Playoff puzzle in the East: seven teams for five spots

ON THE NBA

Pro Basketball

March 03, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

With roughly six weeks to go in the regular season, the Eastern Conference playoff race has more or less smoothed out, with 10 teams having a realistic shot at the eight postseason positions and the hard-charging Miami Heat just beyond the horizon.

Assuming that surprising New Jersey, which has opened the biggest lead of all the division leaders, and Milwaukee and Detroit, perched atop the Central Division, are home free, the race becomes a giant game of musical chairs, with seven suitors trying to squeeze into five seats before the music stops in mid-April.

Here's a look at how the dance card might be filled, in order of standings after Friday's games:

Boston: The Celtics looked good to challenge the Nets a few weeks ago, but their inconsistency (beating the Lakers and Trail Blazers on the road, losing at home to the Heat and Rockets) should cost them a shot to win the Atlantic.

But the Celtics have finished their West Coast travel and play 14 of their last 24 at the FleetCenter, with a home date against the Lakers and road games with the Nets, Spurs and Timberwolves looming. Recent acquisition Tony Delk has moved into the starting lineup, but Boston will go as far as Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker shoot it.

Orlando: The Magic is surging at a good time, winning 10 of 16 since the All-Star break. Today's game in Washington gets Orlando near the end of the franchise's record-long road trip (seven games in 11 days). The Magic will play 14 of its last 21 at home. Orlando, which has all its regulars healthy, has too much ground to make up to catch New Jersey but with a couple breaks could slip into a No. 3 seed.

Philadelphia: The defending conference champion has issues with chemistry and injuries. Allen Iverson, who suffered a thigh bruise last week, is pointing fingers at teammates and screamed at Dikembe Mutombo, while Aaron McKie and Derrick McKey, both key contributors, are hobbling with ankle and leg injuries.

The 76ers, who like the Celtics have completed their West Coast travel, may make the playoffs by default, but their stay won't be long if coach Larry Brown can't get his players healthy and keep them from bickering.

Charlotte: If anyone still cares there, the Hornets may be poised to make an upward move, getting scorer Jamal Mashburn back from a nearly season-long stay on the injured list with an abdominal strain. Mashburn averaged 21 points and nearly five assists in his first six games back.

Coach Paul Silas and center Elden Campbell have clashed, but Charlotte's mix of solid veterans and promising young players bodes well down the stretch. The Hornets also have a West Coast trip coming, but, considering they play better on the road than at home, getting out of the Queen City may not be such a bad thing.

Toronto: The Raptors have picked a rotten time to go into a free fall, dropping 10 straight. Seven occurred when Vince Carter was out with a quadriceps strain, but he has appeared to drag the leg about since returning and says he still feels pain.

In addition, Jerome Williams, a solid, on-the-ball defender, is nursing an ankle sprain. After today's home game with Philadelphia, the Raptors hit the road for seven of their next eight, with stops at Orlando, Dallas, New Jersey and Minnesota in the mix and the lone home game against Sacramento. In other words, Toronto's in big trouble.

Indiana: With Ron Artest nursing a sprained left ankle and Ron Mercer on the injured list with a knee sprain, the Pacers haven't reaped the full benefits of their trade-deadline deal with Chicago. But when the two former Bulls are healthy, Indiana will be as athletic a team as there is in the East. Still, the Pacers' occasionally listless play (they've lost double-digit leads seven times) may put them on the playoff bubble and coach Isiah Thomas' job up for grabs.

Washington: The Wizards are in Raptor-like trouble with poor play since the All-Star break and Michael Jordan out with a knee injury. Coach Doug Collins is hoping to make up for the absence of Jordan, the team's best low-post threat, by running more, which means young players such as Richard Hamilton, Courtney Alexander, Etan Thomas and first-round pick Kwame Brown will have to step up.

If Washington has any luck, Jordan might return during a West Coast trip that starts March 12 and covers six cities in nine days. Afterward, the Wizards still must deal with the Lakers and Mavericks at MCI Center. The first playoff berth in five years might go down to the wire.

Quiz

Chucky Brown confirmed his status as the NBA's ultimate happy wanderer last week, signing a 10-day contract with Sacramento, making him the player who has appeared with the most teams (12). Who is next?

Good riddance

Real basketball fans won't miss NBC when its contract with the league runs out after this season, mainly because the network never seemed to care about them.

Example: With the Wizards on the skids and Jordan out, the network dropped the team on short notice, pulling out of today's home game with Orlando - moved at network insistence from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. - and next Sunday's game against Boston.

Because the change came so late, the Wizards didn't have enough time to move today's game back to its original start time, so anyone with tickets to the Wizards contest and Maryland's last game at Cole Field House will have to decide between them.

And because of a network rule that prohibits any other game from being shown while the NBC game is on the air, today's game will be the only Wizards contest all season not televised.

Quiz answer

Tony Massenburg, currently with the Memphis Grizzlies and a former Maryland standout, has been on 10 different NBA rosters.

Quote

"I'm getting old." - Jordan after last Sunday's loss to Miami.

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