An Eastern Conference assistant coach: "He's the game's ombudsman. He makes sure the standards are kept high. If he thinks a player is being [singled out] by a certain official, Jake will step in and make the next call on that player. 'Now you deal with me,' he's telling the guy."
Playoffs or Lottery?
The marquee race in the NBA is between Golden State and Portland for first place in the Pacific Division, but the most intriguing race is shaping up in the nether regions of the Eastern Conference, down there in .500 land, where six teams are chasing the final three playoff spots...with what might be varying degrees of enthusiasm. This is not to suggest that the scenario most dreaded by the NBA—a possible late-season tank job—has been discussed by any team. But consider this.
At week's end, four Eastern teams had all but assured themselves of making the playoffs—the Cavaliers, Knicks, Pistons and Celtics. The Bulls are in. Behind those five were three teams from the Atlantic Division (the 76ers, Heat and Nets) and three from the Central (the Hawks, Pacers and Bucks), all within range of playoff spots. But consider for a moment which of those teams really wants to get to the playoffs.
Miami? For sure. Being the first of the four most recent expansion teams to play in the postseason would be hot for the Heat, which needs competitive experience, not more young talent.
New Jersey? Definitely. In the past two years the Nets have gotten a No. 1 (Derrick Coleman) and a No. 2 (Kenny Anderson) out of the lottery. The team is young enough, and it is just itching to make the postseason for the first time since 1986.
Indiana? Assuredly. The only thing that will save this season for the underachieving Pacers is, at minimum, a repeat of last year's dramatic playoff effort that ended in a five-game defeat by Boston.
But circumstances are different for Atlanta, Philly and Milwaukee, teams that have displayed similar postseason profiles over recent seasons, i.e., good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to go very far; not challenging for a championship but not sinking low enough to pluck a prime draft pick. Moreover, each of these teams has a definite need that could be fulfilled in what appears to be a strong lottery (SI, March 9).
Again, there is no evidence that the T-word has ever been uttered in any front office this season. But it will be interesting to see how intense the stretch battle for the final playoff spots becomes.