Artest has Kings back in playoff hunt
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Mike Kahn / Special to FOXSports.com
Posted: 71 days ago
It required about 63 more games than most people expected for the Sacramento Kings to be among the top eight teams in the Western Conference.

But they arrived Sunday evening in the wake of an 85-80 win over the Dallas Mavericks to move into the eighth spot in the Western Conference — a half game behind the seventh place Los Angeles Lakers, a half game ahead of the slumping New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, and just two games behind the sixth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

1. Item: The Kings pounded the Grizzlies 105-93 Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since they were 7-7 on Nov. 29, and finally seem to have hit their stride. They've won eight of the last 10 games, while the Hornets have lost six in a row and eight of 10; the Lakers have split their last 10 and the Grizzlies have lost two in a row and six of 10.

What this really means: The Kings have clearly taken off since the big trade of sending Peja Stojakovic to Indiana to gamble on the supremely talented but mercurial Ron Artest. The Kings lost the first two games after the deal, and have been 14-5 since — by far their best run of the season. Artest scored 30 points in the win over Memphis, providing them with the low post presence they lost when aging Chris Webber was dealt to Philadelphia last season. It's a different kind of offense he brings to the table than the sweet-shooting — if erratic in recent years — Stojakovic. More important has been the defensive tenacity that Artest has brought, previously foreign to this franchise.

This translates exactly the way Kings president Geoff Petrie had hoped, as his buddy — coach Rick Adelman — has always been able to coach a wide variety of personalities. With so much playoff experience on this team, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see the Kings catch and pass the Grizzlies for the sixth seed. From there, it wouldn't be much of a stretch for the Kings to knock off the third-seeded Denver Nuggets in the opening round of the playoffs. Sure, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but the Kings were a team we expected to win the Pacific Division and challenge in the West ... we just didn't expect them to have to go through the back door to make it happen.

2. Item: Yao Ming returned from toe surgery on Jan. 30, and the Houston Rockets lost to Memphis in his first game back. But from that point on they have been 14-5, including Sunday's 88-81 loss at San Antonio.

What this really means: The Rockets are only three games out of the playoffs despite the chronic absence of All-Star Tracy McGrady, and Yao is the reason. For all the criticism the 7-6 center has received in his four NBA season, the 25-year-old Yao is having a dominant season — averaging 21.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.71 blocks. Since returning from the surgery, he has scored in double-figures in 19 of the 20 games, and has had double-doubles in 14 of those 20. The past 10 games have been the most dominant in his career — averaging 27.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks.

So, all of you critics calling him soft and overrated, name another center putting up numbers comparable to those. Meanwhile, the tenuous status of McGrady's back remains a huge question mark for the future of the franchise. With Carroll Dawson figuring to step down as general manager after this season, it now looks like Kiki Vandeweghe has moved into position to jump there from Denver after the season. It also says they can build around Yao and check McGrady's market value to retool a team that Jeff Van Gundy is comfortable coaching.

Steve Nash's 2005 MVP award was widely dismissed as a fluke. So then, how come he's putting together another award-worthy campaign? (Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

3. Item: The Phoenix Suns managed beat the Hornets despite Steve Nash being sidelined by a sprained ankle, but their 11-game winning streak came to a dramatic halt when the San Antonio Spurs rolled into town to take a 24-point decision.

What this really means: Anybody who thought Nash's spectacular MVP season was a once in a lifetime year — present company including — was clearly wrong. Whatever button Suns coach Mike D'Antoni pushed has turned Nash into the best point guard in the NBA — by far. His 19.5 points and NBA-leading 10.9 assists tell only a portion of the story. He has instigated career-altering seasons for everybody he plays with, and led the Suns to a runaway lead in the Pacific Division and a lock on the second seed despite the absence of Amare Stoudemire all season due to knee surgery and the loss of Kurt Thomas to a stress fracture.

Indeed, it looks like Nash has become the favorite to win the MVP again, and D'Antoni — named executive vice president and general manager last week following Bryan Colangelo's move to Toronto — is a top contender to repeat as coach of the year. They've transformed Boris Diaw — acquired in the Joe Johnson deal — into the second coming of Danny Manning and a most improved player candidate. And Tim Thomas comes off the streets of Chicago since the Bulls didn't want to play him and immediately starts scoring in double figures. Short of any other explanation, D'Antoni and Nash are positively magical together.

4. Item: The Boston Celtics won six of nine, crawling to within 3 1/2 of the eighth seed in the East on the strength of a spectacular run by Paul Pierce, who had at least 30 points in eight of the nine games, averaging 32.2 points, 5.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds.

What this really means: Pierce is finally figuring out what it means to be a leader and make the other players around him better. Ryan Gomes, a second-round draft choice out of Providence, has a chance to make the All-Rookie team, scoring in double figures in 12 of the last 13 games — including six double-doubles. And Pierce has been a significant factor for coach Doc Rivers in the rapid development of Gomes and second-year guard Delonte West.

Why now? It appears the change came after president Danny Ainge fleeced his old Celtics teammate Kevin McHale by unloading the burdensome attitudes of Mark Blount and Ricky Davis for Wally Szczerbiak. The move has eased the pressure from Pierce, with Szczerbiak bringing only spirited play and focus from a veteran All-Star. They are 10-10 since the trade, but keep in mind that included a 1-6 start — which translates into a 9-4 finish, by far their best run of the season. Meanwhile, Pierce is playing at his highest level since they were in the 2002 conference finals.

5. Item: The New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets returned to New Orleans Arena last week for the first time all season with an announced standing room only crowd witnessing the 113-107 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

What this really means: For some strange reason the timing of the cameo appearance in New Orleans comes at a time when the team has fallen prey to the pressure of being the upstart playoff contenders with youth. Not only does the financial future of the franchise look bleak in New Orleans, but the Hornets now have lost six in a row and fallen to ninth in the Western Conference.

The good news is youngsters Chris Paul and David West are real pieces to build around, but this fall has coincided with coach Byron Scott unloading publicly on young J.R. Smith. Smith, one of the precocious prepsters from the 2004 draft class, clashed with Scott and it became a public feud. Scott's inability to deal with mouthy players created his demise in New Jersey, and you would think he would be better equipped for it this time around — particularly with a player so young and talented who needs attention than most. Meanwhile, look out below.

6. Item: The Orlando Magic snapped their six-game losing streak with a 29-point win over Cleveland. The bad news was Grant Hill aggravated his troublesome abdominal area and left the game for good in the first quarter. The good news is Darko Milicic had 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks.

What this really means: It's about that time that Hill gets shut down for the rest of the season — something that has happened annually since he signed that $93 million contract in 2000. With $17 million coming next season, it's still a better idea to have him around for his top quality leadership and skills when he does play. His influence on spectacular young post player Dwight Howard and Milicic can only enhance their development.

As for the embattled Darko — the last nine games he's averaged 22.1 minutes a game, and the response has been good, if not special. Still only 20, the 7-1, 250-pound lefty is clearly figuring it out by producing 7.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks during this cluster of games. While questions remain about his intensity and commitment over the long haul, as long as he gets minutes and regains the confidence of being beaten down for two years by Larry Brown in Detroit, he and Howard have a chance to be a dominating power duo for a decade with the Magic.

7. Item: After surpassing the .500 mark for the first time in months, the Philadelphia 76ers lost three in a row (entering Sunday's game), with the most interesting turn of events coming in a three-point loss last week at Boston when coach Maurice Cheeks elected to leave Chris Webber on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.

What this really means: The Sixers just can't get over the hump for any number of reasons — including their three key figures: Cheeks, Webber and Allen Iverson. For whatever reason, they can't get on the same page. Iverson turns his ankle in the second quarter Sunday at Memphis, doesn't return and Webber nearly has a triple-double — 31 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists — to key an unlikely victory. There isn't much question why Webber has better numbers without Iverson — the latter dominates the ball so much, the gifted Webber doesn't have a chance to get into a game rhythm.

So that leaves it up to Cheeks, who was a very special point guard, but has yet to prove he has a feel for how to utilize players as a coach. The Sixers looked like they were about to make a move to steal the division from the wobbly New Jersey Nets before the recent losing streak. Somehow, someway, these guys need to figure it out. That includes getting overpaid young center Samuel Dalembert's head back into the game, keeping gifted Andre Iguodala's multiple skills involved, and finding open looks for their best pure shooter, Kyle Corver. And none of it will happen unless Iverson, Webber and ultimately Cheeks can get on the same page and stay there.

He may not be the Shaq of old, but O'Neal is still the Heat's best hope of getting past the Pistons. (Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

8. Item: As Shaquille O'Neal celebrated his 34th birthday last week, it seems to be the appropriate time to concede the demise of his game has been greatly exaggerated as he is a key component in why the Miami Heat remain a serious threat to unseat the Detroit Pistons as champions of the East.

What this really means: We've known for a long time that Shaq just isn't going to pay as much attention to his conditioning or stay as healthy or as intense as everyone expects him to until the playoffs. And whereas it is obvious that the insidious selfishness with the Lakers was just as much his doing as Kobe Bryant's, the best big man of his generation is still productive on the floor, if not quite as productive as with his mouth.

He is fun loving and while he has lost a step or two of quickness, his weight is now down to where it needs to be and over the past 19 games (16 of which have been wins), he's averaged 21.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. While those aren't earth-shattering numbers — and no doubt coach Pat Riley would love another couple of rebounds and blocks per game — he's on task. Let's face it, this is now young superstar Dwyane Wade's team, and Alonzo Mourning even finished up the game for O'Neal in Sunday's win over Cleveland. But Shaq Diesel remains the hub of it all and the only real reason the Heat are a threat to usurp the 2006 NBA title from the Pistons or the defending champion Spurs.

9. Item: Golden State Warriors point guard Baron Davis was reportedly shocked and appalled that he did not receive even a sniff from managing director Jerry Colangelo to participate on the national team.

What this really means: As we've seen every season since we were impressed with him so vividly during his first two seasons — B-Ditty has seemed possessed by trying to make himself larger than the whole. He played a significant role in the embarrassment that was the world championship losses in Indianapolis and he had everything to do with the downfall of Paul Silas as coach of the Hornets.

And now it seems he's doing the same thing with Mike Montgomery on the Golden State Warriors. It was obvious that the transition would be difficult for Monty after running such an exceptional program at Stanford. But without B-Ditty supporting him, there is no way he can succeed as coach of the Warriors. False hopes erupted in the Bay Area upon the Warriors' 18-8 record the final two months of last season and 12-6 start in 2005-06. Since that 30-14 run, they have been 14-31. Unfortunately, that's been the norm for the Warriors since their last trip to the playoffs a dozen years ago. Soon enough, general manager Chris Mullin will have to decide whether it's Montgomery or Davis at the heart of this group's problem.

10. Item: The decision-making after this season in Seattle will have to deal with just as many questions on the court as they will with their long-range financial plans of keeping or selling the team.

What this really means: The Sonics had a big seven-point win over the Lakers in Los Angeles Sunday, giving them back-to-back wins for the first time in two months and four wins over the past six games. A lot of it has been attributed to the removal of the drag in the locker room caused by Vladimir Radmanovic, Flip Murray, Reggie Evans and Vitaly Potapenko. Acquiring Chris Wilcox for Radmanovic has given them the athletic power player they've lacked, although Wilcox has yet to show developed basketball skills beyond running, jumping and dunking. Earl Watson has given them a superb backup point guard — but he's going to be making $6 million a year over the next four years and what does that mean for their talented young starter Luke Ridnour, who has played so well over the past six weeks?

And lastly, what are they going to do about effusive and erratic coach Bob Hill. If they keep him, they risk him imploding as he has so often done in the past — bringing his team down in the process. On the other hand, a new coach would be the fourth including Nate McMillan's rapid exit after last season and Bob Weiss' ouster 30 games into this season. For whatever reason, the Sonics always seem in transition — which makes it all the more stunning that they have the fourth best record in the NBA over the past 11 seasons.

Veteran NBA writer Mike Kahn is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com.

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