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Eastern Mediocrity

By Yong-yi Zhu

COLUMNIST

There are about fifteen more games per team left in the NBA, and it has become evident that while the Western Conference has consistently produced memorable match-ups and competitive divisions, the Eastern Conference has brought about a season of mediocrity.

It’s true: the East has become a home for second-class citizens. Name any team from the West that’s in contention and most fans will be able to recognize a couple of big time players from that team. The Nuggets have Carmelo Anthony, the Suns have Shawn Marion, the Rockets have that big, tall Asian dude. They are all difference makers on their respective teams. Not only that, but often the supporting cast is recognizable too.

The East, on the other hand, not only lacks star power, but it cannot keep up in terms of bench players. Take the Orlando Magic, for example. Tracy McGrady is able to score 62 points. But what is the rest of the team able to do? Maybe they can score a few points, but can they stop other people from score on them? The Magic averages 95 points a game while their opponents average 101 points per game. I guess the supporting cast isn’t really putting enough offense or enough defense to win the games that the Magic needs.

Another main problem of the East teams is a lack of centers and big forwards. The only exception is the only team that has significantly distanced itself from the rest of the pack: Indiana. Jermaine O’Neal is the best big man in the league. His ability to score at will makes him the go-to guy for the Pacers. He doesn’t even have to drive to the rim to be effective, because not only is he big (6-11), but he also has superior shooting skills.

The West is filled with big men that can take over a game: Shaq, Duncan, Garnett, Yao, and Brand, for example. These guys are the staple for any team, because a dunk is usually a higher percentage shot than a long-range jumper. When the game is on the line, I’d much rather see my team jam the ball through the hoop than shoot a jumper and pray that it goes through. In addition, when the team gets into trouble, the big men are usually able to bail out the team by going inside and making some easy baskets, while playing solid defense and rebounding at the other end of the floor.

You can take the basketball game played Friday night at the Fleet Center as an example of both of these problems. I took full advantage of cheap Celtics tickets to go see them for the first time. They were playing against the Pacers, hands down the strongest team in the conference, who have locked up a playoff spot already. What I saw was a perfect example of what I expected from a game from the Eastern Conference. Early on, the game teeter-tottered, as the Celtics came back from several large deficits early on. However, by half time, the Pacers were already ahead by 9 and things seemed bleak. As the third-quarter wore on, the Celtics neither had the drive nor the ability to come back from the deficit and, in all practical sense, were gone by the beginning of the fourth quarter. (That’s when I found myself staring at the scores of the other games around the league more than the players on the court.)

How did it happen? Well, the Pacers had everyone contributing to begin with; there were five players in double figures. Jermaine O’Neal did not even have to be the star of the night, and it was okay that he shot only 3-for-11 for 8 points because the supporting cast did their job. The Celtics, on the other hand, did not have an answer when the Pacers went on their runs. Paul Pierce was not that dominant and, more importantly, the rest of the team did not do much to help him out. When things became bleak, the Celtics did not have the man in the middle to bail them out with easy buckets. As a result, the Celtics got their butts whooped.

Perhaps it’s time for the Eastern Conference go to out and get some more big men. While the Spurs were busy this past off-season adding Rasho Nesterovic to help Tim Duncan, and the T-Wolves were quick to get Michael Olowokandi to complement Kevin Garnett, the East just sat idly, watching. Perhaps it’s time that the Eastern Conference got their priorities straight. After all, to win an NBA championship, you need more than just chutzpah.