Here's how I see the East finishing when the regular-season concludes Apr. 18. The biggest change in the status quo I foresee is a rise from the New Jersey Nets, now freed from the uncertainty of the trade deadline
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2. Cleveland Cavaliers (32-24) -- They've got one of the best players in league: LeBron James can carry them in a series. The playoffs will suit their team a little better. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Eric Snow are better in a half-court game, which tends to be the style of play in the playoffs.
3. Washington Wizards (31-23) -- Don't know if their inside game and D is consistent enough to come out of East, but they'll be right there. This is assuming Antawn Jamison comes back healthy -- sometimes it takes a while with a knee injury.
4. Toronto Raptors (31-25) -- Young, energetic, full of excitement -- this is a team with a real desire to win. Chris Bosh has blossomed into a true star, and has turned into a leader. That typically takes time, and it doesn't always happen that your best player is your leader. Bosh seems to be just that.
5. Chicago Bulls (32-26) -- The loss to the Pistons on Sunday exposed a potential weakness: When Ben Gordon's out of the game, the opposing team can go zone and not pay the price from the outside. On the plus side, we also saw more production from P.J. Brown. In big games coming up, you're going to see a lot of him -- he's a proven leader, has good size and can score.
6. New Jersey Nets (27-30) -- The Nets, fresh off a 101-90 win over the Knicks, are looking like they're going to surge. Now that the trading deadline has passed, with Jason Kidd and Vince Carter staying put, I think the two will come together. Maybe they realize that this is their last hurrah together. Much of the Nets hopes to contend in the East depend on if Richard Jefferson comes back healthy soon. One danger is that they don't have a lot in the middle since Nenad Krstic got hurt. And if they get too far down in standings, there's a tendency of veterans to lose their enthusiasm.
7. Indiana Pacers (29-26) -- I think Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy will start to learn how to play with Jermaine O'Neal and it will be a good fit. Rick Carlisle's an excellent coach -- they'll get their act together. The team has hung in there through the controversies.
8. Miami Heat (27-28) -- Their first win since Dwyane Wade injured his shoulder came Sunday, a 86-81 win over the Cavs. Shaq looked good, but one new worry is that he'll burn out without Wade's help. Otherwise, I think that among all these veteran players, someone will step up each night to get them in the playoffs. Pat Riley has enough in his bag of tricks. I think they'll hold on and win enough games. I hope that Wade does come back --- and if there's anyway possible, he won't opt for surgery this season.
Among the challengers, Orlando just hasn't played very well lately. The Knicks, however, could be right there. They have won so many games at the last second, it seems like this is their year to get in. If some of the teams on the edge falter, the Knicks have a real shot at getting in.
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Cavaliers guard Damon Jones, left, argues with Miami's Gary Payton (20) during the fourth quarter of Miami's 86-81 win.
Readers react to some predictions of the East's champ
C'mon guys! What is it gonna take for the Raps to get some respect?! Sure, the Pistons seem the most likely candidate to emerge from the East; they're the safest bet. But you guys are playing it a bit too safe, don't ya think? The Raps have been playing some of the best ball in the NBA over the last couple of months. Give 'em their due.
-- Dave (Saskatoon)
Ok, I'm a homer. But aren't the Wizards being overlooked here? They've already shown they can beat the Pistons at home or on the road. The Heat are flatlining w/out Wade. LeBron's legs are giving out on him. The Wizards are .500 w/out Jamison and he'll be back in a week or two. Any conversation about the East without including the Wizards is insane! C'mon Tim [Legler], you forget about us?
-- Kelly (DC)
I have to say, I normally agree with everything Mr. Tim Legler says, but you cannot say that D Wade is the best finisher in the league. He is the second best but Kobe Bryant is clearly the best finisher and player in the league. (And no I am not a Kobe fan).
The Mavericks defeated the Nuggets 115-95 on Saturday, boosting their won-lost record to 46-9. Dallas became only the eighth team in NBA history to reach the 55-game mark of a season with at least 46 victories. Six of the seven previous teams that did that went on to win the NBA title that season; the only exception was last year's Pistons, who were an identical 46-9 through 55 games.
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Shaq sharp without Wade
AP Photo/Gary Malerba
Booed early and often in his return to Detroit, Bulls center Ben Wallace (six points, eight rebounds) reacts after receiving an offensive foul in the 95-93 loss.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
One of the nice things about the blog is it gives me a chance to respond to the topics that are filling up my inbox.
And at the moment, the top question by an overwhelming margin is, to paraphrase, "How the @#%$ are the Spurs ranked No. 1 in the Hollinger Power Rankings?"
At first glance, I understand how this seems totally illogical. San Antonio has lost twice as many games as Dallas, for crying out loud, and the Mavs are currently riding a 11-game winning streak -- their third double-digit win streak this year. They're 46-5 since an 0-4 start and haven't lost consecutive games in more than three months.
Chris Sheridan on the lack of Eddy Curry in Sunday's Knicks loss to the Nets:
This was your time. This was a chance to draw even in the standings with a team that's been kicking your behind for four years, setting yourselves up for another statement game Monday night across the river against the Miami Heat -- another of the teams directly above you in the standings that will have to be caught in order for there to be playoff basketball in New York again anytime soon.
If you're going to beat those teams, you might want to turn to the most dominant low-post offensive weapon in the Eastern Conference when you really, really need a bucket as badly as you did Sunday midway through the fourth.
February 25, 1977
February 26, 2002
-- ESPN Research