|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 11 April 2008 18:06|
The Detroit Pistons aren't far behind, which means the Eastern Conference has at least two teams capable of beating whoever survives the playoffs out West.
That should make for a much better NBA finals than last year, when the East had little hope of competing in the championship round.
The San Antonio Spurs swept finals newcomer Cleveland in four games, but it would have been hard to imagine any East team doing much better. That shouldn't be the case this June, especially if the East sends Boston, which proved it can stand up to the West by going 25-5 against the conference this season.
``Now you know the Celtics can,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said.
The Pistons went into the weekend with 55 wins, tied with West leader New Orleans. Detroit had the league's second-best record most of the season, but has slipped a bit toward the finish while resting some of its starters.
Detroit is 21-8 against the West, with a game remaining against Minnesota.
The Pistons' 53-29 record last year won the East, but would have been good for only fourth out West. Cleveland was the East's only other 50-win team, but its 50-32 mark would have placed the Cavaliers sixth in the West - where their matchup with the Spurs would have come in the first round.
Though the West has been better for years, East teams have won two of the last four championships. Boston or Detroit would give them a chance to finish on top against this year.
``The West always gets a great reputation for being best in the league, but Miami won the championship,'' said TNT analyst Kenny Smith, adding that Detroit won two years earlier. ``The Western Conference I think is always the best from 1 to 8, but when you take the best two teams in terms of each conference, they're particularly not that much better.''
50-WIN LOTTERY TEAM?: With the prospect that his team could win 50 games and still end up in the draft lottery, Golden State coach Don Nelson believes it's time the NBA got rid of conference ties and took the best 16 teams for the playoffs.
The Warriors (47-32) head into the weekend one game behind the Denver Nuggets in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with three games remaining.
Golden State could win its final three games to reach the 50-win mark and still miss the playoffs if Denver wins two of its final three games. No matter what happens between now and Wednesday, the ninth-place team will be the winningest ever to miss the playoffs in the 16-team format. The Houston Rockets held the previous mark with 45 wins in 2000-01.
``There are two things that are not fair,'' Nelson said. ``For somebody to win as many games as it's going to be and miss the playoffs that's not fair. The other thing that's not fair is to win that many games and to be in the lottery. There's two ways to look at it. Neither one is fair. That team shouldn't be a lottery team. That team should be, not an elite team, but one of the good teams.''
Golden State would have a less than 1 percent chance at winning the lottery, but could end up picking ahead of some of the NBA's worst teams.
Nelson's good friend and competitor for eighth place, Nuggets coach George Karl, agrees with his former mentor. The Warriors would be in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, where at least one team will make the playoffs with a losing record.
``I sure would like it now,'' Karl said of a different format. ``I think the divisions and conference circumstance is for the old people, the old-school type of league. I think everyone was concerned about travel, but now with our private chartering of jets, it might be something to consider.''
Nuggets guard Allen Iverson said whichever team misses out on the playoffs should not be considered a failure.
``Regardless of what happens, those guys if they don't get in should hold their heads up high,'' Iverson said. ``Not too many teams win 47, 48, 50 games.''
UP AHEAD OUT WEST: Something was finally settled in the Western Conference in the last week, when Utah clinched its second straight Northwest Division title by winning at New Orleans on Tuesday.
Just about everything else, including two division crowns, one playoff spot, and seeding for all eight positions, was still up for grabs as the NBA headed into the final weekend of the deepest playoff race it has ever seen.
``This year what's going on in the West is like a story onto itself,'' commissioner David Stern said. ``Never been this good.''
Some of the big remaining games include:
-San Antonio at the Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers had hoped to have Andrew Bynum back on the floor in this one to play against Tim Duncan. Los Angeles, which hosted New Orleans on Friday, could finish with the best record in conference games, a potentially important tiebreaker.
-Houston at Denver. The Rockets would love to get Tracy McGrady more rest for his shoulder before the playoffs, but have to keep winning for a shot at home-court advantage in the first round.
-Houston at Utah. The Jazz beat the Rockets in seven games last year in the first round, and a rematch remains a good possibility. Houston desperately wants to finish with a better record in case that happens, because Utah has the league's best home record.
-Golden State at Phoenix. They both love to run, but Phoenix no longer needs to since acquiring Shaquille O'Neal to play up front with Amare Stoudemire. That's part of the reason the Suns are in the playoffs and the Warriors needed help.
-Los Angeles Clippers at New Orleans. The New Orleans Arena could be packed one more time and the Western Conference champs could be playing - and who could have predicted either months ago?
-Utah at San Antonio. The Jazz overwhelmed the Spurs, 90-64 in Salt Lake City on April 4. San Antonio could be going into this game playing for a shot at the Southwest Division title, or trying to avoid opening the postseason on the road.
-New Orleans at Dallas. In two victories over Jason Kidd this season, Chris Paul has averaged 29 points, 9.0 assists and 6.0 steals. And the two All-Star point guards could go into the season finale with a chance to meet again in the first round.
REBOUNDING ISN'T MAGIC: To reach the NBA finals, the Orlando Magic would likely have to survive matchups with Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, two All-Star power forwards.
Stan Van Gundy isn't looking that far ahead, because he knows any matchup at that position could be tough for his team.
With the Magic going without a natural power forward, he worries that rebounding could be a concern long before potential series against Boston or Detroit. The third-seeded Magic still don't know if they'll get Washington, Philadelphia or Toronto, but all could present a problem.
``We've got to get by a first-round matchup first,'' Van Gundy said. ``Antawn Jamison's a great rebounder, you've got to keep (Chris) Bosh off the boards if you get Toronto, and Philadelphia's just a real athletic and aggressive team, so we're going to face that problem in the first round. But again, we've shown several times this year that we're very capable of rebounding the ball.''
The stats confirm that. The Magic are in the league's top five in defensive rebounding, though in the middle of the pack in total rebounding and rebound margin. Much of their success comes from All-Star center Dwight Howard, the NBA's leading rebounder.
But with Orlando using Rashard Lewis as an undersized power forward, it remains vulnerable against teams with natural 4-men. And the Magic have ruled out a return by the injured Tony Battie, who could have helped in that area.
The Magic overcame any matchup problem well enough to win the Southeast Division, and Van Gundy hopes they continue to do it starting next weekend.
``We have not been a bad defensive rebounding team, but there are nights where we just, I think, No. 1 totally rely on Dwight and No. 2 don't bring a great rebounding focus, and that really hurts us,'' Van Gundy said. ``Rebounding's not easy for us, it requires a great, great focus on it on all of our guys' part.''
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow in Oakland, Calif., contributed to this report.