Tuesday , Mar , 02 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Points in the Paint

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – It appears that the New Jersey Nets,
Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and New Orleans Hornets are
all headed to the Eastern Conference playoffs. Which teams are going to join
them, though, has become the big question.

As long as nothing unusual happens, the top five spots, in no specific
order, seem to be determined for the 2004 postseason in the East. The sixth,
seventh and eighth spots are up for grabs, as six squads are battling to
earn a berth in the playoffs.

The Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat, New York Knicks,
Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors makeup the remaining contestants. The
interesting thing about this is that the three final clubs that will qualify
for a spot in this year’s playoffs most likely will have a record under .500.

The last Eastern Conference squad to play in the playoffs with a record below
.500 was the Boston Celtics. In 1994-95, Boston finished with a record of
35-47 and was seeded No. 8 in the East. The Celtics fell in four games to the
Orlando Magic in the first round.

As of Tuesday, New York (26-35), would be the sixth seed, while Toronto
(25-34) would be No. 7 and Boston (26-36) would be in the final spot. Miami
(25-35), Philadelphia (24-36) and Cleveland (24-36) are all within striking
distance.

To put this race in perspective, Cleveland and Philadelphia are just 1 1/2
games behind the Knicks for the sixth spot.

New York is struggling, as it has lost six straight and is scheduled to play
11 of its final 21 games (19 versus Eastern Conference teams) on the road. Six
of those contests are against the teams that the Knicks are battling with for
the final three berths in the postseason.

April could prove to be a tough month for the Knicks, who will be on the road
for three straight against New Jersey, Philadelphia and Indiana from April
2-6. New York will return home to host the Bulls on the 7th before going back
out on the road to face Washington and New Orleans from the April 10-12. The
Knicks will then wrap up their season at home against the Cavaliers on the
14th.

Toronto has lost nine in a row and will play 12 of its final 23 games at Air
Canada Centre. The Raptors are currently without guards Alvin Williams (knee)
and Jalen Rose (hand) and All-Star forward Vince Carter (ankle), all of whom
are on the injured list. Eighteen of Toronto’s games are against the East, as
four are versus New York and Cleveland and one is at Miami.

Boston has won three in a row and will split its final 20 games evenly between
the FleetCenter and the road. Thirteen of the Celtics contests are against
Eastern Conference foes, as four are versus the clubs that they are battling
with for the final spots in the postseason. Boston is scheduled to meet
Atlanta (19-40) three times and Washington (19-39) twice.

Miami has a favorable schedule, as it will play 13 of its final 22 games in
front of its home crowd. The Heat, who will play 19 of their final contests
against Eastern Conference teams, play both Cleveland and Boston twice (once
at home and once on the road), and will host the 76ers and Raptors.

The 76ers will be at home for 12 of their final 22 games. A key stretch for
Philadelphia will be from March 14-20, when they play four straight on the
road against the Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans and Miami. The Sixers
will also face Chicago (18-42) twice, and Atlanta, Orlando (17-45), and
Washington once.

The Cavs are at home for 12 of their last 22 games (17 against Eastern
Conference teams) this season. Cleveland’s final four contests of the season
consist of a home-and-home set with Miami on April 9-10, a home game against
the Bucks on April 12 and a visit to Madison Square Garden for a showdown with
the Knicks.

Who is going on vacation and who is going to the postseason?

Toronto has too many injuries and appears ready to go on vacation, while
Philadelphia is dealing with internal problems surrounding its coach Chris
Ford and its superstar Allen Iverson.

Three spots remain and there are four teams left. New York has come a long way
to blow it now. Expect head coach Lenny Wilkens and star guard Stephon Marbury
to get the Knicks into the playoffs. The Celtics will also be able to collect
enough wins to get themselves into the postseason.

The eighth and final berth is between Cleveland and Miami. The crucial home-
and- home set between the two clubs in early-April could determine the final
spot in the East. I will give the edge to Cleveland because it would be great
to see rookie sensation LeBron James play in the playoffs in his first season
in the NBA.

By earning their way into the postseason, the Knicks, Celtics and Cavaliers
would most likely earn a first-round matchup with either Indiana, New Jersey
or Detroit.