal
with two technicals in a two-minute span for perceived offenses
against the Jazz, including slamming the back of Andrei
Kirilenko's head while descending from a dunk. Said Lakers coach
Phil Jackson after the loss to Utah, "Delaney's prejudiced
against Shaq. It's as simple as that."
Tim Duncan vs. Jack Nies
The Big Fundamental is normally the Big Stoneface as well--he's
been whistled for only 29 technicals in his seven-year
career--but after Nies gave him a tech during a Nov. 29 Spurs
loss to the Warriors, Duncan became the Big Irascible. While
cutting to the high post Duncan had shoved Nies out of the way;
the league subsequently gave Duncan a one-game suspension. He
insists the contact was accidental, and sources say he's still
ticked at Nies for the call.
Chauncey Billups vs. James Capers
On Jan. 23 at Minnesota, Capers whistled Billups for an offensive
foul with two seconds remaining; on Feb. 17 at New York, he
called him for a hack on Stephon Marbury with 1:08 left, though
replays showed Billups had made a clean block. Detroit lost both
games. "The game ain't being decided by a player," Billups said
after the Knicks game. "That ain't right."
The Mavericks vs. Joey Crawford
Crawford is known for his unwillingness to take guff, but he may
be particularly disinclined to take abuse from Dallas. To wit:
Before Game 2 of last year's Western Conference finals against
the Spurs in San Antonio, Crawford approached Dallas guard Nick
Van Exel during warmups and reportedly warned, "Don't mess with
me tonight. Like Muhammad Ali, I'm a baaaad man!" Crawford then
backed up his statement, ejecting Mavs coach Don Nelson in the
first quarter and later tossing assistant Del Harris for walking
onto the court.
Stan Van Gundy vs. Gary Zielinski
After Zielinski failed to whistle a foul on a three-point try by
Eddie Jones against Toronto this season, the Heat coach made an
angry rush at the ref. Van Gundy was fined $7,500 for "verbally
abusing the game officials and for failing to leave the court in
a timely manner." Miami assistant Bob McAdoo was also fined
$5,000 for verbal abuse. The next time Zielinski crossed paths
with the Heat, he gave assistant Keith Askins a technical early
in the second quarter. --C.B.
A peek into the crystal ball yields four bold predictions
1. The small-ball Mavericks will lose in the first round,
triggering the ouster of general manager and coach Don Nelson.
Team owner Mark Cuban will replace Nelson in the front office
with Kiki Vandeweghe, who was an assistant coach for Dallas in
2000-01 before taking over as the Nuggets' G.M.
2. Early-round exits will prompt the Kings, Hornets and Rockets
to put their respective superstars--Chris Webber, Baron Davis and
Steve Francis--on the trading block, making this another big
off-season for player movement. (Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady
may be available too.)
3. Like Mike Bibby and Tony Parker for the past two years, the
Pistons' Chauncey Billups will emerge as the pivotal point guard
of this postseason. Billups is adored by NBA coaches and G.M.'s;
fans will come to share that sentiment as they watch him run
Larry Brown's offense, manhandle his opponents and win games with
his clutch shooting.
4. Experience will be decisive when the Lakers beat the Pistons
in Game 7 of the Finals. Over the summer Kobe Bryant will depart
L.A. as a free agent--but Rasheed Wallace will re-sign with
Detroit, making the Pistons the early favorite for