AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – With each clanked New Jersey shot, with each clogged fast-break lane, with each Chauncey Billups rainbow from three, the Eastern Conference finals matchup almost everyone expected and most dreamed of became more of a reality.
Detroit vs. Indiana. Larry Brown vs. Rick Carlisle. Joe Dumars vs. Larry Bird.
Go ahead and count the delicious storylines of this budding Midwestern rivalry. Game 1 is Saturday night in Indy.
The Eastern Conference has been a dog for years now, the mid-major of the NBA – too few stars, too few good teams, too many boring games.
But once the Detroit Pistons got done drilling the New Jersey Nets 90-69 in a Game 7 whitewash here on Thursday, just two days after the Indiana Pacers finally closed out the gritty Miami Heat in six, the good stuff was set.
There is something in the Eastern Conference to get excited about.
"This is what everybody wanted to see," Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said.
Part of this is because Indiana and Detroit clearly were the two best teams in the East this season. New Jersey may have owned the East the last couple of years, but the Nets weren't fooling anyone this year.
You have to respect that the Nets took the Pistons to seven, but in this decisive game Jason Kidd had no points and they shot 3 of 16 from behind the arc. Things got so bad the Pistons played Darko "The Human Victory Cigar" Milicic.
But mainly the Detroit-Indiana anticipation centers on all the sideshow rivalries. You start with the sidelines.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, of course, coached Detroit the last two seasons. He coached them well, too, taking a band of blue-collar guys and advancing to the Eastern Conference finals last year.
But he was fired last spring and replaced by Brown. The why has remained open to speculation. At the time the Pistons quietly spinned it that Carlisle wasn't popular with the front office. Pistons president Joe Dumars has since said he wouldn't have fired Carlisle if Brown, whom he believes is uniquely capable of taking the team to "the next level" – the NBA finals – wasn't available.
Carlisle now will not only get to prove himself against Brown but stuff it in Dumars' face by taking a new team to "the next level."
Of course, for the Pacers' part, Indiana hired Bird last summer to run the show and almost immediately he broomed Dumars' former backcourt mate Isiah Thomas as coach and hired Carlisle.
Is this one personal? You bet.
"Here are the two things I'll say about it," Dumars said. "First, both teams are playing to get to the NBA finals; that is first and foremost. Second, of course Rick coached here last year and Larry [Brown] coached at Indiana (from 1993-97). That will be talked about and written about.
"But what's important to Rick is his team's got a chance to go to the finals. And what's important for me is my team has a chance to go to the NBA finals. That's what we care about."
Brown said, "I don't want to talk about that. My kids got an appointment at school tomorrow, the players don't want to practice and we've got one day to start thinking about Indiana."
So no one wants to say anything. Yet. Brown isn't one to hold his tongue, and neither is Bird or Carlisle. You can downplay it all you want, but human nature tells you this one means a little bit more.
The likelihood of the front office stuff spilling out on the court is pretty good. Neither team ever has been afraid of the hard foul, and two of the NBA's most emotional players, Ron Artest and Rasheed Wallace, should play central roles.
This is just the kind of soap opera the East needs because neither Indiana nor Detroit has done much to make anyone think they can really, truly win the NBA title this year – especially if the Lakers are in the way.
So a perceived junior varsity series lacking the star power of Shaq and Kobe and KG and Phil and Spree needs something, doesn't it?
Nothing better than a budding bad-blood rivalry.
"It is up to us to go play and not get sidetracked with the personal stuff," said Lindsey Hunter, who returned to the Pistons this season after a three-year stint with other teams. "After the job [Carlisle] did, you've got to respect him. But times change. We have Larry now and we go against Rick."
With that Hunter shrugged his shoulders. The hype, he admitted, is inevitable.
"Hopefully it will be everything everyone thinks it will be."
For the reputation of the Eastern Conference, let's hope so.
- Rick Carlisle
- Joe Dumars
- Eastern Conference
- Larry Brown