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Eastern Conference Outlook

Eastern Conference Outlook

Eastern Conference Outlook
By Chris David

The Eastern Conference playoffs are all set, with eight teams fighting for a chance to represent the group in the upcoming NBA Finals.

According to the oddsmakers at, it’s a two-horse race in the East between Boston and Detroit.

The Celtics are listed as heavy 2/7 favorites (Bet $100 to win $28) to capture the conference, while the Pistons are a 2/1 (Bet $100 to win $200) choice.

For those of you looking for upsets, this writer puts a lot of stock into teams that have winning records on the road and those that defend. Only three teams in the East own winning records away from home, with Boston (31-10), Detroit (24-16) and Orlando (24-16) producing positive results. In case you’re wondering, five of the eight playoff-bound teams in the West have a winning mark on the road.

Defensively, the Pistons (90.3) and Celtics (90.1) are ranked first and second in points per game allowed in the NBA. The numbers are a bit skewed, considering the firepower in the East is limited. All eight playoff teams in the East are holding teams under 100 PPG.

Here’s a quick look at the first round matchups.

**No. 1 Boston vs. No. 8 Atlanta**

The Celtics will most likely be the heaviest favorites in the first round against the Hawks and deservingly so. Boston has won all three meetings against Atlanta during the regular season by double digits. The Celtics were 2-1 against the spread and the ‘under’ cashed in all three battles. Atlanta wasn’t able to crack the 90-point barrier in any of the three battles.

**No. 2 Detroit vs. No. 7 Philadelphia**

This matchup is a nice test for the second-seeded Pistons against a scrappy 76ers team that has nothing to lose. Philadelphia and Detroit split the regular season series 2-2, with each club stealing a victory on the road. The Sixers covered three of the four meetings and the defensive mindset was evident, watching the ‘under’ go 3-1. Since the NBA pushed the first round to a best-of-seven format in 2003, the Pistons have won all five of their opening playoff battles. Four of the five series for Detroit were decided in five games or less.

**No. 3 Orlando vs. No. 6 Toronto**

Orlando captured two of the three regular season meetings against Toronto this year, both SU and ATS. The Magic posted 100-plus points in all three games, helping the ‘over’ go 2-1. Orlando All-Star Dwight Howard averaged 24.3 PPG in the head-to-head battle, and Toronto’s Chris Bosh dominated the frontcourt with 33 PPG in just two games.

The Magic will be favored, but remember that the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. The club has dropped six straight first round battles, including a four-game sweep to Detroit last year. Toronto hasn’t been that much better, evidenced by last year’s loss to New Jersey (4-2) in six games.

**No. 4 Cleveland vs. No. 5 Washington**

Will the third time be a charm for Washington? Head coach Eddie Jordan and the Wizards better hope so, considering the Cavaliers have sent them packing in the last two years of the playoffs. This postseason, Washington will be healthy and will be looking to avenge a 4-0 sweep to Cleveland. Three of the four games in that best-of-seven series were decided by seven points or less and that’s pretty amazing for the Wizards, since they were without Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas.

During the regular season, the Cavs and Wizards split the four battles with the home team winning all four. The ‘over’ went 3-1, with the line on the total ranging between 188 and 192.

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Eastern Conference playoff teams

This week, I’ll take a good look at the seven Eastern Conference teams that have clinched playoff spots as of Monday morning.

The Boston Celtics enter the playoffs with the league’s best record, earning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. At 50-28-2 ATS through the weekend, the Celtics have been the single best pointspread team in the NBA as well, just edging New Orleans and Orlando. Doc Rivers’ squad is No. 1 in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage allowed, No. 2 in points allowed and No. 3 in rebounding margin.

Boston just handled their likely first-round opponent rather easily, beating the Hawks by 10 in Atlanta. While Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen get the headlines for the Celtics, watch out for key role players like Sam Cassell during the Celtics playoff run. The 38 year-old point guard, who earned his first championship ring with the Houston Rockets back in 1994, carried the Celtics to the win at Atlanta, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter. Paul Pierce said, “Sam’s performance was vintage Sam. He’s been playing really well as of late … and he’s going to be big for us in the postseason.”

The Detroit Pistons are locked in to the No. 2 seed in the East, as they have been for weeks. Pistons head coach Flip Saunders has taken special care to rest his starters as much as possible down the stretch, allowing his young bench to develop. Against the playoff-bound Raptors over the weekend, Detroit’s bench continued to be the difference. The Pistons finished the game with their “Zoo Squad” of Jarvis Hayes, Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell, Arron Afflalo and Rodney Stuckey.

Starter Chauncey Billups said of the Pistons reserves: “They would definitely be a playoff team. Look what they are doing with 20-something minutes a night, and imagine what they could do with 34 or 35. They’ve beaten playoff teams the last two games – teams that are playing hard and have their starters in late.”

Toronto’s Chris Bosh agreed: “There aren’t many teams that can bring in a group like that. Those five guys could start for a lot of teams in this league.”

The Orlando Magic have the No. 3 seed sewn up after beating Chicago to earn their 50th win of the season over the weekend. Most Improved Player candidate Hedo Turkoglu said, “It’s important. I’m happy to be a part of it. This is my fourth year here. We’ve had ups and downs. This is special.”

The Bulls played a bit of the old “Hack-a Shaq” strategy against Dwight Howard, but Howard hit 13 of his 17 free throw attempts. That being said, Howard can expect to see that same strategy in the playoffs. Considering that the Magic have made at least five 3-pointers in all 80 games this season, if Howard can continue to dominate the paint and hit his free throws, Orlando will not be an easy “out” in the playoffs.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are only 13-12 SU since their blockbuster trade in February. They’ve been out of step for weeks and the losses, injuries and inconsistency have led to some frustration. This past weekend, the Cavs barely got past the lowly Heat, needing a fourth-quarter rally to pull away. But even with the numerous injuries (Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace are the latest to go down), the Cavs have continued to bring defensive intensity to the table on a nightly basis. LeBron James, following the win over the Heat said, “Defensively we were very good. Offensively we couldn’t make shots, but I can live with it if we play defense like that.”

The Cavs’ first-round playoff opponent will be the Washington Wizards for the third consecutive season. Cleveland swept the Wizards last year and beat them in six games in 2006. But Washington is talking trash this time around. First, Deshawn Stevenson called LeBron “overrated”. Then Gilbert Arenas blogged that “everybody wants Cleveland in that first round.” Arenas has played extremely well for the Wizards off the bench since returning from his knee injury, carrying his team to victory this past weekend with a 20-point effort against the 76ers. Stevenson said of Arenas, “He’s getting his mojo back. He’s pushing the ball up fast, doing his moves like he usually does. I was just glad to see him out there looking like the old Gilbert.”

The Toronto Raptors don’t look like a team capable of winning a playoff game, let alone a playoff series. The Raptors have only two wins over teams with a winning record since the beginning of February, feasting on the weak and unable to beat the strong. As of this writing, the 40-40 Raptors have fallen into a tie with Philly for the sixth seed in the East, although they own the tiebreaker against the 76ers. Center Rasho Nesterovich said, “We’ve been struggling for a while now – that’s no secret. Whoever we play in the first round, we’re going to have to change our mentality if we want to have a chance.”

The Philadelphia 76ers went through a tremendous stretch of basketball in February and March, reeling off 19 victories in 24 games, including wins over the Celtics, Spurs, Pistons, Magic, Nuggets, Suns and Mavs. But as the pressure has increased down the stretch, the Sixers’ results have not kept pace. These two quotes tell us that Philly is not exactly a confident, experienced team heading into the postseason.

Andre Igoudala: “We have a lot of young guys, so that could be a problem. I hope we just go out there and continue to play, just realizing that we don’t have nothing to lose anyway. We’re not expected to be here, so we’ve just got to continue to play hard.”

Willie Green, talking about the loss to Washington over the weekend: “It just came down to the fourth quarter. And that’s where I think their experience edged us out a little bit.”

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Cavs' Pavlovic out with ankle sprain, will miss first round

Cavaliers swingman Sasha Pavlovic will miss at least the first round of the playoffs with a sprained ankle.

Pavlovic injured his left ankle in the third quarter of Monday night's 91-90 win at Philadelphia. He's expected to miss two to three weeks.

It's been a lost year for Pavlovic, who started the season with a contract holdout, missed 23 games with a sprained left foot, was benched recently and had just returned to the starting lineup in place of the struggling Wally Szczerbiak.

Pavlovic averaged 7.4 points and shot 36 percent from the floor in 51 games, including 45 starts.

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