Pistons again lead
Eastern playoff elite

Apr 4, 2006 6:27 AM

Best of the East

It’s been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season, but it’s winding down. That means the playoffs are just around the corner.

The Western Conference has won six of the last seven NBA titles. Here are the best of the challengers from the East.

Pistons: This is the only East team to win the title (2004) since Michael Jordan retired. The two-time defending conference champs certainly have great depth, talent and balance. The strong backcourt of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton lead in scoring, while the front line features Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Antonio McDyess.

Detroit started off run-and-gun team this season under first-year coach Flip Saunders. The defense has gotten better, now allowing just 90 ppg. Since mid-February, the ”˜under’ is 13-8 in Detroit’s last 21 games. A championship team needs good health and the Pistons recently set a record by becoming the first NBA team to go 67 games with the same starting lineup.

Heat: Perhaps the most serious challenger to the Pistons is Miami. It has been a tumultuous season for the Heat, with the early-injury to Shaq and the strange deep-sixing of former head coach Stan Van Gundy. Pat Riley gets to work with O’Neal and young star Dwyane Wade, giving the old coach one last chance at the Finals. The last time he brought a team to the NBA Finals was 1994 (New York). The last time he won: 1988 (Lakers).

Shaq missed 16 games, including last week with a strained knee injury. The last four seasons his minutes have steadily gone down from 37.8, to 36.8, to 34.1, to 30.4 this year. Miami just lost valuable backup center Alonzo Mourning to a knee injury, requiring him to skip the rest of the regular season. They could use him if they want to dethrone Detroit. One weak spot is that Miami has struggled against good teams, going a poor 1-11 SU and 4-8 ATS as an underdog!

Cavaliers: After fading out and failing to make the playoffs a year ago, Cleveland has rode the talented shoulders of LeBron James to earn a postseason berth. James is a remarkable player, averaging 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. Don’t forget he just turned 21 last Christmas week.

Cleveland has a big frontcourt with 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall. A couple of weak spots are youth and lack of playoff experience as a group. Also, the Cavs are super at home (starting 27-10 SU, 21-15 ATS), but allow 99 ppg on the road where they started 15-19. You’ve got to win on the road to go anywhere in the postseason.

Wizards: Washington has a dynamic 1-2 punch with Gilbert Arenas (29 ppg) and Antawn Jamison (21 ppg). They’ve been playing better down the stretch, and last week had an impressive West Coast swing. Washington won 109-97 at Utah as a +2 dog, 116-98 at Golden State and 97-84 the next night at Sacramento as a +8 dog. Offense is their game, but not defense. The Wiz allow 99 ppg (ninth worst in the NBA) and opponents shoot 46 percent (sixth poorest). Defense wins come playoff time.

Nets: You might say the Nets are late-bloomers, throwing their hat into the ring with an impressive late season push. Vince Carter and Jason Kidd are the old veterans providing the offense, while kids like Richard Jefferson and 22-year old 7-footer Nenad Krstic are getting better. Defensively New Jersey allows 43 percent shooting by opponents, sixth-best in the league. Over the last three weeks the Nets went 11-0 SU, 10-1-1 ATS, shaking the NBA with wins over red-hot Dallas by 11 and at Detroit 79-74 as a +7 dog. They also embarrassed Phoenix, 110-72 and handed Memphis a double-digit loss. Yes, it’s a good time to be hot as we approach the end of the regular season.

Next week: The Best of the West