The Eastern Conference as a whole has gotten better over the last few years, from top and bottom. Looking ahead to the third week of April, the regular season finish is shaping up with Detroit and Miami as the clear-cut 1-2 seeds. After that, everything else is up for grabs in the conference's eight-team playoff order.
And you get to play Detroit
After the Pistons, Heat, Nets, Cavaliers, Pacers and Bucks, the last two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference standings, the 7 and 8, are a free-for-all. Even the team with the worst record in basketball, Atlanta, is only seven games out at this point.
Among the East teams without winning records, here's how I handicap their respective chances at grabbing one of the last two slots, graded from 1 (least likely) to 5 (most likely):
• Atlanta Hawks (9-26) -- With Joe Johnson and Al Harrington, there is some ability there, two guys who could start for surefire playoff teams. But I don't think the Hawks have the overall experience, and defensively are not consistent. When you see teams are shooting 48 percent against you, that's a lot to overcome. Chances: 1
• Boston Celtics (14-22) -- A team that probably has had the most frustrating losses. Paul Pierce has played as well as anyone. Ricky Davis has been solid -- never thought I'd use Ricky Davis and stability in the same sentence. But the lack of a true point guard (Delonte West has played very well for them, but he's not a true point) will hurt and keep them out of the playoffs. Chances: 2 ½.
• Charlotte Bobcats (11-26) -- A supporting cast in search of a go-to guy. They haven't developed that focal point from their crop of young players. Losing Emeka Okafor and Sean May for parts of the season has also hurt. Next step? Internally or through free agency in the offseason, coach/GM Bernie Bickerstaff has his work cut out for him in finding that player. Chances: 1 ½.
• Chicago Bulls (15-21) -- If they had a star, they'd be contending with the best in the league. They defend well, have toughness, but don't have that one guy to rely on. They do have to improve on their free throw shooting, an area that has cost them in some close games. Not as good as last year, but I think they're giving a decent defensive performance. Chances: 4
• New York Knicks (13-22) -- Of all the teams we're talking about here, you could argue that they have the most talent. There's still a lot of dysfunction with this team, and chemistry is an issue. I like Jamal Crawford coming off the bench and scoring. Channing Frye has been the second best rookie behind Chris Paul. Nate Robinson brings a lot of energy. But Quentin Richardson hasn't fit in to what they're trying to do, and they're still waiting for Eddy Curry to become what they want. The roster is much more talented than a few years ago. Chances: 3.
• Orlando Magic (13-22) -- Look at this franchise. Some of the greatest players in the game (Shaq and T-Mac) have gone away disgruntled. Can you imagine T-Mac playing with Dwight Howard? So now this issue with Steve Francis. They were a horrific defensive team last year, and have gotten marginally better. They have enough talent to be a playoff team, but other issues surrounding the team are going to keep them from becoming one this year. Chances: 2
• Philadelphia 76ers (18-18) -- Quite simply they have Allen Iverson. They will be in the playoffs because of him. But they are a horrible defensive team and a horrible rebounding team. Chris Webber is a very good player, not as good as he used to be, but he can get you 20 points and 10 rebounds. When you're not as good as you used to be, and can still do that, that's very good. Love AI's energy, activity and leadership. But I'm looking for consistency from Kyle Korver, Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert. Inconsistency has hurt them in games they should have won. The greatness of Iverson has given them time to develop. Chances: 5
• Toronto Raptors (13-24) -- Elminate the first nine games, and they'd be 13-15. Their defense has gotten much better. Chris Bosh has become a star, shoots for a high percentage, and is a good free throw shooter and rebounder. Mike James has given them stability at guard. Charlie Villanueva has really been solid and given them a nice boost. And I think they've got a chance because of one wildcard -- Jalen Rose was the best player on a Pacers team that went to NBA Finals not that long ago. Chances: 2 ½
• Washington Wizards (16-19) -- I didn't think they would make it coming into the season, because of the loss of Larry Hughes. But Gilbert Arenas is just getting better, as explosive as anybody in the league right now. Caron Butler has acquitted himself well. As was the problem last year, defense is an issue. They should be a very good defensive basketball team -- they've got so much physical ability. If they don't make playoffs, they're going to have to address the fact that they're a porous defensive team at best. Chances: 4
In sum, my picks for the two final spots are Philadelphia and Washington. Ordinarily, being a guy who values defense, I'd go with Chicago. But with Arenas' development, you're looking at a guy elevating into the T-Mac/Vince Carter/Kobe class.
ESPN studio analyst Greg Anthony played for six teams in 11 NBA seasons.
Carmelo Anthony gets a nice reception from T.J. Ford. Melo dropped 38 points on the Bucks in a 100-93 win Saturday, pushing the Nuggets to 19-19.
The hiring of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is troubling. Everyone respects Krzyzewski as possibly the best college coach ever. Kobe Bryant is known to respect him, and that helps. But Krzyzewski has no experience coaching NBA players (many of whom have never played a minute of college basketball) or coaching international basketball.
The strange thing is that the perfect guy for the job, Mike D'Antoni, is currently employed as Colangelo's own head coach in Phoenix. D'Antoni will instead be an assistant to Krzyzewski.
Los Angeles Lakers
So much for the Knicks' unbeaten '06. The Raps set a team record for points (129) in trouncing the Knickerbockers.
Mo Pete, Less Knicks
Kings guard Mike Bibby had played 546 games, many with distinction, but in game No. 547 Sunday night, he scored 42 points for the first time. The Kings topped Dwight Howard and the Magic, 104-100.
Quote of the Day
"Yeah, I broke it out. It's fun for us. The guys get hyped about that. That was kind of a backbreaker, so that was the airplane."
-- Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, talking about his "airplane" celebration in Saturday's win over the Warriors. The flying Mamba has not used that arms-spread flying motion since last year.
-- Andrew Ayres
Isiah Thomas had a nice, hearty laugh Saturday afternoon when I told him how I had finally figured out Larry Brown.
Those 21 losses in the first 28 games? It was all part of Brown's secret scheme to sacrifice a large enough portion of the season to ensure that the Knicks would be able to secure the No. 8 seed in the conference.
The No. 8 seed brings a matchup with the No. 1 seed. And the No. 1 seed, needless to say, will be the Detroit Pistons ... the team Brown will never forgive after his nasty breakup last summer.
The Grizzlies lost at San Antonio, 80-79, and despite scoring 26 points, Pau Gasol might be in for one sleepless night. A 72-percent career foul shooter, Gasol went 4-for-13 from the line.
He's the first NBA player since Vin Baker in 1994 to miss at least nine free-throw attempts in a regular-season game that his team lost by the minimum margin; Baker, then with Milwaukee, shot 4-for-13 in a 115-114 loss to Philadelphia. And before Baker, you have to go back to 1970 to find the previous guy to do it -- San Diego's Stu Lantz, 4-for-13 in a 130-129 loss to Phoenix.
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Voice of the Fan
Detroit. The cohesion that comes from having essentially the same roster for three years running will go a long way in the playoffs.
I like the Pistons' "something to prove" angle without Larry Brown.