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Celtics Still Team to Beat in East

April 24, 1988|IAN LOVE | United Press International

For those who claim the regular season matters little in the NBA, think again.

The contention of the uninformed is that the 82 games played between November and April have no bearing on the playoffs, when the "real" season begins. That simply is not true this year in the Eastern Conference. The race for the eight postseason berths is one of the tightest in recent memory.

Entering the final four days of the season, none of the four matchups for the opening round of the East playoffs had been decided. In fact, entering the final week, the last three playoff spots were still to be filled. Cleveland clinched one of them on April 18, leaving New York, Washington and Indiana to battle for the two remaining openings.

And it wasn't until April 19 that the Boston Celtics secured the best record in the conference and the homecourt advantage throughout their Eastern Conference playoff run. The Celtics clinched the best record after beating the Detroit Pistons at Boston Garden. The Pistons had already won the Central Division and thus were assured of at least the second slot in the conference.

And as for the rest, much was to be decided by the last weekend of the season April 23-24. Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cleveland were all in the playoffs, but the order of finish had yet to be determined. Entering play April 21, the Bulls had an extra game to play and held a half-game lead over Atlanta for second in the Central and third overall in the conference.

The importance of that race, assuming the seedings hold to form, is avoiding Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Chicago, which took a six-game winning streak into an April 21 game at Boston, has been eliminated by the Celtics in the opening round the last two years.

The Bulls qualified for the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the conference, but their resolve was tested by two meetings with the Celtics in their final three games. The emergence of point guard Sam Vincent has expanded the Bulls' offense to more than scoring leader Michael Jordan, making Chicago an unwelcome postseason opponent.

"Going into the playoffs we are playing very well," said Bulls center Dave Corzine.

Boston's gaining the homecourt advantage was important because the tendency for teams to lose on the road has been more pronounced than usual this year. On April 21, the Celtics were the only team with a record above .500 away from home and that was just 21-18. Playing the extra game in comfortable surroundings may well decide the East representative.

Detroit, which took the Celtics to seven games in the conference finals last year, has yet to win in its last 22 trips to Boston's building on Causeway Street. The Celtics, on the other hand, lost three playoff games last year and three regular-season games this season at the Silverdome.

"Every team seems to play better at home; that's the way the whole conference is going now," said Boston's Kevin McHale. "We've got to get out of the mood we've been in on the road. If you're not good enough to beat someone on the road, you don't deserve to be world champs. We'll have to beat someone on the road along the way."

The teams down at the bottom, whoever they turn out to be, could play havoc with long-range playoff plans. Among the intangibles to consider, again assuming playoff pairings hold true to form, is how much energy the front-runners have to expend to reach the conference final.

The Celtics will open against the eighth playoff team and the Pistons against the seventh. There is a world of difference between playing the first best-of-five series against the Bullets and the Knicks or Pacers.

New York and Indiana are young, aggressive teams. They harass opponents for 48 minutes, pressing and running the court constantly. Washington is stocked with veterans and likes to play a half-court game. There are few easy victories in the playoffs, but some teams will tax you less than others.

"The Eastern Conference is vastly improved this year," said Detroit center Bill Laimbeer. "One through eight in the playoffs will be a lot stronger. You can look at Washington beating Boston (April 17) and how New York and Chicago have played so evenly. It will be a lot tougher."

While Chicago looks impressive and with Atlanta in a downward slide that left them fighting for second in the division instead of first, don't be surprised if the the conference final turns out to be another meeting between Boston and Detroit.

The Pistons' Isiah Thomas offers a caveat to this conjecture.

"I don't think we can assume we'll be in the Eastern Conference finals--every team is stronger," said Thomas after the Pistons lost to the Celtics April 19. "It's very premature to assume that the Detroit Pistons baskeball team will make it to the Eastern final. The Boston Celtics have proven they belong, that they'll be in the Eastern finals. The Detroit Pistons have to prove they will."

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