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NBA PLAYOFFS PREVIEW / EASTERN CONFERENCE

It's Still the Little Conference That Couldn't

April 18, 2003|Mark Heisler

No, really, the East still gets to hold playoffs?

The good news for the Little Conference is that any of its teams can win it. The bad news is that one of them has to.

East teams have lost the last four NBA Finals while winning only four of 20 games, and the conference is actually looking even weaker.

The East started to go south after the lockout-shortened 1999 season, but three of its teams went 33-17, which projected to a 54-win pace. In 2000, the Pacers won 56 before succumbing to the Lakers. In 2001 the 76ers won 56, and last season the Nets won 54.

This season, the Pistons led the East with 50, the fewest for the leader of either conference in 19 seasons.

Oh, and the Pistons' most important player, Ben Wallace, missed the last five games with a knee injury. He'll play, but if he's limited his team will be too, and it was already limited enough.

The favorite is, uh, you pick one. None of the top teams finished strong. The Nets were 16-18 after the All-Star break, 3-5 in April. The 76ers went on a 20-4 run after the break but are 4-5 in April. The Pacers were 34-15 going into the break, 9-16 coming out of it, and 5-4 in April.

Since anyone can beat anyone else, this should actually be fun, assuming you live in one of the participating cities.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

ORLANDO (42-40, 8th) vs.DETROIT (50-32, 1st)

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Sunday...at Detroit, 9:30 a.m.

Wednesday... at Detroit, 5 p.m.

April 25...at Orlando, 5 p.m.

April 27...at Orlando, 2:30 p.m.

April 30...at Detroit, TBA*

May 2...at Orlando, TBA*

May 4...at Detroit, TBA*

*--* Season series: Pistons, 2-1 Series preview: Lacking stars and size but brimming over with grit, the Pistons would be East favorites if Ben Wallace hadn't been hurt. But they didn't exactly tower over their opposition and will be even less imposing if Wallace isn't a force. Nevertheless, the Pistons are a smart, deep, hard-nosed team. The Magic has Tracy McGrady, giving it a chance to take a game or two off anyone, but hasn't been the same since newly-acquired Drew Gooden, its only volume rebounder, hurt his toe Key injuries: DET: Wallace (knee) ORL: Grant Hill (ankle) Coaches' postseason record: DET: Rick Carlisle (4-6) ORL: Doc Rivers (2-6) MATCHUPS ORL DET Points per game 98.5 (6) 91.4 (26) Opp. points per game 98.4 (24) 87.1 (1) Shooting % 436 (22) 430 (24) Opp. shooting % 455 (25) 438 (14) Total rebounds 40.8 (23) 40.5 (25) Opp. total rebounds 43.5 (22) 41.3 (8) Three-point % 357 (9) 358 (8) Opp. Three-point % 334 (5) 344 (12) Free-throw % 777 (6) 771 (9) Assists 20.4 (21) 19.7 (23) Steals 8.5 (9) 6.8 (28) Blocks 3.7 (26) 5.7 (8) Record scoring 100+ 26-14 18-0 Record Opp. score 100+ 7-28 5-8 Prediction: I'd love to call the upset, since only one No. 8 team has ever done it, but the Pistons are tough enough to beat these guys. Pistons, 4-1

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*--* MILWAUKEE (42-40, 7th) vs. NEW JERSEY (49-33, 2nd)

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Saturday...at New Jersey, 9:30 a.m.

Tuesday...at New Jersey, 4 p.m.

Thursday...at Milwaukee, 5:30 p.m.

April 26...at Milwaukee, 2 p.m.

April 29...at New Jersey, TBA*

May 1...at Milwaukee, TBA*

May 3...at New Jersey, TBA*

*--* Season series: Tied, 2-2 Series preview: Despite vaunted acquisitions Dikembe Mutombo and Rodney Rogers turning into duds, the Nets stayed up there as Jason Kidd took his game up another notch and Kenyon Martin averaged 19 points after the All-Star break. For the Bucks, nothing good has happened since Glenn Robinson missed a baseline jumper that would have won the East finals in 2001. Big Dog and Ray Allen are gone, Gary Payton is vowing to leave, Sen. Herb Kohl is selling the team and at $7 million a year, once-respected Coach George Karl is looking a tad pricey. This should be a fun, shootout-type series but the Nets do that stuff almost as well as the Bucks and everything else a lot better Key injuries: NJ: none; MIL: Anthony Mason (thigh) Coaches' postseason record: NJ: Byron Scott (11-9); MIL: George Karl (57-63) MATCHUPS MIL NJ Points per game 99.5 (5) 95.4 (14) Opp. points per game 99.3 (25) 90.1 (2) Shooting % 457 (6) 441 (16) Opp. shooting % 458 (27) 427 (3) Total rebounds 39.5 (28) 42.9 (10) Opp. total rebounds 43.4 (21) 41.4 (9) Three-point % 383 (2) 332 (22) Opp. Three-point % 375 (27) 359 (21) Free-throw % 776 (7) 757 (15) Assists 22.2 (10) 23.0 (7) Steals 7.6 (18) 8.7 (5) Blocks 4.2 (22) 4.6 (21) Record scoring 100+ 23-12 24-5 Record opp. score 100+ 9-28 3-13 Prediction: Nets, 4-2

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*--* BOSTON (44-38, 6th) vs. INDIANA (48-34, 3rd)

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Saturday...at Indiana, noon

Monday...at Indiana, 5:30 p.m.

April 24...at Boston, 3 p.m.

April 27...at Boston, 9 a.m.

April 29...at Indiana, TBA*

May 1...at Boston, TBA*

May 3...at Indiana, TBA*

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