Nets, Heat, Pacers ready to take a stand in East


All season, the Eastern Conference has suffered from an image problem, labeled a weak conference from which the New York Knicks were expected to have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. The Knicks might get that far, but the road won't be as easy as expected.

Out of nowhere, the New Jersey Nets, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers have become among the league's hottest teams, reaching .500 in recent weeks and attempting to establish position for the playoffs.

A 5-11 team at the start of December, the Nets have won five straight and are 13-4 over their past 17. True, playing the Washington Bullets twice and the Boston Celtics once has helped the Nets during their streak. But the Nets also have beaten the Seattle SuperSonics, Golden State Warriors and Knicks during that span.

Kenny Anderson has led the way, averaging 25.2 points and 9.2 assists in his past five games. Anderson scored 29 against the Knicks a week ago (New Jersey is 3-0 against New York this season), and had a career-high 42 in a win Friday over the Bullets.

"This year, Kenny is a lot better and more confident," Nets coach Chuck Daly said. "The players are trusting each other a lot more."

Tonight, the Nets will face the Heat, which, a month ago, was on the verge of a shake-up after a seven-game losing streak. The threats by managing partner Lewis Schaffel apparently worked:

Miami (26-25) has won 10 of its past 15 games after last night's 128-98 victory over the Bullets, and over the past two weeks has beaten three division leaders (New York, Seattle, Chicago Bulls). It also marks the first time the Heat has been at or over .500 this late in the season in its four-year existence.

The Pacers are the hottest team in the conference, going 9-1 in their past 10 games. Indiana (25-24) reached .500 for the first time since last season.

All this may not be good news for the Knicks, who are still the team to beat. But it should be good for conference parity, which has been lacking for much of the season.

Onward, Christian

When Chuck Person gets a starring role as peacemaker, you know your team is in trouble.

But there was Person, intervening after Christian Laettner cursed a Minnesota Timberwolves assistant coach during practice Sunday.

Laettner reportedly became upset after assistant coach Bob Weinhauer corrected rookie Marlon Maxey for running the wrong play. After Laettner cursed Weinhauer, Person stepped in. Laettner replied: "All you should be sticking up for Max."

The second-year forward was removed from practice and suspended from yesterday's game, which the Timberwolves lost, 114-89, to the San Antonio Spurs.

"The situation is very disappointing, but not surprising," Weinhauer told the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. "What this shows is that he has no respect for anybody. Since I've been here, he's been a guy who's not interested in doing things to help the team, but only to make things better for himself."

Said coach Sidney Lowe: "I'm not going to tolerate a player talking to my coaching staff the way he talked to Bob."

Laettner said last week that it was "a tough adjustment" playing with a losing team after a successful career at Duke. It appears the biggest adjustment for Laettner, who has blasted officials, teammates and assistants in the past, is growing up.

Watching Scottie

Bulls forward Scottie Pippen was thankful after winning the Most Valuable Player award in the All-Star Game, but warned that there was a possible downside. Because he was MVP, Pippen said, opponents perhaps would play with more intensity against him.

Maybe Pippen was right. In his first three post-All-Star appearances, Pippen shot just 31.8 percent (21 of 66), and Chicago lost three straight for the first time this season.

While Pippen struggles, Shaquille O'Neal, the All-Star no-show, has excelled. O'Neal has averaged 37.3 points and 19.3 rebounds in three games since the break. Against the SuperSonics and Shawn Kemp, who blocked three of O'Neal's shots in the All-Star Game, O'Neal scored 38 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.

"I was just doing my job as normal, not thinking about that payback stuff," O'Neal said.

If O'Neal is on a payback mission, a must-see game will be March 6, when the Magic visits David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs. Robinson was the only player to admit to playing harder against O'Neal in the All-Star Game.

On the move?

With a trading deadline of 9 p.m. Thursday, there's a possibility that a couple superstars could be moving.

Nets forward Derrick Coleman has been mentioned as trade bait. He's in the last year of his contract, and the team is reluctant to sign him to a 10-year, $90 million deal.

Danny Manning's days are numbered with the Los Angeles Clippers. The All-Star forward becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he has vowed not to play with the Clippers in 1994-95.

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