NBA Playoffs: Can East find a beast?

Apr 13, 2004 4:02 AM

Pro basketball’s playoffs begin this week, unfortunately for the East.

Next year will mark the halfway point of the first decade of the new millennium, an NBA decade that has been dominated by the Western Conference. Not since the spring of 1998 has an Eastern team won the NBA title, when Michael Jordan’s Bulls topped the Utah Jazz in six games.

Only two teams have won the title since, the Spurs (1999 and 2003) and the Lakers (2000-02). So can some beast come out of the East to break the jinx? Or is the West still the best?

Pacers: Indiana’s first-year coach Rick Carlisle has done a terrific job bringing this team together and focusing them to play defense. The Pacers play great ball both at home and on the road (a 26-14 SU, 25-15 ATS start on the road). Indiana outscores teams by +5.6 ppg, third best in the NBA.

Against the best teams in the West (Timberwolves, Kings, Lakers and Spurs) Indiana went 3-5 SU. They were competitive, though, going 5-3 ATS. The Pacers split two blowout games with the Lakers, each winning comfortably at home. Indiana went 2-0 ATS against the defending champion Spurs, winning 89-79 at home and losing 89-88 in OT at San Antonio as a +6 dog. The Pacers lost all four road games against the best of the West, which is cause for concern if an East team is going to bring home the crown.

Pistons: Rasheed Wallace appears to be the missing piece for first-year coach Larry Brown. Wallace provides an inside presence on offense which opens things up for Detroit’s leading scorers in the backcourt, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton. The Pistons plays great defense (41 percent shooting allowed, No. 2 in the NBA) and outscores teams by 5.7 ppg, second best in the league.

However, notice Detroit has struggled against the four best teams in the West, going 2-6 SU and 4-3-1 ATS. Many of those games were before they acquired Wallace, who has made them much stronger. Also, Detroit went 0-4 SU and 1-3-1 ATS on the road against Minnesota, Sacramento, LA and San Antonio. Nets: At this point, the key is health for the two-time defending Eastern Conference representatives. Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin returned last week after missing significant time. They are the two best Nets and are needed at 100 percent if New Jersey is to make three straight trips to the Finals.

A couple of things are a concern. First, the Nets have been roughly a .500 road team. Second, they are a poor 2-6 both SU and ATS versus the four best teams in the West. Playing on the road against the Kings, T-Wolves, Lakers and Spurs, New Jersey has gone 0-4 both SU and ATS this season.

Timberwolves: This will be an interesting team to watch come playoff time. Kevin Garnett finally has some teammates who can play, with the additions of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell. They have frontcourt depth with Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowakandi and veteran Ervin Johnson — and a lot of focus.

Minnesota is No. 2 in the NBA in shooting (46.1 percent), fourth defensively in shooting (41.5), and the No. 5 free throw shooting squad (78 percent). Talk about balance! This talented group began the season 24-14 SU and 23-15 ATS on the road.

Spurs: This team is again built around a sensational defense, which they play both home and away. The Spurs are No. 2 in the NBA allowing opponents 41.3 percent shooting (just behind the Rockets). Newcomer 7-footer Rasho Nesterovic will turn 28 during the playoffs. He’s no Admiral and has been up and down averaging close to eight boards per game.

San Antonio has great depth and a commitment to defense, with Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker, Malik Rose and Manu Ginobili ”” guys who won the title last year. One concern for close games, both SU and ATS, is that San Antonio is the worst free throw shooting team in the league (68 percent).

Kings: Sacramento is not playing its best ball of the season as the playoffs approach. So what’s the deal? Essentially, the return of Chris Webber has coincided with the slump ”” and that’s the problem. Webber is clearly not 100 percent and has little lift in his legs. He’s starting and getting a lot of shots, which has upset the chemistry and balance of what was one of the league’s dominant teams.

They certainly can be a better team with Webber. The organization is hoping he gets himself back to normal in time for the games that really count, but they have stumbled since Webber returned. The Kings and Webber will be interesting to watch ”” they could win it all, or stumble through another postseason flameout.

Lakers: The team assembled to roll through the NBA has had a roller coaster season, filled with injuries, arguments and Kobe Bryant’s off-court problems. The talent is here to win another title, with Karl Malone and Gary Payton joining Shaq and Bryant.

It’s no guarantee, however. Some weaknesses: The Lakers are the second worst free throw shooting team in the NBA (69 percent). Los Angeles started a miserable 1-8 SU and 2-7 ATS as a road dog, getting blasted by an average of 12 points per game (97-85).