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John Schuhmann

Inside the Eastern Conference

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Pistons fall, Bulls surge, playoff picture a fuzzy mess

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Mar 27 2009 11:44AM

In the course of about three hours on Thursday night, each of four potential first-round playoff matchups in the Eastern Conference all changed. With the Bulls' win over the Heat, and the Pistons' loss to the Lakers, Chicago moved past Detroit for seventh place and Miami fell below Philadelphia into sixth.

The Sixers are now percentage points and one game in the loss column ahead of the Heat, in line to face the Hawks in the first round. The Bulls are now percentage points and one game in the win column ahead of the Pistons, in line to face the Magic.

Orlando took its own step forward with Wednesday's win over the Celtics, handing Boston loss No. 19 to take control of the second spot. Common sentiment around the league is that the Magic want to avoid Detroit, because the Pistons have eliminated them each of the last two years in the playoffs (in a total of just nine games) and swept the three-game season series this year.

"I'm not worried about who our first matchup is," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told the New York media on Monday, "because I know it's not going to be an easy one. It's more than likely going to be Miami, Detroit or Philadelphia.

"They all present different challenges. I would rather not have to deal with Philly's speed and quickness up and down the court. I would rather not deal with Dwyane [Wade] in the playoffs. And I'd rather not deal with Detroit's size and experience. So, one of them I'm going to have to deal with. They all create problems. There's nothing where you go, 'God, I hope we get this team.'"

Add the Bulls, their offensive rebounding and their backcourt depth to the conversation. The Magic went 3-1 against Chicago this season, but gave up 120 points in a loss at the United Center a month ago.

Remaining Games
Team Home Away Opp. Win.%
Philadelphia 6 6 .541
Miami 5 5 .527
Chicago 6 3 .425
Detroit 4 7 .473
Charlotte 4 7 .540

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Bulls were part of the race for eighth. Now, with plenty of momentum and a very favorable remaining schedule, the seventh spot is theirs to lose. Chicago has won six of its last seven games and nine of 10 at home. Six of the Bulls' remaining nine games are at the United Center and eight of those are against teams below .500. The only winning team they have left to play is Philadelphia, at home on April 9.

The Bulls have clearly improved with the trading-deadline additions of Brad Miller and John Salmons. They're 11-8 with Miller and Salmons in uniform. Without the two former Kings, the Bulls had an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 107.8. With them, their rating is 112.5. And over the last seven games, it's 118.6.

The Pistons, with Allen Iverson, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace all on the shelf, have lost six of their last seven. And at this point, if Charlotte, Milwaukee and New Jersey still have any hopes for making the playoffs, they've probably got their eyes set on Detroit rather than Chicago. Hamilton and Wallace could both be back for Saturday's game in Washington and their schedule isn't terrible, but this is a team that's 12-25 since Jan. 10.

Having lost five of their last seven games and 11 of their last 14 on the road, Wade and the Heat look as if they might be running out of gas. Wade recovered from an off night in Indiana on Wednesday to put up 31 points in Chicago the next night, but his teammates didn't provide much help and he was matched almost point-for-point by Salmons. It was another example of how Miami has fallen off defensively since trading Shawn Marion.

Because of Wade, Miami is still the most dangerous of teams 5-8 in the East. But unless the Heat turn things around quickly, they may be limping into the postseason.

"I don't know what the situation is right now," Udonis Haslem said after Thursday's game, "but we've got to figure it out."

KG still being held back

Kevin Garnett is back, but he's not really back. Garnett has played four games since returning from his strained right knee, but not for more than the 17:51 he logged against the Clippers on Monday.

In Wednesday's critical loss in Orlando, KG played just eight minutes at the beginning of each half. Doc Rivers resisted the temptation to put his star in down the stretch, as a game that could determine home court in the conference semifinals went down to the wire.

Rivers plans on keeping Garnett in the 16-minute range Friday in Atlanta. Next week, Garnett will likely return for a shorter stint at the end of each half.

"I'm with whatever the program calls for," Garnett, who is shooting 65 percent since his return, said. "At this point it's about getting better and getting healthier. We're still a work in progress."

A lesson not learned

You would think that Al Harrington had learned his lesson.

On Feb. 11 in Los Angeles, the Knicks' forward was called for a technical foul when he finished off a dunk by pulling himself up on the rim and slapping the backboard. The dunk put the Knicks up three with 25 seconds to go in the game, but the ensuing Steve Novak free throw put the Clippers in the position to need only a two to tie it. And that's what they did before going on to beat the Knicks, 128-124, in overtime.

This Wednesday, history repeated itself at Madison Square Garden. Again, a Harrington dunk gave the Knicks a three-point lead over the Clippers with 27 seconds to go. Again, Harrington pulled himself up on the rim. And again, he was called for a technical foul.

The dunk came in traffic and Harrington didn't slap the backboard this time. But while players are allowed to hang on the rim to avoid landing on another player, the officials correctly deemed the action of Harrington pulling his legs up in the air to be excessive.

Once more, the Clippers hit the free throw before tying the game on the next possession and winning in overtime.

"If it happened to any other team, I'd be laughing," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But it's the Knicks, so I want to cry."

What they're saying

"We should see you in a couple of weeks."
-- Boston's Rajon Rondo to an Orlando locker room attendant, predicting a postseason matchup after the Celtics lost to the Magic on Wednesday.

"It's almost like he's holding this team hostage because he cannot accept the responsibility of coming off the bench. That's sad because he is one of the truly great little men we've ever had in the game."
-- TNT's Reggie Miller on Allen Iverson, who has missed the last 15 games with a sore back, even though tests reveal no structural damage.

"I can see if they were intellectual Web sites, but the kids are being blinded by MySpace and Facebook."
-- Magic point guard Rafer Alston on distractions like the Internet keeping today's youth from playing enough basketball and lowering the quality of high school ball in New York City.

Behind the numbers

9 -- Consecutive losses for the Lakers at the Palace of Auburn Hills, including three in the 2004 NBA Finals, before Thursday's 92-77 win over the Pistons. The last time the Lakers had won at the Palace was Jan. 8, 2002. Rick Fox and Samaki Walker were the starting forwards for L.A. in that game and current Pistons coach Michael Curry came off the bench to score six points for Detroit.

96 -- Rebounds by Jermaine O'Neal since being traded to the Heat, an average of just 5.1 per game. Teammates Udonis Haslem (167), Dwyane Wade (101), Jamario Moon (99) and Michael Beasley (96) all have more or as many rebounds as O'Neal during that time.

100 -- Blocked shots by Wade this season, making him the first player in NBA history 6-foot-4 or shorter to block 100 shots. Wade is also the only player with at least 100 blocks and 100 steals (he has 159 takeaways) this season. Other players with at least 75 of each are LeBron James (88 blocks, 126 steals), Nenê (89, 83), Josh Smith (94, 85) and Tyrus Thomas (124, 80).

Layups

The Hawks' Marvin Williams has been running on an anti-gravity treadmill without pain and still hopes to return from his lower back injury in time for the playoffs ... Atlanta clinched its second straight postseason berth on Wednesday, despite an eight-game home winning streaking coming to an end against the Spurs. The Hawks host the Celtics and Lakers this weekend ... The Cavs set a franchise record with their 58th win on Wednesday ... Heat rookie Michael Beasley drew a charge for the first time in his career in Wednesday's loss in Indiana ... CBS' 60 Minutes will air a segment on LeBron James this Sunday.

If you have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an email.

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