Detroit, Indy destined for East finals

Updated: April 2, 2004, 4:28 PM ET
By Peter May | Special to ESPN.com

On the morning of April 1, astute standings followers woke up to discover that only three teams in the entire Eastern Conference were above .500.

Unfortunately, that is not an April Fool's joke. It was the same way on the morning of April 2 and it may be that way again.

We've belittled the East for years now and, just when the conference stoops lower than we ever thought possible, we also have to acknowledge the following: The conference finals between the Pistons and the Pacers should be good theater and maybe even produce a stretch or two of good, possibly watchable basketball.

It is coming down to that, don't you think? I know the 14 diehard Nets fans in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex might take issue but everything seems pointed in that direction. You have Rick Carlisle's new team against Rick Carlisle's old team. You have Larry Brown's new team against one of Larry Brown's old teams.

Can we dismiss the other five as hopeless wannabes? Yes, the Miami Heat deserves a lot of credit for the way things have gone. The Heat, amazing as it seems, might even win the battle for the No. 4 spot, as we watch the ongoing Hoop Hindenburg that is the New Orleans Hornets. The Bucks basically play to form and might win a 4-5 matchup. Miami is a fun regular-season story; it's hard to see them doing any playoff damage with postseason greenhorns.

Indiana has been terrific all season. Carlisle has been able to do what Isiah Thomas could not do -- sustain and maintain a level of excellence from Game 1 to the end of the season. He has managed to keep Ron Artest under wraps and Jermaine O'Neal has gotten over his hurt feelings about the firing of Thomas to play like an MVP. His team has been healthy and it has the homecourt advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

But the Pacers have yet to play the new, tougher, even-more-defensive-minded Pistons since Detroit's February extreme makeover. Indy won the first three meetings between these teams, but that was before the deal which brought Mike James to the Pistons. Oh, and Rasheed Wallace, too. The fourth and final meeting between the two teams will be on April 4 at the Palace of Auburn Hills. You can already envision how that one will be promoted.

The Pistons have been built to win -- and win now. The acquisition of Wallace not only gave Detroit another tough defender, but it gave them a much-needed scoring option as well. We've all known that Wallace was an extraordinary talent acting like an enfant terrible in Portland. Now he's just an extraordinary talent who, by all accounts, has been a model citizen in Detroit. And anyone forced to watch the Pistons knows they need as much scoring as they can possibly get.

The two coaches have been there. Carlisle joins Pat Riley as the only coach in NBA history to have won division titles in each of his first, three full seasons in the league. (And Pat had a few Hall of Famers to help him do it. Carlisle had Chucky Atkins and Michael Curry.) Carlisle had successive 50-win seasons in Detroit and he then went to Indy and did the same thing with a Pacers team that many thought would take a step back this season. He has to be among the top five coaches in the game.

The well-traveled Brown seems to have not lost his sense of timing, given what happened in Philadelphia this year. He took the Sixers to the Finals a few years ago and he can coach with anyone. The Pistons have been an up-and-down team all season. They won 13 straight in December and January. They lost six straight before the Wallace trade and then two more after they got him. Since then, they won 14 of 17 and look like they're ready to roll.

Can anybody stand in the way of this supposedly inevitable matchup? The only possibility is New Jersey, but the Nets' injury situation is so volatile that it's hard to get excited about their chances. They will go as far as Jason Kidd can take them and, boy, do they ever need him. Watching the Nets without Kidd and Kenyon Martin leaves you with one, inescapable, sentiment: They're Orlando without the weather and the golf.

Jermaine O'Neal and Ben Wallace
Baskets wouldn't come easy in a Pacers-Pistons East final with Jermaine O'Neal, left, and Ben Wallace around the rim.
You can say all you want about Jersey turning things around when Kidd and K-Mart come back, but who knows how healthy either one really is? Martin's injury is believed to be less serious, but he doesn't appear to be in any kind of hurry. Kidd basically has shut it down for the foreseeable future or the playoffs, whichever comes first.

The trouble with that scenario is that a team prefers to be playing well and playing together when the playoffs begin. It's one of those articles of faith in the NBA, like per diem and strip joints, and New Jersey is doing neither. The Nets basically have the second spot nailed down, so they'll get the seventh seed in the first round. That series might be sufficient to get Kidd and Martin the time and timing they require. That might be all they need -- but they still are going to have trouble with the Pistons.

And, let's not forget, they have a rookie head coach. Lawrence Frank started out by winning his first 13 games. Then reality hit. Then injuries hit. Since then, he's been below .500 -- and the only teams he has beaten since Kidd and Martin went down are the Bulls and the Wizards. Frank may be the next John Wooden. But the regular season is one story and the playoffs is another.

So what can we expect from a Pistons-Pacers series? Whew. Points will be at a premium. The shot clock will be squeezed like a Florida orange. Some might envision a lively series, but all signs point to a Tractor Pull with extensive stretches of gridlock. The Pistons have trouble scoring, period. The Pacers are only marginally more effective at the offensive end. But the two teams are Nos. 1 (Detroit) and 3 (Indy) among points allowed and they'll likely ratchet it up another notch in the postseason.

Sure, the Nets might spoil this potentially competitive, if not artistic, matchup. And the Eastern Conference champion, on paper anyway, has a chance to be the best and most representative champ since the Bulls.

That doesn't mean it will beat the Lakers. It won't. The Western Conference finals may, indeed, be the real NBA Finals for the sixth straight season. It's up to the Pistons or the Pacers to change that dynamic
-- and while it's unlikely, that's at least a step forward from years past, when it not only was unlikely, it was unthinkable as well.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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