By Brad Friedman
One is the No. 8 seed in the West. The other is the No. 3 seed in the East. Opposites, you say? Yet, both the Sacramento Kings and the New Jersey Nets closed out the 2005-06 campaign on a torrid pace.
For the Kings, the turning point in what seemed like a lost season came with a Jan. 25 trade that sent Peja Stojakovic to the Pacers in exchange for defensive-stopper Ron Artest. Almost instantly, the identity of the then 18-24 Kings changed.
Sacramento went from allowing opponents 100.2 points per game prior to the deal to limiting teams to 94.0 points per game in their last 39 games. Before Artest, the Kings allowed opponents to shoot .461 from the field. After Artest, the Kings defennse has improved to a stingy .444.
The Nets and Kings will scrap for wins.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
"They added a player in the mix that's everything Sacramento wasn't when we played them in the playoffs," the Lakers' Kobe Bryant
told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel after a recent Lakers loss to the Kings. "The guy plays defense first, and now Sacramento has become much more aggressive on defense."
The Kings' newfound toughness has shown itself in other forms as well, including resiliency. Sacramento is 11-3 with Artest in the lineup following a loss compared to 10-14 before his arrival. Sacramento finished the season by winning eight of their last 10 games. It will take on the Spurs in the first round.
The Nets experienced trouble early in their season as well. This was a club that started off the 2005-06 campaign 9-12, and even in January, when contenders are expected to have all their momentum behind them, New Jersey went 6-8.
But this is also a club that had the longest winning streak in the NBA this season with a 14-game tear through March and April.
So, quite obviously, the Nets are a club to be feared, even if Detroit and Miami are considered the East's favorites. The Nets take on the Pacers in the first round, and would meet the Heat in the second round if they were to advance.