Thursday February 21st, 2008

This just in: There will be eight teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs this season.

That is unfortunate. I feel for you. I feel for me. I feel for all of us. Much better that we should have a postseason breakdown of, say, 12 Western teams and four from the East. But that's not going to happen. You would think that a league that allows a retired guy to get traded could come up with some special clause to let the 16 best teams play in April and May. But it's not going to happen.

Therefore, with a heavy sigh of resignation and a stiff upper lip, I am going to delve not only into the Eastern Conference but also directly into its mediocre middle, right down there where the Washingtons and the Indianas and the Atlantas and the Miamis -- all right, not the Miamis -- reside. Let others talk of Kidd, Shaq and Pau; I'm getting down with folks like Zaza Pachulia, Andre Owens and, well, Keith Van Horn, who was sitting in his rocking chair when the Mavericks said, "Son, here's an offer you can't refuse."

Herewith, a look at the playoff picture in the East.

Not much more needs to be said. They're the only two Eastern teams that have been in every conversation this season. I list them in that order for this reason: My guess is that the Pistons will pass the Celtics and finish with the best record in the East.

Yes, Detroit has sleepwalked through two bad post-All-Star games, a home loss to Orlando and a road loss to Milwaukee. But the Pistons have a light road schedule starting in March and don't have a game in April in which they won't be favored with the possible exception of the regular-season finale in Cleveland on April 16. And even if the Celtics survive their current five-game Western trip (they've already lost their first two), they must play at all three Texas teams in mid-March.

Well, the waters certainly got muddied by Thursday's 11-player, three-team, you-take-some-of-my-refuse-and-we'll-take-some-of-yours deal. The Cavs received Wally Szczerbiak and Ben Wallace and parted with Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. Szczerbiak and Wallace are capable of some big-time pouting, but I have to assume that if they want a ticket to the Finals, they had better understand that this is LeBron James' show.

You want to bet against LeBron? In this conference? During a season in which, for the first time, he is being mentioned along with Kobe Bryant as The Best Player in the Game? I don't. Like the Pistons, the Cavs have some tough road swings out of the way, and if James stays healthy there's no reason to believe he won't do the same thing in the conference finals that he did last year. (Which was to beat the Pistons almost by himself.)

They're not all that different of a team than they were last year when they got dumped by the Nets in the first round. Chris Bosh, Jose Calderon T.J. Ford, Andrea Bargnani and Anthony Parker were all around. And it's not like the new additions (Jamario Moon, Carlos Delfino and Jason Kapono) are franchise players.

But this is a solid team with a lot of the requisite playoff parts -- a superstar (Bosh), three-point shooting (Kapono, Delfino, Calderon and Bargnani), and sound ball management (Calderon, whose assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.51 to 1 leads the league). All season long, the Raptors have been one step away, one solid winning streak, from busting loose. Perhaps it will happen in the postseason. Perhaps not.

Well, I do like them. Great bunch of guys, positive chemistry, solid hand on the wheel in Stan Van Gundy, the Krypton Kid at center. All that, and a 34-22 record and a penchant for playing well on the road (20-11), including Tuesday's sterling 103-85 win at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

But it remains to be seen if their point-guard play will stand up to postseason pressure and how Howard will respond in a playoff setting when defensive strategies that vary from game to game somewhat neutralize his athleticism.

All right, I'm going with Washington, Philadelphia and Indiana in that order. The Wizards might have long-term problems reintegrating Gilbert Arenas when he returns from knee surgery, but getting back two elite players in Agent Zero and Caron Butler (hip) will no doubt invigorate this team. The 76ers aren't much, but at least they know who they are -- a scrappy bunch that has to play hard every night. The Pacers have the chance (I said chance) to be better than the sum of their parts, and there are a lot of parts: Indiana gets 15 or more minutes per game out of 10 different players.

As for the others with a chance ...

I see the Nets struggling without Kidd. I see the Hawks struggling to integrate Mike Bibby, and they were already sinking. I don't see new additions Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes as turnaround players for the Bulls in what has thus far been a lost season.

As for the others in the East, I don't see them at all.

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