Many people expected the experienced Detroit Pistons to be among the top teams in the Eastern Conference again this season. The early success of the inexperienced Indiana Pacers, however, wasn't quite as predictable.
The Pistons go for their season-high seventh straight win on Friday when they host the surprising Pacers in the first game of a home-and-home series between the top teams in the Central Division.
Detroit (21-7) has won 13 of 15 to take a 6 1/2-game lead over second-place Indiana (15-14). The recent run has put the Pistons on pace for yet another strong finish - they've been in the East's top three in each of the last six seasons, a run that includes five division titles.
Indiana won the only other Central title in that stretch with a franchise-record 61 victories in 2003-04, but the Pacers have seen their win total decrease each season since then. They finished 35-47 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97.
That trend could come to an end this season. The Pacers have won four of their last six, and 12 of 20 since a six-game losing streak to put themselves in the thick of the playoff race.
Indiana, though, could struggle to stay above .500 on Friday as they face a streaking Detroit team that's won 11 of 13 at home. The Pistons' current six-game run includes wins over Atlanta, Golden State and league-leading Boston - three of the NBA's best teams over the last month.
Detroit outscored New Jersey 31-18 in the third quarter on Wednesday and extended its streak with a 101-83 victory. Richard Hamilton made all five of his shots in the third as the Pistons connected on 14 of 18 in the period.
"I think we got into a good rhythm in the third quarter," said Hamilton, who finished with a team-high 22 points on 10-for-16 shooting. "Chauncey (Billups) did a good job of getting us the ball and moving the ball around. We got some good shots, some easy baskets and we just caught a good rhythm. We knocked them down."
The Pistons have outscored opponents by an average of 15.2 points during their win streak, and their dominance didn't let up despite a two-day layoff before Wednesday's game.
"We got to keep rolling now," Detroit forward Rasheed Wallace said. "We can't let up. We played pretty good tonight and I think some of us were anxious to play again because we had been playing good."
Indiana is coming off a 107-95 loss at Atlanta on Wednesday. The Pacers rallied to tie the game at 70 with two minutes left in the third quarter, but the Hawks pulled away by going on a 12-0 run.
"It's part of the game, that's the way the ball bounces," said Indiana forward Mike Dunleavy, who was held to 11 points for the second consecutive game - more than six below his season average. "It's frustrating, we bounced back, but we couldn't get there."
The Pistons and Pacers split four games last season, but Detroit has won eight of its last 11 games against Indiana, including the postseason.
These teams meet again on Saturday in Indianapolis.
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