ORLANDO, Fla. -- Consider the four centers left in the NBA playoffs:
There's Rik Smits of the Pacers.
Which one doesn't belong?
Correct, Smits is not in the class of his illustrious playoff peers. But after his best year as a pro, the 7-foot-4 Dutchman isn't all that far behind any more. Scorned as a bust after the Pacers had drafted him second overall in 1988, Smits has improved to the point he's in the first row of the second echelon of NBA centers, and perhaps poised to move up.
He held his own and maybe more against Patrick Ewing of the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, averaging 22.6 points to Ewing's 19.3. Smits scored the final seven points of the Pacers' two-point victory in New York in Game 7 on Sunday and made a crucial block. Pacers coach Larry Brown called him "our go-to guy" and said he "carried this team."
Now he's up against O'Neal, a more difficult assignment. "He's so much stronger than Patrick. He's tougher to cover on strength alone," Smits said.
He statistically held his own with O'Neal in four regular-season games, but had a hard time in Tuesday night's Eastern Conference finals opener, a 105-101 Magic victory. O'Neal outscored Smits, 32-17, and out-rebounded him, 11-5. Smits was limited to 32 minutes by foul trouble, prompting Brown, with an eye toward Game 2 tonight, to complain about the officiating.
"They've got to call it even both ways," Brown said. "When a ref tells me Rik flops all the time, it's obvious he has a preconceived idea. You can be strong, but when you foul, you foul, and there were a whole bunch that weren't called on Shaq. I've never said anything before on this matter, but Rik never gets any respect."
Smits labeled the officiating "inconsistent" Tuesday night. "It's disappointing and frustrating to be sitting on the bench, especially when you lose and you feel you could have made a difference," he said.
Also disappointing to Smits was the Pacers' failure to make the Magic pay for its constant double-teaming of him. "I tried to get the ball to the open man, but we didn't hit any shots or create anything."
So adjustments will be made, then adjustments to the adjustments. That's one of the fascinations of the playoffs, where you meet the same team game after game.
Reggie Miller is the Pacers' big name and big mouth, and opponents must pay attention. But under Brown, Indiana's first option on offense is Smits.
Such respect is a far cry from the abuse Smits suffered in his early years after he was drafted from tiny Marist College. "Brutal, unrelenting," said Pacers general manager Donnie Walsh of the criticism.
Rony Seikaly, picked ninth by the Heat in that '88 draft, used to take great pleasure in regularly outplaying Smits, who was raw, injury-prone and the victim of great expectations unfulfilled.
But he has blossomed under Brown. Three other Pacers coaches had urged Smits to bulk up for increased strength; Brown told him to lose weight for better mobility and health. He was the third and fourth option on offense before Brown arrived. He became the center of the offense under Brown.
"He has gotten better athletically and is playing with much greater confidence," Brown said. "The way he has played against some of the real good centers has been a big boost for him and for us."
But can Smits join the big boys and become a center of attention?
"Maybe," Smits said. "I think I have the capabilities."