NBA: Best of the East

Apr 3, 2007 7:54 AM

It’s been a long haul, this 82-game NBA regular season. The playoffs are just around the corner.

Next week we’ll take a look at the best of the West, the conference that has won six of the last seven NBA titles. This week, it’s the elite of the East. Only two teams in the East have won a title since Michael Jordan retired — the Pistons in 2004 and the Heat last season.

Pistons: The Pistons 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, Antonio McDyess and midseason acquisition Chris Webber. They started off as a run-and-gun team under coach Flip Saunders, but defense has been more of a priority this season — even with Ben Wallace gone.

Detroit is fourth in the league in opponents shooting and allows below 92 ppg, third best. The Pistons are 22-14 under the total on the road. The Pistons became the first Eastern Conference team to clinch a playoff spot last week in a 113-109 victory over Denver. Wallace banked in a 60-footer with no time left to send the Pistons to overtime. It doesn’t hurt to get a few breaks! They are 11-6 ATS as a dog.

Heat: Certainly the Wild Card team in the East. It’s been a tumultuous season for the defending champs, with an early injury to Shaq, a late injury to Dwyane Wade and even coach Pat Riley missed time with surgery. Wade is progressing well in his recovery from a dislocated left shoulder, but there’s no timetable for a potential return. He said he hopes to be back for the playoffs.

Can Shaq carry them? Probably not. The 35-year old Diesel’s minutes played have steadily gone down the last five years, from 37.8, to 36.8, 34.1, 30.4 and 27 minutes per game this season. Miami is 26-13 ATS as a dog. If they meet in the playoffs, note that Miami and Detroit have played two close, defensive games, 85-82 and 87-85. When they clashed in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, every game went under the total, making these teams 8-0 under the last 8 meetings.

Cavaliers: It’s a bit harsh to believe that the Cavs are simply LeBron James whole-lotta-nuthin.’ James is a remarkable talent, averaging 27.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6 assists. Don’t forget he’s only 22. However, management has not surrounded him with a great cast of role players.

They have a big frontcourt with 7-foot-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall and are the second best defensive team in the East, allowing 93 ppg. They’ve gotten inconsistent play from guard Larry Hughes, shooting 39 percent from the field. Hughes is a career 41 percent shooter. Like many young teams, the Cavs are super at home (starting 27-10 SU, 19-17 ATS), but allow 96 ppg on the road where they started 16-19. You’ve got to win on the road in the postseason.

Bulls: Chicago was the chic pick in the East after acquiring defensive forces Ben Wallace and rookie Tyrus Thomas. They have improved, starting 42-30 compared to last year’s 32-40 mark. The defense is outstanding, allowing 43.9 percent shooting by opponents — second best in the NBA behind Houston.

There are plenty of athletic scorers with Ben Gordon (21.3 ppg), Luol Deng (18.9 ppg), playmaker Kirk Hinrich (16 ppg) and Chris Duhon. Deng had 38 against Portland last week going 18-for-25 from the field. Chicago is on a strong 13-5, SU 11-7 ATS run. Of concern for the postseason is that the Bulls are 7-14 SU as a dog and a poor 15-21 SU, 13-22 ATS on the road.

Raptors: Toronto has assembled a nice young team, with 6-10 center Chris Bosh (22.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and playmaking guard T.J. Ford. Bosh turned 23 last week while Ford just turned 24. The Raptors have been a cover-machine (41-29 ATS), including a sizzling 25-10 SU and 21-13 ATS at home.

There are good role players, but they received two serious injury blows last week when rookie forward Andrea Bargnani (11 ppg) had his appendix taken out and valuable rookie Jorge Garbajosa badly injured his leg and is out for the year. Those two represent almost 20 points and 9 rebounds per game. Toronto is also 23-12 under the total on the road.