A little more than 30 games into the season, the idea seems silly.
Could the Chicago Bulls really be better than the Detroit Pistons? That was a popular belief in the preseason, though few would make such a prediction now.
``I think you have to look at Detroit as a team that's done it year in and year out. We were a team that was on the rise and so you become the darling,'' Bulls interim coach Jim Boylan said. ``You're like the backup quarterback in town; everybody wants them out there but yet he really hasn't proven himself completely.''
A number of outlets, including The Associated Press, picked the Bulls over the Pistons to win the Central Division, even though Detroit had won three straight division titles and eliminated Chicago in the second round of last season's playoffs.
Instead, the Pistons have been one of the NBA's best teams, bringing a 10-game winning streak and a 10-game bulge over Cleveland into Friday's game at Toronto. Chicago has been one of the NBA's most disappointing clubs, falling to 12-19, 12 1/2 games back in a tie for fourth, following a 115-109 double-overtime loss to Portland on Thursday.
``I mean you can't put us over Detroit. Last time I checked we lost to Detroit, so I mean Detroit had the same team,'' Bulls guard Ben Gordon said. ``That's just what the critics said. I don't think we had expectations of our own. I think there's some great teams in the East and it's tough either way to win it, so I don't think that's one of the things that got to us at all.''
With Gordon and Luol Deng forming the core of a good, young team that's always strong defensively, the Bulls had the look of a potential division champion. Plus, Chicago was considered the favorite to land Kobe Bryant if Los Angeles decided to trade its superstar, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss acknowledged they were listening to offers during training camp.
Meanwhile, Detroit went meekly after its playoff victory over Chicago, dropping the final four games against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals. With starters Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess all 31 or over, the Pistons looked ready to be knocked off.
``I think Detroit still has to be looked at as the division power,'' Boylan said. ``Certainly Cleveland knocked them off last year, but they're struggling a bit right now, so we have to earn that. I think we were given it, rather than actually having gone out and earned it.''
ROYAL PAINS: Reggie Theus sees himself as an optimist, so he knows there is good news coming on the injury front. Problem is, it might be too late.
``Even though there's light at the end of the tunnel, I don't think anybody's due back within the next couple of weeks,'' the Sacramento coach said. ``But in the NBA, in two weeks you can lose a lot of games.''
Nobody has been hit harder by injuries than the Kings, who are playing without perhaps their three best players. Leading scorer Kevin Martin has been out a month with a strained right groin. Starting point guard Mike Bibby hasn't played this season after surgery on his left thumb.
Then, Ron Artest, who missed the first seven games serving an NBA suspension, had surgery this week to remove bone chips from his right elbow. All three players are expected back sometime this month.
Despite those losses, the Kings were a respectable 12-18 after a 107-97 victory at New York on Wednesday. Theus hasn't yet been able to put his preferred starting five on the floor, and believes the way the Kings have performed should earn him a fair grade in his first season as an NBA coach.
``I think that in some ways, and I don't know this for sure, but I think the general consensus around the basketball water coolers is that the team has done well under the circumstances,'' Theus said. ``And I think the fact that the team has played hard and we've won enough games to still be in the mix for the playoffs, under the circumstances, I think if anybody's keeping score would be pretty good.''
Theus points to the strong play of John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, who have been forced to step into the starting lineup. Salmons scored a career-high 32 points Wednesday, increasing his average to 19.7 per game in 21 starts. Garcia was scoring 18.9 per game in his first nine starts, and career reserve Beno Udrih had run the team well in Bibby's place.
``These guys have got numbers when they needed to get numbers and helped us win games,'' Theus said. ``When it's all said and done, Beno coming in here having to take over immediately, everyone else has always been in a secondary position. So this is a very, very young team in that way that is learning how to play.''
If those players keep up their production once the regular starters return, maybe Theus' optimism will be rewarded.
``With everybody healthy, if we can just stay in contact with the big picture, we can make a hell of a run at the end of the year,'' Theus said. ``That would be exciting.''
SUN RISING: Christmas wasn't much fun for Amare Stoudemire and the Phoenix Suns.
Phoenix lost to the Lakers for the second time this season, slicing its Pacific Division lead to one game, and Stoudemire had been outplayed on national TV by Los Angeles center Andrew Bynum.
The Suns looked vulnerable then, but not now. Not the way Stoudemire is playing.
The All-NBA center led Phoenix to victories in its next four games, averaging 30.8 points and 13.3 rebounds while shooting 67 percent from the field.
Stoudemire had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee the day training camp opened and missed a few weeks. That caused him to get to a poor start, and he even missed three games in early November while working his back.
He seems there now.
``Due to the injuries and minor setbacks, at the start of the season I started off a little slow,'' Stoudemire said. ``I missed preseason, wasn't quite as healthy as I wanted to be in the first 15 or 20 games. But now I'm starting to feel better, my legs are back, my conditioning level is where it should be, and it should go higher from there.''
STAGE FRIGHT: It's one thing to play bad. It's another to play scared.
Minnesota and New York have been playing poorly all season, owning two of the worst records in the NBA. An obvious problem has been shooting, as the league-worst Timberwolves ranked 27th in the league in field goal percentage going into the weekend at 43.4 percent, one spot above the Knicks (42.8).
Still, they can't be afraid to keep hoisting 'em up.
``You've got to continue to take shots. That's the one thing I don't want our guys to do - you can't have guys turn down shots,'' Minnesota coach Randy Wittman said.
Wittman's team shot a season-worst 35 percent in a 90-79 loss to Portland on Wednesday.
``We've got to take good shots. If you're struggling with your shot, I don't want you out at the 3-point line taking 3s, but you can get into a 15-, 18-foot spot and step up and knock it down,'' Wittman added. ``We've got guys who can do that. You can't tell them not to. You've got to build confidence, and if you've got an open shot, you've got to take it.''
Knicks coach Isiah Thomas - Wittman's college teammate at Indiana - saw the same fear in his team the same night.
Thomas counted 17 missed layups in New York's 107-97 loss to Sacramento. Worse, he saw a couple of occasions where a player passed up a shot, possibly because he was afraid to miss it.
So is it more alarming to miss layups, or fear taking them in the first place?
``Both. I think the tentativeness leads to the missed shots, which leads to the reluctance to take a shot, and it's almost like we're playing afraid,'' Thomas said Thursday. ``Last night we were playing not to lose. We're not playing to win games, we're playing not to make a mistake. The turnovers that we have, they're all unforced turnovers. And they're turnovers that you wouldn't see a high school kids make.''
It should be easier to play fearless on bad teams, because there's far less pressure when not in the playoff picture. But the Knicks' Malik Rose, who has seen the other side while playing for San Antonio, says that isn't necessarily the case.
``When things are going the way they're going around us right now it tends to make the basket smaller when you're shooting,'' he said. ``Basketball's ... a sport that requires a lot of reaction. You have to think out there but you can't think, because by the time you think A plus B, I should have done C, the other team has scored three or four points. So you have to react and play from the heart.''

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