Beware of the New Jersey Nets.
As odd as that sounds for a franchise that has suffered since entering the NBA before the 1976-77 season, that's exactly how the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks must be feeling heading into the first round of the playoffs.
The Nets, tied for sixth place in the Eastern Conference, are not even assured of a playoff spot. But against the Knicks and Hawks -- the top two teams in the conference -- New Jersey has been dominant.
Sunday's 107-88 blowout of the Knicks gave the Nets a 4-1 advantage in the season series. A 93-87 win over the Hawks last Thursday gave New Jersey a 3-1 advantage.
"For some reason, we bring out the best in them," said Knicks coach Pat Riley, speculating about a possible first-round matchup.
For the Nets, the advantage of going against the Knicks or Hawks is all about matchups. Forward Derrick Coleman is too versatile for either team to handle, and the Knicks have no answer to the quickness of point guard Kenny Anderson.
The fact that neither New York nor Atlanta has the really explosive players that can match the athleticism of the Nets (John Starks would provide that for New York should he return by the playoffs) actually has New Jersey a little cocky.
Asked by New York reporters who would win a New Jersey-New York playoff series, Nets forward Jayson Williams answered: "New Jersey, no question. We'd beat the Knicks."
Anderson was equally agreeable, saying, "We know we could beat [the Knicks] in the playoffs." Forward P. J. Brown would prefer facing the Hawks, explaining, "Psychologically, we know we can beat these guys."
It was one month into the season, and Houston Rockets guard Sam Cassell's play was reduced pretty much to end-of-game mop-up duty.
At the time, the former Dunbar High star called his sitting just part of his learning experience.
Cassell promised that when the playing time came his way, he would be ready. And as the Rockets enter the playoffs at the end of the month, the rookie from Florida State has seemingly earned the opportunity to be a key contributor for the second-best team in the Western Conference.
Sunday's win over Denver was an indication of how far Cassell has come around. Playing in the backcourt with the Rockets trailing by 17 midway through the third quarter, Cassell was instrumental in helping Houston to a 93-92 victory.
His 18-point (career high), five-assist, four-rebound performance had others heaping praise on him.
"Cassell made some great plays," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich, who earlier in the season said he had no doubt Cassell would be a "better-than-good" NBA player.
You had to wonder where Cassell would fit in in the NBA. At 6 feet 3, he's not big enough to be a shooting guard, and his game is not in the tradition of a true point guard. But Cassell is a scorer, using his penetration to create shot opportunities for himself and his teammates.
With the sometimes erratic play of starting guards Vernon Maxwell and Kenny Smith, Tomjanovich may find himself turning to the rookie guard more often.
Monroe takes CBA by storm
Back in October, former St. Maria Goretti and N.C. State star Rodney Monroe was trying to get his pro basketball career back on track by signing with the Boston Celtics, after an unsuccessful stint with the Hawks during the 1991-92 season. But after a month, the Hagerstown native was waived by the Celtics.
Monroe resurfaced with the Rochester Renegades in the Continental Basketball Association, where he ranked fifth in the league with a 20.2 scoring average (tops among first-year players). It was good enough to earn Monroe the CBA Newcomer of the Year award last week.
"This is a great honor considering all the veterans that played in the league for the first time this year," Monroe said, referring to former NBA players Billy Thompson, Jerome Lane, Tate George and Chucky Brown. "I just wanted to go out and play hard and as well as I could this year. When you have coaches voting for you, it makes it that much more meaningful."
Appearing in all 56 games for the Renegades, Monroe scored 20 or more points 30 times and 30 or more points seven times, including a season-high 42 points.